Thursday, March 19, 2015

A school without representation? A true story

While mentoring a first year, special education teacher, in Milwaukee’s Guadalupe middle school an incident happened that I will never forget.  The facts caught on video were told to me as follows. 

A teacher is walking down the hall and his leg thrusts backward and hits a female student.  The teacher turns around and laughs a little and moves on.  The video was picture only so they no one could hear what was said.

As told to me by the teacher, the girl complained to her mother that a teacher kicked her.  The mother complained to the principal and the teacher was brought into the office.  As there were no unions allowed in this charter school, he had no representation.  He was confronted with the video and told his side of the story.  He was told he was lying and that he could either resign or be fired.  He chose to resign.

Now his side of the story:  He was walking down the hall when he felt something stick on the bottom of his foot.  He lifted his leg backward to see what it was and inadvertently kicked the girl.  There was nothing in the video to discount what he said but he was asked to resign anyway.

And now the rest of the story:  The young man was Chinese and was born with a withered hand.  As his hand could not hold his foot if he lifted it forward, he lifted it backward instead thus inadvertently kicking the girl.  But why did he laugh?  There was no previous animosity between the teacher and the girl and she was not one of his students.  Well here is a quote from the Handbook of Cultural Psychiatry by Wen-Shing Tseng  2001 Academic Press  San Diego California  
“Nervous laughing…is one kind of coping mechanism commonly used by some Asian people.  When a person is nervous, particularly in an embarrassing situation, instead of manifesting feelings and gestures of nervousness or embarrassment he may laugh nervously.  By bursting into laughter a person could save himself the embarrassment by concealing his feelings of nervousness.  This culturally shaped behavior may look awkward to outsiders, who are not familiar with it, and might interpret it as odd, while actually it is a culturally shaped defense mechanism.”

In conclusion, of course the girl did not lie.  It was her perception that she was kicked intentionally.  But that’s where the adults must look at the total picture.   The bottom line is the teacher had no representation, no one to seek out the whole story.  And he was a quiet, kind person and a perfect gentleman.  He took his medicine and left the school.  

Monday, March 9, 2015

The rhetoric of "poverty isn't destiny" in a test crazed system

The rhetoric of “poverty isn’t destiny” in a test crazed system

Listening to the rhetoric of “poverty isn’t destiny” makes me wonder which “poverty” is being talked about.  Poverty is a big umbrella and it is easy to point out cases of student success as well as cases of failure under that umbrella.

Are we to say that when poverty leads to childhood stress that it does not affect learning?  There is clear evidence, according to Paul Tough, that indicates childhood stress slows the brain.  Can the daily stress of a poverty driven dysfunctional family lead to low test scores and slower achievement?  Of course it can!  In the current, test crazed system of education this clearly leads to students dropping out and poverty becomes destiny.

When poverty leads to chaos in a poor neighborhood, would anyone be able to think straight while living in a war zone?   Consider the lack of proper nutrition on a daily basis and its effect on learning.  Clearly the slowing of learning under the current test crazed system leads to destiny.  And there are those who suggest that the pressure of a standardized test actually leads to ADHD.  Yes, this includes high stakes chapter tests. 

However, “poverty” is a broad umbrella.  Consider the poor family that has a strong role model and a less intrusive level of poverty who can overcome that effect. Of course those students have the ability to achieve at a normal rate and are less affected by poverty.  The question becomes which students are we talking about when we say poverty is or is not destiny?

Those who serve the elite of the poverty students are quick to note that their students all graduated and went to college.  And under the current system, even those students, on the fringe of poverty, will “succeed” if the school prepares them well for the test.  But does this lead to a generalized statement that poverty isn’t destiny?  Of course not!  Does this allow an educator to say my kids are all from single parent families and graduated therefore my school is great.  That is simply the school taking credit for what that strong single parent does.  Does this allow an educator to say my kids are all poor black kids and we made them successful?  The question again becomes which poor black kids are being talked about.  To assume that all poor black kids are troubled and your school saved them is not only wrong, but is playing on the racist belief that all poor black kids are the same.

The secret to success of a school under today’s outdated, test driven system of education is to find as many poor black kids unaffected by poverty and bring them into your school while pushing the others away.  The current system does not reward individual student success in schools who serve those that need us the most.

Of course the solution is to eliminate poverty and every effort should be made to do that.  However, we can’t wait for that to happen.  The time for action is now!  We must recognize the fundamental problem at the bottom is an outdated system of education that was never designed to serve all kids, a system that Thomas Jefferson stated as its purpose “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish”. 

When we recognize that kids are different and progress at different rates and learn in different ways, then and only then will we stop trying to rake those so called geniuses, determined by test scores, and begin to understand that there is real genius in everyone just waiting to come out.  When we stop viewing education as a race where all students must be at the same place at the same time under an outdated, test crazed system, we will begin to succeed with all students.  It is time to realize the fundamental purpose of education is not to win, but to learn.  To assure that poverty is no longer destiny, we must, in the words of Dr. Angela Dye, “re imagine achievement” as real learning, not just testing.