Ferguson, Race Relations, and My Grade 12 Ghanaian Students

Watching the news from Ferguson, Missouri from across the Atlantic, tucked away in my home in Accra, Ghana I feel saddened and removed.  Saddened by the ongoing need to combat racism in America and removed because I live across the ocean in West Africa.  But, as an educator and someone responsible for graduating 18 year olds and sending many of them off to college in North America, I feel a deep sense of urgency when it comes to the topic of race and my students.

I have no idea how a young Ghanaian student in my school interprets events in Ferguson.  We haven’t talked about it….yet.   I have no idea how one of my young black African male students will react if, and undoubtedly when, he is racially profiled and pulled over for a routine traffic stop in his future college town.  It will be a complete shock, I’m certain.  In recent days I have read articles written by African American parents who clearly teach their children, specifically boys, how to handle situations like a random traffic stop.  As a parent of two young men in their 20’s, I have never needed to have this conversation.  If I was black, I would have had the conversation on multiple occasions.   How scary is that?   Today I feel I have an obligation to help my students develop awareness of the challenges of race relations and racial issues in America.  Having said that, I feel inadequately qualified on the topic beyond facilitating conversations which is certainly achievable.    However, Michelle Alexander  author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”  wrote an interesting piece for the New York Times around this discussion.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/26/opinion/ferguson-telling-my-son-michelle-alexander.html?_r=1&referrer

I’ve reviewed a series of web sites noting articles of relevance and  looking for statistics on issues of race, racial profiling, and the lives of young black men in America.  Below these links is a collection of statements drawn from these various sites.  There is much to explore within these sites.







“In the United States, racial and ethnic disparities exist across an array of domains. That such disparities exist should surprise no one. Nor should the fact that such disparities diminish the life chances of those affected. A vast body of literature documents such disparities and shows that they have developed and persisted over time in the context of historical and structural racism in ways that may influence policies, practices and programs.”
  • 54% of African Americans graduate from high school, compared to more than three quarters of white and Asian students.
  • Nationally, African American male students in grades K-12 were nearly 2½ times as likely to be suspended from school in 2000 as white students.
  • In 2007, nearly 6.2 million young people were high school dropouts. Every student who does not complete high school costs our society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity.
  • On average, African American twelfth-grade students read at the same level as white eighth-grade students.
  • The twelfth-grade reading scores of African American males were significantly lower than those for men and women across every other racial and ethnic group.
  • Only 14% of African American eighth graders score at or above the proficient level. These results reveal that millions of young people cannot understand or evaluate text, provide relevant details, or support inferences about the written documents they read.
  • Nationally, African American men are 5½ times more likely than white men to go to prison in their lifetime. Based on current rates of first incarceration, almost 7 percent of African American men in the United States will enter state or federal prison by age 20, compared with less than 1 percent of white men
  • Nationally, African American male adults and adolescents have a nearly seven times higher risk of contracting HIV or AIDS than their white peers do. In California, HIV-related mortality is the eighth-leading cause of death for African American men, and they have a mortality rate from HIV infection nearly four times higher than that of white men.
  • A young black man is nearly five times more likely to be killed by a gun than a young white man and 13 times more than an Asian American man. These numbers, dramatic as they are, actually understate the problem. If a black person is killed by a gun, it is judged a homicide 82 percent of the time. For the broad population, most gun deaths are ruled accidental or the result of suicide; only 34 percent of gun deaths are attributed to murder.

What are you doing in your school to prepare graduating Seniors for the realities of race relations in the US?  I believe addressing this topic, these facts, in an intentional and open manner is the right thing to do.  I would hope that my students would be prepared to digest this information, raise questions, explore perceptions, and develop a level of understanding, awareness, and sensitivity to the topic.  There is so much to learn and explore around this topic.

Whether you are an educator or parent in an international school responsible for sending students from Africa, the Middle East, or Asia to a foreign country for university, it is important to explore the issues of race relations, discrimination, and stereotypes.  Finally, this topic cannot be left to schools alone to discuss.  Parents must be actively engaged with these topics.  As well, racism is not limited to North America.  All parents and students headed to life outside of the international  high school bubble, regardless of which continent one is headed to, must find ways of engaging with these topics.  I know we will seek to at LCS.  How will your school prepare your graduating students to understand and explore this topic?



As Teachers, Our Words Matter

As educators, what we say and how we say it may create a memorable moment that will last a lifetime.  That’s serious business.  The memory will, very possibly, help shape the self-image of that student.  That’s serious business.  Do not under estimate the power of words and the impact one can have in an instant of time.

The power to influence and to create a lifelong memory in a child or parent is a serious responsibility, privilege and, most importantly, an opportunity.

Adults, of all ages, have memories of moments with teachers and interactions that left impressions – both positive and

Words Matter

Words Matter

negative.  One of the intriguing joys of reconnecting with old high school friends on Facebook is the swapping of  memories from childhood and teenage years.  Occasionally there is a story of a teacher that resonates with a wide range of people and it’s amazing how far and wide the influence of that teacher extended.

How memories are coded into our brains is a topic best left to cognitive psychologists and brain researchers.  There is logic to the association of memories with emotions.  An act of kindness, the sensation of belonging, the anger of a betrayal, the embarrassment from belittling, the hurt from a reprimand, the joy from a job well done, and so on, are all potential moments where the chemistry aligns and a forever memory is coded.  Emotional moments result in potential memories.  And these are triggered by words. Words Have Power!

But, it is so easy to make a mistake.

My 22 year old son is an outstanding young man.  He had many great years as a student and, by all accounts, did very well throughout school.  But, he struggled in kindergarten.  17 years ago, in kindergarten, I well remember walking around the corner outside his classroom one day and his art teacher said to me “You know, Jared is a naughty boy”.  The comment, on the walkway of school, was not necessarily a surprise.  Inappropriately timed and delivered, but not a surprise.  I’m not sure of my response but it left an impression that will last a lifetime.  Continue reading

Parents, 9th Grade, & Teen Angst

Parenting is hard.  Whether your kid is 6 weeks, 6 months, 6 years, or honestly just choose any year between 12 and 17, parenting is hard. The good thing about doing hard work is that you are destined to make mistakes along the way therefore you always will find opportunities to improve!

I think I became a better educator as I experienced parenting an adolescent for myself.  I think educators who have experienced parenting challenges are generally less judgmental and more forgiving of parents.  I think there is much for teachers to learn from considering the challenges of parenting and, likewise, there is much for parents to learn from the insights that teachers are able to share.  Teachers hold incredibly important and valuable observations that are important for parents to digest.  The partnership between teacher and parent is critical to nurture.

We recently held a parent meeting for Grade 9 parents on a Wednesday evening in a private home not far from school. It was part social and part  “parenting workshop”. It was an opportunity to share information and generate dialogue about the challenges of parenting.

Myself and one of our counselors presented “The 5 B’s of Adolescence”.  I’ve used this presentation overimages-2 the years.  The presentation is one that several counselor colleagues of my past put together.  I am not the author!  But, I absolutely enjoy presenting it to parents as it opens up great territory to explore around the complexities of adolescence.  Trying to understand those complexities and the resulting behaviors – rationale and irrational – is the challenge for parents and teachers.  It makes our work interesting to say the least.

The The 5 B’s of Adolescence are:

Bodies – Their bodies are changing overnight!

Belonging – There are huge needs for belonging to groups, social structures are important and challenging.  Friendship groups shift.  Many decisions are made based upon their strong needs for belonging.

Becoming – They are becoming more independent thinkers, they are becoming a young adult. They are playing around with who they are becoming.  They often try out new personas, new styles of dress, etc.

Brains – The brain activity is enormous.  In general, the frontal lobe is not well developed and therefore impulsive behaviors are not as well regulated.  This is a challenge.

Breaking Away – They are seeking independence!

However brilliant the High School Principal and the counselor may have been in presenting, the most important part of the evening were the student messages to their parents.  Earlier in the day, our counselor spent time with Grade 9 kids and asked the students to write responses to the following prompts:

  1. Parents, here is what I would like you to know about 9th grade so far:
  2. To be a better parent to me as a 9th grader, you need to do more ____ and less _____
  3. The number one thing you don’t seem to get about me these days is:
  4. My biggest worry about school is:
  5. My biggest stressor at home is:
  6. I really appreciate it when you:

The responses from students were absolutely astounding. They were honest, direct, insightful, and meaningful.  We read a series of these responses to the parents. It was brilliant.  Here is a sampling of what Grade 9 students said to their parents:

You can do more “Help me, talk to me about school, let me be” and less “checking up on me”

You can do more “trust me and understand I want more freedom” and less “stop trying to force me into doing things and trying to find out everything about school”

You can do less “talking, because you seem to not listen but to always compare me”

You can do less “comparing me to my friends and other people”

You can do more “trust me, understand me” and less “assuming you know me, comparing us to when you were a kid, and blaming me for things I don’t do”

The number one thing you don’t seem to get about me these days is

“you never seem to get me”

“Even though I seem fine about my homework, I still need you to push me”

“That you have to let me be more independent”

“that I focus alot more while listening to music and that when I use my tablet alot I sometimes do homework”

“I am my own person, stop comparing me to others”

“I’m stressed and worried”

“I’m a man now”

“I’m 15, not 12”

“I need more freedom”

“that I am growing and I am different from my siblings and you should understand that”

“I try hard at school”

“I am very independent and do a lot of things by myself, I’m a big boy now”

“That school is not the most important thing in my life”

I really appreciate it when you:

“When you leave me alone and when you give me reasonable advice”

“Hug me and tell me it’s going to be alright”

“Shout a little less at me and allow me to play video games a little longer and help me with my homework”

“Just be there with a smile, and food too”

“Say it’s okay when I get a bad grade”

“Believe in me and the decisions I’m making”

“Encourage and support me”

“Leave me alone”

“Believe in me and know that I can do great things”

“Help me with my work sometimes and when you pay attention to me”

“ask me about my day”

“try to help me and understand that I am trying my best”

So many of the comments the kids made can be considered through the lens of the 5 B’s.  Grade 9 students often seem like lost souls.  They live “teenage angst”.   Grade 9 kids are in the clutches of adolescence and their responses reflect their angst.  They are experiencing significant levels of stress over social issues, academic challenges, family dynamics, and within their own private inner world of “self talk”.  They are busy “becoming” while wanting to “break away”.  Their brains are on fire and their emotions are locked into a desire to “belong”.  Their bodies are changing all the time.  14 and 15 year olds are at a unique and challenging point in their lives.

Adults in the lives of 14 and 15 year olds must acknowledge and accept these challenges.  It’s a hard time.

Engaging them in meaningful and relevant work is essential.  They can be very insightful about their own learning and what is important to them at this point in their lives.  They are drawn to films, stories, and characters who mirror their teenage angst.  There is much young adult fiction that captures this.

I do believe early teens are ready to learn but we must be so careful and thoughtful about material and approaches.  9th graders are at a vulnerable time.   They can be lured in or they can withdraw.  I remember my son’s HS English teacher warning the parents during an August open house that we should be prepared for the disappearance of our son, as we knew him, in Grade 9 but he’ll return 12 months later.  A sobering statement, but there was truth to it. The good news for me was that caring adults were alongside him every day at his school and, without a doubt, this is the absolute key.

It’s a challenge for us all.