It’s Been Tough Breaking Down Walls My Students Have Built

The mood has changed in Cynthia Castillo’s class since I first visited in October.  The kids are quieter, more settled; the energy is calm.  When I first arrive, a guest speaker is talking to the kids about a summer internship, and they listen attentively.  There are no side conversations.  When Cynthia transitions to their vocabulary assignment, they do it quickly and smoothly.

The class is significantly down from its initial enrollment of 45.  Today, I count 29 students, though Cynthia tells me there are about 35 enrolled.  Several kids were pulled out at the semester because they’d failed so many classes that they needed to be put on a track where they did much of their classwork in APEX, an online credit recovery program.  Other students, having failed even more classes, were transitioned to continuation school.  A few “checked out,” leaving school without transferring anywhere.  Though none of these moves are positive, the students who remain in the class seem on the whole more focused.  Unlike other days earlier in the year, no one wanders around the room during a lesson.

After a vocabulary lesson, they move into a project on geneology.  All of them are creating a family tree called a genogram that traces not only lineage but medical history, education and even relationships; antagonistic relationships are marked with one kind of line, severed relationships with a broken line, strong relationships with a clear line.  To create this genogram, the kids have had to interview family members.  Many of them are hearing family stories for the first time, something can be profoundly affecting.  I talk to a quiet student who moved here from El Salvador four years ago and whose English is remarkable, almost unaccented.  Through this project, he told me, he learned that he has an estranged grandfather living nearby.  This past weekend, he went to his grandfather’s house, meeting him for the first time, an emotional reunion that resulted in a relationship they have both said they want to continue.

Once the interviews are done and the family tree is completed, the students will write a 3-5 paragraph analysis of their findings and present it to the class along with the genogram.  This assignment, though apparently simple, is actually a brilliant synthesis of a variety of skills stressed by the Common Core.  First, this is real research, not the kind of research most students do by sifting through internet postings, which are generally just pre-digested versions of someone else’s research.  Here, the students are actually doing interviews and translating that information into visual symbols, then interpreting the information in writing as well as practicing presentation skills.  By connecting the project to their personal identities, Cynthia has created a research project that is authentically meaningful not only to each person but to the class.  Because of its authenticity, I am unsurprised to find that when I circulate around the room to various groups, everyone is engaged in the process and many kids are sharing their findings with each other spontaneously.

Curious about Cynthia’s impressions of how the year is going, I ask her to tell me about her experience.  Since her response is via email, I’ll share her impressions as she wrote them:

What’s been your greatest success so far this year in school?

Cynthia: My greatest success so far this year in school has not been in the classroom. “My” (I put it in quotes because I was not alone) greatest success was homecoming. This was our first year having a homecoming and although it was a lot of work for me and my ASB Leadership students, we all felt so proud afterwards because everyone said they had a good time and were talking about the event afterwards. This may not sound like much, but with the general lack of enthusiasm and lack of school pride that we get for many events, it felt like quite an accomplishment to have a week of games, music, and themed days, plus a pep rally and a parade, not to mention a dance with alternatives for those who don’t like to dance. If I had to name my greatest success inside the classroom, I’d have to say it was my ability to finally implement grammar regularly. That has always been a challenge for me, but I was able to create a daily routine that involved grammar exercises and assessments. These assessments were all online, which was another achievement because it was hurting my heart to make so many copies so frequently. I also wanted students to get use to testing online since that is how the CCSS Assessment, Smarter Balanced, will be assessing our students.

What’s been your greatest challenge so far this year in school?

Cynthia: My greatest challenge this year has been apathy. It’s almost become a normal way of being, a culture, if you will, among our youth and even our community. When we created plans for the school we knew that this would be one of the challenges and it’s not like I’ve never seen it before, but this year I’m just seeing more of it. It’s not always related to education; the same sentiment exists towards all student activities, relationships with adults, and even their future. It’s been tough breaking down these walls that many of my students have built over time.

I want so badly to provide new eye-opening opportunities for my students, but I also worry that I’m making them more jaded to the world. I am trying to find the balance between educating them about our society’s history and empowering them rather than making them feel doomed.

I’ve been asked many times these last couple of years if I would leave my school considering it’s challenges. I find this amusing because it says several things: 1) people assume that if a situation is tough, you should leave it for something simpler; 2) they have not really been listening to me at all and probably don’t really know me; and 3) people have forgotten the true meaning of the phrase “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” or my personal favorite, “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” With that said, I don’t know what the future holds, considering this is the first year out of five that I haven’t been laid off, but I do know that my school is my muse; I frequently call it my “baby.” I refuse to leave until I feel like I have done something noteworthy and personally satisfying. At the top of my list is creating a positive school culture. How will that be defined or determined? I have some ideas, but that too is just a baby.  Until then, this tough girl has to get going.



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