So, I switched school districts. I am very fortunate to work again with one of my best friends, who teaches 12th grade AP Literature and Composition, while I teach 11th grade AP Language and Composition and one section of World Literature. Admittedly, it is a big switch for me, as I previously taught 11th and 12th grade IB DP Language A, which focused mainly on literary (fiction) analysis, and now my focus is nonfiction.
All of this is background so that I can discuss a problem that has become frighteningly clear to me this year.
My overall observation: students that I teach (read: poor students) do not get the education they need in order to be successful in the real world. Additionally, their cultural literacy is significantly limited, and a lot of the time they lack the intellectual curiosity that makes other students successful. During my time, I have seen a general decline in their problem-solving skills, largely due to a three-step process that leaves them, in the end, helpless and seeking continual guidance and support.
Here's how this current frustration began:
I quit my old school and started at a new one. When I started, my friend (who also previously taught at the same school I came from) warned me that the students in this school are lower - they lack more skills - than the students in my previous school. I didn't believe her. The school I came from ranked near the bottom of all the schools in the state - how could any students be lower?
Then I started teaching here. I know all students in poverty have a range of deficits in learning, especially when it comes to language arts - fluency in reading and/or writing, comprehension vocabulary, critical thinking, etc. I know many students in poverty struggle with motivation, most often because they already feel defeated and have experienced the cycle of poverty their whole lives. What I struggle with understanding, though, is where they develop the condition known as "learned helplessness," and how I can help them break that cycle.
Learned helplessness is pretty simple to define, and is in fact defined everywhere: over time, a human - or even an animal - learns to act completely helpless, even if there is a chance for success or rewards. Usually the condition occurs when someone feels like they have no control over a situation.
So, enter my students. Part of their learned helplessness comes, of course, from growing up and living in poverty. However, I believe the majority of it comes from a new trend in education, which boils down to the sequence of "I do, We do, You do." In essence, the "instructional method" is a version of "gradual release of responsibility" that is a "tried and true" teaching method. Here's how it's supposed to work: the teacher gives examples (or models how to do something); students practice it together; then, after a check-in to make sure everyone understands, the students move on to independent practice. Done (with, of course, some opportunities for re-teaching). Does this model work for every teaching situation? No, not really. However, is it generally successful in education? For the most part.
So what's the problem? Because the method has been used so often for students in poverty, they've come to rely so heavily on the sequence that when a teacher (like myself) reaches the "I do" portion of the lesson, the students exhibit learned helplessness.
Now, I'm a reflective teacher. The first time this happened in this new school, I thought, "What did I do wrong?!" and proceeded to re-teach the concept in question to ensure my students had grasped it. During the "I do" portion, as I modeled thinking about a poem ("Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou and "Digging" by Seamus Heaney are some recent examples of modeled texts if you were curious), I involved the students, and they gave me all of the "right" answers (it is literature after all) regarding inferences, literary terms, comprehension, etc. Great! They get it! Moving on!
But then we moved on to the "We do," when students would practice with another poem in their groups (I should clarify that this method relies heavily on group work so that students with language deficiencies have the opportunity to learn language proficiency from each other as they gain access to and also learn the curriculum). And...they fell apart. Though they had demonstrated during modeling, when I "thought aloud" and asked myself questions about the text, that they could in fact respond to my questions about the text, once I was no longer leading the group, they could not effectively answer questions.
And so...there I was again, asking myself "WHAT did I do wrong?!?!" So because I am a reflective teacher and I desperately want to help my students learn, I asked my friend and co-worker for advice and guidance.
Her response? That's what they've been taught to do. Over the years in this school, they have learned that if they do that, teachers will give them more time, and more help, and more time, and more help - to the point where, if they wait out the teacher for long enough, they will help them through every step of completing something.
Great, so it's not me. But here is the problem: I am responsible for the growth of these students. I have to make sure they achieve certain objectives throughout the year, including achieving proficiency on the ACT. Also, I have to (attempt to) transition them to the Common Core standards which, despite the fact that they are so nebulous and inherently flawed, include assessments which are so far above these students' level of competency it's frightening.
So. Whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the instructional method? Is it the fault of poverty? Is it the fault of the teacher for not holding the students to higher standards? Really it could be any of those options, or a number of other options, or a combination of so many things it makes my head spin.
No matter whose fault it is, the problem exists, and it's real, and it needs to be solved. Obviously I cannot solve it by myself (though as a teacher who is also a perfectionist I of course view their failure as my own), and of course I will do my part to help these students achieve proficiency, no matter how many times I have to remind them, as I did yesterday:
"Learning doesn't happen easily. It happens when you struggle. I cannot help you every step of the way, because then I'm just actually doing you a disservice. You need to know that it's okay not to know everything, but it's not okay not to try. I am here to support you, and to help you, and to lead you to knowledge and the ability to understand things. You, though, have to be the ones to reach for that knowledge and take it. I can't do that for you."