Thursday, March 11, 2004

Fourth Grade all over again. And, again.

I’m visiting my fourth grade son’s class. Twenty-four students: white, black, Asian. I wonder if this is typical of a city school. I’d like to say the group cuts across the demographics of the city. Somehow, however, I doubt it. I suspect the rich are not represented here. This is the middle class, the working class, the poor. These are the sons and daughters of people getting by.

The morning starts out with raised and sharp voices: a buzz on the part of the students, and a loud response on the part of the teacher, Ms. P. It’s just gone 9am and already she’s snapping. Defensive. Her voice with an edge. Later, I’ll figure out why. At the moment, however, I’m wondering if she started the day out on a positive note if the day would then progress on a positive note. There’s an edge. I’m almost embarrassed. I wouldn’t treat the people with whom I spend my days this way. And then, I wonder if I do.

I remember reading a piece about some inner city school in Trenton or Newark or some other decaying Jersey city. The principal stood at the door and greeted students by name. And the classroom teacher featured in the article shook hands with each student as they entered the room. I remember thinking it was corny. But, yet, maybe there’s something there. When I come into work, I at least say “good morning” to all my cube mates. I remember I was struck when visiting the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Gris Nez, France, several years ago. Each oncoming watchstander went around the operations center and the vessel traffic center and shook hands with everyone. “Bon jour.” Quick. Firm. Accompanied by a smile. Every watch. Every day. It set the tone.

I wonder if I’m positive in the morning as I get the boys up and moving. Do I smile? Am I loving? Am I positive? Or do I snap? And degrade? Am I callous?

The reading teacher enters, and the tone of the classroom changes. Ms. P had just laid into a student, voice sharp, “Why can’t you treat others with respect?” By noon, I might be right with her, but at this point I wonder if she’s leading by example, or not. But right now, the tone of the classroom is one of learning, for an instant. The reading teacher, Mrs. K, is soft. She’s firm and yet polite. She engages the students. When she sees behavior she doesn’t like, she says please when bringing a student to task.

Mrs. K’s voice is lyrical, sing-songy. But even she gets dragged down. She’s reading a book to the students when she’s interrupted, several times, by a student with a hang-nail who wants to go to the nurse. She holds off, telling the student to wait until she’s finished. She’s beginning to fray. But she presses on, lyric and mostly positive.

The students’ energy is all over the map, diffused and infused. Mrs. K is trying to teach the skill of summarizing. Summarizing is a standard of learning here in the Commonwealth, so that’s why we teach it. Sure. I wonder if we were to explain to the students a real or better reason, if they might pay attention. I’ll find out, no. They are hooked on the SOL for the sake of the SOL. Nothing else matters. They’ll need this skill in real life. It can help put bread on the table (I know it does for me). It can be something for them. It’s more than the notation in the book:

  • 4.5: The student will demonstrate comprehension of a variety of literary forms by paraphrasing content of a selection, identifying important ideas, and providing details for each important idea.

  • 4.7: The student will write effective narrative and explanations.
So far, however, the worksheet is only multiple choice, and I’ve gotten every answer wrong. I’d like to say it’s because I haven’t read the story, but I think it might also be because analytical skills may not be best demonstrated by multiple choice questions. Life; literature; ideas. These are not the realm of multiple choice – or at least not multiple choice provided by someone else. I find I’m creating my own choices and then choosing.

They’ve tweaked Mrs. K off, but her anger is controlled and mostly pleasant. The students are talking out of turn. There’s a rumble of side conversations, a buzz in the room. And Mrs. K wants to continue and they push and tempt and talk. Were I teaching, erasers would be flying. I imagine the nuns would be warming up their rulers.

Question: How does a teacher balance instruction with energy? The day is structured and already my energy is waning, but at least not misdirected.

  • 0900-0945: Morning work

  • 0945-1050: Reading with Mrs. K

  • 1050-1125: Lunch

  • 1130-1200: Language Arts

  • 1205-1250: Social Studies

  • 1255-1355: Math

  • 1400-1445: Science

  • 1450-1520: Writing

  • 1520-1545: D.E.A.R

  • 1545: Dismissal
I’m thinking 24 students is too many. When I taught I had one class in 6 years with 24 students. And it was way, way, way too many. Usually, I had 12-18 students in a class, and that was plenty. Twenty-four students is too many; it’s too difficult to monitor, track, coach, teach, cajole, and know each of them. I’m sure administrators wouldn’t build work teams or committees this large. They know it’s unmanageable. They wouldn’t go back to graduate school with 24 students in a class. They know it’s too many… at least for them. So why in the 4th grade are we 24-to-a-room?

Lunch. Finally. My attention as ebbed. I wonder about the students. The question remains for me: how to engage them.

Lunch is chaos. We are the first class to enter the large, hard room. It’s mostly quiet. Within minutes, however, the room is abuzz with noise and energy. My head hurts. We eat as a class, a long table with Mrs. P at the head, a huge bottle of water in front of her. We sit, my son and I, midway down the table in the midst of his classmates. Conversation is forced. I’m in no mood to banter with these young gentlemen and ladies, perhaps because they haven’t acted as such. My game is off.

After lunch, we walk back in a line to the classroom, staying on one of the silver lines dividing the tile in the floor. Ms. H meets us in the room for a brief lesson about bullying. She’s the school counselor. When she walked in, the frown on her face was so long I thought it might touch the floor. I wonder, doesn’t smiling go a long way? How do we generate smiles? Do smiles change the focus of a group? But soon it becomes clear to me that she came smileless because this class steals the smile of every adult moments after they walk in the door.

In the middle of Ms. H’s lesson, the assistant principal knocks at the door, asking for the girls who were just in the bathroom. “You know who you are.” I wonder if every school is like this. And back in the classroom, Ms. H struggles through drawing the differentiation between telling and tattling. She’s trying; her voice is calm as she spins her lesson. As she talks, the students continue to talk out of turn, to side talk, to whisper and whistle. Uncontrolled energy, all misdirected. Even when Ms. H counsels them, coaches them, they continue. I feel compelled to speak, I tell them their behavior has been unsatisfactory, rude, arrogant. I tell them that, indeed, Ms. H is right: they will continue to get unsatisfactory results if they continue their actions. She reminds them they can change their behavior. In their eyes, however, I can see they don’t believe us. They can’t believe a parent would speak up to them, and Ms. H, well, she knows not what she’s talking about.

So, here it is after noon, and I realize why Ms. P snapped first thing in the morning. She’s faced this unruly hoard daily. They continue to side talk, whisper, moan, snipe, complain, yell, wander about aimlessly, and act like, well, jerks. I don’t know if it’s a circle of behavior, each feeding off the other. Who can break the cycle. Ms. H talked to them, honestly and directly, and they did it to her. Disrespectful. And she came in with respect. Okay, she had a long face, but it was as if she knew what she’d be facing. The same for Mrs. K; the tone started better with her, but as the lesson went on, it spiraled downward, behavior taking its toll on learning, the lesson becoming debris along the roadside of education.

When we get to an opportunity for several students to read a piece they’ve written, there’s a sense of calm. Perhaps they only treat adults with distain. Then again, maybe not. But, with students reading, the room goes quiet as they listen. That’s something. It is a moment created by Ms. P, and I am thankful.

After two readings, the class starts to work individually on their spelling. A little turmoil, and they settle down to work. Mostly. I wonder if they’re scared – big bald guy ranted earlier – or if the sugar from lunch has already worn off. Or, perhaps the fact the work is a graded quiz – which they end up trading to grade and then calling out their own grade for Ms. P to record in her grade book – has something to do with it.

And the side talking continues. I’m still at a loss: how do you balance smile with task. All can’t be loosey-goosey, nor can it be all firm and task-master oriented.

Respect is a two-way street. Show respect to students. Students show respect for adults. I wonder what we are teaching our youth. Do my sons say “sir” and “ma’am”? Do they stand when an elder enters the room? Do they speak when spoken to? Do they remain silent when others are talking? Do I? Is it really all that important? And then I think that it is: if they are going to work in the today or tomorrow’s world, these are things they need to do (well, perhaps all but the standing thing).

Does learning only happen in an orderly, quiet environment? No. Of course not. But, I’d suggest it depends on the topic, the things which are to be learned and then used.

The room is big and bright, some 800, or more, square feet, a thirty foot wall of windows nearly floor to ceiling letting in the day’s brightness. The ceiling is high, at least 12-feet, creating a cavernous sense. They’re lucky; this is a room to help with learning.

A paraprofessional has taken over the room; Ms. P had to step out. Any semblance of control has slipped away; side talking continues and builds. It is certainly not as bad as earlier in the day, but it’s growing all right. The only way Mrs. Z can get their attention is to move the pins on the green/yellow/red board from green to yellow, en masse. And then to red. A hush falls over the room; it’s disbelief, until Ms. P returns and there’s an outburst as she walks in. “That ain’t right, Ms. P!” The sins of the few are visited on the many. All the clothes pins rest on the red circle, and I wonder about the value. It was Mrs. Z’s only method of control, and once she stepped over the line in the linoleum, she had to keep moving forward. It’s like using a bazooka to kill a fly; you can certainly do it, but why? Sometimes I find myself doing the same – offering up some over-the-top penalty and then being forced to go through with it… and then acquiescing within hours or days.

Math. Adding fractions. 1/4 + 1/8. One brave young man comes to the board and shares a way his father taught him. Multiply the denominators and then each denominator with the other numerator and then add the numerators over the new denominator. I’m reminded of Tom Leher’s New Math, and I think most of the students just don’t get it. They are oblivious to the help happening up front.

New problem on the board: 1/3 + 1/6. Answer: 1/2, but I’m not sure how I got the answer. It just came to me. But, I’m sure I could walk them through it, break down my thought process so it makes logical sense and can be repeated. That’s what they need. And, they need to see why this skill is important. Later, I’ll ask a student why a twenty-five cent coin is called a quarter, and he’ll look at me blankly. This is our future?

As Ms. P tries to walk through the problems, to actually teach, the left side of the room is abuzz, no one paying attention. She kicks one student out, sending the young lady to another classroom. It would be like wishing evil on a coworker.

I wonder if classroom management is really where teachers ought to spend their time learning. I’m torn. In an independent school, teachers don’t generally have any education classes under their belt. They know their subject. Public school teachers have focused on ed – and to what end?

The students don’t know their multiplication tables. More than half of them are floundering, the deep end of the pool swallowing them up as they attempt to do the twenty assigned questions. There’s still a buzz in the room, side talking galore. I wonder what their parents would say. I wonder what I would say. Some students talk only a little; others have their mouths running nonstop. They’re talking. They’re touching each other. Up and about. Rocking in their chairs. More talking. Glancing about. Not much learning happening here, think I. If my son was contributing to this chaos, I’d sit on him. But, he’s not – likely because I’m sitting at the back of the room, watching, or maybe because that’s really not like him. There’s a cluster of well behaved children, and he’s in their midst. For this, I’m thankful.

But, what about work groups, students coaching students? Would that be appropriate? Would that, perhaps, direct the energy into a learning environment? I’m compelled to get up and coach a couple of students. I’m like the reporter in We Where Soldiers. There comes a time you can’t just sit by and observe. You have to get up and get your hands dirty. I help two of the more frustrated looking students as Ms. P helps and circulates others. When I finish, my head hurts. With each, we tackled the first four or five problems, the easy ones. They got the answers, but the expressions on their faces tell me they don’t really “get” it.

Science. Meal worms. I’m thinking these kids ought to check out the corn meal at my house. A veritable science project awaits.

I can see the level of frustration rising in Ms. P. She says, loudly, “My patience…” At 2:30, she’s broken. And I’m with her. “I’m tired of you guys who aren’t here to learn and distract those who are here to learn; if you don’t want to learn, put your head down. You’re invisible.” Harsh, but right smack in the middle of a discussion about metamorphosis, I’m thinking I could morph into a wild beast were I with these children daily. And yet, I return to the question: Who can break the cycle?

And, do their parents care?

By my count, there’s perhaps 6 or 8 students that if we ditched, everyone else could focus on learning. There’s an argument in favor of warehousing.

A friend of mine from Norfolk has a neighbor who’s 14 and still in 6th grade who’s been warehoused in a school for trouble makers. This young lass is lost, drifting. She fights. She can’t read anywhere near grade level. I feel for her, but wonder how she got there. What influence did her family have on her performance?

No child left behind is the chant from Washington. I’d like to see the President or First Lady here, tackling these students. No child left behind seems to focus on the bottom. When we focus on the bottom, when we let the bottom drive, we lose the middle and the top. If this classroom is indicative of the state of public education in the U.S., I’m not sure it’s all the fault of teachers. I’m gonna lay blame on parents and politicians and colleges and citizens and the whole village. Our children are hyper, disrespectful, over-the-top. I don’t think it’s all the fault of our teachers.

I’m reminded of Gardner’s work at Harvard with multiple intelligences or Sizer’s work at Brown on essential schools, and I think we need something more than a list of facts or standards to learn. Education is more than standards of learning spelled out in some book; education is broad, life-long, and enabling.

Let’s not segment classes by intelligence; let’s segment by attitude. Give me the less-bright but non-disruptive students who want to learn; you can keep the hyper ones, the disruptive ones, no matter how smart they are.

I don’t see any meal worms in the room, but Ms. P has engaged them by drawing the four stages and writing about each stage.

Meanwhile, six boys have been sent to the library to work on art projects at the request of the art teacher. Later, I walk in and they are engaged, enthusiastic, working together creating war and patriotic posters; I see a couple Uncle Sams. They’re huddled together, light streaming through the windows onto their work, a buzz of healthy activity and commentary on how to create: Cool. Put a dot there. Use red. No, try blue. Enthusiasm. Three of them work on the same picture, pencils moving furiously. A single, creation of ideas. Teamwork with no adult nearby, the librarian across the room shelving books with helping students. These six young men are on their own. They are task oriented, focused. Their chatter is primarily about the project – and the time. A sense of urgency erupts as they realize they must finish before the buses are called. A flash of work, and then they’re off, racing to find the art teacher.

Back in the classroom, the day is wrapping up. Ms. P has posted the homework assignment on the board, and each student is gearing up to head home.

And tomorrow will be another day. I wonder if the cycles I’ve seen will continue.

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