The other day I found myself actually charting and tallying the activities of students in a 9th grade English classroom. This was at a large, neighborhood high school in North Philadelphia, and not surprisingly is one that is being taken over as a charter school next year. Here is what I found.
There were 2 students asleep, 3 sitting around one cell phone looking at music videos, 1 playing with a phone (this student had at least written something on his page before getting his phone out), 1 texting (after arriving 10 minutes late to class), 1 girl doing another girl's hair, 1 male student doodling on his worksheet, 1 male talking to 2 other male students about his new ("215") tattoo. This left 2 male students who were partially attempting to do the assignment...which by the way was to describe characters in the movie Troy, not write a 5 page essay or anything...and 5 female students sitting together in a group, who were all working on the assignment, and interacting with the English teacher to answer the questions.
This took place last week during PSSA testing, so this was actually 2 classes that were combined due to scheduling changes. This means two things....one, that there was also a second teacher in the room (plus me, which makes three) and these students still would not respond positively to the assignment with redirection from all of us...and two, that the 20 students that I mentioned above does not account for both combined classes, so many were absent or skipping.
I left this class feeling exhausted. I have told people, that oftentimes teaching feels like a never ending game of "Whack-a-Mole". You know, I run around and get one student to put their phone away and start working, then I move over to a different table to get them focused, but now another student is about to put their headphones back in....and on goes the game. In this particular case, at least there was other teachers in the room, so two of us could play "Whack-A-Mole" while the English teacher worked with the table of girls who were willing to participate.
I spoke with one of the teachers after class about the group of girls, and the two male students who were attempting to do some work. I said, "What about them? What can we do, so that this group who is involved in the lesson can be pushed and challenged?"
It breaks my heart to see the 2, or 3, or 5 students in any given classroom who come in, sit quietly amidst the chaos, stare at the front board, patiently waiting for class to begin. Many times these students wait for 10 minutes or more (after the late bell rings) before a teacher can gather everyone into the room, get everyone settled, and begin the lesson. So again, "What about them?" If those motivated students had back those 10 minutes of every period, that would be about an hour extra of learning per day. 5 hours a week...20 hours a month...wasted for these students who really care about their education.
I know that teachers don't want to ignore these students, and certainly do not want to leave them behind. It's really difficult though, almost impossible really, to pay attention to them when you have multiple students coming into the room singing and rapping with headphones in...a few in a loud conversation that involves completely inappropriate language that you need to correct...3 asking to go the bathroom...a fight in the hallway, some still strolling in late, etc.
I suppose it would be some form of tracking, but can't we take these students, and put them in classes together? I mean, really, the School District of Philadelphia has already "tracked" its students based on the way the high school application/acceptance procedure works. The students who remain at neighborhood schools are those who haven't been accepted anywhere else, are much more likely to have behavioral and learning issues, and are the most "at risk" students in the district. Let's at least take the small minority of students at these schools who come prepared to learn, and TEACH THEM!!
Right now we operate as correctional facilities first, and educational facilities second. The students have come to realize this, and know that their negative behaviors have changed the way the school must operate. This however is not at all fair to those who walk into the building expecting an education. All of our attention goes to the troublemakers, while there are some great young adults who are already behind their peers across the state and nation that we are leaving behind. "What about them?"