Saturday, December 02, 2006

SOS my room is full of boneheads!

Next week is when the lycee holds the conseils de classe. Each evening from 4:15 – 5:45 and from 5:45 – 7:15 all the various teams of teachers which share kids will meet to go over and approve the trimester evaluations/grades for each individual student.

I’ll be attending five or six such meetings next week…more on that in a few days.

One prof principal who heads up the team of teachers for a particular group of secondes (sophomores) called for a meeting last Friday in advance of next weeks conseil de classe. In his note he cited concerns that he had received or overheard in conversatioin from some teachers in our group about this particular group's behavior. He proposed the meeting in order to see if it might help everyone both share concerns and perhaps get on the same page with respect to how address them.

We met in an empty classroom at noon. Everyone on the team (eight of us I think) was there except for one prof who left a letter detailing her impressions. Also present was the guidance counselor. I was very curious to see what would unfold as my own experiences with this group of kids had been up and down. Clearly I had not been alone in this regard.

The prof principal, a physics/chemistry teacher, opened up the meeting by reiterating what he had said in his note to everyone. He characterized his own experiences with the kids as being a bit troublesome though not terrible. He then invited others to share.

A history teacher was the first to go. She had become very frustrated with this group and she vented for a little while on the general lack of attentiveness or concentration, of a singular indisposition to listen or respect the fact that others might want to speak or hear what was being said. She gathered momentum as she went, reciting a litany of complaints. She described a kind of malaise that spread around the room, not something easy to pin on any individual; rather, a syndrome of chattering indifference. She alluded to their slippery ability to evade or deny responsibility, to feign incomprehension or naivete. She was at her wits end, she said, in part because she had never experienced these problems to this degree with any prior class in all her years of teaching. She then invoked the plight of certain kids in the class who wanted to learn but who were undermined utterly by the overall lack of seriousness in the room.

Because she was so frustrated and animated I couldn’t always make out everything she said but the occasional phrase rang out and disclosed volumes….”tete de mule” and "franchement nulle" were two that I recall. She told of a recent dispiriting experience where had tried to engage her students on the subject of genocide but had had to abandon her lesson plan due to their active and impenetrable disinterest in anything she was saying.

I had a quick flashback to seventh grade… a memory of being chastised by a teacher for cracking jokes in the back of the room during a filmstrip on the Holocaust…guiltily, I looked at my French colleague , hoping that my face was conveying an expression of empathy and not disclosing my own adolescent degradations of things sacred to her. I had meant no harm then…but I had greatly offended my seventh grade teacher who had wondered aloud and pointedly whether anyone who would be so flip while horrific images of Nazi ovens human corpses were being projected on our classroom walls could have any human decency whatsover in him. Her words had missed their mark then, as I was invincibly ignorant and had no other thought than to measure the amount of attention or laughter I could attract to myself. But now, four decades later, I was hearing her words again and suddenly, irrationally, I felt the reproach. I wondered …had I really repented, or did an important of me yet reside with that insouciant seventh grader?

Meanwhile, back in the present tense, the history teacher had obviously struck a chord with those present because there followed a series of reiterations of her main points, less strident perhaps than hers but essentially in agreement. I even chimed in here and there…specifically I mentioned how I had punished the class just the previous week by making them copy by hand a text from their books, for twenty minutes they had toiled away in their copybooks, their heads down, while I sat impassively at my desk and pondered the wreckage of my lesson plan and the outlines of our common future. Might it not include frequent stretches of manual labor like this, manual labor, rote work, dictation? …some other time I may explore the ways in which being in a different culture in a far away place can sometimes lead one to abandon certain premises that one previously held as axiomatic (never use writing as a form of punishment). Come to think of it Joseph Conrad already did that didn’t he?...I jest of course but not entirely.

After a good half hour of this group venting the prof principal asked us to consider what me might attempt to do in response to this problem. It was here that the guidance counselor made it known that she was willing to call parents at any time. There was some positive response to this though at least one teacher voiced skepticism about the efficacy of parent involvement…she cited examples where parents had been alerted, promises made, and then no follow up, leaving everyone back at square one with that much less leverage to wield with the student. The subject of exclusion came up…also I heard something about Wednesdays (Wednesdays are half days…therefore afternoon detention exists at least in theory as a kind capital punishment, but itwould also require teachers to give up even more of their personal time).

The mention of Wednesdays, triggered a comment from me about consequences. From my point of view in the classroom, one of the chief consequences resulting from the behaviors we’d been describing was the loss of instructional time. Time is equally precious to students I said. Perhaps if they were to lose some of their own time… I quickly added that I did not personally like collective punishments (flatly contradicting what I myself had said ten minutes earlier about I’d done the previous week).

I was beginning to make myself a little uneasy…it was as I didn’t trust myself not to simply say things that would cause heads in the room to nod approvingly. I decided to shut up and listen.

The meeting lasted forty five minutes. At one point we went down the entire class roster. A few teachers offered personal insights into some kids, the sort of thing that isn’t evident otherwise…a broken home, a personal history between two kids, a transfer student…

The prof principal expressed his view that this meeting was a far better forum for the views expressed than the conseil de classe next week would have been since it had allowed for a more frank and colleaguial conversation than would have been likely or even desirable in the presence of students, parents, and administrators.

In the end it was agreed that we would as a group put this group on a short leash. Infractions would trigger the consequence of writing what is called a mention in the offending student’s carnet . At the end of class, instead of heading out to the courtyard or to their next class, the cited student would be obliged to report to la vie scolaire where the guidance counselor would sign the carnet and follow up with a phone call to a parent. The second such offense would require the parent to sign the carnet before the student could be readmitted. The third offense might result in what is called exclusion. Monday, therefore, marks therefore the beginning of a new regime for this group of 30 kids.

For those of you not terribly interested in the intricacies of school culture this post may seem to be belaboring certain points, but this episode strikes me as noteworthy for a couple of reasons.

First, it represents an action initiated entirely by teachers in concert with one another in response to perceived problem/need involving students. The actin itself is more or less indistinguishable from the kind of policy which might be put forth in a faculty meeting…but the intention animating this action is, I think, a very important, and to my mind different dimension from what transpires normally back home. The teachers in this team have pledged to one another to follow through in an effort to impact a specific group of kids with whom they are all very familiar.

Second, it highlights an intrinsic benefit to having teacher teams…the possibility of collaboration. The logistics of such a meeting as I just described are next to impossible without such a structure…but in this case all it took was an alert prof principal, a single note and some quick conversations in the salle de prof to set and confirm the meeting. On the whole I came away feeling impressed by the initiative and the resolve displayed by everyone involved. Time will of course tell the full story.



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