Friday, July 15, 2011

Sir Mixalot's Distant Cousin

Some time ago I wrote a lengthy post exposing the enormous problem of classroom intrusions.  Everything from field trips to sports to school events to special meetings intrudes on the students’ time in class, and negatively impacts their education.

Time matters.  Learning is a slow process.  Each day builds on the previous one.  Each day you miss compounds the lost learning opportunities. 

Just recently I’ve experienced this yet again, and it makes me want to blog. 

So here we are!

I have a student we’ll call Ma’am Missalot.  She’s a special education student with low skills but who wants to learn.  She struggles with attention span, does little homework, but asks questions and generally works in class. 

The emphasis here, though, is that learning does not come easily to her. So, what do we do with a student such as this to maximize her educational advancement? 

Well, some people think it’s good to get students like this involved in things.  She’s gotten involved in some kind of teen/AIDS/relationships kind of presentation program.  I don’t know the details.  I’m sure it’s a fine program.  I’m sure it’s good for her to do something positive.  It gives her something to be proud of, something she’s possibly good at and that accomplishes something in the community.  Might even make a difference. 

And, she’s failing my class because of it.

The Story
Recently I got another email from the school nurse informing us of five students who will need to miss one period for a meeting that relates to this program.  That period happens to be the one I have with her.  This would be the fourth day she’ll have missed just because of this program.  That doesn’t include the days she leaves early for softball (yes, during 5th period, meaning she also misses 6th...ahh, the preeminence of sports).

Four days in twelve weeks.  Doesn’t seem like much to you, perhaps. 

Well let’s remember what I said at the outset about this student’s academic abilities.  She struggles.  And she needs to be here.  She’s failing my class. 

So I wrote to the nurse and said this student needs to be in my class.  The meeting goes through lunch and 5th period.  I suggested she attend the meeting through lunch, and then leave and come to my class.

Simple suggestion.  Easy to implement.  Result?

She missed my class.

“Big deal,” you say.  “Quit whining.  She can make up the work, right?  Aren’t you there after school to help your students?”

I could be here for 48 straight hours, and many students like this would never come after school.  And yes, I am here after school, and I remind my students of this almost daily. 

But no, she can’t make up the work.  Why not?  Because it’s not ‘work’ that can just be made up.  See, I’m a teacher.  Sometimes teaching entails activities, discussions, inductive lessons that build student conceptual understanding and skill mastery in ways that only work over the course of a 50-minute period.  They don’t work as well any other way.  And I’m not going to spend 50 minutes re-teaching my lesson for one student.  And if you were a teacher, you wouldn’t either. 

This particular lesson was the first one of a new unit.  I’m introducing several new concepts surrounding covalent bonds and Lewis structures, for those of you who know that sort of thing.  These concepts are all intertwined, and I’ve built in practice problems that tie in with the concepts.  The second day, we utilize what was done on day one to handle more complicated situations.

And Ma’am Missalot is here on day two.  But she has no clue what’s going on, because she missed all the foundational concepts.  And I can’t spend more than a few minutes with her during class, because I’ve got dozens of other students practicing the new stuff, and they all need my help too.

So, she’s already behind on the new unit.  And unless she comes after class sometime soon, which she won’t, she’ll be behind the whole unit and will probably fail the test.

All because of one day.

The Fallout
Am I oversimplifying it?  Or, do I know she’d do that much better if she were here the first day?  YES!  I do know that.  I’ve taught this course a dozen times.  Missing the first day of this unit is highly detrimental.  Especially for a student who struggles with learning.

This is a tough unit, and this early stuff is actually the easy part.  If students don’t master this part of the unit, the second half of it is almost impossible.  This student is well on her way to being behind the whole way, and I feel powerless to do anything about it. 

So, I’m a little frustrated (can you tell?), a little angry, and highly upset at the cause of it all.

But, I’m sure it was a great meeting.  It will look great on her resume.

And it will need to, because her GPA is going to suck if she keeps missing classes for stupid meetings.

(Addendum: By the end of the semester, this student finally, barely, just in time got her grade up to a 60.2%.  I am very happy she passed the course, but this post reveals something of why some students scrape by the way they do)

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