Tag Archives: classroom

Boys of Color

The Rand Corporation, subcontracted to the California Endowment, has released a big study of inequities for boys and young men of color in California. Much of it is statistical evidence of what we already know: compared to white boys, boys of color have much lower educational attainment, grow up around more violence (exposure to violence outside of the home? Latinos are 2.1 times, African-Americans are 3 times more likely (p.19)), are more likely to die by homicide (Latinos are 5.1 times, African-Americans are 16.4 times more likely (p.19)), are more likely to be incarcerated (Latinos 2.1 times, African-Americans 5.5 times more likely (p.19)), have worse health (PTSD? Latinos are 4.1 times, African-Americans are 2.5 times more likely; HIV and AIDS? Latinos are 3.1 times, African-Americans are 6.9 times more likely), etc. etc. etc.

So much for a post-racial country.

These boys and young men are growing up in a world dramatically different than what the average white boy grows up in. Which is not to say that no white boys grow up like this, nor to say that all boys of color grow up like this, just that many more boys of color grow up like this than white boys, and these boys tend to struggle in school.

Teachers have, off and on, been known to write off some of these students: “I can’t get to him,” “he’s just too disruptive for my classroom,” or “if his parents are not going support his schooling and homework and studying, what can I do?” I am not arguing that there are not cases of students who simply cannot function in school, but many of these ‘excluded students’ can be taught, just not necessarily in the way their school functions. Many of these excluded students are students of color, judging in part from the statistics in the Rand Corporation report.

Learner-centered teaching and other related theories over the past couple of decades have talked about changing teaching dynamics to meet more students where they are (also see Howard Gardner’s theories), and this Rand Report echoes some of these changes in education:

Learning Using Non-Didactic Approaches. A final example of a practice that is represented among many of the effective program models is the recognition that participant learning should take place through experiential approaches, such as role-playing, rather than through didactic approaches, such as straight lecturing. (page 26)

One of the reasons we need to fund our schools fully is that, once we make the needed repairs to the physical structures of many schools so they are physically safe places, we need to focus on supporting teachers in redeveloping curricula to meet students where they are. In Teacher Man, Frank McCourt talks of having five classes of forty students each, and a 200 student load is simply too much to allow a teacher to give students feedback on their work, challenge each student appropriately, and return work in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, too many of those boys of color are being taught by this sort of over-worked teacher who can barely keep up with the grading and testing requirements, let alone engaging each student individually.

questions or answers?

Questions are the most brilliant way to learn things. It has been said that when students ask more questions than the teacher, that is the definition of success in a classroom. I myself have too many questions and the older I get, the more experiences I gather, the more wisdom I accrue, the more questions I have. I think this is a good thing, and I certainly hope I can transmit it to students.

However, too much of our educational system is about answers. In the form of a number. And a class rank. We do such a disservice to students to lock them into numerical measures of success and tons of science indicates that what and how well students learn decreases when they are graded, but still the system persists.

What is the actual point of formalized education, then? If it is for students actually to learn, we would do whatever supports that goal, but unfortunately it is not. What is the actual goal? I don’t know exactly, but it seems to have to do with controlling the population. Don’t forget that the one of the reasons the original public schools in this country were conceived and created was to turn young people into better workers (ergo things like factory bells between classes).

If we actually revamped this system to create young people who can think for themselves and question critically, would that threaten the status quo? Would it threaten those in power? Is that why we don’t do that? Is that why standardized tests continue to prevail, even in the face of so much research showing they don’t actually measure learning?

Becoming sustainable people

I spent Monday and Tuesday at the FertileGround conference. The conference is about sustainability of funding and programs across the state: how do social service organizations sustain their programs and services when funding sources disappear or change? There were a hundred people there connecting with each other to talk about the challenges and successes they have encountered and how they can plan—together—for the future.

This morning, Robert Chambers, the founder of Bonnie CLAC, spoke about how important a thing like a reliable car is to securing and keeping a decent job, supporting children, and having a (relatively) stress-free life. Bonnie CLAC gets low-income parents into new cars and, with that, they observe major changes in pay rates (people tend to go after and get better-paying jobs), life stress, and overall health of the family.

I would call this individual sustainability, and it occurred to me that there is a strong parallel between organizational sustainability and this sort of individual sustainability: how do we help individuals become sustainable?

In the context of youth in classrooms, how do we teach them to be sustainable, and how do we give them the tools to become sustainable? The corollary to this lies in asking the question, how do we remove the barriers to becoming sustainable people?

One of the tasks that schools are charged with is helping students become the best they can be, and that means becoming sustainable as individuals. In turn, that means creating human beings who can learn, who can interact with the world, who can solve problems, and who can become what they want to become.

If students are living in fear, whether it’s a fear of other students, a fear of adults in the building, a fear of academics, or a fear of what they will experience outside of school (or at home), they are not going to learn. This is simple Maslow’s triangle work: if the bases are not covered, an individual cannot think about the higher-level things in life. How does a kid concentrate on the Pythagorean Theorem while spending time figuring out how to get to the locker and next class safely?

Schools need to look closely at whether they have an atmosphere of fear at their schools. Just because adults do not feel afraid does not mean that students do not feel afraid, so we have to ask the students. If they feel fear, they are not focusing on the work, and they will not be able to become sustainable human beings. If they feel fear, they will learn only how to respond to that fear in that specific context, and not how a2+b2=c2. So what do we need to do to make students feel safe?

Keeping students safe from each other

These things happen daily at schools everywhere: Boys inappropriately touching girls in the hallway. Often it’s bumping or brushing up against unexpecting and unwilling recipients, but sometimes it’s more overt. In class, a student who gets frustrated by another, might angrily blurt out “you’re a fag!”. Other students might exclaim “don’t be gay!” Any conversation about gender or biology at any point is greeted by nervous laughter and dismissive “jokes.”

On any given day, this is all before lunch.

Welcome to middle school, where being called gay is one of the worst things that can happen and where human biology is something to be ridiculed for and embarrassed by. Much of the rest of the day may be spent figuring out what consequences are appropriate for any of these situations and, of course, trying to figure out what else is going on in these volatile lives to prompt these behaviors and keep them out of further downward spiral.

How do students (at any school) learn in this environment? How do gay and lesbian students concentrate on anything except their own safety in this environment? How does anyone in schools concentrate on content with all this going on in the background? How does anybody survive adolescence?

Excuses, excuses…

Oh I’m just kidding! He knows I’m just kidding, he says, turning to the boy, right?

It almost doesn’t matter what just came out of this boy’s mouth, this is generally the first line of defense: I’m just kidding, as if all is made well, the classroom soothed, the world set right as long as those words are uttered.

The 7th and 8th graders that I teach are, developmentally, beginning to explore the world on their own for the first time as young adults, and are looking for what power they have or can take. They often push the teachers to see what they can get away with, and more often, they push each other around as they barter in personal power and reassess the social hierarchies.

If not checked at 13 and 14, unfortunately, these power struggles become ingrained and will need to be fed in increasingly unhealthy ways. For some of these middle schoolers, I am already wary of their eventual partners, fearful for the treatment they may receive in the search for power over others.

Middle School is at least as much about teaching social skills and healthy ways of interacting with the world as it is about any specific content students walk away with.