What Happens When Middle School Students Are Asked To Self-Reflect?

November 8, 2016

For those who have been following my public classroom observations and stories, this former business executive continues to be amazed by what the public education system is not developing or inspiring in our student body.  These students are ourschool-blackboard-jolly future leaders, and quite frankly, I am worried about who will be making decisions about our country and its policies when I retire in 12 years.  Why am I worried?  Well, I accepted a substitute assignment as a 6th grade ELAR (English, Language Arts, Reading) teacher at the same middle school where I had previously served as a LIFE Skills teacher.  Although I enjoyed learning about the world of special needs, the experience naturally did not give me an accurate perspective of the average student population.  Hence, I stepped into a normal middle school classroom for a deep dive.  Wow, the students’ reactions to the various curriculum activities revealed how the system is cultivating academic robots who are trained and rewarded to learn and regurgitate information in excess so that natural self-reflective thinking paralyzes them.  The classroom focus seems to be more about controlling behavior than it is about learning.  You may think I over-exaggerate, but alas I do not.  And the story goes…

I arrived for my full day assignment 25 minutes before the first bell.  When I entered Mrs. Whitmore’s* classroom, it was extremely neat and organized, and I appreciated that she had left a 3-ring binder with detailed instructions, seating charts, and handouts.   As I read the day’s agenda, she helpfully listed the behavior-challenged students in each of the classes and gave strict instructions to send them to the Assistant Principal’s (AP’s) office if their behavior was not appropriate.  She had zero tolerance for bad behavior and wanted a list of those who acted up, because she had warned them of an automatic d-hall for bad behavior with the substitute.   Mrs. Whitmore had an all-day in school planning meeting, so I would see her at the beginning and end of day.  I had ELAR blocks (2 periods) of on-level, above-level, and then on-level students through the day.  As I scanned the rosters and seating charts, I noticed that each class had about 20 students who sat in table clusters of 3-5.  Very manageable I thought to myself!

Even in middle school, the teachers have a reward/punishment system.  Mrs. Whitmore let me know that I had the authority to dispense rewards in the form of school blue bucks which give special privileges.  In addition, she had developed her own in-class reward system with blue raffle tickets.  These reward methods incentivized good individual behavior.  She also employed a third reward system for good team behavior.  On the blackboard for each class, she had five hollow squares that made room for printing the word J-O-L-L-Y.  As the class demonstrated good behavior another letter was added.  With bad behavior, Mrs. Whitmore would erase a letter.  When a class spelled JOLLY, they were all rewarded with an extra break and a Jolly Rancher candy.  Are we in elementary school?  Does bribery with candy still work?

When the first bell rang, the kids started to file in and grabbed the worksheet that was stationed on the shelf.  The kids were very friendly, greeting me and asking questions.   After introducing myself as Mrs. Dillon and taking the roster, I explained their teacher had left detailed instructions for multiple assignments that I would take the class through over the next two hours.  The first assignment was easy and appeared to be routine, because when I said they would have 10 minutes of silent reading, they immediately pulled out their books.  The room was so quiet!  Off to a good start.  Next, the students were to fill in two blanks of a sentence pertaining to a question about their book.  Except for Frank*, who would not do any work and just rested his head down on his desk, everyone was focused on the assignments at hand.  I learned later that Frank was either not taking his medications at home or needed a higher dose as it was affecting his ability to wake-up and engage his mind.  Mrs. Whitmore had called his parents to inform them of his class behavior.  During the second half, Frank’s medication kicked in, his brain woke up, and so did his disruptive behavior.

Then they had the worksheet to complete on similes and metaphors for the remainder of the first block.   As opposed to the other classes to come, this first on-level class was not to work with partners, and the teacher gave strict instructions for them to work alone.  I had to address the students many times with, “No talking.  This is not a group activity,” or “If you’re done you can read independently.  No talking so your classmates can concentrate and finish.”   About two-thirds of the students completed the worksheet, and the other third could have finished but instead chose to goof around despite my continual warnings of how much time was left before I collected the papers.  These kids did not seem to care whether they completed the assignment for a grade.  Despite academic performance, these kids were relatively well-behaved.

The bell rang, signaling end of first period, and the kids rushed out of the room for their 5-minute break to use the bathroom or socialize with friends before starting the second half of the block.  The next assignment was 10 minutes of vocabulary.  Only a few minutes i-am-poem-templateinto this assignment, Mrs. Martinez* walked into the classroom.  I greeted her at the door and asked how I could help her?  She explained that for this on-level class a para-teacher floats among the classrooms to provide supi-am-poem-instructionsport.  With only 20 kids, I did not understand why the school needed the additional expense.  She was here to stay for the remainder of the period.  As she walked around the room interacting with the kids, I noticed the class dynamics changed.  Everyone started talking, and I eventually lost control of the students. Why did Mrs. Martinez approach kids who were diligently working on their assignment and start a conversation?  I repeatedly had to announce, “Focus on your work, please.  This does not require discussion.”  They did not listen.  What is going on with the group dynamics?  Are the students falling into regular behavior patterns with her presence?  I continually paced the room, occasionally parking myself near the table of students who were most disruptive.  I had to use the evil eye a few times to get compliance.

The last assignment was the “I am” poem.  I explained I would be handing out two sheets of paper.  One sheet was the partial poem and the other the instructions on how to complete it.  This poem was based on introspection and self-reflection.  After handing out both pieces of paper and instructing them to glue both sheets into their Writer’s Notebook, I watched as most of the class became parallelized. Only a handful of students were thinking and writing, thinking and writing.  The first line of the poem required them to choose and write two adjectives that described themselves to complete the sentence of I am….   Apparently, this was a stumper question.  The noise level increased as they murmured their frustration.  I said to the class, “This should be easy; this poem is about you, and you know yourself best.”  More blank stares.  Students responded with “I don’t know what I am,” and “This is too hard!”  I was baffled.  I then added, “If you are having difficulty filling in the first line, go to the next and then come back.”  The second line was I wonder…, and I said, “Complete the line with something you are curious about or wonder about.”   More blank stares.  My suggestions and the students’ responses continued in the same vein.   Every other assignment which required answering questions about what was read or learned was a simpler task for these students than pulling information from their heads and hearts—answers that are neither right or wrong.  Since I could not believe their responses, I rationalized that maybe it was an issue with this class—they had lost concentration by the disruption of the para-teacher.  I would test this assumption during the second block—an above-level class with no para-teacher.

Meanwhile, I could not wait until this class was over.  The students kept asking me if I was going to give Mrs. Whitmore a bad report about their class.  My response was, “I guess you will find out tomorrow.”  I kept asking myself, “Am I in elementary school?”  The dynamics were dysfunctional, and my words and instructions fell on deaf ears.  I even had to threaten pushing the button to bring in the AP.   Then Mrs. Martinez, who has not helped me in the least to encourage good behavior, tells the kids to listen to me which falls on deaf ears again.  The bell rang early because of the mandatory DEAR program.  Interesting concept—on specific days, all school activities stop at an appointed hour and everyone reads a book for 15 minutes.  DEAR could not get here soon enough.

The second block students were identified as above-level.  Their behavior was great the first half, but upon starting the “I am” poem, they too, started complaining, wringing their hands, and racking their brains.  This was an independent assignment and the chatter was loud.  I had difficulty getting them to focus, so they could work through the poem.  Many could not complete it.  After 40 minutes, some had a few lines written on their paper, and some had blank lines.  This was an above-level class?  I was awestruck regarding the mental aptitude and capabilities of these students.  Are these 6th graders who cannot answer simple questions about themselves?

Fast forward to my third block.   Although this experiment is over, and my initial conclusions drawn, I am holding out hope for this last on-level class.   The same pattern was repeated.   I kept repeating to the students, “You know yourself better than anyone.  This should be easy.”  My words fell on deaf ears.  I struggle in how to reconcile what I experienced.  My only explanation was this assignment was atypical, in that the students were asked to not just spit back information taught but were required to have some creativity, independent thinking, and self-reflection.  I believe this assignment challenged them to think differently.

I am gravely concerned that the Texas public education system is teaching to pass the STAAR Test and nothing more.  We are not cultivating the ability to think independently, tap into creativity, or problem-solve, which are critical life skills for success.  We are creating a bunch of academic robots, who store information, retrieve it from their memory banks, and spit it back upon request.   What a disservice!

If I could choose one word to describe what I have I experienced as a substitute teacher in six different classroom settings, that one word would be IDIOCRACY.  Several years back a friend suggested I watch a fictional movie called IDIOCRACY (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiocracy) with a story line that describes what America has achieved 500 years into the future.  After watching this black comedy, it reminded me of the expression “the dumbing down of America.”   As I continue to walk through the classrooms of our public education system, I think we, as society, are laying the foundation in making IDIOCRACY a reality. Truly terrifying!

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of teachers and students.