Thursday, January 31, 2008

From the Sidelines

Check out this video of some Mission students commenting on the upcoming election (there are also come cool shots of our school). None of them are actually in my classes, but I am fortunate enough to know Cedric and Sandi, two truly amazing kids (as you can probably tell).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


This week is finals week at school, and today we gave our first final. I should say that I'm actually pretty happy with the test we created--I feel like it covers the skills and concepts that we want our students to have learned over the course of the semester. We spent a LONG time reviewing--ever since we got back from break, with all of last week being very specifically focused on the exam itself.

But still I predict that about half of my students will fail the exam, as well as the class. There are some who I don't feel bad about. If a student only comes to class once every two or three weeks, I just don't feel like there was a whole lot I could have done. Honestly, I kind of wish some of them hadn't shown up for the final because really, what was the point?

It's the other kids who I'm so torn about. There are a good number (20%?) who come to class almost everyday and are still going to fail. On the one hand, coming to class should not be sufficient to pass. Many of these students do little or nothing when they are there, and make no attempt to make up their work or their knowledge gap. I would feel uncomfortable passing them because it is a straight up lie to say that they have proficiency with 65% of the material. And their study habits are, to put it kindly, lacking. Oh, you're coming in two days before the final to make up 15 assignments and retake a test? Good plan. You want to complain to me for 15 minutes about how you want to play basketball so you need to pass, but then when I ask what topic you want to start going over, you walk out? Awesome. I definitely had more than one student come in this morning asking if we had finals this week.

On the other hand, for all of these students, whether they do squat in my class or whether they forget about an exam that's 20% of their grade, it would be irresponsible for me to not consider what it is that I'm doing that's creating this barrier to their success. If they're in class, what is it about my teaching style, activity structures, etc. that's inaccessible or not engaging? At what points should I have been more explicit about what it means to earn an A in this class or what preparing for a test should look like?

Still it's easy to blame their low skills (How can I teach them algebra when they can't add positive or negative integers, or when they think that if x=3 5x=53?). It's easy to blame all the things that they should have learned last year, or all the years before. It's not my fault that their teachers didn't teach them. But now I'm their teacher and it's my fault if I don't teach them. I can't make up for what's happened to them in their past educational experiences, but that doesn't relieve my responsibility to address the academic debt they're owed by the collective education system that I am now a part of.

I'm nervous to see how the final grades turn out. Hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised by some of the results, but I'm not keeping my hopes up. Their failure is my failure, which I don't know if I'm ready to face.

Private School

My Stanford experience has been, to say the least, quite different from my time at the University of Michigan. Obviously the new experiences are highly diverse and cross a range of contexts, but here's a little sampler that would never have occurred on U of M grounds: On Saturday, some friends and I made dinner before the basketball game, but were running a little behind schedule. We needed to get over to Maples Pavilion in time to get seats, but what to do with those beers that weren't finished? As I guarantee also happens at Michigan (and pretty much every other college campus), we maximized time and efficiency by finishing them on the walk over to the game. The difference, however, is that open containers are completely legal here. I guess it allows for some good tailgating, but it's still very odd to me.

As further evidence that I'm living in an alternate universe, as we walked across the parking lot by the basketball arena, we cut in front of a police car, open beer bottles still in hand. Instinct told me that something was amiss. The cop told me from the window of his car, "At least you're drinking good beer!"

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Gender Issues

One of my poor students struggles on a lot of fronts. Academics are not his strong suit, but I would argue that a lot of his barriers to academic success come from what's going on with him socially and emotionally. From the beginning of the year, he's made no pretense of to deny the fact that he's attracted to other boys, and this in itself has caused its share of teasing, exclusion, etc. Fortunately, a lot of students, especially the girls, stand up for him. I have always suspected that there is something more going on with his identity than just being gay. He and his friends asked me what "transgender" means, he asks a lot of bordering-on-inappropriate questions about what it's like to be female, and he's told me things like "I don't like who I am, but I can't be the person I want to be."

Then last week he showed up to class wearing a wig and girl's clothes. My first reaction was to be proud. It takes a lot of courage as a high school freshman to show up like that. But I immediately turned to worry and fear, for the exact same reasons. How would the other students react, and what would that mean for his safety, both physical and emotional. Despite living in one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, despite having a staff and administration that is diverse and supportive with respect to gender and sexuality, despite having a having an active and well attended GSA, despite having a mural in our front hall of influential gay Americans, our school still feels very homophobic and certainly very transphobic. I call students out on a daily basis for using "That's so gay" or similar slurs. Gay students are definitely not accepted on a mainstream level.

So I was not surprised when my kids flipped out upon seeing a boy in the wig. My brave student reacted mostly by trying to ignore it, which I know is hard. I was impressed when he continued to wear the wig after what I know must have been a difficult day. On following days, other kids calmed down somewhat, but there are still comments and looks that I see. It's quite difficult figuring out how to best support my student. I of course call students out for inappropriate comments and I've told my student (who is getting a lot of staff support) that he is always welcome to talk to me, but I'm struggling with what proactive steps I can take to create a safer environment. It's not enough to wait until a student comes to school in a wig and girl's clothing to begin to address what it means to have an inclusive community, and I feel I have failed in this respect.

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?