Action/Overreaction

teachertrainingHere it comes.  This is just one story of what I’ve seen beginning to happen across the country since the Newtown, CT.  shootings.

Gun advocates to give classes to teach teachers how to come to school armed:

Ohio-based Buckeye Firearms Foundation has launched an Armed Teacher Training curriculum to offer gun training to teachers and school workers. According to Ohio’s Fox 19, “As of Wednesday, the Armed Teacher Training Program has attracted more than 600 applicants from several states including Ohio, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.” More than one-third of the 600 applicants are female.

I am wondering if any of these gun training applicants have taken time to be aware of the ramifications of coming to school packing a firearm each and every day?  This is not the same thing as bringing a laptop or iPad, or making some other teaching tool is available and accessible for the day, although advocates for arming teachers are trying to make this argument.  This choice carries something into a schoolhouse that can make a significant difference in how a teacher approaches the day in his or her classroom.  It also forces us to truly consider the real likelihood of a school shooting occurring in any given day.

I am the worst type of person to be doing this type of math, but you start to wonder if this could be quantified as some sort of rate of expectations with respect to the likelihood of a school shooting occurring on a given public school campus at a given time.  Consider that there have been 31 school shootings since Columbine.  Over 13 years (1999-2012), that’s roughly 2.3 school shootings per year.  If you then take the number of public schools across the United States, 98,817 (as of 2009-2010), and divide 2.3/98,817, the statistical insignificance of the resulting number calls into question this sudden fear of violent gun-related terrorists coming onto our campuses.  There seems to be a more reasonable and rational fear of preparing California school campuses for a major earthquake, given that the likelihood of a major 6.7+ temblor striking the Greater Los Angeles area is far higher than that of a school shooter arriving on a given campus.

But my fuzzy math also doesn’t take into account the fact that an mentally unbalanced individual who decides to shoot up a school will be far less stable and unpredictable than the various faults and geographic terrain factors in the Southern California area.  It is that very unpredictability that is undoubtedly behind this sudden desire for fearful teachers to start packing.  Would it therefore help?

Since the days after the Newtown shootings, another argument I’ve seen expressed, involves some sort of assault weapon fantasy involving Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochprung, and how arming her would have ended Adam Lanza’s life before he had a chance to take the lives of the Sandy Hook students and staff members:

[L]et’s assume that if part of Hochsprung’s job were to protect the school from an armed assault, she would have to be trained in counter-attack tactics. She would have wanted to wear body armor. She would have wanted to clean and fire her M-4 regularly, to make sure it was ready to go at a second’s notice in the highly highly unlikely event that the school was attacked. And she would have somehow trained herself to remain on high alert every hour of every day for all the years and decades that she worked as a teacher and administrator, all the while also being an excellent educator and manager.
And then, the morning of the attack, Hochsprung would have had to have reacted perfectly — hearing the gunfire and shattered glass from her conference room, unslinging the M-4, releasing the safety, crawling silently toward the door of the conference room, and then taking aim at a highly alert gunman and shooting him in the head before the gunman noticed that she was there or had fired a single bullet at anyone.
(In other words, she would have to assassinate Adam Lanza on the assumption that he was there to kill kids, and not wait for him to do it. Or was she supposed to wait for him to kill someone, on the theory that he might just be a dime-a-dozen crazy person who didn’t actually intend to kill anyone? There are lots of those, too.)

In other words, Hochsprung would have had to have acted and reacted like a soldier in a war zone. All day. Every day. For decades.  

Are these 600 applicants prepared to act and react militarily, all while maintaining the appropriate empathy and understanding for the very idiosyncratic nature of what we teachers do with our students in a classroom each and every day?

Even if these teachers have the capability to do their jobs and that of an armed constabulary:

There is no evidence indicating that arming Americans further will help prevent mass shootings or reduce the carnage, says Dr. Stephen Hargarten, a leading expert on emergency medicine and gun violence at the Medical College of Wisconsin…

Armed civilians attempting to intervene are actually more likely to increase the bloodshed, says Hargarten, “given that civilian shooters are less likely to hit their targets than police in these circumstances.” A chaotic scene in August at the Empire State Building put this starkly into perspective when New York City police officers confronting a gunman wounded nine innocent bystanders.

But back to this fantasy of arming Principal Hochsprung, even then, that wouldn’t be enough.  The entire school should be armed:

And what if Hochsprung had been on the other side of the building when the attacker shot through the door? Principals do, occasionally, leave the vicinity of the front door.

Well, to eliminate that risk, Gohmert and others who want to keep giving almost all citizens unlimited access to military weapons will presumably want to arm every teacher and employee at the school. So they’ll all walk around all day with M-4s and bullets strapped to their shoulders. And they will all have to be trained and act and react in precisely the same way — all without someone ever making a mistake and shooting a kid instead of a bad guy.

And, in the rare event of a school shooting, in the ensuing chaos, would police officers know who to shoot?

Sadly, calm reassurance was the one consistent component that my daughter’s school district hoped to convey to its parents and students in the days immediately following the Sandy Hook shootings.  It was what I tried to do with my own classroom of kids.  Calm and reason, rather than irrational fear, should be how we moved forward from such a terrible experience.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t play into the minds of those people who have manufactured some sort of post-Newtown gun revenge fantasy wherein the staff members rise up and take out Adam Lanza before he can take them out.  Weaponry apparently trumps calm reassurance.

In the end though, it reminds me of one of my students, years ago, whose mother chose not to allow him to go on a overnight school field trip to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point in the weeks after 9/11, because of her real fear of a terrorist attack occurring there.  While I don’t necessarily mean to belittle her decision to not allow E. to go with us, I was left wondering how the Institute would have moved so high up Al Qaeda’s list of high-profile targets.  Seeing teachers fleeing to gun training classes calls to mind how I felt then.  We’ve allowed the fear to overtake our reason.  We should know better.  Teachers, who must incorporate rationality into their lesson planning, should be even more aware of this than anyone.

The real terrorism is not from forces outside, but rather inside of all of us.

Meanwhile, on Board the Kobayashi Maru

My efforts to win at the no-win scenario

“War is over, we don’t need your help.  America is making war on itself…” — Bono, during a U2 performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky“, Boston 2001

duckandcover

I am old enough to remember how “Duck-and-Cover” was supposed to protect my elementary school classmates and I from a Soviet nuclear attack.

Now my students are old enough to “Duck and Cover” to protect themselves from an American attacking their school…

From today’s New York Times Opinionator, Sara Mosle:

 …because every few months, my daughter’s school, like others across the country, conducts a “lockdown” drill to prepare for a school shooting. A coded message comes over the loudspeaker indicating that there’s an intruder, most likely armed and dangerous, in the building. My job as a teacher, now familiar to many Americans thanks to the procedures rehearsed and followed by the heroic educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is to rush the door, lock it, turn off the lights (to create the illusion of an empty classroom) and corral my students into a corner. There, out of sight, we practice huddling quietly as we would if an armed intruder were trying to shoot us through a doorway or window.

This past Wednesday, as it was apparently at other elementary schools in the local area, including my own daughter’s school, it was “Lockdown” day.

On Tuesday, my grade level team met for the first time since the Newtown shootings.  Lockdown procedures, rather than our IB curriculum, become the topic of concern.  As often happens with epic-level disasters or circumstances, they only become a topic of importance after they happen, rather than before.  As a new teacher at this school, I am admittedly unfamiliar with the procedures, and I need help in learning what’s appropriate at this school site.  At my old school, with its stand-alone classroom, my choices were self-explanatory with respect to a Lockdown.  (Of course, my final 2 years there were spent in a trailer that could have been at home after Hurricane Katrina.  Given its thin walls, and its isolated position on the outskirts of the campus, I could see little protection that it might have provided my students.)  But at my new school, with its remants of 1970s pod design, the classrooms open up to a central community area, and the school is split between the upper and primary grade areas, as well as a pod for the administration and the kindergarteners.  We are effectively cut off from each other in the event of some sort of emergency.

Says a colleague, K., who has the room next to mine, and whose classroom overlooks the parking lot and is the most exposed, “I think they were on acid when they designed the school.”

My reply, “Well, it was the ’70s.”

Still, she is worried about the ability to see into her classroom during a lockdown, even with the lights turned off.  At my team meeting the day before, I expressed the same worry, as my teammates and I discussed the timeline of the Newtown shootings, wondering if the various offices and storage rooms scattered along the periphery of the classroom pods were accessible to us with our keys, and therefore could be locked.  Reflecting up on how students, teachers, and staff, were able to find hiding places at Sandy Hook Elementary in such smaller rooms, we reach a grade level agreement to move our kids into the storage rooms and offices in the event of a lockdown.  I bring up the idea that we need to “buy” time in the event of such a situation, that the longer it would take for students to be “found”, the better chance local law enforcement would have to get to the school to intervene.

My colleagues’ keys work the doors to the storage room which sits between them.  Later on, I am reassured to find that my key will open the RSP room immediately next to my classroom.  Unfortunately, we are only 3 classrooms of 75 students, as well as ourselves, there is still a need to find such an evacuation spot for the SDC class, 2 4th grade classrooms, and 3 6th grades.  Given that this lockdown is meant to find out how we stand with respect to emergency procedures though, we set aside our initial concerns about trying to find places for everyone, until we know it works for our own classroom of kids.

So on Wednesday morning, before my students arrive, I spend a few moments with my 4th grade colleagues, who have the rooms closest to me, to find out what they’re planning on doing.  Both pretty much agree that there’s little they plan on doing beyond “ducking and covering”, because there’s not many places they can move towards.  I point out that with the lights out and quiet children, from the outside, the temporary wall between our classrooms does provide some cover when viewed from the outside.  K., who has that classroom closest to the school parking lot, and with 2 windows that can be used to enter the room, realizes there’s a corner where she can move her kids to hide them from anyone  looking in.  I suggest that later, after we’re done, we try to see if curtains are an option.  My 5th grade colleagues both have curtains on their room themselves, while I am using some posters.  Still, at this point, I move outside myself, switch off the classoom lights and try to see what it might look like from the outside looking in.  There are areas where children sit where enough ambient light, even on an overcast morning, allows someone to see in even with the lights out.  I make the decision to have that student move into the far corner during “duck and cover”.

Nevertheless, I ask myself if “Duck and Cover” would truly be that effective if a potential shooter choose to enter the school through my door or window.  Rather than immediately question that, I decide it best to follow directions during this drill, in order to question the choice later on, if necessary.  My aide comes in, at this point, and I brief him about the procedures we will follow.

When I go to pick up the students, as they try to settle in, I immediately cut off the usual insouciance, in order to explain the lockdown procedures the class will follow when it starts.  I move from the known to unknown.  Most of these kids have matriculated only through this elementary school, but it being the east side of my school district, rather than the west side, I wonder if these kids even know what a lockdown was.

“How many of you have been through a lockdown drill at this school?”

None raise their hands.  I find out later that lockdowns have been held in the past, but these kids apparently don’t remember it.

“How many even know what a lockdown is?”

My girl from Norwalk, a boy from Bell Gardens and another from Hawaiian Gardens, all raise their hand.  The other kids, local area lifers, are still silent.  I explain the lockdown and what it usually means.  Normally, in the area, it’s because the local sheriff deputies are out searching for a suspect in a local crime.  We can still function normally, more or less, in such a situation.  But today is more about the events in Connecticut.  While I have avoided getting specific about details about Sandy Hook, I do get specific now, not to scare the kids, per se, but to explain to them the “why” of what we will do.  I work very hard at trying to remain calm, and my usual casual humor is replaced by a more serious tone.  I want this to go well.   The principal then comes on over the intercom and reiterates a great deal of what I had already told the kids.  I am hoping that the kids will get the message to treat this with some measure of seriousness.

When the lockdown finally happens, I actually find my hands shaking as I deliver the instruction to get under the desks, and I head over and turn out the lights.  So far so good, but slowly, order starts to break down.  One kids bangs his head accidentally on one of the desk legs.  Others giggle, as they are wont to do during earthquake drills, without heeding my request for as much quiet as they can muster.

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. — Blaise Pascal

I strive to do my best to not raise my voice as move to the next step, getting the kids into the RSP office.  I try to walk around the room in those areas where it is darkest, and I ask the kids to start to crawl, in the dark into the RSP room.  Still, several of my students are determined that they have to provide a vocal soundtrack to the drill.  My kids move quickly enough to crawl into the RSP office, and I make a mental note about a couple of my students who backed out into the area of the room still lit from outside light, to remind them to move forward under the desk to crawl rather than backwards.

But my aide is getting frustrated as he positions himself at the RSP office door to help guide the student inside.  Unlike myself, he is naturally softspoken, but I can see him getting frustrated by the increasing noise level coming out of the RSP office.  My goal was try to hide the kids in the office, but with their inability to pipe down, they’ve done nothing but make themselves even more conspicuous.  It is all I can do to not throw propriety to the wind and not yell at them to shut up.  At this point, the principal, moving through our building to check on statuses, comes by and quietly tries to hush the kids’ giggling and talking.  He leaves, my aide and I are dumbfounded when the talking and laughing continue, especially when I see one boy light up his watch because he has to see what the time was.

Mosle:

During these drills, my students are often visibly anxious because they’re afraid of guns and don’t and can’t know if the exercise is just a precaution. We behave as if the alarm were real because it could be real, and so we can become accustomed to remaining calm during a crisis. My students hug one another and exchange nervous glances as we crouch on the floor and I silently mouth words of comfort. Someone begins to whisper until another student hisses, “Shhhhhh,” so any gunman wouldn’t be able to hear us. Our principal goes around checking doors in the eerily quiet hallways to see if teachers have followed protocol, and when he jiggles our doorknob, several students start as if in a horror movie.

My students, for their part, are far from anxious, because there are enough who couldn’t process what “quietly” even means.

When the lockdown is over, the kids head back to their desks.  I should debrief, but at this point, I’m looking for seriously methaphorical blood.

I ask T. why he was looking at his watch.  He replies that he needed to know what time it was, clueless that he belongs to me until 2:15 pm anyway.

I ask D. why he thought the whole procedure was so funny.  All he can do is shrug his shoulders.

S. starts to complain that someone was touching his butt when he looked out the office window, even though there was no compelling reason to look out the window if the point was to hide.  My class cynic, G., sarcastically retorts that if S. doesn’t want his butt touched, he shouldn’t look out the office window.  (G.’s internalized the Cause-and-Effect lesson I taught earlier this year.)

I am frustrated.  My principal enters shortly afterwards and starts to ream the students out himself.  He is not happy.  I can see this stuff rolling downhill to me and I want to get out of the way, but can’t.  He makes it a point that not only could he hear my students from outside, he could tell where they were based on the amount of noise they were making.

“Perfect practice makes perfect execution”, he leaves them.

I ream them again, because they’ve gotten reamed by the principal.

Later, as we debrief the fiasco in the RSP office, my colleague rustles my jimmies by suggesting it was a classroom management issue.  I consider, for a moment, ritual suicide to save face.  I find my principal, who’s resumed his normal rounds, and apologize for my class’ behavior.  Inappropriate humor or not, I volunteer that my kids and I would be willing to distract a shooter in real life.  But still, with tensions being as it was, I don’t relish the idea that 1/3 of my students don’t fully comprehend the criticality of making themselves as inconspicuous as they possibly can, which includes putting a muzzle on their insatiable need to conduct a running commentary during a drill that’s meant to be done in near-total silence.

When the kids return from their enrichment classes, I try to tear a new one out of what’s left of them for having been called out by another teacher.  But I stop myself.  I point out the ultimate need for such an exercise.  The state has entrusted their safety to well-being to me, and my responsibility is to keep them in a safe setting to the fullest extent that I can.  And when they choose not to follow instructions, they put not just themselves at risk, but also their classmates, and the rest of the school.  I point out what I had shared with my grade level team the previous day, that the point of the drill was to see how long we could last in silent hiding. Sadly, that’s not what had gone down.

I then praise one of my boys, who is normally chatty, distracted, and moving constantly throughout the room, as probably the one kid who “got it”.  L. tells me that he treated the exercise like a game of “Soldier” (I call it “Army Guy”, but most boys seem to gravitate to it at some point in childhood), and that he wanted to be as quiet as he could, just as if he had been playing that game.

I remark that the kids might have done better during the drill had they decided to treat it as they might a game of hide-and-seek.  But then, I back off, and reassure them that I can better keep them safe if they understand that in any emergency situation, since as fifth graders, they should start to know better by now, to listen absolutely to my instructions.  They owe that to themselves, as well as their parents.  I tell them that they have to trust in me just like my daughter Kate has to trust in her kindergarten teacher, or the kids and parents in the classroom of V.’s mom (who teaches in Long Beach USD) have to trust in her.  Then, I move on to what was left of my instructional time, hoping that today’s morning lesson, while painful, would sink in.

Finally Mosle:

After the lockdown drills are over, I try to reassure my students that their classrooms are unlikely to be overtaken by armed attackers. I do a short lesson on probability and the very remote chance that any of them will ever be involved in such an incident.

That evening, I arrive on Kate’s campus to pick her up.  Unlike my school, which is surrounded by a chain link fence around all the buildings, her district’s schools are wide open around the classroom.  It is not unlike the way in which schools were in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up in that same area when I was in elementary school.   I wonder what could happen on such a campus.  As we walk out, I ask her about her day.  She volunteers that they had a lockdown drill at school.

Then, perfectly, Kates recites, in her remarkable ability to mimic what she hears, exactly what her lockdown instructions had been from her teacher.

Even my kindergartner had been better at a Lockdown drill than I had been.

 

Outside is America

mockingbird-by-kathryn-erskineAs much as I would like to avoid the Facebook postings today, the news about the Connecticut school shootings was unavoidable, as was the subsequent philosophical split between those who don’t want to “politicize” the tragedy and those who view events like today as a time in which we have no choice but to turn to politics.

Politics is, after all, by definition, the act in which we come to decisions as to how we want to govern our country.  When 26 die, including 20 children, certainly, the government failed in its overall intent to provide for the general welfare of those most in need of that provision.   At some point we need to have that discussion in our governmental and social processes.  Sadly though, we spend more time trying not to offend each other’s sensibilities in what must now, in my opinion, become an essential national conversation.  The can gets kicked down the road again.

But that’s not what’s got me on my soapbox.  Of bigger concern today was how I was supposed to have any sort of measured discussion and explain this to my students, 5th graders. I am growing weary, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Arizona, the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Aurora, followed by this week’s bookending by the Oregon shooter and today’s heartbreaking events in Connecticut.  I am growing weary because it’s getting difficult for me to be as unbiased about any explanation over either the subject of school shootings and/or the Second Amendment as my training tells me I have to be.

When I first encountered Kathryn Erskine‘s 2010 National Book Award Winner, Mockingbird, it was shortly after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in early 2011.  Teaching at my old school, we had been sharing out newspaper articles in the 6th grade language arts block.  When the shooting happened, the heartbreaking profile of young Christina Taylor Green in the New York Times captivated a number of my students, who took her story to heart.  I had already purchased Erskine’s book to use as a possible Read Aloud choice before this had happened, if only because of the Virginia Tech shootings which moved the author to write her book.  Given the manner in which my class responded to Green’s profile, I felt that Erskine’s book provided an ideal opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion of what the effect such a tragedy has on those who survive in a victim’s family.

In Mockingbird, young Caitlin is an 11-year-old with Asperger Syndrome.  She is forced to come to grips with the death of her beloved older brother after a shooting at a middle school.  She struggles with her condition, throughout the book, in order to provide not just closure for herself, but also for her father, as well as the young son of a teacher who was also killed along with her brother.

Last school year, after the Aurora, Colorado shootings, I found myself turning to that book again, in order to try to explain the aftermath of those events to my 6th graders.

This morning, the wife and I were part of a large gathering at Kate’s school.  Our personal handful of kindergartner was receiving an award for her ability to “think outside the box” in terms of her creativity.  Coincidentally, Kate’s school borders the community that was a scene of a mass shooting of its own late last year.  As the morning developed and Kate got her award, I then headed back to my own classroom to relieve my sub for the afternoon.  Hearing of the Connecticut shootings, I couldn’t help but do the cruel math as to what subtracting one of those classes of kindergartners from today’s event in such a brutal fashion might do the assembled parents and grandparents in the room.  The buzz of Kate’s accomplishment quickly wore off, as I realized I would have to be explaining yet another school shooting to a group of my students, just as I’ve been doing so often since I began my teaching career in 1997.

I didn’t say anything to my kids straight away though.  I powered through a Math lesson, got the class off to the lunch, and then I tried to update myself on the day’s events.  I shuffled through my collection of Read Aloud books I had planned for the immediate next few weeks.  I put Ralph Fletcher’s Fig Pudding, my traditional Read Aloud for this time of the year, back on the shelf.

When the kids came back in from lunch, I showed them Mockingbird, and began reading.