S is seven years old, a big girl among her classmates, but she insists on holding my hand every time we walk to recess or to the lunchroom. She yells at the other girls and tells them to MOVE!! so that I can sit next to her. I try to remind her to say “please,” though I’m secretly pleased by how adamant she is.
S: Look at the picture I drew! *she holds up a drawing of a face with two squiggly lines on each side for hair and a huge circle with nine squares randomly drawn inside–the mouth, I assume*
Me: Is that… me?
Me: *trying to be more flattered than offended* Why do I have three rows of teeth?
S: It’s cuz you’re always smilin’!
Me: Oh. 🙂
Me: Can you draw yourself too?
S draws an identical miniature version of the first picture. I am less offended now by the first picture.
Me: Cool, are you sitting in front of me, like you are now?
S: I’m in your stomach!
Me: What?? How did that happen? Did I eat you?
S: No, but here’s all the food you ate! *draws circles around the picture of herself*
Me: …So how’d you end up in my stomach if I didn’t eat you?
S: I’m your baby!!! B-A-B, baby! *She writes the word ‘dad,’ which I help her to correct.*
I am speechless and endlessly amused before these kids.
I’m currently interning at a charter management organization in Philly–they run public charter schools in low-income school districts. These are mainly schools that the district would otherwise close down (due to consistently poor performance); the CMO’s goal is to turn them around academically and culturally (hence, ‘turnaround’ schools). I’m mainly in the office doing operations work, but I was lucky enough to spend some time observing summer school two days a week while it was running (about 3 weeks). I was even more fortunate to have been placed in a first-grade classroom as a helper, though I had initially thought that I wanted to observe middle school, since that’s the age group I think I want to teach in the future. In this setting, however, I found that it was much more valuable for me to be with the first-graders, both because I was infinitely more useful to their summer school teacher (allowing her to take bathroom breaks and such without fearing total chaos in the classroom, having an extra person to help with math and reading exercises or just general control of the room, etc.), and because the younger kids had no trouble opening up to me even though I had so little time to spend with them and to get to know them.
A is a particularly small boy with particularly big eyes. He eats his breakfast muffin with incredible relish. The kids aren’t allowed to talk during breakfast, but A’s face is so loud with delight that I can’t help but laugh, breaking the silence.
Teacher (to me): Could you take A to the bathroom?
Me: Sure… but why? All the other kids can go by themselves.
Teacher: Last time I let him go by himself, he was gone for fifteen minutes. I found him just wandering around in the hall outside our classroom.
I take A to the bathroom. He stares at me with his big eyes all the way there and all the way back. I make sure he washes his hands properly and doesn’t dilly dally unnecessarily. It takes about 3 minutes in total.
The kids who have to go to summer school are the ones who either miss too many days of school in the regular school year and need to make them up, and/or the ones who have behavioral or learning issues and need to relearn concepts and pass a test in order to move on to the next grade. It makes me sad to see so many kids struggling just to pass first grade, and oftentimes for reasons out of their control–the summer school teacher explained to me that a lot of these kids miss school or don’t learn properly because Mom (or Dad, or both) is always high or in jail or just not around. A lot of them only get the two meals that are provided to them at school every day. Some things make addition worksheets seem a little less important.
K: 11 minus 3 is… is…
Me: Let’s count down one by one. What comes before 11?
K: I can’t do it!
Me: Yes you can!
K: No I can’t, I’m dumb! I’m just dumb.
Me: Who told you that? You’re not dumb! I know you can do this.
K: No I can’t. You can, because you are smart. I’m dumb.
Me: No, I can do it because I’m older and I’ve been doing this for a long time. You can do it too! You’re NOT DUMB.
K: I am! You can do it and you’re smart because… your hair is straight, but mine is like this (frizzy).
Me: …That has nothing to do with how smart you are. Come on, let’s do this together.
But I smart on the inside at her comment. I can tell from her tone and the way that she looks at me that she means this as a racial comment, even though she does not yet understand the word “race” as more than a tortoise-and-hare run to the finish line. I had recently read an article about “stereotype threat,” or the psychological phenomenon of fear (of negative racial stereotyping) acting as an impediment to the realization of one’s full academic potential. I had wondered when this kind of subconscious impediment began to grow into one’s psyche. Here I had stumbled upon a disturbing answer. Who knew that such negative racial stereotypes were already being reinforced for kids at six years old? Who told her that people with straight hair were smarter than those with frizzy hair, or whatever deeper implications that comparison may have? From what I had observed, K was actually very bright, both in mind and personality, but her extra spunk made her unpopular in the strictly 100% quiet and well-behaved learning structure, and she had thus developed a sort of rebellious and progressively defeatist attitude.
As I sat in the back of the room and watched the lessons each day, I realized that a lot of the kids demonstrate “behavioral issues” because they just want and need more attention, but that cry for attention is often deemed a disruption to the class, and disruptions to the class are routinely sent to the back or to the corner where they are not allowed to interact with the other kids or learn the day’s lesson until they are ready to behave (which seldom happens). A vicious cycle ensues.
D is a shy, quiet kid who has not made much trouble in the last two weeks and is pretty good at reading and math. For some reason unknown to me, however, he is one of the three kids who has to sit by himself instead of with a small group of 2-3. One day I come to class in the afternoon and find that he is just lying on the ground unwilling to do the reading worksheet.
Teacher: D has been acting up ALL DAY. He just keeps making noises and mocking everything I say. I don’t know what happened, but I can’t deal with him right now, I have to focus on teaching the other kids who are ready to learn. How are you going to get to second grade if you don’t learn? *She goes to help the other kids*
Me: D, don’t you want to go to second grade?
*He looks at me and nods sadly, still lying on the carpet*
Me: Well, I think that if you do this worksheet, it will help you to get to second grade! Do you want to do it with me?
I have the slightly unfair advantage of being the “new person” that all the kids love for no real reason, so I manage to coax D back to his seat and ask if he knows what he’s supposed to do on the reading worksheet in front of him. He shakes his head, no.
Me: What? You weren’t listening to Ms. K’s instructions just now? She said, do this and this. *I explain the worksheet to him.* Can you do that?
D finishes the worksheet really quickly and accurately.
Me: Oh my goodness, that’s amazing! See, you’re so smart, you’ll definitely be ready for second grade!
Teacher: I’m not so sure about that… *She comes to check his worksheet*
D is good for the rest of the day, and when we go outside later for a class trip to the school garden, he comes and takes my hand (which takes me by surprise, because previously only the little girls wanted to hold hands with me).
Of course, there are deeper and more complex psychological and maybe even biological factors that contribute to the difficult behavior of these kids, and I don’t understand many or most of them. I see good and bad things about the way that the CMO runs things in their schools, and I am currently trying to absorb, question, re-evaluate, and mainly just hold all these things inside of me so that I can compare them to things that I see, hear, read, and experience elsewhere. While the system is yet imperfect, talking to the teachers, parents, and more importantly, the students who go to this and the other schools, I can say that at least this system is better than what they had before. And where there’s been improvement there is usually hope for more.
P is a sixth grade student sitting in Ms. K’s first grade class for the day because he “got in trouble” in his own class. But he loves math and delights in doing extra problems that I write for him. I am ecstatic to have taught him how to do multiple digit subtraction properly, especially when he asked me to explain what I was doing when I carried over/borrowed to subtract 9 from 0 in the first column. Just like the article I read last night, I thought, the one about the importance of teaching understanding versus mindless procedure! Too real. I could be sad in retrospect when I realize that this is a sixth grader still struggling with basic subtraction, but I am just glad for now that he is learning, and wants to learn more.
L is a talkative seventh grader that I meet in the breakfast room one morning. She’s been at this school since kindergarten and she went through the turnaround when she was in fourth grade. I ask her what she thinks of the turnaround and her school now (under the CMO). She says, “I like our school now. Before the turnaround, I didn’t learn anything. I was BAD. I mean, I’m bad now too, cuz I’m in summer school, but back then I was REAL BAD. Now I’m way better. This is my first year in summer school, I never had to do it before.” Don’t worry, I try to assure her, you’re not bad, seventh grade is just harder–but you can do it.
Despite the fact that “these are all the worst kids, put together in the same classroom–basically a recipe for disaster,” I found so many things to delight in, just by watching them and trying to teach them to do subtraction problems twice a week. I found these children to be bright, funny, creative, silly, and even sophisticated at times, saying and doing things beyond what I would expect of a six year old, especially a six year old who is struggling to pass first grade. Then again, I am young enough to still clearly remember being a six year old myself; I remember that I lived and thought in a very complex world of my own that most adults probably forget about or overlook, because sometimes we forget that kids are “real people” too. More impressionable and innocent, perhaps, but fully thinking, feeling, remembering, people.
N is a third grade girl that I meet and have a conversation with on another morning. She loves English and her class is reading a book from Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. She gives me a detailed description of every single character in the story, and I am blown away by her vocabulary and level of reading comprehension. What a difference between first and third grade! This is a girl who loves to learn, is full of confidence, and sees the world as a hopeful, friendly place–I’d like to meet the teachers and other adults who helped her to get there. I see her again at lunch, and she tells me to close my eyes while she draws me a picture of a flower, and labels it “Freand ship.”
By the third week, first grader S is able to finish her subtraction worksheet in under five minutes, before all the other kids in the class. I check her worksheet and every single answer is correct. I draw a huge star on her paper with a purple crayon, her favorite. I smile and tell her that she’s amazing, because she really is.
My heart is full.