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Wild Horses, Black Hole of Death Students, and Original Medicine

When I was 8, my bipolar dad put me on our unbroken horse with the advice, “Roll away from the hooves when he bucks you off.” Even better advice? Don’t let a bipolar ex bull rider talk you into breaking the new family horse in the first place. But I was 8 and loved my dad. So I got bucked off. A lot. Finally, after too many weekends, my dad gave up on my horsemanship abilities. But I never forgot how that horse looked at me. It was a look that clearly said, “Please, don’t break me.” I’m pretty sure my own face revealed the same plea.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there are some students who will never talk about the harms they have encountered because to do so would be too painful. Their eyes will tell you, “Please don’t break me.” So I refer those students to the counselor even though they won’t go. I don’t push them on vulnerability. They will refuse and that’s okay. That is when I turn to the other gateway to connection: Love.

Horse whisperers don’t call what they do “breaking” a horse. They call their method “making” a horse. Teachers can help “make” students by connecting to students through what kids as individuals love and especially how they love it. For example, I have a good friend who is a filmmaker/scientist. My college transcripts will reveal that I don’t grasp scientific concepts easily, but when my friend explains the mating rituals of hummingbirds or why we don’t ride zebras, I fall in love with the natural world. She brings her whole self–personality, insights, and particular way of explaining things–to the non-science-minded. We connect in science through her eyes.

Recently, I had a student so dark, he was my Black Hole of Death kid. He seethed in his seat, refused to participate, sucked other kids into his foul mood, and drew furiously in his notebook. So I sat him next to the cute, chatty cheerleaders and praised the hell out of his drawing. I found ways to include his artwork into assignments. I dragged his his grumpy self in front of the class to present, and it turns out he was a closet comedian. Gradually, he became a part of our classroom community, loved for being himself. None of this took much effort on my part, but it was the difference between having the absence of a student in the room, a black hole, and a very present student in the room.

This matters for his life and it matters for mine. A kid hurt beyond his own recognition of self will hurt himself and hurt others. Someone who is able to see the value of all parts of himself has the motivation to heal himself, and in doing so, he will grow into someone with enormous capacity to help heal others. His particular experience of hurt, the particular way in which he eventually heals that hurt, coupled with his love of drawing and grumpy, slyly humorous personality, will someday all come together to be his particular brand of healing–his original medicine. We all have original medicine, and we all need others, at one time or another, to use their medicine to help us heal ourselves. My science friend helps heal the part of me that can feel disconnected from the natural world. She makes me sit in wonder again.

Caroline McHugh, in her brilliant TED talk, “The Art of Being Yourself,” gives a lovely example of what it is to not look to others when stepping into yourself. Instead of comparing one’s self to others by feeling inferior or superior, she suggests going inward to interiority, which leaves comparison out of the picture entirely. There is only you. Feel the freedom in that for a second. McHugh gives the example of performer Jill Scott being interviewed while waiting to follow Erykah Badu. The reporter asks her if she is nervous. Scott laughs and says, “Have you ever seen me perform?…Everyone comes with their own…queendom. Mine could never compare to hers and hers could never compare to mine.” Scott’s original medicine.

Picasso didn’t give up on painting because people had painted before him. Steve Jobs didn’t shrug his shoulders and say that the telephone had already been invented so what’s the point. We are what we love and how we love it. We are also how we heal and how we share ourselves with others. What would it be to share yourself in a way that profoundly helped other people just by doing and being what makes you so uniquely you? Darkness would have a difficult time hiding out.

My Black Hole of Death student is an example of how teachers can help students who are not going to give up information about the trauma they are experiencing or have experienced. That’s okay. We aren’t here to “break” anyone. Teachers are there to drop a line for students who want to share. For students who don’t, we help “make” them, listening for what they love and finding ways to nurture that. We give students opportunities to share themselves with others and plant the idea that they are people who matter to the class. This is so when those students are ready to heal, they already know there is someone inside of them worth leading out of the darkness.

Contact me at: JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com to have me come to your school and talk about Uncovering and Addressing Hidden Student Trauma, Original Medicine, and Black Hole of Death Students.

And here is a wonderful video of Maya Angelou recounting how she reminded Tupac of his worth.

Maya Angelou and Why Character Development Alone Won’t Change School Connectedness

Social Emotional learning is great. Character Development is wonderful. So is mindfulness. None of those, on their own, will create true connections in the classroom. I point to Maya Angelou and my turbulent past with toddlers to illustrate why.

School connectedness is a new buzzword in the districts near my home. High performing schools are great at getting (most) students to make the grade, but those same students are not feeling connected to their classrooms or their school in general. Those schools use Healthy Schools, a survey in California, as their method of measuring students’ own reporting of how connected or disconnected they feel in school.

Many schools in my local district have placed student feelings of connectedness as one of four priorities for their next accreditation cycle. They’ve enlisted a wonderful organization that uses character development curriculum as the sole method for creating this connectedness. Schools host inclusion rallies, show character-building movies, and create spirit days that celebrate the “other.”

In the case of my local school district, schools put a video clip on their character development web page featuring a Maya Angelou clip from YouTube as their rallying cry. The clip is entitled “Just Do Right.” In it, Dr. Angelou speaks about the time when she left her mother’s house, at 17 and with a baby, and her mother told her, “Now you have been raised.” She knew right from wrong. “Just do right,” were the words her mother bestowed upon her.

Kids, it’s easy: Just do right.

Um, yeah. Here’s why it fails:

A few years ago, after a particularly grueling day teaching and worse commute home, I stopped at my local grocery store. After stomping around the store to get something for dinner, I made my way to the checkout counter. A toddler with her mother was in the line ahead of me. The little girl stared at me, and I gave her my meanest glare back. The kind I would never have dared to shoot at any adult. The kind that tells you to go F yourself. That’s the kind of glare I gave this three year old. Somewhere, a unicorn died.

Yes, I do work with kids. Yes, I do have my own toddler now and am even more horrified at my actions, but then, as, I suspect, even now, the “Just do right” mantra wasn’t going to change me into someone who recognized how far I had slipped from reality on that day.

When you’re having a bad day, thinking about how someone else is feeling isn’t going to transmute you to connection. Neither is mindfully focusing on how you feel on the insides of your feet. I imagine it is the same for a student whose parents are divorcing, who is neglected at home, or whose brother just went to jail, or…any of the crappy life events that happen because it’s, well…life.

No, “Just Do Right” isn’t the Maya Angelou clip that illustrates how to get to connection. On the other hand, another Maya Angelou interview, entitled, “Love Liberates,” is.

In this clip, Dr. Angelou relates a memory of her mother telling her, again when Angelou was a young woman who was leaving her mother’s home, “You can always come home.” And Angelou says, “I went home every time life slammed me down and made me call it uncle.” She recalls, on those occasions, how her mother was always delighted to see her, never gloating over the event that made Angelou need to move back. And then her mother told her, “You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” This from a mother who had abandoned Angelou and her brother to her grandmother when Angelou was a small girl.

Dr. Angelou then talks about her mother on her deathbed, and how Angelou told her, “You were a piss-poor mother of small children, but you were a great mother of young adults.” Angelou says her mother’s love had liberated her, and she wanted to liberate her mother by telling her how much she loved her and it was okay for her to go. It was a seeing of faults and a gratitude for the love of an imperfect mother.

Mindfulness asks students: How does your breath feel? Social-Emotional learning asks students to imagine how someone else feels. Compassion, Empathy, and Vulnerability asks students, “How do you feel?” Then the teacher listens, and goes to a place within themselves that says, “Yes. I have felt that way at some point, too. Let me sit with you while you feel that way now.” It asks teachers to courageously be vulnerable and talk about their imperfections and sadness too.

“Love Liberates” provides schools with context and vulnerability that “Do Right” misses. When a student is having a horrible day, “Love liberates” says that parents make mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Even Maya Angelou’s parent. It doesn’t mean that the student will not become successful. It doesn’t mean that that parent is shameful or will be a person who makes terrible mistakes as a parent forever. Maybe they will. But maybe not. Angelou didn’t forget or forgive her mother for her mistakes in the past, but she didn’t define either herself or her mother by those mistakes either. She clung to the love her mother offered later. People change. Thank God.

When teachers offer their own stories in a safely vulnerable way, especially stories that say, “This happened to me when I was young. It was awful. I wish I had told someone.” And students see that you are okay now, they see that they, too, may just make it through this awful spell. And they can feel like if they talk to you about their tough time, they will be seen.

Oh, and the toddler in the picture is mine. Karma is definitely Team Unicorn.

The Gifts of Imperfection in the Classroom

My teaching isn’t perfect, my family was not perfect, and, as far a personal development, I have a long way to go. So why am I supposed to pretend otherwise when I step in front of impressionable teenagers who are looking at me to model what it is to be a human in the world?

I don’t know about you, but on the one day my principal steps into my classroom to evaluate me during during fall semester, it is easy enough to trot out a tried-and-true, dog-and-pony-show. Observation days never reflect the real shit-shows that can go down at any moment when a lesson goes south due to…anything: A sleepy, surly class, a projector not working, the copier not working, the internet down, my brain dulled from a baby up all night and not enough sleep…Anything.

Whomever made up the model for evaluating teachers clearly wasn’t anyone familiar with teaching. A students’ progress cannot be measured by a single test, and a teachers’ efficacy in the classroom cannot be measured by two observations a year. Principals are looking for perfection, and perfectionism doesn’t belong in the classroom. Brene Brown describes perfectionism as: “… the 20 lb. shield. It doesn’t protect us from being hurt, it protects us from being seen.” It also prevents us from being human with one another. It prevents us from connecting.

Perfectionism in the classroom prevents students from being able to connect to each other and to their teacher. Not only are teachers trying to keep up an image, but students are desperately trying to fit into a mold that only exists as a social construct. They want to appear cool, attractive, intelligent, and all of the other status markers that are so important when your identity is being formed in the midst of being judged by your peers. Teenagers don’t know that having all of those characteristics is not only unrealistic, it’s not even human.

We are born into imperfect bodies, imperfect families, and imperfect communities…by design. When teachers can’t be safely vulnerable with their students, they give off the impression that to err in any way (in class, in your past, with friends, etc.) is so shameful that we don’t even talk about it. How then can teens make sense of families that have human dysfunction: Alcoholism, neglect, verbal and physical abuse, mental illness? The list goes on and on. We’ll have to hide those too.

I wrote in my last blog about students who hide their trauma in plain sight. How close can those students feel to a teacher who keeps up a front of perfection or cannot reveal any vulnerable event from the teacher’s own past?

I wish I had learned about the power of vulnerability in the classroom at the continuation schools, but it was at a high-achieving high school when I tried out vulnerability and was shocked at the results. Here was a school with parents who were lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Students at this school lacked for nothing and had every privilege afforded to the ultra wealthy….and these kids were falling apart. 

Because my teaching assignment included culture and identity in literature, for the first time in my teaching career, I decided to share my identity and culture with the class. I told them early on about my bipolar dad, my fear of him, and the fact that I wish I had told an adult about it when I was in high school. All of this without details that might trigger students and without a poor-me-look-at-me attitude: Much like I might summarize something for a much younger audience. Combined with specialized ice breakers and prompts designed to bring the class together, I had more students reveal crises and traumas to me than in the last 12 years working with high-trauma populations.

Everyone is looking for connection, Brene Brown tells us. It is as vital as food, water, and shelter. We can’t be connected if we are putting up false images of ourselves. Besides, it’s way more interesting to see how we are similar in our humanity and reach out to each other for help than it is to pretend we are islands of perfection. I referred so many more students for counseling when I gave up the idea that the teacher should be perfect and started modeling for students, in a guided, safe way, that to err is human: Every family, every community, and every person is flawed and we are all working on our humanity–why not do it together?

Contact me at JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com to have me come to your school to speak about vulnerability and hidden student trauma in the classroom.

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In Plain Sight: What We Miss When Talking About Student Trauma

If a tree falls in the woods…no, wait. If a student experiences a traumatic event but no adult authority figure acknowledges it, does that event have adverse affects? Always, the research says. And that has been my experience too.

The ACEs study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) has documented that traumas in childhood predictably alter the quality of a person’s life later on (increased risks for major diseases, cancer, substance abuse, and other self-harming behaviors). Most people have a least a score of 1 on the ACEs scale of 1–10. Divorce, for example, counts as 1. After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases. Rut -roh

Unless…

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its’ own way, so Tolstoy tells us in Anna Karenina. For 12 years, I worked in a last-chance high school full of students who wore trauma around their necks in the form of placard of friends and family killed or on their arms–tattooed trauma reminders of loved ones gone. These were clues in plain sight. No detective work required. Still, for too many of those years, I lumped traumas together (family member out of the picture, a friend killed, a major illness in the family) and avoided the personal specifics. But trauma, as Tolstoy reminds us, is always personal.

I didn’t ask about the tattoos, thinking it better if I didn’t remind students of people gone, sadness in their pasts. Only, RIP tattoos are there because someone wanted to etch a heartache into their DNA, making visible a person who was absent.

Trauma overwhelm is real and it prevents teachers from asking about students’ pasts. What I needed to say was, “Tell me about the person whose picture is around your neck. What were they like?” or “Your mom died. That’s so sad. Tell me about her.” Trauma is personal and no two traumas are alike. Addressing trauma is the least a teacher can do, and I should have known that.

The reason I should have known that is because I was that kid. In high school, for two weeks straight, I wet myself on my walk home from school. I blamed myself, never associating the terror of a bipolar dad with the sudden warmth trickling down my leg. One weekend, my dad was arrested at my brother’s ballgame for harassing my stepdad. I started leaving school early several times a week. On the softball field, I went from team MVP shortstop to a player who couldn’t catch any ball in right field. Trauma in plain sight. But no one wanted to embarrass me by saying something.

I saw my counselor when she called me in to ask about my future aspirations. I could tell she didn’t know me at all–we’d only met once before. She didn’t ask about my home life, and I wouldn’t have told her anything if she had. She did ask what I wanted to be. I said a fireman or astronaut because they held no interest for me and I could tell she wouldn’t care.

After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases. Rut -roh.

Unless…An adult, a person in a position of authority, shows that they care. On a Friday during my sophomore year of high school, I was in Dr. Wendell’s science class, crying behind my hair. He saw me and handed me a tissue. On Monday, he said, “I was thinking about you. I was worried.” And I rejoined humanity.

That was everything, and that is least a teacher can can do. Because teachers are the people students see most often. Teachers are the people students look to as the authority figures when their parents are not there. That’s why teachers are the first responders, the detectives at the scene. When clues are there, ask about them. Someone could have asked me, “Jessie, tell me about your dad getting arrested at the ballgame.” It’s not nosey. It’s caring. I was thinking about it anyway. When you talk about it, you make it not shameful anymore.

I didn’t recognize my trauma overwhelm until a female student, a girl who’d had wild mood swings in class, stayed with me one afternoon finishing an assignment. I’d asked her to describe an important moment in her past. She wrote about when her mom died from cancer, how her dad didn’t know what to do, and how her teachers didn’t talk to her about it. It was then that she started acting out. The next year, her brother was shot and killed. She changed schools and started getting in trouble, and still, no one asked her what was wrong. No one at her new school knew her past. No one was playing detective. No one allowed her to share that her mom had died, giving her a chance to have a caring adult acknowledge that it was so, so sad. And her brother had died. And that was a whole different kind of sad. We talked about it as she wrote out her story, and her behavior in school improved dramatically.

Signs of Trauma: Trauma is there in plain sight in students who act out, students who drastically alter their appearance, students who come to class on mind-altering substances, those who cut, those who cut class, and those who suddenly change demeanor.

I never push students to tell me information when they are unwilling. I think of it as dropping a line without a hook: I’m just seeing if the fish has been waiting there, wanting to bite, and has never been given a chance. I use non-invasive, content appropriate prompts for students to share about themselves, structure the shares so that students can reveal a safe amount to their classmates and more to me if they want to. My workshop on trauma has worksheets and guidelines for safe prompts and teacher-led student sharing.

I always refer students to the school’s counselor, citing my concerns. I also tell the student that I have referred them for counseling, generally with the fear-calming, “I am starting the process of referring all of my students for counseling, just to check in more often with your counselor. Counselors are great people to talk to.”

When a student’s behavior is puzzling or concerning, I will often call home. I call because email isn’t appropriate for real concern. I also call because not all parents respond to email. Over the years, I’ve also come to understand that the way I was taught to make phone calls is…well…rude. I started out making phone calls by first ascertaining whether I was speaking to the right person. Parent: Hello? Me: Hi, is this ____’s mom?” Parent: “Who is this?” 

Let me try this again. “Hi, my name is Jessie Dorin and I’m ____’s teacher at ____ High School. Are you her mom?” When I get an affirmative, then I express my concern. I say clearly that I’m not a counselor, that I have referred the student to a counselor, but I also wanted to keep the parent in the loop. If it is something that the student denies (bulimia, substance abuse, etc.), I say that I may be wrong, but the student is important to me and I still wanted to let the parent know why I was suspicious in the first place. I’ve never had a parent get upset with that. I think it is because all adults want to be caring adults. But just like me, they may not know that it is a process that, with practice, is so easy and so life-altering for a young person.

To have me speak at your school about combating visible and hidden student trauma, email me at: JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com

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The Antidote to Bad PD

Most teachers have had this experience: You’re in a Professional Development workshop, keeping an open mind because the topic is one that you are excited to know more about, when you soon find yourself making this face:

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It is the face marking the realization that the presenter will waste your time with irrelevant data, research, and strategies that have no practical grounding in an actual classroom. Indeed, it is clear that the presenter has not been in charge of 32 teenagers in a classroom for a very, very long time, if ever, and all the statistics and theories add up to very little when what is suggested is not feasible with several classes of 32 (or more) teenagers. This is also the face of someone who has so much to get done that you can’t afford to sit in this PD for the next two hours. Or, even worse, the next two days.

Bad PD plagues beginning-of-the-year staff development days, staff meetings, and district mandated professional development days. It doesn’t have to. I offer professional development that shifts schemas for long-lasting, far-reaching, student-centered, teacher-approved supports that are readily applied to however many classes of 32 teenagers you may be teaching the next day. And that makes PD feel more like this:

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For more information, email Jessie at: JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com

Why a Teacher’s First Day of School Matters so Much

Why a Teacher’s First Day of School Matters so Much

August 16, 2016

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Jessie Dorin

On my first day teaching at a continuation high school in San Francisco, I got it all wrong. It wasn’t my fault; I didn’t know better. I’d taught for only one year in a small, Washington State town where the baseball field shared space with a cow pasture. One look at my new, sophisticated city students should have told me I wasn’t in Washington anymore, and the chaos that ensued became fodder for the first chapter of my novel, available here.

However, it wasn’t just that I trotted out the (unpopular) rules on the first day, or that I handed out text books (more on pitfalls of those in future blogs). What I have come to learn is that, no matter if I’m teaching students who struggle or students who are supposed to excel academically, the number of days I have students in class is too precious to waste on rules the first day. I need to know, as soon as possible, who my students are and what they need first from me.

And that involves writing. I love writing on the first day for many reasons, one of them being that no going over of rules makes a class sit up as straight as a first day, hour-long writing assignment. But the reason for that assignment is the crux of my philosophy of teaching: 1) Students who struggle are going to hide their academic struggles for as long as they can, so I need to find out right away where they need help 2) All students are looking to connect (exactly like all humans look to connect) and the more I know about those students on day one, the better I can connect with them and help them connect with each other.

The writing assignments I give on the first day aren’t difficult. I ask students to write at least 3, 5 sentence paragraphs on three topics: 1) Tell a story that your body would tell about you. 2) Describe a meal you love. Who makes it? What makes it so good? 3) Describe the one activity you’ve done in school that you really loved.

While students are writing, I look for who doesn’t know where to put a period or who doesn’t know that the words on the left side margins need to line up. I look for who doesn’t indent and who had difficulty with the directions. I tell the class that I don’t want them to begin any sentence with a conjunction, then explain conjunctions and take note of who still has conjunctions beginning sentences. These are all of the students who are able to hide these skill gaps when answering short-response questions or multiple-choice questions. They are good at mimicking answers from other students’ papers, so learning the first day who has trouble with basic writing tasks (there are always at least 2 students in every high school class I’ve ever taught) informs which students will need a little more attention from me.

Students are then asked to share out one of the three writing prompts. I want them to not feel over-exposed, so I give them choice on which topic they share. Sharing out may take a class period in and of itself. That’s okay with me because sharing out serves a purpose: Writing prompt #1 connects students’ life experiences to those experiences shared by their classmates. Everyone can laugh because everyone is okay now. I also know who took care of that particular student if their story involves them getting hurt. That is the adult I’ll call first when I need to check in about that student. Writing prompt #2 connects students with each other when they hear that they share the same food preferences, or students get to hear about new cultural food preferences. This prompt also lets me know who is or who is not cooking meals for that student at home. Writing prompt #3 lets me know if there is a way I can connect interesting activities students have done in the past with activities I have planned for our class. Students do notice and I do point out when I’ve made that effort on their behalf.

My students know that not completing this writing assignment is not an option. I make it worth too many points to ignore and keep on them until every student has turned theirs in. Day 3 is a good day for rules. My students already know by then that what I value most in the classroom is hard work, community, shared experiences, and individual needs. A list of rules is just extra at that point.

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