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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