"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Standards for Hardscrabble Kids

Note: Just coming from my weekly mentoring meeting with a fifth grade student, I think back to Jack, a student I've written about many times. Here's what I wrote for the Sunday edition of the city newspaper, March 13, 1994. I was a fully licensed city schoolteacher recently named the district's Teacher of the Year  assigned to a new alternative school because after a two-week trial I refused to work on the team of the newly hired assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum who wanted me to keep the pencils sharpened for incessant standardized testing.

Please note the date: 1994. This fight against corporate-political standards has been long and hard, and we teachers have been doing it without the help of our unions or our professional organizations.  I'd say we're losing but I do mentor in a school that lets hardscrabble kids find some relief for one hour a week.

by Susan Ohanian

Recently I watched the U.S. Senate embrace President Clinton's "Goals 2000" education bill. Those Washington politicos grandly pronounced that by the year 2000 all school will be free of drugs and violence, all children will start school ready to learn, all children will read the classics; all children will make good moral choices.


Does anybody else see anything just a bit whacko about our Washington politicians making pronouncements about intellectual and ethical standards?

Talk is cheap. If our legislators want to know about school standards,the y should rub up against a 15-year-old roughneck I'll call Jack. Jack was one of 40 students attending an alternative high school in Troy, New York, because the courts had insisted, "Go to school or go to jail." The regular high school did not want these students in their halls and had contracted with BOCES to establish a downtown storefront school in an abandoned bank. Our students came from every social and ethnic group. Some parents were on welfare; others taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Our school had standards. We operated on three rules: no drugs, no swearing, and read for half an hour in a non-school book every day. When students wouldn't pick up a book, I started going through three newspapers  we subscribed to each day (the city paper, the New York Times, and the New York Daily News) each day, looking for sensational, weird, and intriguing items to tempt the most reluctant reader into a printed page.

Low-brow reading

Jack caught on to my technique and suggested, "Why don't you just bring in the Enquirer or Star? We'd read that and it would save you a lot of trouble." I told him that I was an English teacher, that there were levels beneath which I couldn't sink.

Even though students were required to attend school just four hours a day, Jack arrived at 8 a.m. and persisted with his obnoxious behavior until we locked the doors at 4. A couple times, when his mother kicked him out, Jack broke into our school and slept on the stuffed red velvet couch the students had picked out at the Salvation Army store when we got tired of waiting for the school district to supply furniture. Other times Jack slept in parked cars. I wonder if our representatives in Congress have any standards for teaching a boy who has spend a January night in a parked car. One night when I took a car full of kids to a play at a local college, Jack insisted I pick him up on a street corner and, after the play, leave him there. But his family was trying. I commented on how nice he looked in his wool suit. He said it was his uncle's and so scratchy than he was wearing pajamas underneath.

I admit that when Jack first came to our school, he violated two of the three rules pretty much continuously. He refused to read, and he spent much of the day cursing. I became adept at looking the other way so that I didn't have to kick him out. Some days we were a school with just one rule: no drugs.

If I looked the other way a lot, I also tried to catch Jack doing something positive. When he showed some curiosity about Scrabble, I pounced, giving him a Harper's article about Scrabble hustlers in New York City. Jack was impressed by the money they made. The article mentioned that serious Scrabble players liked Funk and Wagnall's dictionary because of its extra word lists, words beginning with the same prefix, etc. I assured Jack that our American Heritage Dictionary would be adequate for his needs, but he pestered until I bought a Funk and Wagnall's. I felt pretty good about telling my supervisor a student had requested a dictionary recommended in Harper's.

Jack retired to a corner of the room with the Scrabble board and the dictionary--for six months. I'll give credit to the BOCES supervisor of our school. Having hired me, he then allowed me to do my job. He had faith in me, and I had faith in Jack. Sort of.

Our days did not pass without a certain amount of needling. On his weekly visit, the supervisor would look around the room and say, "Jack still playing scrabble." I insisted, "Jack is working hard on dictionary study." I won't pretend that my smile didn't become forced by the third or fourth month--and desperate by the fifth. But I knew that no one--not even the President or the Congress--can make a student learn anything. All a teacher can do is provide a rich environment for possibility--and hope.

Jack spent six months playing Scrabble by himself--muttering, cursing, studying the dictionary. A few weeks into this solitary marathon, I prodded him to start reading for half an hour a day. Those politicians who voted on classics for everybody by the year 2000 will be dismayed to hear that Jack never went near "Julius Caesar" or Great Expectations. But he became first a Dick Francis fan and then Max Brand and others, and I rejoice because I know that a student who has found pleasure in one book may well pick up another book when no schoolmarm is standing over his shoulder. My aim is to make readers for life, not just readers for school.

Jack began going with me to the used bookstore and filling grocery bags with books for our school. Some days he lost himself in a book for an hour or two or three before returning to his solitary Scrabble training. He told me he read more books in the first three months he was stretched out on that red velvet sofa than he'd read in 10 years of conventional schooling.

Ready at last

Finally Jack decided he was ready. He asked me to play him in Scrabble, and he won by 300 points.

After this triumph Jack let me up the ante. We agreed that Jack could play Scrabble--with classmates who suddenly regarded him with new respect, and with adults I rounded up to come compete with him. But only after he'd done three hours of academic work, and only if he had curbed his obnoxious horsing around and his filthy tongue.

About two  years after Jack entered our school, he earned his high school diploma. Then he asked me for one more thing. Never in my life could I have predicted that I'd write a letter to a marine Corps sergeant commending someone I cared about into his service. Not until I met Jack, that is.

Students like Jack cause us teachers to see that few standards are absolute, that we have to know when to look the other way and when to pounce, when to act and when to listen. Now Jack was asking me to embrace his admiration of the Marine Corps and his chance for a new life. I listened. and  wrote the letter.

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