Skip to main content

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."

Originally posted to Shakespeares Sister on Fri Nov 08, 2013 at 06:05 AM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  "Learned helplessness" for the teachers, too (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shakespeares Sister, weck

    I also have seen what you describe. Students are only interested in getting the right answer, not in the process of figuring it out. If they hold out long enough, the teacher will (inadvertently or on purpose) give it to them because she is locked into a system that does not forgive lost time.  As a substitute, I often helped kids get the right answer because I told them it was important to me that they accomplish something while I was there with them. A decent grade on a paper is worthwhile, I thought.

    Did I do wrong?

    Is the problem inherent in the cultural mindset that teachers are completely responsible in making up the differences that poverty imposes? And that they're expected to do more, with less money, and more students that need that extra help?

    Courtesy is owed. Respect is earned. Love is given. (Unknown author, found in Guide to Texas Etiquette by Kinky Friedman)

    by marykmusic on Thu Nov 07, 2013 at 07:21:40 AM PST

    •  teachers are taught in education curriculums (7+ / 0-)

      to not understand how to teach children, because the syllabi and the curricula and the methodology and the venerated notions of educational theory currently in vogue are all-important in those programs.

      Children need certain things.

      Break time is one -- recess another, nutrition a third.

      Access is one. We want them to have an iPad in school even if at home they can't even get a ride to the nearest library with aged PCs.
      So there's that additional handicap they must overcome, and not having known a world where we couldn't get to the library (or the Internet), we can't imagine how assuming that access exists adds to the load of inaccessibility these kids carry.

      Security is often seen as something schools should give kids.
      These kids have become secure in a habit: hide and watch. Wait and see. Don't volunteer.

      That's reflective of the whole nation now.

      But the fix for it, with these kids, might be to try a different teaching method. Instead of having the kids, who have the deficits, work together, provide access to what they're lacking. Can it cost money?
      Sure. Should it? Maybe not -- can the kids visit a public library, or spend time in the school library? Can the "group work" be shifted to individual assignments that are then shared / discussed with the group? Can the kids assess that they need to be responsible for their own achievements? Is there a way to make them proud of succeeding in the classroom, the same way we make them proud of succeeding on the sports field?

      LBJ, Van Cliburn, Ike, Wendy Davis, Lady Bird, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins, Sully Sullenburger, Drew Brees: Texas is NO Bush League!

      by BlackSheep1 on Thu Nov 07, 2013 at 12:37:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I have only recently come to the classroom. (7+ / 0-)

        Most of my teaching, all my life, has been free-lance.  But because of my very recent degrees, especially my M.Ed., I can speak of what today's new teachers are taught about teaching.

        Very progressive curriculum. Required courses in multiculturalism, classroom technology (love those Prometheans!), lessons in inclusion also.  I was quite disappointed that my college didn't require every future teacher to take at least an Intro to Special Ed class, because just touching on it for a few lessons doesn't prepare a teacher for the number of potentially disruptive and struggling students that will be in every class.  

        The most eye-opening fact for me was, because these were grad-level classes, almost all my classmates were already teaching and had been for some time. They needed that Masters in order to remain competitive.  Each time I saw a real breakthrough happen, that teacher would come back later to say that her new innovation wouldn't fly by the principal, or district policy, or whatever reason.

        My point?  We are taught to teach well.  Then we are discouraged from doing it.

        MaryK Croft, M.A. (Prescott College 2008), M.S., M.Ed. (Texas A&M Commerce 2010, 2012)

        Courtesy is owed. Respect is earned. Love is given. (Unknown author, found in Guide to Texas Etiquette by Kinky Friedman)

        by marykmusic on Thu Nov 07, 2013 at 03:19:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Money (0+ / 0-)

        is a key to a lot of this - and it's a shame that Amendment 66 did not pass in Colorado so that could start to put some money back into the school system. Art, music, theater, those aspects of humanities education are all still important to students learning, and educating the "whole" child, which, as you mentioned, is addressing what students really need. They are real people "in training," as it were, and need to be developed and treated as such.

        "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." - Joseph Brodsky

        by Shakespeares Sister on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 10:10:53 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Although I was a Mostly A's and B's (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kurt, Shakespeares Sister

      student. When I think back I never really understood a thing about what I was learning.

      English literature and History were my best subjects and I could read and comprehend at an adult level, definitely by the fourth or fifth grade. Still; it was all, pretty much a daze to me. (school daze).

      I could never do math (still can't) past fractions. Seems I'm math dyslexic.

      They switched me from born left handedness to right hand in Kindergarten. I was already 6 1/2 years old, and it screwed something up.

      I'm sixty three. Went all through public schools grades 3 through high school.

      We didn't have interactive classrooms when I was a child back in the fifties and sixties. The Teacher would talk but never gave input or help. Just said "do it or else"!

      I went to what was called a "Progressive School". Whatever that means.

      All I ever remember learning was about America's Revolutionary War. George Washington, Valley Forge (visited on a school field trip). Blizzard snow, no boots, his men had to walk around with their feet wrapped in cloth rags, frost bite, no food, no heat.

      The Revolutionary War is so often romanticized.

      Paul Revere, The Boston Tea Party, etc. Like it was always summer and fun. ie Patrick Henry "Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death"! Sounds glamorous doesn't it?

      Then; they wondered why, my generation grew up to be Revolutionaries.

      Anyway, I have some great links for Teachers and school age children of all ages.

      Anna and the Animals

      African American Heroes

      Here's a good poem and it's easy to discuss and understand. Especially for poor inner city kids.


      Out of the night that covers me,
      Dark as the pit from pole to pole,
      I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
      In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
      Under the bludgeoning's of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
      And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
      It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
      I am the master of my fate:
      I am the captain of my soul.
      By William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

      It seems to me that interaction between Teacher and Students is a good thing.

      It clears away any uncertainties about a subject that a student might have.

      Answers questions and makes students think when they have to speak out loud in a discussion.

      IMO, a Teacher cannot help too much. That's what the kids are in school for, to learn.

      If they knew all the answers and could figure it out on their own, they could be Teachers.

      Modeling the Teacher, is also a learning experience. We all learn by example.

      I love learning but I never liked school. It was too early in the morning for me.

      Then I went to College. On my time schedule. Here I had Teachers who interacted (not just lectured) with me and the class. It was so different. How to Apply for Financial Aid and Scholarships

      Teaching is a hard job. Students have personal problems that impede their learning too. Hunger, poverty, so many things.

      I would teach things that interest them and that could help them. This they will notice.

      With the proper discussion, any topic can also help to be a life helping lesson.

      Teach kids what they like and they will learn.

      Here's more good links for Teachers and Everyone.
      ♥Free Toys From Marines Toys For Tots And ♥ How To Promote Your Non-Profit Event

      Brought To You By That Crazed Sociologist/Media Fanatic rebel ga Be The Change You Want To See In The World! Gandhi

      by rebel ga on Fri Nov 08, 2013 at 07:02:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I think (0+ / 0-)

      there is truth to what you say - that "teachers are completely responsible [for] making up the differences that poverty imposes." I know this because I see it every day. my students have always had learning deficits, and I have had to work harder than the teacher of the "average suburban student" to get them to achieve proficiency, let alone get them to a point where they could pass the DP Examination, and now the AP exam.

      Thanks for your comment.

      "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." - Joseph Brodsky

      by Shakespeares Sister on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 10:09:03 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Go back to the beginning with them; there is still (3+ / 0-)

    enough time in the year.  Shorten the lesson.  Model finding the Title (only).  Then the Author (only).  Then something technical they cannot miss, like number of verses or sentences.

    You must wait out the helplessness on the too easy to be believed questions, then when everyone gets that they have to do by themselves, and they complete in an appropriate amount of time, you can up the ante.  Perhaps by finding a rhyming sequence. Show them again what you expect, make them succeed in spite of themselves.  This will go faster than you think, and they will begin to believe that the are internally capable.  (Maybe a little less group work; they might be reinforcing each other's L.H.)

    I worked with Alternative HS GED students for many years, so my situation was slightly different,  students who "did" improved their practice test scores and were allowed to test out and leave school.  They did the modeling for me.  Every student's goal was to get out of school ASAP.  

    Some years we went as far back as phonics, most years we analyzed sentence and paragraph structure. After that we practiced building a five paragraph opinion essay within a time limit. GED is, after all, primarily a reading test, with an essay and some math tagged on.  Re-teaching reading is fast, and was worth the effort since it applied to everything they had do understand, including directions.

    I admire your strength and effort!  Good luck to you this year.  I don't know if you are allowed to do this, but there were times that I handed out $1.00 bills when a milestone was accomplished.  Some classes of 16-21 year olds would work for stickers!  Better than candy, but I have done that too.  

    By the end of the year, it should turn into good grades as a reward. Try to train them to learn; they can always take the ACT again. When it becomes apparent to them that you are showing them how to get good grades (in baby steps) they will start to buy in to their own responsibility.

    If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever. &

    by weck on Thu Nov 07, 2013 at 08:25:09 AM PST

    •  thanks (0+ / 0-)

      for this - I do often find myself going back to the beginning. and yes, my students love stickers. it continues to amaze me, after years in the classroom, that teenagers will work for stickers. not only the that, but the bigger and flashier the sticker, the harder they work.  

      "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." - Joseph Brodsky

      by Shakespeares Sister on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 10:12:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  stickers (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Shakespeares Sister

        Are weirdly popular. I make them and sell them, and I can't believe people buy them, although mine are very cool, imo! My partner teaches math to middle school students, and has used some of my stickers for rewards. Many of his students live in rather dire poverty and/or struggle in their home lives. I have learned so much from talking to him about exactly how and why it is a struggle for all involved, students and teachers.
        Personally, I have observed a bit of what goes on in the schools  where I live- I have no children, and am not a teacher but I have volunteered as a homework tutor. The best thing that I have found is the feeling I get when I am able to make a student understand why they are learning something, and suddenly develop a new understanding and enthusiasm.
        I can't imagine trying to be a good teacher who does right by students, and helps them to be good human beings, in spite of or in the midst of the school environment. Teachers must have nerves of steel!

  •  Excellent essay (6+ / 0-)

    My mother was a teacher, and moved around from school to school quite a bit as she neared her retirement.  She spoke of the same helplessness.  I also recall her endless frustrating with the tests - the fact that the schools demanded that she only prepare the students to pass the national tests, and left her no room to work on specific learning issues that she found in the classroom.  She didn't feel she was allowed to really teach; to respond to the reality of where the students were at that moment (some of them couldn't even write.) I hope you have better luck....

    I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve. - Isoroku Yamamoto

    by feduphoosier on Fri Nov 08, 2013 at 06:18:11 AM PST

  •  Very interesting diary. And very sad. You (3+ / 0-)

    are a very commendable teacher for all the effort you put into understanding the process going on in your classroom!

    It seems to me a very important insight which I hope you can share with other educators at every level. Has this been studied? It would take some time to find out I suppose. I hope that you'll find it helps you help them.

    When I student taught in Jr. High decades ago, the poor students I had were similar, with very low grade level reading scores. My teacher there did it by the book. But I saw it as a challenge to get them involved so when I took over the class as a student, I gave them assignments related to their own lives and problems. I watched them come alive and surprise the heck out of that teacher who watched them participating as they hadn't during the classes I'd observed.

    (It was a great lesson to me, but really came from the professors I had who, at Ohio State, were quite radical back then, for the time, saying for instance, that grammar should not be taught to most students. In my time in Jr. Hi, we spent a whole semester on it.)

    Best of luck to you, I really admire what you have chosen to do. Your students are very fortunate to have someone who cares so much.

    "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

    by Gorette on Fri Nov 08, 2013 at 11:39:45 AM PST

  •  Great diary, there are an awful lot of (3+ / 0-)

    "problems" we don't really talk about anymore in this country. It is very convenient for a select few!

  •  Close the classroom door. (6+ / 0-)

    I used to bring the kids into a little conspiracy where we did whatever made sense for us, except when an administrator came in to observe.  Then we used the "approved" methodologies.

    Sometimes it's not a bad idea to lecture.  You're not supposed to, but it's so unusual now, students seem to find it weirdly agreeable.  Not every day, or for more than a few minutes, but not everything needs to be interactive. You are the expert in the room.  Show them what you know.

    Group work had more magic 30 years ago, when it was new and fresh.  If the students aren't generating good critical questions,  let one member of each group be the leader, offer your own list, and see what happens.

    Be a member of each group -- wander in, sit, let them draw you into the conversation. Don't hijack their discussion (even if you want to, really, this isn't the place to be the expert.)

    If you stumble into a good discussion, broaden the group.  Let the next-row-over people in on it, and see if you can get it to open up to the entire class.

    Welcome chaos. Then give them the joy of using it to find their own enlightenents.

    I just retired from what you now do and you made me remember why I stayed at it so long.  You just never stop learning. It's cool.

  •  All too often, people in the teaching profession (3+ / 0-)

    are castigated for not producing "results', and that corporatizing the education system through standardized tests and vouchers for privatized education are answers to the various problems in public school systems.

    From this excellent diary we read in the words what most true education professionals want to say aloud yet are either forbidden to do so or face termination as a consequence.

    Conservative intrusion into the education process by inserting regressive "values" and archaic notions of how learning happens in the mind of a child have gone a long way towards forcing public schools into production factories that do only two things: either they churn out mindless drones with little investigative skills and almost no critical thinking, or they force the kids to drop out and get their education on the streets.

    I would take exception, however, to one point in the diary:

    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.
    This is only partially true; the parents of these kids also have a responsibility to assist them in becoming educated persons. In this day and age where both criminal and intellectual predators run virtually unchecked, any parent who fails in their responsibility to help a kid's educational growth is as guilty of child abuse as if they assaulted them with a weapon or refused to give them food.
    •  you are so right, Anakai, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      and I may quote this in future:

      This is only partially true; the parents of these kids also have a responsibility to assist them in becoming educated persons. In this day and age where both criminal and intellectual predators run virtually unchecked, any parent who fails in their responsibility to help a kid's educational growth is as guilty of child abuse as if they assaulted them with a weapon or refused to give them food.
      I plan, in the near future, to address the plague of the absent parent.

      thank you for your comment, and understand the myriad issues implicit in education.

      "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." - Joseph Brodsky

      by Shakespeares Sister on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 10:13:45 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Social (dis?)incentives (4+ / 0-)

    If the students do ok during the "I do" portion, that shows they are not lacking in ability.

    The "We do" portion only works if at least one student in each group has the courage and motivation to go first and lead the group in conforming to your expectations. Why does nobody want to go first? Maybe it is social anxiety or shyness... whoever goes first will become, briefly, the center of the group's attention, and may draw more questions or assignments from you, prolonging their exposure. They could be afraid that their peer group will socially punish anyone who sticks out from the group. They could fear criticism for appearing too smart or too stupid. There might be social pressure to display resistance and non-cooperation against the closest visible representative of authoritarian repression (if they have had such bad experiences with the school system previously).

    You might experiment with the grouping... It could work if a group has someone who doesn't mind taking the lead. It could work if the students trust you and feel your classroom is a safe space.

    You might try smaller groups. If a group gets a good discussion going, you might reward them by letting them continue for a longer time while the unproductive groups go back to individual work. At intervals you might try rotating a few students between "warm" and "cold" groups - so more get to experience the "warm" group, and students taken from a "warm" group might warm up a "cold" group.

    Some students might be loners who will never come forward in a group setting. They might appreciate an opportunity to go straight from "I do" to "You do."

    If your school allows it, to break the ice for a discussion, sometimes it helps to bring cookies.

    •  I rotate groupings (0+ / 0-)

      on a consistent basis so that the groups don't get comfortable with letting one person lead all the time - they are all responsible for accountable, academic talk. I do agree with the idea that talking is learning, as long as it is done effectively and appropriately.

      thanks for your comment

      "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." - Joseph Brodsky

      by Shakespeares Sister on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 10:18:40 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site