After starting a few months ago, and posting a few times a week, I took a hiatus for the month of June to teach underprivileged students through a wonderful program at our local community college. These rising high-school sophomores, juniors, and seniors are all looking towards college. The program through which I taught does some academic preparation, some elective enrichment, and pays the students $150 stipend if they attend and comply with rules.
I taught 4 classes -- three standard English classes and an elective, titled "Strategies for Success" designed to prepare the students to take basic steps towards academic and professional achievement. Every year, as I prepare my curriculum, prepare to differentiate my instruction, design pre- and post-tests, and organize a syllabus, I feel that I will be prepared. And every year I find myself flabbergasted, both by my students' naked, strident greed for knowledge, and by the complete absence of access to it in their environment.
My students are, on average, 15 years old. None of them had a resume, knew what a cover letter was, or were aware of major job search websites like Monster and Career Builder. Not one of them knew, despite the presence of apparently licensed guidance counselors in their schools, that there were above minimum wage jobs available in their town, that colleges granted scholarships for pursuits unrelated to sports, and that all of them qualified for financial aid if they just filled out the FAFSA (which they did not know existed). Most of my students had never read the entire text of MLK Jr's "I have a Dream Speech," had never been to the theater, and had never been inside the zoo located within walking distance of most of their homes, even though it has free events for high school students. Only one of my students had ever considered going to college outside our boring southern state, and that one was facing pressure from family not to go that far.
Most of my students did not know how to spell "conflict resolution" -- never mind apply its basic princliples to everyday interactions. The same goes for "plagiarism" and "professionalism." Most of my students had not been inside a bank, and did not realize that there were savings vehicles available for students their age. Only one of them had heard of an internship, and she immediately went out and got one. 90% were surprised that I had gone to Harvard, which we are required to reveal as part of an educator's bio, but that was because they had thought it was a fictional school. Several confused it with Hogwarts.
The thing that riles me up, and that I am slower to recover from with every exposure, is that when new information is presented, my students, each and every one of them, jump on it like a starving man on bread. I rarely have to explain anything twice. Withing a week of starting my class, my students had each made a fairly professional-looking resume, written cover letters for several jobs, and were practicing interview skills.
When I mentioned that English spelling has regular patterns of spelling based on the derivation of vocabulary from various older languages, and recommended a book, the library called me that evening to complain about a wave of children showing up to check it out. By the following week, my students were proofreading each other's essays and commenting snidely on erroneous spelling based on incorrect assumptions of word derivation.
These students are tested in school until they are blue in the face. They are told that their achievement is a matter of effort, and that they must sink or swim based on their own academic performance. But they are thrown, again and again, not into the ocean of knowledge, but into a bog of ignorance and repeated cycles of poverty. Watching them struggle when so little help goes so far is frustrating and exhausting. My first instinct, frankly, is to find someone or something to blame. But the issue is beyond blame, I think.
The program through which I work does some good. I am proud to be part of it. My students are happy for the information, the stipend, and the scholarship money. But it is a band-aid on a wound. I wish I could do more. My hypocrisy is in wishing to do more without doing it. I should be a foster parent, a full-time public school teacher, a Big Sister, a literacy volunteer. But for now, the month a year is all I can muster. I am proud of the work I do in that month, and ashamed of the work I fail to do the other 11. It might be time for a change.