Adventures In Subbing: Inner City School Pt 2

Part one was about the hoopla; this post is about the nuts and bolts of the student struggles in North Minneapolis.

When the 6th and 7th graders I taught this day eventually got down to work (which took some doing–see part one), most did get something done. But for many, it wasn’t much. For every hour, students paired up for their research projects.  The 6th graders covered topics on the Civil War, i.e. the Emancipation Proclamation; the 7th graders covered Afghanistan, i.e Afghan refugees.

When things got down to business, I went around to each group to encourage their project and assist them in ideas and research. I also had to make sure they weren’t photographing themselves or going on email with the Apple laptops each were given. More often than not, I was dealing with students doing as little actual work as possible. For them to stop talking, stop playing, and get into a work mode was a real drag for them. This strikes toward the heart of the matter. Poor discipline is what everyone sees as the problem, but below the surface and countering their prolonged enthusiasm for video games, the NBA, gossip, and just joking around with one another was the resistance to let their interests and a seriousness take them over to allow for learning and exploration.

I talked to the other 30-something male teacher in this class about the difficulties getting these students to want to learn. “They’re embarrassed”, he said. I think he’s on to something. To express an interest in something is to expose a passion, and so means being vulnerable. It’s like admitting which girl you like. That’s scary when young. Perhaps admitting your interest in Civil War history is similar. Perhaps little encouragement from the time they are toddlers means that a child with low self-image will have a difficult time seeing how he can contribute something useful. Perhaps, when having fell behind in research, reading, and other learning skills, a child worries their questions will be met with ridicule, that their lack of ability will be exposed and embarrass them. And then, once a culture of not caring has developed in the school, to stick your arm up (aka neck out) and ask a question will be met with disapproving peer pressure. I could see how the problem compounds. And I saw it.

One 7th grade boy–a sort of gentle giant for his age–was on the group reporting on Afghan refugees. I don’t think he knew where to begin, and had I have not sat down with him I’m betting he would have played a computer game all hour. I asked him to find out some basic info like how many refugees there are or where the refugees are going. Despite his insistence on wearing headphones blaring his favorite tunes, I assisted him with finding a website where he could copy the info from. By the end of the hour, he had managed to copy two sentences on a note card.

Not every student resisted their research. In one pair of girls, one did all the work, allowing the other to mess around. Another boy was off by himself putting together an impressive powerpoint presentation to use doing his report. In fact, that not every student was a rabble-rouser produced another reason for dismay: as the noisy kids ate up the precious minutes of the school day, the quiet ones just sat there and waited. When we would finally get down to work, the studious students got right to it. I remember one hour keeping the laptops in the cabinet as a way to get the class to be quiet. I was conflicted because the quiet students shouldn’t be deprived of work time because of the loud ones. I honestly wished these students would get out of this school and into another where their learning, and love for it, won’t be stunted, but nourished.

Stereotypes held as the ones who worked better were usually White or Asian. But whether studious or a whiz at powerpoint, they were exceptions. And though it was nice to see a revealing interesting when talking with some others about their topics, the environment was defined by the lack of concern and outward interest in learning, their horseplay exaggerated in that void.

It’s a problem–potentially an enormous one. I told the students that play is great and appropriate at times, but I also said that with no work mixed in with their play, a difficult time was in store for those who might never develop a skill or expertise. Who knows if the words sunk in. Either way, doing what we can to help children want to be what they can is imperitve.

Another day when I taught 4th grade in this same school, the other two 4th grade teachers came into my room in the morning to greet me and offer a hand if need be. Send any student giving you a hard time to our room for a time out, they said. I would do this a few times throughout the day. It so happened, as well, that the school psychologist officed right across the hall. She entered my room once unannounced to see how things were going as she heard the banter. She, too, offered her room for difficult students to sit in.

It wasn’t a half hour later when one boy with an apparent anger issue starting yelling at the class to shut up during a particularly noisy stretch. In a moment, though, his anger stripped away and his sadness underneath surfaced, causing him to flee underneath the table in the back of the room and start crying. He came out from underneath when I asked him to, and I took the defeated-looking lad across the hall to the school psychologist. Looking at him, she was quick to say to me that the room “is too noisy”.

She was right, of course, and she was right in her criticism of my handing of the classroom and to address the present problem head on. But I was a little frustrated because I was trying hard. And I was troubled because behind the surface issue of a roomful of noisy kids were a host of problems in Minneapolis having to do with broken homes, violence, drugs, welfare, racism–all leading up to these difficult and troubled children. Though I’m sure the psychologist was well aware of this, her response represents how we only scratch the surface and boil down this expansive problem as being just a case of a room being “too noisy”. We’re going to have to dig deeper than that if we want to see this community, and thus these kids and schools, improve.

to new plateaus,


1 Response

  1. Matt

    Having coached in the St Paul city high schools for 4 years, I hear similar stories from a lot of teachers (and many a lot worse!) The general consensus is that the kids aiming for advanced courses will do OK. The kids in regular classes will drown.
    The lack of discipline of some is crippling to the entire student body. I asked if this was an issue of no accountability at the school, or if it came from the district. I was told it was some of both. The middle school across the street from my high school was pointed to as the good example: great behavior, quiet classrooms, and a strict/mean/tough principal that enforced rules and penalties… and was also frowned upon by the district administration.
    Those same kids move on to the high school I’m at, where it’s about impossible to suffer any meaningful consequences (sexual assault in the hallway MIGHT get you sent to the principal’s office, but never expelled), and the behavior deteriorates.
    Now, with 7 officers working at the school every day, and multiple fights every week (often involving macing from the police), there is absolutely no visible improvement.
    The biggest penalty seems to be not allowing participation in team sports if grades slump too low… but then again, there’s always the Xbox at home!

What say you?