Sunday, January 11, 2009
My students are smart. They can learn. They simply aren’t driven. My sixth graders can rattle off lots of facts about Egypt and Mesopotamia – they love answering questions and winning at trivia. They knew about what I am teaching them – but they don’t do homework, they don’t study, and sometimes they say ‘It’s not my day today, Miss,’ and put their head down. They are smart though. They really can get it – and I’m always so excited when we finish a unit and I know that they have really absorbed the concepts that I taught them. But then I look at their grades, both on tests and in the class, and they don’t reflect what they know. They don’t do homework most of the time, which makes it hard to pass the class, and on tests even the students who have demonstrated the most thorough understanding in class will fail miserably when put under pressure. They can learn, but they don’t understand the importance of work. They are intimidated easily by what they don’t know, so that if they see even a single word that they don’t know they will often give up. On an exam, their limited vocabulary impairs them, so that even questions that they know the answers to they will halfheartedly guess at rather than trying to figure it out.
When I really think about it, I feel like they are miraculous for even getting as far as they have a lot of the time. I have one student, JC, an attractive African American guy who is very popular and good natured who cannot read or write. When I try to help him, he needs help with the most basic tasks. I will sit with him for an entire period, spelling out every single word. He looks up at me questioningly when he needs to know how to spell ‘were’ or ‘are’ or ‘into’. If I was 14 years old, in the 7th grade for the 3rd time, and was nowhere near being able to read or write on grade level, I would be pissed off. I would be discouraged. I would give up. He is already affiliated with a gang, and only wears colors that are connected to that gang. The chances of him making it through high school seem slim, though not impossible, but just the act of working as hard as he needs to work seems unlikely given the outside pressures to give up. But he’s not angry, and if I go to help him, he lets me – which just causes me to lament the small amount of time that I have to give to him. He will do the work, and he could learn, if only I had the time and know-how to help him, but he doesn’t really have the intrinsic drive to make it happen. He’s already heading down a path, and doesn’t see why he wouldn’t want to be on it.
Another girl, GE, does her work, copying down notes and completing worksheets. She’s popular and pretty and has more than 2 outfits which makes her well dressed. She has a great sense of style and a lot of attitude. She’s a lot of fun, but she’s can’t really read or write. When I ask her to write an essay, the result is so completely incoherent that I don’t know how to begin to edit it. She needs so much help and yet she is popular, and has a good looking boyfriend, and doesn’t see the need. I ask her and I ask the boy to come to one-on-one or small group tutoring with me and they both look at me, confused about why I would do this for them. They weigh on my mind every day, and I wonder how I can change things for them, and most of all, how I can convince them that they should change. The girl wants to be a model when she grows up, and her family lives off of welfare, with her dad gone and her mom unemployed, making some money from babysitting for neighbors kids during the days. She doesn’t see how much she gives up when she stays out until 1am with her boyfriend instead of doing homework, or spends her time wandering the halls with friends instead of going to class, or sits on her phone and text messages when she should be taking the help I am offering her.
SV told me on the first week of school that she was having an A and B conversation so please see my way out of it. She walks through the halls calling the principal and pansy-ass little man, and telling the assistant principal to go fuck herself. She shoves kids aside who get in her way, and has a dirty mouth. She is my favorite. She adores me, and spends every free second that she has in my room.
She has 2 brothers, a 15 year old who is apparently in jail for a gun fight he got into last year, and a 16 year old who is involved in a gang and just got his first gun. Her parents are married, but her dad is in the Dominican and her mother has become a lesbian. She tells me, loudly and laughing that her mother spends all day in their project upstairs with her lover. She comes in, tired, and explains that she was up all night, because her mom brought home fried chicken at 3 am, when she was about to go to sleep. I ask her if she is the best behaved and she looks at me like, ‘please, you’re kidding miss,’ and says, “No, the one who is in jail was the best one.” She is smart, and she does work in my class, though like the other kids who are loud and obnoxious and attention seeking, avoiding work at all costs and seeking attention in any other way possible, she is fully uneducated and years behind where she should be. People can’t stand her. She wears tight, skimpy clothes, and hugh plastic earrings. She wears a rainbow belt with a buckle the size of my head, and she never goes anywhere without demanding the attention of everyone in a 50 foot radius. The teachers can’t stand her. She makes her educational failure a self-fulfilling prophecy, and yet I can’t stand the thought of her failing.
These are three students. There are 180 who I see every day, and at least 120 of them are in a position where failure is far more likely than passing. For all of them they are years behind where they should be, and they compensate for their academic deficiencies with attitude and bad behavior that alienates the people who would be able to help them. 120 students who are smart, 120 students who would learn, 120 students who don’t know how to; and 120 students that I’m afraid that I won’t have the time or the skills to help.