Monday, April 28, 2008

Little Is Known of Sierra Leone....

So we've been reading and discussing Ishmael Beah's amazing memoir, A Long Way Gone. It explores his experiences as a conscripted soldier in Sierra Leone's brutal civil war. Beah describes children with limbs chopped off, families burnt alive, weeks of hunger and the agony of not knowing where his family is or if they are even alive. His writing is honest and vivid, sparing no one, least of all himself. This makes his book an especially book candidate for the "reading writing connection". The other day we selected especially great visual detail from Beah's work, and then with highlighters (a writer's best friend), I asked the kids to identify a particular line or description from their own journals that they thought was vivid.

I've been in contact with Beah's publicist, as he travels frequently telling his story and speaking out on behalf of child soldiers and other kids impacted by war, in the hope that he can come speak to us. I have also connected with a friend and classmate of mine (I'm finishing up my doctorate at ICAR) who himself was impacted by the war in Sierra Leone. He's happy to come speak to my students and we're working out a time. I know he'll have a story to tell that the kids won't forget. I love seeing them learn about a place so unfamiliar yet contemporary that so rarely makes the curriculum. We can't create global citizens without knowledge of life beyond one's own borders. I was impressed, when I asked my kids about similarities between Ishmael and kids here in the U.S., to hear them identify broken and separated families, hunger and gangs (the rebels, as they said). Such discussions are also a good way to begin, to whatever extent possible, talking about some of the tensions I observe here, especially between some of the Hispanic and African American students.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Savage Inequalities (Guatemala Edition)

So one of our most difficult, damaged students was just released today. This was a young man from Guatemala, here illegally. He'd apparently jumped trains from Guatemala. He's told staff here of being on his own since about the age of five and of having been prostituted. As with a lot of our kids, the irony is that here behind barbed wire is probably the safest, healthiest environment he's ever been in, and now he's presumably being deported. Maybe that's the right decision; after all, plenty of American kids need more support than they receive. But I fear for this kid like I've feared for few others who have been released from the Detention Home and frankly, I fear for some who may cross his path. He assultled another of my students one morning, kicking him repeatly out of the blue, and bit a staff member after an apparent escape attempt. He was on Suicide Watch for his final couple of weeks here, but apparently did achieve enough progress under those circumstances that he was allowed his journal from my class, which he constantly wanted to have with him. He was always eager to show me new English sentences he could write, and I'm told he did well in other classes to. What amazes me is this capacity, despite all of this kid's struggles. What angers me is the loss of human potential he might represent.

Some staff here, myself among them, believe this kid to be diagnosable with PTSD or even multiple personalities. What will he go back to? There are civil society and government organizations throughout South America, and even UNICEF, which work to support kids who struggle with prostitution, abuse, gang violence and addiction. Will he find one of them? If so, will they have the capacity to help him, to whatever extent possible? One of the most unsettling dynamics of this place is that there is really no way of knowing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Security and Community

It's been said by one of my favorite writers and thinkers on peace building that conservatives start with security, believing it will lead to peace, and liberals start with peace, believing that it will result in security. Where ever one falls on that spectrum, I hope most would agree that security and community (peace) are inherently linked.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately as someone who believes that a classroom is (or can and should be) a community. Writers and thinkers grow best in a community of other writers and thinkers. That's why I involve so much discussion in my classroom, as well as projects that ask kids to draw on a variety of interpersonal, communications, language and problem-solving skills. Yet this is of course a particularly challenging environment to build community in. For one thing, kids come and go very quickly. Secondly, with some students who are struggling with the most serious of charges and mental health issues (one might soon be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder), keeping myself, staff and other students safe is responsibility one. Kids can't learn in a tense classroom where every move is corrected; neither can they learn when they don't feel safe. (It sure affects my teaching, too!) One of our security guys said he's never seen kids like some we just got in. He's been here over 25 years, so I'm inclined to listen. I've recently had a student assault another student, out of nowhere, in my classroom. Just today nearly have of last period was on lock-down. Apparently things had not gone well throughout the day.

I've reflected all year on how best to build community in my classroom here, and I think I've hit on a few things that work at least sometimes. I think the journals can be key to this. Students regularly ask me to bring them back to their living units to write in. We share daily. I get inappropriate responses that I stop mixed in with humor, honesty, missing home, missing cats, your own bed and self-reflection. Right now we're exploring media literacy, identifying techniques of propaganda in ads and commercials. The final assignment for this will be to create a commercial (using the handy wonderful video recorder our Executive Administrator scared up for us) that shows two or more of the techniques. They'll be putting text together, essentially, and along with all of the creative, critical thinking and language skills involved, it will take community for my students to put together a successful project.