Sunday, December 12, 2010

Who Fits School?

Lately I've been finding myself in more and more situations where I encounter a struggling child and a frustrated teacher or parent and I think to myself, "This child does not fit into school." I'm not sure if it is happening more because of changes in schools or I just am more aware of the situation.  But I am getting more and more upset about it.

Case 1: 
A kindergarten boy whose teacher is frustrated because, although academically he is doing fine, he cannot be "controlled" in the classroom.  He jumps around, breaking items in the room.  He runs in the halls, banging into other students and teachers.  He can't sit during carpet time, can't sit at his table without disturbing other children, and doesn't follow any directions to "behave".  

As I listened to this story, I felt bad for the teacher.  She is a great teacher, very frustrated by this student because he has no structure.  She finds herself "being mean" to him (her words), which is not in her nature.  But I also felt for this child.  Because I pictured him in a year or two, beaten down by the system.  He will learn to control himself.  He will learn to sit in his seat, comply during carpet time, walk quietly down the hall.  He will learn to behave.  But what will he lose in the process?

Case 2: 
A child in my own fifth grade class.  I think he probably was the kindergarten boy when he was 5.  He has now learned to walk in the hall, mostly quietly, sit in his seat, most of the time, and keep quiet during the day.  But this is not who he is.  Is he bright?  Very.  Is he learning?  Very much so.  But he prefers to bounce around the room, playing with toys, doodling on his post-it notes, cracking jokes.  And in my class, most of the time, he can be himself.  He works well with others so group work is great for him.  He enjoys sitting on the carpet during direct instruction, and he really likes spinning on the stool.  As soon as he leaves the room, there are issues.  He doesn't fit.  And he is happiest being himself.  So he comes back to the room unhappy.  I bribe him to "behave" elsewhere.  It works.  But neither of us is very happy with the situation.

Case 3: 
A fifth grade boy I run into at the doctor's office every once in a while.  He is talkative, friendly, and happy. Until he talks about school.  Kids bully him, he says, because he is struggling with the academics in his class.  His teacher, he says, allows the kids to laugh at him.  The last time I saw him, he happily told me he switched classes.  Mom informed me he was moved into a self-contained class.  She said the stress was not worth keeping him in inclusion.  It didn't work for him.  I keep thinking about similar children I have in my room, who struggle academically but NEVER are they made fun of .  We find their strengths and celebrate them.  He didn't fit into this teacher's classroom.

Case 4:
My 1st grade nephew, Henry.  He is very bright, in a gifted class.  But the teacher insists he does the 1st grade work.  He attends a third grade after school math program, which he loves.  He says Wednesday is his favorite day of the week.  Wednesday is Ice Cream Day and Math Day.  Does he like school the rest of the time?  Yes.  Why?  He has lots of friends.  What does his teacher say?  He is disruptive and too social.  My sister urges the teacher to give him more challenging work.  The teacher refuses, saying he has to pass the test and needs to learn how to solve those problems.  He is now becoming a problem child in school.  

Case 5:
My daughter, Ali, a sophomore in high school.  I have talked enough about how she doesn't fit in school.  I read her blog often.  All she talks about is waiting for high school to be over so she can start her real life.  She complained to me the other day about how difficult tests are.  I asked her what she would do if she could demonstrate her knowledge in any way possible.  Her answer, "An oral test."  "What if it wasn't a test?  What would you do?"  She had no answer.  She said she couldn't even think of an idea.  I cried in private later.

I am just sad so often.  I find myself falling into the same trap of forcing children to "fit" so they can pass state tests, or work on the mandated curriculum, or follow the mandated program.  I fight it often and spend lots of time with my door closed and my students happy.  But I don't think it needs to be an either or situation.  There has to be a way.  I don't blame Henry's teacher for forcing him to learn the test material.  Her job probably depends on her students doing very well (gifted class, remember).  I don't blame the Kindergarten teacher working so hard to get her student to behave.  She has testing requirements and curriculum too. And he takes a great deal of her time to control.  I don't blame my daughter's teachers for not making school more than test prep. They are doing what they have been told to do.  

But I think all of us need to push back just a little.  Maybe just once or twice a year, do something different.  Make your students happy.  Let them be the artists, clowns, gymnasts, writers, readers, talkers they really are.  We might all be amazed by what they can accomplish when they are allowed.

A parent, whose child was in my class last year, just sent me this podcast with a note - "It's the one about Zack Booth Simpson...he goes on to make the point that you do need education and schools, but some people learn in different environments."  Then she writes, "I also wanted to let you know that, in summer camp,D... chose to write for the newspaper. He is starting to get a bit used to sixth grade."

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Sue VanHattum said...

Thank you, Lisa, for witnessing to the destruction caused by the sort of schooling we have now.

>But I think all of us need to push back just a little.

Or a lot. We are part of a system that is doing bad things to most of the children in it. Whatever we can possibly do to change it, we should. It's often hard to figure out what that looks like - to know what we can do that will be helpful.

Paul Bogush said...

I'd like to push you a bit more...does anyone "fit" into school or do we spend our careers trying to get them to fit. Yes, some kids do well in school. Because they are a good fit? or because they can fake it in a way other kids can't. If I had shoes that were to small and tried to run you would think that is just how I run...I could train in those tight shoes and my performance would be sure to increase...even though they didn't fit. If all I ever had were shoes that were too small that is what I would expect each year, and what I would expect for my kids.
Unfortunately, we are simply putting in more policies to make sure that all kids wear the same "shoes" regardless of their size.

Andrea Hernandez said...

Another case is my first grade son....he sounds like a combo of some of your examples. I have written about him on my blog, about how he doesn't fit school either. I wish he could have you for a teacher. I wish that teachers would let go of all the junk that surrounds education and be brave and love kids. We have an opportunity to do good things....I think.

But it has taken me a long time to get to this point...I can remember trying to push kids into the box, being mean to kids who wouldn't behave... even being nice to them, but now, with more years and understanding, realizing that I didn't love them nearly enough. I was more concerned with myself, my job, being mad at negligent parents, and I didn't do as much good as I might have done.

Sadly, although there are a lot of good conversations happening among educators, I think that too few educators think very much about how schools hurt kids. Blame the kids, blame the parents, blame the tests.... it's easier to blame than to change, right?

Samantha Cleaver said...

As a special education teacher, I deal with this topic on a daily basis in my classroom and school. Too often, I find myself in conversations that start or end with some version of "this just isn't the right place for them." Any conversation that heads that way is running straight into a dead-end. I'm working on challenging those comments when they surface. Thanks for bringing this topic to light with this post!

Lisa Parisi said...

Sue, I hope there are enough examples of push back working out there for us all to find a way.

Paul, I often think kids don't fit into school. More and more I am seeing this. I hope I create an atmosphere where they can fit for a while. Wish it could last longer. And I do have kids that don't fit even in my class. Still working on that one.

Andrea, do any of us have kids who really fit? I wonder.

Samantha, I think it's working with special education children that makes me see this more clearly. What is the right place, anyway?

paperwerks said...

i bowed out, in a sense. it's the only way i could keep teaching and stay sane! i'm teaching in a self contained program for students with emotional/behavioral disorders. none of my students are expected to receive regular diplomas due to the extent that their illnesses impair their cognitive functioning. that and frequent, long stays in the hospital keep them from traditional academic success.

with the complete support of my amazing principal, i get to teach subjects based on our state standards, but in a way that meets the students' needs.

it's ironic that i can only do this in a setting where academic success isn't expected. and sad.


Peggy Eserkaln said...

Hi Lisa-
We have never met - you were 'suggested' on my Twitter 'others like you' feed.

Only one other time have I read one blog post and hit 'bookmark'... I just bookmarked yours. I'm off to school, so I'll have to read more later; thank you, thank you, thank you. I haven't jumped into the blogsphere (much to the chagrin of those who keep hounding me to do so) - but finding folks like you and experiencing the goodness I feel when I read from that instant connection makes me think it is time for me too to 'think it through outloud'.

Happy Monday