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Hero For Christ
High School LogbookIn December of 2000, I became teacher of a special education classroom in a large urban high school, in a major American metropolis.
Entry Number One: March 7, 2001Although this is my first logbook entry, I have been working here since the first of December. I teach English, Math, Science and History. My students range in age from fourteen to nineteen. I teach twelve at a time, from a pool of about thirty. By law, I have help in the form of a paraprofessional.
None of my students have been assigned to special education for behavioral reasons. They are officially diagnosed as mildly retarded and/or severely learning disabled. In practice, the designation seems like a bit of a catch-all, with students ranging wildly in terms of skill and ability.
Through the last three months, I have explored [Christian Existential Humanist] education in the context of a typical urban high school setting. Time permitting, this logbook will eventually contain many entries of interest. More to come...
Entry Number Two: March 12, 2001My classroom is long and narrow with small rectangular tables instead of desks. The teachers desk is in the corner by the door. When I first arrived, the room was a bit of a mess, with papers and books strewn all over. It took a while, but I finally organized all the books and papers.
Although I am not a neat person by nature, cleaning the room was a top priority. The organization of a room will find a reflection in the mental state of the occupants. A clean room sends a certain message, and is also more efficient.
I also immediately rearranged the room. This is an important symbolic indicator of change, and of ownership. The most important change was to create a space where I could stand in front of the class and write on the board --apparently not a priority for the previous teacher.
Before I began teaching, I outlined my expectations for the class, and my rules for the room. This is important for creating a conducive learning environment. I focused on three main rules, a secular version of the tripartite morality:
The challenge facing me was to teach four different subjects: English, Math, Science and Geography, plus a period called Study Skills. English and Math I felt I could teach in my sleep. Science sounded like more of a stretch, and Geography/History had always been my own weakest subject.
I started out relying heavily on lectures... the style I was most used to. Lecturing corresponds to the third corner of the curricular trigraph --the communal side, the canon. To balance the lecturing, I did a lot of audience participation, asking questions and soliciting opinions.
It took a while for the kids to respond to this method. They seemed to enjoy the extra stimulation of the lectures (I think they had previously done mainly bookwork), but were unused to being asked a lot of questions. It was as though they had been trained not to think.
Quadrophasically speaking, I was trying a double structural change, the Earth and Wind cycles simultaneously. I was moving from a low-structured chaotic values-state to a high-structured imposed-structural state, using my three rules (see above). At the same time, I was also moving from the high-structured stagnant state of the bookwork-based classroom to the deconstructed low-structure state of high student interaction. A double-loaded change such as this can be difficult, but it has a natural balance, and can be very powerful.
I was convinced that my students had brains and initiative to spare. My worry was that I would be unprepared to respond if I ever uncovered it!
Stay tuned... I'll try to add an entry at least once each week.
Entry Number Three: April 29, 2001Sorry this entry is so tardy.
A lot has gone on in the last few months. Many of of my students have made remarkable progress, particularly in mathematics. The key was to streamline the curriculum, and individualize instruction to the level of the individual student. Five of my students have gone from working on division to mastering squares, square roots, fractions and decimals.
I was pleased and surprised to find that I've acquired a reputation as an excellent teacher among my peers. I think this supports my methods and theories. I'm clearly one of the less-experienced teachers. I'm also not the hardest-working, the most dedicated teacher or the enthusiastic teacher. Mainly of the long-term teachers here are practically saintlike in their devotion to their students --an attitude I can admire but not emulate. So my only advantage must stem from my methods.
I think I've managed to demonstrate some important things in these few months:
The big change I've made this quarter is I've decided to drop two of my subjects (science and history) and do double periods of math and English. Although science and history are important, the students skills are too low-level to allow them to gain much from studying them. Most students are in special education because of problems in English and math.
So far it seems like a good decision. Ninety percent of my morning class is doing math at the level of advanced subtraction, so there is clearly room for improvement there. On the other hand, the afternoon class seems to have a real affinity for poetry, so that has been fun.
Final Notes: March 22, 2007In the end, working in that classroom was a valuable but disillusioning experience. I found that my students had a tremendous capacity to learn at a much higher level than expectations, but that it hardly mattered --no one was going to view them any differently, or treat them any better. Towards the end of the year I successfully moved several students up to "higher" classrooms, only to find that the new classrooms were doing less-advanced work. One of my brightest students worked extremely hard to escape the special education environment, and then promptly joined a gang as soon as he had left the "special ed" stigma behind.
I think the worst thing I heard was from a fellow special education teacher, who actually said: "You don't want your kids to do too well; you'll put yourself out of a job!"
I soon saw that everyone had an agenda in keeping the kids where they were. Both the school and the children's parents received subsidies and extra services because of the children's special-education status. And even some of the teachers who truly had the children's best interests at heart seemed to have an emotional investment in viewing the students as more helpless and child-like than they really were.
I also saw first-hand how strong the pull of the system is. One of my biggest regrets relates to when I did end-of-the-year recommendations. I recommended the majority of my students for higher level classrooms, and some to stay where they were. But I recommended one student to be moved back down to the lowest classroom --for those with severe mental retardation.
Academically, the student wasn't with his classmates, but he he was personable and clearly able to socially function well above those in the lowest level. There was nothing for him in the other class, and he was happy where he was. So why did I recommend he be moved back down? At the time, it seemed important that I move someone down in order to legitimate my recommendations for the other students. Ridiculous, of course, but it was so easy a thought by that point in the year...
© 2001-2007 Christopher Sunami.