Friday, December 31, 2010

Guest Post: Race, Class, and Self-Righteousness, Part II

re-posted from An Urban Teacher's Education:

In my first few weeks on the internship, our cohort was required to do a community mapping project. We were given a list of locations in the school's community that we were to visit and get some information on. The places included locally-owned restaurants, the YMCA and other community service centers, the feeder middle schools, churches, and neighborhood parks and recreation areas. I'm pretty sure this was the first time I was forced to think about schools in the context of their community, although I wasn't really cognizant of the importance at the time. I guess I'd always thought of school as existing in a hermetic environment (which is telling of my naivety). Our assignment was the create a PowerPoint presentation on what we learned and present it to interns at other schools. One of the images we included in our presentation that still stands out in my mind is a picture we took in the public housing projects (where a significant percentage of our students lived) a few blocks west of the school. It just so happened that while we were driving by, the police were making a series of arrests. There were police cars in the street and officers making arrests in the front yard. We took a picture, talked about it in our PowerPoint, but I don't think I was anywhere near grasping the impact living environments like that have on the schools their children attend. The rest of the year I drove through those housing projects twice a day to get to and from school. There was a street named "Better Tomorrow." The street sign usually had loads of trash on the ground below it, and more than once I saw children playing in that trash pile.

The year of my internship ('06-'07) was my year of magazine subscriptions. I had subscriptions to The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Time, Newsweek, The Economist, and a few others I can't remember. And while I generally read for information on international politics, I picked up a few things about education, especially from Time and Newsweek. I learned that teaching experience really didn't make that much of a difference and that Teach for America was the new wave of educational reform. (Indeed, I remember asking during my interview for admittance into my graduate program if they recommended Teach for America were I not to be accepted by UT.) What I read in Time and Newsweek empowered me to walk into my classroom on a daily basis and believe that I could not only do as well as my mentor teacher who'd been teaching for 33 years, but better.

I taught ninth-grade world history (students who had less behavioral issues than those who'd been tracked into world geography). My initial understanding of good teaching focused on keeping the kids engaged. The last thing I wanted to do was be boring. So I brought in Rome: Total War to let them experience what a battle in Ancient Rome must have been like. I made simulations for them to participate in about the Age of Exploration. I made sure all of my lectures included humorous anecdotes and that I was lively, engaging, and friendly. I had students write me notes about how the day went, and I would respond on a daily basis to add a personal touch. The kids listened to me (usually) and they seemed to enjoy the class. I was really doing great; Newsweek was right, or so I thought.

When I gave my first unit test, every single student failed. I didn't realize that I should have been gathering formative assessment from them from day one. When I went over the test with the kids, they were utterly confused. I realized almost none of my exciting lessons had built on each other. My 'lessons' were really just stand-alone interactive presentations, not effective lessons. I had no concept of how to plan or how to write a valid test. I realized some of the kids couldn't answer the questions because they couldn't read the questions. I didn't take into to account the quiet girl in the back who didn't really speak English. We hadn't read any primary documents; I had mostly just been a story-teller. I hadn't taught them any of the essential skills they needed to be getting (like reading, writing, annotating, or the historical habits of mind). And I certainly didn't take into account that my instruction was really only targeting about half of the class. Finally, I had no idea that more than a few of my students were rarely paying attention because they had nowhere to sleep and avoided eating lunch because they always got beat up in the cafeteria. Most of that, though, I did not fully grasp at the time. I still wanted to believe I was a pretty good teacher; and other people seemed to think that I was. I didn't acknowledge my failures because I didn't want to admit that I might not be cut out for the job, and it seemed to me that I was the only person whose entire class of students were failing.

I spent the rest of the year planning day-by-day with little understanding of my flaws. My faculty and school mentors were helpful at times, but primarily as tip-givers on classroom management (which ended up taking me about three years to figure out for myself). I ended the year by preparing my students for the Knox County EOC (end of course exam), which is essentially the same fifty multiple-choice questions year after year. I observed most teachers (including myself) spending the last week of class asking their students the fifty questions over and over again until the kids starting answering them correctly. Even so, most of my students only got somewhere between thirty and thirty-five of the questions correct. Nobody I worked with really believed the students at Fulton were capable of more rigorous coursework, so nobody tried to give it to them. I was constantly stunned by the decorum in some of the classrooms. I kept telling my mentor that if the public knew what was happening in Fulton classrooms, they would be outraged. He would kind of look at me confused and say, "What? Oh right - yea, I guess..." It was a sad state of affairs that I didn't fully understand until I worked in other districts.

Despite what should have struck me as pretty massive failures in my own teaching practice, the college and community praised me as one of the most promising interns coming out of UT's College of Education. On more than one occasion, school leaders and college faculty pleaded with me to stay and work in Tennessee. And while I certainly welcomed the praise, there was that voice in the back of my head that knew I could be a better teacher, and I knew Knoxville was not the place to become that better teacher.

Next: lessons learned, new questions asked


  1. I found this part encouraging actually... how often have we KNOWN the kids were learning, only to find them totally BOMB on the test?? Though I find if my tests are not *exactly* as I taught, and questions worded similarly, there is a big problem for my children (I homeschool some of my autistic children).

    Here's an example: A spider has eight legs. How many legs would ten spiders have?

    Their answer: Eight. As in, each spider still has eight legs, no matter how many spiders there are.

    Or, what do you call a scientist who studies phenomena in outer space? One of my sons was confused. Should he answer "astronomer," because this scientist studies things that happen in outer space, or should he answer "astronaut," as in, this is a person LOCATED in space? Common questions, even for my verbal children, can be confusing.

    So... I find my children can do poorly on mathematics exams if you can't help them when actually, that's their strong point. You just have to sort of help them in the language department or they will never get it. And you can't do that on a state-mandated test if they were in school.

    I don't wonder, ReflectiveEducator, if you don't come up against roadblocks that are "cultural" or if your children sometimes have not been exposed frequently to certain sorts of words in everyday language such as "tumbler" (the glass and acrobat) and "wicker" and the like.

  2. Roadblock galore. My students are native Spanish speakers, and often with a limited vocabulary in Spanish. I can't tell you how many times I've discovered cultural bias in assessment items - the kind that most people would need a few minutes of explaining for them even to consider that bias might exist in that item.