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Four Strikes

written Saturday, 4/22/2006

A disruptive week

We returned from Spring Break on Tuesday. Despite being only four days long, this week was quite tiring.

At the beginning of the school year, I used to come home every day and immediately fall into bed for a nap before planning the next day’s lesson. After a while, I built up the stamina to stay awake until bedtime. Recently though, I’ve reverted back to afternoon napping.

Contributing to the stress this week was a very disrupted schedule. Throughout three of the days, small groups of students were continuously called to assemblies regarding planning of next year’s classes. A field trip for some Spanish classes resulted in numerous students being absent all day Wednesday. On Thursday, “ROTC Day” (Reserve Officer Training Corps) stole many students from their classes. Since all these disruptions were considered “excused absences,” teachers were told to allow students to make up the work that they missed. Easier said than done.

Since the math department just received new textbooks this year, we haven’t been allowed to issue books for students to take home at West Jefferson. The fear is that high student flux would lead to many of our new books being unreturned by the students who leave us abruptly.

As a result of not issuing textbooks, I still haven’t figured out an effective way to have students make up work after absences. The students’ lack of a resource at home is also the reason why some math teachers, including myself, don’t assign homework. All learning and practice takes place during class time, so consistent attendance is crucial to the learning process.

This week, since so many absences were considered “excused,” the burden was on me to somehow accommodate the missing kids. I ended up postponing my usual Thursday quiz until Friday. I spent all day Thursday reviewing the previous week’s material, which appeared to be helpful in all of my Geometry and Algebra 2 classes. I went over numerous problems that looked almost identical to ones that would be on the quiz, and I kept prodding the kids to take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions. And many did ask questions. Even though part of me is opposed to “reviewing” material that was taught only a few days prior, I contemplated doing it more often if it could boost student understanding.

I just started grading the quizzes, and…

Well, back to the drawing board. The review didn’t help as much as I thought.

Even for the students who were present every day this week, the scores are generally abysmal. Six weeks remain in the school year, and I remain clueless about why my students perform so poorly on the tests. I’m sure that almost none of them study (from their notes) in spite of my pleas otherwise. However, a good number at least seem to understand at the most basic level when doing exercises in class. Then, by the next day, they retain absolutely nothing. I just don’t get it.

Fluctuating rosters

When the third quarter began back in January, there was much speculation that the second half of the school year would bring stability to Jefferson Parish schools. Several Orleans schools were opening up, many students would transfer out, and a large number of evacuated families would also choose this time to return and enroll their children. After some initial chaotic shuffling, student populations would then settle.

To a certain degree, things did work out that way. However, I’ve still been surprised by how frequently students continue to appear, disappear, and reappear in my classes over the last four months.

Hardly a week has gone by without some kind of change in my rosters.

The additions always invoke instant anxiety for me. As I try my best to smile and make them feel welcome, I’m always wondering: Is this a “good” or “poor” student, academically speaking? Will this student be a behavior problem? Often the answers take a little time to reveal.

I’ve mentioned before how a few students have disappeared for up to two months, but never been removed from my roster. Then, just when they’ve almost slipped from my memory, they show up again. Often the reported cause for their long absences is some sort of problem at home that they’re not willing to discuss in much detail. I sympathize, yet wonder how much of my time I should invest in trying to catch them up. After all, I’ve found their reappearances are often only temporary.

Quite often students have been suddenly dropped from my roster. Rarely are these my better students, and I admit feeling a guilty sense of relief. Whether I personally like a kid or not, it pains me to see any student not succeed in my class, so I don’t mind having one less F to assign when grading tests or issuing report cards. On the other hand, it’s still an odd feeling to see any child day after day, and then without any foretelling, discover that I’ll never see him or her again. It’s so sudden, and raises so many questions for me. I wonder what resulted in their disappearance. Could something have been done to reach them more effectively? Where are they now? Are they finding better success elsewhere, or just more of the same struggles?

In some cases, I suspect that the student has been kicked out of school. A couple times, this suspicion has been confirmed. This week, for the first time, I had a hand in a student being dropped.

On Tuesday, I cautioned two boys in my 2nd-period Geometry class about their disruptive and vulgar behavior. Any further outbursts by anyone would earn a lunch detention. NW, a 20-year-old junior, also has a history of acting ignorant in my class. He ignored my warning and started cussing at another student. As I brought the lunch detention form over for him to sign, he blurted, “Man, get out of my face with that sh**,” and continued to fuss and curse. Of course, he didn’t sign the form or show up to serve the lunch detention. I sent a referral to the discipline office.

The next day the discipline dean stopped by my classroom and informed me that this was the fourth suspension for NW this year. “What do you want us to do about it?” he asked. I was caught off guard. Officially, four suspensions mean an automatic expulsion for the rest of the school year. I was apparently being offered the option of rescinding my referral if I wanted to spare NW from expulsion. My reply may have been partially an emotional response, as I’ve grown weary of the blatant disrespect and obnoxiousness exhibited by some students. I said something to the effect of “If [NW] already had three suspensions, he should have known to be on his best behavior.”

On Friday, NW didn’t show up for class. I checked my roster on the computer, and he was no longer listed. I wonder if his other teachers are now startled by his disappearance, and pondering what happened to him.

Were my actions based on emotion, or reason and clearly-defined rules? Should I have withdrawn my referral once I found out it was the fourth one for NW? Would a little mercy on my part have given him a critical final chance to succeed in this school, or did his “fourth strike” indicate that he didn’t know how to succeed in this school? Will expulsion teach NW a valuable lesson about actions and consequences, or just kill any last hope he had for graduating? What’s the difference between “tough love” and an unfeeling school system that doesn’t know how to deal with children’s individual problems effectively?

I don’t know how to feel about the whole incident. Now that it’s over, I think I ought to move past it and focus on the students who are still with me. After all, my one referral was no more responsible for NW’s expulsion than any of the other three referrals. Ultimately, doesn’t NW bear the responsibility for all four of them?

If there’s a lesson that I ought to learn from this, I hope I’m perceptive enough to see it.