At the Dinner Table

We sit around a few tables during a planning period and talk about how to use the data we’ve received from this year’s fall MAP testing, a test which provides information about skill levels of our students. There’s a general score that summarizes everything called the RIT score. (I don’t know what it stands for.) That in turn can be correlated to grade levels by looking at national norms. For the longest time, eighth grade nation norms were 220 at the beginning of the year and 222 at the end. This year, the re-calculated norms have fallen three points. In addition, the data show that in a single, mixed-group classroom (something like science or social studies that is not grouped according to ability), a teacher can have a student reading at the kindergarten level and another reading at the level of a college sophomore, with all the other levels mixed in.

How does one teach a group like that?

There is a predictable corollary to that: the students who read at a second-grade level often behave on a second-grade level. Or perhaps worse, because they exhibit second-grade behavior in nearly-adult size bodies. A dangerous combination at times.

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At the dinner table, we talk about our day. L tells us the latest adventures with Timmy, a student who moved here recently from up north and has been seated in L’s group. He refuses to work. He’s mean to other students. He cursed at a teacher today. He flagrantly disobeys. I suggest that he’s probably acting out because he doesn’t want to be there, and he’s hoping his behavior will somehow get him moved back up north. It’s a fairly logical assumption. But here’s the thing: his behavior is affecting my child’s education. The teacher is having to take time out of instruction to deal with him.

“He’s even worse that Demarcus, and I thought he was bad.” Demarcus has been the subject of a few stories, and I’ve found myself thinking that I have a few older versions of him in my classes. Struggling in class. Unable to work and so entertains himself. It’s a common cycle, a chicken-egg mystery by the time they reach my classroom: does the behavior cause the low academic achievement or does the low academic achievement cause the behavior? It’s probably a bit of both.

I kept my story to myself and let E tell how Jameson picked a scab in class and now it will bleed forever. I love how he’s always trying to join in “adult” conversations. He aims, shoots, and hits the target but generally only grazing it on the side.

E’s problem is relatively insignificant; L and I, though, are facing the same issue from two different sides of the desk at two different ends of the same problem. What I can do as a parent is quite different than what I can do as a teacher.

But there’s a third role: citizen. This is an issue that is larger than just my school, L’s school, our district, our state. It’s likely the condition of the majority of schools around the country.

It’s hard not to be pessimistic about this reality.

3 thoughts on “At the Dinner Table

  1. My compromise was that I always stood up for the kids who were underrepresented in discussions at the PTA meetings of my daughters’ public schools. For better or worse, I was their advocate, perhaps because I saw it as a societal issue.

    But at the one on one level, I was in it for my own kids. In meetings with principals and teachers, I wanted to talk about them and their future.
    Oftentimes it meant that in class, they would be cooperative learners. And I never expected teachers to provide extra curriculum for my girls. But I did provide it and I wanted the teachers to recognize it and work with what I was doing for them at home.

    But at school, they were one of a community. I thought that was important to remember.

    Does this at all address your questions?

    1. I advocate for those kids in my classroom, in my school, just about every day. I can count on one hand the number of kids I disliked as individuals, kids I thought were simply bad people, and so it’s easy for me to put aside their bad behavior in the classroom and see the kid underneath. Sadly, I don’t think all teachers choose to do that.

      I have also thought about providing extra-curricular material for L, though I haven’t followed through with it. I don’t necessarily see the problem as one I expect the teacher and the child’s parents to solve. I can do a lot in that direction as well.

      The real tragedy, though, lies with the kids who are in the middle, kids who don’t have parents who can advocate for them or aren’t willing to advocate for them, yet they’ve somehow managed to arrive in my classroom (and L’s) relatively unscarred. They put forth the effort; they work as hard as they can; they behave wonderfully — but they’re sometimes getting neglected (speaking of my own classroom here) because I’m dealing with behavior issues of other students.

      I understand the community issue, but it’s not a community of these children’s choosing. In “real life,” they have options. If it’s a neighbor, they can possibly move, or at least avoid the person. If it’s a coworker, they can change jobs possibly, talk to the boss (who has the power to fire such people, which teachers, thankfully, do not have — I’m afraid I might have used it myself in the heat of the moment), or at least avoid the person. Regarding L’s situation, she tells me that almost everyone in the classroom has gone out of their way to be nice to this kid, but the kinder they all are, the worse his behavior seems to grow. Were it an office, he would have been fired by now, I’m sure. But there he sits.

      Schools need a radical solution for problems like that. Such kids can’t learn until they have the requisite social skills, and that can’t be taught alongside math for such behaviorally challenged kids. The schools need programs to pull these kids out and help them — especially in elementary school, before habits calcify. My fellow fiscal conservatives would probably not be happy with that notion, but my response is simple: with these kids, pay for their social skills now in school or later in prison and/or the workforce.

      1. I so agree with you. In all that you say.

        But here’s what worries me: I don’t think that schools can ever completely solve problems that are not of their making. Oh, I think we can improve on the way things are done in many districts and by some educators. But ultimately, how do you help the kid where the parent, for whatever reason, has tuned out in life? I mean, you have to keep on trying, but how do you go about it alone? Without the attention or the skill set of the responsible family members? (This is not to blame the parent — there are so many reasons why they are in no position to provide the help the kid needs).

        I suppose I always believed that we (the community and sometimes, though not very often, the educators) are too quick to write off the kids who have everything stacked against them. We owe them at least an effort.

        But you are correct in this other point you make. My kids went through public schools from grade one onwards and I was probably the most nose in the classroom parent ever (PTA pres for five different years). And I totally agree with you — the kids you had to really feel sorry for were the ones who were right there in the middle. Not smart, not needy, not struggling, not performing. Quiet. Hidden.

        And you wont be surprised when I tell you that life rarely treated them any better when they graduated and left school.

        Though I have to say, as I talk about various classmates with my daughters (who in turn track every last friend through Facebook), some of their friends who seem to have been at the margins of success at school went on to be exceptional parents.

        So maybe the best way to look at all this is not merely from point of view of what happens to the kid you teach in school, but also looking further down the line — when he or she grows up to be a parent too. Maybe you’ve helped someone in class in ways that you can’t yet see. Not immediately. Not in their own success stories. Maybe it takes a generation or two to be felt, recognized, passed on.

        I wouldn’t be surprised.

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