Many students become disengaged from schooling starting with the fourth grade, even though they may not know it yet. Reading to learn replaces learning to read, and the summers of slow academic losses for the disadvantaged have formed a cumulative wedge between these students and academic success, while their more fortunate peers are hitting their stride. The negative feedback loop for the former, and the positive for the latter, forms two spirals moving in opposite directions. Is it possible to re-engage students for whom school has become a series of academic, emotional, and social hurts?
Coffee or nonviolent non-cooperation?
As a 4th year social studies teacher in Pilot Rock, Oregon, I had learned that relationships with my students had to come first, and then the learning could occur, as many of my students had not experienced academic success for some time. After a particulary awful start to the school year for one of my classes (they made a rudebegah look like a lightning bolt), the most influential of my charges approached me after class one day.
“Do you want for us to participate and to do what you want for us to do in class, Mr. Goodwin?”
“That woud be nice”, was my reply.
“You need to provide us with coffee and allow for us to bring cookies, because it is early and we need to wake up for first period. Then, I will ensure that the class is ready to play ball.”
I agreed to ask for an exception to school policy regarding drinks, but told the student that they would have to secure the coffee-maker, the coffee, and the cookies. There were to be no messes, and no distractions from learning.
The next day, coffee was brewing, cookies were being consumed, and the funniest thing happened on the way to the chalkboard…the class was in full participatory mode. The Negotiatior had given his quiet nod, and the class knew that they had become empowered. It should have come to no surprise to me that these same students that I had taught about Ghandi, taken to see Chinese Dissident Harry Wu at Whitman College, had reading the A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Solzhenitsyn, and had encouraged to seek out school and community incongruities with the bill of rights, were now using my teaching against me. I was so proud that day to be their teacher.
Almost isn’t good enough
My principal at Pilot Rock told me after one observation of my Coffee Crew that he was impressed by all of the higher order questions, and thoughtful responses, that we used in my classes. I prided myself on tying in activities to make students really think deeply, with their interests and the state content. If a particular tact was not working, I would try another, or ask the students how they wanted to learn about the next topic, and how they would like to deomnstrate their mastery of it. Students would often stay after school, or come in during lunch, just to talk. I felt as if I were an effective teacher, doing great things for kids. Almost.
If public schools are like good soil, they are being eroded by the winds of educational change (parents opting for private, charter, online, and home-school choices), and the rains of increased staff costs and flat or declining budgets.
If our grandchildren are to share the public schooling experience, we need to create windbreaks and to break up the hard-pan that has resulted from too much top-watering and commercial fertlizers. We need individual teachers, working interdependently with each other, the school and district, and their Communities. Learning needs to be rooted in real life, tied in to the place where staff and students exist, bound to the people that currently wonder where their tax dollars go to and wonder why kids these days are so awful. We need to add a compost of “Service Learning”, allowing students to use their brains and hearts and hands to make their communities stronger and more viable, while at the same time engaging citizens in the conversation about schooling and what it should be. After 16 years in the profession, I now realize that good teaching is not enough to save our public schools. We need to be compelling for our stakeholders, and have in fact lost so much ground to NCLB. It is not that the federal government is punishing us with failing report cards, but that we have allowed for it to equate our performance on these tests to our accountability to our communities, as if we owed them nothing more than kids who are cattle-prodded to become proficient, competitive, and stressed-out test takers, which emerging research points out does not equate to long-term learning. It is time to beat cattle prods into garden tools….
A new crop….
As I look at the new (well, 3 years ago when we could still afford to hire new) teachers, and watch them tend their gradens of students
I can remember how difficult it was to take a classroom of 12th graders, with reading levels between grades 2 and 16+, family lives from abusing to ultra-coddling, and full of their own ideas and quirks, and to create an environment that was safe, challenging, and rewarding. I still feel as if we accomplished great things together, and worked very hard to do it.