Sunday, January 24, 2010

Nine Numbers That Decide Your Fate

I felt it was time to bring forth my own personal thoughts and experiences dealing with undocumented students in the classroom. Being public school teachers, we are required to teach all of our students. This includes those who are undocumented as well. It is not within our jurisdiction to question the legal status of our students and our computer system states that they are all legal citizens of the United States. However, I know that I have taught undocumented students in both North Carolina and now California. They have asked me various questions about immigration and pathways to legalization. The look in their eyes shows a tremendous determination and my heart goes out to each and everyone of them.

Undocumented immigrants continue to make headlines throughout the nation. The debate over immigration seems to always pop up every couple of years and I have no doubt that it will reappear at some point in 2010. It is a very heated debate with passions flaring on both sides. Humanitarian groups, border patrol agents, and vigilantes are constantly at odds. In an economic recession, more eyes turn to the debate and questions are raised as to the employment status of these undocumented workers. Not since the 1920s have we seen this much xenophobia in America. There has been an increasing sentiment of nativism, especially in the southern border states.

Largely lost in the shuffle has been the effect of all this on undocumented children. Like I mentioned, they are here and in school doing their best to learn. However, for many of them their promising futures essentially end after high school. Because they don't have the magical nine digit code we call a social security number, their chances for higher education and employment are essentially shut down. As of now, only 1/5 of our nation's states allow undocumented students to attend colleges by paying in-state tuition fees. That's right, in 40 states undocumented students who LIVE in the state have to pay out-of-state tuition fees to attend a school in their home state. For many undocumented students, this price is simply too unbearable. It is in this way that we have hard-working students being denied a continuing education that they so desperately desire. We are essentially closing doors for future scientists, doctors, teachers, and lawyers because they don't have those nine magical numbers. Valedictorians, class presidents, musicians, and artists are all being denied a chance to further their education and to better their lives.

Many of these students were brought to the United States at a young age. They have no recollection of where they were born or how they arrived here. To them, they have been and will always be Americans. Imagine the following scenario: Five year-old Jenny is living with her family in Southern California. One day, her parents tell her and her two brothers that they are going "on vacation." They pack the car full of boxes and drive south. What Jenny's parents did not tell her is that her father and just taken a job setting up a refrigeration company in Mexico. The job pays well, but her father must be there for some time to help get the company off its feet. The family ends up living in Mexico for six years. Jenny and her brothers go to school and learn Spanish. They return later to the United States being bilingual and with a family in much better financial shape.

The above paragraph describes what actually happened to my own mom in the late 1950's. Now, flash forward to today. Reverse the two countries in the above paragraph. Instead of having the family in good condition, imagine a family from poor, rural Mexico. Imagine the family so desperate for a better life that they risk everything for a three day trek across the desert to enter a new country. All Jenny knows is that her family is going somewhere new, she isn't exactly sure where they are going. Jenny's family relocates in Southern California and Jenny works hard in school, becoming bilingual. She has friends and hobbies throughout her childhood. She has no idea that she is undocumented until she applies to college and the form asks her for a nine digit code called a social security number. Right there and then, Jenny learns the truth and her whole world gets turned upside down.

Anyone who teaches in an urban area has Jennys in their classroom. You might not know or suspect it. They don't necessarily have to be your Hispanic children. Forty percent of undocumented workers are people who have overstayed their work visas. That's right, an undocumented student could be Asian, Latino, African American or even (gasp!) White. These are students who do anything and everything from your athletes to your musicians to your class clowns to your honor roll students. They are just like their peers in every way except one: They don't have those nine numbers. While their peers talk about the upcoming graduation and their life beyond high school, these students remain silent. They do not know what their futures hold.

This is why I encourage you all to support the DREAM Act, which is a proposed piece of federal legislation. This act would provide all undocumented students who graduate from high school, who arrived in the country as children, and who are of good moral character temporary residency for a six year period. During this time, the student must graduate from community college or a regular university or must serve in the military for 2 years. They also must not commit any major crimes during the six year window. If they do this, they would then become permanent residents of the United States. A version of this bill was already defeated once in the Senate. However, I implore to have your voices heard. Don't be swayed by racist ideologies and myths about undocumented students. They are not all criminals or gang members like some media outlets would have you believe. For those of us that teach undocumented students, we see the spark that ignites them. They are too talented to go to waste. In an increasingly competitive world, these students could go on to do great things for their country, the only country that they've ever known and that they feel a part of. All they need is a chance.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Curriculm Planning 101: Working Hard for the Money

As I sit on my bed this fine Sunday evening and look over material for second semester, it dawned on me how much of a hassle it is to actually prepare to teach a course for the first time. Of course, initially it should be daunting for any young teacher. You have to learn the material yourself by reading the textbooks and outside sources as well as being aware of the state standards for the given course. Once you have aligned those sources, you then can begin to organize the material into thematic units, selecting what you as a trained professional feel are the key points for all student learning throughout the semester. Once that is done, you have to break down your units into manageable chunks and select the big idea for each unit that you want your students to have learned before you move on. Once that is completed you begin to write individual lessons and look for ways to incorporate outside material into your lessons.

As daunting as this is, it becomes even more so due to the fact that rarely do our textbooks match up with our state curricula. Or, if they do, they are organized differently and go all over the map. For example, California content standard 12.2 for civics and economics describes the rights and obligations of democratic citizens. This includes everything from the Bill of Rights to current immigration laws, making this one standard cover a whopping 230+ year span. When comparing this standard to the course textbook, the textbook has the Bill of Rights as one of its early constitutional chapters and immigration laws and its last chapter on current event issues. Therefore, if I were to teach the way the state wanted me to, I too would be all over the map, making learning very difficult for my students.

My solution to this quandary is to copy the content standards and then organize them chronologically rather than thematically. I am a firm believer that students need to know what is going on around the world to fully understand a specific event in history. This is one of the reasons I did not use the classroom textbook my first year in the classroom. The book I had would cover things thematically, which gave students no reference as to why things were happening the way they were. For example, a chapter on Egypt would have one section on geography, one section on history, and one section on Egypt today. This doesn't help anybody learn anything. In order for students to learn critical thinking skills in history, they need to know what is going on in the bigger picture. The current state of Egypt does not make sense unless you know what is going on in the region as a whole. Had I been a student learning the textbook in order I would have learned that Egypt had mummies and pyramids and now uses the Suez Canal for shipping stuff. It is this kind of thematic learning that hurts our students and discourages critical thinking as a whole.

Another issue that I come across is the fact that the content standards often leave out meaningful information. The state of California does not find it necessary to teach about the Articles of Confederation in its Government and Economics course. Call me crazy, but I would have thought that students should know about our very first government, in a GOVERNMENT CLASS. Yes, the Articles of Confederation were largely ineffective, but they paved the way for a much more stable Constitution to be enacted 10 years later. Here, we see historical bias in an effort to fill our history with rainbows and lollipops. Our first government failed. Students need to know this. They need to learn why it failed and how it would be changed the second time around. By not mentioning it at all, we play into the myth that our founding fathers were flawless individuals. They were not. In truth, they were a very flawed group but they were also brilliant. Students need to learn this. One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison where he states that, "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Students should be able to apply this quote to our earliest government.

I also have issues with textbooks themselves. Besides the bias I mentioned and the glossing over of "unpatriotic" history, textbooks also lend themselves to passive learning. If you ask a student to read a section in a textbook, often times they will drift off and not know or remember what they read. This happens to all of us at some point. Textbooks, and specifically history textbooks, are written in a very fact-oriented way which leads to little excitement for the students. This is why the "man, history is boring!" phrase pops up so many times in the classroom. If you teach history straight from the textbook then it IS boring. Therefore, what I have done is rewritten my material for my first two years. I take some of it from the textbook and some of it from outside sources and create my own lessons. I want my students to be actively engaged with the material as they are reading it. My students are always doing something while reading, whether its underlining, circling, using sticky notes, etc. I want them focused on the reading and they cannot do that with textbooks that have to be used year after year and can't be written in. In order for my students to become active readers then need to physically manipulate the reading material, and the only way I can do that is if I write the lessons myself.

Finally, I would like to share a story from my first year teaching. In Winston-Salem, NC I went to the textbook adoption meeting for middle school social studies teachers. Each representative was given copies of the five possible textbooks and we were to vote on which one we wanted to use for our schools. Coming from a school of struggling readers, I wanted a book that was adapted for their level as I knew I could always supplement material if the reading was too simple for some of my advanced students. I had an order in mind before the meeting and was hoping that the other representatives would feel as I did. They did not. Of the five choices, the one that was adopted was the one I felt would be LEAST beneficial for my students. Social studies teachers from the more affluent schools felt the book they selected would be best for THEIR students as so the tribe had spoken. I was left with a classroom set of thirty books that remained on my classroom shelves for the entire year. Why did the district order textbooks instead of individual schools? Easy. To save money. That's right, my students had to have a useless textbook that they could not read so the school district could save a few extra bucks. Makes sense, donut?

So these are some of the issues one has to struggle with in planning a course. I realize I could save myself a lot of time and hassle by teaching straight from the book and having kids read and take notes. But for me, that's not what teaching is about. Teaching is being an active reader and making connections between various events going on in the world. My students sure as hell won't be learning immigration law after the Bill of Rights. They'll be learning immigration law via the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That act will be prefaced with a lesson about minimum wage earnings in the 19th century and will be followed by a lesson on what makes a law unconstitutional. That way they will see what is going on in the world at that time. For them, historical changes will start to make sense and they will have an idea of not only where we've come from but where we are going. Because after all, don't we want our students to know where we are heading? If not, they will just go round in circles with no sense of purpose.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What's My Motivation?

In a follow-up discussion with colleagues the other day, we discussed the role of motivation in student learning. What causes some students to care while others don't? As teachers, this is one of the questions that drives our instruction. In every class, we get a wide array of motivational levels and the problem is there is no rhyme or reason to any of it. For example, in one single class you might have the valedictorian sitting at the same table with a student learning English, with another student who is out of school half the time, and finally with a student who has a below average IQ who tries as hard as he can and still can't grasp the concept. In twenty-first century America, this variety in student motivational levels is not uncommon.

Our conversation centered around the idea of why some students are more motivated than others. As teachers, we dangle many carrots throughout our days in an attempt to reach and motivate everyone. Various carrots might include rewards, passing a class, having a classroom competition, to even graduation itself. Teachers vary in their approach as to which aforementioned carrot they choose to use in their own way. However, inevitably there will be a handful of students to whom none of these carrots will appeal to. They are the ones who we beg and plead with and still won't do what we ask of them. It is these students who leave us scratching our heads and wondering what on Earth can be done to help them.

The problem is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some students just flat out lack the motivation of their peers. The truth is that it can be a variety of reasons that might affect student learning. Some examples are English language development, home environment, learned helplessness, disinterest in the material, a poor relationship with a teacher, a failure to see the value of education, or even just general apathy itself. Some students might experience a combination of these factors as well. For example, we might have a student enter the school system from another country. That student may have not had formal schooling in his or her former country so now they are behind in school. They also might be learning English. Because this student is already behind, many teachers spoon-feed him or her the answers on their work. Therefore, when this student reaches high school they have had everything done for them and honestly don't know what it means to be a self-sufficient learner.

In trying to understand the motivation of students today, I had to look back upon my own schooling experience. I came from a middle-class family in a suburban home. Everyone in my schools looked just like me. My parents read to me and the first thing I did when I got home was do my homework. I often played computer games, and my reward for good grades was to get educational computer software such as Operation Neptune, Gizmos and Gadgets, or Ancient Empires. My bicycle combination in sixth grade was 2-0-0-7 because that is the year I would graduate from college. In college, I graduated Cum Laude from a top 30 university. When I graduated from college I knew I would get a job and that I would return to school to get my Master's Degree. I'm currently in my second semester getting that degree.

So what was MY motivation? Well, clearly it started from my parents. They both had college degrees with my dad having a master's in education. His father was a Dean at Boston University. My mom's parents both graduated from college as well. I worked hard in high school to go to a good college. I worked hard in college because I knew how fortunate I was to have supportive parents who sacrificed a lot for me to reach my dreams. Being an only child I wanted to do everything I could to make them proud of me. When I realized that I had the chance to graduate with honors, I busted my hump my last 4 semesters and made it happen. Even now in graduate school, I currently have a 3.9 GPA after one semester. I continue to work hard because I don't want to have any regrets and I don't want all my parents' hard work and sacrifice on my behalf to be for naught.

So that's my story. Now, having taught for nearly two and a half years in inner city schools I can firmly say that very few students are like me. To their credit, there are some students who work very hard and I know they will go on to college and become successful. However, there are also many students who did not have the opportunities that I had growing up for any number of reasons. I have remarked to a good childhood friend that I could never teach where he currently teaches. He currently teaches at my hometown middle school. Yes, that's right, I could never teach students like myself. I could never teach myself because I know that the vast majority of students there will be okay. They will be like myself and my friends: All graduating from high school and college and never doubting that that will, in fact, happen.

So, how do we teach students who lack motivation? Who aren't like we were as children? How do we teach students who ignore carrot upon carrot placed in front of them? It is to this question that there is no easy answer. If I knew how to do this, I would book my trip to Orlando right now and be writing my National Teacher of the Year Award acceptance speech. The truth is some students just don't care in the classroom. The threat of failing a class or not graduating has zero effect on students. They write their names on their papers and then the pencil ceases to move for the next eighty minutes. This happens every day. We beg, plead, converse with the student, try to find common interests, we let someone at home know what is going on and yet nothing seems to work. Why is it that this child has no motivation whatsoever?

Again, it could be a number of reasons as to why this student doesn't try. Yet, day and and day out there are in our classroom. They're motivated enough to come to school, just not do anything asked of them. We as teachers all have these students, scattered throughout our day. The simplest of assignments is too overbearing to be completed. There are times where you just want to grab the student's pencil and make him or her write something, anything. As teachers we sometimes feel like Sisyphus, eternally pushing that boulder up that hill. Even when our bag 'o tricks is empty, we go back and try one more thing in vain. It becomes painfully ironic that some of our most unmotivated students are the ones who motivate us as teachers to work that much harder to try and reach them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Purpose of Education Today

The last week or so I have had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues about what the purpose of education today is. What do we hope that our students are able to do upon graduation of high school? Throughout our history, American education has always had a purpose behind it. At the turn of the 20th century, it was generally agreed upon that the purpose of education was to create well-informed citizens who were capable of participating in democracy. This was a noble idea and it made sense at the time. America had survived a civil war and after World War I was finally seen as a world power. What better way to maintain this new-found sense of superiority than to have our students be well-rounded citizens?

This was the mindset for the next thirty years. Then the Cold War struck. All of a sudden, being good, educated citizens wasn't enough. Now, we had to be smart. Not just smart, but smarter than those Soviets. It was here were our education system underwent radical changes. America began to adopt a Ricky Bobby mentality of "if you ain't first, you're last." In order to get the most out of our education system, we had to have people who were smart, specifically in math and science. We began comparing our test scores against the rest of the world. We wanted to prove without a doubt that we were superior, and what better way to do that than with data because data never lies.

Fast forward to the fall of the Berlin Wall. America lost its major competition and took on the mantra of being the leader of the free world. However, as is often the case in America, we have to be the best and continue to be the best at all costs. A 1983 report titled A Nation at Risk was released and claimed that American students were heading toward mediocrity. Even though the Berlin Wall would fall later on, this report left lingering effects in the American mindset. In an increasingly global world, how were how students doing compared to students from around the globe? This led to the eventual formation of No Child Left Behind in 2001, with the intent being for all students to achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

So, here we are nearly ten years into No Child Left Behind. A telling view of American education today should be the fact that my colleagues and I could not agree as to what the purpose of education is today. One colleague felt that education today was based on the idea of having students work together in a community environment. The country has become so diverse that the purpose of school should be to teach how students how to work together in a community. Another colleague felt that the purpose of education was to compare ourselves to other nations. That is why we have NCLB in the first place, to try and raise our math and reading scores so we aren't surpassed by nearly twenty nations in each category.

As for me, I too could not come up with an easy answer as to what the purpose of education is. Then, it struck me. The purpose of education today is to maintain the status quo in America. That is why our education system is structured the way it is. Students from affluent communities will inevitably succeed in school. They have supportive home environments, they have access to resources at home, and they have acquired the critical thinking skills to do well on standardized tests. These are the students that will go on to college and get good jobs. On the other hand, students from low socio-economic households will inevitably fall by the wayside. Sure, there will be exceptions, but these are few and far between. These students of lower socio-economic status (including immigrant populations) don't have the best home environments, the don't have the resources at their home, and they don't have the needed skills to do well on standardized tests. The inevitably will either drop out of high school or not pursue higher education, thus maintaining the status quo.

What does this say about America today? We have gone from a nation wanted to educate all its citizens to a nation that wants to keep those in power no matter what the cost. We are involved in the inevitable class struggle that arises when the division between haves and have-nots becomes so great. We are essentially shutting our doors to an entire social class and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. No Child Left Behind is in fact leaving millions of students behind because that's how it was designed. We want to maintain the status quo, no matter what. What better way to do this then to try and create an arbitrary playing field involving standardized tests? That way we can say "Oh it's not our fault this school isn't performing, it's because of the test scores." That way when all is said and done, the status quo is preserved. We've progressed quite nicely over these last hundred years, haven't we?