Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another Brick in the Wall Part 3: The Students Speak Up!

Forgive the lack of focus in this post -- I recently had an opportunity to converse with some of the older students at my school, and wanted to record the gist of this conversation.  They offered some interesting perspectives on the teaching profession, anxieties about college, and the argument I developed in my last two posts about freedom in high school.

            Yesterday I was covering for the 11th and 12th grade chemistry honors class and didn’t have a lesson plan.  Since many of the students were applying to college or had already been admitted, they began to ask me questions about my own experience; soon, the question of why I had become a teacher came up.
            I explained that I had abandoned being pre-med at the last minute, but had been tutoring and mentoring for many years and realized that I loved teaching and working with students.  I also talked about my life-long love of science and my desire to share it.
            One of my students responded like this: “I’m going to college, and since I haven’t grown up with money, I almost feel like I’d be wasting my degree if I didn’t do something that would make me really rich.”  It was interesting to hear this perspective; having grown up around a reasonable amount of money, I have always wanted to be comfortable, but being truly wealthy is never something I have given that much thought to.
            The conversation turned toward education and my views on it.  I articulated, more or less, the argument of my previous post; that students enter college un-accustomed to freedom and that it behooves us to expose them to it further.  The students provided interesting perspective on this.  Many thought that our students simply didn’t receive enough structure at home to make this work, an echo of the argument I hear from most teachers.  A few, however, agreed that raising the expectations would be a good idea, but that we would need to create a more “serious” atmosphere to make it work.
            Students felt that, although they benefit from it, our teachers “care too much,” meaning that they feel coddled.  They related stories of endless extensions, and our school’s new policy that 50% is the minimum score (which has been very controversial among teachers, but was intended to not make students fall so far behind that they stop trying).  Many of the students agreed that our students misbehaved because the teachers expected them to do so, but felt that additional freedom would fall flat if not coupled with raised academic expectations. 
I found it surprising that the students seemed to think that teacher investment, something so prized by the charter school movement, was actually leading to lowered expectations.  “It’s nice that teachers care, you know?” said one student, “But sometimes you just need to let us fail so we get the message.  In middle school, my teacher barely paid attention to us.  Some kids would go out in the hallway and push chairs around and he wouldn’t even care.  But I did care, so I had to learn.”
Of course, I believe in a middle ground; I think it’s possible for teachers to create an environment that is supportive and serious.  But these students made it clear that we had failed to do that up to now.
Finally, the conversation turned to race and culture.  My students were desperate to hear my own first impressions of the community – “It’s okay if you’re racist!” one said.  “We just want to know what other people think of us.”
I answered truthfully about some of my own biases: that entering a community with billboard ads in Spanish had been jarring for me, and made me question whether members of this community wanted to learn English; I also explained that, because I considered myself anti-racist but needed to explain low achievement in urban schools, I sometimes wondered whether parents pushed their children to succeed sufficiently (essentially the “culture of poverty” argument).  I made it clear that I didn’t believe this anymore, so it was amusing when one student said that he agreed about his parents being too lax; most, however, said that they felt their parents did care, but didn’t know exactly what to do (the position I currently take).
The students who had been admitted to college seemed genuinely terrified of the “culture shock” that awaited them by plunging into an all-white community, and wanted to know how they would be treated in college.  One girl, who had gone to an admitted student program, lamented that, although she had tried hard to distance herself from ghetto stereotypes, found her white peers calling on her to teach them the “Soulja Boy” dance and begging her to speak to them in Spanish – “I didn’t know what they wanted me to do!  Should I be more Mexican, or less Mexican?”  She said she felt dumb when she had to take out a dictionary just to understand words in the admissions director’s speech!
I’ve said it before -- while we focus on getting our kids into college, we are terrible at keeping them there.  I still believe that the experience of freedom can be shocking, but perhaps not as jarring as adjustment to college culture.  The student who I’ve quoted repeatedly in this post -- a very bright, talkative young woman – said she struggled to be herself around her peers and was embarrassed of her vocabulary – not just because she was worried others might think she were stupid, but because she wondered whether she might really be stupid.
I tried to allay her fears by telling her that, by getting into a top college, she had overcome tremendous odds.  Students from advantaged backgrounds are exactly that: their margin of error is so much wider.  If a student from a rich family has busy parents, they can expect to be picked up by a nanny; if a student from a poor family has busy parents, they are likely to end up out in the streets, getting into trouble.  If a student from a rich family is caught using drugs, they’ll attend expensive rehab; if a poor student does the same, they’ll be expelled or put into the criminal justice system.
While it sounds strange, I wonder if students would benefit from learning about the culture of typical colleges, in the same way that a person entering a study-abroad program is usually required to take a short course on the local customs.  The student highlighted in this post joked about reading Harry Potter in order to fit in; should schools take on the responsibility of teaching our students the things that rich, white kids learn at home, and from their peers?  


  1. Forget apologizing for lack of focus; this post is chalk full of interesting ideas and simply beautiful sentiments! It's sometimes surprising what high schoolers will reveal to you (and how they tell you) when you ask. Is it surprising to hear that I experienced a similar (albeit reversed) kind of culture shock upon arriving at UC Berkeley? Suddenly I was around so many people who were decidedly less white and less affluent than those I had previously been going to school with and I was unsure how to react. While your student wondered about acting more or less Mexican, I pondered whether to try to be more or less flippant with my affluent upbringing and education.

    I particularly like your musing at the end of your post; who knows, it might work both ways!

  2. Or this question: Should universities take on the responsibility of teaching rich, white kids to be more open to understanding and not being biased against people and ways that don't align with what they learned at home, or from their peers? Hmmm...Why do minorities always have to "do more" and "work harder" to fit in or be accepted?

  3. @Anonymous:

    In an ideal world, those in power would voluntarily share it, and give some of it up.

    In the real world, until society becomes more tolerant, those who are at a disadvantage have to work harder than their more advantaged peers in order to succeed.

    That is what it means to be "disadvantaged": you don't get handouts or head-starts.