Monday, January 16, 2012

Succeeding At Failing: A Case Study


"How's Sinja doing in your class?"

A question that inevitably comes up on a near weekly basis for the faculty at our school. Sinja, a junior, who has been with us since last year, continues to struggle in all her classes. All her teachers have noticed her ability, but when push comes to shove she doesn't produce results. Her test scores are high. So high in fact, that she was one of the top-scoring sophomores on a practice version of the CAHSEE, the test all California students are required to take prior to graduation. Yet, when it comes down to it, Sinja's grades are in no way a reflection of her knowledge. This current term she again is failing all her classes, some of which she is taking for a third consecutive time. Despite the faculty's best efforts, nothing seems to be lighting a spark for Sinja.

Having taught over three-hundred students throughout the course of my five-year teaching career, I have seen a wide variety of student abilities and motivational levels. Some students are gung ho thanks to parental encouragement. Some students are gung ho despite a lack of parental encouragement. Some students are hesitant because they have had a bad experience with a previous teacher and are unwilling to put themselves out there for sake of ridicule. Some students have a learned helplessness in which they have been ignored for so long they have given up trying. Some students have never had a teacher push them and have been content to float by as an "average" student. Lastly, there are some students who are gifted, but do not want to show off for sake of being ridiculed by their peers or not wanting their peers to see them for how they actually are. Sinja is like none of these students.

To try and understand Sinja, we need to look at her background. She is a second generation student whose family hails from East Africa. Her parents have done their best to instill in her a sense of what life was like in their homeland. Unfortunately, this life seems oppressive for a student who has spent the duration of their life in the United States. Sinja's parents do not let her date (although she is nearly seventeen years old) and she is not allowed to go out with friends on the weekend. All this is a shame, because Sinja is very happy-go-lucky in school and makes friends easily. The boys often say how attractive she is, but she will dismiss it with a violent shaking of her head and will repeat the phrase, "No, I'm not beautiful. No." After school, she can often be found on her laptop looking at Facebook. She normally is one of the last students picked up from school and there are days that she has to wait at the library across the street until her father picks her up on his way home from work.

Sinja's academics therefore, are an enigma. You'd figure that someone in her position would try to do her best and excel in high school. That way she could go to college and finally get a chance to experience some freedom for the first time in her life. If you were in Sinja's place, isn't that what you would want? However, Sinja seems to have taken the alternate route by doing whatever she can to fail her classes. It's almost as if she is doing it as a way to say "Fuck you" to her parents for not letting her live her life. The extent of this hatred is hard to measure and the faculty has even suspected that there may be an abusive relationship in the home. Whatever the case may be, Sinja is doing everything in her power to make sure she doesn't pass any of her classes.

It's actually remarkable the extent to which Sinja will go to fail. Taking a test in class but needing more time? Sinja will hold on to her test and then "accidentally" lose it the next day. Having an ongoing assignment worth a large portion of the grade? Sinja will have the assignment up but will claim that she is trying to find the right words/image/phrase to help better get her point across. This word/image/phrase will never materialize. Doing a group project? Sinja will insist that she works better alone. She will have less required work of her since she is the only one doing it but will still manage not to complete the assignment. Completing classwork? Sinja will go above and beyond what is expected of her on the first half of the worksheet, but will leave the last half blank because she never got to it. Time and time again her teachers will see the work Sinja turns in and will just shake their heads because they know she is capable of so much more.

So what do we do to a student who is succeeding at failing? As teachers, we can't in good conscious, pass her because she should be doing well in the class. If that were the case then we would have to pass everyone, regardless of their work or effort. Meetings with the parents have gotten nowhere as they seem as perplexed as her teachers. When we talk to Sinja about her future she mentions half-heartedly that she would like to go to college one day. We tell her that for that to happen her grades need to improve dramatically. She nods and will say, "Yeah, yeah I know. I need to do better." But by this point in Sanja's academic career, these have become hollow words and idle promises. No matter what Sinja says she will do, she always reverts back to clever ways in which she will successfully fail all her classes.

As teachers, we are going to continue to see if we can find a breakthrough with Sinja. If things don't improve she most likely will become a dropout in six months time. She'll be kicked out of her house and will most likely be living on the street without a high school diploma. She will finally be free of her parents' "prison" as she feels it to be, but at what cost? She will have thrown away her future for a way to say "Fuck you" to her parents. She'll be asking herself if it has all been worth it. All her teachers know the answer. Her parents know the answer. The only one who doesn't know the answer in Sinja. And by the time she finally realizes it, it will already be too late.

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