15 November 2015

Tales From Middle School and a Sober Discussion on Education

It was a three day group assignment in which students were to create a country wedged in between two existing countries. They had to imagine and record what such a country’s imports, exports, culture, government, etc. might be given its geography. I provided each group with tons of materials and a detailed explanation of what they were to do.

I gave a verbal explanation while projecting those instruction with the overhead projector. I took questions. Everyone seemed to understand, even though they were all 12 and 13 year olds. They got started. After a few minutes I did my rounds checking in on the groups. At the first group I came upon there was a young man who was sitting at his desk staring off into space. I asked the lad why he wasn’t working. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing,” he claimed. I suggested he ask one of his fellow group members. “They don’t know what to do either,” he replied. “None of you know what to do?” I asked them. They shook their heads. I pointed out that the instructions were in the packets they all had.

The next group I approached was sitting idly not a care in the world. I asked what was going on. “We’re finished,” one student announced. The others happily nodded in agreement. I expressed disbelief that they had finished a three day assignment in 15 minutes. One student proudly showed me their work. It was a crudely drawn map with a few names on it, one for the country and others for cities. I asked where the rest of their work was. They were clearly baffled. “The country’s political system, exports, imports, culture, all the things that comprise a country.” They were still baffled. I sighed, “It’s all their in the instructions." They were genuinely surprised to find that there was more to the assignment.

(As a postscript I should point out that both those groups as well as the others in the class ultimately did a fine job with the assignment and presumably learned something.)

On another occasion I was introducing and explaining a rather complex term paper. Giving such assignments always led to a lot of questions. This was my third class of the day and much of the first two classes had been taken up with questions. But this time there were no questions. None. Zero.
Frankly I was worried. “No one has any questions? You all understand?” I asked them. Finally a hand went up. This student had a question. “Is you wearing a new tie?” And that was it for questions.

Once I assigned a term paper that was supposed to be about a famous American who gained their notoriety during the 19th century. I offered several examples, pointing out that this biography could be about a man, woman, politician, explorer, abolitionist, military man, writer, inventor, entrepreneur, suffragist anyone who gained fame in the 1800s. I got an immediate question: “So we can do it on anything?” I said anything as long as it was a person from the 1800s. Another student exclaimed, “I’m going to do it on Tupac.” I pointed out that Tupac Shukar did not live at any point in the 19th century.

Middle school students have notoriously short attention spans as illustrated by another story. Again this was an instance when I had just assigned a term paper. This one required an annotated bibliography. I painstakingly explained what such a bibliography entailed, I got many questions but as class ended most students seemed to understand. One student approached me after the dismissal bell rang and asked if I could again explain what an annotated bibliography was. I, of course, was glad to do so. I had gotten so far as to say: “In an annotated bibliography — ” when the student saw a friend entering the room and asked him if he’d seen “the game last night” the querying student than turned his attention completely away from me, walked over to his friend and never bothered to follow up on his question. A few weeks later the student turned in a paper sans any sort of bibliography. In grading his paper I pointed out that he should have stuck around to get his question answered. Now some might say that I should have tracked the young man down and finished my explanation but I felt I was teaching him a better lesson by making him "pay the price."

One of the most frequently asked questions by students was: "what are we supposed to be doin'?" It was at times infuriating but it was also sad but it was also to be expected. You can have a lengthy discussion about the wisdom of trying to teach academics to young teens. One of my colleagues, who was one of the most serious and ernest teachers I ever worked with, often opined that students needed to be spending more time outside playing, their bodies and minds were simply not geared to sit in classrooms for long periods of time trying to absorb countless bits of information. There are very few ideal times for students to be sitting in a classroom. In the early morning their brains aren't awake yet. Scientists have determined that the optimal learning time for students doesn't start until after 10:00 yet classes in most schools start as early as 8:00 though typically around 8:45. Just before lunch isn't good because students start getting antsy. Right after lunch is really bad because they've just been socializing and playing and their minds and bodies aren't ready to re-focus. Of course the end of the school day is bad too because students are anxious for the dismissal bell and freedom. There are a few "good times" to teach. One is mid morning and one is mid afternoon. They last about 15 minutes each.

I've long thought that our current education system needs to stop the constant minor reformations it is forever undergoing and have a revolution. Schools and school districts are forever tinkering. Bell schedules change. Classes are made longer or shorter, all manner of different instructional methods are introduced new materials and the latest technology are integrated. At the end of the day the same students are succeeding the same ones are failing and there are but a few in the middle who are even slightly effected by this change or that. Most students' destinies are assured at the beginning of their educational lives because of their home environment. It is the single biggest factor in determining student success. Certainly by the time a student got to us in middle school their future course was pretty much etched in stone. As educators we were ecstatic whenever we helped affect a turn around in a young man or woman. This jubilation stemmed in large part because those instances were -- sadly -- so very rare. I gave a geography quiz very early in the school year and I could pretty much be sure that the students who got As on that test would be A students throughout the years and the students who got Fs would still be flunking at year's end. I hasten here to add that I, like other teachers, made every effort to help those F bound students. It is not only your job, but your passion.

The current school year and schedule were set up when this was an agrarian society. It was based on when students would be needed to work at home, thus Summers were off. It may not surprise you to know that a very small percentage of today's students live on farms -- virtually none in urban areas. Yet in most school districts the schedule remains and it appears unlikely to change. Indeed I've seen no indication that any radical thinking is going to be introduced into our school system. I'm sure some people have ideas but they are evidently not being heard or even taken seriously.

The flaws in our school system are most evident when we look at the achievement gap between white and African American students. This gap is really between rich and poor.  Where I taught, our most successful black students were those who came from middle class or higher families. The white kids who struggled were usually from poor families. This metric can also be seen in discipline problems. Not surprisingly the vast majority of students who were suspended or regularly received detention were from poor families and thus most were usually African American or Latino.

(One frightening fact is that the achievement and discipline gaps have gotten worse than I was a student 40 years ago. I don't fully understand but it depresses the hell out of me.)

Towards the end of my middle school teaching career I had a troublesome young student named Maurice. He was a crack baby, his mother was addicted to and smoking crack cocaine when Maurice was in utero. He could neither sit still nor control his mouth. Maurice was also given to using crude language, being willfully defiant and being argumentative.  Before and after I would feel sorry for a young man like Maurice, indeed we had many students with similarly tragic backstories, but while he was disrupting efforts to teach a room full of 13 year olds you wanted nothing more than to be rid of him.

One day after school when I was feeling fed up with Maurice, I stopped in the principal’s office. I shared my frustration with the principal and asked what we could do. The principal acknowledged that Maurice was a problem and he suggested the following: just keep on writing him up and we’ll keep suspending him and when he gets to 28 days we can move for expulsion.

In other words the solution to the problem was make him someone else's problem. School districts do this. They’ll expel a student (a long drawn out process which entails a great deal of bureaucracy) and thus be done with the poor sap. Of course this just means he registers in a neighboring district and becomes their problem. We, of course, got a few such students from other districts. Here’s a shocker: students who are expelled do not magically transform by moving to a new locale. They bring the same baggage, the same attitude, the same resistance to teachers.

For a long time after I was disappointed with the principal. That was the best he could come up with for Maurice and others like him? Make him someone else's problem? But I eventually realized that it wasn't his fault. What could he suggest? What could he do? School districts don't have the resources to effectively work with the Maurices of the world. Absent parent involvement, most schools are generally impotent in trying to help such students.

Inner city public schools are much like battlefield triage. You help who can be saved and let the rest bleed out. You've only got so much personnel with so much time. Thus, of course, Maurice gets passed right along though school. We ended up promoting Maurice to high school with the rest of his class. Sure students are often threatened with retention, but if anything retaining a student is worse for him or her than just moving the student up. I'm sure Maurice didn't finish high school and today he is society's problem. The money that was not spent on Maurice when he was a child will be spent many times over by society in the years to come. This is happening all over the country where we are penny wise and pound foolish.

Recently a former student named Anthony was arrested for murder. If found guilty (as appears likely) he'll be at least the third of my students convicted of homicide. Others have been convicted of lesser offenses. About a dozen of my former students have died from gunshots. In most every case of a former student who has ended up dead or in prison none of us who "taught" the young man were surprised upon receiving the news.  Their fates are sadly predictable and in most cases their elementary school teachers saw what was coming as well. I think it behooves a society to invest in helping its young and vulnerable so that they may best serve that society and themselves. We are letting young lives go astray early and then are left to pay for the mistakes we make.

A good first step would be to re-think how we educate. Clearly what we are doing now is not working for far too many young people.

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