Field Journal - first 2 posts
Dave Strecker Harris
ED311 – Cohen
I will be working primarily with three student, José, age 8, Daniel, age 8, and Elena, age 11 at MENTIRA, a Hispanic community center in Norristown.
8 years old
Birthday = June 5th, 2004
Luis – 4th grade
Jose and I work on his homework, the task in front of us. In reality, we were taking in first impressions of each other. I saw shyness in him, but also an unshakable confidence in his work: today was math.
Sometimes he won’t show me his answers as he works, but there’s a slight twinkle of mischief in his eye that makes me think he has a soft heart. I feel he pushes me away somewhat, not physically but with his body language. I start to feel I’m coming across too strong.
He completes an addition exercise involving adding hundreds (e.g. 292+388). He whizzes through them almost boastfully; when I note that one of his answers is incorrect (of the 30, so he got 29/30 correct at a very fast pace), he seems surprised but unfazed.
We move on to the next exercise, another math problem, with coins this time. How do you add money? He starts hiding his answers from me again, and I realize in hindsight that I was probably making him uncomfortable by looking so closely over his shoulder, as if I didn’t expect him to be able to do it correctly himself after I had just seen him blow by question that were, mathematically-speaking, much easier. My intention was to make sure he had a conceptual understanding of how this translated to money, but I can see how he might have interpreted my behavior differently. He finishes the problems in a matter of minutes: all correct. J
Some reflections about José for this week:
- He doesn’t seem to need homework help so I’m going to try to get to know him better rather than (I don’t want to say “wasting time”, but) merely giving adult approval for things he already knows he knows.
- Who is José?
- Why was he shy if he knew he was so good at math? Was he afraid/intimidated by me? First encounter jitters?
To understand children, I feel, we must be able to viscerally remember what it feels like to be a child and the stomach-ache or head-ache or biting nails, however it manifests, that comes along with tasks or interactions that we (as adults or young adults) into which we’ve already been sufficiently socialized as to be more or less emotionally numb (and therefore physiologically numb) to them.
I think back to when I was a kid. Answering our home telephone was terrifying for me; I don’t know why, and I don’t know if I ever will. But regardless of reason or logic, I felt scared when I heard the clank of the phone and would only answer if I was feeling particularly brave that day. And the idea of calling someone else was all the more paralyzing. The fear was so deep I truly felt powerless over doing anything about it. Now, as a 23-year-old, I make phone calls without giving the slightest thought to it at times. No rehearsing what I’m going to say, no hanging up just after dialing, no rush of adrenaline from my adrenal glands sending “fight-or-flight” messages whirling around my body and mind. If 6 year-old me saw me doing that, he would be in sheer awe.
I feel it’s critical to remember that whatever the specific fear (interacting over the phone in my example) or fears, in order to be a compassionate mentor, I have to reframe my perspective and turn on my “8-year-old” lens, remembering that it might be really scary just for a student to come up and sit with me one-on-one. What would I feel like if, at age 8 (2nd grade), a teacher had pulled me out and said, “I’m going to spend an hour with you twice every week for 10 weeks”? I think I would have been scared to death. And maybe some students would be totally comfortable; but there is definitely a spectrum, and I believe assuming the lowest part of the lowest end is the safest way to approach a child initially.
One more personal anecdote, this one from the perspective of my 8-year-old self:
My back is up against the wall. I look out over the colossal cafeteria. Everyone is looking at me. Well us. Me and a few buddies were acting out during lunch, I guess. That’s what Mrs. Blackburn said at least… She got really strict with us (she’s got a short fuse and a fieriness you wouldn’t believe) and pulled us out individually, 4 or 5 of us. We were just having fun, but that feeling collapsed after she gave us a warning and we then we continued to have fun: at that point, she’d had enough. So there we were, laughing nervously amongst ourselves (we were sort of cool for getting in trouble at the same time after all), but my body felt frozen under this weak façade. 15 minutes have never felt longer. Not only was I not going to get a chance to finish my lunch, but what I had gulped down created a sea-sick sort of churning in my stomach. My whole my body is tense, but my stomach aches.
The students leave the cafeteria by grade, but today it’s a tortuously long process. “First graders! Line up! Single file! Don’t forget your lunch boxes! Okay, go! Second grade!....” I watched as my classmates walked past, some with eyes of compassion, others smiling sympathetically in friendship, others laughing quietly in small groups. Finally, after dismissing sixth grade, with an empty cafeteria, she confronts us. She’s not a friendly person to students, that’s a well-known fact. She’s the hard-ass and we all know it. She gives some emotional but totally unmemorable speech that shakes everybody up. Then she declares we’ve been given a warning and to never to that again. With that, we walk out with shaky knees and try to pretend that everything’s fine as we arrive, late, spotlighted, proud, ashamed: it was a roller coaster.
The fear and other emotions I felt in the above anecdotes was real, and tremendous, but from an adult’s perspective, someone who really knows what the stakes are, who has the perspective to realize this is not a life-or-death issue, that maybe it’s just a grumpy lunch lady taking her anger out on somebody.
Being a child necessitates dependence on other human beings. Our parents and other family members or very close friends primarily, and our teachers and classmates secondly. If those human beings aren’t always dependable, it can become a scary, out-of-control-feeling environment to live in, I believe.
I notice some of my own judgment come up as I work with Elena, an 11 year-old, when she seems to stall on 2 last problems, when in actuality it just takes her a while to make her way through them. Inside, however, I think to myself almost desperately, “It’s two more problems! Just finish for Heaven’s sake!” Again, in that situation, I’ve projected my own knowledge/perspective/lens on the problems (6th grade math problems) that to me are easy but are not necessarily easy to an 11-year-old who doesn’t really speak English…
Elena & Daniel
Elena and Daniel are brother and sister, but I wouldn’t have ever guessed it: they look different, and they certainly act differently. Elena was the first student I worked with at ACLAMO, so I was probably as nervous as she was. I think we were both uncomfortable at first, not knowing what language to communicate in (both literally and content-wise), my own not knowing whether she spoke English at or all what her comfort level with the language was. We were sitting 2 feet from each other and yet seemed to have no means of connecting with each other. Gradually, I shifted into Spanish, figuring that might put us in a better position to talk and figure out what to do from there.
To me, Elena appears to be a child who is very shy and even cold on the outside but incredibly warm on the inside. Very kind eyes, and frankly we communicated with or eyes a lot more than we did with our mouths as I tried to convey that this was a safe space, that I was there to be a support, to have fun, and the smile in her eyes communicated to me that she would participate in this little experiment with me.
Elena moves fairly slowly with her work. Her confidence with English is very low, to the point the she will repeatedly correct herself before I even have the chance to tell her that what she said in the first place was actually spot on! She seems bright; my perception is that lacking confidence (likely due to not speaking the dominant language) is the main obstacle between her and the homework in front of her.
I feel I have to be aware of the stereotypes that exist within this context culturally, and the biases that I bring in as a member of upper-middle class white America. In a moment of total frustration, feeling unable to help but not knowing where to take my next step, I found myself thinking, “Look how lazy this kid is! She’s just not applying herself, no wonder she isn’t doing well in school. This is exactly the problem. Latinos are lazy.” (See: the movie, “Crash”)
And yet, members of my culture also complain that Latinos are stealing jobs from America: so are they working the most undesirable jobs in the country for wages most Americans would find insulting or are they lazy? The logic seems to crumble here, and I realize I feel into a moment of taking the easy way out: that is, using a cultural stereotype to avoid having to look at the person in front of me and my own insecurity with the situation.
Competition in the classroom?
“winners” and “losers” – social constructs but very real. If we teach kids that everyone is the same and equal and will be treated as such in life, we are lying to them about a fundamental life truth. Some people are wealthier than others, prejudice exists: this is the world we live in.