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Using Orphan Train to Teach History and Tolerance

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) is a woven story of two protagonists, 17-year-old Molly who is a Penobscot Indian in foster care, and Vivian, a 91-year-old widow who was orphaned at age 9 and sent to the Midwest through the Children’s Aid Society via an “orphan train.” It’s also a story about the things we take with us, the things we leave behind and the ghosts that walk along beside us—the way the memories of people who’ve gone from our lives remain etched in who we are.

Young readers of Orphan Train learn to understand these unlikely friends through their stories. Vivian grew up Irish during a time period when Irish-Americans were despised. She survived negligence and abuse, lived through the Great Depression and every war since World War II. She’s seen people come and go, and learned early on to be wary of others—a part of her background that allows her to empathize with young Molly, whose experiences in the foster care system echo her own.

In the classroom, this book can be used to illustrate discrimination against the Irish in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, and to reveal the complexity of a period of midcentury history that is often overlooked. The book can also be used to teach about why understanding the past is relevant—and necessary—to understanding the present.

This engaging book can be used in several different ways in either language arts or social studies classrooms. Students could be asked to:

  • Analyze the dynamics of the relationship that develops between Molly and Vivian, and determine if this is a relationship of tolerance, a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, a mentorship or something else. Ask students to focus on the way understanding develops between Vivian and Molly and the role of story telling in their relationship.
  • Identify parallels between the story Vivian tells and other historical American events, such as the effects of the Great Depression or World War II on the lives of average Americans.
  • Research the ways in which the Irish, or other minorities, were or are discriminated against, and identify tropes in this discrimination. Ask students to consider ongoing discriminatory practices against American Indians or to consider the narratives about “welfare queens” that are commonly used to discredit poor people.
  • Conduct their own oral history projects similar to the one Molly is asked to do (for example, her assignment included the questions: What did you choose to bring with you to the next place? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain about what’s important?).
  • Research the “orphan trains,” and use this research to build an understanding of how the definition of “childhood” has evolved through laws and regulations meant to protect children. Ask students to consider whether the concept of childhood applies equally to all children and to point to examples of instances where it does not.

Orphan Train is appropriate for high school students (although they should be warned it contains a sexual assault scene). It can be used to illuminate not only an underdocumented portion of history but also offer insight into Irish immigration in the early part of the 20th century. Additionally, it offers two strong female protagonists who forge their own ways despite the odds stacked against them. Orphan Train is ripe with opportunities for discussion, further research and developing the complex thinking necessary to draw historical parallels.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Intervene With Mean - Part Three

This post is part three of a three-part blog series that explores how to help students transform bullying behavior. The series mirrors the three levels of intervention outlined in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Level One applies to the 80 percent of students who are responsive when explicitly taught about acceptable behavior. Level Two addresses the 15 percent of students who need social skills training and tools to help them stop bullying. Level Three (the focus of this blog) addresses interventions for the 5 percent of students with persistent bullying problems who need intensive supports.

I hope that someday we will learn the terrible cost we all pay when we ignore or mismanage those people in society who most need our help.”

--The Honourable Judge Sandra Ann Hamilton, Provincial Court of Alberta, Calgary, Canada

Damon Smith was suspended more than 15 times for bullying. “You start thinking it’s cool,” he said. “You think you’re going to come back to school and catch up, but unless you’re a genius, you won’t. That made me want to mess up even more.”

This blog offers suggestions for how to help the 5 percent (PBIS Level Three) of youth who, like Damon, have serious, recurrent problems with bullying. Nearly 60 percent of boys classified as bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24. Forty percent of them had three or more convictions by age 24. Clearly, these students need behavioral support—and these supports can positively affect both victims and perpetrators. By helping aggressive individuals change their patterns, we not only improve their lives—we prevent harm to others.

Transformation—Not for the Faint of Heart

Once a serious pattern of bullying has begun, the process of transformation is slow and requires a long-term commitment. Involve the family, school counselors and everyone who works with the student. Take time to review all documentation of the student’s bullying incidents, and get to know the student both by talking with and observing him. Are there patterns to the behavior? What antecedents and triggers do the student or staff notice before an incident occurs?

There is no one strategy that works for all students. Each strategy requires consistency and patience to find positive qualities in the student and to give the student a voice, helping her learn accountability without shaming her. But all effective strategies require planning and the belief that young people can change their behavior.

Effective Models for Change

Below are two different models designed to provide intensive and ongoing support for chronically aggressive students. Unlike many of the suggestions offered in Parts I and II, implementing these strategies requires training or even bringing in specialized staff members. It also requires significant time and coordination, often occurring in combination with weekly or biweekly meetings with a counselor and small-group, skill-building sessions coordinated with teachers.

1. Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) is a tool often used to gather relevant data about students who have chronic behavioral problems. The process includes observations, interviews and referral to school records to gather detailed data regarding notable triggers for student behavior, antecedents, reaction patterns and consequences for the behavior. The FBA also incorporates data on the student’s strengths, skills and past behaviors, and the effectiveness of previous interventions. This analysis is often done in collaboration with counselors, behaviorists and special education staff. The information is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan that is continually monitored and updated. This intensive model not only helps students stop unwanted behaviors but offers positive replacement behaviors.

The Functional Behavior Assessment Checklist is a template for organizing this complex data. It includes the specific information that needs to be gathered and an explanation of how to complete the plan. Because this process is complex, specialized training is necessary to implement it.

If your school doesn’t currently offer FBA as a means to intervene with youth who bully repeatedly, you can introduce the tool to your administration by sharing the complete process overview, as described by PBIS. The overview includes information about when and how to use an FBA.

2. Ross Greene’s book, Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, outlines a process of Collaborative Problem Solving, a model written for schools to use with the most difficult pupils. Collaborative Problem Solving for schools adapts a model that has been effectively used in inpatient psychiatric units, residence facilities and juvenile detention centers. Greene’s approach involves very intensive work by a trained teacher or counselor working with the student over time to identify what he calls “lagging skills” and finding solutions and alternate ways of behaving. Lagging skills refer to behavioral weakness in very specific situations, such as difficulty handling unpredictable events and adopting inflexible or distorted interpretations of an incident (“everyone is out to get me,” “you always blame me”). In this model, the student is taught to identify which of the lagging skills is most significant and provided intensive support to help him change it. Once success is achieved with one skill, the support team tackles another, relying on the belief that success breeds more success. Greene encourages educators to remember, “Kids do well if they can.” 

Working with some of our most challenging students is likely to cause intense frustration, even for highly trained staff members. But the most powerful thing we can do is to help those who have the hardest time, and bringing evidence-based models like Functional Behavioral Analysis and Collaborative Problem Solving to your school is an important first step. Offering these services lets students know we have not given up on them. Building meaningful relationships with these students—not only when an incident occurs, but before, after and in between incidents—helps us find their positive qualities. The message these interventions send is, “I believe in you and I know you can do better, and I will be there to stand with you as you work through this.”

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

Let's Talk About "Bossy"

At TT we’re always keeping our ears to the ground for innovative programs designed to empower students, and we invite new ideas that drive conversation about gender equity. A few weeks ago I heard that Sheryl Sandberg—Facebook COO and author of the best-selling book Lean In—is partnering with the Girls Scouts and other organizations to publicize the recently launched Ban Bossy campaign. The mission? Stop people from using the word bossy when describing girls who lead.

The campaign’s website includes leadership tips for educators, parents and girls themselves, sharable images, and statistics and quotes surrounding girls’ leadership and how the word “bossy” can discourage it. “This [campaign] isn’t as simple as one word,” Sandberg has been quoted as saying, “and this shouldn’t be trivialized as a word. This is a word that is symbolic of systematic discouraging of girls to lead.”

As a woman who has sought out leadership roles throughout my life, this campaign intrigued me. But before I had time to wrap my mind around Ban Bossy, I began hearing that the campaign has been heavily criticized. Some look unfavorably at its endorsement by Beyoncé, questioning her as an appropriate representative for girls’ empowerment causes. But the primary criticisms come from those who believe banning a word is ineffective and an inadequate way to encourage leadership among girls. After all, lack of female leadership is about systems that hinder girls from attaining those roles. Can policing individual words change those systems?

Women’s media platform SheKnows is one voice asking this question. They’ve launched an alternative campaign called #BossyIs.

SheKnows editors say that the Ban Bossy campaign led them to debate “whether it’s effective to ban words or ‘own’ them.” This conversation led to the creation of a video in which eight- and nine-year-old girls discuss what the word bossy means to them, making it clear that they’re not fazed by the word.

When asked, “What if someone called you bossy?” one girl replies, “I am the awesomest. I’m not bossy, but I am the boss.” Another responds, “I’d say, ‘Well, that’s what you think. That’s not exactly what other people think or I think.’” Later, girls indicate that being bossy is not gender-specific and that they don’t believe boys are naturally “more powerful” than girls. Instead of avoiding the word bossy, these girls define for themselves what it means to be bossy—and what it means to be a leader.

But while the #BossyIs campaign has a great video (and an important message about the significance of having a dialogue with girls and boys about the differences between being bossy and leading), there doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that. And while I don’t love Ban Bossy’s emphasis on a single word, upon closer inspection it seems the campaign has more depth—and more than its alternative offers.

Ban Bossy’s parent’s guide does a nice job of asking all adult relatives to model behavior and language that supports assertive females and to maintain equal expectations for the girls and boys in their families. The girl’s guide is empowering and urges girls to own their actions, language and behavior, especially as they relate to speaking up for themselves and setting and achieving goals.

Most relevant to the TT community, the teacher’s guide offers advice for: being mindful of calling on boys more than girls, including positive role models in classroom library selections and identifying and preventing stereotype threat. It also provides handy classroom activities that involve whole-group discussions about goals and leadership, but it could do more to encourage direct dialogue about gender inequality, especially as it concerns beliefs about leadership and ambition. After all, the classroom is a great space for boys and girls to contemplate the dynamics surrounding this problem—and to determine how to change them.

As I was thinking through the pros and cons of Ban Bossy and #BossyIs, my dad sent my sister and me a few images taken from the latest issue of Ebony magazine. “Be thankful for what you have, but continue to seek your dreams,” said one. Another read, “Show up. And when you show up, be great.” It occurred to me that my father has always pushed me to aspire to greatness, even today still encouraging his adult daughters to lead and “be great.” That many girls don’t receive this kind of encouragement—or, worse, receive the message that ambition is unbecoming to females—should concern and motivate us as educators to talk about our spoken and unspoken messages regarding gender and leadership. The best way to tackle any systemic problem is through a combination of education and dialogue. If Ban Bossy and #BossyIs can get us talking, we’d rather keep the conversation going than choose sides.

Bell is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

The Way I Speak About Youth Matters

When I speak about the youth I work with, I often struggle to find ways to talk about them that aren’t problematic. I find myself saying, “one of my more challenging youth,” or “my most headstrong youth” or “my youth who has impulse control issues” to describe exactly the same person. I try to remember that I could also describe him as “one of my brightest youth,” “my youth who steps outside to regain emotional control,” or “my youth who can build whole Lego cities.”

The phrasing I choose depends on what experience I’m trying to convey, and also how much tolerance I’m feeling for him that day—how much he has tried my patience and my ability to creatively solve problems within a system that wants to jail young black men who have already been kicked out of multiple schools.

When I go home and talk about my day, what I choose to say matters. It matters because it affects the way I’ll see this young man the next day and the way I’ll interact with other youth who will remind me of him in the future. It affects the way I represent “under-resourced” youth to others, and the expectations I convey to the larger community as a person who works with them.

I am especially aware of why the way I speak about youth matters when I hear people say, “Working with those youth must exhaust you!” and “How do you have the patience to work with those kids?” and “It’s a noble thing you’re doing.” This has happened more times than I can count.

I must remember that the same fears I have about negatively influencing others also apply to myself—that if I speak about the youth negatively, I might start to believe it. I might stop seeing their potential, stop viewing them as developing people who are allowed to make mistakes and find their way.

I know that it takes more than just sympathy (or empathy) to change the circumstances of under-resourced youth who live in a community ripped apart by street violence. Our staff works to empower these youth through leadership and discussion groups, by attending their sporting events and by refusing to do things for them that they can do for themselves. Speaking about them respectfully is one more way we can try to make their worlds less hostile and change the negative mythology surrounding their identities. One more way we can try to prevent them from being written off before they even get out of elementary school.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Imagining Equity Literacy

Cultural competence: I learn about Latino culture so that I can communicate effectively with my Latino students’ families.

Cultural proficiency: Acknowledging the tremendous diversity among Latino families, I learn about the cultures, identities and home lives of each individual student in order to design curricula that are relevant to each of them.

Equity literacy: I engage students in conversations about the absence of Latino voices in their American literature textbooks and fight to ensure that Latino students are not placed unjustly into lower academic tracks. 

I remember when I first heard the term, “cultural proficiency.” I never understood the hoopla surrounding “cultural competence,” mostly because “competence” seemed to me like a pretty low standard. Should I be satisfied reaching some minimum standard for understanding my students? Cultural proficiency demanded more of me. It required a cultural immersion. It required a deeper understanding, not just of generalizations about the culture of this or that group, but of the identities and lives of individual students and families. It also required me to consider whether larger school cultures were inclusive of a diversity of students and families. Cultural proficiency raised the bar, and many of my teacher friends, along with their schools, started working up to its expectations.

I would like to suggest, though, that, if we are committed to creating equitable, bias-free learning spaces, cultural proficiency describes only part of the skill set we need. In fact, when it comes to equitable education, cultural proficiency has a few limitations. For example, like many of the recent models for teaching with diversity in mind—culturally relevant teaching, cultural competence and intercultural communications—cultural proficiency focuses primarily on culture and cross-cultural knowledge. However, I wonder whether we have become so focused on culture in education that we have failed to address inequities like heterosexism, ableism or racism sufficiently.

Consider, for example, the “culture of poverty” approach for understanding low-income youth and their families or, as another example, descriptions of rigid culture- or identity-based “learning styles.” For years, these two hypotheses about the significance of culture in our classrooms have dominated conversations about diversity in education. Unfortunately, both are bogus. We now know it is impossible to predict anybody’s preferred learning style based on a single dimension of her identity and that nobody, regardless of identity, learns the same way regardless of what he is learning. Neither can we presume to know anything about somebody’s “culture” based solely on the fact that she or he is poor. Moreover, neither of these approaches to diversity addresses the biases or inequities experienced by people whose cultures they purport to explain.

This is why I advocate, not just for cultural proficiency, but also for equity literacy. Building from Katy Swalwell’s conception of equity literacy, I define it, broadly speaking, as the skills and dispositions that enable us to recognize, respond to and redress (i.e., correct for) conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers. Equity literacy also describes the skills and dispositions that allow us to create and sustain equitable and just learning environments for all families and students.

I offer here a sampling of the core principles of equity literacy as I attempt to practice it in my own teaching.

Recognizing inequity: The most important skill for equity-literate teachers is the ability to recognize subtle and not-so-subtle biases and inequities. In recognizing inequity, they:

  • reject deficit views, such as the “culture of poverty” view, that locate the sources of inequalities as existing within, rather than as pressing upon, the most powerless students.
  • recognize tremendous diversity within identity groups and, as a result, never presume to know anything about somebody's culture, learning needs or communication style based on a single dimension of her or his identity.
  • notice even subtle bias, not just in classroom materials, but also in classroom interactions and school policies.
  • know and teach about how notable people from their subject areas have used their knowledge to advocate for or participate in just or unjust actions, such as how some scientists endorsed eugenics.

Responding to inequity: Equity-literate teachers have the skills to respond effectively and in an equitable fashion to school and classroom inequities. In order to do so, they:

  • build the facilitation skills and content knowledge necessary to intervene effectively when issues like gender and sexism, class and economic injustice or other equity concerns arise in the classroom.
  • engage students in critical examinations of bias in classroom materials, classroom interactions and school policies.
  • foster discussion about equity concerns, such as heteronormativity, with colleagues.  

Redressing inequity: Equity-literate teachers are committed to the elimination of inequities in their classrooms, their schools and their communities. They:

  • advocate against inequitable school practices, such as tracking, as well as policies, such as religiously-biased dress codes.
  • never confuse celebrating diversity with equity, such as by responding to racial inequities with cultural celebrations.
  • teach about issues like racism, sexism, economic injustice and heterosexism.

Creating and sustaining an equitable learning environment: Finally, equity-literate educators endeavor to create and sustain equitable schools and classrooms. They:

  • express high expectations for all students through higher-order pedagogies and curricula.
  • consider how they assign homework and communicate with families, understanding that students have different levels of access to resources including computers and the Internet.
  • teach and model for students how to think critically, not just about curricular content, but also about the structure and purpose of schooling.

Equity literacy reflects a shift in commitment for me as an educator. It reflects my acknowledgement that, although learning about my students’ individual cultures, beliefs and values is important, it does not necessarily prepare me to create and sustain an equitable learning environment for all of my students. It removes vague notions of “culture” from the center of the diversity discussion and replaces it with ideals of equity and justice. And, in that way, as I become more equity-literate, I also become a better advocate for my most disenfranchised students.

(For a more detailed description of equity literacy, read Paul C. Gorski’s new book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, or download the free equity literacy handouts from the EdChange website.)

Gorski is an associate professor of Integrative Studies and a Research Fellow in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University.

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