Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Author: c2cmathed_webmaster

Opening Up About Mental Illness In School

Our amazing guidance department has combined together to put on events for Mental Health month throughout May. There have been lots of events each day during lunch, and experts brought in to talk to the staff and answer questions. While all of the events are valuable, I think the most memorable event was the student health panel during our two town halls. There’s still programming left for next week, so maybe more good things were in store, but this panel looks to be the most memorable for a number of reasons.

First off the student health panel was great for the 9 students who were brave enough to sit on the stage and open up to the school. Some kids were shaking as the panels started, while others were bubbling with nervous laughter. Everyone was ready to do this, but ‘this’ was certainly not a normal event. Between these students there were some 20+ different diagnoses, including Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder to Bulemia to Depression, with many people having one kid. A counselor served as moderator and asked three questions:

  1. Introduce yourself, and as much about your condition(s) that you want to share.
  2. Describe your mental illness. How does it affect you, what do you do to cope?
  3. What are things at the school that help you?

Once the questions were asked, panel members took all the time they needed to explain their situation.

It was amazing to see these kids up there detailing their struggles, and their traumas, and their approach to handling it, in front of a huge group of kids. Each time a student responded to a question they were met with rounds of applause, and occasional cheering. The effect of the audience’s outpouring was visible as members of the panel relaxed and started to let their guards down. The audience also became more interested and more engaged as each person spoke, and cheered more when they finished. It was a great display of empathy on the part of the audience. The weeks of activities leading up to this, as well as the on going work of our guidance department, really helped to create this culture. Deep down, most kids have the capacity for empathy, even though they don’t show it. This event gave everyone a chance to put theirs to use.

At the same time, I’m aware that not every kid thinks kindly about people with mental illness. Stigma against mental illness pervades our society, so I’m sure it was operating in that auditorium perhaps among some of the quiet kids sprinkled through the auditorium. It’s not their fault. The idea of writing off or being hostile towards mental illness has a long history, and comes from a lot of different places. That doesn’t mean it makes sense. Especially now that we have the plethora of ways to treat mental illness. Some people, who could benefit from treatment, avoid it and live a much more difficult life without it, all just to avoid the label “Mentally Ill”. This kind of stuff is deep and hard to mandate that people change. Through the school’s work in creating this culture, hopefully there is an environment that will force people to question stigma and the ideas that come from it. In the auditorium this week, it was clear that the stigma was not in the majority and hopefully it will spark a change in the minds of the quiet kids sprinkled through the auditorium.

The kids requested a staff member be on stage, and I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a habit I’ve held since March of 2003 when I just left the hospital after a week’s stay following a manic episode. When someone asked me, “where were you?” I wouldn’t make up a story or change the subject. I’d say, “I was in the mental hospital because I have manic depression.” At the time it was practical. Life was hard enough trying to catch up with classes, I didn’t to create some elaborate story of my whereabouts that week. So I told people straight whenever it came up, and I continued to do so until I started working. Lots of fears kept me from revealing my illness to coworkers and all but a handful of students, at least until the town hall committee started looking for volunteers.

If you’re a teacher and you have a mental illness, let me say why it might be useful for you to share it with your school as well. When kids come back from a mental hospital, or share that they are going to therapy or trying out new medication, it is always helpful for them to know that an adult has gone through similar stuff, and was able to finish college and get a job, etc. It’s also valuable for you. Society forces us to hold so much in about our conditions, it’s rare when you get a chance to use your condition as a way to help someone. It’s personally uplifting when I get a chance to talk through the side effects of whatever a kid is taking, or get to point them to resources that can help them. My school is really supportive, so I may have a different view of things than most. In some schools stigma is the dominant voice around mental illness issues. This may be coming from the captain of the football team, and it could also come from some of the adults. It may not feel safe to be totally open around all the people of the school. Definitely pick your spots. But for one or two students it could be super valuable.

To close it out, here’s an email that I got from a student who sent this as I was writing this that speaks to how valuable opening up can be:

Hi, I really want to say thank you for being able to participate in the town hall yesterday. I really don’t really enjoy them, but yesterday it really had me appreciate it because normally I would expected that the student would be talking about mental illness. I never would of expected you to get up there and speck about your illness. I too deal with depression and anxiety disorder and I am on medication too. It had me appreciate that every one of us have own stories. I thank you again for being so bold and so courageous…

Clog: No one’s ever going to win!

Today was the first day of my new class. We’re calling it The Lottery. The “we” for this cycle is me and my co-teacher, who is awesome. We’ve talked a lot about the class and it is challenging me and my regular routine, and it’s leading to great results so far. My typical probability class is serving as the frame for this class, and we are modifying it. Heavily. It’ll probably be a whole different experience by the time we get finished. We’re calling it the lottery to tap into some of the kids natural curiosity about something around them, as opposed to my previous class which centered around a make-believe carnival.

Today we began class with another number talk, and then we did four corners about the lottery.

Dice, Playing Cards, Cuisenaire rods, and all the random stuff we brought in so kids could make their games.

Next we decided we came up with this thing called “Games of Chance”. We wanted kids to work hands-on with a task that put them in the driver’s seat. This task asked them to work in small groups to make up games that other kids could play. They made up the rules of the game, the price to play the game, as well as the prize that winners could take home. To help make the tangible game we gather a pile of useful things (Dice, cubes, playing cards, etc).

The kids came up with an array of interesting games. One was flip over one of twelve cards, another involved rolling a dice, and then drawing a card from a deck of cards over and over until you got the amount on the dice. At the end of co-teacher’s 15 minute timer, groups paired up and played each others games. Students were deeply engaged in the activity, as I orbited around the edge of the room.

We had enough time for 3 different games to be exchanged before we stopped  and got into a circle to talk about the games that everyone played. Hopefully we wanted to see if students were having the kinds of headaches that the mathematics in my class could serve as the aspirin. My favorite comment was from a student who seemed visibly frustrated. “We made a game that was basically impossible,” said the student, annoyed by the game that their group settled on, “It’s so hard, no one’s ever going to win!!!” This sounds exactly like the kind of thinking that people should be embarking upon for a class called “The Lottery,” don’t you think?

Clog: Unguided Work Time

Dealing with work time has always been a big problem for me. Kids don’t always take full advantage of the time they have when they are working independently, and it leaves me l feeling like the time was wasted. This year I’ve tried doing a lot of ‘launching’ the work time. When class starts I’ll give everyone their folders and then I’ll give a speech detailing what a productive period would consist of. “Hey guys. The project is due next Friday, that means today would be a good day to work on the missing assignments, plan presentations or writing up the project. Missing assignments are over here, and let me just clarify a couple things about the project before you get started…” These ‘launches’ would end with my promising to do a little mini-lesson late in the class, so look through your folders and let me know what it is I should do a mini lesson on. After I say all this I then run around the room like an old man with a broom trying to get all the little birdie off of his own and flying through the sky. This usually results in checking in with kids about particular issues, and after all the running and the checking, there’s only 15 minutes if work time before I have to stop and do the mini lesson.

Today was a little different. Four students finished their drafts early(!) and I needed to give them feedback so I tried to grade them quickly before class. I set up the files and the missing assignments and just sat in the front of the room grading papers as class started. Kids trickled in, and eventually got to work, so I decided not to do the typical ‘launch’. Instead, I called over the 4 kids whose papers I wrote on and told them what they needed to do. Well wouldn’t you know it, the class didn’t devolve into bedlam. Some of the kids who don’t start without some old-man-Carl-broom-shaking actually came over to me to figure out what they needed to get done!

Eventually I got out of my seat and touched base with all the kids I usually do, but in a few of the cases, it felt like I was not igniting their work, but more like interrupting their work. I was really shocked to look at the clock and see more than half an hour of class left, I honestly didn’t know what to do with the time!

By being in front and working on my own I think I modeled the independent work that students were supposed to be doing. I will try to do a more deliberate ‘un-launch’on Friday and see how it goes.

Clog: Firing up the project

It’s time to start the project for this unit, and also the final unit for the class. It is a weird wrinkle teaching here. Our only big assessment is usually the first substantive assessment. Our school has had to race through a number of classes in order to cover the material and our projects are involved so we also need to start them as early as possible. We have a rough problem in terms of content coverage.

Does our scant amount of time for content coverage mean we also have a problem with assessment? It feels at times that the only assessing we do is formative. What can you really assess after only 2 weeks in a meaningful way? It’s a difficult question. But it also means we aren’t giving much to students about assessments either. This means the students don’t have a lot of clear signals that they are being learning. Maybe having a successful assessment early would be good for morale.

As an experiment, maybe next cycle wet could do assessments every 2 weeks, or even every week, or even every day! Make sure kids know they are learning something, and hopefully they could be a good motivational tool. In fact, if they are smoothly integrated, it may keep the class from getting slowed down as well.

Helping My Student Assistants Change Their Thinking About Math

A number of kids this cycle came to my desk begging to have a teaching assistantship to fill their schedules.  Since I have boundary issues, I now have to plan for these kids on top and their learning as they watch the rest of the class learn.  These teaching assistants are not student teachers from a local college. They are high school students, who are not necessarily stronger than any of their peers.  One student said they have a really bad history with math and another had not passed a class in over two years.  With these student assistants I could have pursued very talented math students, but they usually don’t have any trouble filling their schedules, nor would they have as much to gain from the experience.

Why have assistants at all?  Isn’t just more to manage?

Having assistants is certainly a job, and it is not worth doing if you do not have goals for them.  My goals for them is to have them view math from my perspective.  They will help students in class, grade the assignments that I grade, and talk with me about misconceptions students might have before giving feedback.  At the end of this I hope the students take a different view of mathematics.  Perhaps they could go on to take a serious interest in math in college, but I would be happy if they just approach the subject differently.  At the least, I hope the students would view math as something they can work to improve, and mathematical “bad”-ness isn’t a terminal illnees, but can be treated through correcting their misconceptions and developing a productive disposition.

For the rest of this cycle I am excited about getting them to finish the rest of the work for the class.  I want them to have a working version of the project that the rest of the class.  In addition, they could learn a lot from having to think of ways to scaffold the project, or re-word the current project.  Lastly, I will ask them to write about their approach to math, and if it is different than it was when we started. Their reflection will be informed by Approximately Normal’s posts on student teachers, but I’m open to suggestions…

We’ll see if any of the kids want to follow their teacher’s footsteps and teach a lesson their peers, but if they do I hope they will be able to get through it.


#19/33* MTBoS  *I took two days off over the weekend, and I missed another one a week ago, so I am going to keep this thing going longer to make up for it (Or maybe I’ll just be one of those once-a-day bloggers).

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén