A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Satan's Parlor


When my father worked for HEW (Health Education and Welfare) in the early 1960's, one of his first assignments was to construct a legal argument against vouchers for the Kennedy Administration. To understand the position of his opponents, my father conducted discovery conversations with defenders of vouchers, Catholic School systems. He pored over his opponent's arguments. Ironically, my father came away agreeing that vouchers were the best way of giving individuals the power of choice and control over their educational outcomes. I think that his decision to leave HEW was a result of a change from Saul to Paul with regards to his legal opinion about vouchers.

As a teacher in a middle school with high poverty rates, I wonder what would happen to students whose early childhood education was deficient, who are operating far below grade level in math and reading, if they had to compete to get into a school. Perhaps schools might be more responsive to students if schools had to compete for their educational dollars, which is the crux of the "pro-voucher" argument. However, students and families are not passive recipients of knowledge. Learning is an interactive process involving a learner and his or her environment. The process of learning is mediated by specialized social tools, especially national, school system, and educators' philosophies -- indeed, a universally accepted faith in "universal access" is why America invests more in public education than any other country in the world.

My mandate as a special education teacher is to make the general education curriculum more accessible to students with learning disabilities. Accessibility, however, is like leading a horse to water. Some come to me already so disengaged from the process of learning, they would prefer to disrupt the process rather than drink from an oasis of knowledge that is made available to them. Others choose to do whatever it takes to learn, and are receptive to learning, whether it is because of positive relationships developed with teachers, a supportive family, a naturally strong character, or a particularly skillful matching of instruction to interests, readiness, What if the horse does not want to drink?

Recently, with one class that included a core of intransigent, disengaged students, it took a full 90 minutes to try to teach a simple direct teaching lesson on graphing inequalities. In a similar self-contained class the day before, the same lesson took about 20 minutes, and a class of engaged learners were able to practice in a variety of ways for over an hour, including with white boards, and later in a game format. The main difference was that a few students in the failing group chose to laugh constantly, with the seemingly clear intent of making it impossible for anyone to learn. To say that half of the students in that class did not feel invested in the lesson would be an understatement. None in either of the two groups were even close to passing their state testing in 5th grade, and a good portion long ago tuned out the argument that education provides an opportunity for a better future. The engaged class felt like Heaven, whereas the disengaged class felt like Hades.

I quipped to the disengaged group: "This is what it sounds like in Satan's parlor. Everyone in Satan's parlor thinks disruptive behavior is funny." Far from classrooms where there are aspirations to get into the best schools, there exists a tyranny of ignorance. Ignorance is a tyrannical beast. The most hardened, disengaged students actively mock teachers and operate on an agenda fully intending to shut down the process for everybody. My job is to try to reel as many as I can back in.

How does one communicate to a group of 11 and 12 year old children that failure is not funny? It will be interesting to see what happens to students in that class when many of them see their grades. Maybe the laughing will cease after students see their grades. Maybe, discussions about retention will begin. Probably, it will get ugly, at least for their teacher, the responsible adult in the room.