Masochistic Perceptions, Trials and Truths

These are my cyberfied cerebral synapses ricocheting off reality as I perceive it: thoughts, opinions, passions, rants, art and poetry...

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Balwin: A Memoir and Invitation To Explore

In the northeast corner of Edmonton lies a small piece of the Global Village. Balwin is an inner city K-9 school, comprised largely of immigrants, refugees and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

When Balwin is showcased in the news, it is typically with a negative slant. For several years, Balwin was rated at the bottom provincially in terms of academic achievement, and was known for having murders committed along its immediate boundaries four years in a row, the last being a decapitated human head. While these are facts, it sensationalises this northeast community in an inaccurate portrayal. Yes, there are issues here, just as in any community. I reside myself in the northeast in this same community and prefer living here, as I have for close to 20 years, over many other parts of Edmonton which lack character and a sense of themselves – lost in the quickly erected boxes of urban sprawl.

Perhaps more disturbing than having a human head found in the alley behind your classroom, was the students reaction – or lack of reaction – from such an event. Sadly, many of the students at Balwin have come from refugee camps and situations in countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq where they experienced unimaginable traumas. The evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is prominent in our student population, ranging from the inability to self-regulate to physical violence against staff and other students. Between the affects of PTSD, coming to a new country, new culture, learning a new language in addition to curriculum, and, for many, learning to be in a school for the first time, it has presented an incredible challenge for all parties involved, and, perhaps, sheds a bit of light on why Balwin often scores low provincially when it comes to raw academic scores. Students straddle between the new world in which they find themselves, and their old world which was rife with violence and, often, religious fundamentalism. Growing up is difficult in general. One of my students who, quite honestly, is more of a son to me than pupil, will tell me that “one day Allah is going to hit the world with a big stick and I am going to have to cut off your head”. When I ask why would he do this, does he not care about me, he replies “yes, but it’s not me doing it. It’s Allah guiding my hand”. The challenges these students face, and those who are desirous of assisting them to succeed academically, are immense.
I had a grade 4 Somali girl who went ballistic in gym class one day. She was growling like an animal, kicking and screaming, punching me and anyone close to her. For everyone’s safety, I had to physically restrain her. The next day she came to me before class and gave me a big hug, completely randomly. I said " you know that I love you, right?" She replied " I know. I love you too" this was quite a breakthrough for her. I know she's been severely traumatized back in Somalia and it has been alleged that her father is a physical disciplinarian. Much like one might sustain inguries from working with wild animals in an effort for their conservation, working with such a large group of children who have experienced severe trauma and culture shock can lead to a few bumps and bites along the way. 

I also had an Afghani girl who always said " I hate Canada" and prefaced most things with " I hate..." Part of it is her way of joking, and I would often tease her, imitating what she says. We were doing stuff for Remembrance Day one day, and part of what I shared was a video of all the Canadian soldiers who died there. I explained why Canada was there - to fight the Taliban and to make it so young girls like her could go to school. At the end, I approached her and said "So now do you understand why it hurts even if you joke about hating Canada?" She replied "yes. Thank you. I love you and I love Canada"

...That's what it's all about. The power of love and Education. Schools have curriculum and standardized tests such as the Provincial Achievement Test, but, often, we need to prioritize our work based on our specific student demographic and needs. This results in reflecting badly when it comes to statistics being given to stakeholders and the public, but is very neglectful in the important, significant and magnificent work being done at schools like Balwin.
Ultimately, this is a story of success. I have been teaching at Balwin for half a decade. Originally, I was hired as a Transitions teacher. This program, for which funding was recently ended, focused on students who specifically were new to Canada, from refugee camps and had little or no previous formal schooling. While my class was small and I had a cultural broker to assist me sometimes, there was seldom a significant difference between the students in my class and those making up the majority of other classes. Overall, we were looking at approximately 50% of students being English as a Second Language (ESL) school-wide, a statistic that remains about the same today (though I would say these statistics reflect a lower percentage than what I perceive to be the case in terms of numbers). These ESL students are not those coming from peaceful places with a culture similar to our own here in Canada. Instead, the majority of our students are of Somali background, with others coming from troubled or impoverished parts of the Middle East and South America. The resources to support these learners are quite different and extensive than supporting a newcomer who is from a place like France or Germany. In my first year, 5 teachers went on stress leave, fights were a daily occurrence – sometimes using rocks and pencils as weapons. There was often chaos and little learning happening. We had to assess how we could affect change. Given the situation, staff were dealing with children who came from what I would call “alpha” cultures – large families, interned in camps; a place where only the strong survived and the loudest were fed. In Canada, we do our best to nurture all students with inclusion and differentiation, often perceiving those attempting to become “alpha’s” in a negative light due to their aggressiveness and difficulty being a team player. Understanding the “why”, we could now ascertain the “how” to affect positive change. As we identify the problem, we can begin working on developing solutions.
With my class being the least restrictive in terms of curricular mandates and of a smaller size, but also of perhaps the most concentrated of negative and violent behaviours, I introduced daily Yoga and meditation. A practicing Yogi myself for nearly 20 years and a certified Yoga instructor, and also as a person with PTSD, I understood the value and impact that such a daily practice could potentially have on students. The movement of Yoga, coupled with the calming affect meditation can have and the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system, were, in my opinion, important first steps in helping students to withdraw from their fight or flight mode and engage in learning. From here, I needed to establish a set of classroom rules – which I referred to as “Our Classroom Agreement” – as a way to keep behaviours in check, develop community, empathy and create an environment conducive for learning. These rules were compiled based largely on the Tribes program which I had trained in previously, in addition to other readings and personal experiences. The result was the following:

1.            No put-downs
2.            Always listen
3.            Respect
4.            No fighting
5.            We all belong
6.            Never give up
7.            You control you

Success did not come quickly, and my first year was difficult. In all honesty, every year has pushed me to my limits. Still, abiding by my own rule #6, I continued to persist. A large part of making these ideas work was to develop positive relationships with my students and their families. At the time, most of my students were strong Muslims from Somalia, and accepting that meditation and prayer were different things did not come easy. 
However, over time and with more relationship building which included learning a bit of Somali myself (and, since: Serbian, Romanian, Farsi, on top of my smattering of Slovak, French, German and Spanish), and Balwin’s organization of monthly information nights for parents who were new to Canada went a long way in building bridges and making Balwin a community hub; as well as providing us with the rare opportunity to have translators and effectively communicate with parents. So, again, by never giving up, these strategies began to have a positive effect.

The Administrators at Balwin are incredibly progressive individuals. They will often tell consultants, when they come to our school, that they support the teacher’s judgment 100% and that they are the ones who need to be consulted with as they spend every day with the students in the classroom. After listening to my success stories, our Principal proposed that we do morning meditation with all the classes. So we did, with considerable success. Then we decided to take things a step further and agreed, in the interests of truly building a positive school community, that we should gather all the students from K-9 in the gym every morning for meditation. I can honestly say, five years in, that the impacts have been profound. School violence and conflict has reduced significantly as students utilize meditation techniques to calm down and self-regulate, and academics have increased in positive results. The staff presently at Balwin have been here a couple of years, and, despite having large classes, most often with no support in terms of Educational Assistants (EA) and still sitting at an 50% ESL population, they want to be at Balwin. It has been some time as well since a staff member has taken stress leave. That is not to say that our staff have not been through the ringer, because they have, and I know many of us have neared that brink of breaking and burnout. But their passion and genuine desire to be here carries them through. 
But this is only part of the story of Balwin and its resiliency. We did not stop at simply calming behaviours and developing sustained focus. At Balwin we know that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing: student success. We were still faced with the dilemma of having a majority of students working below grade level, for no other reason than the misfortunate circumstances they were born into.
With no Transitions program anymore and classes lacking in EA supports, the staff at Balwin knew they must be innovative. Particularly, we looked at our Division 2 students (grades 4,5,6). Chronologically, students were assigned a grade. From the perspective of grade level of achievement for reading and writing, it was seldom that students were actually at grade level. Teachers asked themselves if it made sense to have separate grade 4, 5 and 6 classes where you would have to differentiate from a K-6 level in every class, most likely without an EA to assist with the implementation of the differentiated plans. What about curriculum – especially as it pertains to our immediate student needs?
So often we are asking our students to be risk takers that we neglect the fact that our staff are also huge risk takers and, sometimes the things we try fail terribly. Having the fortitude to start again, learn from what went wrong and collaboration keep us all on our feet, though we are always trying to find our sea legs. Several discussions about our grade level and chronological groupings eventually yielded a plan to create three separate classes, all comprised of grade 4, 5 and 6’s. All three classes were to cover the same topics, rotating through the curriculum starting with grade 6 (to ensure grade 6’s would have sufficient knowledge for their PAT’s), followed by grade 4 the year after and grade 5 the year after that. This model allowed for much inter class projects, allowing students to take leadership roles, mentor one another and, realistically, present a model of the real world where people of all ages and abilities have to interact and work with one another. For the most part, classes were grouped largely on reading levels, but there were also some students placed strategically for behavioral and social reasons, again, to ensure minimal disruption to learning due to behaviours.

My class was the “middle” group in terms of English language proficiency. I had in my class 23 students, 18 of which were coded ESL, Behaviour disorder or Opportunity (low cognitive function), and no EA. At times, this class was incredibly challenging. While medidtation, mediation (students problem solving themselves and figuring out how to repair the harm for negative behaviours) and our classroom agreement were tools, they did not solve ever issue adolescents have, not to mention when they are all vying to receive the most attention. The core of my teaching was based on 10 Words of the Week which would be a blend of necessary sight words and terms necessary to understanding what we were learning in Social Studies, Science and Math. At this point, cross-curricular pollination began and the fruits of this approach became evident as skills for each separate subject were interwoven and applied continuously.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of teaching a largely ESL population is they are too old for books written for small children. As a result, I had to create my own resources, using cultural references that would offer some familiarity, while introducing new ideas. Filling the learning gap in such formative years is taxing, and one can not delay in finding a sufficient hook to focus the learner. This led to the next point in the evolution of our practice: student driven learning (SDL).

The premise of SDL is that students pick topics that they wish to learn about. So often, with curricular topics, we become tied to the subject instead of the skills you wish to impart as a result of studying said topic. Student success begins with them being engaged. Once they are engaged with a topic, it is up to the teacher and student to work together and co-construct criteria. The teacher will know what the learning outcomes and skills are necessary to a student’s growth. Sitting down with a student and outlining what the student needs to articulate what they need to show is the first part of the process – the student now knows the “why”. The “how” then falls upon the student. How will they demonstrate their skill, comprehension and knowledge? This moves learners away from static worksheets to demonstrate learning, into something much more free and dynamic. Offering freedom is what education is all about, not restrictions. As soon as we tell a student to fill in a standard form, they will never find their ability to express themselves and will become mired in the culture of can’t. This is not a relinquishing of standards, but rather, opening the avenues of personal creativity and expression. The successful person has many tools and the sense of independence to build that which they will.

While in its infancy, the SDL style of learning is showing significant progress. It has evolved into off-shoots such as Project Mondays where all students from grades 4-9 are mixed to complete numerous tasks. Balwin is a school alive with dedication and passion – where students feel loved and a sense of community. Our mission is to make learning extraordinary, and Balwin is committed and diligently striving to blaze that trail of excellence.

As stated previously, Balwin is a story of success. It is a success founded upon a staff with a common belief and a community who has bought into what is on offer. Perhaps Balwin does not receive the accolades allotted to some of Edmonton’s schools renowned for their Arts programs or academics. It’s a shame, truly, as some of the best and most challenging work in all of Alberta is happening within Balwin’s walls. It would be a pleasure to open our doors to you and invite you to witness our journey.


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