It’s a weird day, partly because it lives in infamy and partly because I just turned grades in (all compiled at the last second, mind you, just like the students did with their work). Long story short, I’m feeling a little crispy mentally and am not afraid to show it.
Anyway, this reflection is sparked by an article I came across via today’s Twitter Feed: Race in the Classroom: There’s a Manual For That.
To be honest, it’s one of those articles that gets you thinking — for a bit — but generally works to get you feeling guilty and one-down as a teacher. It comes via Edutopia, a blog I typically associate higher end linkbait, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Still, I’ll focus on the thinking part while the thinking is still fresh in my mind.
The article is basically a review of H. Richard Milner’s Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There. I’ve never read this book, but it seems to revolve around the culturally responsive education theme (for all I know, perhaps Milner minted this theme), and the article, in the course of reviewing the book, gives a basic introduction to stuff you come across in a CRE workshop.
In other words, I’d seen a lot of this stuff before. What got me thinking — or revisiting old thoughts, however, was a brief section on “recognizing cultural conflicts.” Writes article author Jennifer Gonzalez:
Sometimes what teachers perceive as misbehavior is actually the result of a cultural misunderstanding. In many other countries, for example, students are trained to never look a teacher in the eye. When a teacher in a more Eurocentric classroom demands that a student look at her while she’s reprimanding him, and that student resists, she may interpret this as defiance.
Which leads to thoughts of my eighth period Geometry group. Because it’s late and, as noted above, I’m a little punchy, I’ll just flat out say it. Eighth period is my Crazy Class. It’s the one group I have to think about all day when I lesson plan. Thoughts like: How will this idea or activity which worked so smoothly in First and Second Periods hold up when my Eighth Period gets ahold of it.
Every teacher has their Crazy Class. I know this because our common planning discussions generally revolve around the topic and one thing that seems define all Crazy Classes is that they tend to be predominantly mainstream in terms of academic performance (thus missing out on the possibility of having a second, special ed teacher to co-teach and thus co-manage classroom responsibilities. They also tend to come later in the day (6th, 7th and 8th periods), times when the school is full, the hallways are crammed and moods and blood sugar levels radically different than earlier in the day.
Another hallmark is the Crazy Class is that they sometimes surprise you with perfect behavior. You go in expecting the worst and you leave (sometimes) with a hall of fame lesson in terms of enthusiastic participation and work output. In short, while it’s often the students who make it feel crazy and earn its the sobriquet, it’s really the unpredictability — the weirdness of not knowing which type of class you’re going to encounter when you walk through the door — that makes it hard from a teaching perspective. It basically puts you in the position of wondering whether to scrap a lesson entirely (effectively adding yet another prep to your daily schedule) or to got with what you have (with a few slight alterations) and simply gut it out and hope for the best.
Returning to the cultural conflict theme, my Crazy Class is skewed toward students of color. Sixty percent are black. Thirty percent are hispanic. Ten percent are Arab and one girl, Annika, is white. Behavior issues break down pretty clearly along racial/ethnic/gender lines. The Arab girls cut. The black girls talk. The black boys blow me off until I make a big stink about it. The Caribbean Hispanic students I need to hover over to get them to finish tasks. The Mexican Hispanics do beautiful work but are addicted to their phones. As for the lone white girl, she sits as far from me as she can get without physically leaving the room. It’s a weird mix of personality and pattern behavior in which the only common element appears to be a desire for the hall pass and anything that pushes the current math task off center stage.
Anyway, the girl who stands out the most when I think about article is Faith. She’s black with an African last name. Before I was a teacher that combination wouldn’t have meant much. Now it means a lot. Our student body has a sizable African immigrant population and to risk treading into stereotype, the African students who attend my school are generally regarded in a positive light: They routinely win the perfect attendance awards, crowd the ranks of our pre-professional (and somewhat prestigious) nursing program and generally bring an immigrant intensity to the classroom that puts them on a par with other high achieving immigrant groups. Yes, we have plenty of struggling students and out-and-out miscreants, but even within those groups, you see the attitude that high school is merely a springboard to greater things.
Hidden within this description, I realize, could be a critique of non-African students (of all stripes), but I think it needs to be mentioned up front, because if Faith came into my class with another name — Tamiya Higgs, say — I wouldn’t be half the wiser. Her English is accentless (unlike that of the other African girls in the class) and her general approach to school is, shall we say, along the lines of your general 70- to 80- level student — i.e. the kind who wait until the day before teacher grades come do to ask if there’s anything they can do for extra credit. In contrast, the three girls who speak with clear accents devote a portion of each class period to reminding me about unlogged homeworks and uncredited assignments.
No, what sets Faith off is when I ask her to be quiet. Starting around Week 5, for various reasons, I lost the routine of getting students to quiet down whenever I needed to speak to the whole class. A tougher teacher would have immediately cracked down, shifting seats and implementing newer better routines. Because I have honors level classes in the morning not to mention a boss who loathes chalk and talk, I instead saw it as an opportunity to fly the “expectations” flag. I decided I would teach in ways that didn’t involve me standing at the front of the room, demanding the attention of the whole group.
For a while, it worked. Then the test scores plummeted. Students started grumbling about how the class made “no sense” and, even though I had plenty of evidence to show that the same methods were working in the shiny new building with the honors students, I also had enough flight time logged with honors classes to know that responsiveness to teacher cues is the primary trait that gets you put into the honor track. With the routine having turned into no routine whatsoever, I needed to move back to the front of the room. That involved coming up with a fresh routine for getting kids quiet which, sad to say, meant backsliding on a few year’s of emotional progress and bringing out my Captain Caveman voice. It also meant repeatedly calling out black students like Faith, who always tended to be the last one talking whenever I was trying to avoid bellowing and play the “I’m waiting…” game.
Anyway, a fundamental element in CRE discussion is listening to your students, listening not only to what they say but also how their words might provide clues to underlying opportunities for communication. In the course of silently waiting out Faith to finish her conversations, I have had a pretty good opportunity to work on sides of the listening equation. In terms of the actual words coming out of her mouth, they tend to come in the form of protest. Things like
“Mr Williams, why are you waiting for me? I’m just talking. You can talk, too.”
“Mr. Williams, why are you looking at me? I’m not the only person talking.”
“I’ll stop talking, but you really should just teach.”
Going back to the excerpt about Eurocentric classrooms, such moments are a reminder that the desire for quiet, at least in my mind, translates to “total quiet.” In other words, I don’t want to talk until my voice is the only voice being heard.
A momentary pause. This desire is not innate. It dates back to my first year in which, whenever my lessons were crapping out, my supervisor, a middle school vet, would essentially come down the hall, come into the room and bawl everybody out (myself indirectly) and then model the way to get a room quiet and back on task. The words coming out of his mouth generally sounded like
“I’m gonna wait here until every last voice is done talking, because this is something you ALL need to know.”
“Some people insist on runnin’ they mouth when they SHOULD be listening, so I’ll just wait for everybody to give me their FULL attention…”
“I want it so quiet I can hear a mouse peeing on cotton. Until that time, we’re gonna stand here…”
Actually, that last one came from another administrator, a white guy, kind of effeminate and from Staten Island, where the director supervisor was black, butch and a Brooklyn native. The quote sticks out in memory both for the colorful, slightly risky turn of phrase and for the fact that it successfully managed to quiet down a lunch room full of rowdy black sixth graders. No mean feat. A casual observer might note that “stand and wait” was the consistent theme, but in each case, the speaker both requested and received compliance and, to my astonishment, increased engagement as the kids quietly surrendered to instructional authority.
While I didn’t get a permanent posting out of that first year, I did come out with the understanding, when teaching math to a room full a children, getting to quiet was teacher task No. 1.
Twelve years later, I find myself re-examining this lesson. As hinted at earlier, the honors students tend to quiet down promptly when asked. Then again, even when talking to a room full of honors students, each nodding in comprehension while I speak, I find that rarely do I get higher than a 40 percent success rate on verbal instructions. Heck, even when talking to a room full of adults, saying something as simple as “I need you to go to website X” requires a quick tour around the room to confirm that more than half made it to the intended destination.
It helps, too, that, in addition to a different, more diverse group of students, I also have a different boss, a guy who teaches two periods of AP Calculus and thus knows a few things about honors level students nodding in feigned comprehension. This is where the departmental aversion to chalk-and-talk comes from in the first place. “You might think they’re listening,” he’ll say in post-observation. “Give ’em a quiz tomorrow and see what happens.” One day, I took him up on it. The observed lesson, a whole class lecture in which I’d fired out more than two dozen questions, hitting almost every student in the room, had gone swimmingly and I wanted to prove him wrong.
As predicted, the results were as if I’d never taught the topic at all.
Hence the search for other models: Small groups, big groups, team folders, individual folders. Socratic Seminars, Philosophical Chairs. Gallery Walks and #VNPS — something, anything to raise the level of throughput above that pesky 40 percent throughput barrier.
Which brings us back to Faith. One reason I’m able to listen to Faith — and a possible reason she feels comfortable speaking to me so directly — is that, during that five week stretch when the routine disappeared, I spent a lot of time just swooping in on groups I wasn’t reaching in the main lessons and teaching in a more direct tutor-to-student manner. Granted, the rest of the class took full advantage of the slack time offered — I called it my Teaching While Rome Burned strategy — but Faith, in large part because of her seat’s proximity to my usual starting position at the beginning of each class and because she’s friends with one of the strongest students in the group, was the beneficiary of an above-average number of visits. In five very short weeks, she went from the tall black girl whose name I routinely confused with that of the other tall black girl to the tall black girl who rolls her eyes at my cornier jokes and isn’t afraid to ask a question when her neighbors won’t.
In other words, I’m still debating whether waiting for the room to quiet down is the best approach for Faith or for her classmates for that matter. I’m enough of a traditionalist to see quiet as the medium in which math is properly expressed, but I’m also enough of a modernist to know that chaotic, free-flowing work environments are where the action appears to be happening nowadays. And while I sometimes lament not having the stamina myself to sit through a classic European- (or Asian-) style graduate math lecture, the kind where a professor fills up four chalkboards and barely glances back at the audience, I know my own personal breakthroughs in mathematics have tended to come at moments when I was blocking out all external stimuli, the teacher’s voice included.
So to end this reflection — brought to you, in large part, by the stack of overdue attendance bubble sheets and the procrastination impulse they provide — I do indeed take to heart the notion that cultural conflicts do get in the way of teaching and may be as much in the mind of the educator as in the behavior of the student. Kids talk, and in some cultures kids will talk until somebody forcefully tells them to stop talking or gives them a reason to care about what you’re trying to teach. Faith and I might not have made it to the caring level, but I do note with interest that she was one of three students who requested extra time to come down and finish a recent test and, in the course of doing so, to sit for the post-test tutoring session. Something is happening there that wasn’t happening ten weeks ago. I don’t want to be in denial about the test data which suggests that students might benefit from a more “structured” approach to Geometry, and I certainly don’t want to be the lazy guy afraid to move seats and break up groups just because it’ll add momentary stress to the workday. At the same time, I don’t want to spoil things by rolling back to some “traditional” teaching model just for the sake of peace and quiet.
As it stands, I find myself moving between models, bellowing on some days, listening on others and trying to get a better ear for the type of talk a teacher should be willing to accept even when they themselves are talking.