I'm in first period with M/J Intensive Language Arts students. These are 6th graders who actually- surprisingly- have a lot being asked of them. They are working now either on computers or on definition worksheets, and all seven are engaged in something, even if it's onscreen being an alien rollerskating through colored beams in outer space.
All of these kids are wearing Nikes. All of them are Hispanic, which means that all of them are bilingual. All the boys have neat, close-cropped hair. I think about Juan, a seventh grade student at a different middle school, who learned old-fashioned, step-by-step multiplication in Puerto Rico, and then came here and has learned little but confusing maths and not much else. A bright kid who should be in 9th grade next year, but has been held back because his behavior makes teachers think he isn't learning. He's already learned all of this- in Puerto Rico- better than we do it here!
What is going on with education in this country? It's crazymaking, and we should be wildly humiliated that we are passing kids with D's who really can't answer basic questions about the subject matter. For some reason, in this- the "worst" middle school in my county- I'm sitting here with a tiny class whose teacher is actually teaching them things that will make their lives richer. They are putting two and two together about theme, tone, author's point of view, editorial writing. They are working.
Contrast this with the middle school I was at last week. The eighth graders were all on their end-of-year field trip, but some were still at school, so the math class I was subbing for one period had a handful of students in it with nothing to do. I looked in the workbook, found what they were working on, and assigned a page of work. "You can't go wrong brushing up your math for a few minutes everyday, I promise," I told them. They got to work. For some reason, the class next door sounded like it was populated by zoo animals who hadn't yet been fed today. I realized there must be no teacher next door, and held open my classroom door with my foot while opening the door to the wildebeests. There was a teacher behind the desk. There were two boys trying to slam each other into a metal cabinet. There was music blaring from several phones. There was mayhem. "Excuse me, are you a sub?" I called in. "You know you can assign them some work to do even if no instructions were left for you?" "Oh, I'm the long-term sub in this class," he responded, "Half the class is missing today, so..." More slamming of cabinets, yelling, music. "Yeah, most of my class is on the field trip, also, but it's still a school day. Kids- be quiet. Sit down. Use your phones quietly. My students are working." This guy is getting paid more than I do (as a long-term sub, you earn more each day) to do less. When I re-enter my classroom, the students say, "It's always like that in there." I can't believe it. They are working so diligently, they all deserve Apple gift cards.
When I go to the office to sign out that afternoon, I tell one of the secretaries I'd like to report a sub who wasn't doing his job. She grabs an assistant principal. "Room 152..." I start. "Oh, yes. Long-term sub," she says quickly. "We've had problems with him." And that's it. Nothing else. Nothing will be done about him. The kids won't learn for the rest of the year, and the teacher next door and his students will suffer obnoxious neighbors. But in the county's "worst" middle school, seven students will come out of language arts with some skills and faith in their ability to understand an article or a book. And so it goes.