Monday, January 07, 2008

The System Works?

A cheery post to kick off 2008...

One of my students is, to say the least, pretty messed up. Her stories about her life are unquestionably some of the most frighteningly ridiculous I've ever heard. Name an issue a student might have--violence, family instability, rape, drugs, self-harm, poverty, LGBTQ issues--and she has most likely been affected by it. At the same time, even without my knowledge of any of her history, I still consider her one of the most amazing students I have. She's extremely smart and thinks deeply about the topics we cover. She's unsatisfied until she has conceptual understanding, and knows the right questions to ask. She's also a leader who will explain to her peers and encourage them to learn. Unfortunately, all the millions of things she's dealing with keeps her out of school quite frequently, and when she is there, she's usually missed so much that she's pretty behind. She's in such a deep hole that it's nearly impossible to dig her way out, so she gets frustrated when she feels like she's working hard but sees that she's still failing. I know what when I pass out grades it will invariably destroy whatever good mood she's in. And she is still learning how to direct her feelings, so she tends toward anger and giving up. It's painful to watch such a promising student repeat this pattern over and over.

After today's blow up, my CT spoke with her for a long time and told her about all the potential we see in her. But my CT also told her that in the end, she has to believe in the system and have faith that if she does come to school and do the work, it will lead to good things for her. She has to believe that she has the power to change her situation and that school will play a big part in that.


On the one hand, if there's anyone I've ever met who could be a success story of overcoming adversity, this girl is it. But on the other, I don't know if I believe that she should believe in the system. Of course she has no reason to believe in it, seeing where it's gotten her in her short 14 years, but I, as someone who has benefited from that system in so many ways, am still not inclined to believe that it works. Do I think my life is better because I bought into the system, because I was successful by the standards of the traditional education system? Yes, but my buy-in means something completely different because that system has treated the two of us completely differently. Not to mention that the things I wanted out of life e.g. college were things that the system was designed to prepare me for. If this student isn't interested in college (not to say that she shouldn't be--I see her as someone who could thrive in that kind of environment), would "success" in school actually help her achieve the things she does want?

I'm definitely not criticizing what my CT said to her. Whether or not this student wants to--or should--buy into the system, I can't argue with the idea that she would benefit from coming to school and engaging with the material. What I take from my CT's point is that she needs to consider what she wants in her life so she can think about what is going to get her here. No matter what she chooses, I hope she at least chooses something because it would break my heart to see her energy, intelligence, and passion go to waste.

Jeffery Duncan-Andrade, a professor at SF State, said that good teachers don't believe that they'll change the world, but instead believe that the person who will change the world is in their class. I fully believe that this student could that be that person. So would believing in the system help her get there? And how can I help her access the things that will?


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

This may be very naive of me, but could you say some of those same things to that student? Those were very powerful words.

Roni said...

This student sounds like a thinker. I think a lot of adults don't expect teens to think seriously about life. This seriously shortchanges young people because they don't have a challenge to rise to. The earlier they start thinking about life seriously, the better they are to think about how to deal with things when they go awry.

I'd start making small comments that will get her thinking about life in general; you may not be able to control what she has to deal with at home, but you can give her some things to think about that may help her cope a bit better with how to navigate problems. Asking students about their favorite elective at school, or which job they would ideally like to have for the summer, can be a powerful way help thinkers direct their attention forward into the future. Sometimes all they need is something new to contemplate and an adult to bounce ideas off of. Once they have that, they can get all of the information they want.

I'd be willing to bet you some Pineapple Lumps that this student doesn't have many adults who actually *want* to know what she *wants* to do after high school. I'd even up the ante and say that most adults expect her to fall into step with the other adults in her household. Ask her about what career she wants to go into, and she'll start to think about how much control she has over her future. That's really what we want students to realise, right?

Sorry about the rant-ish comment. You've touched on a topic that I feel pretty strongly about. I had a number of students this year that only really applied themselves when I asked them about non-literary things. When given access to general information about how life works they actually stop throwing their friend's pens out of the window and start talking about important things. I strongly believe that unless teachers acknowledge the realities of life, no matter the topic, students are not going to take school seriously enough to make an effort in the classroom.q

Liam said...

Hmm, success in school might not help her achieve the things she wants, but it will give her a lot more options. I'm sure you can help give her some of what she needs to succeed though, Geetha. You're an inspiring person.