Friday, May 28, 2010

We've All Got Papers: The Role of Undocumented Students in the Classroom

You! You sitting with your computer reading my blog. Come closer. Closer. Closer still. I've got a secret for you. Are you ready? Here goes. I have taught undocumented students.

The response I get when I tell the aforementioned "secret" to people their reaction often varies with a wide range of emotion from disdain to praise. I assume that in this day and age, it's not necessarily a popular statement to make. However, it is the truth and I am never one to hide the truth from people, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make them. Working in inner city schools, you see and teach a variety of children throughout your time. Being three years into a hopefully long-lasting teaching career I already know that I have taught some undocumented students. And I know I will continue to teach them in the future. There are some students who confide in me with their deepest secret. There are others who I know I will end up teaching for an entire year and have no idea that they were even undocumented. Such is the nature of the beast.

One common argument on the immigration debate today is the fact that these undocumented students place an unfair burden on our education system. To this I have one simple response: Hogwash. The fact is that these students pose no more burden on our education system than affluent White kids from the suburbs. This "burden" that critics often speak of is set in place due to overcrowding in our inner city schools and the inadequate resources available to them. I have yet to hear a teacher say, "I was doing fine in my class with the first forty-one kids. However once I got that forty-second kid, that undocumented kid, that's when my classroom really went to hell." The fact is these students are part of the general school population and it is our job at teachers to teach all of our students no matter what kind of classroom conditions might be placed upon us.

I also hear the argument that these undocumented students are the troublemakers, the ones who are in gangs and wreak havoc upon their school communities. Again, this is a gross exaggeration of the truth. The fact is that yes, some undocumented students to end up choosing the gang route. However, this can be said for any immigration population that constantly faces the home-grown xenophobia that is so prevalent today. We as a society don't label all Asians as gang members just because a few Hmong students have chosen that route. Why should we do the same with Latinos? Of the (known) undocumented students I have taught, some of them were in gangs. Some of them were my hardest workers and best students. Undocumented students, like all students, run the gauntlet in terms of behavior. I feel no more "burdened" for teaching them as I do any of my other students.

There is also the criticism that these undocumented students do not even try to learn English. Again, another erroneous statement. Studies have shown that this current generation of immigrants are learning English faster than any generation that has proceeded them. I have yet to have a student flat out refuse to speak English. However, there are definitely some students that have been bullied by previous teachers and who definitely lack self-confidence in the language. Imagine if you went to a foreign country and were forced to speak a language you were still learning. Imagine that each time you misspoke, you were reprimanded. It would hurt your confidence, right? Make you hesitant to want to speak, to play with the language? This is the same experience that many of our undocumented students have had. Somewhere during their schooling, some teacher told them they were bad at speaking English. Odds are, it happened at an early age. This kind of experience can cause a child to shut down for a long period of time.

As teachers, we need to respect our students' home culture and language. Just because our students aren't producing constant English doesn't mean they aren't being exposed to it on a daily basis. Many of these students can code-switch back and forth between English and Spanish, which is an incredibly valuable asset. Having any student become fully bilingual will continue to help them throughout their lives in both school and their chosen professions. I personally have seen some of my undocumented students translate during parent conferences. They understand the need to maintain their cultural identity at home but also to do their best to learn the dominant language as well. For critics to say that these students don't learn English is a gross exaggeration and one that will not be verified in any public school today.

I guess my biggest qualm with all the criticism of undocumented students is how they are viewed as criminals. Many of these students were brought here at too young an age to have any choice in the matter. Some of them do not realize until their late high school years that they are even undocumented. Regardless of how you feel about the immigration debate, you must first realize that these students are HUMAN BEINGS. They know what is expected of them and they do their best to live up to teachers expectations. They laugh, cry, smile, and frown like all their peers. They play sports, have friends, go to dances, and date just like anybody else their age. The difference is that each and every day they come to school, there is the chance that their lives can be swept out from underneath them. They come, they take this chance each and every day, for a better life for both themselves and their family.

I leave you with this image: A student of mine in tears, being consoled by her boyfriend. This student not knowing whether or not this day would be her last in her school, her city, her country that she had known as far back as she could remember. This student who writes all her papers in Spanish and then meticulously translates them to English in my class of eighteen. This student who has been late to my class because she had to go with her younger brother on the city bus to go and try to track down his school ID. This student who missed classes one afternoon to be excused to attend a multi-cultural fair and dance with her partner. This student who writes about the greatness and fairness of the American laws but has to add that sometimes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can be a little unfair. This right here is your undocumented student. The one who is a burden on me and my classes. The one who is a bad influence on her peers. The one who isn't trying to learn English. Contrary to popular belief, this student has papers. She has papers due in all of her academic classes. And knowing her, she will pass them all with flying colors.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What Teachers Make

Slam poet Taylor Mali says it better than I ever could.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pick-A-Winner: The Objectivity of Multiple Choice Tests

In your journals, please answer the following question: What is a zigger?

A. A zogger
B. A zummer
C. A zooker
D. A zaller

The correct answer is B. For those of you who got it, congratulations. For those who didn't, well you obviously should have.

Pretty absurd, right? Well, not so much...

The above example is a variation of one given to me by my college adviser when he explained the evils of standardized testing, more specifically, that of multiple choice testing. This past week I had to watch students bubble in answers on state tests for four hours on two consecutive days. We have two more such days this upcoming week. Students are being asked to bubble in one of these four letters as a way to demonstrate how much they have learned throughout the year. If they are good bubblers then our school gets positive recognition. If they are bad bubblers, then it hurts our school. And yet, questions like the one in the cartoon and the one mentioned above are exactly what our students will see when dealing with the multiple choice subject tests given each year by the state of California and every other state across the nation.

Multiple choice tests are not a reflection of student knowledge. At all. They are a reflection of who is good at guessing. Think about it. The next time you or someone you know take a standardized test, try a little experiment if you have time. Go through a section, reading only the questions and not the answers. Put a mark next to all those you can answer without the multiple choice options. Odds are pretty slim, right? Maybe there's a question here and there that you could answer. But for the vast majority of the questions you will need to see the four possible answer choices. Therefore, you don't really know the answer. But you can be a good guesser and arrive at the right answer eventually. So did your history teacher this year spend all his time teaching you content or did he spend all his time teaching you how to guess? Odds are the guessing lessons were nowhere to be found.

And yet, this is exactly what multiple choice tests do to our students. Sure, there are test taking strategies such as eliminate ones you know it can't be, make educated guesses, etc. But when push comes to shove what multiple choice tests do is assess how good our students are at guessing. And let's be honest: These tests expect these kids to be pretty damn good guessers. None of the above, all of the above, B and C only. These tests expect them to be Nostradamus good at making predictions. We all know somebody super smart who bombed the SAT. We all know somebody non-so-smart who aced it. The difference? One was a poor guesser and the other was a great guesser. These great guessers end up going on to fame and fortune and those of us who can't guess as well lose out on many opportunities. Life really is a guessing game in this regard.

All this begs the question why. Why do we assess our students in this idiotic manner? Wouldn't it be much simpler to have students show off their knowledge in written or oral form? Instead of nitpicking certain elements, why not offer students multiple ways to demonstrate what they have learned? How amazing would it be to show the state of California how much we have learned this school year through the magic of art, song, dance, and performance? An actual painting for an art class. A video-taped reenactment for a famous historical event. A recording of a spoken word poem highlighting the various uses of voice in a poem. A written proof in geometry, using all the rules one had learned throughout the process. Yes, I can see it now. Cardboard boxes filled with student work being sent to Sacramento to be scored accurately by individuals who are experts in the various content areas. A true testament to student learning right there in the flesh.

And then I awaken from my idealistic slumber. Much like most things that make sense in public education today, this will not happen. The reason? Money. Cash. Cashola. The Almighty Dollar. The buck stops here. Literally. Yes, friends and family, we put the futures of students, school, and even entire school districts in the hands of our students' guessing abilities so that we can save money. That's it. That's your reason. We make our students bubble in letters so that we can ship up boxes to a secured location in Sacramento. Once there, student score sheets will be fed into computers that tell us how well students, schools, and districts guessed. The test booklets, where students took notes, showed work, and eliminated wrong answer choices? Discarded. Partial credit doesn't exist in the guessing world. These supercomputers tabulate the results and get them back to us within a few weeks. And we all know that these counting machines never ever make mistakes. Unless you're counting the 2000 presidential election...

So, in the coming week or so as you watch your students bubble in letters, think about your teaching. Was it really important that your students wrote personal narratives about themselves and their lives? Was it important that they created their very own webpages? That they made scrapbooks about life in the 1920's? That they read about current events and debated current immigration policy? That they made Styrofoam skulls and labeled all the parts of the brain? The answer to all these questions should be a resounding no. What you should have been teaching all along was the proper way to guess. Because after all according to state testing agencies, that is the only skill a student needs.