Monday, November 3, 2014

Culture shock in the classroom

By now, everyone is familiar with the changes that have occurred in New Orleans in the last almost nine years. From Hurricane Katrina to a Superbowl win to several TV shows in our honor, the American citizen has developed an idea of what New Orleans is. However, it is a very different story once you are actually in the city.

Despite the romanticized view of this city that most of America has, it is a troubled and complex mangle of culture. When I started this blog my intention was to have a place where teachers new to New Orleans would have some resources for the classroom as well as support in teaching our uniquely demented children. There is a fairly large number of teachers who move to this city and for them, and anyone who has not lived here a while and learned what makes our culture exactly what it is, your experience with these children and their families is often a huge shock. For the young, new teachers this can be an absolute brick wall that divides them from their kids and makes teaching in these classrooms almost impossible.

With that, I have been thinking about some things to know that might help the onset of culture shock.

1. Set rules and expectations and never bend or break them.
Many children come from homes and families where there are few explicit rules and families often give in and bend them if there's enough whining, complaining or fighting about it, and worse, many teachers will be manipulated to bend as well. Students often end up feeling like their teachers aren't fair, are biased, or don't like them if they aren't able to get the rules broken. There's some saying that goes "children crave structure" and it's true. I have read many times that a classroom shouldn't have more than six or seven rules and that makes them easier for the teacher to manage. I have nine, which includes "do your best" (you'd be surprised how, when kids aren't working and wonder why they receive a consequence, saying "you weren't doing your best" is actually an adequate answer). There are also designated bathroom/pass times for every freshman classroom to avoid kids leaving the room during crucial teaching time. With that, kids always know what their teacher expects in the classroom. There will always be someone who will try to bend or break the rules but students truly know what is "fair", and often the students keep each other in check. My favorite is when someone asks to go to the bathroom outside of bathroom time (you may go in the first twenty minutes or last twenty minutes) and before I can even say "no", another student plainly replies ,"20/20 rule, man".

If a rule has to be bent or broken, make it explicitly known that the situation is an emergency or exception. This helps the children continue to feel like they are being treated fairly.

2. Behavior management is tricky.
Unless you are the kind of person who is able to be stone-faced and does not tell jokes to your students or have much of a personal relationship with them, even the best behavior management systems get tricky. A lot of students do not respond to consequences right away; some even do not respond until or unless you are yelling. A lot of parents give their child a direction but don't enforce it right away, then become annoyed and yell and/or whip the child and that's when the child knows where the limit is. If you are or plan to be particularly open with them, they may not take you, your rules or your consequences seriously. A visual behavior tracking system helps because they can see exactly how close to the "limit" they are.

3. Fights are normal.
Fights are normal if not expected. They are not an expellable offense even if the school says so in writing. Parents raise children to hit back if they have been hit and to stand up for themselves if they have been wronged. Parents often fight when they face conflict. Some of my former colleagues once discussed all the fights that they'd been in from childhood to adulthood. I was the only one who hadn't any fights, even with siblings. I always have to be the exception. Even at my current school, which is supposed to be "a cut above the rest", parents have fights at football games and even come to the school ready to fight teachers. Fights are normal. Fights start when a piece of paper is thrown in play. Fights break out across campuses. Fights create chaos where mobs of students run to watch.
If a fight breaks out or is about to break out in your room, do your best to separate the students and call for help. Document as much as you can.

4. Respect is a truly subjective word.
Or rather, disrespect happens often and easily. Also, cursing in the presence of an adult is not considered disrespectful if the student is not cursing AT the adult.
A lot of behaviors are overlooked because children are not shown what respect and having good manners is. Most of the students at school say "please" and "thank you" and "God bless you" but don't see arguing with an adult as disrespect. Defining respect in your classroom is a must.

5. The children behave like and may think they are helpless but shouldn't be treated like they are.
Many teachers truly have the best intentions when it comes to their students and just want them to be successful and feel good about themselves. However, teachers may often be tempted to "help" their students too much. Many of the children of New Orleans are being raised in an environment of helplessness; they often believe that all Black people get food stamps and rightfully so; our poor job market leaves many people with few options for growth and citizens feel helpless to be successful and most of all, our streets are truly deadly for our teens in ways that no one can help. They walk into the classroom already defeated and need their teachers' help to show them exactly how to become independent and strong.
The lines become blurred with curriculum. If every teacher is teaching directly with an "I do, we do, you do" structure and adheres to the "you do" part, children will be less helpless. Many of our schools use centers for independent work but teachers are still present and assist; the students become persistent at getting teachers to give them answers, whether explicitly or through getting teachers to explain every angle of the problem until all that is left is the answer.
My very best freshman will still sit frozen in fear of getting an answer wrong because their previous teachers have "helped" them get the right answer before turning the assignment in. If the material has been explicitly taught and practiced, they should be able to do the work on their own. If the majority can not, ask the students what steps they missed and see how the lesson can be adjusted. Giving kids an answer never helps them.

6. Kids need honesty.
New Orleans' public schools are some of the worst in the state-a state which ranks as 48th in the nation. Our kids want to be and should be as successful as any other child but don't know how far they have to go or what they have to do to get there. Patting the children on the back for everything gives them a false sense of ability. It's a delicate bubble that will be burst at some point. We want our children to get better, so just like we do as adults, we should show them how to find their weaknesses and improve them rather than treating them like they have none.

It is also beneficial to teach them how to accept feedback. They exist in a world of negativity and exclusion and it would benefit them to learn that everyone who is honest with them is not being malicious.

7. Parent involvement is unpredictable.
Even the most well-intentioned parents have complex lives that can hinder their involvement. Many others don't know how important their involvement is. Phone numbers and addresses change very often. Parents may go on field trips and to spring cookouts but not to conferences.A plan for what to do if you can't have parent support is good, but don't let the difficulty of getting in contact stop you. For most kids, knowing that you will talk to their parent will alter their behavior.

8. Parents' priorities are often out of whack.
Kids often come to school without bookbags let alone classroom supplies. Girls are donned with $100 Brazilian weave but don't have a week's worth of clean uniforms. Parents may decide that an assignment you give is stupid and not make their child do it. They value sports over education despite how often they will tell their child that their education matters. Children miss countless days of school for no reason but may come to school with a fever months later. It is not a battle that truly can be fought, but awareness of it can help a teacher work around it.

9. Understand that their world view is nil.
Many children do not know the names of places on the other side of town. If they live on one side of the river they most likely don't cross to the other. Many do not know the name of our lake or the major colleges. Lessons should include a lot of context and background information and this is a great way to utilize nonfiction texts! They are very excited to learn these new things- even the older darlings.

10. Many schools do not have adequate special educators.
Classrooms are often filled to the legal capacity and many of the students may have IEPs, 504 accomodations or even be English language learners and the school may not have enough special education teachers or para-educators to help. Be proactive in getting help from special ed teachers and seeking resources that will help you differentiate for the high numbers of special need students.

11. Despite what the news may say about the success of the charter schools in New Orleans, the children are still about 3 grade levels behind.
Children in private schools and highly reputable public schools are still not reading and computing adequately and they and their parents don't know it.
However, you can't remediate everything. Careful choices have to be made about what skills to review/remediate, lessons need to include a lot of spiraled practice of key skills and support can be offered during tutoring time.

12. They are prejudiced.
Not always in a bad way. The younger children tend to find their White teachers novel and interesting and take a liking to them but older children carry some weird prejudices and stereotypes. The older students tend to set out to "run out" young, white teachers and mark them as weak and incapable. Sticking to the rules and not treating the students as if they are "poor, helpless Black kids" is very important as well as constantly offering examples of equality as well as breaking down stereotypes that students will stick blindly to.

13. They need love.
Most of the things the kids will say and do are because they are trying to get your attention. They want and need positive feedback, kind words, compliments and even hugs. Some of the most terribly behaved kids are simply acting that way because they want someone to love them.

I know a lot of these don't seem unique to this city as many of the situations are the same in other places, but the culminations of all of these things can create a very complex and difficult school environment.

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