Monday, April 21, 2008

Who's to blame?

People often wonder what's going on in this country as far as education goes. Why are so many kids getting left behind? It must be the teachers, right? Sure. Case closed, problem solved. Nah, it's not that easy. While there are probably more than a good share of incompetent teachers out there, they're only one part of the equation.

What are the other parts then? Well, there's administration, funding (not just the amount but how it's being spent), content standards, the parents's a shocker: the students! After all, if a student is eager to learn, but the teacher doesn't do a good job, then little learning will take place. Likewise, if a teacher is eager and able to teach, but the student isn't willing to learn, then little learning will take place.

Now, I'm not going to judge my own teaching. I'll let others do that for me, but I'm pretty confident that I do a decent job. I have lots of areas for improvement, but I have witnessed some genuine learning taking place with some of my students. What I would like to address are the students and the role that they play.

I have three freshmen classes. The class averages were 67%, 76%, and 85% (approximately). The one with the 85% average is my pre-honors class, a class that pretty much all of those students signed up for because they wanted to try something a little bit more rigorous. It's pretty similar to my regular class, as this is my first year teaching it, and I'm still working out the curriculum a bit, but they've certainly done a lot more writing. Also, class discussions are more productive, and you don't see heads immediately going down on the desk as soon as we start to read.

In my other two classes, I have students who are barely even literate. There can be a number of factors here, some of which may beyond their control. Still, I notice that with many of the poor readers, the very concept of reading a book seems foreign to them. Every quarter they have to read a book of their own choosing, and they can pick anything in any genre that they want. Now, I have a lot of kids who aren't necessarily big readers, but they manage to find biographies of athletes to read (or something else that gets their attention.) However, a few of them read absolutely nothing, and when I ask them about what they're interested in, they don't even seem to have any interests at all. Where the heck do I go from there? Not only that, but some of these kids declare, almost proudly, "I hate reading." Wow.

This might sound ironic, but generally speaking, I don't enjoy reading novels myself. At least, I don't enjoy the process the first time I read it. I tend to gain my appreciation and love for great literature in the RE-reading and the teaching of it. I mean, I liked Of Mice and Men when I was in high school, but I never really gained an appreciation for what a wonderful book it is until I read it again. With every year, I manage to love that book even more. When I was in high school, I didn't really read a lot of books. I read comics though - by the truckload (still do). Still, I think that I would have been ashamed to say, "I hate reading" even if it were true.

My parents were never big novel readers, but they definitely were readers. I'd often see them with magazines and the newspaper. That's at least something, and in all honesty, I don't look down on people who don't read fiction. I personally think that it's just good to read - even better if you find a little variety. For me, the books I choose to read on my own tend to be nonfiction, and I get my fiction fix from the comics that I read. Hopefully, I'll be able to show my own children that there's something to this whole reading business. I think it's a pretty safe bet that the students I'm talking about have probably never seen their parents read anything.

This year, one of my freshmen has been failing all year. He barely turns in his work, and pretty much everything he turns in is below grade level. His skills are extremely low. Now, has the school system failed him? If so, then why did all of those kids who went to the same schools who are now in my pre-honors class manage to learn something?

Anyway, his father contacted me and wanted to set up a one-on-one meeting. Many teachers, myself included, find these meetings to be pointless. After all, what else can I say but, "He's failing because he doesn't do his work"? Meetings like this usually seem to be a way for the parent to feel better about himself/herself, so it can seem like he/she is trying to get to the heart of the problem. They want the teacher to solve all of their problems, and sometimes they even get into all sorts of personal troubles (like divorces and custody battles) that the teacher simply can't do anything about. Reluctantly, I agreed to meet him. We set up an appointment time, and guess what? He didn't show.

Gee, I wonder why his son can't seem to get his act together? A real mystery, that one. Perhaps this might sound callous, but I'm not going to bother returning any more of that guy's calls or agreeing to any more meetings. No doubt, I will get the blame for his son's poor performance. Oh well, I have kids who care to learn who I need to focus on.

Part of me wonders if I should have posted this, even though I didn't use any names. Then again, it's probably pretty safe to say that neither one of them would read this either.


Ingrid said...

Lance, your father read "The Arms of Krupp",not exactly a novel, but a big book, and I have read novels all my life and still do. You must have missed something there. I've read "Gone with the Wind" and "Rebecca" three times, and all the novels on our bookshelves weren't there for decoration. You and your sisters were surrounded by books and I believe that is why you all turned out to be big readers albeit with interests in different subjects. My siblings and I grew up without television, and we are all lovers of books, novels and biographies. Just like our parents were.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Sorry, didn't mean to misrepresent you. What I meant was, that when I think back on it, I remember you guys reading newspapers and magazines much more than I remember you reading novels. By saying that you weren't "big novel readers" I just meant that you didn't read them a lot - it wasn't like you read one and then immediately picked up another. That's not to imply that you never read ANY.

Dan said...

I would be careful about posting specifics about your class scores and about performance of indivuduals -- even though you did not name names... As I was reading this, that immediately came to mind. Especially if this blog is still mirrored on your MySpace. Anyway, you know how unreasonable people can be sometimes. I would hate to see some student or parent escalate this and cause trouble for you.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

You may be right, but I doubt that he's reading it, as I said before. I doubt he reads ANYTHING.