Archive for the ‘kids’ tag
I have waited so long to write here about my travels to the Northwest Arctic villages of Buckland (Kaniq) and Noatak (Nautaaq) in January and travel to Georgia and Alabama in February because, being sort of a perfectionist, I want to write the perfect thing, but being an epidemiologist and adjunct faculty member and volunteer, I don’t have time to write the perfect thing. And what would the perfect thing be anyway? I am a visitor to both places and still know so little. So I will, instead, leave you with a few photos and these links to my Flickr collection from rural Alaska and The South. The photos on Flickr tell many stories through the captions.
Oscar took this picture of me as I was preparing for the trip to the Northwest Arctic region (Nunaqatigiich), where it had been -30 to -50 for the last month before we left. I didn’t end up using the goggles while there, in Buckland’s -35 or Noatak’s -48, but instead let my eyelashes turn white only a minute or two after going outside. I liked this feeling, and liked being able to see clearly. I also felt like Arctic Darth Vader with them and everything else on and I wanted to look as friendly as possible. Meeting people, conversing, gaining trust, forming relationships, finding out who you have in common, all these things were the basis of our work up there–and if mouth and nose are covered, I at least needed to show my eyes to do so.
The wolf parka, borrowed from our friend, Kiatcha, helped as well. It is so beautiful, rare, and warm a parka that many people came up to me and touched it, saying, “Aarigaa! What a parka!” I would tell them how lucky I was to have been able to borrow it. One man hugged me because he was so happy for me to have this parka. As I told Kiatcha when I returned it, her parka is truly magical, and I feel blessed to have worn it.
Much of this talking and relationship-building happened indoors, of course, after we had stripped off a few of our layers. One of the most memorable conversations of the trip was with a woman we met in Buckland and her elder father. They told me and my colleagues about their reindeer herd and how every once in a while, the caribou will migrate through right by the herd, and some will stop and mate with their more domestic counterparts. The children of these couplings, the elder told us, are wilder than regular reindeer and harder to contain. This image of animals that blur the lines between domestic and wild—being a part of or leaving behind their herds—is one that I layered, in my head, with the white and sometimes pastel ice fog hanging over that beautiful, flat land of tundra and waterways. This image of animals and land and sky is one of the images that I most carry with me from this journey in Nunaqatigiich.
I miss it there. A lot.
I took this picture with my Holga. In it, I am on the rocks jutting out of the Chattahoochee River , between Alabama and Georgia, with our 3 and 1/2 year old niece, Lilly, teaching her how to hop from rock to rock, how to balance and climb and descend, how to trust her body and eyes. She was an avid and quick learner and it filled my heart up to see her move from fear to courage so quickly. I love the sponginess of young children’s brains and the adeptness and energy of their bodies. This capacity of theirs to absorb so much, however, is also what makes them so vulnerable, and I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I get more involved in the epidemiology of Adverse Childhood Experiences and health, and as I teach about determinants of health. Children, because they are so open to learning at this age, are also so vulnerable to the violence they see around them or experience, to poor eating habits, to a sedentary lifestyle, to television and computers, to neglect. These years are so important. I’m glad I can be a part of her life and take on the awesome role of auntie during these years, if only in little bursts or via Skype. I’m so happy I can do this with the young children in our community in Anchorage as well. I am so glad that when Oscar and I have children, we will have aunties and uncles—both biological and not—to watch over and teach them as well.
I dreamt about Stephen last night, my dearest friend from high school. He came to visit–back from the dead, but just for a little while, he said. In my dream, it seemed normal, but also very significant and powerful that he was allowed this quick visit with me. I cried as I hugged him and touched his face. He was back in the flesh, looking like his grinning, strawberry-blonde, 17-year-old self. He was wearing the red Bad Religion hoody that he always wore, the one I wear right now as I type this, the one I inherited, as an 18-year-old, after his suicide and have kept since to wear in my home.
Waking up from that dream was really hard. Today is really hard. While I am grateful for this dream visit (I haven’t had such a dream in years), I am also shocked by his presence, his absence. It’s been 11 years since his suicide, and most of my days go by just fine. We learn to cope with loss and have healthy lives. But today I am shaken, sad, vulnerable. I’ve been re-experiencing my grief all day. The wound is freshly re-opened and it feels like I’ve lost him yet again.
During the day, I couldn’t quite put words to this vulnerability that I was experiencing that made it hard to concentrate at work until that Adele song “Someone Like You” came on the radio and she sang:
“I had hoped you’d see my face and you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over.”
As tears poured down my cheeks I thought, “That’s it. Suicide is NEVER over.”
It’s never over for the survivors. Yes, it gets farther into the past, and if we are allowed to grieve, then we can continue to live our lives well (and if we aren’t, then it has even more serious long-term consequences). But a dream like this makes us grieve all over again. Or another suicide in our community sets us back into hurt and guilt. Or a song transports us to a deep sadness, like the way “I See a Darkness” by Johnny Cash did for me two months ago when I first heard it.
Most importantly, suicide is never over because we can never ever have that person back.
I write this not just for my own processing. I write this to tell you, if you are considering suicide, to understand this fact of suicide. It may be quick to kill yourself, but the pain is never over for the rest of us. You leave great scars behind you that never quite close. Forever, there is someone missing who is supposed to be here. We always feel that absence. We always hurt from that absence. You are supposed to be here.
Please, if you are in pain, if you see no light in life, if you have been abused and mistreated and see no other way out, please call the suicide hotline (# below). Or please tell a counselor or teacher or friend and if they can’t get you help, tell someone else until you find someone who can. You do not deserve abuse and you do not deserve to die.
And to the friends, family, teachers, and counselors: Please ask. Notice that they are sad. Invite them, with compassion and a non-judgmental tone, to talk. Show them love. And please ask them if they are considering suicide. I wish so much that they had taught us this when we were in high school. I wish I had had some tools to keep Stephen alive. I wish our high school teachers had brought in suicide prevention experts after the first suicide in our school. Or, better, before it. Silence won’t keep your loved ones alive. TALK. ASK. Be there.
I keep hearing in my head Adele’s song:
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.”
Love is supposed to hurt sometimes, but not like this. Never like this.
Alaska Careline (Suicide Hotline): 1-877-266-HELP
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK
For those of you in the Anchorage area or wherever KSKA comes in, on December 1st at 2 pm and 7 pm they will air a panel discussion on preventing youth suicide.
Bring “The Winter Bear,” a thoughtful, funny, and powerful play about preventing youth suicide (set in Interior Alaska) to your community: www.winterbearproject.com or look for “The Winter Bear Project” on facebook.
I got my first photos published! And in an independent, internationally-distributed feminist parenting magazine called Hip Mama, which is the kind of place I’d want to be published.
How did this come about? My rad fellow Mount Holyoke alumna, Amanda Englund is one of the magazine’s editors. She took a liking to my pictures, asked if she could use them in upcoming editions, and then she & the other editors picked some off of my Flickr account that they thought fit.
But, as Oscar pointed out, it’s not only the photos–it’s also because they see me as part of their tribe. I think he means that a photo has more relevance to a person or, in this case, a group of editors, when the person behind the camera shares some common hopes or values and wants to give their art to the same cause. And though I am not yet a feminist mother and Oscar is not yet a feminist father, we are hatching plans to become them. I guess this, indeed, makes me part of the feminist parenting tribe.
These is one of the pictures they used:
I heard Sherman Alexie, my favorite author in the world, speak last week at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I am so excited to have heard and met this author and poet from whom I’ve learned so much over the years, but even more excited for the youth in the audience, particularly the Alaska Native youth to whom he spoke directly, at times crouching down on the stage to look into their eyes.
Alexie came from the most tremendous set of challenges, which he described in simultaneously hilarious and tragic detail—hydrocephalus & its many concomittant disabilities, poverty, social isolation, alcoholism, racist medical practices, etc. But education & leaving the reservation allowed him to find and become the poet and novelist he is now. “We are nomadic people, we are meant to chase opportunities,” he told the Native youth specifically, urging them to go to school.
Sherman Alexie does in speaking—and his speech is a stand-up routine that could rival or better any so-called comedian—what his recent young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian does for people who do not typically read: he hooks them with humor, with fun, with a story that is so lyrical and visual and so crudely honest that people can’t help but find their own lives in it and can’t help but be seduced, at least a little, into reading and into education. Sherman Alexie does this with a wit and humor that us educators or policy makers can’t ever quite match, but I believe he sets up a model for what we should aspire to in education.
We should strive to make education so real, so relevant to the lives of students, so engaging and fun (and even funny) and empowering to their identities that they get sucked in. It should speak to the tragedies and beauties of their lives so that students find themselves in their schoolwork rather than just finding a world from which they feel alienated.
This is particularly salient for me now because of what seems to be a preponderance of textbook and worksheet teaching in the Anchorage School District and a curriculum (at least the history curriculum) that makes irrelevant most of the global South and most indigenous people. It seems that children are being asked to remember events from history or describe the contributions of famous artists without looking at their art, without understanding the link between that history and today, without really doing anything other than searching for answers to test questions.
Here are some basic things I’d like to see and help to create in schools:
- History classes would start with the question of “Why are we learning this?” and would begin by discussing social issues that the kids are aware of today and how those can be traced back, or talk about the rights they enjoy today and how those are the products of social movements. The teacher can present some of this and the kids would have to find some of this on their own to make it real for them.
- Maybe as an introductory project to get kids hooked into history class, students would have to conduct oral histories and figure out their own family’s history of immigration to or indigenous ancestry in this land.
- All students would come out of their mathematics and economics classes knowing how to make and balance a budget, avoid credit card debt, read nutritional labels and shop for healthy food effectively, and other survival skills.
- Math classes could begin with and integrate hands-on examples and guest professionals who could demonstrate how math gets applied in the worlds of medicine, engineering, art & design, social science, etc.
- Kids would learn by doing.
- Students would see themselves, their cultures and socioeconomic class experiences and genders, in the literature selected for storytime or for literary analysis, in the examples used for math problems, and in “World History” class.
- The content of health class and the way it’s taught would be informed by the public health and social pyshcology research that shows what does and doesn’t work to promote healthy sexual and nutritional/lifestyle decision-making. It would not just be based off of the fears and self-righteous dogma of educators, NGOs or policy-makers.
- Educators would be paid enough and have enough time and administrative support to make all of the above possible.
I get to implement this philosophy of pedagogy with my students in the after-school program, two of whom are pictured above shopping for groceries as part of a nutritional-literacy and food budgeting segment of the math course I am teaching. It is thrilling to see these kids stay til 6 pm excitedly calculating family budgets, calculating net income, writing pretend checks, comparing the nutritional information of meals, multiplying recipes. It is a profound reminder of why kids—and learners of all ages—need to investigate, apply their knowledge to solve real problems, and create meaningful products in order to truly invest in and learn an idea.
This is not to say that my math instruction works to make mathematicians or healthy eaters or provident spenders—this is a very humble beginning and could be far more effective. But it does reinforce for me the need for schools to engage and excite students, to make learning so relevant that students are seduced into learning more, just like Sherman Alexie does with his books and his humor.
(Left: photo by Oscar Avellaneda. Right: photo I took of my newcomers reading group in 2005)
Now that I am teaching again (math in an afterschool program & substitute teaching for the Anchorage School District), I am compelled to put words to paper. Teaching is inherently difficult and if we are at all self-reflective, teaching requires of us that we grapple with questions about how best to educate. Here are the questions that have come up for me lately:
How do we marry the need for creative, holistic and culturally-relevant education with the careful, structured and measured approach that seems to help move underprivileged kids forward in school? That is, how do we create forms of education that promote and reward creativity, that encourage children’s curiosity and love for learning, that are holistic and open to the different ways that children learn, that incorporate the best of the “open optional” kind of education I was blessed to receive, and that do this not just for the overwhelmingly white and upper class population of open optional magnet, charter, or private schools? How do we close the achievement gap between kids of color and white kids, between poor kids and rich kids, BOTH using the careful and structured approach of measurement, goal-setting, and data-driven instruction that studies show to be effective AND not leaving the holistic and creative approach behind?
At least in my own short life as an educator, it seems that sometimes in the effort to bring kids up to grade level and achieve educational equity, we are so focused on the core academic areas and on measurable achievements in those areas that we tend to push art, dance, P.E., music, sometimes science, and the open exploratory wonder of learning off to the side. We are so focused trying to motivate kids to bring up their scores or graduate, that we frame education as a means to an end and may not encourage them to get immersed in the fun process of learning. Lastly, we may be so (rightly) concerned with educational equity that we feel all underprivileged youth should have the opportunity to go to college and therefore need to excel in all academic areas, and in doing so we may miss that genius dancer or painter or singer in our classroom, or we may be pushing them to behave better and do their math when they should be in art school instead…On the flip side, of course, more underprivileged kids who have been in underfunded and racist systems may only believe that they can dance and may not have ever discovered their inner mathematician, and we must give them the chance to do so.
This conflict has come up recently with a student in the after-school program who attends a private alternative school and who is very far behind in math. I tested the kids in my best effort to do data-driven instruction and have the kids use scores and standards to set goals for themselves. But for this little girl, seeing her score crushed her and pissed off her mom. Her mother told me, “We don’t believe in putting kids into pegs and levels and scores.” And in a way, I agree with her. Learning should be fun and kids shouldn’t be overly burdened with scores and judgments. But the girl needs to know how to identify fractions, read a clock, divide, etc., and I needed to identify those areas so we could work on them. Yet I felt terrible telling the girl a score that made her feel like a failure. I don’t believe in that. I am conflicted on this still.
This question also came up when substitute teaching for a 3rd grade class. There was one boy with extreme and violent behavior difficulties who, I discovered, loved to draw. After a lesson on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I had the kids do the silly worksheet that the teacher left behind (ugh, there is WAY too much worksheet teaching going on) and then told them they could write or draw about it in their journals. This kid with the behavior problems drew a great picture. I gave him some ideas for how to make it more detailed and he did, and so here was this fantastic visual demonstration of what he had learned about segregation, Rosa Parks, etc. As a teacher, I knew I had to catch the kid being good at things, so I praised the drawing and put it on the board. When the teacher came in at the end of the day, I proudly showed her the drawing and she said, “Oh, he knows he’s not allowed to draw in my class. But I know what it’s like to be a substitute and sometimes you have to do whatever it takes.” I told her, in the friendliest voice I could muster, that I actually think drawing is a good way to integrate information, particularly for visual learners.
I was fuming.
Yes, the kid has to learn to write, but we also have to have an educational system that approaches writing through the strengths that kids have. And sometimes art is the only thing keeping kids in school! (A great example is that my love, Oscar, excelled in photography class in high school and actually ended up teaching the class; this was what kept him attached to a school system that was otherwise not built for the way he learns. It encouraged him and kept him going.)
In the after-school program, I have enough control to experiment with fun, holistic, real-life learning and data-driven instruction. I tried back when I had my own third grade classroom too, largely scrapping the scripted curriculums and using CELL and ExCELL practices and culturally-relevant examples. I have yet to find that balance between the education I grew up with and the Teach For America-move-kids-1.5 grade-levels-or-more approach in which I was trained. Since I am not a full-time educator, I imagine I will not have time to develop that balance.
I think what this foray back into education is helping me figure out is how I want to combine my love for community based participatory research and social services with schools and education. I have a long and exciting journey ahead to do this and look forward to insight from others on how.
I am so proud of the Photovoice kids, proud of the confidence and intimacy with which they spoke to people about their photographs during the exhibition on Friday night. My mom told me afterwards, “Laura, they were so comfortable speaking with adults and representing themselves. You two should be proud of having prepared them so well.” The 6 young artists spoke about depression, neighborhood stereotypes, alcoholism, and self-confidence. They spoke to artists, parents, teachers, social service providers, native corporation administrators, legislators, and assembly members. They got us two more show offers and a follow-up news article in which Denisha Crowe is going to play a pivotal role and may write something. Crystal Luddington, our up-and-coming community organizer then called everyone afterwards to arrange our next meeting. So proud.
Autumn Meloy spent Friday all in a dither about Julia O’Malley’s article in the Anchorage Daily News that featured her, mixing up her pride with her embarrassment and back and forth. The kids were excited to find out that all of their photos are up on adn.com. Oscar and I were too exhausted and pulled in too many directions during the exhibit to soak in how big this was, but many e-mails have been sent to us since to remind us. Afterwards we laid down exhausted and congratulated one another. We are a good team.
(BTW, on Oscar’s blog he describes his own pride and excitement and posts the Alaska Teen Media Institute radio story about Photovoice: www.okiave.info).
Thanks, Charles Tice, for the photos:
Northeast Anchorage Representative Pete Petersen and another visitor looking at Edward’s images
This Friday, December 4th, from 5:30 – 8:30 pm @ Kaladi Bros. downtown (6th & G) w/ appetizers from Gallo’s….
the 6 teenagers who stuck with this program form its beginning on August 3rd until now, the 6 teenagers who poured their hearts and creativity into their photography and into their analyses of community and personal issues, the 6 teenagers who came Saturday morning after Saturday morning this fall for planning meetings, these 6 will be presenting their photos. They will be sharing their art, their narratives, their world views, their burgeoning social consciousness with Anchorage. Their photographs address issues ranging from the kinds of emotional support and listening teens need from the adults in their lives to gang and tenant issues, from Mt. View’s reputation and the transience in the neighborhood to alcohol abuse. They aim to speak to funders and policy makers about the need for youth programs such as Photovoice. They aim to speak to social service providers, teachers, and parents about what they as young people need from adults. They aim to debunk myths about Mt. View and humanize its residents.
Oscar and I have worked with these kids for 4 months now. We love them, are proud of them, get frustrated with them and push them to do better, and ask you to come listen to them.
*This is an Anchorage United for Youth (AUY) project, connected to the larger AUY goals to increase graduation rates, decrease youth substance abuse, and decrease delinquency.*