Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The "Urban" school

As part of the certification requirements for my school, I had to observe one of the schools in DISD. I like to think I made an appropriately lurid picture of the "urban" school. It's pretty typical though.

Field Observation #1

As I drove through the pristine lofts emitting their rays of stylish cosmopolitan pleasantness uptown, I searched for my designated school of observation, North City High School. The expectation of a school matching the area around it soothed my worried mind about some well-off kids likely taking that step out of the ignorant swamp the school years I knew into that tall mountain of academic reform touted by so many schools these days. Following the maxim of conventional wisdom (or more truthfully, conventional prejudice), I assumed affluence equaled ability. However, I forgot another important maxim (again, arising from conventional prejudice), the affluent despise poverty and always opt for the nearest private institution. Behind the new cafes, boutiques, and Vespa dealerships lies an old crumbling building accompanied by some monotone portables complete with an unkempt lawn and a parking lot paved with weeds and gravel. This was North City High School. Beyond the school are some crowded tenements. This was where the school’s students came from.

I observed Remedial English teacher, who happened to be the department chair. He took on the students that basically suffered from illiteracy, requiring them to take his class, titled Reading 2. Failing students of Reading 1 needed to continue on into Reading 2. While talking to me in private, the teacher clarified his class’s title more accurately as, “Reading -1”.

Judging from the procedures of class, curriculum originated wholly from the TAKS standardized test. In the first two sessions that I observed, the teacher devoted class time to copying three sample essays from the TAKS test. They briefly discussed the differences between good essays and bad essays, but most of the kids concentrated on finishing their copying. Once the students completed the TAKS later that month, I eagerly awaited what the class would work on afterwards. Observing people copying sample essays for TAKS bored me probably more than it bored the students.

Unforuntately, the week after the TAKS served as free time for the kids as a reward for their good work that whole year. Again, this was a fruitless observation for me. However, the teacher assure me that the following week was devoted to preparation for Lord of the Flies, the first real book that they would read that year in Reading 2.

When I came in the next week, preparation included watching an extremely old documentary (almost contemporary with the period it covered) of Hitler and the Nazi regime. The students were to make connections of Fascism with the government that the kids set up in Lord of the Flies. This connection proved difficult with the kids since most of them slept during the documentary and somehow had no prior knowledge of World War II. Dismayed at their ignorance, the teacher muttered that they would be perfect goons for following a dictator like Hitler.

In my last session, I observed them trying to outline an essay concerning the first third of the book. The students did not know how to write an outline for an essay, or much less, write an essay. The prompt for the essay asked them about the necessity of rules in society and how the boys in the book recreated a system of rules on their island. The students spent much of the period either staring at an empty page, fiddling with a broken pencil sharpener, or sleeping (I marveled at this, since I personally found the seats incredibly uncomfortable). Noticing the blank pages on the desks, the teacher became flustered and hastily showed them how to make an outline for an essay on the chalk board, which the students then voraciously copied. When the period ended, the teacher sarcastically commented to me, “Walking into this classroom is like catching a glimpse of the Dark Ages. No such thing as reading or writing, or organized thought. Just a bunch of brutes filled with random meaningless thoughts.”

Indeed, I thought of the Dark Ages when reviewing the type of environment that these students enter. They are cramped in a dark mean building with small rooms at school as well as their home, which they often share with nine other people. The teacher rigorously beats them into submission like serfs by intimidation, insults, and threats of law enforcement (it is not uncommon for students to mysteriously disappear after an outbreak in class). As a result, the kids carry poor spirits about school and develop only a rudimentary thinking in academics that will never expand or help in any way. I can see that the students have accepted their fate as mediocre dullards along with their teachers. The teachers mistake their cynicism for realism to justify their lack of assistance to these already impoverished kids. Very much like the Dark Ages (history has so many lessons), the school maintained order but at a very high cost.

After my sessions at the school, I often mulled about a resolution to this problem that plagues most urban schools, but I found that a real conclusion would only come when I became a teacher. So, I would usually grab a drink at the nearby Starbucks, admire uptown, and forget about the whole thing altogether like most people.

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