Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Gets Left Behind

It's been a year since I moved from an urban school in East San Jose to a suburban school in Mountain View. The advantages my new students have are absurd. Teacher stability. Safety. The sheer volume of resources we have available to students.1 Parent involvement. Being one of two public middle schools in the city instead of one of 30 or 40. My new students get to interact with a wonderfully diverse student population. One thing I like to brag about is how my school population so closely mirrors California as a whole.
All that is great. My current students get a very different experience in school than my former ones. I often wonder about what I could have done differently at my old school to at least partially replicate some of the advantages that my current students have. Could I have been more active in engaging parents? Tried to gather more community resources? Actively recruited teachers to my school? There are plenty of things I could have done differently and there are a few problems that I still can't even approach.

But you know what really makes the difference? The problem that I can't solve no matter how well I teach?

A year ago I'd tell my students, "If you want to succeed, you need to leave." Now I tell my students, "If you want to succeed, you need to stay."

I want to make it clear. I love the Eastside. Love it. I love the community. I love my students. I love the fierce sense of pride we all felt about being from the Eastside. But the hard truth was always that in order to get a quality higher education and then a decent paying career, you had to leave the neighborhood. You had to leave your friends. You had to leave your family. You have to leave you.

Sometimes in our race to get our children ahead, we don't stop to think about what we're asking them to leave behind.

Edit: The Science Goddess is thinking about similar issues.

1: We have art, band, choir, a library, a librarian, a school nurse, two computer labs, an iPad cart, a gym, after school tutoring with teachers, before school tutoring with community members, Read 180, English 3D, ST Math, Khan Academy, Destination Imagination, Lego Robotics, PAL boxing, speech and debate, field trips, two different student counseling services, a chess club, a counseling service for teachers, parent workshops, drama, and I'm sure there's plenty of stuff I don't know about all of which are no cost or low cost and all of which did not exist or only existed in a mostly theoretical sense at my old school. On the other hand, my old school had a police officer on duty. So there's that. 


  1. A few months ago, I was describing the way that many of my students respond to my demands for self-direction and critical thinking as if they were grieving for someone who died (denial, anger, etc.). A high-level administrator from my institution replied excitedly that they were grieving the death of their old self, which made room for the new self that would fulfill the promise of the 21st-century learner that our economy needs. I replied dismally, "that's exactly what I'm afraid of."

    Every time I hear a student talk about how their family and friends don't recognize the way they talk anymore, or think they're crazy or @#$%'ed when they describe what they're learning, I know that I've failed them in an important way. I've failed to find a way for them to stitch together what they're learning with what they knew before, and instead participated in the ideological gentrification that encourages them to look down on where they came from.

    I see the way they give up hope that where they came from can be reconciled with where they're going, the way they have to decide whether to let go (at least a bit) of the support that's available from their family and community. Michelle Tea's anthology tells that story (see especially Dorothy Allison's essay). And I really don't know what to do about it.

    1. consider "ideological gentrification" stolen.

      re: talk - A few years ago one of my students asked me why I "talk white" around the principal.

    2. re: talk -- Ouch.

      An idea that intrigues me (but that I don't know much about) is explicitly teaching situational code-switching. Does bilingual education or foreign language education have something to offer here?

      I was also really interested in David Labaree's book _The Trouble With Ed Schools_, especially because of his argument that education schools (and especially teachers' colleges and normal schools before them) are/were major vectors for helping people "get out."

      Want to start a book club?

  2. Jason, you said, "A year ago I'd tell my students, "If you want to succeed, you need to leave." Now I tell my students, "If you want to succeed, you need to stay."

    Have you read _Hollowing Out the Middle_ by Carr & Kefalas? While it is more geared towards rural America, some of the same themes arise about leavers, stayers and what our school system tells these students directly or indirectly. I think you'd enjoy reading it.

    1. re: Carr and Kefalas--I'm e-mailing you (Jason) a copy of an article that's a good summary of their book. I have issues with the book, but ultimately believe there's a huge amount of power in the messaging from the school (and larger community) about the acceptability of staying in a community/individual chances of leaving the community.

  3. Hey Jason,
    I just wanted to chime in that to me this feels important to be thinking and writing about. Thanks.

  4. "You have to leave you."

    THIS! So much of this. And all the problems that go along with it.

    1. I talked to a teacher who worked on a reservation like you did and she said that the community would disown students who left to go to college.

  5. I'm in a similar situation, but the big shift I'm seeing is this: before school was a key to success, the most beneficial place to be for my students. Now school is a place where students are asked to do stuff they don't care about unless it's a grade. And I went from being someone that helps you learn, to someone that makes you learn. I'm very unhappy with this transition.

  6. It seems like an almost impossible order for kids to complete. Especially in lower income areas the fabric of communal support becomes that much more important. It can seem like they are abandoning what they grew up with and everyone that supported them along the way.

    At the same time there is the phenomena of people graduating high school and still doing the same "stuff" five, ten years later. Its like telling someone to walk into the desert by themselves and there is most likely an oasis on the other side but they have to go alone and probably can't turn around and come back if they don't think they can make it. Its the danger of the familiar.