Friday, March 12, 2010

Upgrading the philosophy statement

When I was a graduate student in New York, one of the first assignments I had to do in my educational foundations course was to compose a philosophy statement. Once we’d composed our individual philosophy statements we were asked to share them around the table, round-robin style. As we went around we heard a lot about helping children and doing the right thing and giving back to society. My own contribution was something to the effect of getting into education as a matter of continued personal learning. I was mostly in it for myself.

Of course I was able to adapt that initial philosophy statement and shape it into something more appropriate to the experiences of my first year of teaching. I moved almost overnight from a self-serving individualist who wanted to reread Shakespeare to a creature more compassionate and giving—something more like what I had heard that first year as a grad student.

Later in my career that philosophy statement became rather more sharp. I began thinking about how urgent my mission had become as I earned more and more experience working with New York’s most needy students. I had become convinced that time was of the essence. That years, nay a lifetime, of educational neglect, had brought to light the emergent conditions these kids were facing. Years of neglect had literally stunted each kid’s reading on average three years below grade level. High School students were not only reading on a 5th grade level, but writing horribly, thinking superficially, and speaking, if at all, about nothing and far from persuasively. The cause had crystallized and effectively radicalized me.

These days I am older and wiser. I’ve seen more of the struggle and have participated in the struggle no less vehemently than ever in the past. Some changes, however, are apparent. Mostly, I am more patient today than in the past. I feel less responsibility for the conditions of my students and more of a participant in relieving some of the stress of that condition. My goals have changed from saving their lives (a prejudiced notion that implies that there is somehow something wrong with their lives) to contributing to their lives in the form of skill sets, literary exploration and having a few laughs along the way.

Today, my educational philosophy hinges on empowering students to participate in their society. To use words and knowledge as weapons and tools that build their worlds and defends their lives. I teach less to indoctrinate and more to encourage students to find out more on their own. I often tell students that a good education is not knowing all the answers, but knowing how to find out the answers to all the questions they have. Today, I have discovered the truth about teachers’ roles as the so-called ‘guide on the side’, and I am he.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Phone Home and Build a Lasting Relationship

Phoning Home: The Teacher’s Conduit into Understanding Students’ Lives

Phoning home is a time-honored, yet too infrequent practice of teachers. Making contact with the families of our students is supposed to be effective in monitoring our students’ progress and building a relationship with the families who are home supporting them. Regular contact with those homes will eventually make our work more effective since a student’s entire network will be utilized and the student’s school experience soon expands beyond the confines of a classroom but begins to expand to finally encapsulate the student’s entire frame of mind; he soon finds himself living a life of knowledge seeking where many people around him are also utilizing that knowledge which he formerly encountered only in the classroom, that is now pervading much of his waking life. Even on weekends.

I overstate the benefits slightly, but I believe that the catalyst for legitimizing classroom instruction, that is that it becomes relevant for the student and her family, is somewhere within rebuilding the school-home bridge. When knowledge is reinforced, students will not only learn it better, but they will begin to regain trust in teachers and school, a relationship that has suffered along with those between teachers and administrators, teachers and teachers, teachers and unions, teachers and families. Once classroom relationships are legitimized and trusted, once the work teachers do is not only viewed as essential but trusted and understood as such, then teachers will once again regain the position within society that is both ancient and rightful. The teacher’s return to the throne of respect might also be accomplished by actively rebuilding what was nearly lost by simply calling home.

Calling home is especially vital for the “At Risk” student. Students are “At Risk” because of the failures that surround them, including that of the family. When that basic breakdown is present amidst the multiple factors of the “At Risk” demographic then whatever relief to that condition should be welcome. We are not talking about doing social work and righting dysfunction, there are people for that. I am advocating that teachers reaching out from the classroom and continuing the conversation.

I learn a lot from scrolling down the phone list. First of all, I get to think about my students in the abstract, as names on a piece of paper, rather than as part of a fashion sense, as a speaker, as an actor. I get to think now only about the impressions those names have made on my mind. This is an interesting assessment to do. When I remember a student for his whole being, rather than as associated with a grade or a referral or some behavior whether abhorrent or pleasing, I am thinking of the student as a real person, as I think about all my friends and family. It is curious that by abstracting a student we can come to know them somehow better. Aren’t we supposed to collect data of such an excruciatingly precise nature?

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Mission At Risk

The whole Ark may yet sink. Catastrophic state budget cuts and Federal standards of oversight may yet make the perfect storm. The third ingredient in this perfect storm? Teacher and public indifference. We’ve come far enough to know progress can be made, and it’s never too little too late—it’s just never quite enough.

My students would be variably proud and aghast that I employed such an allusive and dorky metaphor in the Ark. But like the biblical Ark, we too hope to survive the ordeals facing every teacher and every student across every city in the country, though it seems too impossible a task. Similarly to the biblical Ark, all the creatures have been gathered up for rescue and sent off into an uncertain future, but not without great heaping hope for a better, sunnier, drier day.

State and Federal haggling over budget and control remain insufficient efforts to right the ship, but the crew may yet wage a mutiny and take back control not only of the institutions that claim to serve them, but also of their destiny. Grandiose? Yes, but not as grandiose as using too many metaphors and rhetorical questions in a single essay. My students are by now disappointed in me.

Whether through charter schools, city school board and department reform, massive voter activism or community organization, parents of at risk students are seeing the progress in their children, who themselves stand to become better educated and potentially more successful than previous generations of their family. Many students will be the first high school graduates ever. Millions of people are rooting for these kids, the vanguard of a massive class movement.

But the public remains largely unaware of what progress really looks like. We are all keen to look skeptically at standardized test score for students, but when it comes to how schools are measured, it quickly becomes clear that the test-prep mill with the carefully groomed, hand-picked student body will appear superior to other schools with fewer privileges and opportunities for glamorous achievement. There are many such schools who futures lie in the hands of politicians and accountants, all refusing to measure the whole student, the whole school experience, the impact of groups of people who suddenly care for, respect and nurture even the least desirable students—those who pose the greatest risk to themselves and society, not to mention the school where they drop out.

I do not mean to say that no one understands the at-risk youth population. The needs of at-risk youth in the south Bronx are profound, numerous and myriad, to say the least. Young students who are already at risk of dropping out not only of school but also out of productive society all together face mounting challenges throughout their young lives. It is no wonder that so many kids, mere kids, are simply crushed under the weight of prejudice and indifference: it is, under the circumstances, the easier, more sensible solution to simply disappear and turn away from the apparently insurmountable challenges facing them. The definition of the so-called ‘at-risk youth’ is too limited to totally encompass the constellation of doubt and aimlessness that pervades every moment of their lives. It is vital that we move from the label to the understanding of the inner-city youth’s larger condition.

First, let’s define the concept of ‘at-risk youth’. The website offers not only a workable definition but also some of the categories that affect the risk factors facing youth today. The site argues that it is a complex of factors facing kids today that defines them as particularly at risk. For instance, teens facing the usual problems may not be especially at risk of falling off the right track. Rather, teens “experiencing more than four” adverse conditions like school suspensions, family struggles, motivation trouble and legal involvements may now be classified as particularly at risk. Of course the list goes on and most of the teens I work with have struggles numbering well more than four including violent behavior, depression, sexual promiscuity and gang affiliations. It is important to understand that much of these at risk conditions are not only limited to social relations and may include psychological components as well. Anorexia, ADD, drug abuse and suicide are among the psychological components to characterizing at risk youth and may in themselves be manifestations of other factors. The question now revolves around what can we do about it?

Some would argue that there is nothing to do be done; such is not the point of view of this author. Others would argue that more resources, like money, should be spent. However, noted scholars as Alvin Poussaint would indicate that spending has never been as high as it is today, yet the return value on that investment is hardly present since kids are in as great a crisis as ever, if not even greater. Yet others would suggest that schools need dedicated teachers and programs as New York Teaching Fellows and Teach For America have been successful only in training temporary workers for an average term of service of 2 years in only some of the neediest schools. Besides that, there have been few Black or Hispanic hires and virtually no retention. In one of my former schools here in New York, 6 years later they continue to experience 40%-50% yearly turn over. So the question remains: what are we doing about the critical reality that today’s youth are more at risk and dropping out and fast becoming consumed into the permanent underclass?