Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses……

For charter school students with a sense of individuality, public schools are the only refuge from authoritarianism.

This past school year, I met a few students at my school who had been kicked out of charters. They ranged from sophomores to seniors and included boys and girls. All of them have two things in common: a) they turned out to be very nice kids and, b) they were black.

One of them was a girl in my U.S. History class. This was her second year at the school. She is one of those students who has a reputation among the teachers as sort of a handful. I never knew her or had a run-in with her. Then, one day in the middle of the semester, she appeared on my roster.

It was clear from the first day in my class that some of her new classmates were her friends. This was compounded by the fact that there already were a few characters in the room who enjoyed testing me. They really did not do anything bad aside from regular class-clownery, nothing worse than what me or my friends did when I was in school. However, as teachers we know that the addition of one student to an already tenuous mix could change the entire dynamic.

I do not remember her first day in class. What I do remember is that she would talk a great deal to her friends, whether they sat next to her or across the room. Most of the talking would be towards the beginning of the class period, when everyone was settling down. After the class settled down, her talking would be the occasional pantomime across the room. Sometimes, when the entire class was silent, she would burst out laughing very loudly, perhaps because one of her other friends had pantomimed something hilarious.

Between bouts of pantomime and general inattentiveness, I would see her face change and she would raise her hand to answer a question I had just asked. Many times, her answers were just plain off. Other times, they were dead on. When her answers were on, they were intelligent. The same thing with her written work. When she submitted it, it was pretty good. The only problem was that she had constant trouble submitting things on time, usually handing in the last five homework assignments at once. I would grade only the one that was on time and hand the rest back untouched. She would protest, I would tell her about the no late homework policy, and she would do the same thing next week.

This was the routine for many months. It was strange because, even if she did copy all of those late homework assignments off of a classmate, it still took a lot of time and effort. My homework assignments are not very tough, but they tend to be long. Handing in a week’s worth at once is tantamount to 10 pages of hand-written copy. It puzzled me that she would do all of this work when she knew I was only going to grade the on-time assignments.

I never got upset over her conversations or her laughter. I certainly was not pleased with it, but I never disciplined her in front of the class for doing it. Instead, I praised her whenever she said something good and left it at that. Her behavior never reached a level of disruption or distraction, at least in my eyes.

One day, she said something about Obama being a “good president”, at which point I asked her why she felt that way. She said a bunch of things that just were not true, like he helps the poor and the ghettos. I asked her how and she did not have an answer. Then I started sharing my views about Obama. This is the point in the semester, and it always happens like this, when students assume I am some sort of Republican or angry white guy displeased with the black president. I explained Obama’s pro-corporate, pro-rich policies. Then, to throw everyone for a loop, ended off by saying he is just like the Republicans.

For the student, she seemed to not know what to make of me. On the one hand, I did not like Obama. On the other hand, it was clear that I felt that the poor and the ghettos needed a great amount of help and were being shortchanged. I sounded like a Democrat, or at least a general notion of what some 11th graders think Democrats stand for, without supporting the Democratic president. The student seemed ready to pounce on me for being just another angry white guy one minute, then all the wind went out of her sails the next when I expressed views sympathetic to hers.

It might be just the way I remember it, but this might have been the point when I turned the corner with this student. She came to class most days ready to learn, greatly reduced her talking and laughing, and seemed hell-bent on gaining my approval. She turned in more of her work on time, participated more and said many things that showed insight and intelligence. She would stay after class to ask me questions and always ask how she was doing. We formed a strange alliance in the class and got along great. She certainly was not the perfect student, but she greatly improved from the start of the year and ended up earning a decent grade.

Reading Carol Burris’ latest expose on the way charter schools view classroom management, it is no wonder why this student was not longed for the charter world. She was very outspoken, spontaneous and, yes, impulsive. She was pretty much all over the place. Charter school teachers are being trained to “pounce” on any hint of disruption or misbehavior. Any student who shows individual personality is to be squashed with swift discipline. This student, if she was not kicked out of that charter school, would have ended up deformed if she stayed. Her very personality would have been an affront to the teachers and the environment. She would have ended up exploding on them or internalizing their disciplinary methods to believe that she was a bad person, learning to subdue her instincts and fight against them her entire life, whether they were right or wrong.

But she is not a bad person. In fact, she has a very good heart and is extremely likeable. As a matter of fact, most students are. It is sad that, as adults, we have this view that students who walk silently in line and sit up straight 7 hours a day are “good” and those that are a little loud or unruly are “bad”. Apparently, we have forgotten how we were as kids and how sitting up straight for 7 hours a day or walking in line all the time was not only impossible, but pure torture. I went to one of the best high schools in the country and me and my friends were loud, spontaneous, impulsive, talkative and, yes, even misbehaved at times. We were kids and teenagers and it was natural for us to be this way. Many of my classmates have gone on to be very successful, upstanding people with great jobs and families. We were all loud, self-absorbed teenagers at some point, and that is fine.

The charters featured in Burris’ article, and probably the charter from which my student was expelled, have a very myopic view of discipline. Far be it from me to point out the latent elitism and racism in such a view. Reading some of the comments under Burris’ article, it is clear that some people believe that “those” children, the poor minority ones, need a “different” type of school, one that drills and kills rather than encourages and enlivens. Would they send their own children to such a school? Hardly, since their own children are angels and would never talk or laugh loudly in or out of class. Neither did we as children, right? We all folded our hands, bowed our heads and did exactly as we were told by our betters. Give me a break.

There is a way to reach children without squashing their spirit. It is the same way you reach adults: by seeing and acting upon what is best in them. It is by treating them like human beings. For all of the faults of our public school system, including the lack of power to discipline, at least the teachers there are required to try to bring the best out of their students by acting humane towards them. Any teacher that fails in this endeavor is not longed to teach anyway, unless it is one of these charters that looks to drill and kill.

So, please, all of you charter school bigwigs, keep kicking out the children who demonstrate any personality or individuality. I will be glad to take them on. I would take one of them over twenty of you unimaginative, profit-hungry charlatans any day of the week.

4 responses to “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses……

  1. Absolutely right.

  2. Michael Fiorillo


  3. Keep up the good work. As a student I can gladly say we need more teachers like you out there.

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