Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Privilege of Organization and Human Resources

On Monday night, I wrote a quiz on the English words and phrases that I've been teaching my class and printed out several worksheets and notes to teach afterwards. I felt well prepared to lead a two hour class (the duration of all of my classes) without any awkward pauses or downtime. Surely, this class would pass by without any bumps in the road.

Unfortunately, Tuesday's class ended up being probably the most difficult class yet. The atmosphere of taking a quiz at my school, I quickly learned, is far different from what I'm used to. In the pictures I posted, you might have seen that in my class, the students sit at small tables in groups. This makes it very easy for students to talk to each other and look at each other's papers without it being too noticeable. But my class wasn't too concerned with whether they were being noticed; they simply talked to each other almost constantly. When I demanded silence, specifically instructed them not to talk to their neighbors, and reminded them that we were taking a quiz, they would quiet down for just a few moments and then continue speaking. What made this particularly difficult to manage is that, as all three of us volunteers have noticed, most of the students read outloud to themselves whenever they read. I'm not sure if this is common for most fifth graders, but for kids of various age groups at our school, it is. Thus, it was difficult to keep my eyes on who was exchanging answers and who was just doing their best to read what was on their paper.

When one of the students notified me that our class clown/trouble maker, Luis, was copying his answers from his English notebook, I took away his notebook and test. It would have been a lot easier had I never known, since this gave him nothing to do and invited him to agitate the class. I sat him in the corner of the room, but he continued to whisper across the room with other students, and when I was wasn't looking, peer at other students' quizzes and tell them answers. I did my best to stop him from doing this while also trying to maintain some sort of general quiz-taking environment. Unfortunately, it was never completely quiet, and there probably wasn't a single student in the class that actually completed their quiz without help.

After the quiz, the lack of control and formality of quiz time spilled into class time with full force. Luis continued to cause trouble and distraction, now reinforced by the rest of the boys. As I tried to lead lessons and activities, most of the boys didn't pay attention or purposefully disrupted, while half of the girls payed attention and half didn't. Rather than a useful class, it was more of an exercise for me in trying to control a completely hectic and disorganized clasroom. When I did successfully encourage the class to repeat phrases several times and copy them into their notebooks, I was disappointed by their inability to reproduce even the simplest phrases on command. After making it clear several times what a question meant and putting a variety of possible answers on the board, having them repeat them several times with the equivilents in Spanish, the kids still rarely understood how to respond. Considering that when I started 6th grade Spanish, I found it incredibly easy, it seemed to me like my students are well behind their potential ability to read and comprehend new words and phrases.

As draining as this experience was, in many ways it was also depressing. The chaotic classroom is taxing for me, but more importantly, it significantly hinders these students' ability to learn. The more I've worked in this school, the more I am reminded that organization and consistency can be powerful privileges. Calling to mind Peggy McIntosh's famous essay, Unpacking the Knapsack, in which McIntosh creates a giant list of the privileges she is awarded due to being white, I started to think of some of the many ways that my elementary school (as well as my middle school and high school, all public, like the elementary school in which I work), and other elementary schools in well-funded areas, enjoy the privileges of rigid organization aided by plentiful human resources and bureaucracy. As much as I hated these things as an angsty, rebellious kid, and even with the many problems that plague all rigidly organized schools, it's now clear as day how much those privileges aided my learning. What follows is just a few of the ways that my elementary school, and other elementary schools like it, benefit from these organizational and human resources. Everything mentioned on this list is something that is not present at my school.

  • Behavioral conduct for taking quizzes and tests were taught at a very young age and reinforced in consistent manners as children grew up. These standards of behavior were enforced with increasing strictness and more serious consequences as children got older. Because of this, it was less likely and more difficult for students to help each other during quizzes and tests and more likely to think for themselves and evaluate their grasp on a given subject.
  • Worksheets were frequently distributed for both in and out of class purposes. This is easy at schools that have a printer in every classroom and at least one giant printer/photocopying machine. With worksheets, students are offered straightforward ways to practice what they are learning in class, where teachers can help them, and at home. Grading each and every students' homework was a surmountable task, since all of the worksheets were the same. With the aid of worksheets, children were able to clearly understand how well they are performing in a given subject area. Teachers saved time by being able to reuse previously created worksheets and download and print worksheets from the internet and by more quickly and accurately assessing student performance.
  • Poorly-behaved children (like I was) were able to be dealt with through several channels. One was being sent to a principle or vice principle who would determine punishment. Punishment could be given with different levels of severity, all of which are understood by the student, and all of which can result in further punishment if they are repeat offenses. Detention was an option, since there were school employees available to supervise that time period. Recess privileges could be taken away and replaced with boring, sitting time, since employees were available to supervise that as well.
  • Recess and lunch time were supervised by school employees rather than teachers. This allowed for a relatively safe recess time, since these employees' sole responsibility was to maintain a safe recess environment. Teachers were able to take a reasonable break from their loaded schedules and meet with other teachers to coordinate and organize comprehensive curricula and activities. Surely, the ability of the teachers to have time at work away from students (including class periods in which they did not teach) allowed for better course planning.
These are just a few ways that my school was organized in ways that fostered my learning. My school was far from perfect, but I'm sure that if I wanted to, I could come up with a much longer and comprehensive list of privileges that I enjoyed in that school. In contrast, the school in which I work here has significantly less resources and is organized much differently. If a child is encroaching on a class's abillity to function, they cannot be sent away or subjected to well-established disciplinary action, since there's nowhere for that child to go and no bureaucratic disciplinary systems to throw at them. Class materials are usually hand made by teachers, if used at all, and usually don't have much to take home other than their notebook. As I've described, these notebooks are often full of incomplete notes about information which may or may not be understood by them. There is no after school homework help or resources for aiding study, and there is no time during the day in which teachers are free to grade and plan independently of students.

Of course, many schools in the states suffer from similar problems, as well as completely different problems that just as severely hinder learning. I'm aware that my elementary school is a privileged one, and that even with the privileges that the school provided, many children were less successful than I was due to countless factors. And none of this is to say that the kids don't learn or the school doesn't function, and my understanding of how the school does function is still limited.

Instead, I consider these observations illustrations of how powerful privilege is and how deeply it permeates our identities and lives. Childhood is an integral stage in a person's development; it is the best time to absorb information and develop a firm grasp on fundamental skills. The further behind a child is on her fundamentals in elementary school, the further behind she will be as she ages, and the less likely it will be for her to break out of the debilitating conditions of poverty and oppression. Rather than being far behind us, the amount of privilege or oppression we experienced in various facets of our lives as children are almost-essential components of our personalities. Privilege, or lack of privilege, shapes us from the moment we set foot in our first institution.


  1. Jon,

    I thought you said you weren't gonna be teaching English? You were pretty adamant from what I recall.

    I'm surprised and inspired by your passion for elementary education. I like the bit about childhood being an integral stage for the development of fundamental skills. I find myself thinking about this a lot...

    It's interesting to read about your problems with classroom control cuz we spend a good amount of time discussing it in my education classes. I definitely suggest you do some research on classroom management, it might help you.

    I hear you on the lack of resources/bureaucratic systems but I am confident in your creative ability to run a productive and effective classroom with whats available.

    First, sending that troublesome kid to the principle wouldn't get at the root of the problem. You gotta take him out of his comfort zone. Either relocate him to sit with another group or make him sit next to you (and from the sounds of it you may have to go w the latter). If he's got no one to talk to or entertain he'll have a chance to reflect on his actions and to start paying attention.

    Second, try and capitalize on these students' apparent inclination for working in groups. Rather than having these quizzes be individual assessments, have the students work together and maybe present in front of the class. This way you're encouraging learning and a peer support system rather than punishing it.

    Third, don't let this bad day repeat itself and spiral further out of control. Set and reinforce the tone for the classroom. Let them know that you will not tolerate disrespectful and distracting behavior, all while hopefully maintaining a positive environment.

    I hope you find this helpful. I'm sure you're doing a kick ass job.

    p.s. I really wanna photoshop your photos into fake campaign ads so keep your eyes peeled.


  2. Hey Gordan,

    Thanks again for reading and providing thoughtful comments and advice. And thank you for the reassurance.

    First and foremost, I was uncomfortable with the idea of teaching english, but I reconsidered later. My thoughts on that are in this post ( To be honest, while education is definitely a passion of mine, elementary education isn't exactly my calling. Either way, I'm learning a lot and trying to be as productive as I can in this situation.

    I like your ideas, and I will try to incorporate them into the classroom. I've had them do presentations in front of the class, but sometimes difficult to maintain tranquility when most of the students are left waiting around. Somehow I will figure out a balance for that, though. I think that incorporating group work is an important recommendation.

    Also, please make fake campaign ads for me. That would be hilarious and awesome. More photos soon for that...