Outside the door of my high school classroom in San Jose is a newly placed “Welcome Mat”. I want all those supervisors, parents, and legislators to know that they are welcome in my room, anytime, to listen, observe, and comment. Please come by to witness first-hand a classroom at a so-called “under-performing” school.
Each morning when I greet the students, my room is clean, and I am ready with a lesson plan designed to increase their skills and knowledge. The agenda for the day is posted on the board along with a list of the specific materials needed. Handouts are there, with a stack of extras stored for the students who are absent.
Alas, on any given day, despite my academic and personal welcome mat, 20 -30% of my students do not show up. Out of 25 students this means 5 to 8 are missing. Remember when we were young, missing a day of school was akin to forgetting to write a “thank you” note to grandma, or not brushing your teeth until they turned green. It simply wasn’t done without a special dispensation from the parent.
That is no longer the case. Many of my students have missed 20, 30, even 40 or more days of school, and this without a chronic medical condition. The repercussions of their empty seats are endless. They miss the introduction of the topic, the background information, the layer of clarification and checking for comprehension, the full-class practice with the material, the independent practice, and the discussion about what has been learned or what learning has been extended.
Why are students absent? Let’s move beyond the standard reasons, illness, or appointments. Some parents keep students home to watch their siblings while the parent works. Some female students, never male, are home taking care of their own child, not a sibling. Often, students get up late and decide not to come. After all, the parents are gone, working hard for their money, and the student is left home alone. In truth, mom or dad may never know that his or her child hasn’t gone to school, particularly because the truant student is adept at intercepting calls from the Attendance Office, or tearing up notes from the Administration Office.
The results of absenteeism, plus a chronic disinterest in doing any rigorous work in the classroom or at home, are depressingly low GPAs. Far too many below 1.0, a D. In addition to being three to four years behind in basic educational competencies, these students don’t know how to learn. One example of a skill unknown to my students: Outlining – This skill was first introduced in 4th grade, and is a part of the California Standards for that year. Outlining is a pre-write process that helps students distinguish topics from sub-topics and sub-topics from details – a critical cognitive skill set. Partner the lack of basic skills with low level vocabulary, poor study habits, and a general disinterest in intellectual pursuits and you have the iconic “under-performing” student.
“So bring them up to snuff,” you say. “I do, I try”, says I. But it is rather, as one colleague put it, like asking a doctor to transform a stage four cancer patient into a stage one cancer patient. Stage one is treatable. Stage four usually means it is time to pick your plot in the nearest cemetery. Despite this, at my school, teachers don’t give up. They show up daily, creating effective lesson plans, and bringing new energy to nearly unattainable goals.
Three things need to happen in the public arena. One – A national push to encourage student studies. Two – More homework and more completed assignments. Learning should not happen solely in the classroom. Three – Visit several schools in your area. Observe. Listen. Sit in the classrooms.
Remember, my welcome mat is out.