Monday, January 16, 2012

Something to Consider

The following is part of a series I'm working on about my time teaching in New York City and has been cross-posted at Gothamschools. You can follow the series by clicking on the label "Teaching in New York" at the bottom of this post.

The assistant principal’s office is crammed into the corner of the second floor of the nearly ninety-year-old James Monroe Building in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx. Behind me the door into the hallway, an opening into the dizzying array of students from different schools and languages from different countries. Before me sits the instructional coach our administration hired to help us make sense of outcomes-based teaching.

I sit in tennis shoes, jeans, a flannel shirt, and keys hanging from my three-year-old caribiner attached to my right belt loop. My unshaven face pushes against my right hand pushes against my elbow pushes against the desk frustrated. Not frustrated because of my missed planning period, nor the student I chased down for stealing breakfast that morning. Not because stacks of papers loom over us on both sides of the desk we're working at like Manhattan skyscrapers, nor because boxes of books and newly ordered materials touch nearly every floor tile, making the movement from one corner of the office to another a journey four times longer than it would otherwise take. Frustrated for a different reason.

Peggy and I stare at the plan I’ve created. “These outcomes are really nice, very impressive. I’m just worried you may be overestimating the students' ability levels. This looks like something you’d do in freshman-level college course.”

How would you know if I’m overestimating their ability. They’re my students.... is my thought, but only fleeting. A brief ego shield that quickly melts away under the heat of reality.

It’s so easy to fantasize about teaching the really interesting things about history and social studies that require the background knowledge they don’t yet have to really engage in, to expose them to rigorous standards and high expectations that you know you don’t have time uphold.

My assistant principal looks at my eyes and asks how much sleep I got. “Enough,” I say, knowing it was at least twice as much as she got.

In a rush to cover everything at the end of the year in a meaningful way, I had created jumbo outcomes for what traditionally gets taught in history between 1870-1945 that every student would be responsible for.

Explain how liberal ideas of democracy developed during European imperialism, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. 

And then I had created smaller, more manageable outcomes that only some students would be responsible for. In my teacher Narnia, students would then provide information to the whole class on their assigned outcomes.

Analyze European motives for African and Asian imperialism.

In a way, I wanted to scream, “WHY CAN’T I TEACH THIS STUFF!!! We’re supposed to be holding them to high expectations, right? We know that when we hold students to high expectations, they’ll rise to them? Isn’t that what we all learn in teacher school? The stuff I’m trying to teach isn’t even really that advanced!” But I knew every bit as well as Peggy why these outcomes were overly ambitious.

“Do you really think you can get your students to do this?”

“I KNOW every single one of them can do this, and I KNOW I could get them to do it. (In Narnia I could.) I’m just not sure I have the time and resources to help them get there....”

My assistant principal reviewing new teacher resumes on her blackberry now. Peggy slowly and confidently nods at me. Her eyes say this was the conclusion she was hoping I’d come to when she began her line of questioning. “That’s something you’ll have to consider.”

I put my backpack on and leave the office with the outcomes I’d spent an entire weekend creating.

As I walk down the stairs to my classroom, a war wages in my mind that disrupts my emotions. I’m reminded we don’t have enough rooms so that I can have a quiet last ten minutes of my planning period, so I instead choose to join the Spanish class. On one side of my head fights the six-year-old expectations for what I’d been led to believe was my immense capacity to educate students and change lives coupled with an innate lifelong idealism. On the other, the fresh lessons of the past six years learned battling student apathy, poverty, and the staggeringly negative effects of adult incompetence and ego.

As Spanish class ends and I begin digging through my backpack for the work I’d planned for my ELLs (primarily recently-arrived Dominicans), one of my students asks me if I want to collect the homework from last night. “Oh my gosh, yes! Thank you for reminding me. Please, everyone give me the homework from last night.”

Most students look at each other and snicker. One with a big smile on his face: “Come on, mister. You know we don’t do homework.”

Something I’ll have to consider.

2 comments:

  1. Has your attitude changed with regard to the relevance/importance of what you are doing? Are the kids apathetic for good reason? Would you advocate something different with regard to making the best use the school day?

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  2. abellia: Those are some really good questions. It's taking me a while to think about how I would answer them.....

    I don't think my attitude toward the importance of what I'm doing has changed. If anything, I've developed stronger urgency. What has changed is my understanding of my capacity to effect change. Excellent teachers are needed, but they cannot be held responsible for providing students an excellent education by themselves (which I think I unconsciously believed when I began teaching - and definitely before I stepped into a school).

    Are the kids apathetic for a good reason....... Hmmmmm - Well - not all of them are apathetic, obviously. But among those who are, I'd say some are and some aren't. Some have been more failed by the system than others (the ones who have better reason to be apathetic). Others seem to have such strong negative influences in their lives outside of school, that excellent teachers can do little to combat that. One example: I currently have a student who is determined to fail every one of her classes despite having a team of dedicated educators talking about her nearly every day. We've met with her parents on a number of occasions. We talk to her with love and respect; we give her every opportunity to make up her work; we work with her peers to try to convince her that school is important; we try to find interesting ways to engage her. Despite all of this, she says she's fine with failing and can't wait to drop out. I can't figure her out, but it seems there's nothing we can do for her at the moment.

    Making a better use of the school day? Of course. There are a millon ways we could revamp the school day to more appropriately accomodate students.

    What are your thoughts?

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