Friday, April 30, 2010

The Challenges of Raising and Teaching Middle School Age Children - Part 2

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When I hear the public and political cry for educational reform I wonder if those voices are aware of the effect family and society have on children and their education. There are some problems children have in school that can not be repaired by a change in curriculum, teachers, or adding more funding to schools. The basic needs of many children are not being met at home and these children can not separate their home life from an academic focus. Those who are resilient have a chance for success, but those without an intrinsic motivation to succeed have not the strength to move forward. The nurture, love, and security that all children need to thrive is missing from many homes.

I teach in California. One of my students, I will call him James, has a mother who lives five cities away from the school where her only son attends. She and her husband are recently divorced. James' father now lives on the east coast. James lives within my school district with his elderly grandmother. He is failing in all his classes and has a tendency to bully other children. He is capable of doing the academic work and his scores from his previous school year show this ability. However, after I had a conversation with James he became very sad when I asked him if he wished to live with his mother. James does not understand why he does not live with her. He loves his grandmother, but her English is limited, she does not involve herself with his education, allowing him to play video games instead of studying or completing homework, and will not let him go outside. He has no friends in his neighborhood.

A conference with James' mother left me wondering if she cared for her son at all. Apparently, she has a boyfriend who lives in the house she acquired from the divorce and I can not help but believe that James would interfere with her "new" life. She said she sees her son every weekend, but according to him that is not true. So this boy continues to fail in school perhaps because he has a mother who does not want him and he knows this. I am not using the real names of any of the children in my class or the classes of other teachers in my examples, but the events are true.

Peter's father died in Iraq. He tries not to think about it, but the sadness is visible in his eyes. Getting passing grades can not assuage the pain he feels for the loss of his dad. He tries his best in school, but struggles emotionally. Linda has gang members in her family. She does not want to appear too smart in front of them because it is not cool. Her low grades do not represent her ability, but for her, family's acceptance is more important than school. She also does not want to speak against gangs because she will be a ostracized. So fitting in means more than academic success.

Sexual activity that I recall happening in my high school in the 1970's now occurs in much lower grade levels. Two fifth grade boys were caught looking at pornographic pictures and videos on their cell phones. One third grade boy wrote a note to another boy in the classroom asking him if he wanted to "f---" one of the girls in the class. The technology age has been a blessing and a curse. Students in high school listen to music from ipods, text messages to their friends, videotape teachers and classmates all during classroom instruction, then videotape fights outside. Twelve year old Miriam and Debra go into the school bathroom at lunch time and take cell phone pictures of their breasts to send to friends. Their minds are not on school work.

The current economy has also affected school performance for young people. In Santa Clara County, SIlicon Valley, about 20,000 people are homeless. About 25 percent of those are children under 18 years old. Children know when their parents are stressed and worried. In a National Educators Association (NEA) article titled "The Recession Hits Home--And then the Classroom" by Mary Ellen Flannery, she writes that according to Tripp Jeffers, president of North Carolina's Forsyth County Association of Educators,

"We have always known that socio-economic status and changes in socio-economics affect students and their ability to be successful in the classroom."

Children can be devastated when their parents lose jobs and families lose homes making it difficult to impossible for them to stay focused on their academic success. In the same aforementioned article, The National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that 15 percent of children whose families have lost their homes will possibly end up repeating a grade.

Philip's father is physically abusing his mother. Mother and son moved out of the home to a shelter for safety. This could be why Philip lashes out verbally and physically at other students without provocation from others. He also cries easily when he is upset. He has failing grades in all his classes because school is not that important to him right now.

Some parents do not realize that every day a child misses school is a day of learning that is difficult to recover. Lessons in class are built one upon another. When Allan's mother died a few years ago, he is twelve now, he had to live with his uncle. He is failing in all his classes. He loves having fun and playing at school and does not want to work too hard for good grades. He misses more assignments than he completes because he has missed many days of school. His uncle took him to visit family in another state during Christmas vacation. We had a two week break, but he was gone for a month. In early February, he was in the Philippines for one and one half weeks for a funeral. No one from his family lets the school know he will be gone nor do they get his school work to take with him nor to complete when he returns. Allan does not even ask for the work. Now the school year is half over and he is falling farther and farther behind his classmates. He knows this and is giving up. Yet, he is still absent at least two days a week.

There are so many examples I could give you of children who are in challenging situations at home or who want instant gratification rather than working towards a successful end. This is happening everywhere. I've read blogs from teachers across the United States and in the United Kingdom who are facing the same challenges. No one wants to talk about the responsibility of parents, students, and society in this educational reform. Teachers can not fix all the problems students bring into the classroom. More testing, more money, merit pay for teachers, or variations in curriculum will not change students. Ten years of law enforcement and twelve years of teaching have shown me that there needs to be a change that starts at home. From there society must take responsibility for the events that challenge our children.


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