The school in which I teach is Hyde Leadership School. Hyde is organized differently than other schools, so it is important to examine our unique characteristics. Hyde is a character based magnet high school. Our focus is on character development. We place an emphasis on students’ effort over their achievement. Students’ learning is centered on self-analysis and the development of their unique potential. While at Hyde, students are guided through the process of self-discovery. When a student is acting out, instead of focusing on eliminating the negative behaviors, students are forced to examine their attitude. It is Hyde’s belief that inappropriate behaviors are just symptoms of a problematic attitude. The belief is that if a student’s character and attitude are developed as they need to be, then the achievement will naturally follow.
The Hyde Leadership concept is based on five guiding principles: humility, conscience, truth, destiny and brothers’ keeper, and five guiding words: leadership, courage, concern, integrity, and curiosity. The subject curriculum is taught encompassing these words and principles. As character growth is a main focus, my curriculum takes the approach of analyzing characters’ attitudes and approaches to obstacles in their lives.
Our statistical breakdown is not much different than most schools in this school district, though on a smaller scale. Our school is comprised of fewer than 200 students. The majority of our students are black. Even though most of our graduating seniors are accepted to and attend college after graduation, many of our students are lacking in basic skills. Our school is based in an urban setting and thus our students deal daily with the issues that typically accompany life in a small city.
The Survivor curriculum will be taught primarily to 9th and 10th graders identified with low reading and writing skills. These students will be identified by examining low CAPT scores and by their English teachers. The group will be a mix of students with special needs, students in regular education, and students with English as a second language. It will be a small group of students that are chosen for needing the remedial work in reading and writing skills. The curriculum could be delivered in any English class, but in my case will be delivered in an after-school mandatory enrichment program.
Adolescence is a difficult time during one’s life. The teenage years are a time of incredible learning and many critical life skills are acquired during this stage. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, “Adolescence and Stress”, adolescence is the time period that coping and problem-solving skills are acquired and practiced. The study found that the skills, positive or negative, that are learned in the teen years are then carried over to adulthood. This speaks volumes of the importance of this time in one’s life. This curriculum was developed after realizing that many of my students are struggling to develop productive coping and problem solving skills.
After observing a student in crisis, I realized that first I needed to find out the obstacles which students face in the development of their coping skills. I found that instead of spending the time focusing on their real concerns, the tendency of teenagers is to respond and adjust to external stimuli in their lives. The classic he said/she said scenario is very common. They may also find themselves responding to an event in a way that opposes their set of ethics. Going along with the crowd allows a sense of community, but may require one to act in a way that they would normally find disagreeable. Without the range of skills to allow them to sift through, compartmentalize, and cope with daily issues, many teens are overwhelmed by the issues they confront daily. Adolescence is the time teens should be focusing on their internal needs and practicing strategies for survival that will be with them forever, enabling them to be stronger adults. However, this is not always the case as many things may get in the way.
When looking for risk factors for adolescents that are not able to learn productive coping skills, the expected ones top the list: families that are not supportive, history of abuse, family and friends who are involved in negative behaviors, and difficulties in school. These risk factors have shown up in many studies of adults that appear not to have acquired positive strategies as deemed by their anti-societal behavior including criminal history, drug abuse and reliance on welfare. The majority of students in my school fall into one of these at-risk categories. Students are not able to change all of the influences in their lives, but they can identify and practice skills that help them cope with the hand they were dealt.
The next major thing to examine are the issues that many male and female teenagers are forced to deal with during their adolescence. Both genders deal with racial issues, family concerns, violence and threats, school pressure, relationships, and their future. This curriculum is built around these main concerns that students face.
The last concern is how do teenagers deal with the frustration they may experience? For boys, it seems they turn their aggression outwards, while girls turn their frustrations inward. In the novel
, James Garbarino, PhD. explores the concern of increasing violent acts committed by teenage boys. He focuses on adolescent males, as the leading cause of death for this category, unlike any other age category, is homicide. He also states that teenage boys are ten times more likely to commit murder then females. This is a growing trend whose effects ripple out and touch everyone. According to William Pollack, Ph.D. in his book
boys are 3 times more likely than girls to be victims of violent crimes and 4 to 6 times more likely to commit suicide (xxiii). This is a major concern. With all of these statistics disseminated, we now need to take the next step. When students come to school with thoughts of revenge, an upcoming fight, or an ongoing conflict on their minds, how can they be expected to achieve to their potential? What is being done to help alleviate these problems boys face and to give them acceptable outlets for their emotions and aggressions?
Adolescent girls face slightly different concerns than boys. They tend not to act out their frustrations, but instead turn them inward. According to the Commonwealth Fund Survey conducted in 1997, one in five high school girls report being abused physically or sexually. Body image is frequently a foremost concern of teenage girls. Another study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1997, found that 60.2% of tenth grade girls are reported to be attempting to lose weight at any given time. 9% were likely to have tried diet pills, laxatives or vomiting in this attempt. This obsession with weight and body image may begin in girls as early as age five and remains a major guiding factor in their thoughts and actions. The statistics also show that of the girls in high school that were polled, 35.7 % report feeling sad and hopeless over an extended period of time. While boys are frequently more successful in taking their own lives, girls attempt suicide twice as often. These statistics show how affected our adolescent girls are by the emotions that fill them. Obviously they do not have the coping strategies that are necessary to avoid feeling overwhelmed by those emotions.
The statistics themselves are not important, what is important is the gravity of the situation. The students I teach do not care about the national statistics, they care about the number of friends they have lost to fights and jail, sisters that have been abused, friends that feel hopeless, and family members that attempted suicide. Everything that happens creates an emotion, the trick is to help students realize the emotion, and then decide how to best deal with it.
The purpose of the “Survivor” curriculum is two-fold. Students will improve their reading and writing skills while exploring the character traits exhibited by teenage characters in a variety of media. Students will have the opportunity to use reading as a means of recreational research. Some of the pressure typically associated with reading and writing assignments will be alleviated by not making the skill acquisition the primary focus of the lesson. Students will be able to experiment with different techniques without fear of ‘failing the test’. During the readings, students will investigate the characters’ traits, which will allow for discussion regarding the words and principles by which our school is run. Through these two foci, students will ultimately be able to transfer the knowledge of survivor traits to their own lives and create their own ‘survival’ story.
Throughout history writing has been used as a means of self-expression. People keep diaries and journals as a channel for emotional turbulence and as a way to work through and document issues in their lives. There is a reason that many people turn to writing as a coping mechanism. It is an allowable means of emotional outlet. One example of survival writing is the collection
, by Sara Shandler. The author wrote a letter to schools, summer programs, and youth organizations asking for teenage girls to write expressing their “voice”. Contributors had the opportunity to write on any topic that was important to them. The result was a collection written by adolescent females in journal and poem form, highlighting the important issues they face. Shandler wrote that the contributors “wrote to communicate, to heal themselves, and to help other girls.” (p XV) Writing as a means of survival incorporates these three functions. The survival feeling can come from simply communicating your story to a pertinent audience. This communication often helps in the healing process. In order to explain your story, first you must examine and understand it. The last part is to feel the strength gained from helping others who may be in a similar situation. Allowing your story to offer strength to another can be a cathartic experience. This curriculum will allow the participants to experience these three purposes through the creation of their own survival story.
Even though writing will be the primary form of expression, the curriculum will still be accessible to the students involved. Teens participating in the curriculum will find that it will be taught on an instructional reading level, rather than the frustration level they typically face in their classes. Selecting and presenting appropriate material on a variety of reading levels will help accomplish this. If something is to be used which is on a higher reading level than is comfortable for students, it will be supplemented with audio, read-a-louds, and play-acting to ensure all students are included in the comprehension.
The other reason teenagers will readily identify with the curriculum is because of the characters that have been chosen for analysis. The characters have been selected because they are teenagers dealing with issues my students can relate to. For instance, Ponyboy from
is a character that many students enjoy reading about. He expresses his insecurities, his troubles with friends, troubles with the other ‘group’ in town, his response to the troubles, and the ensuing issues that arise. Even though my students will not have the same issues, they will be able to relate because they have experienced their own frustrations and insecurities. By examining a selection of characters in a variety of media forms, students will be able to be involved in the curriculum to a larger degree.
After analyzing several fictional characters, students will begin to create a character for their own story. Students will ultimately work cooperatively to create a survivor story of their own, and will need to be able to create believable characters. They will have the opportunity to write their own story or to create a fictional character that deals with similar issues. Regardless of the path they choose for their final project, all students will need to start the process within themselves. The only way to true growth is to examine our weaknesses, deal with them, and then to move on.
The initial step to self-examination is creating a comfortable and safe setting to encourage open dialogue. Even with a close friend whom we frequently talk with, we may not be comfortable enough to truly examine ourselves. With our friends, we generally discuss other people. Sara Shandler wrote of her discussion with a best friend “We laughed about how we can speak objectively about anything, so long as we don’t have to attach a first-person pronoun to the discussion. Even then, with all of light-hearted criticism of our mutual aversion to the word ‘I’, we didn’t disclose much about ourselves in the next few hours. Instead, we talked about Rachel” (p 11). In order to be successful, the curriculum discussion will begin with the third person pronoun and after analytical skills are acquired, move to the first person. We will critically examine the characters and their methods of coping with issues, then bridge to our lives and situations.
Topics of Discussion
Teenagers face many issues. Some may affect them personally, some come second hand. When I think back on my high school days, the biggest problem that I recall my peers and me dealing with is relationships. Instead of looking at that topic however, I realize now that it is the social issues that are occurring around that relationship that are creating the problems with the relationship. This curriculum will allow students to explore issues they feel affect their own lives. While this curriculum will be driven by the students’ needs, the five main issues we will focus on are racism, family, violence, school, and the future.
Racism. Bigotry. Prejudice. Intolerance. Bias. These are words that unfortunately still have a place in our society. Students deal with the effects of intolerant behavior on a daily basis. In conversations with my students, I have found they feel they are targets of the ‘cop persecution’ phenomena. As black males they believe that everyone expects them to be carrying weapons and to be dealing drugs. Students have learned about the civil rights movement, know famous names like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and Frederick Douglas, but conversations typically stop there. This would give students a forum to discuss the different forms of racism they see today and the effects it has on their lives.
In addition to racism, we will also address family relationships. The saying “You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them” accurately applies to family. The typical family today has changed radically from a few generations ago. According to the Census Bureau’s March Current Population Survey (2002), only 7% of households consist of the traditional ‘family’ (parents married, only father working, mother home with children). Most of my students live in a house with only one parent, a grandparent, an aunt, or an older sibling raising them. Most parents work, which means students are forced to take on more responsibility around the house, often times are home alone, and do not always have someone checking up on them. This is all in addition to the typical family power struggles that happen when teenagers begin their struggle for independence. Despite of the struggles that may erupt, family is often the anchor for many students. They credit their success to the special person in their family that supported them. ‘Your momma’ jokes get people riled up for a reason. When mom is the one that sacrificed to raise the family, frequently there is a very strong bond between mother and child. Good or bad, family is often the focus of many stories from teenage years.
In addition to family, another major area of a student’s day can involve time hanging out with friends. For many of my students this camaraderie occurs after school on the street. This brings forth another issue. According to statistics today, the crime rate is up. The Social Health and Assessment Survey of New Haven found that 22% of students reported bringing a blade, knife or gun to school. According to this study 36% of adolescents in New Haven have experienced a violent act against them. In 1994, 46% of teens in New Haven reported having seen someone be shot or shot at. In 1995 28% of adolescent deaths in our town were homicides. While these statistics are up around the country, they are particularly problematic in our town. As much as we would like to ignore this problem and hope it goes away, it needs to be confronted. As a teacher I must deal with the issue of increasing violence in my students’ lives before I can instruct them on proper grammar usage. While statistics show that not all students are personally impacted by the increasing violence, by talking to my students I feel that most of them have a story of a cousin or friend that was gunned down.
Students spend an average of 6 hours a day in school and an average of 8 hours per day at Hyde. Anything that takes up a quarter or a third of every day is bound to have a strong effect. Students hear questions demanding them to figure out their future. Teachers often ask them to acknowledge the importance of the subject course they are teaching. For some students the pressure is to achieve high grade point averages to enable acceptance to a good college. Other students struggle with the pressure of achieving passing grades in their high school courses. Regardless of what their individual struggle is, education plays a major role in students’ life.
The last topic, which follows directly from the other 4 topics, is the future. Thoughts of the future weigh heavily on most peoples’ minds. For teenagers the pressure may be even more. Teenagers are at a critical point when decisions they make can affect the rest of their lives. Some teenagers already feel that it is too late for them to change. Some teenagers are not thinking of the future at all. Some teenagers are very focused on the future, but feel powerless to control their destiny. We will examine the characters’ traits and will discuss how their actions affect their future.