Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Misbehavior and Misplacement In School

I have been teaching summer school for the past month, and it has further solidified my belief that our public schools are in error when they place students according to age rather than need and ability. Presently, I am teaching math for 4 forty-five minute sessions - a 3rd, 4th, 5th, and a 6th.

Within these groups, I have 3rd graders who have a decent handle on some multiplication facts, I have sixth graders counting on their fingers, and every variation in between. Ideally, I should put all those counting on their fingers together, all those who can rattle off their multiplication facts together, and so forth. If I could separate them thus, I could more accurately address their present needs.

Instead, they are placed by age, which means I have large variances in each of the four classes. No matter what I am teaching, part of the class is going to be bored and part will be befuddled. It is like giving a surgeon butter knives with which to operate.

One of my present students is a perfect example. She is the classic tough, inner-city, attitudinal kid. She nearly got into a fist fight within our first 5 minutes of class. She had a chip on her shoulder and was daring me to knock it off.

I was not surprised to find out she was grades behind academically. Tough bravado is often used as a cover by students who struggle in school.

It is with kids like this that I tend to shine. I don't escalate their anger and I give them space. She refused to do any work at first and I didn't push.

Once I realized some of her anger was insecurity over academics, I tried to insert some "easy" items into the 6th grade class practice so she could be successful with something. Little by little she tried some of the work, and in this past week she has started to approach her math with some of the same zeal she originally displayed in attitude.

But here is the the sad part.... right now, I am able to give her a chunk of my class time because her summer school class has dwindled down to about 7 students, and the rest of this class is fairly independent. I am also working with her on what would be considered 3rd grade level math. When the school year starts, she will be in a class with 25-35 students and will be forced to do 6th grade math. There will be little outside help for her, and that which there is will try to make 6th grade math workable for her... rather than addressing her at her level. In that environment, she will most likely revert to the attitudinal and angry child I saw at the beginning of summer school. For all appearances, it will look like she is a behavioral problem and everyone will try to correct her behavior.

However, the truth is that her academic needs are not being met and she knows of no other way to express what is going on in her life. I honestly believe most behavior issues in our schools (and there are MANY) are due to children being mind numbingly bored or being forced to sit through lessons that might as well be graduate level in terms of their difficulty for the child.

and the band played on.....


Sammy said...

I remember how bored I often felt in elementary school. I learned how to read and do basic mathematics before kindergarten, so I was usually ahead of many of the other students. On top of that, I am naturally a fast reader. I would become frustrated when we would read a story out loud in class for over an hour when I could have read it to myself in about 10 minutes. Math was just as bad. We would spend week on multiplication tables that I already knew.

Because of that, I got into a lot of trouble for talking or not paying attention. Had I been in a class based on ability instead of age, I doubt I would have missed recess so many times.

Thankfully, I live in a large town with a good school system, so once I got into Jr. High, I was able to take honors classes and, later, AP classes in High school, where I was actually challenged.

Often, we politicians try to reform education, they focus solely on the kids who are behind. Of course, that is extremely important. However, often kids that are ahead get ignored. The class gets taught at the pace of the slowest children, so the faster ones never get to meet their potential. Educational reform needs to address both types of children.

Bush's "No Child Left Behind" is a prime example of this. In my high school government class we called it "No Child Gets Ahead".

Don said...

Sad....but true. Kudos for your efforts.

Unknown said...

I am interested in your technique when it comes to not engaging and giving space. I completely see the use in the approach. You will have to share that with me.

Jon said...

This sounds like the thing people say a lot - that kids miss some essential piece of learning early on in their schooling, and that means they miss the rest of it because they need that piece to move on. So you have kids who constantly fail at school because they didn't get taught some basic concept in Year 2 and no-one took the trouble to redo it - or had the time. On the other hand, I guess it would be dipiriting to be the only 16 year old in a class of 12 year olds. And scary for them if the older kid had attitude!

Andrew said...

Jon - I don't think, if we let kids move at their pace, that a student would be alone amongst another age group. If I had mixed my four summer school classes according to readiness and ability, they would have had a mix of ages in each group.

Also, I suspect age is not as big an issue as we seem to make it. As I look at the park behind my house, I see a group of elementary age students playing together and they probably vary about 3 years. I think we adults have created the age stigma in schools, not the kids.

And yes, the goal of our schools is to get kids through a certain map of classes, in a certain time frame... whether they know the material or not. Somewhere that has to be a definition of insanity. :)

Jon said...

Yes, I guess you're right about the age thing. I also guess kids progress at different rates in different subjects, so if they were allowed to progress at their own rate they'd be in different spots depending on the subject. I also often wonder about the range of things in our curriculum. For instance, I guess its good that all kids have a chance to learn algebra, but how essential is it really? For those who struggle with basic numeracy, surely it doesn't matter if they never solve a quadratic equation, as long as they at least get to the point of mastering basic arithmetic. Things can backfire too - we try to give kids an appreciation of great literature but if we ask them to read beyond their ability they come to hate it and that lasts their whole life. Yet if we allowed them to read simple stuff they would enjoy it. I have a friend whose path to literacy began as a young adult with phantom comics - he ended up going to uni and becoming a school teacher.

Catwoolf said...

The academic disparity grows the higher they get in grade. Those struggling learners slide further and further behind as they receive less instruction on their instructional level but continue to be promoted to the next grade.

It's especially true in schools where the home language is something other than English (or the language used in school.) It's so hard to learn important skills, especially reading, when you're not yet proficient in the language being used to teach them.

That said, I think having a prepubescent 12 year old in a 3rd grade classroom could wreak havoc on the child's self image.

Finding ways to let kids learn grade level content with their same aged peers, but providing time and opportunity to develop literacy and math skills with kids with like instructional needs seems like a good approach.

When I lived in Europe as a kid, some kids went to Saturday school. More time before or after school for kids with unique learning needs wouldn't be a bad idea either.

OOwee! Don't get me started...

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