Friday, November 6, 2009

My time in 1st grade

This quarter I decided to take a graduate level education course as an elective. The class requires 30 hours in a public school classroom, and I was assigned to work with a first grade class. For my thirty-hour practicum I have been working in a first grade classroom of Laurelhurst Elementary School.

The school goes from Kindergarten to 7th grade and has 573 students. There are 26 full time teachers, which is a 22:1 ratio of students to teachers. The school’s diversity is 7.2% Hispanic, 6.5% Black, 5.6% Asian, 1% Native American, and 79.8% White. Only 15.4% of the students get free or reduced lunch, and there is 1 migrant student.

The school is located in the middle of a nice neighborhood where house prices range from $350-650k, and the medium household income is $35,755. A whopping 92.2% of the population has a high school or higher degree, and 47.1% are in management positions. Only 4.1% are unemployed, and 10.3% are below the poverty line. The median age of this neighborhood is 36.5 years old.

Laurelhurst Elementary School’s mission statement is to be “a safe and caring community where everyone works together to create academic excellence for lifelong learning and social responsibility.” Parent participation is encouraged in all classes so that lessons don’t stop at the door, but continue to their home life as well. Laurelhurst also recognizes that students learn differently, so multiple teaching methods are used to accommodate each student’s individual needs.

Each day before school parents will bring their children into the classrooms and help them get ready for the day. Most of the time that includes putting their lunch boxes in the community tub, making sure they have all of the right things in their folders, and help with the morning worksheets. The first day I didn’t know what to do because of all the parents in the room. I didn’t want to interrupt anyone, but I knew I was there to help the students. So I decided to walk around the classroom to see what was going on, and I noticed a few students doing their work alone.

One of the students who was working alone was a girl named Anne, she was trying to get attention from all the parents around her desk but they were preoccupied with their own kids. I decided to help her and see if she had done all of the things the other parents had done for their own students, and she had. Anne told me her mom couldn’t come into class in the morning or afternoon because of work, which was always the case in my own life as well. After the bell rang all of the parents left the room and the worksheets were put in their folders, the day had started.

For the next three hours I was asked to mentor a few specific students, one was Anne, and the others were two boys named John and Isaac. I was told John liked to write his letters backwards, Isaac needed to learn how to focus, and Anne needed a male role model because she didn’t have a father. I was very surprised to hear the request for Anne; I had no idea elementary teachers thought about their student’s home life in relationship to how they treated their students. It was an interesting request but I didn’t ask questions and went to work.

During story time I sat next to Isaac and John. They were buddies who liked to distract each other and anyone else around them. I spent the entire time trying to figure out how to be quiet yet separate the two, or make them pay attention somehow. At first I would ask one to move up, but then the other one would kick him in the back, or he would figure out how to secretly move back by appearing to stretch out. The next time I threatened to send them up by the teacher, but that only worked for a minute or two and then they realized I didn’t want to interrupt the story—so they started back up. My efforts were useless and probably only caused more of a distraction for the rest of the class. Anne was sitting by the teacher and had no choice but to pay attention, however I was just a stranger to these boys and they didn’t feel the need to respect me. It was hard to get too upset because I was the same way as a kid, and still am when it comes to sitting in reading groups.

The next activity was story writing. Each student could write about whatever they wanted, and could start by drawing a picture. John and I got a clipboard and went to work in the reading area. He said, “I don’t have any ideas,” so I asked him what he did the previous weekend, but he couldn’t remember. I kept trying to pull ideas from him but quickly saw he was trying to use up the writing time with thinking and talking, so I recommended we just write about babies. The teacher was right; John liked to write his letters backwards. Almost every letter was backwards, and even after we corrected them he would continue to write them backwards. I recognized that he would start to write letters the right way, but would correct himself and do it the wrong way—he was playing a trick on me. So I let him continue to write backwards until he got tired of that and the letters started to grow in size. At first the letters were an inch tall, then three inches, and then a half the page. John had written a few words, but most of them were completely unrecognizable. Again, I felt like my efforts were useless. The activity ended and the students put their writing into their folders.

Finally the teacher announced recess! I was so happy to hear those words that felt like one of the students, but of course I was a student—I was there to learn about these kids. My attempts of mentoring didn’t seem to be going anywhere, but I wasn’t going to give up just yet. On the way to recess Anne came up and grabbed my hand, I quickly told her not to do that but the teacher said it was “OK,” so I let her walk me out to the playground. I guess she didn’t have many friends that day, so she stayed and told me all about herself. At first she told me about making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and how tall her cousin was in relation to me. Soon she began telling me about how her dad abused her mom, and why he wasn’t around anymore. She asked me about my kids and I told her I didn’t have any, but I showed her a picture of my fiancĂ© and told her we weren’t ready for kids just yet. Anne didn’t want to see the picture, but after looking said, “I wish I could be your guy’s kid.” I had no idea what to say, but I assumed this is what the teacher wanted to happen so I felt like something had been accomplished. Recess was over so we gathered up the equipment to carry inside.

The three students I was asked to work with were the ones who were working alone that morning. I assumed Anne’s reason for her mom not coming into class was the same for the other two, and of course I could relate to that with my own experience. It was never fun to see all of my classmates enjoying time with their parents while I was stuck alone, and it probably reflected the way I acted in school after the parents had left. These kids aren’t stupid and don’t have attention problems, but they have to stick together or else they will feel like outsiders. Maybe that’s why they act up during story time, in order to show the rest of the class that they are a team and will support each other.
Creating a disturbance alone is much different than having a support system behind you, and the same is true about going to school in general. Anne might not have many friends but now she has a mentor who is on her side, and now she might call in sick less. This class is a microcosm for that neighborhood, and when we as teachers can rationalize student’s behavior in that way it becomes easier to understand what is happening. John and Isaac aren’t just troublemakers, they are a team that has to stick together to make it through—just like the parent’s who come in to help their kids start the day, these boys count on each other for support.

My suggestion is that we use these students as an example of collaborative learning, and recognize the benefits behind such educational models. In my interview with the first grade teacher she said that students are less willing to work with each other than 20 or 30 years ago, or maybe the form has changed. Did parents come into the classroom 20 years ago to get their students started? If not, could that be part of the problem? I ask myself these questions knowing the flipside is not having as much parental involvement in education, so are we seeing the middle ground? I don’t have the answers, but it’s useful to have questions when it comes to things as important as school and society. Our school system is extremely flawed, and no one person is to blame. If we want future generations to have it better than us we are required to continue thinking and not settle down.

This experience has taught me that by understanding so called “problem children” it is easier to approach over arching issues such as the falling student participation within classrooms. We as a society tend to listen to the better behaved, but it doesn’t seem fair to do that any longer. School districts unevenly disperse money to their schools and people get upset, as teachers should we have this same attitude towards our students? The answer is clear, if we want people in control to start behaving ethically, we must do the same. We are the ones in the classrooms, so why not set a good example and show these students they have an equal voice, even if they do write their letters backwards.

1 comment:

betsy q. bramble said...

this is pretty interesting stuff, zach. did you happen to see the transcript of the speech on education that i posted on my blog at the start of the year? you might be interested in it.