Christina was failing my class. She had stopped doing the work and I wasn’t making much headway when I reminded her about missed assignments. I suspected this was a case of senior slump, and I called her mother and asked for a conference.
I showed Christina and her mother my grade book and walked them through everything that was missing. Christina’s mother asked her what was going on, and Christina looked at me and quietly said, “You’re a racist.”
My immediate reaction was defensiveness and disbelief. Outside of school, I was deeply in love with the novels of Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor and the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton. Inside school, I had made an effort to supplement the standard English curriculum with more Black authors. So at the conference, I came back to the gradebook and argued that this was simply a matter of doing the work--the same work that was required of every other student.
Twenty-five years later, I see this episode quite differently. I see how I should have responded to Christina’s statement with curiosity instead of defensiveness. Christina was the only Black student in my Creative Writing class, which had no required curriculum and gave me complete freedom to design and conduct the class in any way I liked.
I prided myself on my relationships with students in this class and the little creative community I thought we’d built. Was it possible that Christina felt excluded from that community in some way I wasn’t aware of? Did she sense some difference in how I related to her compared to her classmates? These are the questions I should have asked at the time. I regret that I did not.
Teachers and school leaders--in fact, the whole school staff--have to create environments where no student feels invisible, dismissed, or less than. A student who feels this way will either act out or check out: they’re mentally (and sometimes physically) missing in action.
Disengagement is a significant problem in our nation’s schools. One measure of this is regular Gallup polling, which reveals that less than half of US students feel actively engaged at school. Gallup senior editor Jennifer Robison writes with some concern that “actively disengaged students are nine times more likely to say they get poor grades at school, twice as likely to say they missed a lot of school last year, and 7.2 times more likely to feel discouraged about the future than are engaged students.”
This stuff matters, and I’m bringing it up now because I believe school and classroom culture are fundamentally important to supporting students’ ability to regain lost ground after the pandemic, move forward and thrive.
When a student disengages, it’s the job of school staff to get curious--as I should have, all those years ago.
When we get curious, we’ll find many reasons why students are checking out:
1. Like Christina, they perceive that they’re operating at a disadvantage due to their race or ethnicity (and often actually are.) In one of his books, the educator and academic Christopher Emdin describes visiting a science classroom where a Black student had pulled his hood up, made a pillow of his arms and slumped over his desk. When Emdin spoke to him after class, the student explained that he had raised his hand several times, was repeatedly passed over by the teacher, and decided to give up. Black and Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) students in particular rank their schools more poorly when it comes to teacher-student relationships, cultural and linguistic competence, rigorous expectations, engagement and school safety.
2. They are subtly discouraged from, and sometimes actually counseled out of, enrolling in the advanced level classes they’re capable of. Students with disabilities, and in particular twice-exceptional students, may experience this in APS and elsewhere.
3. They’re not being offered opportunities for higher-order thinking and quality interaction. In a 2019 English Learning program evaluation for APS, researchers concluded that 90% of lessons observed at the secondary level didn’t demonstrate academic rigor. The same evaluation noted that 11% of APS EL students had been receiving services since kindergarten and that 43% of high school students at the lower (WIDA) English levels 1-3 were dropping out.
4. Girls are receiving the message that they are less capable than boys. Sometimes this shows up in the ways teachers address girls: with a potentially patronizing “honey” or “sweetie” while boys are recognized by name, or with an inordinate number of comments focused on their appearance and not their ability. It may be the result of unconsciously held beliefs: one researcher describes a female teacher who told him, “Now, I don’t even understand why you’re looking at girls’ math achievement. These are my students’ standardized test scores, and there are absolutely no gender differences. See, the girls can do just as well as the boys if they work hard enough.” He writes, “Then, without anyone reacting, it was as if a light bulb went on. She gasped and continued, ‘Oh my gosh, I just did exactly what you said teachers are doing,’ which is attributing girls’ success in math to hard work while attributing boys’ success to innate ability.”
5. Students may feel like outsiders at school because of their political or religious beliefs. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to a youth-led discussion among students enrolled at various public and private high schools in DC. One student from Georgetown Day School described how uncomfortable he felt as a political conservative attending what he perceived as an overwhelmingly liberal school; it was easiest, he told us, for him to keep a low profile and not say too much in class.
This is just a partial list, but you get the idea. Kids, just like adults, will shut down and check out when they find themselves in a toxic work environment. But it’s harder for them to quit and go look for another opportunity.
When we talk about what’s essential in APS, I will argue every day of the week that our must-haves must include things like professional learning that includes implicit bias training and school culture surveys and analysis. We absolutely have to have rigorous, research-based curriculum, but the best curriculum in the world won’t engage a student who, like my student Christina 25 years ago, has already absorbed a message that she doesn’t count and shouldn’t try.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.