Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Should We Educate Poor Kids Differently?

(answered from a slightly different angle than last week)

by Judi Zachary

After teaching in disadvantaged inner-city Detroit schools, I believe that disadvantaged students would greatly benefit from being taught differently. I taught differently (as best I could) and saw deeply moving and touching examples of students experiencing the joy of learning for the first time. Boys who acted tough and angry, who couldn't read first grade words in fifth grade and had been sent to the office daily by their other teachers had astonishing behavior improvements! I refused to send them to the office, and taught them beginning phonics and word recognition in small groups on mats in the back of the class room. They surprisingly looked forward to it and dropped their tough masks!

Students who had been given new dittos every day by hopeless teachers to keep them busy got excited when I retaught material until they learned it. They were astonished that they weren't dumb!

Students who had been threatened, yelled at, hit, and kicked under their desks by tired, angry teachers to get their attention, responded after a short while to my firm but steady expectation of mutual respect.

Unfortunately, I didn't last long in the Detroit Public School system, because the negative practices of the principal, assistant principal and most of the staff who continued to use corporal punishment wore me down.

The chaos created by the adults screaming at the children and hitting them broke my spirit. My phone calls reporting corporal punishment to the school administration building fell on deaf ears. "Not true."... they claimed.

I think back with fondness and hope though, because I saw children fall in love with learning. They had an oasis of hope with someone who cared deeply and fought against all odds to lead them to feel their brilliance.

So, I strongly feel that children like mine who, for example, witnessed their mom being shot in the stomach, neighbors killed on the street in front of them, and were often ignored and/or beaten at home DO need to be taught differently.

They come to school injured, scared ,numb, hopeless, without pencils or self-esteem, and with no experience of success. It seems, from my experience, that these precious ones...armored with thick defenses after years of fear and failure, need a lot.

They need small classes, two or more teachers per room, teachers with extra skills, compassion and experience, lots of chances for success and to be taught, no matter what their age, at the reading level most appropriate for them.

If they only learn how to read while in grade school. If they only learn how to respect themselves in grade school, just think how this could change their whole future and that of the others they will encounter. If they could just read, WOW, they could continue to learn the rest of their lives!

This would be a truly different way of treating children who require and deserve to be taught differently....if we really care about kids and their futures.
Judi Zachary has spent decades working with children in many different capacities, including a stint as a teacher in Detroit Public Schools.  Despite her experiences there, she remains hopeful about the future.


Unknown said...

I don't disagree with any of the strategies you mention. I think they are strategies that should be used in every classroom. I don't see anything new or different in what you did, except maybe doing your job better than some, and that is not a slam against the author; it is an indictment of the system.

All kids deserve remediation if they need it. All kids deserve the focused, intelligent and consistent attention you provided-- because they needed it.

And no kids should be hit.

And teachers should have assistance (my dream of secretaries, office managers?) in the classroom.

Your blog post is evidence schools are underfunded, run for efficiency and PR instead of education, and in dire need of some common sense.

Mr. D said...

Although the strategies mentioned should be commonplace for any student in need of special help, we really should be looking at why we need to educate poor kids differently. Is it because they're poor? Or is it because their home factors cannot allow for more traditional methods?

Teaching poor kids differently simply because they're poor is simplistic. Teaching poor kids differently because the traditional classroom environment cannot trump their own home situation is more on point. Poverty is not necessarily a causation for differentiation.