Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts on this year

It's no secret that I have been down at work lately.  I think that part of it is that I take things so personally and internalize the suffering of my students when in reality, I can't change their home lives and I can't make up for years of neglect and abuse.  Two things happened this week that almost brought me to tears.  They may seem ordinary to you, but they are so representative of the suffering of our city's children.

1.  One of my students, Marisol, a girl of indigenous Mexican descent brought a book to school to share with the class.  Sometimes when we are lined up for dismissal I let the kids quickly share something and since this book was so beautiful, I let her share it.  The book was called "Pancakes For Supper," and had beautiful illustrations and interesting characters.  I asked her why she brought it in and she said because it was special, her Pre-K teacher had given it to her. Indeed, inside was a message from her Pre-K teacher.  It said something like "To Marisol on your birthday, may you always enjoy reading, love Ms. ___".  Then I asked her (a level I reader), to tell us the title.  She looked at me with a puzzled look and said "I never read that part before."  Something about the inscription and the fact that this child had never really read the title before made me want to cry.  Her Pre-K teacher had put so much love into this gift and this child treasured it, but didn't understand what it was really for.  Although she could read the title, she never did, it was as if she didn't even know how to interact with this book.  I wished I could sit down with her and read it with her and let her point to the pictures and make comments like little kids do, but I couldn't, I had a whole class standing there with their bookbags on ready to leave.  I can read them stories, but I can't make up for the fact that their parents can't or don't read to them.  

2.  In my classroom, we have been talking about endangered species of animals.  This conversation started with a study of animal diversity in the rain forest habitat.  We spent about three weeks reading different books about the rain forest and making a web of life project.  We also talked about rain forest destruction and how that affects the animals.  This led us to explore other habitats like the arctic, the desert, the mountains, etc.  We made a chart of different habitats and started listing endangered animals from each.  Then we perused our available books for researching endangered species and my class voted on an animal they want to research as our shared writing.  They chose the giant panda.  Today, we got our our chart where we had collected key words and written facts about the giant panda on post-its, a project we have been working on for little over a week.  I also got out the chart with the endangered animals from different habitats.  I asked the students to talk with their partners (as they do EVERY TIME we get out the chart) about what is an endangered animal, what does that mean?  As I made my way around the rug listening in, I found partnerships who had no idea what it meant.  What was so telling though and the reason why I'm even writing this is because I had a visitor in my class, a student from our gifted and talented program was with us because his teacher was absent and they broke up the class.  While some of my students had no idea what we were talking about after so much scaffolding  visual support, even rainforest audio, and charts and everything I can pull out of my bag of tricks, all they could muster as a definition of an endangered animal was, "animal is extinct."  Great, they acquired a vocabulary word, but had no idea how to even use it.  I prompted the child who said this with "the giant panda is extinct like the dinosaurs?"  to which he replied "Yes."  Other kids said "NOOO!"  so I called on someone else to add an idea.  "The can make extinct like the dinosaurs because they dying," said this child.  Okay, I thought, now we're at least getting somewhere.  Then I saw Max, the G&T visitor who didn't even have the months of read aloud, shared reading, shared writing, etc. on the topic had his hand up, so I called on him.  He said something like this:  "Well, endangered means that animals have low numbers like the Cheetah.  There are 15,000 or so cheetah's left and they are dying out because they are being poached by hunters who want to sell their hides."  My mouth gaped open, not because I thought what he said was revolutionary, but the ease in which it rolled off his tongue and the quickness of recall he showed was nothing like anything I EVER see in my classroom and it made me sad.  This child is not a genius nor would I even say gifted or talented.  Yes, he tested into the program, but in talking to him and observing him throughout the day, he just seems like a normal kid whose parents engage him in conversation and encourage him to be curious about the world.  He reminds me of my cousins' children.  Anyway it made me sad, and made me reflect on my teaching.

I've pretty much concluded that I spend almost the entire morning convincing my students that they are not the scum of the earth and that they are valid human beings with ideas and that they don't have to be mean to each other, that kindness is possible.  I even have to trick them into forcing a smile upon entry to my room.  They think that because they move their mouth that they are greeting me with a smile, but with some of them it is so fake, and so devastating.  After I convince them that they are not scum, we can learn a little bit, not a lot because their minds are spinning and their bodies are in constant repetitive motion.  They are more enthralled with the laces of their shoes and pieces of paper that have fallen out of kids' word study notebooks than the topic at hand.  It doesn't really matter what the topic is, many of them are not "with us" in conversation.  I have students that despite excellent attendance have retained very little over this entire academic year.  Some students have not gone up even one reading level.  During my extended day group, I had to repeatedly remind them (I can't believe I had to do this at THIS POINT IN THE YEAR) where their eyes should go when they read.  They always have their eyes on me, looking like scared puppies for my approval, but I want their eyes on the words actually looking at the sounds and trying to make meaning.  

The truth of the matter is I don't know how to make them want to learn.  I try my best to make our work as engaging as possible, and I get validation that what I am doing is interesting and working from many children, but not all of them and not as a whole.  In prepping them for our upcoming trip to the Museum of Natural History, I told them that I don't want to hear empty comments like  "AHHHH T-Rex," or "Whoa!" like I always do.  I want to hear questions and curiosities about the world like "Why are the dinosaurs extinct?" or "How does a blue whale grow to be so big."  When I said this, their interest peaked for a second and then they went back to head bobbing and playing with laces.  


G said...

I can see why you're frustrated. Could you send me an email? I have some unrelated questions for you about the next school year.

WideEyedWonder said...

When the students don't get what they need at home, it is close to impossible to get them to value what they do at school. I found myself reminding my students that we were in the last week of school and not to confuse it with the first week of school for all of the things that they were forgetting to do or stopped attending to. I think we lose them back to the real world and we can only hope that any gains we made can be built on next year.