A little boy in the back of the class covers his face and cries into his arms when denied the opportunity to read poetry aloud to the class.
This is my second Thursday tutoring in a third grade classroom in Fair Haven elementary school for my sociology class.
This seemed to be a well- behaved class that simply needed some improvement in reading when I was there two weeks ago. However, when I was there this time around, it turned out to not be the case when I dove deeper into the problems of the children.
The fore-mentioned little boy, Niger, cannot read. He can barely spell his own name. Niger is taken out of class everyday for one hour to work on reading. Upon asking what this does for the student, the teacher responds that she feeds him first because he says he is hungry and then he works on reading. The student is extremely skinny and since he gets lunch too, I exclaimed to the teacher that the parents probably do not feed him. “Well, that’s what he says,” responds the teacher. According to Ms. Seely there is little communication between parent and teacher, which is critical in the development of a student’s education.
During lunchtime, I sit around a table of three teachers, in shock at what I am hearing. I ask why Niger wasn’t held back a grade in prior years and I learn that it is against the law to hold special education children back a year. It is also against the law to keep students in special education classrooms by Connecticut law. Ms. Seely instead places Niger next to kids who can help him keep up with the class. This is No Child Left Behind at its finest.
These state laws do not only affect Niger; they affect everyone else in the classroom. The students who are faster learners than the others find themselves bored and develop disciplinary problems. Those students then whisper the answers to the other students which disenables anyone to learn. I noticed the problem during math time two weeks ago, and decided to take out five students to help them with their math for the Connecticut state-wide exam.
I sit with the children but one of the little girls has very basic reading skills. To put it in perspective, she is a reading level 6 which means she is equivalent to 6 months of education in reading. Niger is a level 3. So I ask myself, and the Board of Education, how can this student possibly do well on the math exam when he/she cannot read a word problem?
During writing time, a boy asked me what time it was. I moved over because I thought he could not see the clock. It turns out that his vision was fine, but he did not know how to tell time. I addressed this problem to the teacher and she explained that while it is important to know, the class cannot spend a month on how to tell time.
Another problem that I noticed was their continuous writing errors such as not capitalizing the first letter of each sentence, punctuation and simple spelling mistakes. The teacher writes down words on the board for them to copy. By copying the words, they are not learning. I am going to have them do simple grammar and spelling exercises for next week.
The frustration and disappointment are probably tenfold of the learning difficulties that these students face each day. I have set goals for myself which include a lot of one-on-one interaction to help these students progress in learning instead of having them listen to the same story the teacher reads to them multiple times during a day. (Ms. Seely claims it increases fluency).
There is hope. A program called “Teachers for America” recruits non-education majors with the highest GPAs to agree to teach in inner-city schools for two years upon graduation. According to a University of North Carolina graduate, the program was created in the early 90s to decrease the “achievement gap.” She claims she has been successful in teaching the children and hopes to get an administration job in the future. If this program works, we may see change in common learning problems that elementary children face each day.