A Few Thoughts on Gun Appreciation Day

01/20/2013
Winding Road Ahead

Winding Road Ahead (Photo credit: nathangibbs)

I’m writing about guns more than education these days. I wish I could feel I don’t have to.

The Second Amendment grants American citizens the right to bear arms. There might be some discussion about whether it’s a requirement that they be in a “well-regulated militia,” but I’ll concede for now that it isn’t.

The position many gun advocates and the National Rifle Association have taken is that there is no limit on the right of American citizens to bear arms.

But there are limits, and ones the NRA, probably supports.

Taken at its word the 2nd Amendment grants the right to own any kind of arms, even nuclear arms. Despite that, we have agreed as a society, with no dissent that I’m aware of, that private citizens should not own nuclear arms and have made it illegal to do so.

Unless I am mistaken (it has been known to happen frequently, according to my wife), it is also illegal for American citizens to own fully automatic weapons.

We have also decided that mentally ill people and convicted felons should not own arms. Our efforts to prevent those people from getting arms might not be particularly effective for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t change the intent.

Since there is some limit on the 2nd Amendment it is reasonable to ask if there might a need for other limits. The discussion we should be having as a nation is whether there are other limits we want to impose. There may not be, but not because the Second Amendment precludes it.

There may be very good reasons why additional gun restrictions are not a good idea, or there might be reasons for enacting some limits. I don’t know for sure. What I know is that a lot of children are getting killed by bullets fired from guns. I’m not talking about the mass murder in Connecticut or any other mass shooting. I am talking about the large number of children killed by bullets fired from guns every month all across the nation.

Universal mental health and criminal record checks before anyone can buy a gun should be a given. Any legitimate, sane, non-criminal gun purchaser should have nothing to fear from this, they will get their guns, eventually.

Guns should be secured when left at home, and that security should be robust. In a neighboring town two guns were stolen when the safe containing them was taken during a break-in. That safe either was not heavy enough or should have been bolted to the floor or some other strong anchor. Failure to secure weapons left at home should be a crime. That idea has nothing at all to do with the Second Amendment but might keep guns out of the hands of some criminals.

Some gun-owning friends say that laws allowing people to carry guns, concealed or openly, reduce crime. It is something that is very hard to prove, not because it may not be true but because it is very difficult to prove a negative effect.

Carry laws, whether concealed or open, might protect the individual carrying but will not prevent those scores of murdered children. I don’t know what will prevent those murders, but my instinct tells me that making it more difficult for everyone to get a gun might have some effect.

In all honesty, I am skeptical about the general safety of carry laws. Today, on Gun Appreciation Day, five people were shot accidentally at Gun Appreciation events, two of them at a safety checkpoint at a Gun Appreciation event.

That sort of thing does not inspire confidence that gun owners can be trusted to carry their guns safely.


Don’t Ban Guns, Regulate Them.

12/16/2012
English: Houston Gun show at the George R. Bro...

English: Houston Gun show at the George R. Brown Convention Center Español: “Houston Gun Show” en el Centro de Convenciones George R. Brown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not anti-gun, though I don’t want to own one.

I am against automatic weapons in private hands, fast-loading clips, and anti-NRA.

I am in favor of mandatory waiting periods of at least 30 days between gun license application and delivery of gun, in favor of gun registration and mandatory annual inspections just like we have for cars, in favor of investigations of a gun applicant’s parents, children and siblings before a gun license is issued.

Gun dealers must be required to have a license.

I am against gun sales at gun shows, interstate shipment of guns or ammunition, shipment of guns or ammunition by mail or other carrier to individuals – they should be required to be picked-up in person.

I favor strict controls on the amount and type of ammunition individuals can buy, and am in favor of people who want to have guns having to pass a licensing exam and road test at least as rigorous as the requirements for driving. I also favor requiring gun owners to be personally and criminally liable for any use of their guns in a crime even if the guns are stolen from them (because it is their responsibility to make sure their guns are secure).

I oppose carry permits for anyone unless they can prove a compelling need. I am against guns being carried within .25 miles of any school, public, private or parochial.

I am also in favor of a complete rewrite of the 2nd amendment to clarify the meaning of a “well regulated militia” as the well-regulated part of it seems to be regularly ignored.

Other than hat, enjoy your guns.


Meeting a Different Student Need

03/18/2012
English: A painting of a teardrop I did.

Image via Wikipedia

Something had happened but I had no idea what.

An announcement told students and teachers not to move to their 7th period assignment when the bell rang ending sixth period, it was being extended…indefinitely.

I had the high-level 8th grade class, the ones I taught social studies to when they were in the 6th and 7th grades. I’ve written about them before

. We’re comfortable with each other and used the extended time to talk about the high schools they’d be going to in September.

The halls were strangely quiet as we’d been told not to give any passes for any reason during this time.

Like many, if not all schools these days, we have procedures to lock down classes if an unauthorized person gets past security, or if anyone has a gun, but those codes had not been given. It wasn’t even a drill.

We waited.

Finally, after about a fifteen minute delay, everyone moved to their 7th period assignment. I still had no idea why we’d been detained.

That is when the four 8th grade girls came into the library sobbing, wailing, and shaking. I feared the worst, that someone had died, perhaps even a student. The girls were so distraught they couldn’t talk. Finally one calmed down enough to tell me that the boyfriend of one of these girls had gotten so upset about something that girl said to him that he had punched his hand through the wall of the cafeteria. In doing that he had sliced the back of his hand open and was bleeding profusely.

An ambulance arrived to take the boy to the hospital. Only after that, permission to move to 7th period came.

The girls were deeply upset. All four had witnessed the punch. One of the girls, a hold over, older than the other by a year or two, said she’d never seen a boy cry before but the puncher was crying while the nurse and an assistant removed his hand from the wall.

The girls worried that the boy would bleed to death. I said it was highly unlikely, but they told me of pools of blood in the cafeteria. Again, I reassured them, telling them that the body has a lot of blood, can afford to lose a pint or two. I also knew from my frequent blood donations that a pint of blood looks like a really large amount.

Middle school is a difficult time for most students. Bodies are changing, emotions are expanding, interest in members of the opposite gender grows, accompanied by worry about one’s own attractiveness. At the same time, there is little time in their school day to ease up, to reflect, to react to trauma.

Not one of those four girls is a reader. They’ve never checked out a single book in the 12 school months I’ve been the librarian. I don’t have a strong relationship with any of them. Still, they came to the library when they needed a place to react, to emote, to be comforted and reassured.

They came to the library when they needed to feel safe.

Earlier that same day one of the veteran teachers, and not one who has been particularly friendly to me, came in to use copier, looked around, and thanked me “for making the library look and function like a library again.”

New books, organized shelves, new decoration on the walls, automated checkout and an online catalog have made the library a more active, more dynamic, and a more attractive place. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish in little time and with almost no budget.

But what pleases me most is one of those things that will never show up on any evaluation of how I do my job. There’s no standardized test for it and it is not on any principal’s observation form.

I’ve made a safe place for students.

Nothing is more important than that.


Strike Four! You’re In!

11/17/2010
humour: Tux freeing himself from ball and chain.
Image via Wikipedia

Every year the NYC Department of Education issues a booklet delineating the school disciplinary code. Every student and teacher gets one.

In it, there are separate sections for K-5 and 6-8, each with four categories of offense and consequence ranging from mild disruption to bringing a gun to school. The former might earn a phone call home, the latter risks expulsion.

The idea of distributing the code is to show students that their actions have consequences. This works for kids who really don’t need to read the disciplinary code to understand that they need to behave responsibly.

It doesn’t apply to the rest of the school population, especially those students who are the most disruptive.

Take today.

In our 8th grade special education class there are two students who are increasingly problematic.

R is hyperactive and, on good days, just runs around the room refusing to do any work.

L is a very bright boy with a VERY large chip on his shoulder. He is angry, contemptuous, and also refuses to do any work.

These two boys are like this in every class. They’ve always been difficult to motivate, but this year is worse than ever.

R has started making loud, animal like vocalizations while L has become a major bully, threatening violence at the tiniest perceived slight.

The disciplinary code says that when a student is disruptive to the point of interfering with the safe and productive conduct of the class, the student can be removed for the remainder of that period at the teacher’s discretion.

Sounds reasonable, right? So far, so good.

But a student can only be removed four times in a school year.

For the vast majority of students that is more than sufficient. 98% or more of our students are never removed from class for disciplinary reasons.

Then there are kids like L and R.

We make a point of not removing L unless he actually hits someone. R also has to behave in an extreme manner to be removed.  Even so, both maxed-out their removals by the end of the first quarter.

Now, in order for them to be removed they have to be given a principal’s or superintendent’s suspension.  That means at least a week in our detention room or relocation to a ‘suspension school.’

So when L got up in the middle of his first period class today, opened a bag of cookies and started throwing them around the room, there was nothing the teacher could do about it.

And two periods later, when L and R were on the opposite sides of the room throwing wads of paper, pencils and, finally, textbooks at each other, there was nothing I could do.

Danger Placard
Image via Wikipedia

In fact, R made a point of telling me he knew he couldn’t be removed unless he did something extremely dangerous (like a three-pound textbook flying across the room isn’t extremely dangerous).

“I can do anything I want and you can’t do anything about it,” R told me. “I’ve already been removed four times and you can’t get me out of here.”

Now somebody has to get pretty seriously hurt for any of L or R’s actions to have consequences.

They’ve learned they’ve gotten a license to disrupt the learning of every other student in their class as much as they want.

And that may be the only thing they learn at school this year.

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Student Progress: Sometimes Its Not the Teacher

06/18/2010

Teacher accountability is all the rage.

March 6
Image by lorenabuena via Flickr

I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that teachers should not be accountable for what they do or fail to do, not even me.

The only argument is how to measure what teachers do.

Oh yeah, we also have to define what it is that teachers do.

Part of the problem is that part of what teachers do is not done in the classroom, part of what teachers do affects student development but has nothing to do with academics, and teachers are not the only ones in a school who help kids develop.

For one child in my school the teachers tried and tried, but it was the school secretary who made the difference.

And what a difference it is.

K came to our school three years ago as a hostile, extremely withdrawn and occasionally violent sixth grade girl.

Every day she wore this large black trench coat that she would pull up so that she could be totally hidden by it.

She was mute.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how gently.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how insistently.

She ignored students who tried to speak to her. If they got too close she would lash out with the sharpened pencil always ready in her hand. More than once a student would get stabbed. K just missed piercing one girl’s eye.

K did not like school.

K especially did not like the school lunchroom, a near toxic blend of cacophonous sounds near manic energy.

K was not at all manic.

K seemed to be an empty shell of a girl.

Our school secretary is a dour, efficient woman who does not tolerate teachers or other fools well.

But she has a heart a mile wide and twice as deep when it comes to kids.

Ann invited K to spend the lunch period in the office with her.  K accepted wordlessly by showing up.

Ann would continue to work while K sat there.

Eventually K began to draw.

#2 Pencils, A Lot of Them

Image by alex.ragone via Flickr

And draw.

And draw.

The first positive thing we learned about K is that she is a talented artist who, with only a #2 pencil, created pictures filled with texture and emotion.

Eventually we heard from K’s father who lives overseas. He told us some of what K had been through and we began to understand why she behaved as she did.

It was not a pretty picture, especially when K eventually drew it sitting at a desk in the office eating lunch with Ann.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

In 7th grade K travelled with the rest of her class to their different subject teachers. K still wore her trench coat but she didn’t hide in it as much.

And she stopped stabbing people.

Every time I saw K I’d say hello and smile at her.

Eventually she would look up at my face as I did that.

One day I got a crooked, shy smile back.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

The black trench coat was replaced with a very large sweater.

K continued to communicate with drawings. Sometimes we got what she was saying, usually not.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

K did very little schoolwork. But she started to give other people that shy, crooked smile.

One day K whispered something to me.

She asked to go to the office to see Ann.

It wasn’t lunchtime, but I let her go. She spent the rest of the day there.

K started talking more.

And more.

She continued to draw, and she continued to eat lunch with Ann every day.

This year K is in 8th grade.

The sweater is gone.

K smiles and talks to anyone who will listen or smile back.

K made a few friends.

And there were even days when K did not eat with Ann because she wanted to be with her friends. She went to the lunchroom.

But most of the time you could find K in the office where she would sit opposite Ann drawing or helping out at odd tasks.

Now K holds her head up high and her bright blue eyes sparkle.

K is confident, relaxed and even kids around a bit.

K went to the prom! And had a good time. I know because she told me.

Last night I went to a retirement dinner for four colleagues. Ann is retiring in a week when our school years ends.

Last night was the first time I saw Ann smile and laugh.

Her work is done.

On Monday K will graduate with the rest of our 8th graders, all of whom have grown tremendously since they came into this school three years ago.

But none has grown and developed as much as K.

Today K will have her last lunch with Ann.

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Fighting, Just Because

05/26/2010
Broken glass
Image via Wikipedia

There were two fights in my little wing of our school today.

Neither fight had to happen. Neither fight should have happened.

Inner-city middle school students fight as play sometimes, but these were not play fights.

Students fight because their parents tell them that if they don’t fight back when someone says or does something to them, they’re wimps.

Some students fight because their self-image is so fragile that even the slightest negative comment about them is a challenge to their existence.

These students, and those whose parents are not abetting their violent ways, fight because they don’t have other strategies for dealing with problems.

My fellow teachers and I do our best to teach problem-solving strategies.

We tell the students that when someone talks about their mother it is not actually their mother, that the other students doesn’t know their mother and is making comments about some pretend mother that they all share.

I also tell my students that I am completely non-violent and that non-violence is stronger than violence.

Mahatma Gandhi

Image by dbking via Flickr

I teach them about Gandhi, how we share a birth date, and how he defeated what was then the strongest nation on earth with words and peaceful actions.

We all teach them about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he fought racism with words and non-violent actions even when confronted with violence.

And I tell them the story of the only time I got punched and how I won the fight without doing anything more than taking the punch.

I was in middle school when it happened, probably about 11 or 12 years old.

I was a big, athletic kid, but I was just a kid.

One day I was the first student to come down the stairs and out into the schoolyard for recess.

As I came through the doors into the schoolyard I got hit hard, very hard, squarely on the right side of my chin.

My jaw seemed to go out a mile and snap back, but I did not crumple or go down.

I just stood there looking at the youngish man who had attacked me for absolutely no reason.

I just continued looking at the man as my mind raced to figure out what had just happened and why.

Then the man ran away.

I continued to stand there.

It finally occurred to me that the man had run away because I had just taken his best punch, absolutely cold and just stood there.

There was nothing more he could do to hurt me.

It was in that moment I decided that I would never practice violence.

And I never have.

My students always listen raptly to the story and seem impressed.

Some ask me what I would do if they hit me.

I tell them to try it, but I don’t think they believe me when I tell them I will not fight back.

I want them to realize that turning one’s back and walking away is a far stronger statement, far more honorable, than fighting to defend one’s honor.

I always hope that this story will come to mind the next time they think they need to fight.

It never does.

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Never Let Go, Never Give Up

04/30/2010
Clinging Vines
Image by TexasEagle via Flickr

“Once I am your teacher I never let go.”

That is one of the first things I tell my students at the beginning of the school year.

I started saying that in my third year of teaching when I finally got my own class. They were twelve sixth-grade special education students and they didn’t believe me.

Those kids are freshmen in high school now. I still have the phone

A gang sign of the Bloods

Image via Wikipedia

numbers of their parents or guardians in my cell phone’s directory.

Every now and then I call one of them to see how the boy or girl I taught is doing.

Some are thriving, some having a harder time.

One has dropped out and joined a gang.

I ran into him the other day after school.

He was wearing his colors so I didn’t have to ask him what was going on in his life.

We made small talk for a while before I asked him what happened, why had he given up on school.

He is a smart boy who has raging hormones and is easily distracted. He is also a very good basketball player.

He told me that his school doesn’t let freshmen play on the varsity and that students must maintain passing grades to be on a team.

He is capable of it, but he didn’t have to work too hard in middle school because, as a special education student, he had modified requirements for passing from grade to grade.

Those modifications disappear in high school

In high school all students are required to meet the same standard.

We warn them, but it still comes as a shock when it happens.

This boy realized around midterm, right around the time this HS basketball season ended, that he would not become a tenth grade student. He would not be on the varsity next year.

He has always had problems at home and those problems had worsened.

That’s why the gang is so attractive. It is a new family.

They don’t let go easily either.

This is where the corollary to I Never Let Go comes in.

I also never give up on a kid.

I reminded the boy of what I had told him four years ago and he laughed.

“I didn’t believe you then, but you tracked me in 7th and 8th grade and always checked in with me and my teachers.”

“I thought that was over when I graduated.”

I smiled.

“I never let go, and I never give up on a kid,” I told him.

“And the best thing about never is that never never comes.”

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