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Helping Middle School Kids Make Better Decisions by Barbara Kerr

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"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

----Victor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning 

In the 1980s, in an agricultural county in central California, teen pregnancy rates were soaring off the charts. Parents and educators were becoming alarmed by the number of babies being born to teenage girls, many of whom dropped out of school. Barry Sommer, an educational psychologist and school administrator, was called on to design a program that would engage teens and help reduce the number of teen pregnancies. Sommer developed a decision-making model to help students become more conscious of their ability not only to make choices but to make better, more responsible decisions. The model combined rational thinking about options and consequences with more emotionally based considerations including long-term goals, priorities, family and cultural values, and levels of comfort with risk.

That six-step model for decision making was successful enough that Barry and I teamed up to write a book that would demonstrate how the model could be of value to middle school kids and those who care about them. The resulting book, You Can Choose Your Own Life: Stories for Decision Making, was first published by the California Psychologists Press in 1981. In July of 2021, we published a revised and updated edition to meet the needs of twenty-first-century adolescents.

You Can Choose Your Own Life, currently available in both print and electronic versions on amazon.com is written in a user-friendly format that is similar to the old choose-your-own-adventure series. Each reader creates a unique pathway through a story, making decisions and turning to another page depending on what they decide (the electronic version allows students to simply click on a link as they make choices. Then they are whisked to another page in cyberspace to find out the result of their choice.) After making several decisions along the pathway and finding out "what happened" after each choice, students read both a short-term prediction and a long-term prediction, which are based on the pattern of those choices.

While the stories in Choose Your Own Life are designed to provide experiential learning for students in a safe and fun environment, a short introductory chapter demonstrates the simple, empowering model for decision making. Students are invited to imagine themselves as Phil, a boy who has recently moved to a new town and school, and who is attending a party with new friends. His parents have given him a curfew, but as that time nears, he realizes that all the other kids will be staying later. The student reader follows Phil's thought process as he gathers information, develops options, considers possible consequences, and weighs his values before making his choice, which turns out to be a decision to call his parents and ask for permission to stay at the party another hour.

This decision-making model can help students with the choices they make throughout the book. If the book is used in an SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) program, facilitators may encourage students to try some "risky" rather than "safe" choices now and then just to see what the consequences might be. For example, what if a character gives in to peer pressure and joins others in drinking alcohol behind the school gym? As readers make their way through the stories, they may discover that after making a somewhat weak choice, they may still recover by making better decisions as they continue along their chosen pathway. For example, in the story about cyberbullying, the protagonist may make the decision to confront the suspected bully on his own. He may later choose to seek help from a trusted adult.

Kids also learn that by making considered choices, they will feel more empowered and more able to have at least some control over what happens to them on a daily basis. For example, they don't have to do something just because "everyone is doing it." They don't have to be paralyzed with shame or fear when a bully harasses them in the real world or in the realm of cyberspace. They may also learn to think creatively to develop more options when a problem arises at home, at school, or in a variety of social situations. In the story "All in the Family," for example, the young girl protagonist tries to think of options for dealing with the violence between her mother and stepfather. Should she interfere when they fight? Stay away from home as much as possible? Do everything she can to protect her mother and sister by keeping peace in the home?

In writing You Can Choose Your Own Life, we chose situations that have long been part of the middle school experience. It has long been true that middle-school kids find themselves facing new and difficult challenges at a time when they are experimenting with independence from parents and teachers. Their world opens up to new ideas, new friends, and new experiences as well as new responsibilities and challenges. None of that is especially new. In recent years, however, the challenges that confront our middle-schoolers have increased with the growth of technology and social media. Kids often do not know where to turn when they "get in over their heads" experiencing peer pressure or finding themselves victimized on social media. Many young teens face increasing exposure to illegal substances and substance abuse in general. And it is not uncommon for these young people to have to make difficult choices about whether to live with their mom or dad.

You Can Choose Your Own Life includes five separate, interactive stories, each of which involves a situation relevant to today's young teens. 

Who's In Charge?

A boy is sitting in math class sketching and feeling bored and angry. When the teacher takes his drawing from him, the boy feels rage at the teacher who has embarrassed him. The reader is invited to imaginatively stand in the boy's shoes as he works through his angry feelings. 



Drinking at the School Dance

A girl is happily anticipating dancing with a boy she likes at a school dance. But she soon learns that a group of kids is drinking behind the dumpsters outside the gym. Peer pressure is on as friends try to convince her to drink with them. 

All in the Family

A girl is sitting alone in her room listening to a violent scene between her mother and stepfather. She is worried and scared--not only for herself but for her mom and her nine-year-old sister. 

Are We Ready for This?

A boy has a crush on a girl, Luci. The other boys tease him about his crush, and he is trying to decide whether to ask Luci to an unchaperoned party on the weekend. 

Cyberbullying is Still Bullying

A girl reluctantly tells her friend that she is being harassed and threatened by someone who is texting her anonymously. The reader is invited to imaginatively stand in the shoes of either the girl who is being cyberbullied or the boy who is her friend and wants to help her resolve the problem. 

At the opening of each story, the student reader is invited to choose an avatar from three portraits so he or she can imagine stepping into the character's shoes. The facial expressions of the avatars and their animal companions reflect an emotion that the character may be feeling in the opening scenario. We worked with a talented artist, Fache DeRochers, to develop the avatars. Fache had the wonderful idea to pair an animal companion with each avatar. This idea grew out of her reading Phillip Pullman's fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials (now a television series as well). The animals can be thought of as the avatars' emotions, such as anger, nervous anticipation, sadness, uncertainty, and fear.

Below are the avatars and the opening scenario for the first story, "Who's In Charge?" which helps kids understand how to manage frustration, anger, and embarrassment. 

Imagine yourself in this situation:

You are sitting in your math class at Riverside Middle School. The teacher, Mr. Korda, tries to explain a complicated math concept, but you cannot concentrate on what he is saying.

Instead, you are drawing a picture. It is a portrait. Although it looks good, the right eye needs more work. You begin to lightly erase around that area when Mr. Korda walks up behind you and snatches up your drawing.

"Would you like to explain the concept of factoring to the class?" he booms in a loud voice. "Or are we disturbing your artwork?" he adds sarcastically.

What do you do now? (Go to page 3 to see your choices.)

The student reader turns to the given page and learns that "you have three choices:"

A. You are angry! You say, "Hey! Give it back! I can't help being bored in this class. You do such a poor job explaining math. I could probably teach it better if I felt like it!"

To choose this response, go to page 4.

B. You tell Mr. Korda that you're sorry. You say, "I just kind of got lost in my drawing. But I'm ready to listen. I won't daydream or doodle, honest."

To choose this response, go to page 12.

C. You just sit there. You don't respond to Mr. Korda. When he's not looking, you make a face, and the class starts laughing. You do not even break a smile.

To choose this response, go to page 14. 

Parents of middle-schoolers sometimes complain that the confident, bright, social child they knew as an elementary student suddenly seems to be almost a different person--perhaps more timid, less confident about their abilities, more prone to peer pressure, and reluctant to join in or try new activities. You Can Choose Your Own Life can help parents better understand the kinds of challenges and decisions their kids may be facing. And the kids can regain some of their self-confidence and some sense of control over their circumstances by learning to develop options, consider consequences, and make decisions that will affect their future.

Both parents and program facilitators will appreciate the book's appendix, which includes instructions for implementing the model, as well as specific, detailed teaching lessons complete with a synopsis of each story, a brief summary of each story's lessons and predictions, and a list of engaging discussion questions.

The discussion questions for the story cited above ("Who's In Charge?") are designed to engage students in thinking beyond that specific situation:

1. In the opening scene, the student is caught drawing in math class, and Mr. Korda grabs the student's paper and asks him if he'd like to explain the math lesson. How would you react to Mr. Korda? How might the way you answer influence what Mr. Korda does next?

2.Has a teacher or any other adult ever embarrassed you in front of other people? How did you react? What else can you do if you feel embarrassed or put on the spot by a teacher?

3. How might a teacher feel when a student talks back in front of the class? How might the teacher feel if a student acts like a clown when the teacher is angry? How might the teacher feel if the student acts respectfully after the teacher has become angry?

4. What can you do if you feel a teacher is unfair to you? Who else might be able to help you solve such a conflict? How can you ask for help?

5. What do adults do when they have a conflict? What would your teachers do if they were in a meeting with your school principal and they didn't like something he or she said they must do? What would your mother or father do if she or he disagreed with the boss at work?

6. Why does the class clown get so much attention from peers? Is it good or bad attention? In what other ways can you get attention?

7. Recall or imagine a situation where you were in conflict with some authority. Use a blank decision-making model to work through your choices. 


You Can Choose Your Own Life can be read by and be a benefit to individuals who choose to create pathways through the stories. But we envision that the interactive book will become part of middle-school curricula, especially in programs dedicated to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). The coordinating body for such programs, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), identifies responsible decision making as one of five major aspects of social and emotional learning.

Young teens who learn and apply this method for decision making will find it useful in resolving today's issues, but they will also gain a tool that they will carry with them into adulthood. Our hope is that they will absorb the wisdom of Victor Frankl's words--"the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."


This July 13, Join our upcoming Global Read at 4 pm PDT. Click here for registration and more information! (Register to receive a link to the recording after the event!) 


About the Authors of You Can Choose Your Own Life

Barbara Kerr, Ph.D. is the owner of Emotional Intelligence Insights. She has published a workbook based on the course, Emotional Intelligence for a Compassionate World: Workbook for Enhancing Emotional Intelligence Skills. In addition to earning her doctorate in English, Barbara has completed a post-graduate training course as a Master Certified Executive Coach. She taught and was a tenured professor at College of the Sequoias, and later served as a consultant to colleges and universities in Washington State. She is the author of an adult novel, Letters to My Husband's Analyst;a non-fiction book on reading, Read All Your Life: A Subject Guide to Fiction; co-author of You Can Choose Your Own Life with psychologist Barry Sommer; and author of a middle-grade novel, Laughter for Shazpara.

Barry Sommer is a licensed Educational Psychologist, certified school psychologist, and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Visalia, California. Teaching, training, consultation and facilitation for schools, non-profits, and health organizations is a special interest. His primary goal is to support personal, family, community, and organizational development and health. Barry serves the Lindsay Unified School District and is faculty for Columbia University, teaching graduate courses in conflict management, peacemaking, and psychology, and is the co-author of Beyond Reform: Systemic Shifts to Personalized Learning, Marzano Research, 2017. 

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Tuesday, 04 October 2022
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