This blog post is adapted from a Future Ready with the Library Community of Practice reflection by Amanda (Mandy) Bundy, Kaibab Paiute Tribal Library; Fredonia, AZ, Mandy is a member of the second cohort of the YALSA Future Ready with the Library project. Future Ready with the Library provides support for small, rural, and tribal library staff to build college and career readiness services for middle school youth. You can read more posts by current and previous project cohort members on this blog.
Mandy’s post is available in three parts
* Part 1 – Introduction
* Part 2 – Weeks 1 to 3
* Part 3 – Weeks 4 to 6
Part 1 – Introduction
One of my biggest flaws is my inability to think inside the box, structured programs make me feel like I’m working without my biggest strength, my heart. So I admittedly have led with my heart on the Future Ready with the Library project. Sometimes that means doing things very backwards. Sometimes that means that my focus is narrowed to begin with and widens as the work continues. I value the monthly Zoom meetings we have as a cohort, simply because there are so many ideas, points of views, and resources, but the passion for the project is what really stands out for me and we all are passionate about what we are doing and how we can really make an impact for students.
I tend to be a very hands-on learner and so for me this project wasn’t something that I could formulate by reading alone, or by talking with partners, or by having community meetings. My vision was narrow in spite of constant urgings from the Future Ready team. I live in a remote and rural tribal community and my tribal service area is quite small, leaving, in my mind, few choices for partners. So I jumped in feet first with an obvious partner, the school. I have several connections at the school and was comfortable pitching the idea and working with the principal directly to get a very vague idea of what he thought would be beneficial. I recognize that this is not the norm. He basically gave me free reign to do what I wanted in the 5th and 6th grade classrooms and he asked me to start the next week.
I attempted a survey prior to starting and got very little response from my tribal community. I’ve recognized that surveys are not their mode of communication, but for projects like this the written word is a powerful indicator, so I did try. Typically, when I want feedback on a topic, I put the information out there and then actively listen. The answers to the questions I am asking come through informal one-on-one conversations. They come in the form of participation in workshops and events. I’m listening as we eat, as we play, and as we create to what parents are telling me and their children. It isn’t always a direct line of communication. I have to listen to what parents aren’t saying as much as what they are saying in order to get a true idea of what the community values.
When I began this project I knew it would grow and develop. Great programs have the ability to
be written and then changed to fit the audience. I have had some amazing breakthroughs and insights. I’ve also had some setbacks. I’ve recorded them all. I’ll write down what worked for this year, but I also recognize that it won’t always work, it won’t always be what is needed, and ultimately, my goal is to provide what these young people need in that moment to help them become future ready. Typically, when I am planning a program, I create a rough outline of my ideas and then work to create an action plan. I tried to do that with this project and it was impossible. There was no way for me to create a plan because I simply didn’t know for sure who I was working with and what they needed to become ready for the future.
Part 2 – Weeks 1 to 3
As the day approached for me to go to the school, I had no plan, no outline, no real anything. I had abstract ideas. Most times that would make me crazy. I like the security of the box, with the ability to dance outside of it, but I went in calm and open to possibilities. The teacher in me also went in with a clear set of guidelines about what we would be doing and what would be acceptable behavior.
I started with an index card activity and colored pencils. I asked each student to tell me three things about themselves on the front of the card and one thing that they were struggling with on the back. While they wrote, I introduced myself and told them three things about me. This is a very small town, I have children in these classes, and I have coached these kids in basketball for several years. They know me, but I told them three things that they didn’t know about me; my favorite color, my favorite sport, and that my parents were divorced. I gathered the cards and passed out small journals, 2 for each student, one to take home and one to write in during our sessions. I told them the journals would be completely private and I ensured that privacy by giving them a locked box to keep in their classrooms. I am the only one who knows the combo and I don’t take the box with me. There is some security in that for students, a place to vent without worry.
We then talked about respect vs dignity (something we talked about during our Future Ready wit the Library face-to-face cohort meeting in February in Denver) and laid down some guidelines for behavior. After the initial get to know you, this is what we are doing, this is what is acceptable speech, we moved on to a short discussion about the music video “The Champion” by Carrie Underwood. I love the message and while it is sports related, the video showed people from all walks of life living as champions. We talked about what that looks like and I gave them time to write down their thoughts or draw their thoughts, or even just doodle and think their thoughts. I reminded them that they didn’t have to spell correctly or use good sentences or capital letters, or periods. They all went wild!
My Insights for Week 1
Let them write their three things before I tell them mine. Every card that day had their name, their favorite color, their favorite sport, and their parents marital status on the front. The back of the card was for struggles and most of the cards simply said “I’m fine” or “Math”
This week I went in with the focus on self esteem and acceptance. I handed out the index cards and the colored pencils and asked them to write down their three things and their struggles. I explained that I would share my three things throughout our time together. I gave them a few minutes to write and then I gathered the cards. I had them line-up in two lines facing each other with a space in the middle. I explained that we were going to do an activity called Cross the Line that would help them focus on themselves individually, ways they are similar to others in the room, ways they are different, things that define them, and things that make them feel certain ways. I explained that the middle space was a place for reflection and that it was important that the room was silent while we reflected. I stressed the importance of treating others with dignity while we participated in this activity. I also gave them permission to not share even if a statement applied to them. They were free to not cross the line, but I wanted them to really reflect on how they felt. For example; the statement “I have a dog” might cause sadness inside because your dog recently passed away and you don’t want to share at this time, but you recognize the feeling of sadness. I also participated in this activity with them giving them the opportunity to see ways we were alike and ways we were different.
One of the statements in the activity said, “You are adopted” and I stepped into the open space. I know that there are several students who could identify with this statement but they all hesitated until they saw me standing in the middle, not looking at them, not judging, and they quietly accepted the statement as a part of their identity. After the activity, they all wanted more information about me being adopted and so I briefly shared that experience with them. This led us to an art activity. I had an image of a fingerprint on a piece of white paper. On each line, I had written about myself. I used many colors. I wrote down easy things and I wrote down painful experiences. I showed them my finished art and they immediately asked why I had colored over some of my statements with a marker and highlighted or circled others. I explained that the colored over things were too painful to share, but that I recognize they are part of who I am. The highlighted things were important to me or made me feel really good about myself or were my talents. Our experiences shape who we are and when we are able to accept that and love ourselves we have the ability to be kinder and more understanding to others. We also need to get to know ourselves in order to plan for the future. I explained that I was afraid of fire. My family had a chimney fire in the middle of the night when I was young and it was scary. I have always been a worrier when we have a wood fire. I asked them if they thought I should be a firefighter when I grew up and they all said NO WAY! They understood the connection. I gave them time to write about themselves. Some of them wrote, others drew small icons, others just sat and doodled.
My Insights from Week 2
30 minutes is not long enough!! I realized that I hadn’t left much time for real discussions this week so I need to adjust for that. Some of the index cards were more enlightening this week and many included personal things from the activity that they shared. Some students wrote the exact same thing as the week before. The struggles were still very limited and I noticed that the cards that did include an actual struggle also did not include a name because apparently you have to remind them to put their names on the card, it is not just implied. #thenamestruggleisreal
This week my focus was still on self esteem, positive self talk, and teaching people how to treat you. I handed out the index cards and thanked them for helping me get to know them. I felt like a role play was necessary to really help them understand the reason for the card activity. I explained that if I were meeting a new friend it would look like this… I proceeded to role play a getting to know you example where I asked a friend some questions and she answered. My new friend then asked me questions and I answered. I explained that the cards were a way of doing that quickly because there are 30 of them and only one of me. I then role played what would happen if I gave the same three answers to every question my new friend asked. This had them giggling but the point was made and they agreed to write three new things they wanted me to know about them on the front of the card and one struggle on the back of the card. I also reminded them that their name on the card was super important 🙂
For this week’s activity, I purchased two apples, a tube of toothpaste, paper plates, and a toothpick. Prior to the activity, I deliberately bruised one of the apples without leaving a mark on the outside. I showed them the apples and I asked them how apples were like humans. The answers varied from having skin, having a core, having flesh, being different colors, being different shapes, having different tastes, etc. I told them that just like words can damage and hurt us, words can damage an apple. I then asked them to say mean and hurtful things to the apple. I had singled out a child that I noticed from previous activities as being vocal and not particularly mindful of the things they said from each class to gauge how hurtful the statements were using a tube of toothpaste. For really hurtful statements a big dollop of toothpaste on the plate and for less hurtful statements a smaller dollop of toothpaste on the plate.
The 5th grade focused on the apple itself. It was an ugly color of red, it was fat on the top and skinny on the bottom, it was mushy on the inside or too crisp, it was sour, it had seeds, it had a sticker.
The 6th grade took this to a new level that honestly broke my heart. The apple was ugly, worthless, stupid, nobody likes him, he should die in a hole, fat, smelly, and so much more. I felt sick just listening to them knowing that these were the things being said daily. We did this until the toothpaste tubes were empty.
Both classes were asked to say only nice things to the other apple. When we finished saying nice things, I cut both apples in half and showed them what their words had done. The apple that we spoke mean things to was deeply bruised clear to the core. I asked how they felt about that. I let them share. I asked if they thought that they things said to them bruised them like the apple and they agreed. I then asked them if they thought they had the ability to hurt and bruise themselves with their words. This was a more difficult concept to grasp for the 5th grade.
In the 6th grade, one of the questions I asked provoked a response of “My friends tell me to die in a hole and it is funny because I know they love me and don’t want me to die” I explained that while it is true, sometimes hurtful things are hurtful because of who is saying them, that it is important to treat yourself with respect and dignity. If you allow friends to say these types of things, and someone who is not your friend hears you laughing, you have now taught them that it is acceptable to say it. Perhaps they are also trying to be your friend.
The 6th grade discussion was amazing and thought provoking. Once the discussions were winding down, I handed a toothpick to the toothpaste students and told them that I would need to brush my teeth tonight so I would need them to please put all of the toothpaste back into the tube using the toothpick. The room was absolutely silent. I waited and watched the reaction. They all said “That’s impossible” “It can’t be done” but one student said “I can’t do that for you. Once the words are said they can’t be taken back.” This lesson took 45 minutes and the teachers didn’t care because the impact in the room was felt by everyone.
My Insights from Week 3
I cried on my way to work today. I cried about the lesson and the horrible things being said and I cried for our children who lack self esteem. How does that happen? How did we get here? Has it always been like this? I tried to remember my time in those grades and while I do feel like kids were cruel, I really feel that students today are more cruel. There is a level of disconnect and isolation that is scary. I went home and asked my own kids to remember that words like that could be the last straw for a child with no support and no hope. This week, I feel strongly that Future Ready with the Library only works if students are able to see a future. They can only do that if they are able to see themselves. How do I help them? What is my role? The index cards were better this week with students opening up and sharing both fun facts and struggles. The struggles were still very school related and a big one this week was bullying.
Part 3- Weeks 4 tp 6
This week my focus was on identifying individual strengths and working as a team. I passed out index cards and waited. This process is getting shorter each week because they already know what they want to write down. I began with a discussion about some of my own weaknesses and strengths. I’m short. I have strong legs. When I was in high school, I was trusted to be the base of the pyramids. I couldn’t be the top because I was too big, but my role was important, without me there was no pyramid. I’m creative. I’m slow. I split them into groups and gave them each a paper plate. I asked them to talk as a group and identify an individual strength. I walked around and encouraged them to think of strengths that would be useful in problem solving. Once they had their strength written on the paper plate, we moved to the gym. I told them they would need to cross to the other side of the gym on the paper plates. They would need to use each other’s strengths to get across. I also told them that they would need to work together and that sometimes the obvious leader doesn’t have the right strength to get them across. I then sat back and watched as they struggled.
Teamwork is such a fascinating concept. There were the obvious leaders who thought they could just boss their way across and they failed. There were the clowns who tried sliding only to find themselves alone. There were the students who prefered to not engage, they quietly watched their group. I emphasized that they would need to cross as a team leaving no one behind. As I watched, I noticed a group struggling more than the others. A small, quiet girl had pulled away from the group with tears in her eyes. I quietly approached the group and asked what was going on. The group “leader” expressed that the girl wasn’t participating. I asked the “leader” to tell me why the girl was crying to which she replied “How would I know, she doesn’t ever talk!” I glanced over and saw those sad eyes grow even sadder at the comment and I said quietly “So her strength isn’t talking…what is it?” Her paper plate said that she was a creative artist. The “leader” grew even more frustrated saying “How will that help?” I leaned closer to the small girl and I asked her if she had an idea about the problem. She shook her head and said “no,” so I helped her with a solution.
I stepped back as her team gathered around her and started talking to her about a solution. She used the paper plates to show them the idea. The team decided to try it and they laid down the plates and one by one stood on them. Then with her on the lead plate, the second (the “leader”) in line stepped from her plate to the lead plate holding onto the small girl as they shared the space moving everyone up a plate. The end person picked up the plate and passed it to the front and they all moved again. This team crossed the gym 6 times while they waited for the other teams to get the hang of it. At the end of the activity, I asked what they had learned and was surprised when “the leader” spoke up and said sometimes you don’t have to say anything at all to be a leader. They all learned the power of valuing their own strengths and the strengths of others.
My Insights from Week 4
The index cards were amazing this week. So many insights into what is making these children tick. So many small statements about wanting to be accepted and loved. So many confessions about behavior they weren’t proud of. The breakthrough this week happened with the struggles. So many struggles on the cards from mean stepparents to sibling rivalry to thoughts about feeling hopeless. These were hard for me because I’m not in a position to help, and yet sometimes just writing it down lessens the burden. One thing that I did differently this week was respond to the struggles of each child with something positive, a message that they mattered, a reminder that I valued them and why. I have been keeping notes on each student, their likes, their dislikes, the things they share so I used that to give them a positive message. The reaction was priceless 🙂
The teachers asked specifically for this week’s focus to be on bullying. I had mixed feelings about the topic going into the classroom. The bullying is so different in the boys and girls. I went in with an idea of the activities that I was going to do and during the time that the students were writing on their index cards, I discarded all my plans and went a different direction. We started by defining bullying. I asked them what it looked like, what it felt like, who was a bully, who had been bullied. We talked about the idea that bullying was an overused term that sometimes was a simple matter of using our own power to communicate. We role played some obvious bullying situations, some not so obvious, some disagreements that weren’t bullying at all, and some cyber-bullying. These students identified literally every negative interaction with a peer as bullying. When I asked them to define it, they gave the school response almost word for word. We then did an interesting point of view role play. It began with the fight…the bullying situation. Then the students got to give their perspectives on what happened. It opened up a conversation about how sometimes the things we are dealing with personally will spill over and cause problems in other areas of our lives. The boy in the role play had fought with his mom about a science project. His mother was angry that he procrastinated. He felt bad about the things that his mother had said to him, about the project, and he was tired from staying up late finishing it. When he got to school, another boy ran into him on accident and he angrily reacted calling him names which resulted in a shoving match. I asked them if this situation was bullying and the first response was yes…then a short hesitation. I had them split into two groups, one that would argue that it was bullying and one would argue that it was not. It was fun to watch them be understanding and put that into words.
In the end they decided it was not bullying. I asked them to write down a time they were bullied or that they bullied someone else. I asked them to come up with a reason why. They either needed to write why they bullied or they needed to empathize with the person that bullied them. They crumpled up the papers and threw them like snowballs. Each student collected a snowball and then we stood in a circle and faced each other while we read them out loud. Many of them were silly. There were quite a few that were serious and though it was anonymous, the situations were known to the students. At one point, a girl actually apologized to another girl in the circle and told everyone why she had behaved the way she had. I didn’t dwell on it, simply moved on but they were able to make the connection that sometimes situations aren’t what they seem.
My Insights from Week 5
I’m loving the index cards! I really feel like it connects me to the students and helps lead the direction of the next weeks discussions. I feel like it has also helped me to identify students who are struggling more than others, feeling isolated, hopeless, and in need of some positive. I’ve used the cards several times to choose what questions to ask, how to ask them, and to bring up ideas that start bigger conversations. I’m feeling frustrated this week though. Originally, I was supposed to be in the classroom every week until the summer break. Today, the principal told me we would be taking a break during their state testing…a four week break. I feel like any ground that I have gained will be lost with a break. I didn’t argue the situation simply because I’m using it to inform the actual project so I will determine in four weeks what was lost.
Week 6–after a 4 week break
I went to the classroom today with a team-building exercise. I spent several minutes quieting the students, reminding them of our guidelines, and helping them with appropriate responses. The index cards took forever for them to complete. I split them into groups and explained that we would be doing a team building exercise and that they must work together to build a pyramid using red solo cups, a rubber band, and string. They were not allowed to touch the cups with any part of their body and if I came by and only one person in the group was building, then their pyramid would be knocked down. There were a lot of put downs, a lot of students unwilling to work with certain people, name calling, and other behavior. I stopped the activity and we discussed our number one guideline…treating people with dignity. I allowed them to continue and after several failed attempts they started working together.
My Insights from Week 6
The break was detrimental to our progress. The index cards were basically the same as Week 1. I spoke with the principal today and expressed this. He agreed and told me that the teachers had also noticed an effect in their classrooms. I told him I felt that this need to be taught every week..rain or shine.
During the break, I was approached by a local National Monument with extra money to spend for the education of Native American pre-teen girls. I excitedly told him about the Future Ready with the Library project and we planned an activity on self esteem, positive self talk, and dealing with difficult people, difficult situations, and bullying. I shared this with the principal and we talked about the idea of having a few of our lessons be just for the boys and just for the girls. I am also going to partner with the local girls home to bring a few of them over to share their stories with the girls. I think the biggest partnership idea that I made during this break from the classroom is with the local high school. I know it is still the school, but there is a major disconnect in our community. I pitched the idea of possibly creating a mentoring project and it was well received. We are still working out the details.
The school feels that there should be a mentoring class that students sign-up for. I feel that doing that defeats the purpose. Students who sign-up for mentoring are probably ones who already feel that they have something to offer. They are students with good grades, talents, popularity, etc. I want this program to have an impact for everyone. If a student who has always felt bad about themselves, doesn’t feel like a leader, doesn’t feel like they have anything to offer, doesn’t get the best grades, ect. comes to the elementary school and is asked to find lonely students on the playground or at lunch and then make a difference, they are empowered. They feel needed. They are giving something that is much needed to our little elementary students and at the same time they are taking a much needed dose of self esteem. It’s almost such a big idea that it is overwhelming.
I feel strongly that the core of today’s social and emotional growth begins with the disconnect and what better way to create connection? Student’s can’t begin to imagine their futures when they are feeling so alone, so isolated, and so hopeless. Future Ready in my little part of the world begins with the basics of self love, kindness, and connection to others.
* Back to Part 1 – Introduction
* Back to Part 2 – Weeks 1 to 3
* Back to Part 3 – Weeks 4 to 6