Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dead Horses

Apple Pipe in the Boy's Room
I often wonder how much I sound like a dead horse on this blog.  Err... you know what I mean.

But a Bloggingheads conversation between Harold Pollack and Glenn Loury spurred me to write.  The discussion lingered over Newt Gingrich's dubious statements on poor students and their behavior, and the kind of world in which the students to which he refers come from.

These are the kids I work with everyday. For instance, I nearly had a student physically assault me last week when I wouldn’t return his ipod. Many of these kids have been through so much – and continue to live through so much – that they are on a hair trigger.

Here are just a few factors in the escalation and perpetuation of their poor behavior:

- cognitively and emotionally “poor” homes: lifetimes spent with little vocabulary, world knowledge, emotional regulation and positive reinforcement modeled at home

- absent role-models: incarcerated or absent fathers, parents on drugs, or otherwise neglectful; or parents simply struggling to pay the bills working multiple jobs with little time for parenting

- negative role-models: many people in their families or neighborhoods who actively model poor behavior, both adults and peers who they are often left to be essentially raised by

- daily stress: this is huge. It could be from poor behaviors around them, but also from the circumstance of poverty, such as demeaning, low-pay occupations, or lack of health care in a population often defined by the advent of major illness or life hardship. My students’ family members seem to frequently be suffering medical problems.

- mental illness: genetic mental illness often leads to generational poverty, especially when conditions aren’t diagnosed and treated properly – especially without health care.

- cognitive deficits: learning disabilities and the effects of environmental toxins, or parent substance abuse while in utero lead to cognitive and emotional deficits

- multiplier effect: ghettos are by proxy filled with a low human/social capital population, leading to a net deficiency in social capital; the group just isn’t heterogeneous and lacks the kids of resources that might have been available were more high human/social capital individuals around.

- violence: at home and among peers, threat of violence is real and constant. Kids come to accept it and prepare for it, coming from any adult or peer.

- cultural isolation: different behavioral/cultural norms come to exist that envelop a community that are far outside normative behavior of wealthier neighborhoods. My students routinely express little regard for the property of others outside their kin group, and view drug use – especially soft drugs like pot or alcohol as perfectly normal daily activities.

This list isn’t nearly exhaustive. What should follow is the net effect this has on their brain and conscious state. Higher-order thinking is often difficult to achieve because of so much negative stimulus that the body will always prioritize. Education is often impossible because the student’s cognitive capacity has essentially been shut off. As long as they are living in this environment, it is very difficult to dial back that stress in a timely manner, so as to facilitate the acquisition of new skills.

However, as Harold points out, simply helping them learning self-regulation is enormously important. Unfortunately, it’s kind of like treating PTSD while a soldier is still in a war zone. Further, because of years of academic failure, school has become a place not of love, understanding and support, but an institution that demands what is often an unrealistic normative environment, thus setting the students up to fail. Still further, the focus on standards and superficial achievement leaves little room for the kind of non-academic learning that help teach practical human-human interaction skills.

As a science teacher at a continuation school, my task is to try and funnel in as much science knowledge as I can, while at the same time recognizing the unique circumstances these students face.  All are credit deficient, with some being merely a semester behind, and others 2-3 years behind.  A huge number of them test at an upper elementary grade level in reading and writing.  The average science textbook is written at a 10th grade level.  The state test questions are largely college-level.

Truancy is enormously high, so some students only make an appearance once or twice a week.  The overall graduation rate is probably 25% if we are lucky.  These students take yearly state tests, which they routinely fill in half-heartedly - no doubt torn between the idea that their teachers all want them desperately to try their best, and the knowledge that the test has zero meaning or impact on their lives as they live them. 

So I must decide, on what often seems like a second-to-second basis, between raising the bar so that they might one day graduate, and that their diploma will be meaningful.  For instance, I know that many students aren't getting the best education.  And I know that others are put off by the amount of work I require, and might leave and never return.  Yet others are learning self-control, determination, and social skills, as well as whatever content they might remember.  Divining this behavioral sweet spot is a form of educational wizardry even Newt Gingrich might struggle with.

So, between the principal breathing down my neck about portions of my students failing to take notes on the lesson during my evaluation, students recounting tales of rape and violence, others hiding meth pipes in their socks, personal confessions of illegal border crossings when they were barely out of diapers, drunken parents and fisticuffs in the lobby, after a night spent worrying what to do about this or that student, I'll try to keep my eye on what is best for my students.  And one day, I may find out what that is.

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