Saturday, November 15, 2008

Machon: Two Steps Forward . . .Maybe

In the past few years, I have written quite a bit about the problems we have had with Machon--the teen religious education program at our synagogue.

This year, we enrolled the Boychick once again, and he has been attending on Wednesday nights, albeit reluctantly. It takes quite a bit of arranging to get him across the mountain each week. We carpool with his friend A., who also attends Machon. Every Wednesday he is picked up after school by A.'s mom, who drives both boys and a third who lives off of Frost road between the A. house and EMHS. They get to Machon in time to have dinner. This is a new feature this year: for $44/semester the kids can eat at the synagogue and have social time together as they eat. Then they have their Jewish Studies class for one hour hour, followed by an elective (another new feature this year), followed by a weekday evening service. It all ends at about 8:15 PM. I leave the COE Graduate Writing Studio at 7 PM, and I arrive at the temple at about 7:20. I wait in the lounge for the boys to be finished, and I drive A. home, and we arrive home after 9:00 PM.

There does seem to be a curriculum this year, though I have not yet got a written copy of it. This semester, the Boychick has a course on the history of Israel and Zionism for Jewish Studies, and his elective is Israeli Martial Arts. Next term, he will take A Jewish Guide to American Christianity for Jewish Studies, and Jewish Community Leadership for his elective.

And so it has been going well. Or so I thought from my perspective from the chair in the lounge where I waited for the boys to finish. Or so I thought until the day after the election. I arrive quite late that evening, it was almost 8 PM when I strolled into the lounge. C. was waiting there for me. She is the Special Education Liason for Machon. She pulled me aside and began:

C: "We need to talk about your son."
Me, to myself, parenthetically: (Why does he cease to have a name whenever there's a problem).
Me, out loud: "Oh?"
C: "He doesn't want to be here you know."
Me, to myself, parenthetically: (Tell me something new, lady).
Me, out loud: "I know."
C: "He has been disruptive lately, and K. (the new director) called me in to deal with it."
Me: "How long has this been a problem?"

To make a long story short, I was floored to find out that the Boychick had supposedly been disruptive from the beginning of the year. Why is the parent the last to know?
That led to this conversation with K., the new director of education.

K: "He has been disruptive since the first day, according to the teacher."
Me: "Why wasn't I told immediately?"
K: "Mr. S is a very dynamic teacher, and we decided to try a few things first."
C: "I think they wanted to call me in first . . ."
Me: "I see. (I really didn't see at all). Why wasn't I told about this at the beginning?"
K: "Sometimes we like to try some things first before we involve the parent."
Me, to myself, parenthetically: (Wow. Involving the parent is the last priority?)
Me, out loud: "So can you please tell me what the discipline policy in the classroom is? What interventions did you try?"
C: Mr. S is a very dynamic teacher, and there are a lot of discussions. This should be right up the Boychick's alley. But he's very angry. He wouldn't even look at me."
Me, using Premack's Principle*: "What is the discipline policy in the classroom? What interventions did you try?"
C: Tonight, when Mr. S. asked the Boychick what he thought of the election, the Boychick put his foot up on the desk and said: "This is all a bunch of crap!" He was very disrespectful."
Me, to myself, parenthetically: (I'm getting none of my questions answered. Hmmm. The election, I wonder if that's the trigger?)
Me, with one more try at Premack: "So what did you say the discipline policy in the classroom is? And what interventions have you tried with the Boychick?
K, defensively: "We really can't allow him in the classroom if he continues to be disruptive."
Me, to myself, parenthetically: (Wow! They just now tell me there's a problem and they want to kick him out. It is apparent that they haven't tried anything at all, and it is clear that this new director has not been on top of this. I wonder if the teacher even told her about it before last week? I bet not).
Me, out loud: "Well, I will talk to the Boychick and he will get a consequence for his disrespectful remark this week. But I really cannot punish him for anything in the past since I am unclear about what exactly he did, which classroom norms he violated, and what was done in response. In the meantime, it would be very helpful if you could find out exactly what has been going on in the classroom. Has this teacher had any classroom management training?"
Me, feeling steamed from being blindsided: "I'll take the silence to mean 'no.' "

First, the Boychick did have his computer internet privileges removed for a week. The restoration of said interent privileges was contingent on a good report from the next class. C. was to be in there to monitor.

Then I had a long talk with the Boychick to find out what was triggering the behavior, which I learned was mostly a passive refusal to participate, with occasional dramatic refusals to participate. I knew there had to be a trigger. And sure enough, there was. It took awhile to get the story out of the Boychick and in an understandable sequence (that's an AS characteristic)but on the first day of class, Mr. S. had a discussion about the election (this was in September). When asked, the Boychick, a proud NRA member, said he was rooting for McCain.

Digression: I should have warned him about that. His AS blinds him to the fact that many Reform Jews are well to the left of Bill Clinton. And many of those also have the that "but of course everyone with a brain agrees" mentality. Aspies do not even begin to understand those vibes, and they also tend to be naive about the nature of political disagreement in the post-20th century world.

Note: The Boychick's support of McCain was entirely his own decision. In our household, we have one registered Democrat who votes like an independent, one registered Libertarian, who votes third party and write-in, and one too young to vote. The Chem Geek Princess is our only major-party voter, and the only one registered Republican in our family in five generations.

Anyway, the teacher was surprised, and the other kids--mostly supporting Obama--determined that the Boychick was a pariah from that moment on. A new kid in the class, one who did not know the Boychick, became the ringleader of a clique who decided to convince the Boychick of the error of his ways. Failing that over the next few weeks, they decided to snub and ridicule him. Being an Aspie, the Boychick's all-or-nothing thinking kicked in, and he decided that nobody there liked him, and that everybody hated him, including the temple administrator. "She glared at me, Mom."
Probably not.
But that was his impression.
And beneath that Aspie exterior, the Boychick has tender feelings. So he responded badly whenever the class discussed the election.

Last week, I e-mailed K. and requested a meeting. In my e-mail I made it clear that I understood that the Boychick's disrespectful remark was unacceptable and that he had received consequences for it. And I also pointed out that had I been told of the problem immediately, we could have intervened before the bullying situation had a chance to become routine. And finally, I said that I expected the politically motivated bullying to be ended immediately.

And then the Engineering Geek and I began to consider other options.
I really expected that nothing would be done. Past experience set my low expectations.
The Chem Geek Princess endured over five years of bullying there. And despite numerous attempts on my part to put an end to the situation, nothing was done. The chief bully was the son of some of the rabbi's groupies.
Finally, the Chem Geek Princess became fed-up enough to slap the bully in the face one day during Confirmation class. That was the last time anyone made a cutting remark about her or anyone else in her presence.
But she has also determined not to darken the door of this synagogue again. Too many bad memories.

When I came into the office this past Wednesday however, K. apologized for leaving me in the dark. Further, she confessed that the teacher had only come to her recently about the Boychick, and that this teacher was inexperienced and had no classroom management skills. C. told me that she had gone in and helped the teacher set up the classroom to include all of the kids, as a few, including the Boychick, had been sitting on the fringes.

Then I mentioned the bullying behavior that had started all of this.
I insisted that there needed to be an intervention about bullying for all the students, done in such a way that the Boychick is not singled out as the complainant. I also insisted that the students be taught about the First Amendment to the US Constitution, with an emphasis on freedom of speech, and the need for tolerance of political viewpoints. I pointed out that this particular Constitutional Amendment is very important to American Jews, because of the protection for religious expression. It was agreed that this special topic would be covered in a special session in February. (December's special session had already been planned).
In the meantime, I was told, K. would pull the New Kid aside for a personal talk, and the teacher would be instructed to give a short, general talk about political speech and bullying.

This is very interesting. A new reaction to an old problem.

Although letting the problem grow and keeping me in the dark was one step back, the interventions could be two steps forward.
That would mean that we are making some small progress at Machon.

I am cautiously optimistic.


Kaber said...

at least they FINALLY got around to doing somehting productive about it.I can;t belive they waited this llong to tell you and they danced around your question like that. WAY ANNOYING!!

christinemm said...

Around here most class things don't tell the parents of the issues. That goes for every single thing I've been involved in as a participant and as a volunteer leader. It is homeschooling, community, and church. All of it.

Everyone is afraid to tick off the parent. No one wants to "confront" the parent. Many see "addressing the issue" as "confrontation" which is negative in their eyes. (I don't get it.)

Or perhaps they are cowards.

Yet those adults in leadership positions often will not be bothered by bugging the kid or negative ramifications that might happen due to the not-addressing it. What I mean is the type of thing where a bad behaving kid bothers others, bugs them and winds up being hated by the other kids. If the issue was addressed right away and maybe fixed, then perhaps the kids would then like the child.

My kids tell me who the hated kids are, the pains in the necks, the ones who are always the problem. I always wonder if their parents have a clue.

In nearly all my leadership roles I have someone over me who dictates what I can say to the parents, etc. I am not always in control to do what I think is right and best.

I blogged a couple of years ago about an insight I had where a bad behaving kid at day camp, it clicked with me that what was happening was the kids behavior made him hated. I saw in just days how the kid was ostracized. I saw the boy noticing it. For example no one would sit next to him, so while walking to the next thing he would fall back and walk slowly so he would have to be allowed to take the last open spot instead of having kids tell him he can't sit there, or they were saving the spot for someone else, or to see them get up and leave for elsewhere.

I have also seen signs of nonverbal learning disorder, Asperger's and possibly food related allergic or sensitive reactions and wonder if anyone ever told the parent to check it out. I doubt it. And I am not going to 'go there' either especially when some authority is over me and when my saying something might cause an uproar in the organization. I'm not an expert anyway. But what is sad is to hear statistics of kids like AS and nonverbal learning disorder that if they don't get certain treatment and special training such as on social cues etc they can wind up committing suicide or in depression by teen years or even in adulthood.

"Do the right thing not what is easiest" is the way I try to live (when allowed).

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Kaber: Yes, being blindsided is never fun. At the same time that I was mortified that my flesh and blood was causing a problem, I was also "way annoyed" that I was kept in the dark about it. How can I effectively discipline him if I am blissfully unaware of the problem?

Christine: What is most interesting about all of this is that I had written a letter to the new director, apprising her of the Boychick's AS status, and the likely social issues this creates. I specifically said that I would be sitting in the lounge and that she should interrupt whatever I was doing if problems arose.

What I suspect is that a misplaced sense of PC meant that the actual classroom teacher was never informed of any of this, and so attempted to solve the problems "normally" which--since he also our local Jewish Federation Director--would be more like what you would do when dealing with the elderly who get confused.

I am frustrated because, now I suspect that this Federation Director has developed a bad opinion of the Boychick, and will now never see the many positive aspects of being an Aspie and will carry this prejudice on into his professional life. An opportunity was missed because my expertise in this area was discounted.

Also, bullying that is allowed to continue becomes much harder to stop. The best way to deal with it is to nip it in the bud, before some kids get the reputation of being bullies and others, of being the bullied. Another opportunity missed.

The saddest part of my experience in being an advocate for my son, a person with a neurological disability, is that I see this all of the time. The kid looks normal, and it is really hard for people to see beyond that and "get it" that the usual methods of dealing with behavior will not work and will make things worse for everyone.

Anonymous said...

I thought you dealt with this situation with grace and sensitivity. I'm sorry that your son is having such a difficult time in what should be a joyful exploration of his heritage. Fortunately the Boychick has a supportive, educated mom, who is assertive and secure enough to advocate for him, to detoxify the situation. It seems that they have no clue. I suppose there's no possibility of homeschooling Machon?


Susan Ryan said...

oh, boy...good wishes for N in that he gains some positive strokes in the class. I remember being blind-sided as a mom when my kids were in school. The shocked mind can easily turn to fuzz and no coherent plan from anyone. Good job commandeering the situation.

It's so disheartening when so much can be gained and opportunities are lost.

I agree that the bullying is harder to stop once it's been allowed to go on. Looks like it's dependent on the teacher's sensibilities and capabilities, so hopefully the teacher will be carefully guided.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


We did homeschool Machon in the Spring Semester of 2007. Although the Boychick learned much more about Jewish tradition, there are drawbacks. One is that, since we are a minority group, the interaction with the Jewish community is vital to the education of a Jewish child. Unless you live in a big city, it is unlikely that you will encounter Jews and Jewish sensibilities in daily life, so the synagogue assumes a larger role.
My teacher, Joel Lurie Grishaver, likened it to the artificiality of a zoo in his essay, "Welcome to the Gorilla Habitat."

Susan: Yep. It's always something with Machon. I am guessing that it has something to do with the fact that it is like 'the Gorilla habitat.'