Monday, July 25, 2011

The Situation: Why Do Students Sometimes Act Out in Class?

Duquan from "The Wire"
If you have not yet seen the television show, "The Wire," add it to your Netflix que and watch it. If you want to know what youth who are living in under-served urban communities are facing, this show will give you a good sense as to what some of their day to day lives are like. Pay close attention to Season 4 and 5, which focuses on a group of boys who attend a Baltimore public school. The entire series will provide you with a good context for these two seasons and I would highly recommend spending a few months watching "The Wire" from beginning to end. It's a great show!

Namond from "The Wire"
As a Health Educator working in the Camden, NJ middle schools, I can tell you that the things that happened in Mr. Prez-bo's class in Season 4, also happened in my classes. Nothing too extreme happened, but there were certainly incidents that made me realize I would have to be a little more creative to reach the students. Sometimes, a few of my classes felt a bit out of control, but that does not go to say that all of them felt that way. I had some amazing classes that were a pleasure to teach.

What sparked this blog post idea was that I recently found a letter a student wrote to me for disrupting my class. I don't remember the specific incident or the student, but it sounded like she got in trouble for taking another student's pen. Here is what she wrote:

Students from "The Freedom Writers" Movie
"Ms. LeBeau, I applogize for interupting your class. I just did not deserve to get blamed for a "pen." That was a very stupid thing to get blamed for. I was not having a good day but I was waiting for your class so I could just unwind and let all my stress go. But I had to worry about a pen. That was one of my best friends. She must have thought I was disrespecting her but I was not. She have been through a lot every time I argue I think about her and her situation. I did not mean to disrupt your class, I just had alot of bottled up anger and emotions inside. I did not mean to let that out in her class but I could not take any more."

This letter taught me that it wasn't me, the class, the material we were learning, etc. that made this student act out. She clearly had a bad day and her friend was going through some tough times. What do you think her friend's situation was? What can be done to help students stay focused in school when students are dealing with some complex issues?

The friend's situation could have been anything from normal adolescent issues to something more serious like an unintended pregnancy, death of a friend or family member, stress from poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, or some other sort of problems at home or in the community.

To help students who are dealing with a complex issue, teachers should be sensitive and aware of the challenges that students may face. Teachers can also encourage students to talk to others trusted adults at school like a guidance counselor, school social worker, nurse, and other appropriate support staff. In the classroom, it is important to make learning fun and engaging for the students.

For some more tips, watch Season 4 of "The Wire," and see how Mr. Prez-bo learned to connect with his students and make learning fun for students who were dealing with complex issues.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Books That Inspire Me

I just finished reading two very inspirational books, The Freedom Writers Diary and Teach With Your Heart: Lessons I Learned From the Freedom Writers. They're both about teens, education, and change.

In the mid-90s, Erin Gruwell, a young white women in her twenties, used innovative techniques to teach a group of at-risk youth in Long Beach, California. The teens she taught were from all different cultural backgrounds and most lived in neighborhoods where crime, gang violence, poverty, drugs, and teen pregnancy were the norm.

Erin's goal was to teach to the students, not to standardized tests. She encouraged many of them to put down their guns and fists and pick up a pen. She created a family like atmosphere in her classroom, room 203, and did a fabulous job of reaching her students and inspired change in even her toughest students. Using themes about racism and tolerance, she brought peace to her classroom in a community where an undeclared gang war had broken out.

One of my favorite parts of their story is when Maria, a tough Latina student who previously wore an ankle bracelet as part of her probation, stood up during the toast for change and said, "I don't want to be pregnant by the time I'm fifteen like my mother. I don't want to spend the rest of my life behind bars like my father. And I don't want to be six feet under by the time I turn eighteen like my cousin. I want to change!"

After reading the books, Erin Gruwell has become my role model. I can relate to her in many ways and we've shared some similar experiences working with teens. I truly admire her ways of building rapport and trust with her students and I plan on continuing to build those same types of relationships with my teen clients. I hope to inspire change in my clients as well by meeting them where they're at and having hope in each and every one of them, even the hard to reach clients. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Cost of Teenage Pregnancy

If you enjoy learning about teen pregnancy prevention, check out The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy's blog called "Pregnant Pause".

Today, the National Campaign posted about how much teen childbearing costs us in public spending. Would you believe that as a nation we are spending 10.9 million dollars on teen pregnancy? And this does not include the cost of what we spend to assist teen parents in child-rearing.

It would cost us less money to fund more comprehensive sexuality health education programs, which would reduce the number of teen pregnancies. What can we do to convince our government that sex ed programs are valuable to everybody?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

5 Ways to Advocate for Teen Pregnancy Prevention

Greetings Choice Readers! Today is the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. As you may already know, the only 100% way to prevent pregnancy is through abstinence. However, there are ways to reduce the risk of an unplanned pregnancy and the best first choice for teens is proper condom use with Emergency Contraception as a back up method. These methods are not always accessible to teens though. What can we do as adults to make these options easier for teens to obtain? They can become advocate for any (or all) of the following 5 suggestions.

1. Make comprehensive sexuality education in schools mandatory. Research has shown that Abstinence-only education programs are not effective. They do not provide students with a plan in case they do decide to engage in sexual activity. A good sexuality education program should be engaging, interactive, and age-appropriate. It would also include topics on goal-setting, self-esteem, healthy relationships, puberty and reproductive anatomy, decision making, abstinence, STIs, birth control, and proper condom use.

2. Parents should have open and honest conversations about sexuality with their child throughout his or her childhood--not just "the talk." This builds trust and comfort for both the child and parent(s) in discussing sexuality. There are also books such as The Bare Naked Truth by Kathy Stinson, It's So Amazing, It's Perfectly Normal, The Period Book, What's Going On Down There? that would be terrific ways to supplement conversations. Frequent, smaller talks will make the safe sex & condom talk less awkward when the child is a teenager.

3. High Schools (and some middle schools, depending on the district's rate of teen pregnancy) should make condoms accessible through the school nurse. This also includes having a nurse who is sex positive, not one who is judgmental. Many adults think this may mean that schools are condoning sex. I disagree, especially because at some schools teens can take pregnancy tests. Having condoms available will reduce the risk of the need for pregnancy tests. This is a no-brainer.

4. Pharmacies, supermarkets, and convenient stores should not have condoms locked in a cabinet or behind the counter. Do they really think teens are going to steal them? Or are they just trying to make an awkward purchase even more awkward? Perhaps the moralistic manager will simply decide a teen is too young to use condoms. This is not okay! Customers don't need to be of a certain age to buy condoms.

5. There should not be an age limit for obtaining Emergency Contraception (EC) over the counter.   EC is a last resort in preventing pregnancy. Mistakes happen, otherwise it wouldn't also be called Plan B. There is no reason why a teen shouldn't be able to get this back-up method of birth control over the counter, just like everyone else over the age of 17.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why is family planning education important to teen moms?

Many adults may think that once a teen has gotten pregnant, she learned from her mistake and therefore will not become pregnant during the rest of her teenage years. Although this is true for some young moms, the reality is it is not true for all pregnant and parenting teenage mothers. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, "nearly one-quarter of teen mothers have a second birth before age 20."

From July 2008 to March 2010, I provided case management and life skills education to approximately 80 pregnant and parenting teenagers in Camden, NJ. 26 of those teen moms had more than 1 child & 6 out the 26 mothers had 3 children. Keep in mind, these numbers do not reflect any other unintended pregnancies, which resulted in miscarriage or abortion. All of the mothers were under the age of 21.  

Family planning education is just as important for parenting teens as it is for non-parenting teens. Any program that provides services to young moms should also consider implementing a family planning component. If that is not an option, I would highly recommend that the program bring in a trained sexuality health educator or staff should encourage clients to discuss family planning with their ob/gyn provider. By taking these steps, the program can:

1. Help teen moms decide if and when they want to have another baby. The teen moms can then begin to formulate a plan as to how they will prevent pregnancy until they're ready.
2. Reduce the effects of poverty on the family.
3. Help her set more attainable goals for her and her family, which can lead to self-sufficiency.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Teenager fakes pregnancy as part of her senior project

Gaby Rodriquez, a 17 year old high school senior, created an amazing experiment for her "Stereotypes, Rumors, and Statistics Project." She decided, with the support of her school's principal, superintendent, mother, boyfriend, and a few others, to fake a pregnancy for 6 months as a class project.

So what did Gaby learn from this? Pregnant teens often feel alienated from their friends, alone, and ashamed. Even though she wasn't pregnant, Gaby felt this way because of what other people had to say, such as "She's irresponsible," "she won't be able to go to college," "it was bound to happen," "I knew she was going to get pregnant," and even "she ruined her life."

Now that the project is over, she plans on sharing her findings with community leaders to provide better support for pregnant teens. Gaby made the difficult decision to spend almost her entire senior year of high school "pregnant" in order to shed light on teen pregnancy and I'm really looking forward to learning more from her research.

For more information about Gaby's story, click here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Don't Take It Personally: How to Adjust Your Mindset When Working with Challenging At-risk Youth

Over the years, I have learned that many at-risk youth bring their own personalities, experiences, motives, etc. with them when they are in a program. You never know what type of client you are going to end up with, which certainly makes things exciting, interesting, and challenging.

At first, you take time to get to know your teen clients and build a rapport with them. You don't really know them in the beginning, but you start  to get a sense that you're making some sort of positive impact in their lives...or at least you hope that you are! Then, some of them throw you a curve ball.

When I was new to the direct service field, I would get upset when my clients didn't follow through on important tasks that would help them reach their goals. Or even worse, I'd get frustrated and angry if I felt like I was being played. I would think to myself, "how could they do this to me? I'm here to help them meet their goals."

Looking back, I noticed this was a bit self-centered. Once I realized what was going on, I adjusted my attitude to better understand my clients. I learned how to not take their attitudes, moods, and behaviors personally. Like everybody, they've had their own life experiences which shape them AND they continue to have experiences simultaneously while they're in the program. When you take all of this into account, as a professional, you can be more realistic about your expectations of the program participants. Your expectations should still be high, but make them reasonable and attainable for the teens. The "pick yourself up by your boot strap" mentality does not always work. Be there to guide them and know that they won't always follow through. The important thing to remember is that you must have a good relationship already set in place to encourage them to get over whatever it is stopping them from getting to the next level.

It's your choice as to how you handle challenging clients. My advice is to not take what they say, do, or don't do personally. At the end of the day, it has nothing to do with you.