OPTIMISM AND REALITY IN DISADVANTAGED SCHOOLS

Bill Kerr, AST1, Paralowie R12 School, May, 2000

LIFTING THE LID:

If the truth is unpalatable and creates pessimism, then what should we do: abolish the truth, abolish pessimism or have the courage to look reality in the eye?

Bland, official, precise optimism is the stock in trade of the cardboard castle in Flinders Street and Xpress Spotlight features, "Early Literacy Project, which has achieved a 96.3 per cent success rate" (Vol. 3 No. 7, p.11). Why doesn't Xpress ever talk about our disappointments or failures? Isn't that part of reality too? Are we expected to feel guilt if our students don't always achieve? Or is the intention to turn us all into workaholics, a socially more acceptable disease?

In Disadvantaged Schools are optimistic slogans like "achievement for all" a legitimate method of raising expectations and promoting a positive school image or are they a sophisticated form of self deception? I disagree with bland optimism and image building if it is being used to conceal unpalatable realities that lie just below the surface. I don't think anyone is about to seriously argue that "achievement for all" is an accurate description of current reality in Disadvantaged Schools, so what does it describe?

In favour of the optimism, one could argue that those with a "can do" mentality are more likely to achieve than those who start off with the sentiment that "it's all too hard." But, to be realistic, can positive expectations and determination to find a way really overcome the disadvantage of social class (with growing elements of a lumpen subculture) that we encounter regularly in Disadvantaged Schools? Do we have the resources or even a plan to work out solutions "in house" or should this one be handballed back to the education bureaucrats and politicians for a harder look at the reality? Who is responsible? Who should be responsible?

Yes, I agree we have many great kids attending our Disadvantaged schools. But I have also been party to discussions of late along the lines, "we can't save this one, it's best if we stop trying so we can put our energy into those good kids who deserve it." and "there are just a hundred kids or so who are stuffing it up for everyone else." Not that FAYS or Bowden-Brompton are too keen to act on or accept the ones we find too hard to deal with because, of course, their waiting lists are even longer than ours.

Not even seven years teaching at Paralowie R12 School quite prepared me for the experience of teaching a Year 9 Science class there this year. This is just a snapshot of what is happening with one Year 9 class in a Disadvantaged school. I'd invite others to come forward and share their experiences too. I know I'm not alone. An earlier draft of this article has received strong support, even expressions of palpable relief, from many of my teaching colleagues.

EXPERIENCE WITH ONE YEAR 9 CLASS:

I began teaching my Year 9 Science class with a positive frame of mind. From the outset I believed that maintaining my own morale would be the key to a successful year with this class. I would be firm but friendly. I would build a positive rapport with the class by taking them out early in the year on an excursion. I would be flexible and negotiate the curriculum when required. I would set clear and realistic expectations and insist that they be met. I would prepare my lessons conscientiously, mark student work promptly, etc. etc.

From day one all of these wonderful plans have been undermined by the majority of students in the class. Most of them believe that school sux, that science sux and that to show any interest in learning is not cool. This has happened despite the fact that we do run a genuinely innovative programme in Year 8, as part of Middle School reform. These negative attitudes are not new to me but my considerable efforts to turn them around have not been very successful. What is new this year is the appalling attendance of most of the students. Only 11 students out of the 29 have had reasonable attendance (3 or less lessons absent out of 19 possible lessons), while another 9 students have had appalling attendance (7-16 lessons absent). It's not really possible to create a stimulating learning environment in a classroom where the majority are switched off mentally and many can't even be bothered attending.

My efforts to establish and maintain basic participation and performance expectations for most of the students have not been successful. I'm talking about basics like writing down notes in a book, listening to the teacher when he or she is talking ("Hello, has anyone got a mirror, I want to check if I still exist!"), doing some homework occasionally, students participating in the lesson to the best of their ability. Most students are not interested in doing these things.

My plan to build class rapport through an excursion early in the year didn't work out as intended. When asked beforehand if they wanted to go on an excursion to the Science Investigator Sports Science exhibition everyone present put their hand up in favour. But on the day before the excursion the numbers who had paid were so low that I visited the class and asked why. Some gave lame excuses while others were up front and told me they never intended to go and would take the day off school. After I argued with them, pointing out that they had put their hand up to go, some of them decided to go after all, otherwise the excursion attendance would have been even worse. As it was only 18 out of 29 attended the excursion.

Only 9 students out of 29 have a complete set of book notes even though 2 catch up lessons in school time were provided (for book and assignment work), in view of poor attendance.

The topic we studied in term 1 was the Human Body. I've tried to make the work interesting by asking students what their questions are and by setting Project work. I've avoided being up the front talking all the time, I've provided lots of choice and tried other new ideas, some of which have been relatively successful.

One student requirement was to give a short talk to the class on a topic they could choose (anything to do with human body systems, any disease or anything to do with medicine). Lots of research time (at least 5 hours) was provided beforehand. In the end only 9 students out of 29 managed to present a talk to the class.

After some hesitation, I did give the class an end of term test. This was closed book but open ended. The question was write down anything you have learnt in Science this term, or, ask some good questions about the topics we have been studying. A comprehensive list of cue words were white boarded to jog memories. Only 10 students could think of 10 or more things to write down.

There are some great kids in this class and all of them have an interesting story to tell, some sad, some bizarre, some tragic and some amusing. I'm still in there, I'm still trying to stay positive and I'm still trying out new ideas and strategies to see what works. I haven't given up. However, I've also decided that the problem is not just mine, that we need to look below superficial slogans like "achievement for all" to the reality of what is really going down in Disadvantaged Schools.

ANALYSIS: CLASH OF SUB CULTURES

Pat Thomson has pointed out that we are at risk of forgetting the very language by which we talk about Disadvantage. This has been replaced with sub goals about literacy, behaviour and VET. Curriculum documents are written in comfortable offices with the belief that they will be implemented, without any real awareness of the gigantic struggle occurring daily in some Disadvantaged School classrooms. It's as though the kids (and teachers) don't have real lives, which profoundly affect them, outside of their schooling.

My contention is that communication up and down the system cannot possibly work if the cultural expectations of different groups (the kids culture, the teachers culture and Geoff Spring's culture) within the system are radically different. We are not all talking the same language.

It is hard to find the right words for this but within Disadvantaged schools there is a growing lumpen sub culture. This is not a healthy rebellious working class culture. It's more of a lost generation, a despairing, almost feral subculture of Disadvantage without roots or traditions. Although this is a minority subculture it is growing in size and strength. Its presence in our classrooms is becoming more significant, challenging and intrusive.

Here is a profile of some of the characteristics of this subculture. Most boys from the start of Year 8 think any reading is boring. "I live for sport." Anti social behaviour is simply denied ("I didn't do it"). Many girls are preoccupied with relationships, their books are filled with messages about who loves who and who hates who. This subculture is ignorant of current events (except football, pop scene, drug scene etc.), politics or history (famous Australians are Tom Cruise and Albert Einstein). They are adversarial (argue the point repeatedly). Street language is routinely used in the classroom. Work is a 4 letter word. If I don't understand it in 6 seconds it's not worth it. Drugs are cool (but not cigarettes). Anything that is not immediately entertaining is boring. Quite a few students are not immediately interested in negotiating alternatives when offered. When bored they often ask to go to the toilet and complain a lot if the teacher says, "no". There is significant illiteracy (not only NCP's). It's common for students try to pack up 10 minutes before bell goes to see how teacher reacts. It's OK to run feral for relief teachers, we have power, let's use it to get out of work.

There is a pattern of use of electronic technology by many young people today which contributes to their illiteracy. Foxtel is more popular in Disadvantaged areas than Middle class areas. Houses in these areas often contain 3 or 4 TV's and there is no quite place in the house to go and study. Nintendo games are hugely popular. The Internet is surfed but pages are rarely read.

It is not unusual for this subculture to gain a significant presence in the classroom of the Disadvantaged School. In this context the teacher's subculture is to try to stay positive and achieve what can be achieved with those who want to achieve. It is best to be pragmatic and to be a survivor. Work hard but don't kill yourself. Support each other to enhance survival. Just do what can be done in the time available. A good idea is an idea that is simple and it works, KISS principle. The time and effort teachers have to expend for survival is increasing. This, of course, takes away from the more creative and rewarding moments of our teaching.

Geoff Spring's subculture is to promulgate policies, targets (literacy etc.), curriculum documents and statistics that make it clear that it is the teacher's responsibility to add value to each student in their care. If value is not added then that is teacher's fault. Managers will manage (more important, more money) and teachers will teach. It is not the role of the teacher to examine the big picture. The purpose of extensive standardised testing and statistical data is to demonstrate that more must be done. Practice zero tolerance for those who fail to deliver.

These 3 subcultures are not experiencing the same realities, the questions they ask about what is important and not important to them are different. The different elements of the system are not communicating with each other because their agendas based on their pressing needs are very different.

TEACHERS VOICES

I've tried to be honest in this article but of course it would be foolish of me to claim the last word on such a rubbery concept as reality. What I would like to see is other grass roots voices to come forward and be heard, for their different realities to be recognised. It's hard to predict what would develop from there. But in my view the bottom line is that teacher's voices from the classroom need to end their isolation, to be heard and acknowledged. We are part of the solution, not part of the problem.