Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Go to school for an eye-opening jolt

I am in my Third Third and I had a major eye-opening jolt last week. Right here in Anchorage. Right in an elementary school. I’m still reeling.

I read the newspaper. I have been involved in fighting for school funding. I have lots of teacher friends. I have volunteered a lot in the schools. I know that Anchorage’s school kids speak 93 different languages, that our census tracts are the most diverse in the country.

And then I walked into my friend Dawn’s class to teach writing, and half the class is somewhat monolingual in a language other than English.

Just think about this. Not about how lovely the cultural celebrations might be, how rich the heritage of the kids are. Think about the reality of teaching a classroom of 27 children where half of them don’t speak the language. Think about being the dedicated teacher trying to reach each child where they are so they can grow from that point.
I went from kid to kid, saw that some put two words to the page, some whole paragraphs. Some were into the creativity, some were tortured by the task. They were all trying so hard, but they each needed individual attention. And Dawn is one person.

Dawn is a superlative teacher who used to teach gifted kids. She elected, in her Third Third, to teach in a Title I school. She loves those kids, and she has the personal presence to command their attention, the skills to guide them. She tutors till 5, takes professional development classes on Saturday, makes home visits. And yet, when we got together to talk about this, she still cried because it isn’t enough.

The kids in her classroom speak Lao, Tagalog, Farsi, Korean, Spanish, Yup’ik, Hmong, and Twi (the language of Ghana). Four of them are special ed students. The parents are hard-working immigrants; while there is little generational poverty here, there is hardship. But the parents are pulling for their kids, supporting the school. 25 of 27 came to parent conferences, several families come to parent education classes twice a week at the school.

There is a bilingual tutor and an English Language Learner teacher – for a half-hour a day. The special ed students get two hours a day. There’s a student teacher, a family coordinator for the school, and a staff that Dawn says gives 110% of themselves to the kids. If a kid was lucky enough to get into one of the Title I Preschool spaces, he’s way ahead.

But there are 27 kids in Dawn’s classroom. If she spent ten minutes with each one individually, more than half her school day would be over. The successful third grader is supposed to be able to read 120 words a minute. One in Dawn’s class can read 6.

I’ve gone to language immersion courses in Spanish and Hebrew. Teaching methods have improved where fluency can be picked up pretty quickly, even for adults. Could we do things differently? Could we put kids in some sort of intensive English-language school and then release them to their local school? Or do we just throw them to the Dawns of the district and mandate that “every child will make a year’s growth wherever they are”?

Dawn loves science and social studies. She says that’s where students really engage, but with the emphasis on reading and math, she can barely get to that. “Well,” I asked, “isn’t the new curriculum supposed to focus more on nonfiction so kids can get that?” Well, yes, but the textbooks are so old, they are falling apart. There’s no money for curriculum so the district distributes a “grade level story” every week. They’re supposed to spend a half-hour on it every day.

If you’re like me, by now you’re wracked, too. I wasn’t living in a vacuum. I consider myself well-informed; I teach at the Literacy Program, know the dedication of our immigrants, know how smart they are in their own language. But I never saw the reality of 27 kids with such tremendous educational needs in one classroom.

Dawn is an optimist. She’s one of the happiest people I know. She wants everyone to see the reality of her classroom – school board members, people who vote, potential volunteers. Not like I did at first, when I looked from the outside at this “mini United Nations” and marveled at how engaged the kids seemed.
Come in as a volunteer instead, and work with the kids. (I discovered my friend Barbara there, volunteering to help kids read twice a week.) Dawn wants her classroom flooded with volunteers. That’s the one-on-one chance these kids need. The English learner needs help across his language barrier, but don’t forget: other kids need relief from the slower pace of the classroom, the chance to open up on the highway.

Volunteering is not my usual exhortation for social impact. I’m more about mobilizing, voting, and pounding on legislators for funding, but I am about eye-opening jolts.

No matter where you are, there are kids needing help in a school. And no matter where you are in your Third Third, helping that kid adds Purpose to both your lives.

1 comment:

  1. Barbara, would you consider submitting this to ADN as an Opinion Piece? It needs a wider audience, especially given that we anticipate another big battle over funding for public schools.


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