Sunday, November 16, 2014

Class Based Education--Literacy with an Attitude

Chapter 2 of Patrick J. Finn's 1999 book Literacy with an Attitude, entitled "A Distinctly Un-American Idea: An Education Appropriate to Their Station" brings to light the disturbing discrepancies between the way students are taught in schools from different socioeconomic statuses.  Although the piece discuss five fifth grade schools (two working class, one middle class, one affluent professional, and one executive elite) I would like to focus on the vast difference between the working class schools and the affluent professional school because I think it clearly portrays the frightening differences.  All of the information noted comes from Finn's portrayal of Jean Anyon's study of five different predominantly white fifth grade classrooms  in northern New Jersey.  It is important to keep in mind when reviewing these findings that all are "subject to the same state requirements" (9).  They used the same books and courses of study for arithmetic, language arts and reading.

The first difference is apparent in the way knowledge was presented to the students.  At the working class school, it was presented "as fragmented facts isolated from wider bodies of meaning and from the lives and experiences of the students" (10).  On the other hand, in the affluent professional school it was "viewed as being open to discovery" and "was used to make sense and thus it had a personal value" (16).  At the working class school, there was a clear right and wrong in everything which left no room for students to be creative.  "For example, one teacher led the students through a series of steps to draw a one-inch grid on their paper without telling them what they were making or what it was for.  When a girl realized what they were making and said she had a faster way to do it, the teacher answered, "No you don't.  You don't even know what I'm making yet.  Do it this way or it's wrong" (10).  I have observed a similar situation occurring in the second grade classroom that I volunteer in.  When the students need to fold a paper into sections for math, the teacher demonstrates exactly how she wants it done.  She tells them to hold the paper so that the long side is on top and to fold the bottom up.  She calls this "hamburger fold".  When one student called it a "hot dog fold" she got frustrated and scolded him, telling him "No, this is hamburger.  Do not argue with me.  Stop talking and just do it."  This was an interesting exchange for me to observe because I had always been taught the same thing that the boy was saying, not the teacher.  I would definitely classify the school I work in as a working class school according to the reading.  In the affluent professional school, "creativity and personal development were important" and students were encouraged "to think for themselves and to make sense of their own experience" (15) and "…work was creative activity carried out independently.  It involved individual thought and expression, expansion and illustration of ideas, and choice of appropriate methods and materials" (16).  To me this seems like such an easy change to make in schools.  Even if it was only applied a few times a day, I think that it could make a big difference.

Another apparent difference between the working class and affluent professional school is how teachers  and people in power treated and spoke to their students.  In the working class school, "Teachers made derogatory remarks regarding the students.  A principal was reported to have said to a new teacher, 'Just do your best.  If they learn to add and subtract, that's a bonus.  If not, don't worry about it.'  A second grade teacher said the children were "getting dumber every year."  Only twice did Anyon hear a teacher say 'please' to a student in an unsarcastic one. She heard "Shut up" frequently." (11). The "Golden Rule" that all children are taught from a young age is "Treat others the way you want to be treated".  With this in mind, it is no wonder that students in working class schools often get the reputation of being rude and disrespectful to teachers.  It is how they have always been treated by teachers.  How can you expect a student to learn and be successful in an environment when he or she is constantly being put down and no one has high expectations for him or her?  In the affluent professional school, on the other hand, "Products of work were highly prized…Teachers rarely gave direct orders unless the children were too noisy….They sometimes negotiated what work was to be done.  For example, children sometimes asked for more time before moving on to the next subject, and the teacher sometimes acquiesced" (17).  When the teachers gave respect, they got respect in return.  The high level of pride in the students work and confidence in their abilities also made the children feel like they were important, successful and that what they did mattered.

A third difference between the working class and affluent professional schools is the dominant theme Anyon noted.  "In the working-class schools the dominant theme was resistance.  Students vandalized school property and resisted the teachers' efforts to teach…There was less resistance to easy work, and so assignments were rarely demanding" (12).  "In the affluent professional school the dominant theme was individualism with a minor theme of humanitarianism" (18).  If there were more opportunity for individualism and creativity in working-class schools, I believe that there would be much less resistance.

I believe that the schools I went to growing up would be classified by Anyon as affluent professional schools; however, the lower level classes in my school, particularly in high school, were run much more like how she describes working class schools.  I was always in higher level classes, where the expectation was that I would work hard and do well; but there was always room for creativity, interpretation, and a mutual respect between teachers and students.  I am not sure how I would have done had those expectations not been there, although I imagine it would have been discouraging and therefore I would not have done as well.  If you get a chance, watch this short video that looks at the effect of socioeconomic status on students.

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