Friday, November 19, 2010

The Root Cause

A teacher at my school recently wrote a great blog post that is starting to get a lot of attention. You can read it HERE. She writes about the ways in which 'failing' schools like ours are subject to all sorts of mandates that limit our ability to do the things we know (and research shows) are what the students need in order to be successful in school. She makes the point that "the root cause of our students' under-performance continues to go neglected: poverty, crime, violence, and hunger". She is right, of course. No amount of teacher training on how to deliver vocabulary development lessons will ever make up for a student's lack of breakfast. No scripted curriculum requiring teachers to deliver identical canned instruction to each and every student can begin to address the needs of a child whose parent has just been deported. As much as we need to constantly improve our teaching practice, we also need to be realistic about what our students need and how those needs are all so very, astonishingly different.

This, of course, is a really hard thing to do. Each kid comes to school with unique, often hidden, baggage. Some of it is good, like the student whose father teaches at East LA Community College and takes him to all sorts of writers' events and art openings there. Or the young girl who has been playing violin for years and even got to sit in with the LA Philharmonic last year. We don't always know these things about our students, at least not right away, and to the detriment of their schooling. When teachers are forced to limit their interactions with students to a very expensive, very rigid set of activities defined by the school district to intervene in our 'failing' classrooms, there is no longer room for the kind of personal exploration and discussion that allows these character traits and special skills to shine through.

On the flip side, there is the other kind of baggage. The bad kind. The kind that we combat every day and only slowly, if at all, can change. In small, mundane ways, kids put up walls that block them from getting anywhere close to successful. These barriers tend to have a snowball effect, as in the case of a young lady who ended up calling me a bitch last week. Over a $9 book. Let me explain.

The 8th grader in question (let's name her Shontae) owes a book to the library. It was due June 2. This has prevented her from checking out more books from the library, since the policy is that the books must be returned or paid for in order to check out more books. We often allow students to make weekly payments on lost books so that they can continue to use the library. All of this has been explained to Shontae many times, but she still will not take care of it.

On the day in question, Shontae's teacher and I were trying yet again to find a way to clear her account. You see, she needs an independent reading book for her English class. All 8th grade students in the state of California are supposed to read one million words independently. This is worked into her grade. This is the way she can improve her reading skills. This is one of the ways she can prepare for the strenuous state reading tests at the end of the year that require her to have staying power in her reading habits (and that determine whether our school is failing or succeeding). Without the ability to use the school's library, Shontae cannot really do any of these things. One might suggest that we just forgive Shontae her trespasses and let her use the library in spite of the overdue item, and maybe that will be the end result since I hate to deny anyone books, but the truth of the matter is that this sort of policy is ubiquitous in schools, important, and relevant to educating kids about the real world they will soon inhabit.

On this day, Shontae came up with some new information about her missing book. She said that she never checked it out, that a friend of hers stole and used her library card to check out the book. Skeptical but open to the idea, we called in the friend to ask his version of the story. If he confirmed that he indeed had the book, we would happily transfer the item to his record and Shontae would be free and clear after 6 months of stalemated negotiations. The friend (let's call him Deshawn) denied the charges against him. Yes, he once had the book, but it was simply a short-term loan from Shontae, who was the one who checked out the book inthe first place. Deshawn had returned the book to Shontae months before.

Ok, so, Shontae....we have a bit of a problem. Would you like to talk with Deshawn a few minutes and figure out the discrepancy in these two versions of the case of the missing book?

Sadly, Shontae did not want to speak to Deshawn about it. She wouldn't even look at him. She stood right next to him, shoulder to shoulder, and stared straight ahead, shrugging her shoulders and muttering, "I don't care." I sent poor, sold-out Deshawn back to class and turned to Shontae to say, "I'm not sure you told us the right thing. I'm afraid we can't put the book on Deshawn's account, so what are we going to do?" This is when it happened.

She turned, walked away from the counter, and spat out, "I don't care. I'm not gonna pay for any book. I really don't care....BITCH!"

Shontae's teacher turned to me and simply said, "Do you have a referral?" She sent Shontae to the dean and had her suspended. The teacher later told me that Shontae's mother also said that SHE didn't care either and did not intend to pay for the book, and she expressed surprise and dissatisfaction that her daughter would be suspended for so petty a crime.

All of this trouble for $9.86. Why is Shontae so angry? Why is her mother so angry? Do the powers that be really think that more teacher training, more assessments, more workshops, more meetings would change this? Shontae's difficulty is not stemming from the educational system or her teacher's abilities in the classroom, except for the fact that we are not allowing that teacher (or me) the time to really focus on her, to help her see her strengths, to help her identify her glowing abilities and draw them out, to build her self-esteem and reduce her stress and anger. The Root Cause of her under-performance is not being addressed, not by the educational system and certainly not by the political system that drives the choices about our schools. Our 'failing' school may be failing Shontae, failing to reach her, but it is not for lack of trying. Apart from completely disregarding her negligence and allowing her to lose a library book with no repercusions, I have done everything possible to accomodate her in terms of replacing that book. She doesn't want to. Neither does her mother. So now what?

The official answer is to test Shontae more and evaluate her teacher on the results of those tests. Maybe they'll even fire the teacher someday for not being "highly qualified" enough to raise Shontae's test scores. In the meantime, what will happen to Shontae? How is she being served by this model?

In a classroom where a student like Shontae sits right next to the student who plays with the LA Philharmonic, the teacher needs to be able to approach each student's needs differently. Doesn't that make sense? Aren't they totally different personalities with different support systems and different messages and values circulating at home? The teacher needs to be allowed to work like Ms. Beadle in Little House on the Prairie, with each child one-on-one, learning about their lives, coaching them as they grow up and outward. Ms. Beadle wasn't given binder after binder of lessons prepared by non-teachers and told to follow them to the letter. Because Ms. Beadle was a teacher - a person with a craft that is personal and progressive in its development. And Ms. Beadle's students weren't numbers in a database. They were children, with likes and dislikes, families, abilities, disabilites, hardships, and successes. They needed her, and they respected her because she was able to act as a guide and a stabilizing, nurturing force.

The more I think about it, the more I have to wonder. Did anyone ever call Ms. Beadle a bitch? WWMBD?

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