"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Thursday, September 24, 2009

savage inequalities

this week in grad school, i read Shame of the Nation by Jonathon Kozol (author of the other famous book on educational inequity, Savage Inequalities) and rewatched Children in America's Schools.

i didn't know how to feel as i was reading about my own teaching experience, unnerved by the truth of what Kozol was writing and the accuracy with which he was depicting the inner city school where i work every day (i kept thinking, "this is my school"); stunned to realize that nothing has changed since these books were first published (Shame was published in 2005, Inequalities in 1991); disgusted that the concerns given so much media attention have still not been resolved or alleviated.

as so many educators and administrators know and ashamedly admit to knowing, the quality and maintenance of a school/district tell a child so much about what we think s/he is worth, what his/her education is worth. my greatest agony as a teacher has been seeing the disfunction and disorganization rampant throughout the school district, and my school's administration, and knowing full well that it trickles down to the students, and wanting so much to do anything i can to protect them from the disorder – making my room as clean and bright as possible, communicating with them as much as i can about any changes to the schedule or school events, keeping detailed records of all my students' emergency contacts in a portable rolodex, being explicit about the purposes of all their classes – lest it be unclear from administration or other teachers why they are required to go to advisory, for example.

that was an interesting story, btw. i had my advisory students, 7th graders, do a free write on what they thought the purpose of advisory is. most of my students answered with something to the effect of "advisory is for students to get to school on time [and not miss their important classes because they woke up late]". one of my students, Andrew, wrote, very astutely, that
"Advisory is a wake up class. When I say wake up class I mean some students sleep late... and without advisory the students will sleep in most of their classes."
alternatively, when i asked my students to write about what they want advisory to be, they respond, uniformly, that they desire activities, games, the time to converse with one another, art, reading, writing, and "fun!" the same student i quoted before wrote,
"This year I want advisory to be fun and exciting,
so exciting it will make students want to come to school."

in a norm-setting activity this week, i probed the same advisory class to discuss the realities at school, the things they see on a daily basis, and the ideals, the dreams they had for our school and our community. the observations they shared were pretty telling, but most striking was this list from my student Marta:
Reality: I see lots of fights.
Ideal: I want to see peace in school.
Reality: I see some walls that have writing on them, tagging, graffiti.
Ideal: I want to see more murals on the walls.

interestingly, in stark contrast to the assumptions of administrators, school officials, and even faculty regarding what students need during a school day (that they need a prolonged "passing period" to get to their core classes on time), what students themselves identify as necessary is stimulation. clearly what the school is offering is not engaging or meaningful enough to motivate them to come on time, and makes students feel as if school is an unsavory task, an unpleasant obligation. what the school is lacking is excitement, beauty, and life.

this year has been interesting so far. it is still too early to tell how my practice as an educator will grow and change in the coming months, but i am steadfastly trying to listen more to my students and give them a chance for voice and self expression. i am giving more time for collaborative conversation in my lessons, and more activities that require my students to argue and justify their claims (even in math!) i am still undecided whether the community i am seeking to build within my four-walled classroom is enough to combat the negative energies outside, and if the insularity only serves to negate the long-lasting lessons i hoped to instill, but the attempt alone has been worth the energy.

oh, and one more thing: my advisory? not a single person has been late since the start of week 3. i'd say that's pretty good already. :-)

-ms. lee

1 comment:

Eric Spears said...

I remember how depressing Savage Inequalities was when I read it, and I really wanted to know if Kozol had gone back to those school and seen any change. It was right after I read his book that I wrote a scathing paper on the Providence, RI school system. I posted a version of it in my blog, if you're interested.

I'm teaching at a rural school now in New Hampshire, just across the street from a school in Vermont where I worked last year, and there's such a huge disparity in resources, it's absurd.