The Plight of the Teenager

Here in New Zealand, I have a host sister. She is 14 and in Year 10 of High School (which translates to 9th grade in the US).

She is, on most days, an extremely bright, insightful, and level headed young girl.

On other days, she is not. Some days she has fleeting moments of such intense emotions that result in screaming, crying, and door slamming.  I remember this time in my life, too. I have yet again to feel such blinding rage and despair than how I felt when I wasn’t invited to a party or someone decided to stop being my friend at age 12. Or even worse, if my dad asked if I was crabby.

According to National Geographic, we have evolution to thank for this.

I read an article a while ago in NatGeo (what us cool kids call it) that detailed the neurological reorganization that happens in our brains during this time called adolescence.

It highlighted three things: neural restructuring, increased risk-taking behavior, and heightened social importance.

Neural Restructuring

Sure, we all know that our brains aren’t done growing until, like, 25 or something. But the adolescent brain is literally rewiring itself between ages 12 and 20. In brain scans, teenagers used different parts of their brains to complete certain self-restricting tasks than adults did. The brain is creating new neural pathways during this time and connecting areas that weren’t connected before. The article likens our teenagers’ physical clumsiness while they grow into their new bodies to the cognitive clumsiness we see as they learn how to use their new brains. That’s why they do stupid stuff! Their brains are a work in progress.

Increased Risk-Taking Behavior

Teens take more risks. We can make that statement with pretty good confidence without all the scientific studies that actually prove it (just look up “epic fail” on youtube for your empirical evidence).  But the authors of the National Geographic article propose that this may be a successful evolutionary trait for the human species. This time period of our life span is, theoretically, meant for our children to leave the nest. In this sense, a predisposition for risk taking is extremely beneficial for those who are going to leave the comfort of their homes and venture out into the real world. Does this justify taking a skateboard down a flight of stairs? Probably not. But if adolescence were such a detriment to our society, evolution would have weeded that period out by now.

Heightened Social Importance

Their brains are rewiring and they’re getting ready to leave their parents.  The teenage brain is actually configured in such a way that it directly links oxytocin, a neural hormone that makes us happy, with social situations. Some researchers suggest that the brain does this because social skills prove beneficial to survival (because of course someone thought to measure the correlation between social activity in rats and monkeys with feeding, nesting, and breeding patterns). The teenage brain has linked social relationships to survival. So when your 13 year old cousin says that her life is over because Jessica was flirting with her ex-boyfriend, its because her brain actually thinks her life will be over if she doesn’t have these relationships.

So the next time you think this new generation is going to pot, remember that they are enduring a reprogramming similar to the progression of the Atari to the Xbox as well as experiencing all six seasons of Dawson’s Creek in a matter of years (hopefully sans the teacher-student affair).

In my experience, I’ve been most successful working with teenagers when I react to their problems as they perceive them. I listen and console instead of reminding them that this is a phase that they will grow out of. Sure, it’s because of hormones and chemicals, but the problems they face during this time are probably the biggest problems they’ve had to face during their life (not always, but hopefully).

I mean, I bet you’d be upset if you broke your leg and someone told you, “Oh, it’s just the chemicals in your brain telling you that you feel pain. It’s just a phase you’re going through. It’ll pass.”

You can find the article, “Teenage Brains,” here. I highly recommend the read.

Disclaimer: Although I have an extremely useful and practical undergraduate degree in Psychology, I am not a psychologist, neurologist, or behavioralist. This post is about the aforementioned article and my personal experience. There could be errors in my information. This is the internet.

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Frequently Asked Questions

 

Mostly from students.

 

Have you seen any celebrities?

No.

Do you know iCarly?

Yes.

Have you met Justin Beieber?

No.

Do you have a boyfriend?

No.

Do you have a husband?

No.

You must be really lonely!

That’s not a question?

 Have you been to LA or Las Vegas?

Flown through and yes.

How do you say burger?

Burger.

Do you have bears in Minnesota?

Yes.

 Do you think it’s cold here?

Get 10 inches of snow and then come talk to me.

 

 

 

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Sympathies for the Bad Teacher

We’ve all had at least one. Not just the teachers that weren’t nominated for Teacher of the Year. I mean the bad ones.

Fortunately, in my five short years of working in public education, I have only encountered two truly bad teachers out of about 40 great educators that I have worked closely with. They truly are a dying breed.

Although I’ve only worked with two, I guarantee that everyone has had at least one bad teacher. And one is too many.

If you didn’t know, it’s really hard work being a bad teacher. It actually takes a lot of effort.

 

  1. You hate going to work every day.

Like, seriously hate it so much that you can’t even pretend to enjoy it. We can see it on your face, hear it in your voice, and feel how much don’t like being with your students.  I have heard you tell students that you teach for the summer. I have seen you make a gun motion with your fingers to your head when students arrive in the morning. I have felt the sincerity when you told a student you didn’t care if they came to school. You don’t find it fulfilling, you don’t find it challenging, and you don’t find everyday meaningful and exciting. That must really suck for you.

 

2. You can make someone hate an entire category of knowledge all by yourself.

Anyone else would have a hard time convincing someone to hate all of mathematics or all of science in a conversation on the street. You, however, can instill a devout hatred of one whole subject in a student that can last a lifetime. You read straight from the textbook everyday, you don’t explain things well, and you don’t take the time to be available for your students. You give copious amounts of lectures and tests and never have class discussions, activities, or field trips. Even I get bored sitting in your classroom and I’m a huge nerd. It takes a lot of work to be that boring. You must be exhausted.

 

3. You can destroy a person’s self-esteem in one instant.

I’ve seen you do it. You tell a student that they had a dumb question, you’ve rolled your eyes when they had an honest concern, and you’ve laughed at them when they couldn’t answer a question correctly. You remind certain students, in front of the whole class, that they’ve failed the past 3 tests. You’ve called students liars, brats, and idiots to their faces. You purposely call on students when you see that they’re not paying attention. I’ve never understood why you do this – why do you want them to be embarrassed that they don’t know the answer? They know that they weren’t paying attention. You know that they weren’t paying attention. Why does the whole class need to know? It has to be tiring trying to appear so malicious.

 

4. You are battling your students everyday.

You have no classroom management skills. You are constantly “shhh-ing” students, sending them out into the hall, and expecting them to be quiet 100% of the time. You get upset when they don’t follow the directions that you did not verbally and visually display for them. You make the same students spend half their time in the principal’s office and then get upset that they aren’t learning. You think that students should be naturally motivated, hard working, and respectful instead of meeting them where they are at. You think that teaching is about you and not about them. You want your students to learn how you teach and you’re not willing to teach how they learn. You don’t give your students choices or ownership in their education. Fighting those battles everyday must really get you down.

 

5. You are unforgettable.

I have only personally worked with two of you but you have left quite an impact. And you were my peer, not my teacher. The effect that you have had on my students makes me absolutely outraged. The fact that the good teachers need to undo the damage that you have done makes me furious.  And the hurtful words from you that are left ringing in children’s ears can be life changing. Being that notorious is certainly tiresome.

 

So rest your head, bad teacher.

The evolution of education is slowly weeding you out.

There are now so few of you left.

 

I send my sympathies and I bid you adieu.

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Farmers Market

Farmers Market. Farmer’s Market. Farmers’ Market.

Whatever the correct plural/possessive form is, it’s surprisingly similar to a Minnesotan (sub any other state, probably) farmers market.

The one we went to just outside of Taradale was mostly held in a big barn because it’s winter (60 degrees and sunny, but okay).

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Just like any other farmers market, you have your giant vegetables,

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Your weird vegetables,

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And, of course, your squid ink pasta.

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You have your delicious sauces and relish,

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Your lamb and venison,

Image(Don’t let that “wild” claim fool you, they farm deer.)

Your “poultry items,”

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And your creamed honey.

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The whole thing was wonderful and it had enough granola selling, sandal-wearing people to make this Uptowner feel right at home.

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Remember the All Saints?

Yea, those All Saints.

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Don’t worry, one of them is a judge on New Zealand X-Factor.

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No, she’s not from New Zealand. No, I don’t know why she’s on this show.

Other judges are Daniel Beddingfield and two other people I’ve never heard of.

But here’s a little treat for you, my favorite act on right now.

Whenua.

Pronounced Fen-oo-a because the “wh” makes a “ffff” sound in Maori.

He’s a little piece of smooth, soulful gold.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVVoC8a8RZ0#t=04m4s

4:04-5:37

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Inclusive Education vs. Inclusive Education

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A lot of people have been asking me which country is more inclusive of special education students, New Zealand or the US. Okay, one lady that runs some early child care centers who stopped over for tea asked me, but that’s not the point.

They’re different.

(*Reminder: This is not intended to be a sweeping comparison of the countries’ education. Just my limited personal experiences and observations.)

In the Schools

In the US, you have to have to have accept a student into your school regardless of their disability. There are different settings in special education, leveled 1-8 and the higher the setting the more restrictive the environment. About a billion assessments are done and a billion more conversations are had to determine which setting the student is placed in and the decision is ultimately up to the parent. This model can be either super inclusive at the lower settings but super exclusive at the higher settings (setting 3 is a separate classroom in a mainstream school and setting 4 is whole other school altogether).

In NZ, schools are supposed to accept all students regardless of disability. HOWEVER schools often admit to families that they just aren’t able to provide the amount of service that their disabled child would need, so, “Oh sorry, but you’ll probably be better off sending your child to a special school with other disabled children. Kthxbye!”  (That doesn’t always happen, but I’ve got it on sound advice that it does. The school that I’m at is one that welcomes and supports students with disabilities.)

Although the school that I’m at welcomes students with disabilities, it has its limitations. For example, it doesn’t have any elevators. This means that our student with cerebral palsy has to take the stairs every day.


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There is one super old motorized chair that you only see in infomercials, but even that’s next to impossible for him to maneuver alone.

In the Classroom

In the US, I have been privileged to work with truly exceptional teachers. These teachers take ownership of our special ed students’ learning wholeheartedly. The management and differentiation skills that they employ not only work for our students, but benefit all students. And it’s the little things – having the schedule posted, writing the learning objective on the board, having individual conversations with our students when things need to be modified. They make the learning accessible to our students taking their specific disabilities into consideration. (This is certainly not the case in all US schools. For all I know, my experiences could be the exception and not the rule.)

The special ed students here in NZ are in mostly mainstream classes, because there are no leveled settings like in the US. This is great if the students have teacher aids with them (and the ones here are absolutely wonderful at what they do). But I think some teachers are hesitant to accept our students without in-class support (as many teachers in the US are, too).

Oh and students with intellectual disabilities at this school do their English and Math from a separate curriculum from a remote correspondance school that I’ll get into later.

So. Which one is better? Who knows. Neither. Both. I don’t know that there is a system that has totally figured it out yet but I look forward to bumping into one some day that has.

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A Grossly Simplified Explanation of Federal Laws on Special Education in the United States

I struggle to understand how special education functions at a systematic level in the US. It’s complicated and tricky and every single rule has been put in place for a reason.

Special Ed in the US largely functions around these laws and educators and professionals are held to tight regulations of compliance. This is not necessarily so in other countries.

So to understand my points of view on any issues in NZ special education, you should understand some basics of our own special education system.

Prior to 1975, the US had a dark past of educating individuals with disabilities, in that we didn’t. Many children with disabilities were put into state hospitals or sidelined into basement classrooms to play with blocks and stuff. Geraldo Rivera did an alarming piece on this issue in 1972 about the Willowbrook State School for individuals with intellectual disabilities. It showed the institution’s horrendous and overpopulated living conditions. You can see a clip of it here. I really encourage you to watch it. It’s only 2 minutes.

Riding the educational civil rights wave headed by Brown v. Board of Education Topeka (albeit 20 years later), the US Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975, which made special education programs mandatory in public educational agencies within the country. This act turned into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990 (and most recently revised in 2004) which states that students with disabilities are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) that prepares them for further education, employment, and independent living.

IDEA addresses nearly all aspects of special education and other issues regarding students with disabilities (such as eligibility for services, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), related services, early interventions, procedural safeguards, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and anything else you can possibly think of). It’s basically the bible of special education in the US.

So, what is FAPE? A free and appropriate education means that schools are responsible for paying for and providing any related services that allow a student to be appropriately educated (meaning they have access to curriculum that their disability would otherwise prevent). This can be in the form of medical services for a physical handicap, speech services for a speech and language disability, or Visual Impairment Specialists for students who are blind or have significant visual impairments. These should be of no cost to the family and the school cannot deny service to a student who requires these related services based on cost. Where does the money come from? I’m not entirely sure. Much of the money comes from federal funding for special education programs, however, some schools are left to supplement that funding from other areas of their budget.

Also, FAPE must be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) possible. This means that special education students should be in the most mainstream setting (with non-disabled students) that they can successfully participate in (also known as inclusive education). They should only be in secluded classrooms or schools if their participation in mainstream settings has proven unsuccessful with every mode of support possible. The placement of some special education students can be points of contention between the school and the parents. Schools and parents can disagree on the placement of some students, one wanting a less restrictive placement and the other wanting a more restrictive placement – both sides motivated by what they think is the most successful setting for the student.

These are all federal regulations that guide our special education programs. I know it’s not bedtime reading (and only the tip of the iceberg of the educational alphabet soup) but it will provide you with some background knowledge if you choose to read my posts on special education here in New Zealand.

And just for funsies, here are the 13 categories of disabilities recognized in Minnesota:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Blind/Visually Impaired (B/VI)
  • Deaf/Blind (DB)
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing (D/HH)
  • Developmental Cognitive Disability (DCD)
  • Developmental Delay (DD)
  • Emotional/Behavioral Disorder (E/BD)
  • Other Health Disability (OHD) *ADHD/ADD fall under this category
  • Physical Disability (PD)
  • Severely Multiply Impaired (SMI)
  • Specific Learning Disability (SLD)
  • Speech/Language Impairment (SLI)
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

In the 2010-2011 school year, there were 111, 794 students aged 6-21 with disabilities in Minnesota, which was 13.5% of the student population. The highest incidence categories were Specific Learning Disorders, Emotional/Behavioral Disorders, Other Health Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Developmental and Cognitive Delays. You can read more in the 2010-2011 Minnesota Annual Report on Special Education Performance here.

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Education Overview

Comparing the New Zealand school system and the US’s school system(s) is…hard. I’m not going to boast a comprehensive view of either, but I’m going to do the best that I can to give you an overview of the basic systematic workings.

New Zealand                                                                               United States of America

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So that’s your bare-bones overview of our general school systems and I’m pretty sure my outline is an insult to the actual complications that each entails.

One thing I find interesting about New Zealand public education is that it’s free-ish. All schools “suggest” a donation from each of their students for certain things like field trips, school functions, certain supplies, etc. These donations can range from $70-$700 NZD (about $50-$500 USD) or more. Students can still attend schools if they can’t afford the donation, but they would not be allowed to participate in the things that the donations pay for. These donations have, of course, caused issues for families who cannot or choose not to pay the “voluntary” funds. This leads to headlines like  Parent Claims Bully-Tactics from Schools over Donations and Schools Heavy Parents Over Fees.

Neither of these outlines comments on special education, but I will tell you that there is only a national branch of special education in New Zealand and in the US there are special education departments at federal, state, and local levels.

More to come.

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This is Ben

Ben

This is Ben.

We met at a bus stop in Napier.

Ben has cerebral palsy.  He says he has this disability because his mom didn’t go to the hospital soon enough. He didn’t know his mom because she gave him up when he was born.  He says he didn’t want to be born with cerebral palsy, but “that’s how it is.”

One time a bus driver would not let him on the bus because there was s stroller in the handicapped section, so Ben had to wait two hours for the next bus to come along.

He lives in an assisted living residence with seniors. He says he likes old people because they talk to him like a normal person and not like a disabled person.

Ben is almost 40 and wants to get married.

He has a job doing something (that I couldn’t understand because of how his speech is affected) that doesn’t make enough money for him to visit America again, although he would really like to. He went to San Diego once on a trip with other people who have disabilities and loved it.

For me, this encounter was both affirming and disheartening. I was affirmed that my students can learn the functional skills we teach them, like using public transportation and how to hold a job, that they will carry with them throughout their lives. On the other hand, it was disheartening because no matter how many skills we teach them, they will still have desires and aspirations that will never be met. The want to communicate. The want to get married. The want to be treated normally.

I can be the best teacher in the world but I can’t control how that world treats them. That, I think, is the hardest part of this job.

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Taradale High School

Taradale is like a suburb to the city of Napier. The town is fairly quaint and relatively quiet. There is a shopping center in the middle of town that has a few cafes, clothing shops, and banks. Not many bars and no hotels, to give you an idea. The town population is about 17,000, which is comparable to Anoka, MN with Napier being as big as Blaine, MN.

Taradale High School, from what I gather, is a typical New Zealand high school.

Taradale High School

(“Kia Ora” is Maori for “Welcome”)

 This is their map. You’ll notice that there are a lot of smaller buildings instead of one big building like we have in Minnesota (but not uncommon to warmer states like California). Side note: this eliminates the foreign concept of “Hall Duty.” Students can just roam around campus between classes and at lunch.

 Lunch. You’ll also notice that there is no cafeteria listed on the map. They don’t have cafeterias here. They have a canteen where students can purchase items (like an a la carte) but they have no room or building devoted to eating meals. Kids just sit around outside on benches and eat the food they brought from home. There are no hot lunches on trays in a buffet-style corral like I’m used to seeing. Also, the government does not generally provide food for students for low-income families, like the US, (although this is a new trend that is being proposed.)

All students are required to wear uniforms. This is typical for all schools in New Zealand. The codes are quite strict:

Uniform Rules

Some of my favorites are:

  • “No extreme styles permitted, e.g. dreadlocks, Mohawks, “rats’ tails,” afro styles, mullets or hair shorter than a number 2 comb.”
  • “No mascara, eyeliner, eyeshadow, lipstick or blusher is permitted.”
  • “Nail polish is not permitted at school.”

Fairly strict. Although I’m finding myself more and more on board with the idea of uniforms. At first look, I can’t tell what students come from poor families or rich families and it’s not weird when our special education students wear the same sweatshirt every single day to school (like a lot of my former students did in Minnesota). I don’t really understand the make up part of it, but my host mom explained that the theory is that you don’t need make up at school to learn. Eh, I’m pretty indifferent on that rule. I don’t understand it but I don’t think it’s hell-raising issue.

Oh and students are required to wear shorts or skirts. Even when it’s rainy and 40 degrees. And they eat lunch outside, remember. Different.

This is the school’s timetable:

Timetable

The classes are different everyday. And on Thursdays the classes are different every week. Each week is lettered A-F and each class on Thursday is labeled A-F as well. For each week, the corresponding class starts out the rotation for that day and the other classes follow alphabetically. They have staff meetings everyday except every second Thursday of the month but every other Thursday during senior exams. And if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of Second Quarter.

Most students, if not all, walk to school. There is no publicly funded school bus. There is a public city bus that can take students, but they have to pay regular bus fare. This is one of the biggest differences between NZ schools and US schools, which mandates public transportation for all students to get to school.  And some students get dropped off by their parents via car, but not many.

Taradale High School also has a notable international student body. There are 46 international students here from Germany, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, China and Brazil.  International students pay for their education here, much like a private school, and stay with host families. Because of this, there are programs at this school similar to our English as a Second Language programs bridging language and cultural inconsistencies.

Typical high school with typical teenagers. They just have accents and call me “miss.”

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