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Students and families are important co-creators of the school culture and climate. Furthermore, the way we approach discipline is a critical part of building a happy and more unified school community. I believe this because after thirty five years of being involved with educational institutions as a student, teacher, administrator, and parent, I have experienced first hand the effect that discipline policies can have on student and staff behavior. I have seen some discipline practices push students and parents away to the point of students dropping out, and I have also seen how positive modeling and joy-based practices really impact students. They bring students, parents, and schools closer and more in sync.
I could talk about many aspects of discipline, school culture, and climate, such as behavior management practices, community engagement, positive modeling, and professional development. I would like to highlight positive modeling. When I was the director and lead teacher of a preschool day camp and summer camp, I employed positive modeling all the time and asked all teachers and parent helpers to do the same. I knew that the behavior and energy of the adults in a learning community really impacts the children's demeanor and actions. For example, in my camps we intentionally engaged in humor and comedy throughout the day. We did not get melodramatic about anything and kept things light. The children caught on to this way of being and our most outspoken students found an easy outlet for expression and communicating their needs, even if it was through a humorous pantomime, a very powerful comedic arts tool that I taught them. This avoided countless problems since tantrums and dramatic face-offs with students became almost non-existent. Many situations were neutralized easily through a lighthearted demeanor, compassion, and humor. This, in turn, developed a depth of friendships and trust between the teachers, parents, and students of my camps. Disciplinary actions became a rare last resort because with positive modeling and a side of lightheartedness and humor, I saw very few behavioral problems that needed "disciplining." It was amazing that in all the years that I ran my camps, we did not have one single suspension or expulsion.
Educational Uses of Technology
I believe that recent advances in the use of technological tools represent a great opportunity for education, especially with regards to second language instruction, creativity, and storytelling. I believe this because I have used iPads for over 8 years with preschool through eighth grade students to teach Spanish and develop their creative expression skills. I have seen how technology engages the students even more and seen even the shyest of students open up when they get a chance to create videos, interactive ebooks, and stories.
There are many areas of educational technology I could talk about, such as software tools, equipment, integrative learning systems, and multimedia integration, to name a few. For this blog post, I would like to talk about multimedia integration. Multimedia integration is a very effective way to elicit storytelling and creative expression in children as young as three years old. In the AVENTURAS summer camp and preschool program that I produced for over eight years, students spent most of their time exploring, creating art, and playing. By giving them iPads to document (in Spanish) what they were learning, creating, or playing, they became even more engaged with using Spanish and expanding their vocabulary so they could express more sophisticated ideas or storylines. The act of documentation to have raw material for their multimedia projects help connect them to nature, their artwork or whatever they were doing even more, heping bridge the divide between the digital world and the real world.
Curriculum and Instruction
I believe curriculum and instruction is what is taught, how it is taught and the learning the learning environment in which it is taught. I believe most traditional schools still have a lot to learn and incorporate from progressive educational philosophies. My belief is informed by years of seeing children respond positively to curriculum and instruction practices that are informed by philosophies such as Gardners' Multiple Intelligence Theory, applied learning, place-based education, outdoor education, peace education, immersion education, and service learning. There are many areas of curriculum and instruction that I could talk about. Learning standards, differentiated planning, assessments, and learning activities, to name just a few. In this blog post, I would like to discuss learning activities, specifically, an activity known as homework.
In many schools, homework is considered an important learning activity in order to teach responsibility, time management, and a way to review material from class. However, if put through a social-justice lens, homework is too often a source of unnecessary stress on students and overwhelmed families, especially low-income households. Homework is hurting at-risk students the most by not allowing them equal access to success in school as their middle and upper class peers. Thus, it is also a social justice issue because it is contributing to inequality. Students who cannot get homework done suffer from stigma and chronic stress because of it. Over time many start to identify as bad students and many eventually stop trying or caring. Homework may also be contributing to burnout and students dropping out of high school later in life. More and more research is being released about this and countries like Sweden have even banned it and their students outperform U.S. students on all subjects. Fortunately, more U.S. schools are paying attention to this hidden elephant in the room that was not addressed adequately in No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Community and Family Involvement
A school is in a unique position to not only bring community-members together, but to create community. I believe this because I have seen how community-integrated schools bring a community together and inspire civic engagement in students, which in turn, strengthens the community even more. There are many aspects of community and family involvement I could discuss, such as school events, opportunities for parent involvement, cross-cultural dynamics and more. For this blog post I would like to talk more about using the school to nurture and create community.
I witnessed an amazingly well executed community-building school in Costa Rica. The synergy between the school, parents, and greater community was such that the transition from school to after-school community life was seamless. Students got out of school at lunchtime and the school cafeteria (aka community kitchen), run by parents, served a meal for the greater community. Kids did not have to stay for lunch, but most did and sat alongside their teachers, farmers on break, school employees, elders out socializing, and town leaders, some of whom were their parents. After lunch, a community organizations or clubs would meet there and students would often stay to attend. Teachers gave school credit for participating in a community committee or becoming a town council member. It was fairly common for students as young as 12 to run for office or join community committees that used the school cafeteria. A community bank also operated out of the school, manned by students as part of an ongoing school project. It offered small loans to residents with eco-friendly entrepreneurial ideas. Administrative coordination, such garbage and maintenance were handled by parent-student committees. Disciplinary matters requiring more than teacher intervention were handled by a committee of parents who had been voted in along with the director and teacher.
This school was very effective at building and nurturing the parents and community, and in exchange, the community gave back a great deal to the school. The children were the ultimate beneficiaries of this. They were engaged, happy, and were learning applicable skills that also helped their family and community. Synergy at its finest.
Do No Harm
I cannot accept behaviors in my school community of someone intentionally hurting someone else. someone intentionally harm someone else in my school community. Children do this all the time because they are still learning interpersonal relations, but adults should know better. In the case of children, restorative practices can help children understand the impact and harm they caused someone else. But trained teachers and staff who intentionally or mindlessly hurt a student is another story and that is a red line for me.
Without honesty and a common baseline of moral principles, it is almost impossible to build a peaceful and inspiring learning community. A student catching a teacher in a lie can have profound impacts on that child's willingness to learn from and engage with that teacher as well as taint their reputation among the other children. A lying principal can have school-wide negative impacts on morale and their ability to be a transformational leader.
Merriam-Webster defines open mind as "a willingness to listen to or accept different ideas or opinions." This is a foundational value that allows teachers to really listen to and accept their students and their families perspectives, that allows the community as a whole to consider new best practices, and that allows for an inclusive and multicultural community to coexist in peace. It also is the foundation for being open to change. Clinging to the past or thinking "my way is the best way" is a recipe for stagnation and becoming irrelevant. It is a red line for me because lack of an open mind can cause real-life repercussions such as racism, within and outside of the school.
My Leadership Style
My leadership style is situational, but I rarely resort to authoritarianism because I believe deeply in win-win thinking and democratic leadership. I also identify as a servant to the community I lead. I have always seen myself as a facilitator, even when in positions of leadership or as a teacher.
Driven by my early passion for peace, I used my undergraduate studies in history and anthropology to study the common elements of peaceful multicultural societies. I concluded that some of these elements include multilingualism, economic equity, and ecological sustainability. Due to my mission-driven course work, I was honored as valedictorian and was placed on USA Today’s All-Arizona First Academic Team, which included a full tuition waiver to NAU and a congratulatory Proclamation by the Arizona governor, all of which gave me the self-confidence to move directly into a leadership position right after graduation.
I began my career as EL Coordinator for an Arizona school district right after ESL was banned. I designed and implemented new support services for EL students and teachers during a very disruptive time. I was also a member of the Yavapai County’s ELL Consortium, which advised the AZ Department of Education and co-created NAU teacher training modules on Sheltered English Immersion, the new alternative to ESL.
I then moved to Costa Rica and served as Senior Programs Director for a conservation organization. While there, I joined the Environmental Education Committee of a large municipality and helped establish their first recycling center and produce an eco-education campaign for their citizens. In addition, the Spanish International Cooperation Agency appointed me as an advisor for a group of young enterprising leaders who wanted to start sustainable enterprises on their family farms to wean off of ranching and logging. I provided them with mentoring, training, and seed funding. Before leaving Costa Rica, I also co-founded an educational camp and rainforest park, Three Seeds Camp, which has hosted over hundreds of youth groups, families and volunteers and which has provided over $200K in grants and pro-bono education programs to local schools and women’s groups.
In 2007, I started Conexiones Institute, initially just an outlet through which I could produce peace-education programs from home, since I had just had a baby. I took ECE classes to create an appropriate early childhood education program and got a home daycare license. As my first cohort grew older and my knowledge of childhood education grew, I piloted different programs. The AVENTURAS program received two gold badge awards from Best of Parent’s Press and the Spanish through the Arts program was requested by dozens of different sites. In the first 8 years, I trained 15 educators and we produced over 11,000 hours of bilingual education experiences for over 700 Bay Area children in over a dozen schools, daycares, and cultural centers. Yet, I was constantly turning children and sites away because of scalability limitations under the home-based business model I began with. Hence, Conexiones programs are on pause while I finish a master’s in educational leadership at SDSU that will provide me with the peer review, knowledge, and mentorship I need to take this peacebuilding social enterprise to the next level.
My Personal Story
I believe all children deserve to live in a joyful, healthy, prosperous and peaceful world because the opposite is strife, war and suffering, something that must be avoided at all costs. I witnessed the 1980's civil war in El Salvador and its aftermath. I saw the horrors of war and have seen the endless cycle of awful circumstances, radicalism and violence it has engendered. I see how the same can be said for Israel/Palestine, Irak, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and the other places where violence and war has broken out. This cycle of suffering is extremely hard, if not impossible, to stop once it has begun and it leads to the degeneration of humanity to an unspeakable level and endless problems and even global impacts. We must do all we can to prevent a really bad situation from unfolding at the root.
Joy, health, prosperity and peaceful coexistence with each other and the natural world are ideals that may never be achieved 100%, but they are worth pursuing in order to neutralize the root causes of strife and instead, bring joy, abundance and love to each other. I believe most people prefer joy over misery, regardless of background. There are many proven and tried ways that have been used by past and present societies and micro communities to have more joy, health, prosperity and peaceful coexistence with each other and the natural world. And in all of the models I have studied, education plays a key role.
Therefore, education may not be able to save the world from all of its problems, but educators can help children develop the soft and hard skills to better navigate it joyfully and be co-creators of a more just, sustainable and prosperous world. Through intentional experiences early in life and experiences that connect them with their inner selves, nature, their community and each other, we can help them avoid falling into the darker sides of rage, revenge, pain, fear, victimhood, exploitation, greed, selfishness, inequality, bigotry, fanaticism, racism and all the other -isms that contribute to social and ecological strife, suffering and ultimately, in too many cases, horrible war.
All children deserve to live in a joyful, healthy, prosperous and peaceful world. Dewey believed that the business of education is to "train children in co-operative and mutually helpful living" - in other words, to help them to live peacefully in community. I agree with Dewey because the ability and motivation to connect, co-exist and equitably cooperate with others (cross-culturally), are some of the most important inner skills we can help children develop and master for lifelong success in today's world. They, along with other 21st Century skills like creativity and humor, are the foundation for further learning, healthy interpersonal growth and the ability to thrive and be a happy member of a larger society throughout their lives.