Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Respecting the Student

A few things today have made me think about respect today.

First, I heard a story on NPR, about a book someone wrote where she studied minimum wage works at a burger chain and followed up with them at 4 and 8 years.  One of the stories she told was about a woman who became a manager of the burger chain, and then took a job at Starbucks.  At Starbucks she made more money, but she felt like she was not respected.  She said people didn't listen to her ideas about how to improve the way they served customers because of who she was and where she came from.  So, she went back to her lower paying manager job at the burger chain.  Why?  Because she felt respected there.

Second, I cam across this math teachers blog, http://coxmath.blogspot.com.  I read maybe about 15 of his posts and one thing became apparently clear from his blog, he respects his students.  I didn't read his profile, so I have no idea who or where he teaches.  This teacher is the kind of math teacher we all wish we had in high school.  He loves math, believes in his students, and genuinely works hard to be a good teacher.

I know that my students, when I taught at alternative schools, did not feel respected by the school we were in and the path that brought them there.  I was unable to overcome the disrespect my students felt in the larger system, and translate it into respect in my classroom.  Thinking back, I don't know exactly what I would have done different, but I want to think about it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"A Mind Shaped by Poverty"

A Mind Shaped by Poverty: Ten Things Educators Should Know
The other day I was on Amazon, buying rain boots, when I saw a few books it recommended for me about teaching kids in poverty.  I guess Amazon knows a few things about me, but we can discuss internet privacy another time.  Although I do buy things on Amazon, and I wouldn't mind if you clicked this link and bought the book from them, I requested, A Mind Shaped by Poverty: Ten Things Educators Should Know by Regina M Rawlinson, on interlibrary loan from my town library.  It came this weekend and I read it in a few short hours today.

I have been home with my daughter for the past year and a half, and before that I was teaching in Oakland Unified Schools.  I worked at three different schools during my time in OUSD.  My teaching career began at a High School for expelled students in Oakland.  I entered teaching through the Teaching Fellows program designed to get teachers into the highest need schools.  They follow a similar model and philosophy as Teach for America, and exist in a number of cities across the country.  Despite my experience with "at-risk" youth, I stayed there only one school year.  I took what I hoped would be a job the next year, where I could really have an impact, at a Middle School for at-risk students in East Oakland.  I hoped things would be different.  The following year I transferred to a school in the hills of Oakland.  Let's just say the demographics were different, and poverty was not a major issue for most students there.

So, now I am taking some time to look back on my experience, and perhaps do a little reading and thinking about what could be different.  My first two years teaching I do not feel like I "raised student achievement," or even made a positive impact on very many student lives, as I was promised I could do as a Teaching Fellow.  Where did I go wrong?  I firmly believe that my students deserved an education, that they were capable of learning, and that I am a competent teacher of the content. 

As a Teaching Fellow I participated in a summer institute that was to prepare me for teaching in schools with high levels of poverty and students learning below grade level.  I was given HITS (high impact teaching strategies) to use that would help "raise student achievement."  I tried, I really did.  I worked long hours, I prepared lessons, I called homes, and I met with parents.  I used all the HITS like having high standards and using graphic organizers.  But, I did not really reach most of my kids. Now, I was working at what I believe to be the extreme end of the spectrum in the school system.  I don't know that the kids in my classroom were poorer, or more abused, or any worse off than other students in OUSD, but I do know that their reactions to their experiences created a major interference with their ability to learn at school.  Very few of my students had serious learning disabilities or mental illness as classified by schools or doctors, but it is clear that they had a problem with learning at school.

A Mind Shaped Like Poverty, offered me a few insights that I want to reflect on.   What if I had approached my teaching from a standpoint of teaching students who had a disability, and it was poverty.  Rawlision's book is short and to the point, each chapter lays out one thing she wishes teachers knew. 
If I used her suggestions as a guideline for planning my classroom and lessons then I would focus on a few key ideas. 
  • My classroom would be set-up to seem very fair because my students may assume that I would not treat them fair.  Their life in poverty is not fair, why would school be any different?
  • My classroom must give them access to the best materials, lessons, and teacher.  Poor students don't often get access to anything with out a fight, my class would have to.
  • Good grades must be made widely available.  This was a really interesting idea for me to read about.  When someone lives in poverty, they may assume that everything is scarce (food, clothing, medical care), including good grades.  They might figure they won't get the best grades anyway (they never get the best anything), so why bother. Tutoring, mentoring, and letting students know how to get good grades can make a difference.
  • There must be space and respect for students' "protest."  Being poor sucks, and kids might just be mad about all kinds of things.  This is another one that really got me thinking about particular students.  Some kids just protest everything.  They push back against everything.  Rawlision suggests listening to kids protests either in class or privately and treating them with respect.  Over time this creates a mutual respect and understanding.  I think that there is even more here than she goes into.  Maybe a classroom needs to be proactively dealing with the anger and protest that students are walking in the door with.  To reach a classroom full of high poverty kids, a real connection of respect needs to be made so that anger can be vented in a regular healthy way and not through outbursts or intervention.
  • Good grades come from hard work.  Students in poverty may feel that they are entitled to an education (which they are) and should be given a break for their hard situation.  This is definitely something I struggled with as a teacher because I felt like I set clear high expectations, and my students were just falling down and failing.  I didn't know how to set the expectations and then get them there.  I was then left with failing kids who tried hard or giving kids a break.  And both of those undermine the work of getting kids to see the class as fair and connecting hard work to good grades.
  • Expect first rate work.  Much of their lives is second-hand, and second-rate.  Explicit teaching, showing, and modeling of first rate has to happen. This includes first rate goals and expectations, and not making assumptions about kids abilities based on their efforts.
  • The class must be calm.  Being poor is stressful, and school is often a refugee.  Figure out how to accommodate for the fact that life outside school my not be an easy place to get work done by providing study halls, tutoring, and after school homework help.
  • Don't ignore kids who are just passing.  Many kids come to school because parents, and the law make them or for the food, and friends.  When kids are allowed to just slip past they get the message that it is okay.  Call parents, have conferences.
  • Patiently teach kids skills of organization and systematic learning and doing.  Being poor is chaotic and the culture of poverty is about trial and error.  That is why poor kids may seem messier in their work and habits.  She also suggests constructivist learning, which I don't really know much about.
  • Student's need options.  When you are poor, it doesn't feel like you have many choices.  Help kids see and have choices in school.
As I look over this list it just seems like the HITS I learned.  A menu of things to do.  But I think there is something really underlying both Rawlinson's book and the Teaching Fellows, that is not really made explicit.  It is about a teacher examining her own beliefs about poverty (and race).   I've spent my fair share of doing just that, but not in the context of me, middle class, white teacher, standing in front of a room full of Latino and African American kids in poverty.  Who do they see?  Who do I see?  Rawlinson dances around those questions a bit.  In her advice of expecting first rate work, is the assumption that middle class teachers make that poor kids are not capable of first rate work, or won't try hard enough for first rate work.  Where does that assumption lead us, and how do we really address it in our classroom.  What would have happened if I had just said it the first day or week of school, "People may not expect much of you because you live in Oakland, but I do."  My students were very aware of the low expectations people had of them, but I didn't really directly address it.  What would have happened if I had.  I told them they could get good grades, but I didn't really know how to get them there and I think they must have known it.  Maybe I missed something in my Teaching Fellow training.  Why didn't we have a workshop on poverty, racism, an oppression in education.

There are a lot of thoughts in here, and perhaps another day, I'll sort them out better.  What do you think?