Sunday, January 02, 2005

Ghettoizing the rebels

As a secondary substitute teacher, I have had the opportunity to spend time in four different school districts. I'm amazed by kids in general and teachers in general. There is a lot of creativity and intelligence out there, which I find encouraging. However, in some places I find a bit of an undercurrent which I can't quite think of a word or phrase to describe, and it alarms me.
I was subbing in one particular suburban school district (in which I have been employed in the past as an adult education teacher and a summer school teacher, in addition to some contact with its alternative high school). During the plan period of the teacher I was subbing for, I was asked to go assist a teacher in another classroom. I was informed that it was a classroom for kids with mild "special needs." (That particular phrase, along with "high-risk students" is one that could use some re-thinking.)
It soon became apparent to me that this was an "attitude adjustment" class. As I looked at the way kids were dressed, and their comportment, I felt that they probably were not "fitting in" quite right with this formerly rural, increasingly suburban, McMansion- sprouting community. I listened to one young lady read aloud from an article about using language that helps us take personal responsibility for our reactions ("I felt angry" as opposed to "It made me mad.") Really, I support this kind of thing, but as I listened her reading fluently and expressively, I wondered how she ended up in this class.
A little later, we watched two videos about people who began work at entry level jobs (the first at Six Flags and the second one at a commercial bakery) and ended up having satisfying jobs in management. (Yeah, life works that way in general, I thought.) Having taught a Career Exploration class in Adult Ed and having shown such videos myself, it wasn't really so much the videos themselves that bothered me. Somebody has to manage Six Flags and the bakery, and I sincerely believe there is pride in all work. I love patronizing any business where things go smoothly and employees are well-trained and fairly compensated. (Full disclosure:I also patronize businesses where that does not happen, something I might want to work on.)
Then there was a follow-up essay to the article, in which the kids had to personalize the strategies suggested. The girl who had impressed me earlier said, "I really hate that Mrs. X (the absent teacher) keeps giving us these assignments where we have to change our attitude. I like my bad attitude! I like my good attitude!" I wanted to scoop her up and take her off to an art or music or writing class.
I don't want to be unfair. Having worked in several situations with difficult students, I understand they can be disruptive to everyone and just a pain in the ass in general. However, some of them are extremely creative and funnier than hell (My particular favorite was a summer school student who made a pop-up, pull-out book in response to "The Miller's Tale", which I kept and was advised not to show to anybody) and ask questions that deserve to be asked. Should we really be "socializing" everybody? This particular school district seems to do an especially efficient job of ghettoizing the rebels, and I don't think that's good for either the students with a tendency to conform or the ones who are inclined to challenge everything.

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