Not Helping Johnny

I could not help Johnny. I talked to his mother. She told me that she worked in counseling and her son was fine.

I changed his seat because he was talking nonstop to one of his few friends. He refused to move. He made weird noises at odd times regularly, mostly to disrupt the class, but sometimes I think he just had to emote in guttural moments of fear. He accused other students of bullying. “Mick called me fat!” he would say. (He was skin-and-bones thin.) Mick denied the accusation. Johnny kept saying, “No!” when asked to do daily work.  He made his class tense and other students complained. In these times, weird noises can be scary noises. The bullying issues became complex. How much of what Johnny said was true? I knew much was not — Johnny lied even when I had been standing right beside him — but kids pick on weak kids, and Johnny was building an image of weakness, bit by bit with random noises and odd behavior.

I sought help, but Johnny could talk a good game. His mother and the social worker did not see the problems I saw. Johnny knew all the psych words. I was not sure if I was watching this boy unravel or not. Maybe he was playing a game, messing with his classes and students’ heads for fun.  My take was Johnny was scared, and in response had launched himself on a mission to disrupt his classes.

Other teachers reported similar problems. They got no further than I did. I think Johnny might have been waiting for one of his teachers to rescue him, but he could always explain himself. He had not meant to blurt out that word or sound, he explained earnestly. He was sorry he had refused to … whatever — and there were a lot of whatevers.  He could talk about emotions and behavior glibly, almost professionally. I suspect he had been reading his mom’s books and magazines.

Eduhonesty: If outsiders want a glimpse into the stresses and struggles of teaching, this snippet may help. Across a few years, I can still see and hear this kid. I hope he is doing well in high school. Not all middle-school emotional dives end badly. But I also want to note that this one kid made a whole class nervous, except for a few friends, and I could not solve the problem.

You had to be there. You had to hear him. You had to watch his face. But outsiders did not see him or hear him, except through the carefully funneled channel of innocent, youthful, “Oops! It was an accident.”

So many accidents. So little time between those accidents. Everything could be explained. Everything was explained. To my knowledge, Johnny never got help. He managed to slip through the cracks.

I don’t know what to add, except this: Moms, dads and guardians — Your kid’s teacher has seen many, many children. When he or she calls you repeatedly, please don’t dismiss concerns with a quick, “He’s fine at home!” I never doubted he was fine at home, in his comfort zone with his loving mother. He was not fine at school, however, and he was building a reputation for weirdness that he will be years putting behind him, if he ever manages to escape that reputation.

 

 

The Class Size Conundrum

“In fact, the research that shows benefits from class size reduction finds effects that are smaller than most people realize …”

The above quote was taken from Education Myths by J.P. Greene. Greene goes on to say that smaller classes would require too much funding, taking away from other possible reform efforts.

I read Greene’s words and thought that he had captured a snippet of the mess that is American educational research. If researchers could truly control for classroom conditions, I suspect they would find a large effect from class size — in certain populations and specific classes. In districts that historically have sent the great majority of their graduates on to college, class size mostly will not matter since upwardly-mobile students have their eyes on the prize. They do their homework and fight for grades they expect to be reviewed by college admissions counselors. When those districts are included in class size studies, they can be expected to take attention away from schools where class size may make all the difference in academic achievement.

The class size picture in financially- and academically-disadvantaged districts remains murky, but I would like to observe anecdotally that class size has sometimes had a big effect on my teaching life, depending on the class. I found that increasing my math class size from 19 to 24 students caused little disruption. Increasing my high school Spanish class from 28 to 34 (originally 40!), however, was a game changer. Suddenly, behaviors were impacting instruction to a much greater degree. Suddenly, I had firecrackers in bottles in the back of the room and gang symbols etched onto desks.

Research unsurprisingly shows varying benefits from smaller class sizes. Teasing out exact benefits remains impossible, due to variations in teachers and class compositions, among other considerations. I had two of those large Spanish 1 classes, and one was much better behaved and more academically centered than the other. That one class was almost no trouble. The other … Well, I took a day’s absence once, worried about my sub, and when I called to check on him, found the poor fellow’s voice was shaking and the police had been called. (In fairness, a student from the special education department suffering from behavioral disorders had taken advantage of my absence to sneak into the class, where he yanked a girl’s hair hard enough to set off a series of reactions. My students probably would have done fine if not for the unknown marauder.)

Eduhonesty: It only takes one student. Classes of thirty-five students can be easier to teach than classes of 20 students, depending on the students within those classes, one reason why studies on class size keep finding anomalies that researchers struggle to explain. A small group of disaffected kids can keep a large group from learning. The wrong buddies become a teacher’s bad luck. A quick catch may allow a teacher to change schedules and separate Kyle from James at the beginning of the year, but most of the time the best and only option will be a well-designed seating chart that may not work during projects, gallery walks and other group activities.

My problem with educational research can be captured in a snapshot by Greene’s words as he attempts to debunk an idea that ought not to be debunked. Class size matters. I’ve walked the walk that Greene minimizes, and it’s no stroll through a sunny park. While the class size problem cannot be reduced to reliable and exact numbers, dismissing the impact of class size in urban and academically-disadvantaged schools helps no one — not parents, not teachers, not administrators, and most especially not students.

 

Who Are the Lost?

From a previous post: “80 percent of freshman entering community college in the CUNY system require remediation in reading, writing, math, or some combination of those subjects,” according to the New York Times.*

Who are these students who leave high school unready for community college? Who face possible extra years of remedial classes and college tuition before they can tackle “real” college classes? They are the high school graduates who spent most of their school lives in that outer bubble above, the kids who tuned out because they could not understand when they tried to tune in.

Education courses teach strategies to convince students to tune back in but kids don’t always respond. We teachers assign extra readings and cross our fingers that the readings will be read.  We rewrite handouts to simplify the language.  We rewrite chapters of the textbook. Some students do our modified homework, while others throw it in the trash. We call home to enlist parental support. We attend seminars to help us learn to do group work while keeping control of our classrooms, knowing that 8 groups of 4 adolescents can easily go from zero to chaos in 60 seconds, no matter how many strategies we learn. All it takes is one, loud put-down of a student’s sister or boyfriend.

Regardless of what we try, though, if our students are too far behind, we lose them. “You can do it,” we say. Whether they can or whether they can’t – and sometimes they honestly can’t – once a kid believes that he or she can’t, the game is over. “Try harder” may be intended as encouragement, but sometimes I’m sure it feels more like an exhortation to keep beating yourself up.

Some kids also believe they are fully capable of doing what we want, but decide to skip all that work and ignore boring adult demands. These students would rather send a few thousand photos and text messages, play videogames, or find other ways to screensuck their days away. Our best efforts combined with full parental support may not alter this addictive behavior. Even if dad or mom takes the phone away, and monitors computer time, students today can find other electronic outlets to replace schoolwork and homework. My daughter used to role play in a “live” computer game online with a girlfriend. They would sit at different computers, sometimes but not always in the same house. Both girls successfully navigated college, but games can easily supplant academics and social interaction. The homework simply does not get done. Studying does not happen. At worst, students skip classes, and even miss midterms or finals. Not all students manage to catch up later.

Whether students can’t or won’t do the work expected of them in class, the effect is the same.  Students graduate high school unready for the challenges of a college curriculum. They can’t go forward without a lengthy, expensive detour. They can’t go back.

What not enough politicians and administrators seem to recognize is the extent to which current testing policies contribute to the academic problems and challenges facing America’s schools.

I’ll ask forgiveness for broadly simplifying factors that create my outer bubble above, but let me break down one more toxic effect of testing: 1) All students are expected to take the same annual test on which their school will be judged, regardless of their academic or linguistic competencies. 2) Because of this fact, the curriculum is built with the idea of making certain that all test categories will be covered in class before the test. Teachers may even end up obliged to use identical lesson plans throughout the year. 3) Once all classes are teaching the same material, classroom placements become far less important than in the past. Those placements may even be made alphabetically by a computer. As a result, Sandy reading at a 2nd grade level ends up in class with Marianne who reads at a 8th grade level.

And therein lies the problem: When we put six or more years of difference in levels of academic understanding in one room, we automatically build that outer bubble above, the students in class who don’t understand the work. Teachers are supposed to differentiate to solve the challenges created by our broad range of learning levels but, especially in districts with limited resources, that differentiation may not be enough to fill in the gaps and chasms. Many students who have fallen years behind the pack naturally don’t do expected classwork. Some don’t even open their book by middle school and high school. If a classroom contains enough of these students, after awhile other, more capable students may begin skipping homework and slacking off on classwork. For one thing, those students in the outer bubble can be pretty distracting. For another, teachers often relax homework rules once homework compliance becomes problematic enough, allowing late homework in hopes of getting back more homework.

Struggling schools may even mandate a relaxation of traditional homework rules, requiring that teachers devalue the weight of homework in final grades and accept late homework until the end of the semester. Across America, school districts have begun trying out a grading system where no score falls below 50%. Students receive 50%, whether they turn in the classwork and homework or not.  The last two districts I worked in both flirted with this system. The rationale behind this grading system lies in a desire to keep students engaged in school. If students fall too far behind, administrators explained in a staff meeting I attended to introduce the new grading system, they will not be willing to try to catch up. They must have a chance to succeed. At 50% minimum, everyone has a chance to “succeed.” Under this grading policy, any student who hacks out an occasional assignment can at least pass. Whether that represents a “success” or not seems debatable. But the 50% floor for grading does prevent “F” grades. It particularly benefits those who can’t or won’t do their homework, at least if we define “benefit” as “allowing students to pass whether they have learned anything or not.”

In earlier times, we might have removed students from classes where they were unable to do the homework. When students could not handle Honors English, they were placed in regular English. Larger schools created different “regular” English classes as well, grouping students at the start of the year, allowing materials choices that would be appropriately challenging to the bulk of students within the class, given their documented academic understanding.

Now, too often, screening and differentiation are skipped when administrations fill classes. Instead, teachers are told to differentiate within the classroom. What too often results is an academic free-for-all in which our 8th graders who read at a 9th grade level carelessly dash off homework, sometimes with extension problems to challenge them, while especially lost 3rd grade readers toss that homework on the hallway floor on their way out of school. Special education and bilingual students may be lucky enough to receive help from a resource teacher assisting the regular teacher, but even then, these students may be unable to understand the textbook the class is using.

School districts build at least some of the outer bubble in my graphic organizer because of testing demands. Why do so many New York high school graduates remain unready for community college? Testing and related-data demands have fostered a standardization of instruction that fails to meet the needs of students too far from ready for their year’s state test.

Eduhonesty: Yes, teachers always can and should differentiate. But my last administration  put so many limits on remediation in an effort to make sure that all the topics expected to be on the test were covered that almost no time for remediation remained. Differentiation requires remediation. Remediation requires curricular flexibility. When the teaching to the test destroys that flexibility, students who missed material in earlier grades may never see that material. The result can be seen in my bubbles.

The results can be seen in those remedial math and English classes that pepper the hallways of the New York Community College system.

 

*CUNY to Revamp Remedial Programs, Hoping to Lift Graduation Rates, Elizabeth A. Harris, March 19, 2017