Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Encouraging Mediocrity and More

(Warning: This is a disjointed blog from a frustrated and time-challenged teacher.)

The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do, never does what he can do.
(I don't know where this quote came from but there's an odd logic to it.)

We should be helping kids set goals rather than encouraging them to make excuses. I'm sure the original intent of special education legislation was to push kids with disabilities to do what they really can, but it has not turned out that way.

We have encouraged an attitude of mediocrity with students and we're getting what we have reaped.

* Student cannot copy a sentence from the overhead. Teacher gives student a printed copy

* Student cannot remember to bring a pen or pencil. Teacher gives student a pencil.

When 20 special education students are placed in a class of 30 students, the challenges affect all students.

Average students have difficulty with ordinary thinking skills. For example, when given a research topic, students cannot form questions about the topic. The teacher must tell students what the questions are and what specific answers to look for. Life today requires us to recognize the questions that our problems lead us to and to know how to look for the answers. I try to teach this skill in my classroom but it's a struggle. Students have lost their ability to question anything but authority.

Teaching students small things such as following directions, a skill required in real life of filling out tax forms and driving, remains a challenge. Students are told to write their first and last name, write out the date, and write their class period number on three lines in the upper right hand corner of each paper. Some students are still not doing this! Students are told to use only dark blue or black ink...not gel pens and peacock colors...some students continue to do this in spite of getting no credit for it. (Those strange colors tax my failing eyes, especially when I'm grading 150 papers.)

If we are to remain a strong nation, we need people who can reach for the impossible and do what they can.

We are turning out students who say:

* I can't do that because my IEP (individual education plan) says you have to do this for me."

* "I don't want to do it that way. I can read orange gel pen on notebook paper so you, the teacher, have to read it and give me credit."

* "Why did you take off points for not dotting my 'i's'?" The teacher explains that most of their vocabulary words were "qui" words and if the student doesn't dot the i's, the teacher doesn't know if the student wrote "qiu" or "qui." "But you know what I meant."

* "Why did you take off points for my spelling in my assignment? That sucks. What difference does it make?"

Parents now tell their children they don't have to serve detention because they disagree with the teacher.

Parents tell teachers to change the grade because their children deserve a higher grade.

I give students a grade on merely coming to class and trying to learn! That's what education has boiled down to! I give them credit for bringing their notebooks and pens and making an attempt to do their work no matter whether the answers are right or wrong. Students come to me, very proud..."I brought my notebook today." "I did my homework last night." They look at this as behavior that should be rewarded...behavior that should automatically be expected...

When I was in elementary school, I was given textbooks and told to cover them at home. Now, not only do we provide them with book covers (with advertising), but we take class time to instruct them in how to cover their books. If teachers do not do this, the next day half of the students will come to class:

* "We didn't have any bags (newspapers, etc.) at home to cover the book."

* "I can't cover books."

* "Why do we have to cover our books? That sucks."

I've been grading papers this afternoon and am still amazed at how slow these kids are! Example: They have to read the Shirley Jackson story "Charles." Sometimes students fail to make even the simplest connections in their thinking.

In "Charles," Laurie is the main character. When students first saw the name, they assumed Laurie was a girl, which is understandable. However, students did not connect the pronouns to adjust their thinking. For example, the first sentence begins, "The day Laurie started kindergarten, he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt. I watched him go off the first morning…He came home the same way…" Also, one of the test questions asks, "How would you handle a boy like Laurie?"

Some students failed to connect that there was no Charles and that Laurie made up the name as he told his parents about a bad boy named Charles in his kindergarten class. They didn't see a parallel between Laurie's new bad behavior at home and fictitious Charles. Finally, when at the end of the story, the teacher tells Laurie's mother that there is no Charles in kindergarten, some students didn't recognize that this was significant while others didn't understand why the teacher would say this after all the stories that Laurie told.

This is the slowest bunch of kids I've ever taught--and the most apathetic. I can take genuine low IQ kids and work with them but the attitudes ("That's stupid taking giving me a low grade for not spelling right. What difference does it make?) that go along with it are frustrating. They don't even bother to copy correctly. I've even tried giving them answers to see what they would do and they don't care enough to take advantage of that gift. These are 7th graders who misspell words like mouther, whent, etc. They don't know what syllables are or that the pronoun I should always be capitalized. Sometimes when I correct them, they respond, "But this is the way I do it" as if that justifies doing things wrong. They don't understand cursive and don't follow directions. I tell them that I (along with the other teachers on our team) want them to head their papers a certain way and, instead of just doing it, they question it and want to know why. I explain that when teachers are dealing with a lot of papers to grade, it makes our job easier to be able to identify information quickly. Now, when the questions continue, I've resorted to saying, "Because your teacher told you to." (something I always said I wouldn't do!)

We're supposed to be teaching students higher level thinking skills when they don't even have the academic and social foundation necessary for success!

I started teaching in 1967 in Baltimore City, left in 1975 and returned in 1988 to teaching in Anne Arundel County. During this span of time, I've seen many changes in education and students. One thing that really distresses me is that every year I'm able to do less with students because they don't come to me with necessary skills. Every year it takes longer to cover the same material and much of it I have to drop because students are not able to handle it. Every year, I have to water down content and use more and more scaffolding. Right now I'm teaching the 7th grade unit on humor. My students are able to understand slapstick only for the most part and I'm trying to elevate them to understanding verbal humor, etc. They complain that they have to think too much.

Much of this problem I blame on the mindset of our society. Seventh graders today have grown up in an instant gratification society where if they don't receive instant gratification, they won't bother with it. Teachers know that learning is not instant gratification, but a long and sometimes painful process that unfolds very slowly sometimes. And I blame the mindset of our educational systems that has taken the responsibility for learning out of the learners' hands. By doing this, we've removed a crucial element in the process of learning.

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