Tag Archives: tracking

#78: The American English Teacher Wonders About the Effectiveness of Reading To His Students


My students love it when I read out loud to them.
Well, that might be putting it on a bit thick.
Let’s say instead that they prefer that to reading independently.
I read out loud well and this guarantees at the end
at least some level of certainty that every kid in the room
has in some way engaged with the text, or, if they
did nothing but listen the whole time, they will have
understood a large part of the material we are
supposedly dealing with today. Only a few of them
will nod off to my mellifluous delivery.
But I worry that I’m not doing them any favors
when I read out loud; I worry that I am only making it
easier for them, that I’m doing most of the heavy lifting,
and perhaps it’s not helping them to improve
their own abilities to grapple with difficult material.
Deep down I know these worries are valid, and maybe true.
So I tell these kids, recently introduced to Romanticism
in American Literature—here’s a fun piece by Washington Irving
to read on your own and here are some big questions
to wrestle with along the way and we’ll write and
we’ll talk about it all when you get done reading.

They can’t do it. Or they won’t do it. In small groups,
reading out loud, or independently and in silence,
most of them throw in the towel after two or three
pages, they give up on the reading altogether as soon as they get
to an unknown word or a difficult sentence. They try then to guess
at answers to the questions. Their work deteriorates
into social stuff or they become buried in their smart phones.
Some resourceful ones have found audio versions
of “Rip Van Winkle” on youtube, and instead of listening
to me, they’re  listening to some other fool read out loud.
They don’t understand the sentences, let alone the jokes,
and I push and prod and encourage and cajole but
it all comes to naught, falls mostly on deaf ears,
and they blame the material for being stupid, uninteresting,
or (my favorite) boring.  It’s not the material, I say,
and out of decorum or professionalism, I don’t finish the sentence.

And this comes back again to the problem
of tracked classrooms, even student-selected ones.
In my regular English classes
there are very few students rising to the occasion and
those students do not want to stand out in a crowd
where ineptitude and apathy run amok,
where aversion to difficulty is the norm.
And I am stuck between a rock and another rock
trying to decide between Mr. Jarmer Story Time
or one failed lesson after another because students
cannot or will not read IN CLASS. Of course
there’s a happy medium, but today it was entirely
unhappy and most kids spent 87 minutes not reading
while I wrung my hands and gnashed my teeth.

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Filed under Education, Teaching, Writing and Reading

#75: The InEquity NonPoem (a manifesto)


The InEquity NonPoem (a manifesto)*

In my school district
we’re having the conversation about equity,
and mostly, we’ve been asked to focus on potential
inequity between white kids and our students of color
and how to minimize or abolish that inequity.
Let’s do a quick little statistical analysis, shall we?
Of 80 students in my IB English classes, 72 are white or
Eastern European white. One white kid identifies as Hawaiian,
but not ethnically. Another white kid identifies as Cuban,
which, despite her light skin, makes her decidedly not white.
One is Mexican and a native Spanish speaker. One is Vietnamese.
Two are black. One is mixed-race, partly black.
Another one, mixed-race, but not black.
Of my 7 students of color in these high level classes,
three are struggling; that’s almost half of them. But
the other 4 are completely on top of the game,
some of my very best students.
There’s that. The same could not be said of the white kids,
that almost fifty percent of them are struggling.
But there are a lot more of them. If I pulled
the right 6 or 7  kids from the white population,
I might find fifty percent of those kids were
struggling also and the other half were on
top of the game. More interesting to me than
the fact that 3 of my 7 non-white kids in IB English
are struggling is the fact that there are only 7
non-white kids in the entire group of 80.
Let’s talk about equity, honestly,
and come to terms with the fact that in a junior class
of which a full 20% are non-white, only 13% of those
are enrolled in a college level English class, while
33% of their white counterparts are enrolled
in a college level English class. And while we’re
at it, let’s remember that equity is not only about
race but also about gender, and let’s wonder why
girls outnumber boys in my IB English classes
2 to 1, while boys outnumber girls in my “regular”
English classes 2 to 1. And guess which gender is
typically more challenging, behaviorally and
academically. The boys are. Which gender has
the highest number of failing grades? The boys do.
Could we complicate things even further by
thinking about income inequality? No, we can’t.
I’m told no one has access to that information
except the cook and the  bookkeeper and that they
are explicitly told to keep that information
confidential.  Here’s my guess.  The students
in my IB English classes are mostly from middle
class families and above, and the students in my “regular”
English classes are not–for the most part; and also, it is likely
that most of the kids I have who are successful
are from middle class families, while the kids who
struggle are not.  How do I know this?
Statistically, it is true that the greatest indicator
of a student’s success on a standardized test is the neighborhood
he or she lives in, the student’s socio-economic status,
and most of the students in my IB English classes
are doing just fine on their standardized testing.
There are always exceptions.  There are always exceptions.
Generally speaking, though, the above is accurate and true.
So what does it mean? First of all, it means that, yes,
we have issues of equity in my school and in my district.
Secondly, the inequity is systemic, and not related
to how kids are treated in my classroom.
And finally, to conclude the inEquity nonPoem,
I must now reach a more satisfying conclusion.  I conclude that working
for educational equity is the most important kind of school
reform we could ever undertake–but that working for equity
is not so simple a thing as race, gender, or class considered
in isolation, and that gender inequality should not be ignored
because most of the kids suffering are white boys–who
historically were not the ones underserved, but the ones
on top, and finally, that economic inequality should not be ignored
simply because we can’t see it with our eyes. And ultimately,
the way we battle any kind of inequity is the way we
make effective classrooms possible: knowledgeable, caring professionals
who understand or can learn the culture of their various students;
a humane teacher-to-student ratio that makes it possible for teachers
to KNOW their students in meaningful and significant ways;
a challenging, rigorous curriculum and high expectations for every kid,
despite race, gender, or class differences–which means ultimately
accomplishing the thing I’ve been railing about for 25 years:
the elimination of a tracked curriculum where the haves
are separated from the have-nots, where mostly white kids
and girls are taking high level college credit classes and getting
the very best education tax money can buy away from “those other kids.”
This abruptly concludes my manifesto: The InEquity NonPoem.

*this piece was composed and organized in lines so that I could call it a poem. Because that’s how I roll. The “nonpoem” in the title is just a way of expressing my misgivings that there’s anything poetic about this piece at all. Maybe I have invented a new genre:  the essay poem–not to be confused with the lyric essay, a poem disguised as an essay; this is  rather an essay disguised as a poem. O genre gods, forgive my trespasses.

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Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching