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

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Mission

In the movie, “The Mission”, Jeremy Irons plays the role of the missionary entering the Amazon to spread the gospel and civilize the savages. Viewers can recount the amazing trials and tribulations that the missionary went through to reach his lost flock in the jungle. He climbs up a waterfall with nothing but a knapsack and calms a tribe of hostile natives by playing his oboe. With time and unbreakable conviction, he raises the mission and the quality of life for the savages and an errant Spanish conquistador guilty of fratricide. Even the unbeliever will marvel at the determination of this missionary and his accomplishment. In the course of Western history, he was simply one of many to help colonize and civilize the untamed New World. The missionaries carried an unflinching resolve to lead a moral religious life and ward off the evil influences of barbarism present in both native and European cultures. Now that times have changed, modern secular educational institutions must assume these duties or watch the progress of the human spirit deteriorate.

The school needs a mission that fights the pernicious influences that abound in the world and at home. This has not always been the case in American society, but times have changed. A surprisingly large amount of parents have abrogated their parenting duties to instill morality in their young ones. Children today grow up without a code of ethics, a sense of the honorable, or an ideal. Atrocities that occur more frequently in the news confirm the deterioration of character; to name a few: school shootings, gang shootings (Chicago has more than 22 students killed on a school campus), student brutality, rising teen pregnancy, and unmitigated drug abuse. People shouldn’t make the mistake of likening today’s miscreants with lovable fabrications of Mark Twain, stupidly quoting, “Kids will be kids.” While they are still human, adults have let youth become morally barbaric (for lack of a better word) because they neglected their obligation to civilize. Reasons for this may happily fill the lucubrations of any periodical or blog, but the schools are the ones who need to cope with this challenge.

Unfortunately, many schools and educators will not acknowledge this challenge. This would naturally require more accountability and more energy than the current mission of most schools: Keep ‘em in the building and make sure the pass that stupid state test. The challenge of civilizing children would require schools to adopt measures that assume a new authority that oversees the academic and moral growth of each individual student. Schools shudder at all these measures because most of them have adopted “one-size-fits-all” approach that somehow leads to college. This approach is cheaper, easier to implement, and much easier to define. If any aberrations occur, usually among the extremes on the intellectual spectrum (the brilliant and the slow), the parents would normally supplement the school’s glaring inadequacies. Parents would also address the moral education of the students as well. Now that parents do not take on either of these responsibilities, schools must now adapt like missions had to adapt to the natives and take up the responsibilities themselves.

Successful civilizing measures contain these elements: flexible curriculum that allows alternatives for blooming adolescents, a discipline system that actually corrects behavior, and some indoctrination of values. All three elements feed into the other. A student freely and happily determines his fate when given the opportunity (alternatives) and the training (discipline). This student can embrace this training in usefulness and civic responsibility by having a strong set of priorities and values (indoctrination). Almost every successful educational institution in the world follows these three precepts, and it’s time that the United States follows suit.

Naturally, instilling these three aspects will meet with some objections that, however deleterious, hold sway in the educational conscience of the United States. People argue that promoting each of these parts would somehow diminish equal opportunity as advertised by the present educational system.

Detractors will say that creating alternative tracks prematurely posits a social hierarchy that denies an all-including route to higher abstract education. They overlook the fact that many students do not need to go to college for what they choose to do in life. They also hold a quixotic assumption that all students can do college work, which they cannot. This one-track goal, weakly held by students and educators alike, actually limits the freedom a person can choose in their profession and simply wastes time and money for an end that could be reached at an earlier time.

Similar objections are used in implanting a discipline system that corrects bad behavior. Detractors will claim that this should be done by the parents. They will also claim that actively correcting a person’s behavior might hurt their self-esteem and traumatize their educational experience with exaggerated personal anecdotes aplenty. Above all, they will always question whether the behavior even requires correction. However, schools uselessly rely on parents who in turn rely back on them for discipline, so the school still has the problem. Correctional measures will always overrule inaction or temporary isolation. Bad behavior usually spawns from a low self-esteem and often serves as an indicator that the child indirectly craves real (not fake) encouragement that comes with a correction in behavior. Harmful or disruptive behavior endangers the student as well as the students around him or her. Their education suffers; their view of school suffers (humans naturally desire order over chaos); and they suffer from emotional and sometimes physical distress. Both academic and social problems should be addressed with discipline that can correct it. As everyone averts their eyes, the disruptive students will either wreak havoc on a classroom, or they will be taken away and sent through a disciplinary system that further abets delinquency and eventually leads to a life in the penitentiary. This situation should never even arise if it were fully addressed early in life.

Modern citizens of the United States have learned to shudder at the word, indoctrination, especially in the context of their children. However, there is really no better way to describe the process of creating a moral and academic foundation for a developing human bring through constant and unremitting exposure. In some cases, parents believe that such a drastic move in creating an objective good and bad in a person limits the poor kid’s freedom, so they go ahead and spoil their offspring, hoping daycare or school can do it for them. In a majority of modern situations, the child will often lack a responsible parent, let alone two parents, to indoctrinate them in a wholesome moral upbringing. In any case, parents forget to realize that this formative part of a child’s upbringing will come from some other source if it doesn’t come from them. Many adults shun their duty to inculcate virtue; children now receive their indoctrination from undesirable outlets like videogames, Internet, televisions, or thugs on the street.

The school now serves as a bastion to culture and tradition whether people care to acknowledge it or not. These cultural and traditional values that have brought civilization’s greatest achievements should rest in the mind of every developing adult. Like missionaries that viewed savagery and faced it with absolute purpose, educators must now face a new savagery devoid of consciousness and responsibility and face it with the same resolve. In the past, the wills of missionaries helped society ascend from the Dark Ages. In the future, the wills of teachers might need to prevent a frightening return to those Dark Ages.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Got to admit, it's getting better...

We’ve hit April now, and I feel like I’m hitting my stride. The students have calmed down. The potential dropouts have either grown out of it or finally dropped out. Those extremely dysfunctional students now warm the seats at the alternative campus or have been finally rescheduled by the counselors. My classes have started on The Pearl by Steinbeck. Right now, I feel completely in control.

This wasn’t always the case. Many different challenges plagued each day. After freshman thaw from the first shock of high school during those first few months they can really be a thorn in the side of a young teacher filled with hopes of changing a student’s life. The multitude sway in the direction the disruptive kids blow. The disruptive kids try to establish their territory and are happily cultivating the disciplinary records with perpetual flare, triumphing in a teacher’s failure to teach. Students report to class tardy, disheveled with attention to the latest ghetto fashions, and without supplies. Coming out of summer, everyone flaunts with pride just how stupid, lazy, and destructive they are. Those with a gram of maturity hide it for fear of their lives.

For a teacher, even a new one, this situation is not impossible. I had strategies to neutralize the rotters, to pacify the most active disruptors, and to push the recalcitrant yet pliable multitude of students. Still, employing these strategies never assured a calm day. I remember almost everyday dreading at least one or two moments that I know would arrive. There were a group of students that I knew would raise a scene that would wreck my class’s attention and my authority into pieces. Like a general planning his next move, I played a chess game that anticipated the moves of these problematic children strategically placed in my class to make my job that much harder. Other times, I would worry about the acceptable format of lesson plans, staff development sessions, the growing number of rotters sleeping in my class and failing, the frustrations of teaching reading to adolescents still struggling with phonics. Somehow, I made it and kept my cool. I credit getting a sufficient amount of sleep (this was vital), and those close to me serving as sound boards (this was even more vital). Unfortunately, I got to see some others break down under the strain.

Throughout the first semester, I tried and retried different methods of teaching the students about plot, about characters, about setting. I reviewed these terms, modeled them countless times. Repetition was my middle name. I lectured and brought out real world examples. Two thirds of my classes defied the odds and made good progress. Still, my last classes in the afternoon would always manage to dampen my outlook on the day. The students in my 4th and 8th periods (it’s a block schedule) never finished their assignments. I could prod them, explain every question, hint at every answer, but they just languished like cows in the field. A few of them are roused into some kind of activity now, but they still could do better.

Like a composer listing his monumental operas (think of that movie, Amadeus), I like to list my novels that my students have successfully finished: The Outsiders, Animal Farm, and hopefully in a few weeks, The Pearl. Between these, the kids have hustled their brains on short stories, newspaper articles, essays, and vocabulary and grammar exercises (much of this material, I had to write up myself). I’m happy to say that all my classes have expanded their vocabulary and comprehension, becoming better readers and thinkers. The time it took in the beginning for 10 pages ranged around an hour (yes, that long!), now that has been cut in half with more of the material retained. I have been able to eventually sneak in some more mature concepts and higher level thinking with a better reception. Quite a number have finally touched the big black monolith and discovered Reasoning. With this, I keep on chugging, knowing that I have made a difference and that I'm doing a pretty swell job teaching, so I can’t stop now.

Over the year, I find it interesting how a separation emerges between classes because of the dynamics of the students. The level of progress between my two best and my two worst classes fascinates me and confirms a few notions I’ve had about the impact bad and lazy kids can have on a class. To put it concisely, they’re disastrous. A disruptive lazy kid can hold back months, even years, of academic progress the adjacent students might have. They stop activity, delay instruction, annihilate motivation, and will utterly demolish a teacher’s will to help those struggling.

Case in point, I have made substantial progress in my morning classes (1st and 5th), which now prompts me to make a higher track for them with more novels and more opportunities for analytical discussion. The kids are polite, they work, and their minds and abilities have grown substantially. They can rise above my current work. My two worst (4th and 8th) have made the least progress though I’ve worked the hardest with them. Those two classes account for at least 80 percent of my failures for all six of my classes. They are the most recalcitrant towards any new material and they carry very little motivation. The relevance of my material, the failing grade awaiting them, the disappointment of their parents, and the damning stamp of stupidity; all those things have only change a few of their habits. For them, I’m considering a lower track that they might be able to follow, but I almost think this is amoral. They aren’t that different from my other students; they’re just immature and suffer from some dead weights in the class.

One of my duties as teacher is to isolate, mollify, and hopefully extract these bad influences. Like a ruler punishing criminals, I have to punish the bad kids. Those who aren’t in a school in any capacity will assume I’m just a vindictive teacher out to get those free spirits. Where I work, my bad kids are ones that flirt with crime and dropping out, and many of them come from severely wrecked homes. They thrive on violence, aggression, disorder, and emotions. They’ve never been taught to think or to take responsibilities for themselves, but that have learned to make excuses. They need help in the worst way, and sticking them in my classroom only fuels the fire instead of stopping it. A suitable alternative for these kids needs to be developed so this growing number of children doesn’t end up in prison like they do now.

For now, I’ve done pretty well to keep my classes calm and the students have started listening. Even fourth period is starting to turn around. A teacher once told me that Thanksgiving break will be a teacher’s low point in the year, and that by Spring Break, things will start becoming pleasant. This has been true so far. With only six weeks and a bit left, I can say that this year has been frustrating but somewhat illuminating. There are problems beyond my control, so I can only write about them. Just read this blog. Still, through all the miasmic cynicism that looms in a low-performing urban school, I know that there’s still a good part to salvage.

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