The onset of SOL testing during our final week at Falling Creek has brought those of us placed at the middle school a slight alteration to the schedule. Over the next three weeks, the students and teachers will wrap up the testing frenzy in a final assessment of their academic preparation and endurance. Scores will be used to measure the school’s achievement, compare Falling Creek to other schools throughout the district and determine the effectiveness of new academic strategies and initiatives. It’s a high-stakes time, and the administration’s actions reflect this.
All students must be silent in the hallways between classes. Some blocks are shortened while others are elongated to accommodate the exams. Students must eat lunch during second block in the classroom instead of in the cafeteria. Students may not leave the classroom during the blocks. It sounds ideal — common sense really. It seems intuitive that such actions create a quiet, respectful testing environment for the students taking exams. But I can tell you that it’s a whole lot harder to implement than it sounds.
Mrs. Warfield’s third-block class is a co-taught C-level (general level) class, and trying to get them to walk silently in a straight line to the cafeteria to get their lunches was like herding sheep. “No, Tiana, close your locker, now is not the time for that.” “I need you to sit here quietly while the rest of the students get their lunches.” “No, I don’t want your crackers.” “We do not use that language in school.” I felt like I was being a bit negative with the students today, but asking nicely for students to follow the rules lost its impact late last week as my “newness” began to fade.
Tuesday night was an awesome opportunity for some of the W&L students to learn about the immigrant community in Chesterfield County through a program offered by the school on family reunification. It featured activities for ESOL students and their parents, including a thematic film screening, breakout sessions and discussions. In reflection, Bri Shaw commented that one of the questions posed to the students was “What advice do you have for parents who will be reunited with their children?” And student simply responded, “Get to know us.” One parent in attendance had moved to Chesterfield to start a life for her family twelve years ago and her son had only arrived to join her one year ago. He is thirteen years old.
Despite the students that constantly play games on their Chromebooks, the school policies that frustrate me, and the early, early mornings, I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to take this class. I’m going to miss many things: the teachers in the sixth grade social studies professional learning community and the support the give each other, the students that give me hugs when they see me, the discussions I’m able to have with the students that really care about learning and history, and the reward of seeing a student who acts like he doesn’t care actually completing an assignment. It’s been an adventure, but a good one for sure!
So Many Questions
The kids ask me, “Miss Alison, how old are you?” or “Are you her [Mrs. Warfield’s] daughter?” or “Why aren’t you in school?” The teachers ask, “So are you observing or student teaching?” The employees ask, “How are you enjoying your time?” or “Who are you subbing for?” And I ask, “What do you need me to do?”
In the beginning, there seemed to be a general misunderstanding about who I was. Half of the people I encountered thought I was a substitute teacher (something Chesterfield District seems to be short on), and the other half thought I was a student teacher. It was almost as tough to explain to the adults as it was to explain to the students that I am here to learn.
As I begin my sixth day in the classroom, perhaps the most significant thing I’ve learned is how education is impacted by community, family and personal life, and how our age-grade system disservices students. It’s an enormous challenge to keep some of the kids on task, to get them to turn in work, and to put effort into tests and assignments. From time to time, the teacher I work with will inform me, “She experiences significant peer pressure from some of the mean girls,” “He has some anger problems; his parents’ relationship is abusive,” “He just got out of juvie and isn’t very well adjusted to the classroom yet,” or “He doesn’t get much to eat at home.” From students who just crossed the border from Mexico a few weeks ago to students who don’t have shoes to wear to school, so many of the students we are working with have home lives incredibly adverse to education and learning.
Additionally, so many of these students do not have the skills to study at the level the SOL mandates. Reading, for example, keeps many students from not only attaining proficiency in the language arts, but in math, history and science as well. A teacher at a team meeting I attended said that she can tell some of her students understand the math concepts, yet they can’t perform on an exam with word problems because they can’t read the questions.
It’s tough to be in this classroom surrounded by so many students facing so many challenges, knowing that there is little I can do besides what Mrs. Warfield asks of me and saying, “Is that what you’re supposed to be doing right now?” when the kids start playing games on their Chromebooks. But it’s gratifying to know that the teachers are appreciative to have an extra set of hands in the classroom.
Urban Education and Poverty
Falling Creek Elementary and Middle School are not quite as they appear. The drive to school winds through a quaint, wooded residential neighborhood; “urban” was not the first word that came to mind when we arrived for our first visit yesterday.
After a long day of driving, visiting the Chesterfield School District’s main offices, meeting the teachers we will be working with at the elementary and middle schools, and socializing with our gracious alumni hosts, I woke up Tuesday morning feeling like I could have used another ten hours of sleep. But excited for my “first day of school,” I dragged myself out of bed and eventually into the sixth grade social studies classroom I will be in for the next three weeks.
As a Title I school, Falling Creek receives grant money which they recently used to purchase Chromebooks for all of their middle school students. The learning environment that this creates is new to me, as even my high school did not allow students to have any sort of technology in the classroom. Mrs. Warfield’s lesson for the day involved using the program “Story Jumper” to create a virtual picture book about the abolition and suffrage movements in America. The administrators and teachers we talked to yesterday told us that our familiarity with technology would be appreciated by our classrooms, but I felt that I was of little help in the beginning, as I had never even heard of the program! By fourth block, though, I had picked it up pretty well, and thanks to the nature of the block schedule, I’ll be able to use my new knowledge to help the students learn the program more efficiently tomorrow.
When we broke for lunch, Mrs. Warfield told me that when she was student teaching, she was told not to listen to “teacher talk,” or the gossip of the teacher’s lounge. But I found it to be valuable insight into the school environment. I was told that you have to have a real passion for teaching to teach at a school like Falling Creek. The kids are a challenge to teach and the Title I status along with the SOL curriculum puts tremendous emphasis on test scores, which is stressful for both students and teachers. I was also informed of a recent incident involving a student bringing a weapon to school and the security measures being taken in light of this. Being from rural New Jersey, my first experience in an urban school occurred just last week on the Nabors Service Trip in Baltimore. I am both excited and curious about how I will adjust to this new environment and what new understandings I will take away.