I’ve got a few hours to spare on a Friday night while doing my laundry. A few hours at Institute is a precious thing. Every moment of the 80-hour work week is scripted and the lesson planning, seminars, and classroom prep takes up almost every waking moment. While others are taking a break and going out to a club, I’m catching up on my laundry and preparing to drive to Oklahoma City in the morning.
I’ve reached the halfway mark of Induction/Institute and my family will be coming out to Oklahoma shortly. This depends on my having somewhere to put them, of course. Tomorrow’s mission is to find and secure an apartment. The achievement gap will have to wait a couple of days for me to take care of that important business.
Speaking of the achievement gap, we’re teaching summer school. Although my fall placement is to teach high school English, here in Tulsa at Institute, I’m teaching rising fourth graders to read. All the students in my collaborative team’s class failed a state reading test that is required for them to enter fourth grade. Our job is to get them to move forward one level in four weeks. They are good kids, but it’s going to be tough.
What drives me now is that I know them. I know their personalities and a little about their histories. The achievement gap has a real face on it now. Considering that most states use third- or fourth-grade reading test results as a factor in calculating future prison construction (there is a direct correlation between the ability to read and the possibility of a person ending up in prison), I looked at my kids the other day and wondered which one of them would go to prison because I didn’t get them to read adequately. It’s a heavy burden to take on. With that kind of consequence riding in the balance, it’s worth all the long days and all the planning to try to make a difference.
I believe that there’s more to it than just teaching reading strategies and vocabulary. It has to do with communicating a vision to these kids that they can change and own their future. If I can make that connection, it’s possible to change their trajectory. These are good kids who simply have trouble reading. In some cases, it’s because there’s only one parent and she works two jobs to take care of the family. In some cases, divorce has gutted the supervising parent’s ability to help the child. In other cases, there are second-language issues, or economic difficulties.
In our class, because the Olympics is coming up soon, we chose the class theme to be about the Olympics. We’ve decorated the class with Olympic decorations and we’ve set our behavior management system up with some sports imagery as well–like getting “yellow-carded” in soccer. I went looking for an Olympics video to show the kids and I remembered this one. The metaphor for the achievement gap is incredibly powerful in it.
You may remember Kari Strugg, the 1996 Olympic gymnast who won everyone’s heart. During the vault event, the entire hopes for the first US women’s gymnastic teams medal ever, fell upon her shoulders. Three gymnasts before her had fallen during their landing, an almost unheard-of phenomenon. Everyone assumed the US Team was cracking under the pressure. Kari went to do her jump and she fell also.
It turns out that she seriously injured her leg on the jump. At first, everyone though it was a sprain, but it I remember right, she had actually cracked her tibia bone in her leg. Knowing that the team’s hopes depended on her, she tried to “shake off” a broken leg and do another vault. She did it and nailed the landing, only to collapse in extreme pain afterwards. She had vaulted with the injured leg and won the gold medal for the whole team.
Here’s the video of that moment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFn47a_Ny0Y
Now here’s where the metaphor really takes hold. The reason that Kari and the three gymnasts before her fell during their vaults was that SOMEONE HAD LOWERED THE DEVICE from which they were to do their vaults. It wasn’t at the regulation height. Like the achievement gap, someone else’s actions had unfairly set the conditions against their success. There was nothing the gymnasts could have done to alter the conditions. It took champions with faith, a willingness to sacrifice, and the power to endure some pain to obtain the objectives. The way that the achievement gap will be overcome will require the ability for our kids to endure that kind of pain for a short time. My role, as the teacher in this process, is to instill the desire for transformational change–to alter the trajectory of those whose opportunities have been blighted because of setting the bar too low for them.
If ever there was an object-lesson for Teach For America’s mission, this is it. Well, I’m off to tend to my laundry. That’s enough philosophizing for tonight.