This is one of those teacher diary type blog posts. At this moment, policy seems to me about the least useful tool in education reform. (I’m having one of those days).
It’s finals week and since most of my class finished their test on Monday (it didn’t take them as long as I had imagined and I’m happy to report that most of them did pretty well), I spent our scheduled time today talking with the few kids who turned up. The main theme of the conversation was the culture of physical violence in which they have grown up.
I find it most striking that they appear to revel in it. People getting hurt badly is “hilarious.” I don’t know enough about their internal experience to tell but I suspect such a response is a form of psychological armor. Of course, I’m a math teacher and not a psychologist so I’ll leave it to better trained professionals to make that determination.
I hasten to add that I don’t think these are bad kids at all. In fact, I quite like them and that they’re sitting in my room in a school after the experiences they describe (and being assured that, “oh, Mister, that’s nothing …”) says something about their strength. These kids did not drop out, made it to their junior or senior year, and most of them will probably graduate. They clearly get that they need a diploma but they don’t show a lot of interest (outwardly anyway) in the expectations of school. Their grades certainly don’t reflect their obvious intelligence and resourcefulness.
Immediately following this conversation another student of mine, one who most probably did not grow up in a violent household, walked up to me in the hall and handed me a holiday gift with a smile. He’s a 9th grader in an honors class and doing well.
The contrast between this “thank you, you’re very kind” experience and the “oh my god” experience of minutes before hit me hard. Without the second experience, the first would have been just another reminder of the challenges many of my kids face. Instead, it has created a dissonance in my head that I’m not sure what to do with. And so here I am at the keyboard.
Now, I know perfectly well that not all lower income people grow up or live with violence. And I am also aware that physical, verbal and emotional abuse takes place in wealthy households too. However, I have worked with economically disadvantaged kids my entire career and I know the experience is common enough that I think any conversation about reform must explicitly include the supports to develop non-violent and productive ways to solve problems and to help students transfer what they learn to settings outside of school.
And honestly, most of the kids who did not grow up with violence could use some support in learning these skills too.
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