Now that I’ve had some space of time to unwind a little and rediscover my existence apart from the closeted confines of my students, I’m beginning to consider the bigger picture of my instruction and obtain a vision of a master plan for the next year, as well as to consider how to manage and confront the behaviors and attitudes of students raised in poverty and labeled with a learning disability.
When you’re down in muck and mire of the daily slog that is the self-contained classroom in the South Bronx (a quick reprise for those stumbling across this post: “self-contained” is educational jargon for a special education classroom with a ratio of 12 students to 1 teacher and 1 paraprofessional), it can be hard not to take students’ attitudes, slurs, cusses, laziness, threats, and insults personally. But once a little space of clearance with which to see more clearly is gained, I am well aware that it is not the students’ fault that they don’t possess the tools and skills needed to succeed in school.
The advantage that students from middle class and wealthy families possess is that they come to school already equipped with the basic skills needed to function and succeed in a classroom: they know how to manage their supplies, they have a broader vocabulary and exposure to the wider world, and they have knowledge of formal cadences and structures. Students raised in generational poverty don’t have these advantages. And so they show up the first day of school already behind. The rest of their schooling can all too often be viewed primarily as a snowballing succession of failures, in which they are punished and berated for not having ever gained the most basic of cognitive skill sets.
If we are to expect students raised in pervasive poverty to succeed, then we must teach them the values and skills that they will need to perform in a classroom. In other words, alongside of the learning of academic content, they must be primarily taught how to learn academic content.
When this need is not acknowledged, the feeling that one has as an educator is of leading the horse to the water but not being able to force them to drink. You teach them all the content, but it’s like dropping things into murky water. And you end up becoming frustrated with your students, their families, and the school system et al. Because you could be the best teacher in the world of academic content, but if your students don’t yet understand how to sit in a chair properly or how to process formal English, then you’d be only teaching them half the time — which would be that time when they happen to be interested in the subject matter or when you force them to get something done.
Students who come into classrooms already disadvantaged due to their socio-economic positioning have a lot of things going on at home that someone from a different class can’t normally conceive of. They are exposed to levels of constant and acute stress that stretch them thin emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. I have heard teachers declaiming on how resilient their students are. Some have witnessed siblings dying before them, some already have children at the age of 13, some have been abused by family members or foster parents, some have lived in shelters or moved from legal guardian to legal guardian.Yes, indeed, they are resilient. But they are also still children who have not been given a chance to live the life of a child; they have been exposed to unimaginable levels of stress. This means they don’t always know how to cope with the added demands of the alien values and expectations of academia, nor perhaps grasp what the purpose or utility in education is at all. Their more urgent concerns are keeping face with their peers and social networking for protection and status.
If it sounds like I may be preparing to argue that schools must somehow water down their intent or curriculum for disadvantaged students, or if I am saying that disadvantaged students never have a chance to succeed in academics, then let me hasten to state the contrary. I believe the reality is that when a student comes into a school already behind, then that means they must work twice as hard as privileged students. There is no easy way. But in order to get them on track to this effort, it is the duty of the schools to provide them with explicit instruction on the values, skills, and perspectives that they will need to navigate middle class society. They must be taught how to learn academic content, how to self-regulate their behavior, and the differences between the street and the classroom.
This “invisible” curriculum is perhaps the most important of all, and I believe that all students — regardless of their socio-economic status or whether they are diagnosed with a learning disability — can benefit from explicit instruction in this area. It is this curriculum that I will be considering for next year, in addition to my ELA, math, social studies, and science curriculum. This last year I spent most of my time frustrated and angry because I was busy trying to cram academic content down the throats of my students who did not possess the coping and self-control skills necessary to perform in a classroom. This next school year, I want to not only teach them academic content, but teach them how to adapt to an academic environment.