Sunday, April 24, 2011

The "Hold-Overs": Suspended in Time

This post is dedicated solely to my "hold-overs". My sixth-should-be-seventh graders. I believe some of them may even be sixth-should-be-eighth graders. They are, in no particular order: Sashaya, Ray, Steve, Andrew, Rielle, Kara, and James. The "veteran" eight in this class of thirty. So, you may think to ask, how does this happen? We thought no children were "left behind"?! This post will describe the educational experiences of one of these children, Sashaya. I'd love to write about them all tonight, but my fingers might fall off from typing so much.

I have a true teacherly affection for Sashaya. She's not one of those girly-girls, more of a tomboy. She wears baggy cargo pants, no makeup, no big earrings or piercings. It's evident that her family doesn't have much in the way of finances, she wears the same two or three shirts, doesn't have a cell phone, and is entitled to free lunch. She has long bangs that hang down her face, hiding beautiful, dark-brown eyes. I often fight the urge to push her hair away from her eyes, and I wonder how those bangs don't tickle her cheeks and eyes. Her hair is always a mess. She has a loud, boisterous personality, speaks her mind honestly, and asks profound questions at random times. She's funny, dramatic, intelligent, and I will never forget her.
Well...this is how repeating grades works. State tests, mainly. The kids are made to think that if their math or English teacher fails them, that would be the cause of the delay in their educational career. But really, it's all about the state tests, of course. I mean, why take my word for it? If a student of mine is failing my class by not producing any work or flunking the tests and quizzes I (or the ELA department) create, one would think that I would be involved in the process of deciding if they should repeat the sixth grade. That would just make way too much sense. Instead, this life-altering decision (and repeating a year IS really life-altering for students) is based on their math and ELA scores.

So, here is Sashaya's story. Last year, when I was not her teacher, she passed the ELA exam. Not with flying colors, mind you, but enough to "show" that she is barely "proficient" in the subject. Although she was reading below grade level, she managed to get a 2 (out of 4).  She fails the math exam. Miserably. So, they send her to summer school for math. She takes the math exam AGAIN in August, and fails it again, therefore causing her to repeat the entire year for sixth grade: math, ELA, social studies, and science. She may not have failed anything but math, however.

This means that Sashaya COULD and SHOULD be learning seventh-grade material in every subject BUT math, but I suppose it's just easier for the system to waste her time. I think this is a completely asinine way to try to improve a students' performance, but I saw in Sashaya what the administration did not see: a student who really wants to learn, who really struggles in math, and who, after years and years of rigorous standardized testing (Sash is not a good test taker, she freezes up) has completely lost her drive and confidence as a learner.

I began the year with Sashaya by assessing her reading level with a running record (please see previous post for definition) and wound up discussing her reading abilities. She "tested" at a high fourth-grade level.

Sash:  "The words just swim around on the page. I hate reading, I can't focus. I read and read and don't understand any of it."
Me: "Well, what are you reading? Does it interest you?"
Sash: "No, it's totally boring."
Me: "Well, let me help you find a more engaging text first. then we need to figure out how to keep you focused. What else may be causing you to be distracted while you read?"
Sash: "I have lots of trouble sitting still. It's really hard for me."
Me: "Ok, well, during independent reading time, you may get up and stretch, or take a short walk around the room."

What was crucial for Sashaya was for her to realize on her own what was preventing her from focusing. Now, when she takes a reading test in my classroom, I allow her to stand at the back table while she takes the test, She can choose to stand, crouch, kneel, sit in a chair, sit on the floor if she pleases. having the ability to move freely actually helps her focus. Although this is far from the case for many students, it's what works for her. The problem is, during the state test, the ones that dictate if she will repeat the grade yet again, the one that "measures" my teaching ability, she has to sit still at her desk, two days in a row, for waaaay too long. Hours.

In December, I had another reading conference with her. We are now in the nonficiton unit, where I am to teach kids test-prep: basically how to understand a text based on the details presented, and the careful analysis of the relevance of said details as it relates only to that text.

She was clutching a book called Chew on This (sorry, author slips my mind). This is a book (I believe it's 6th or 7th grade level)  that explores what is REALLY in food, especially fast food.

Me: So, how's this book going for you? What have you learned?
Sash: "The chickens!!! I can't BELIEVE what they do to the poor CHICKENS!! Mrs G, I gotta tell you, I'm never, ever eating at McDonalds AGAIN!!" Her face is twisted with rage.
Me: I'm trying to hide my amusement, because the last thing I expected Sash to become passionate about was chickens. She does not like animals, unless it is a cute furry kitten or something. She's really skittish. "What do you mean, Sash? What happens to the chickens? Why are you so upset?"
Sash: "OMG. They keep 'em in tiny cages so they can't grow. They keep baby chicks away from their mommies. They chop their heads off and the chickens can still FEEL THE PAIN afterwards and they run around without their heads. Then they grind up their bones and cartilage and everything...and that goes into the CHICKEN NUGGETS they have at McDonalds. That is so so so sooooo gross and I am never eating them again. Those poor chickens!" She is close to tears.
Me: "Ooooh, now I see why you didn't have to get up while reading. You were really engaged. You know, some people choose not to eat meat for that very reason. Apparently, this book has helped you form a strong opinion on animal and consumer rights in this country."
Sash: "The author is trying to tell us what is really in food, so we can make healthy choices."

I won't go on with the rest of that conversation, but my point is, in a few short months, my student realized there was a very profound purpose to reading. Reading to learn facts about life that helps us shape our own choices and convictions. She was able to conclude by gathering facts and details that the Fast Food industry is feeding her complete crap and has now made a conscious decision, at thirteen, not to buy into it. Now, THAT'S learning. You would never see this type of text, a RELEVANT text, on the state test.

Sashaya's reading and writing abilities have improved dramatically this year. I do not care what any state test will say, because it is not a fair or accurate measure of her hard work or ability to comprehend a text.  I am not her math teacher. I can't be sure if she will pass the sixth grade this year, but what I can do is try and fight for her to be in an appropriately challenging, seventh-grade ELA class next year. I do not feel there is any need to hold her back any more. This year, she has grown socially because she is a leader in my class (being one of the oldest girls, and probably the most outspoken when it comes to her convictions) emotionally (she now expresses her personal suffering through poetry) and academically (she is self-aware as a learner). but then again, who am I to assess, to make decisions? Oh, I'm just her teacher. What do I know?

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