Words of Wisdom

Youth is wasted on the young.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Powerful Stuff

One of the things I love about holidays is the opportunity to do some of the things I don't have time for during term time.

In the first week of my holiday I have encountered two things which have touched me deeply. This post is about the first: a movie called 'The Freedom Writers'.

For those unfamiliar with the film, it is the true story of a 'first year out' high school teacher in 1994 California post Rodney King and the ensuing race riots. Hilary Swank plays the idealistic Erin Gruwell who is faced daily with a class of 14-15 year olds who have been labelled 'at risk' and 'unteachable' by the rest of the academic staff.

For these kids, school was irrelevant. They lived with the constant spectre of gang warfare and racial violence. They came from homes where domestic violence and poverty were common place and where high school graduation was akin to flying pigs. Everyone had written them off.

Of course, as you can imagine, Erin Gruwell managed to turn it all around and, after working for four years with the class, most graduated and some went on to college. They published a book called 'The Freedom Writers' Diary' in deference to the sixties civil rights movement 'The Freedom Riders' and eventually formed a foundation to promote the use of innovative teaching methods in schools throughout the USA. Again, as I'm sure most of you can imagine, this film strikes many chords for me: disinterested, unteachable pupils, a teacher who makes a difference. Except that currently of course, I have not made a difference.

So, what did this film say to me?

Firstly, and rather uncharitably, I felt pretty damn snitchy because Erin Gruwell is an English teacher and my mean and bitter soul says, 'oh yea, well it's easy for an English teacher to be relevant. Try touching their souls with Maths!!!!', and to some degree this is justified. However, it is also a cop-out. What Erin did was meet the kids 'where they were'. She validated their experiences and created a supportive classroom environment where they felt accepted and safe. She gave them voices and she provided opportunities for relevant curriculum.
I wonder whether I do this.

The other aspect of the film which really had an impact upon me was the attitude of the other members of staff at the school. Erin Gruwell had to use her own money to buy books for her class because her Dept Head would not allow her to waste 'valuable' school texts on her bunch of miscreants. The rationale was that the books would be 'too hard' and that the kids would destroy them with graffiti etc anyway. When she asked for funding to take them on excursions she was told it was a waste of time and money. As a result she funded the first excursions herself and the kids raised the money for others. They also raised money to bring people like Miep Gies to the school, from Europe!!! When, after two years, Erin asked to take the class through into their final years of high school she met with massive resistance from senior staff. She was told she didn't have the seniority or the right to teach senior grades. She was told that if these students went on and failed in other teachers' classes, it was HER fault, not theirs. She was told that her methods were impractical and inefficient and did not meet the needs of the majority of students. Far from being impressed at her achievements with the pupils, the management were resentful!
Fortunately the local Board of Education disagreed with them and the rest is history.

All of this forces me to reflect upon my own attitudes, pride and, dare I say it, prejudice as a teacher. Whom do I align myself with here? When I think of all the whinging I've been doing of late, with respect to my classes, I feel ashamed. Am I like the teacher who thinks everything is 'too hard' for my class and in the process dumbs it down so much that they become disengaged? Do I want to 'blame the kids' for their inability to learn rather than taking on board my own pedagogical weaknesses?

I don't have any answers yet. I am still wrestling with the issues this film 'brought up' for me. Recently, people I love have been suggesting that I should 'give up' teaching the Special Ed kids. 'What do you get out of it?' I have been asked. 'You don't seem to get any satisfaction.'
Sadly, this is true. But is it necessary for me to get satisfaction out of this job? Is that what I'm there for? When I think about why I do it, the answer that pops into my head is that it's like a puzzle I need to solve.

I want to find a way to make numeracy relevant to these kids. I want to do this because I know it will eventually empower them. Sure, modern society provides a myriad of scaffolds and support structures which mean we don't have to be able to add up, read an analog gauge, count back change; but this is illusory. To get stuff done in life you have to have a concept of number, space and measurement: to figure out the best value credit card, to choose the phone plan best suited to your needs, to enlarge a pattern because you've put on weight, to figure out how much fertilizer to mix with water in the watering can.....to get a job which pays above the minimum wage.

Right now I feel like Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. I can teach the kids to parrot methods but there is no generalisation. There is no connection between the process they use and the real life situation it applies to. Like Annie Sullivan I am waiting for the moment when the pupils one by one put their metaphorical hands under the water pump and make the connection.

"Oh Mrs A, is that why we've been doing x?"
"That's like when we did y!"
"Mrs A, Mrs A, this tape measure is just full of decimals and fractions!"

There are many differences between the situation of Erin Gruwell and that of my classes. Notably, the Freedom Writers were not specifically kids with Special Needs, apart from their social and emotional needs and a lifetime of avoiding study. My kids do not get shot at on a daily basis. My management team are supportive and flexible and they respect my opinion! Oh and did I mention that she teaches ENGLISH!!!!!!!!!?? :-D

But I have been challenged to put aside my stereotypes. To try and find ways to meet these kids 'where they are'. To stop whinging and get on with the job of finding ways to engage them.

I made a step today but I'll tell you about that later. For now, go and watch the movie which is a truly inspirational experience and then keep me in your prayers!

Edited: Headbang said this

"But is it necessary for me to get satisfaction out of this job?"

That's Al-anonic thinking at work. Doing good and making yourself miserable need not go hand in hand. I'm not a trained teacher, but my understanding is that the emotional environment of the classroom is as important as the structure of the materials when it comes to engaging students. If you feel no satisfaction, it may, indeed, show up in the class results. More important, perhaps, than any clever new pedagogical sleight of hand.

I feel the need to clarify. When I say I am not getting 'satisfaction' out of the job, I don't really mean that I resent being there or dislike the pupils. I am really rather fond of all of them. What I mean is that I am trying all sorts of things to get concepts 'through' to them and so far nothing is working. This leaves me feeling frustrated but not about to 'give up'. I mean headbang, do you give up on the Cryptic Crossword just because it is a tough one this week?
[ btw: whether or not headbang actually does the Cryptic Crossword I neither know nor care, it is a metaphor! and that was an exclamation mark. because I'm like that]
I suspect however that you may be right in that my own frustration is a clear message to the kids that they are, once more, 'not getting it'. This reinforces their belief in themselves as failures and so the cycle continues. Mind you, I do plenty of affirming and encouraging but I guess that sounds lame against the emotional gutscape of simmering frustration.What is needed is a change of attitude! As well as curriculum. More on this later. Meanwhile, here are the fraction bridges I promised (still awaiting the last one......) and here is my display board. As of the second to last week of term I have had to move rooms to make way for a new computer lab so I will have to spend some time this holiday 'doing up' the new space. Actually, that move could have contributed to the stress of the final two weeks of school now I think of it............


Maggie said...

I'll be thinking about you. For a math movie, have you seen Stand and Deliver? It's an older movie, but it's all about a math teacher doing the same sort of thing -- we watched it during class when I was in high school (oh how I miss the days where I could watch movies in class!) and all enjoyed it.

I also think that math is a subject that students don't come to appreciate until they are off in the 'real world' for a bit...and so you (unfortunately) miss out on the chance to hear all of the "I"m so glad she taught us that" and "Wow!" moments.

headbang8 said...

"But is it necessary for me to get satisfaction out of this job?"

That's Al-anonic thinking at work. Doing good and making yourself miserable need not go hand in hand.

I'm not a trained teacher, but my understanding is that the emotional environment of the classroom is as important as the structure of the materials when it comes to engaging students.

If you feel no satisfaction, it may, indeed, show up in the class results. More important, perhaps, than any clever new pedagogical sleight of hand.

That's not a criticism of you as a teacher, nor of you as a human being. It's just me, urging that you should take care of yourself, emotionally. Give yourself a break. I feel sure it will show in the results you get, for the kids and for yourself.

Arizaphale said...

Thanks Maggie, I shall look that one up.

Chris in Happy Valley said...

Man, some people go to the beach, some go skiing. On your holidays you go all philosophical.

For me I definitely need satisfaction in my job. I spent far too long in a job in whoich I got 0 satisfaction. Starting on the right foot here in Oz.

Giving yourself a break is a good call.

headbang8 said...

"Emotional Gutscape". Brilliant. I'll steal that line! With an exclamation point! Or three!!!

Love, HB8

Andi said...

First, let me ask- you are moving classrooms during your HOLIDAY??? Yes, of course, that could contribute to a whole hell of a lot of stress before the break! That is a major undertaking when you are supposed to be resting up. You should not have to do that on YOUR time! By the way, the displays of student work look GREAT. I know how very hard you have worked...
Also, I have seen this movie and it is quite motivational for all teachers, no matter the content area. I do happen to teach English (in middle school, we call it Language Arts because I do not just teach the mechanics of English- I have reading, comprehension, vocabulary, literature, writing, listening, speaking, etc...it is pretty massive, but it is NOT math!) You are right about motivation with math- and Maggie is right suggesting Stand and Deliver- FABULOUS movie! I get sort of disillusioned when I watch films like this because it always causes me to question am I doing enough...while that is not a bad thing, my circumstances (just like yours) are not the same as the people in the film. In some ways, things are better and in some ways, things are worse. Often though, we are doing all that we can, and to question myself makes me feel like the problem lies with me. That is possible, but nto always true...Because I have some special needs students too, I understand the frustration of meeting them where THEY are...it is a delicate balance of meeting needs and pushing them further...I do not have the answers. I know your post stirred up so much in me that I wanted to say, but I can not help but get lost in my thoughts beacuse I have SO many. The one thing I do know for certain is that it is GOOD to self-reflect, to question, to wonder what needs to change, what can you do to better reach them...
Like Anne Sullivan, YOUR day WILL come... even she made HUGE stides, and she made a difference. Your day will happen...I believe it! You will be in my prayers. Keep us posted on your efforts. ;) And do REST over your holiday!!!
(I am a punctuation junkie as well...and not just exclamation points either!)