Sunday, January 6, 2013

The hallway of shame

      If I were asked to name the one issue that most easily sums up the disconnect between parents and teachers, I would have to say, "Homework!" My personal philosophy on this topic caused all sorts of panic in a former coworker who feared I was allowing my special education students to get away with something every time I didn't assign them homework.
     It was painful, but I managed to hold my tongue most of the time.
     Children with educational labels for disabilities and those receiving support in learning English are unique, and we manage to remind them of this repeatedly during the course of a school day.
     Sometimes, they are removed from class and taught separately with the other talkative, impulsive and brown-skinned children. A more inclusive approach allows a speducator to come to them with support as they learn side-by-side their peers.
     Never is it more obvious just how different these children are than during testing time at the end of the year. All sorts of special conditions are needed to make sure boys, minority students and the children of immigrants fill in the correct bubble. A popular one around here is the "mark in test booklet" accommodation, which allows the teacher to bubble for them.
     The students who are left behind to take their tests in the classroom aren't a very diverse group. Like their classroom teacher, they tend to be white females who usually turn in their homework on time. What does that tell us about the traits we are most willing to label as disabilities?
     When it comes to homework, all those differences suddenly vanish as everyone is expected to do the same thing the same way all the time. There are little alterations, as indicated in students' IEPs, but not to the extent needed.
     Homework is meant to allow students to independently practice skills learned in class. Parental involvement should be minimal.
     It makes no sense to assign a child homework he cannot complete without help from an English-speaking adult who is familiar with the subject, but that is exactly what we are dishing out in schools five days a week.
     I have experienced the frustration of being a parent whose child was overwhelmed with assignments he lacked the skills to complete, and I have advocated as a speducator for others to consider the unique needs of my students. Very few people are willing to take the time to consider what it takes to finish homework in someone else's home with someone else's special needs. It's so much more comfortable to stay with what we know and keep walking the familiar path.
     Individual teachers are not consciously trying to hold back children; they are simply suffering from a limited ability to see things from another's point of view. This tendency is often attributed to people with autism in discussions about a "theory of the mind." I have met more educators than students with "theory of the mind" issues.
     When a teacher expects a child with an intellectual disability, no computer at home and a single parent working two jobs to complete the same homework as his affluent, highly intelligent classmate, she obviously has a difficult time seeing things from another perspective.
     A child who cannot complete homework independently will have limited academic success. We are sealing his fate in society every time we expect him to miraculously do at home the same tasks he needs help with at school.
     I have seen it happen as children who did not complete their homework were denied the opportunity to learn while their peers went over the answers in class. Instead, they sat out in the hallway on the floor, shamed for exhibiting the very traits that gave them labels in the first place.
     If a child was lucky, his special education/English-language teacher was able to come in early or stay late to help with assignments. But that also required him to catch an early ride to school or a late one home in the afternoon.
    It was too bad if mom or dad was working and could not fit an extra trip to school into their schedule. The child sat in the hallway feeling bad about himself while the "good" children went over their homework.
     Both children are learning something every time this happens. The "good" children learn whatever was being studied in class, and they learn that it sucks to be different or poor. The "bad" children learn about injustice while missing out on skills being reviewed in class. The gap is held firmly in place, and the labels remain.
     The "good" children will go to college, and the "bad" will go wherever they must to survive.