Sunday, January 25, 2004

Room 112

This past Friday was my last day as a volunteer in the special ed room I had been helping out in since September. There were about 12 kids in the class, most in 4th or 5th grade and all struggling with mild to moderate language deficits- namely the ability to read or (once they’ve mastered some basic phonics) comprehend what it was they’ve read. A healthy amount of my time was spent in a catcher’s crouch and with my thumb covering up half a word while I said things like, “Hey, we saw those two letters just a second ago…do you remember what sound they made? Was it…(here I would point to where we had originally seen those two letters)…shhhh? Was that the sound? It’s from the shhhh family!” (They have a lot of power, the shhhh family, right up there with the ing’s.)

I originally came to volunteer for a couple reasons- the first of which was purely selfish while the second was tethered to some half-assed ideals about community, namely that I wanted to give something back. (And I guess there’s nothing half-assed about getting up of your ass and making positive connections/contributions.) Additionally, most, if not all, of the teacher credential programs in the state of California make prior classroom experience (at least 40 hours) a prerequisite to the application process. In other words, if you’re applying to a credential program, you must give proof (a letter from the teacher whose classroom you worked in works best) that you’ve already spent at least 40 hours getting a feel for the area you wish to get a credential in. So that’s what I did.

The Berkeley Public Schools have a superb volunteer program. It’s incredibly efficient and effective, too. Each week there’s a volunteer orientation (and since it’s Berkeley, all who attend have read their Robert Coles and Jonathan Kozol and all are curdled with outrage at the monstrous injustices perpetuated in our public schools) and anybody can show up to and get the low down on helping out in the schools. After an hour and a half of the ins and outs of volunteering, you fill out an application where you express your areas of interest, provide a couple references and presto, about a week later you get a volunteer badge in the mail and, should you choose to accept it, your assignment!

But back to Friday…

There was a substitute teacher there that day, some young guy (I’d hazard late 20’s) who, probably despite his ideal, disciplined through the occasional outburst. One young boy, for example, a 5th grader who has a particular knack for pushing against the boundaries of patience, slyly refused the substitute’s request to “put that drink away.” The boy, we’ll call him Tony, likes his snacks, but there’s a time and place for them and he shouldn’t have had the drink when he did. It’s one of the golden rules: no food or drink in the classroom. (Unless it’s one of those refreshing soft-drink’s whose kind contract dollars are paying for our otherwise unfunded extra-curricular programs!) Instead of doing what would have been reasonable, that is, quickly depositing the drink in the locker area, Tony instead attempted to put the drink in his pocket, where it clearly wouldn’t fit. There were giggles. Then there came the substitute’s yawp.

The substitute shouted, and I’m paraphrasing while simultaneously sparing you the ALL CAPS: Tony! Don’t do that. I’m not having that today! Don’t act stupid! I’m sick and tired of people acting stupid in this room! You’re not stupid, so cut it out! There are too many of you in this classroom who pretend to be stupid and I know it’s not true! Get up and put the drink away and stop acting like you don’t know what I’m talking about!” Which was all more or less true. The kid was pushing the sub’s buttons. Tony has a gift for that. He finally got up and put the drink (some high fructose concoction in a day-glow plastic bottle) away. But was that the right way to ask him to do it?

I guess one thing I’ve learned while volunteering is that there’s a right way and wrong way to discipline. Of course there is. And if you’re thinking of entering into this profession, it’s good to know that you’re going to be shoveling a lot of discipline. Kids are going to be getting up out of their seats to wonder over to stare glassy-eyed out of windows and you’re going to have to interrupt the siren call of all that stimuli and navigate them back to their seats. A few minutes later they’re going to be back at the window. They’re going to tap their pencils relentlessly and mumble to themselves and push each other and copy from each other. Sometimes they’re going to act like kids and that can be a real pain in the ass. But most of all, what seems to happen most of time, is that they’re going to have tremendous difficulty staying on task. Most LD kids, studies show, are on task 40% of the time. The other 60% is devoted to white noise. You’ve got to learn how to be gentle but firm in keeping them focused. You have to be consistent and hover about and coax and cheerlead and get those little engines up and over the mountain crest. There is a healthy balance of rewards and consequences. “I think I can” too often erodes into “I know I can’t.” Those little egos are teetering up against a yawning gap. Yelling at them probably doesn’t help things much. It’s more white noise.

I was also interested in how these children thought of themselves, especially their academic performance. By 5th grade most seem to be bluntly aware of their “otherness” status in the academic hierarchy. They’re old enough to have begun taking measure of their character and the consequences of their performance, both socially and academically.

From what little I know, the current trend is to keep most learning disabled children in the mainstream or regular classroom and have a “special resource” teacher come to those classrooms and offer the appropriate support to the special ed students. The school where I’ve been volunteering, however, adheres to the older (and increasingly rare?) delivery system that keeps the kids in an alternative instructional environment for all or nearly all of the school day. I don’t know enough about the research into either “delivery service” to know which one might be more beneficial to the student (there’s a ton of research about inclusion/mainstreaming, but I haven’t read much of it), but I do wonder if a student’s self-esteem doesn’t suffer from being excluded or occasionally separated from the experience of their peers. I say this based not only on my own experience as a LD child, but on my having witnessed the reactions and interactions of those students I worked with, many of whom were mainstreamed for a class or part of the day. They all seemed to intensely dislike this, I suspect because the students in those mainstream classes tended to look at them as their intellectual inferior, outcasts from that funky room of underachievers.

Then again, I have no idea. A concept like self-esteem is pretty slippery. It’s highly contextual. What I did hear almost everyday was some defeated kid mumbling to me that he was stupid. Sometimes such remarks are lame histrionic contrivances to get out of doing the work. More often than not it’s because of the sheer amount of failure they’ve already experienced. Nothing in their academic life has come easy. There’s always somebody telling them what’s wrong. The frustration that arises from not being able to comprehend a word problem or correctly spell a word is magnified by the mocking abundance of failure that’s come before. They’re sick and tired of being held captive by their deficits. Sometimes it’s easier to just submit to the impetuous undercurrent and that you’re too dumb to ever figure out what that word problem is asking you to solve.

These kids will break your heart if you’re not careful. Most of them are incredibly bright and capable. Most have assets that we need to pay more attention to and cultivate. But their momentum crashes unexpectedly, invisible thresholds are crossed and they shut down. “I’m not a good reader, Mr. Chris.” “I’ve been dumb since I was 8 years old.” “I’m too stupid.” When I first heard a child say this I didn’t know how to respond. I was too appalled and distressingly struck by their similarity to my own struggles with intellectual self-confidence and all the times I allowed academic challenges to be filtered or stalled by such apocryphal thoughts. I heard too many echo’s in my head when I said, “Look at me. I want to tell you something that I know is true. You’re a smart kid. You can do this.” Which is more or less true, it’s getting them to believe it that’s really tough.

So on Friday I said, “It’s been an honor coming in every morning and working with all of you. You may not know it, but I wasn’t just here teaching you. You were teaching me.” (Kids, at least the one’s I was working with, love to be told that they’ve taught you something. I’ve also found that you better be honest about whatever it is they’ve taught you, ‘cause they can smell your bullshit from a mile away.) I said, “You’ve all helped me to learn what kind of teacher I want to be.” They were all eating the brownies I had made for them and watching me with sugary intensity. I had my coat on and said, “I’ll keep in touch with you all by e-mail, and I expect to hear from each one of you.” Then they were all waving and I was walking out the door thinking the old volunteer cliché that they had given me more then I could have possibly ever given them. I know that’s entirely true.

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