Sunday, January 27, 2013

Just ASK Them

51 Chambers Street where Satellite Academy resided, on one dimly lit, dusty floor,  from the late 70s till 2000

“Slipping through the cracks” is a cliché; however I can tell you it is a very real phenomenon.  Kids do it every day, in hundreds, maybe thousands, of American high schools.   When I worked at a small public school in New York City, especially designed for those students, I knew first-hand of the many ways in which they had failed school, and school had failed them. they wove a common thread when they told of “feeling like a number” and not “being known” in their old schools.  Some kids told stories of being “internal cutters” in buildings so large they could be counted present at certain key moments of the day, then wander into less patrolled sections of the school and “chill” until it came time to leave each afternoon, successfully avoiding classes that bored or confounded them.

Of course back in those days, I was filled with self-satisfaction, knowing I was One of the Good Ones, helping youth find their way back to the educational path from which they had strayed.  I had the opportunity – the luxury, I realize now – to be encouraged by my school’s (and, at one time, my district's) leadership to be a leader myself, in inspiring my students using creative means.  We had approximately 200 students in our building, cared for and educated by around 20 adults.  I’d be lying if I suggested we were successful in guiding all of them, but we were good at helping a majority of them feel they had found a scholastic home – a place where they could be free to be vulnerable in that way that allows you to pick yourself up and try again. 

The school where I work is anything but small, as I have mentioned in a previous post.  In that same post, I meditate on the notion of bringing a “small school mentality” to a large campus.  I don’t know that I had a clear sense of what I meant when I wrote those words the first time, but I think I know now.

And here it is:

Just listen to them. 

It sounds absurdly like an oversimplification, and I know it probably is.  Don’t dismiss the idea, though.  What most of the people who graduated from the school where I taught in New York will tell you (and I hope they’ll read this and chime in) is that the first step comes when a student begins to seriously consider what is not working in their education.  Teachers are asked to reflect on student failure all the time, as they should be.  But rarely do we ask students to think, and talk, about what they believe has gone wrong. 

Here are some questions that a teacher might think about asking their students:

  • ·      Tell me about you and school.
  • ·      Tell me a about the last time you loved a class and why you think you did.
  • ·      Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?
  • ·      Who was the worst teacher you ever had and why?  (No names, please.)
  • ·      What do you think you need in order to be successful?

There are teachers who will read this and have a negative response, dismissing me as one of those liberals who enables children, rather than challenging them.  I’d argue that these questions are challenging ones – especially to ask sincerely and in a safe atmosphere that will ensure honest results.  Some will say, “Well, when I was a student no one asked me questions like these.  They just told you to do the work, and either you did it, or you didn’t.”

What I would encourage that teacher to understand is that the self-actualization they may have had as a teenager is rare.  Yes, many of our students are capable of pushing through whatever the assignment is, with a minimum of help.  However, there are others who bring with them through our school doors myriad shackles, accumulated over years of failure and/or being passed along. 

It’s difficult for you to know every one of your students well in a school where your individual student load approaches 200 – the TOTAL number of students we worked with in our small transfer high school in New York City.  I don’t deny that.   But the teachers I see thriving, coming to work with smiles on their faces, and leaving in the afternoon looking invigorated and not depleted, tend to be the ones that try.  Keep fighting the good fight.  And if you want to take a step in the right direction, stop that one kid who keeps on failing, seemingly without a care in the world, and ask him my first question. 

“Tell me about you and school.” 

You might be amazed at what you hear, and it might just energize you at the same time. 

But one thing is for sure:

You’ll never know if you don’t just ask.

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