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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wait! I'm a Radical Educator?

A version of this post was published at The Answer Sheet.

When I started teaching, I had a radically different understanding of public schools and their purpose than I do today. Back then, I believed that great public schools could be the great societal equalizer for otherwise disenfranchised people in our society (I say much more about that in this post). And so, in this post, I'd like to discuss how that view has changed, and why I no longer believe schools can serve that purpose.

I want to start by telling you about a student I once taught. (Here, we'll call him Guillermo.) Guillermo had long, dark hair that usually covered his face. He was tall and lanky and normally wore black pants and a black jacket to school. When he spoke with you (or, more often, sat while you spoke to him), he would keep his head down. I can't remember a time that we made eye contact. After a long day at school, he would arrive late to the last period of the day with various colors all over the skin of his arms and hands. His friends had used markers to write their phone numbers, pictures, or messages on him.

Many days, Guillermo slept through class. Although he rarely spoke back to me when I asked him about his life, I had the distinct impression that he wanted to do well in school. To be fair, I believe every student wants to do well in school. But there was something unique about Guillermo's behavior that made me think that. For one, he was in school virtually every day. I caught him, on multiple occasions, asking other students what he was supposed to be doing when he didn't think I was looking. He always brought a pencil. And even though he never turned in work, I saw him occasionally writing on paper during work time.

A few years after I had him in class, I learned from our school counselor that the reason he slept in class so often was that his mom had relocated their family about twenty-five miles from our school. She wanted them to have an uninterrupted education, however, so she had them take public transportation from the temporary housing she'd found to our school, which required Guillermo to wake up at 4am to catch the bus. After school, he would hang out with his friends in the courtyard until the bus home arrived (around 5pm). He would return home around 7:30, help out with chores like grocery shopping, and fall asleep around 11 or 12.

Getting to and from school wasn't the only challenge Guillermo faced, though. His father abandoned his mother and siblings when he was four years old after some years of verbal and physical abuse, and his mom wasn't able to afford a regular housing situation on her own. Although I didn't learn about these facts until after he'd left my classroom, it made a lot of sense. Guillermo was a student who had suffered the loss and abuse of a father, and the emotional instability of a mother. On top of that, he struggled with the same challenges that teenagers who don't face such tremendous trauma deal with on a daily basis: hormonal changes, fitting in at school, and finding an identity.

I'm telling you about Guillermo because it's so very important that people who don't work in high-needs schools understand what the lives of the people who attend them are like. Of course, nobody else had Guillermo's unique situation; but most students living in material poverty experience a high degree of what one might call emotional poverty as well. It's not just about not having money for food and housing; it's often about not feeling the love, support, and stability needed for social-emotional health.

The challenges students face range vastly. There are students who live with two parents who are both unable to work due to disability; students who never knew their parents and grew up in the foster system; students who fight their parents' drug addiction; and students who have been routinely abused since the time they were born.

If I'm not careful at this point, I might be accused of attempting to foster a sense of pity for youth who grow up in poverty and trauma. But our reality is that, in many communities, trauma stemming from abuse and neglect are a way of life.

This reality, when fully grasped, suggests strongly that the primary purpose for school, particularly for tremendously disadvantaged students, should not be preparing them to compete in the marketplace, as I often feel our society believes it to be. Furthermore, the policies advanced in our country that are designed to make students competitive job seekers often do far more harm than good for students like Guillermo.

In one famous study from the 1980's, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children of professionals amassed a vocabulary that included 32 million more words than did children raised in poverty by THE AGE OF 4!

When you enter kindergarten at such a profound deficit in the skills and knowledge public schools assess young people for, it can be both difficult and debilitating to find that your teachers, and perhaps some of your peers, consistently judge you to be a failure. Compound that with the reality of what's going on at home for you with your parents and family, and the real inspiration is that so many students persist in school.

While we might, with extended school days and outstanding teachers, find ways to make up for the deficits of skills and knowledge our culture believes to be important to competition in the marketplace, it is a tremendous task.

What I finally realized, in my ninth year, is that it's not one that I support. That's right, I said it, I DO NOT SUPPORT NARROWING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP - at least not with school alone.

Let me clarify a little. What we mostly mean, as educators and as a society, when we talk about narrowing the achievement gap is finding ways to get students of color to score as well on standardized tests as white students do. As Hart and Risley's work suggests, skills and knowledge essential to performing well on standardized tests (like vocabulary) are not easily gained, particularly when a student's social-emotional issues (and perhaps hunger or lack of safety) stop them from focusing in school.

Does public education have a history of doing disservice to poor children of color in our country? Absolutely! Is it because they haven't closed the achievement gap. Actually, ironically, I would say schools continue to disservice students because they're so hellbent on closing the achievement gap.

Schools leaders who focus on closing the achievement gap often do things like eliminate art, music, social studies, recess; and, instead, spend lots and lots of time analyzing student performance on math, reading, and writing tests in an effort to improve those skills. Are these skills important? Certainly. But this kind of schooling comes with grave costs.

It's high time education policy acknowledges that we live in a tremendously unequal and unjust society that creates the problems we see in schools before students ever even arrive there. Students need to feel safe, to feel loved, to eat, to sleep, and to have friends before they can engage in learning. When students don't feel safe or loved or are hungry, they don't learn very well, if at all. Because the students who often don't have their social-emotional needs met in and out of school are the same students who are on the bottom end of the achievement gap, force feeding math and language down their throat becomes terribly inhumane.

Visiting the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco last month, I was delighted to hear one of the staff members say, "I'd rather have a student come to us, drop out their sophomore year, and go on to be a good person than graduate with a 4.0 and go on to be an asshole who doesn't know how to deal with other people."

Students who have to spend the vast majority of their day doing reading, writing, and math instruction geared toward helping them pass tests lose valuable opportunities to practice myriad other skills and learn vast amounts of other knowledge that are so critical to being human and participating in society. Why don't we spend more time teaching students about interpersonal communication or nutrition or personal finance in public schools? Why do we still cling to a curriculum that is so outdated and bareboned?

When you put people and animals in environments that do not stimulate them, like solitary confinement, they start to go crazy. It feels like that's what we're doing to students with our curriculum.

It forces one to ask questions: Why are we doing this? Why do we support a system of public education? Is it to ensure all of our kids can participate in the economy? And if it is, for whose benefit? For theirs or their employers?

The truth is, making a shitload of money isn't a universal value. When I asked a handful of my students last month if they were considering going to a four-year university when they graduate in June, all of them looked at me like I was crazy. "Why not?" I asked. "It'd be a phenomenal opportunity."

"Yeah. Probably. But my family comes first, and they need me here, with them right now" one of them said.

It reminded me that I come from a family and culture that puts great import on individual success. Different people and cultures will define success differently, and our public schools must be a place that accommodate those differences, particularly regarding how we talk to students about their post-secondary life and aspirations.

So what should the purpose of schools be for students like Guillermo and the family he belongs to?

In low-income communities, schools should serve as centers for civic dialogue, healing, and humanity. While learning the basics like math and language should certainly constitute some of what goes on in schools, our primary effort should not be to stress everyone out trying to bring underprivileged students' math and language skills up to par with their counterparts in affluent communities. Because, the truth is, those skills are not the only skills in life that matter. And so they shouldn't be the only skills that determine whether you receive a high school diploma.

Rather, schools should spend much more time serving students by identifying their strengths, helping grow them, and using the buy-in that's created by that work to motivate them when they work in academic areas in which they're less able.

Ultimately, schools are places we can go to take a glimpse into what our future society will look like. Since that's the case, it's imperative that the adults who work in them (and who create policy for them) are guided not by a desire to mold children into the model employee, but rather by love for the child. CHILDREN SHOULD FEEL LOVED IN SCHOOL.

And that's pretty much when I realized I'd become a radical - when I had that thought in my brain, and I realized I agreed with it. Because there are so many more conventionally minded people who would read this and think that I'm soft, that school is naturally the place where preparation for the marketplace should be front and center, and that individual competition in pursuit of monetary success is the appropriate way to live.

I can only respond by noting that Guillermo desperately needed a school that understood and accommodated for his unique needs. His six-period day packed with notes and homework and math tests did not do that. And we never reached him. He dropped out when he turned sixteen.

6 comments:

  1. "In low-income communities, schools should serve as centers for civic dialogue, healing, and humanity. I would say schools continue to disservice students because they're so hellbent on closing the achievement gap."

    Beautiful Sentences! And I definitely Feel The Love.

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  2. Beautifully written. It is such a shame that this is considered radical. And the urban schools aren't alone. We are feeling a lack of love and caring happening in one of the "best" districts in the suburbs too. Too much focus on results and not enough on the whole child.

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  3. Thank you for this post. Such thinking didn't used to be radical, but rather an understood basis for teaching. It kind of informs us as to how many in roads have been made by so-called reformers when new practitioners feel they are stepping outside accepted boundaries to identify love as an innovation in school.

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  4. I just read your blog in a post by the WA Post's Valerie Strauss, who I am thankful for passing it along. If you are not already aware of the "community school" concept, I encourage you and your readers to take a look at the way they help schools address all of the additional supports our less advantaged youth need to succeed at life, not just school. Secretary Arne Duncan adapted the model for Chicago's school system before ascending to the national stage, where he could have helped move a proven strategy for addressing the complex challenges facing our most at-risk students---but is decidedly silent. Could it be because it involves partnering and collaborating, and that the "data" is soft and the payoff not necessarily immediate? The Coalition for Community Schools (www.iel.org), of which I am not an employee, is a good source for information for those school and community leaders who truly want to help at the foundation and not just the surface of edcuation and preparation for America's children and youth.

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  5. James, I was happy to see your name in Valerie's blog in the Washington Post!

    I got into teaching, too, because I thought good education and good schools could be an equalizer and a solution to most of society's problems. It's so much more complicated, unfortunately, than that. I don't teach in a high-need school anymore, but I remember seeing and feeling a lot of what you said about Guillermo with my students then. Still not sure what improving steps are now.

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