Friday, April 03, 2009

Maybe I Don't Get It

A teacher friend reminded me recently of many day-to-day problems related to materials on-hand in schools.

This after I'd recently been berated via an email by a teacher claiming (among other things) that I "just don't get it".

I recall a few years ago I was teaching in a very large high school in an historically troubled part of town. I had about 120 students in my English class [5 sections]; over one-fifth were considered 'functionally illiterate'.

I had one computer at school. The only thing that worked on it was a rudimentary gradebook program. We had DVD players in each room, but no significant collection of videos in the library. Other than that, the 'tech' consisted of a Xerox machine.

For Freshman year, my task was to teach a short-story, two novels, and a Shakespeare play. To classes where 20% of the students were 'functionally illiterate'. My A.P. warned me over the phone when I'd taken the position that over 30% of their new hires quit after two months on the job.

Over the course of the first semester, we read a few stories and gave a good try to 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. I looked at the options left on the booklist and found that in addition to Romeo and Juliet, the district gave the option of teaching 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X'. I jumped on the opportunity.

One problem. Though the book had been on the list for years, no one at the school had ever taught it. And so, on a backshelf in the department book closet, sat 14 copies. As in 14 copies for 120 students.

Well, I considered the option of teaching 'Watership Down' (there were 100 copies) or 'Wurthering Heights' (100 copies). But I couldn't bring myself to do it.

So I came to class the next day with 14 copies of 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' in my arms. We had to keep them in the classroom and students had to partner up in twos and threes to share books. For a couple students with eye-problems, I made big-font copies of the chapters we were reading; students left them in the classroom too so we had a few extra texts to go around.

And over the course of a single quarter of school, we sat down together and read aloud as much of that book as we could. I had to skip over parts and fill in what happened so that we'd actually make it to the end by the close of the quarter. As we read, we watched Spike Lee's film version and talked about differences between the text and the film (and no, I didn't ask permission to show the movie... couldn't get in touch with half of the parents half the time anyway).

In the fourth quarter, the students took the state assessment followed by the district final exams. And my students -- without enough books, few supplies, and zero technology -- managed to squeak by for a 100% pass rate on the tests.

And so, the moral of the story? You don't need technology, right?

No. That's not the moral of the story. The moral of the story is that you do with what you've got. But, how I wish now -- working in a 1:1 school with wireless access and what sometimes seems like unlimited supplies -- that I'd had this sort of thing back there. It makes me feel so terrible inside that I was not able to offer those kids the kinds of resources that I'm able to offer my students now. And that's not to slight my current kids: they are the reason I go to work each day.

It's just that I wonder just how far I could have gone with those Freshmen if instead of 14 books, I'd had the ability to connect them in real-time to all that the world of technology has to offer.

And I wonder if the other teachers at that school might have looked at those students differently. Not as 'functionally illiterate', but as able-brained kids dying for the truth.

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