Charis Denison Speaks to Parents

By Theresa Eisenberg
Crossways, Branson School — February 2005

“I believe it is imperative that our students see these topics as community issues and not just personal challenges.”
—Charis Denison to Branson parents

If you’ve ever wanted to have that certain conversation with your student but couldn’t find the right words, or worse, found yourself shutting down a conversation with the wrong words—you’re not alone. You may have wondered why, when it comes to discussing issues such as drugs, alcohol and sexuality, it can be so uncomfortable. Much of the difficulty is due to the fact that, until we need to have these conversations with our children, we just haven’t had much practice.

Branson’s Health Education consultant, Charis Denison has had those conversations with teenagers over and over for the past seventeen years.

On the evening of January 19, Branson parents of Juniors and Seniors were invited to participate in an informal conversation with Charis and learn how Branson is working to better support our students in acquiring the tools and developing the skills to make healthy and safe choices.

In her sixteen years of teaching and administrative service in independent schools, she has taught English and Human Development, design[ed] and implement[ed] Community Involvement, Human Development, Health, Ethics, Social Justice and Experiential Education programs, and run her own consulting business. Additionally, she is a national consultant for the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education and the Durango Institute in Colorado, which takes her across the country writing and designing programs, curriculum, and workshops in social justice, assertiveness training, ethics, health issues, and experiential education. The award-winning educator has co-authored “Tolerance for Others” a curriculum for middle school development classes. Closer to home, Charis has worked with Administrators in several Bay Area schools including Marin Academy, San Francisco Day School, Burkes School, Athenian School, and The Harker School. At the Urban School of San Francisco, she taught and mentored community service, human development, and social justice programs. Charis was asked by Branson to teach the Human Development program after having been brought in as a consultant to write and develop the curriculum. She credits Branson for its commitment to educating and nurturing the development of the whole individual and valuing that aspect of its program as much as its rigorous academic program “so students may leave Branson equipped with the skills to be healthy and caring adults.”

Topics of discussion included the social and personal challenges our students face, the importance of understanding where those challenges come from and how that relates to helping them identify what they feel, what they think, and what they want. As parents and educators, “how do we help them access those parts of themselves that allow them to better care for themselves?”

As a guest teacher in the Freshman Seminar, Charis addresses gender issues, body image, ethics and morals. She is in her second year of teaching the Sophomore Seminar, a program she wrote and has aptly named “Choices and Challenges.” While the curriculum is structured, her teaching style is relaxed and informal and sprinkled with humor—creating a more comfortable setting in which to discuss some tough topics. When a parent asked: “Do the kids talk?” The answer was “Absolutely. They are very forthcoming.” There are frequent optional assignments that are offered that allow students to express their concerns and share their thoughts privately, and if desired, anonymously. Charis noted that it is often the student who rarely speaks up in class who participates in all the optional assignments. An optional assignment might be reflecting on how one managed a difficult situation the previous week or what one’s goal might be for the coming week. On February 18th, she will conduct a workshop for Juniors that will focus on Power, Accountability, and Decision-Making and how they relate to personal safety and risk. Challenges such as alcohol and drug use, consensual and nonconsensual sex, and abstinence are issues that will be discussed. What gets in the way of teens taking charge of their own lives, speaking up for [them]selves, and being assertive when they are uncomfortable? Recently, Charis conducted a workshop for Senior students that focused on these areas, as well as the additional focus on the changes students face as they transition to college and the “real world.”

All of these classes are coed, but occasionally girls and boys are broken into separate groups where they might have an opportunity to come up with questions they have always wanted to ask the other group. The questions are written on paper and read aloud when the groups get back together. Safety in numbers allows the students to answer one another’s questions as a group. Exercises such as role-playing and role reversal are effective in providing students an opportunity to practice how they would handle difficult situations. For both boys and girls, the ability to be assertive when one is uncomfortable provides a sense of entitlement. Charis’ students practice identifying how they feel about a particular issue and work on developing awareness of how he or she would feel if facing a certain situation. Understanding how one feels and being aware of what one hopes to have happen increases the ability to make good choices and achieving a desired outcome. “Identifying what one thinks, feels, and wants, and what one means and does not mean, is essential to one’s ability to make a decision or a choice ahead of time.”

According to Charis, our students, particularly girls, are taught not to plan ahead. Instructed to avoid alcohol, drugs, and sex, they are condemning themselves to unacceptable behavior if they should consciously consider engaging in those activities. Instead, they will avoid thinking about it and choose to “see what happens.” Then, because there is no plan, things “just happen.” A choice was made that was not healthy or safe. She’s heard it many times: “I knew the driver was drunk but I couldn’t imagine calling my parents. I thought, well, it’s ten minutes out of my life.” Charis emphasizes to her students that they are allowed to decide how they want their day, evening, or weekend to happen—just like they do academically. When there is an expected outcome and a plan is in place, then one can better recognize when a situation is changing and the plan needs to be revised.

Acknowledging “the statistics are staggering,” Charis listed some of the most startling:

  • one in five teens has sex before age 15
  • one in four will acquire an STD
  • 58% of women ages 16-22 don’t remember losing their virginity because of drugs and alcohol
  • 37% reported they were more sexually active than they planned because of drug and alcohol use
  • one in four female college freshmen will be involved in some sort of acquaintance rape

As evidenced by these statistics, when the situation changed, most individuals did not have a plan and were unprepared.

Charis suggests that along with not being taught to formulate a plan for social outcomes, teens have fewer chances to experiment safely. She attributes much of this to fewer extracurricular activities, as schools become more and more academic. Many students are over-prepared academically, yet, under-prepared to deal with the core details of how to take care of themselves. Charis addressed the enormous stress students have around college and observed that many of them are dropping subjects and activities that are their biggest strengths so they can qualify … for college. In response to a question asking what parents can do for their students who don’t have the choices for college, Charis offered this: “Encourage your student to seek a place, a community, where it is natural to excel.”

“Kids want connection, power, and validation. Your biggest hurdle is validating what your child is experiencing and if you minimize that, you’ve lost them. Parents are sounding boards—a good place to dump. They want a place to put something that has happened to them. Your kids want to please you so badly. … And to those parents whose kids aren’t talking to them right now—even more you! Our kids are harder on themselves than even we are. It’s your kid’s job to distance from you and they try so hard to distance. Their job assignment is to retreat, self-define, yell, and whine. It is a time for them to be more influenced by their peer group.”

When friends and colleagues ask Charis if she misses teaching English, she has this to say: “As much as I loved discussing Chaucer, what I really wanted to know was what that teenage boy daydreaming in the back row was thinking about. I love being with these kids. They are so hopeful. They’re on the precipice.”