Voice!

Of all the classes I’ve visited so far, Cynthia Castillo’s at Augustus Hawkins High School is the friendliest.  Within five seconds of their entry into the room, kids are coming over to say hello and encourage me to stay.  One boy informs me that I’m “cool” and say he hopes I’ll to sub the next time they need one—even though all I’ve said so far is “hi.” (Yes, I know, I’m sure if he knew me at all he would not think I was cool.  But I take compliments where I can.)

Cynthia sets the mood by standing in the doorway and shaking every kid’s hand as they walk in, giving her a chance do a quick check of everyone’s health, physical or emotional.  With 44 kids in the room, this may be her only chance for an individual conversation, and in this community, one of the poorest in Los Angeles, odds are high that one or more of her kids may be in crisis.  For a full description of the demographics, click here.  To compare it to Dennis’, Jennifer’s and Robe’s, click here, here and here.

Though the charter school where I taught for five years is not far away, there are many students here who would not have been in one of my classrooms.  Because of our zero-tolerance culture, we had no gang members on campus. We had no foster children, since parents had to fill out their name and address to receive a lottery ticket.  By contrast, as I mentioned in a previous post, Augustus Hawkins includes not only foster children but gang members who, instead of being suspended or expelled, participate in a restorative justice program using positive incentives to keep them in school. In other words, of all the classes I’m observing, Cynthia’s has the most “at-risk” population.

Still, her students are packed 44 to a room.  Having come here from Robe’s class at Campbell Hall, where I witnessed first-hand the power of an extraordinary teacher engaging with a group of 15 students, I can’t help but feel almost breathless at the contrast.

Today is especially interesting because the kids are using computers in their lesson.  In a hugely controversial move, the LAUSD recently spent $1 billion to give every student an iPad at a cost of $700 per student.  Yes, they paid above retail, which means that rumbling you are hearing from the earth is the sound of my ancestors rolling over in their graves.

Overpayment aside, there are a variety of reasons why Cynthia’s students might want iPads, other than the fact that iPads are awesome and I want one, too.  Many low-income students do not have computers or internet access at home, presenting enormous issues because the new Common Core tests rely fundamentally on students’ ability to do internet research—which makes sense, on the one hand, and on the other, puts students without computers at a profound disadvantage.  Giving each student an iPad is, I assume, an attempt to give every student a chance to develop computer fluency.  Otherwise, all the Common Core test will measure is which students have computer access and which do not, something we already know.

But Cynthia’s class is a demonstration of some of gigantic potholes in this plan.  The day I visit, she’s giving a grammar and reading comprehension quiz on computers—again, this is essential practice if they’re to acquire parity with upper middle class kids who’ve grown up holding laptops.  Today, though, because there aren’t enough laptops for everyone, she has to move all 44 kids to the computer lab, which, impressively, is stocked with gleaming new Mac desktops.

I’ve heard many times from people I respect that technology is going to solve many of the problems of scale in education.  Technology, I’ve heard, is going to create individualized instruction for every student, be equally and inexpensively available to all, and make it possible for highly-effective teachers in low-income communities to become “facilitators” who circulate among 45 or more students who are enthusiastically, independently and silently engaging in a rigorous lesson matched perfectly to their ability level.

I am concerned that the people who develop these plans have not recently spent time with teenagers.  The notion that 45 hormonal young humans in very close proximity would ever behave that way seems—I’m trying to sound moderate and rational here—incomprehensibly naïve as I watch Cynthia work in real time with actual kids, who like most normal people have forgotten their passwords, can’t understand the instructions and are having difficulty logging on.

 Cynthia’s patience is infinite as she circulates, calmly helping individual kids, keeping the class as quiet as she can, stopping the three boys in the back from blasting music every time her back is turned because the two cute girls in front of them think it’s funny, keeping several advanced kids busy with additional work, kicking kids off facebook.

Her students are the chattiest I’ve visited; no matter how many questions she answers, there are always more.  But a vocal group of eight or so very gregarious boys claims most of her time, along with a kid with extreme behavior issues, who just returned from three days of restorative justice circles and is continually jumping up and down announcing that his computer is broken and accusing her of having something against him.

She’s told me that her students come in with very low reading levels.  Her biggest challenge is to teach them to think analytically and explain their reasoning.  “Logical thinking is the most important skill they need to learn,” she told me, but unlike Robe, she’ll have minimal chance to coach them individually.  To compensate, she keeps her class highly organized.  “The kids crave routine,” she told me.  “For a lot of them, their home life has no structure.”

I can’t imagine that anyone could pull this off more effectively than Cynthia does today.  But because I’ve just come from Robe’s class at Campbell Hall, where I watched an equally great teacher engage with only 15 kids, individually challenging and encouraging even the quietest students, I feel an almost vertiginous awareness of the inequality of privilege in these two communities, something the presence of the computers somehow heightens, emphasizing as it does the absence of opportunity for an individual conversation.  What happens to us as a society when only the children of the wealthy are given the resources to learn to speak out?

At my former school, many of my students were extremely shy.  “Voice!” we used to yell when our students spoke too softly to be heard.  “Voice!”  But even in classes of 32—much smaller than Cynthia’s–I always worried that the quiet kids got lost.  And I worry now, when we tell ourselves that technology will help us close the achievement gap, about the all the voices we may never get a chance to hear.

It’s been a hard year so far,” Cynthia says simply as she leads the kids back to her classroom, having gotten them all logged off.  It’s 9:45, her third class of the day and her next 40 or so students are already thronging outside her door.  As she shakes their hands and greets them, I wish her good luck and thank her.

But she has already closed the door and started again.

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4 thoughts on “Voice!”

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