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    Guest Blog: Dumbing Down vs. Raising Expectations

    A friend of mine who just finished up a year as an academic coach at a low-performing school district in Southern California has a great anecdote to share about one day on the job and–I might add–one day of making a meaningful difference despite the deadening mediocrity that surrounded her.

    Here it is:

    “I had to take over and a 5th and 6th grade Special Day Class at the last minute due to an emergency situation one Monday.  Knowing the teacher quite well and being a former sixth grade teacher myself, I felt confident and figured it would be an easy ½ day.  I walked in to find eight students and two aids spread randomly throughout the room not working at all and no lesson plans in sight.  The kids were all over the place, I saw no books on desks and not a single student had a pencil out. When I asked them to please sit in their seats, the response from one boy was, ‘We don’t got no seats. We sit wherever.’

    “This had become common to me. As a coach I have the opportunity to visit and teach in sixty some classrooms between two schools and was starting to realize that how I taught and ran a classroom was not at all close to how most of the teachers in our district were teaching and running theirs, veterans or not.  By now my mouth was ready to run. ‘Wow, what fantastic English you have. Sit right in the front so we can make it even better!’ His smile faded immediately, but he obeyed. Naturally I was getting no help from either of the aids. After getting rid of gum, silencing the kids and creating a seating arrangement I was finally able to begin teaching.

    “In November I should be able to walk into a room and take over that second and not have to waste valuable minutes on classroom management.  Nevertheless, I was able to teach grammar, reading comprehension strategies and even some writing, which apparently was new to most of them.  They were well behaved and engaged the rest of the day.  For the English Language Development block I welcomed 12 new students with similar learning abilities and attitudes. The frustrating part of that block was not only the time I spent going through the retraining process again, but the activity assigned.  When I asked one aid where the activity sheets were that had been listed on the board, I was handed a stack of coloring pages.  These supposed activity sheets had very basic sentences on the bottom of the page in small print while the picture took up pretty much the entire page. ‘You mean they just color this? That’s it? For 35 minutes, they just color? Does it go with something? What is the lesson?’ I ranted at the aid.  Her response was awesome, ‘Well, yesterday they wrote their names and today they color the picture.  Here are the colored pencils.’

    This is a program that our district had spent umpteen thousands on to adopt and our kids are going to color? I pretty much almost lost it then, but bit my lip, tossed the ‘activity sheets’ aside and decided to teach a vocabulary lesson focusing on some of the words I read in the sentences.  Again, the students were engaged, participating in discussion and learning.  What a concept! Probably the most irritating part of my day did not have anything to do with the students, but with the aids.  Their English was horrible and one of them would not stop speaking Spanish to one student, translating my every word and at one point even writing for the child!  I couldn’t take it anymore and had to step in.  I asked her to let him please just listen to my lessons for a little bit and to stop translating for him. She seemed a little undone, but got over it. I talked to the boy several times throughout that day and even though most of his responses were nods, he did talk to me a little.  So he can speak!  Why aren’t we letting him?  This is what I can’t stand about how we choose to teach English Language Learners.  Coddling just doesn’t work.

    “Later in the lounge, both the aids came running up to me like little school girls do to their teacher.  ‘How did you do that? They were quiet and learning, that was great!  We never do writing!’ These two veteran aids, who I thought hated me during my reign in their room, were flabbergasted at what I had done.  As flattered as I was it only made my blood boil.  My only response was, ‘They will only do what you expect of them.’ As much as I am learning from this job, the more frustrated I get with our school system. We are doing nothing but enabling these kids.  We make excuses and refuse to raise our expectations. It is incredibly aggravating.”

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