Friday, October 12, 2007

An experience of an inner-city black school

An impossible learning environment due to negligible discipline. Permissiveness is the deadly enemy of black kids

Teach for America conducts an intensive five-week training program for its inductees during the summer before they start teaching. My year, this "teacher boot camp" took place in Houston. It was there that I quickly figured out that enthusiasm and creativity alone wouldn't suffice in an inner-city classroom. I was part of a tag team of four recruits teaching a summer-school class of low-income fourth-graders. Even in one- to two-hour blocks of teaching, I quickly realized that my best-planned, most imaginative lessons fell apart if I didn't have control of my students.

In the seminars we attended when we weren't teaching, I learned the basics of lesson planning and teaching theory. I also internalized the TFA philosophy of high expectations, the idea that if you set a rigorous academic course, all students will rise to meet the challenge. But the training program skimped on actual teaching and classroom-management techniques, instead overwhelming us with sensitivity training. My group spent hours on an activity where everyone stood in a line and then took steps forward or backward based on whether we were the oppressor or the oppressed in the categories of race, income, and religion. The program had a college bull session, rather than professional, atmosphere. And it had a college-style party line: I heard of two or three trainees being threatened with expulsion for expressing in their discussion groups politically incorrect views about inner-city poverty-for example, that families and culture, not economics, may be the root cause of the achievement gap.

Nothing in the program simulated what I soon learned to be the life of a teacher. Though I didn't know it, I was completely ill equipped when I stepped into my own fifth-grade classroom at Emery Elementary in September 2000.

The year before I taught, a popular veteran principal had been dismissed without explanation. Mr. Bledsoe finished out the rest of the year on an interim basis, hired me and four other Teach for America teachers, and then turned over the reins to a woman named V. Lisa Savoy. Ms. Savoy had been an assistant principal at the District's infamous Anacostia High School, in Washington's equivalent of the South Bronx. Before the start of school, she met with her four first-year TFA teachers to assure us that we would be well supported, and that if we needed anything we should just ask. Most of my veteran colleagues, 90 percent of them black, also seemed helpful, though a few showed flickers of disdain for us eager, young white teachers. By the time school opened, I was thrilled to start molding the brains of my children.

My optimism and naivet‚ evaporated within hours. I tried my best to be strict and set limits with my new students; but I wore my inexperience on my sleeve, and several of the kids jumped at the opportunity to misbehave. I could see clearly enough that the vast majority of my fifth-graders genuinely wanted to learn-but all it took to subvert the whole enterprise were a few cutups.

On a typical day, DeAngelo (a pseudonym, as are the other children's names in this and the next paragraph) would throw a wad of paper in the middle of a lesson. Whether I disciplined him or ignored him, his actions would cause Kanisha to scream like an air-raid siren. In response, Lamond would get up, walk across the room, and try to slap Kanisha. Within one minute, the whole class was lost in a sea of noise and fists. I felt profoundly sorry for the majority of my students, whose education was being hijacked. Their plaintive cries punctuated the din: "Quiet everyone! Mr. Kaplowitz is trying to teach!"

Ayisha was my most gifted student. The daughter of Senegalese immigrants, she would tolerantly roll her eyes as Darnetta cut up for the ninth time in one hour, patiently waiting for the day when my class would settle down. Joseph was a brilliant writer who struggled mightily in math. When he needed help with a division problem, I tried to give him as much attention as I could, before three students wandering around the room inevitably distracted me. Eventually, I settled on tutoring him after school. Twenty more students' educations were sabotaged, each kid with specific needs that I couldn't attend to, because I was too busy putting out fires. Though I poured my heart into inventive lessons and activities throughout the entire year, they almost always fell apart in the face of my students' disrespect and indifference.

To gain control, I tried imposing the kinds of consequences that the classroom-management handbooks recommend. None worked. My classroom was too small to give my students "time out." I tried to take away their recess, but depriving them of their one sanctioned time to blow off steam just increased their penchant to use my classroom as a playground. When I called parents, they were often mistrustful and tended to question or even disbelieve outright what I told them about their children. It was sometimes worse when they believed me, though; the tenth time I heard a mother swear that her child was going to "get a beating for this one," I almost decided not to call parents. By contrast, I saw immediate behavioral and academic improvement in students whose parents had come to trust me.

I quickly learned from such experiences how essential parental support is in determining whether a school succeeds in educating a child. And of course, parental support not just of the teachers but of the kids: as I came to know my students better, I saw that those who had seen violence, neglect, or drug abuse at home were usually the uncontrollable ones, while my best-behaved, hardest-working kids were typically those with the most nurturing home environments.

Being a white teacher in a mostly black school unquestionably hindered my ability to teach. Certain students hurled racial slurs with impunity; several of their parents intimated to my colleagues that they didn't think a white teacher had any business teaching their children-and a number of my colleagues agreed. One parent who was also a teacher's aide threatened to "kick my white ass" in front of my class and received no punishment from the principal, beyond being told to stay out of my classroom. The failure of the principal, parents, and teachers to react more decisively to racist disrespect emboldened students to behave worse. Such poisonous bigotry directed at a black teacher at a mostly white school would of course have created a federal case.

Still, other colleagues, friendly and supportive, helped me with my discipline problems. They let me send unruly students to their classrooms for brief periods of time to cool off, allowing me to teach the rest of my class effectively. But when I turned to my school administration for similar help, I was much less fortunate. I had read that successful schools have chief executives who immerse themselves in the everyday operations of the institution, set clear expectations for the student body, recognize and support energetic and creative teachers, and foster constructive relationships with parents. Successful principals usually are mavericks, too, who skirt stupid bureaucracy to do what is best for the children. Emery's Principal Savoy sure didn't fit this model.

To start with, from all that I could see, she seemed mostly to stay in her office, instead of mingling with students and observing classes, most of which were up at least one flight of stairs, perhaps a disincentive for so heavy a woman. Furthermore, I saw from the first month that she generally gave delinquents no more than a stern talking-to, followed by a pat on the back, rather than suspensions, detentions, or any other meaningful punishment. The threat of sending a student to the office was thus rendered toothless.

Worse, Ms. Savoy effectively undermined my classroom-management efforts. She forbade me from sending students to other teachers-the one tactic that had any noticeable effect. Exiling my four worst students had produced a vast improvement in the conduct of the remainder of my class. But Ms. Savoy was adamant, insisting that the school district required me to teach all my children, all the time, in the "least restrictive" environment. This was just the first instance of Ms. Savoy blocking me with a litany of D.C. Public Schools regulations, as she regularly frustrated my colleagues on disciplinary issues.

Some of Ms. Savoy's actions defied explanation. She more than once called me to her office in the middle of my lessons to lecture me on how bad a teacher I was-well before her single visit to observe me in my classroom. She filled my personnel file with lengthy memos articulating her criticisms. I eventually concluded that Ms. Savoy tended similarly to trouble any teacher, experienced or novice, who rocked the boat.

And in November I really rocked it. By then, despite mounting tension with Ms. Savoy, and despite the pandemonium that continued to ravage my teaching efforts, I had managed-painstakingly-to build a rapport with my fifth-graders. I felt I was turning a corner. I thought that my students (and their parents) would completely shape up once they saw their abysmal first report cards. D.C. Public Schools grade kids on a highly subjective 1 to 4 scale, 4 being the highest. Most of my students entered fifth grade with grave academic deficiencies, yet their cumulative records revealed fair to excellent grades, making clear that social promotion was standard practice at Emery. I wasn't playing along. I had given regular tests and quizzes that first semester, and most of my students had earned straight 1s by any rational measure. True to the credo of high expectations, I would give them the grades they earned.

I submitted my report cards to Ms. Savoy, who insisted that my grades were "too low" and demanded that I raise them immediately. I offered to show her all of my students' work portfolios; but she demurred, informing me that the law obliged me to pass a certain percentage of my students. I paid no attention, gave my students the grades they deserved, and patiently explained to every parent that their child's grades would improve once he or she started behaving in class and doing the assigned lessons. For this, Ms. Savoy cited me for insubordination.

Just after the New Year, Ms. Savoy informed me that she was switching me from fifth grade to second grade; the veteran second-grade teacher would then take over my fifth-graders. Her justification was that I would be able to control younger students more effectively-though I assumed she thought that I could wreak less disruption with the younger kids, who were relatively flunk-proof.

From the start, I tried my best to combat understandable parental resentment that their experienced teacher was being yanked out and replaced by me, a first-year teacher with notoriously poor classroom-management skills. I wrote letters home describing my ambitious plans, called parents with enthusiastic words about their children, and walked my students home after school to increase my visibility in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to show that I was in control. Unbelievable as it sounds, my second-graders were even wilder than my fifth-graders. Just as before, a majority of kids genuinely wanted to learn, but the antics of a few spun my entire class into chaos. This time, though, my troublemakers were even more immature and disruptive, ranging from a boy who roamed around the room punching his classmates and threatening to kill himself to a borderline-mentally retarded student, who would throw crumpled wads of paper all day. I was so busy trying to quell anarchy that I never had the chance to get to know my new students, let alone teach them anything.

Ms. Savoy had abandoned all pretense of administrative support by this point. Nearly every student I sent to the office returned within minutes. This lack of consequences encouraged a level of violence I never could have imagined among any students, let alone second-graders. Fights broke out daily-not just during recess or bathroom breaks but also in the middle of lessons. And this wasn't just playful shoving: we're talking fists flying, hair yanked, heads slammed against lockers.

When I asked other teachers to come help me stop a fight, they shook their heads and reminded me that D.C. Public Schools banned teachers from laying hands on students for any reason, even to protect other children. When a fight brewed, I was faced with a Catch-22. I could call the office and wait ten minutes for the security guard to arrive, by which point blood could have been shed and students injured. Or I could intervene physically, in violation of school policy.

Believe me, you have to be made of iron, or something other than flesh and blood, to stand by passively while some enraged child is trying to inflict real harm on another eight-year-old. I couldn't do it. And each time I let normal human instinct get the best of me and broke up a fight, one of the combatants would go home and fabricate a story about how I had hurt him or her. The parent, already suspicious of me, would report this accusation to Ms. Savoy, who would in turn call in a private investigative firm employed by D.C. Public Schools. Investigators would come to Emery and interview me, as well as several students whom the security guard thought might tell the truth about the alleged incident of corporal punishment.

I had previously heard of three other teachers at Emery that year who were being investigated for corporal punishment. When I talked to them-they were all experienced male teachers-they heatedly protested their innocence and bitterly complained about Ms. Savoy's handling of the situation. Now that I had joined the club, I began to understand their fears and frustrations.

To define as "corporal punishment" the mere physical separation of two combatants not only puts students at risk but also gives children unconscionable power over teachers who choose to intervene. False allegations against me and other teachers snowballed, as certain students realized that they had the perfect tool for getting their teacher in deep trouble. As I began to be investigated on almost a weekly basis, parents came to school to berate and threaten me-naturally, without reprisals from the administration. One day, a rather large father came up to me after school and told me he was going to "get me" if he heard that I put my hands on his daughter one more time. Forget the fact that I had pulled her off of a boy whom she was clobbering at the time.

With such a weak disciplinary tone set by the administration, by late February the whole school atmosphere had devolved into chaos. Gangs of students roamed the halls at will. You could hear screaming from every classroom-from students and teachers alike. Including me, four teachers (or 20 percent of the faculty) were under investigation on bogus corporal-punishment charges, including a fourth-grade instructor whose skills I greatly respected. The veteran teachers constantly lamented that things were better the previous year, when the principal ran a tight disciplinary ship, and the many good instructors were able to do their job.

It was nearly March, and the Stanford-9 standardized tests, the results of which determine a principal's success in D.C. Public Schools, were imminent. Ms. Savoy unexpectedly instituted a policy allowing teachers to ship their two or three most disruptive students to the computer lab to be warehoused and supervised by teachers' aides. My classroom's behavior and attentiveness improved dramatically for two weeks. Unfortunately, Ms. Savoy abandoned this plan the instant the standardized tests had passed.

After that, my classroom became more of a gladiatorial venue than a place of learning. Fights erupted hourly; no student was immune. The last three months were a blur of violence, but several incidents particularly stand out. One week, two of my emotionally disturbed boys went on a binge of sexual harassment, making lewd gestures and grabbing girls' buttocks-yes, seven- and eight-year-olds. On another occasion, three students piled on top of one of their peers and were punching him with their fists before I intervened. My students were not even afraid to try to hurt me: two boys spent a month throwing pencils at me in the middle of lessons; another child slugged me in the gut.

But for Ms. Savoy, apparently I was the problem. It seemed to me that she was readier to launch investigations when a student or parent made an accusation against me than to help me out when my students were acting up. Faced with a series of corporal-punishment charges, no administrative support, and no hope of controlling my second-grade class in the foreseeable future, I should have packed up and left midyear. Surely there were other schools, even inner-city ones, where I could have developed and succeeded as a teacher.

Why did I stay on? Part of the answer lay in my own desperate desire not to fail. I felt that if I just worked harder, I could turn my children around and get them to learn. Another part of the answer was Teach for America's having instilled in each corps member the idea that you have made a commitment to the children and that you must stick with them at all costs, no matter how much your school is falling apart. Because of this mentality, my TFA friends and I put up with nonsense from our schools and our students that few regular teachers would have tolerated.....

I've learned that an epidemic of violence is raging in elementary schools nationwide, not just in D.C. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article details a familiar pattern-kindergartners punching pregnant teachers, third-graders hitting their instructors with rulers. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have reported nearly 30 percent increases in elementary school violence since 1999, and many school districts have established special disciplinary K-6 schools. In New York City, according to the New York Post, some 60 teachers recently demonstrated against out-of-control pupil mayhem, chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho; violent students must go." Kids who stab each other, use teachers as shields in fights, bang on doors to disrupt classes, and threaten to "kick out that baby" from a pregnant teacher have created a "climate of terror," the Post reports.

Several of my new acquaintances in the Washington schools told me of facing completely fabricated corporal-punishment allegations, as I did. Some even faced criminal charges. Washington teachers' union officials won't give me hard numbers, but they intimate that each year they are flooded with corporal-punishment or related charges against teachers, most of which get settled without the media ever learning of this disturbing new trend. It is a state of affairs that Philip K. Howard vividly describes in his recent The Collapse of the Common Good: parents sue teachers and principals for suspending their children, for allegedly meting out corporal punishment, and for giving failing marks. As a result, educators are afraid to penalize misbehaving students or give students grades that reflect the work they do. The real victims are the majority of children whose education is being commandeered by their out-of-control classmates.

I've come to believe that the most unruly and violent children should go to alternative schools designed to handle students with chronic behavior problems. A school with a more military structure can do no worse for those children than a permissive mainstream school, and it spares the majority of kids the injustice of having their education fall victim to the chaos wreaked by a small minority.

I know for sure that inner-city schools don't have to be hellholes like Emery and its District of Columbia brethren, with their poor administration and lack of parental support, their misguided focus on children's rights, their anti-white racism, and their lawsuit-crazed culture. Some of my closest TFA friends, thrilled to be liberated from the D.C. system, went on to teach at D.C. charter schools, where they really can make a difference in underprivileged children's lives. For example, at Paul Junior High School, which serves students with the same economic and cultural background as those at Emery, the principal's tough approach to discipline fosters a serious atmosphere of scholarship, and parents are held accountable, because the principal can kick their children back to the public school system if they refuse to cooperate. A friend who works at the Hyde School, which emphasizes character education (and sits directly across a field from Emery), tells me that this charter school is quiet and orderly, the teachers are happy, and the children are achieving at a much higher level-so much higher that several of the best students at Emery who transferred to Hyde nearly flunked out of their new school.

It should come as no surprise that students are leaving Emery in droves, in hopes of enrolling in this and other alternative schools. Enrollment, 411 when I was there, now is about 350. If things don't change, it will soon be-and should be-zero.

Much more here

Jagger has more sense than the historians

SCHOOLS should teach proper history, not pop music, Mick Jagger has suggested, after discovering that the Rolling Stones are a topic on the British high school syllabus. Still rolling at 64, Jagger was responding to a Bristol teacher who asked how best to present the cultural importance of the Rolling Stones to a class of eager history students. Despite being the subject of numerous academic works, Jagger said it was only rock 'n' roll and the Stones' importance in the grand scheme of things may have been overstated.

In a BBC News website question-and-answer session, Alison McClean wrote: "I am currently teaching my Year 11 students about the impact of the Rolling Stones in preparation for their GCSE history coursework on Britain in the 1960s. How does Mick feel about being part of the history curriculum and, if he was sitting the exam himself, how would he describe the Stones' impact on Britain?"

Jagger, who passed O-level history at Dartford Grammar School in 1959, was less than impressed. "I suppose pop music was very important in the 1960s, it became perhaps too important. It was one of the things in popular culture," he said. "Alison, I'm sure you're teaching it as part of the whole popular culture movement. I'm sure it's brilliantly accurate - or perhaps not because if you look up a lot of it, it's nonsense."

He was speaking as a concerned parent. "I have a daughter who's doing GCSEs at the moment," he said. "She hasn't got me in her syllabus. She's much more traditional. It's more the cause of World War I, that sort of thing." The best he could say for lessons in dad's role in the 60s cultural revolution was that "it was an interesting historical tipping point".

Jagger benefited from a traditional schooling at Dartford, where Latin was obligatory, masters donned gowns and pupils wore a cap at all times with a regulation blazer with gold trim. His first report in June 1955 placed him 15th out of 30 pupils. His form master, Dick Allen, wrote that he had made "a good start". His academic performance went into steep decline after he discovered "music and girls". Contemporaries recall a lecture young Jagger gave to the school's historical society on the blues.

The high-point of his Dartford career came when the emerging rebel led a protest against the quality of school dinners, which resulted in the dismissal of a kitchen supervisor. "It was probably the greatest contribution to the school I ever made," Jagger said in 2000, before returning to open a performing arts centre in his name. He gained seven O levels and two A levels in June 1961, and won a place at the London School of Economics.


1 comment:

ProfSeeman said...

You make some good pts above. However, I think this also can be helpful to you. Go to:

If you get it, [it is in many libraries, so you don't have to buy it] email me and I can help more.
Best regards,

Prof. Howard Seeman

Howard Seeman, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus,
City Univ. of New York
19 West 8th Street, Suite 4
NYC NY 10011-9033

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