Friday, January 14, 2011

Naming the Problem, Part II: The Reality

The Reality

I soon found out just how seriously many schools were struggling.  I began to see the realities that poor children faced.  I was assigned to do student teaching for a year at an elementary school in an impoverished, immigrant community in east Portland, OR.  At one point that year, a wizened old 3rd grade teacher pulled me aside and pointed out some of the differences in experience that students at the school lived in comparison to their more affluent peers.  "These kids don't take family vacations to other countries," he said, "Many haven't even seen the ocean even though it is 3 hours away.  Their parents don't read books to them."  He then went on to give me the first lesson in classroom management dynamics: disruptive students grow exponentially.   One student pulls three or four other students down around him.  Those students in turn affect others.  A cascade effect can build and spread through the entire class.  "At some schools," he explained, "you might have one or two such students in your class.  Families with means move out of these neighborhoods.  Those without get left behind.  Schools like this essentially get packed with struggling students.  You might get 5 or 6 disruptive students in a class.  What do you think that does to instruction?"
Two students I remember well from that year were Ryan and Shaniqua.  Ryan a white boy, Shaniqua a black girl, both 5th graders, struggled enormously with reading, writing and math.  The classroom teacher was an old pro.  She had the classroom running like a clock.  Disobedience was not tolerated, and problems were nipped in the bud, but the atmosphere still managed to feel relaxed and pleasant.  Each student was treated with respect and lessons were well-planned, focused, and carried out with precision.  Yet Ryan and Shaniqua still struggled.

I soon began to see why.  Ryan would go absent for days at a time.  He would come to school tired, clothes unkempt.  I found out that his family was homeless and lived day to day.  Shaniqua had temper problems, and would put her head in her hands during lessons.  After 20 minutes of work, I'd come over and she would have had nothing completed.  One day after school I asked her to hang back.  She broke into tears as she told me how she was dyslexic and had struggled for years.  There were problems at home, and I began to see how the stress was tearing her up.  The teacher did her best to give these two as much individualized attention as she could.  But as she lamented to me, "there's only so much time in the day."  This from a woman who arrived early and left late every day, and still found time for her family.   With nearly 30 students to attend to, it simply isn't possible to give every student the kind of attention necessary.  In poor neighborhoods, where the ratio of disadvantage is much higher, that many more students are forced to go without.  Shaniqua did receive special instruction for a couple hours a week.  But it was clearly not enough.  When we could, we put together homework packets for Ryan.  But we were rarely given prior notice.


Next time, On My Own.  I move to Reading, PA and find out that things can get much worse.

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