Friday, March 14, 2014

Reading Faces and Words

It's about thirty minutes into the period and I'm circulating around the classroom while my students work on practice problems. To the untrained ear, it sounds like chaos. It's not: it's just at-risk teenagers working. They may be cussing, throwing things, and loud, but they're working. They're struggling, but they're working.

"Yo Mista!"

"Mista! I need you for a sec."

"Mista, can you come here?"

"Yo Mista, I called you like ten minutes ago!"

I spin move around a desk and get to Brandy, who I think called out "Yo Mista!" first. I get to Brandy and sit down next to her. She shows me her paper and points at the problem she's working on. She doesn't ask anything. She doesn't ask to clarify something. She just points. You're not going to get me kid. I know this trick. "So?" I ask her.

Brandy, like most of my students, is trying to gauge my reaction to her work. She's trying to let my facial expressions tell her whether she's right or wrong. She knows if she asks, "Is this right?" I'm going to ask, "Have you checked your work?" or I'll say, "It's a quiz Brandy, I can't tell you, duh." Brandy doesn't read at grade level, but she reads faces and body language better than most. In fact, this is something almost all of my students do really well.

As I scan her paper, I maintain my poker face. After, I look right in the eyes and say, "Brandy, you know this won't work on me. You can't go through school just reading your teachers. It's not going to help you on the state exams."

"Mista, Imma be on my bullshit when it comes to the Regents, just tell meeeeeeee."

I'm already walking away as I smile. "No."

"Yo, fuck this shit!" Thirty seconds later, I raise my head over to peek at Brandy's paper and she's finally using the check method I taught earlier to see if she's right.

Over the past five years in casual conversations, my students have revealed so much about how they've managed to get through classes using these tricks. Ronald told me his 5th grade teacher would grimace every time he had the wrong answer circled on his paper. She used this coded language throughout the school year and when it was time for Ronald to sit for his 5th grade state exam, he knew he was in the clear because he fixed every question she grimaced at when she walked by.

Annabelle confessed that she knew every time her history teacher didn't like what she had picked for a multiple choice answer because anytime she marked an incorrect answer, he would say, "Make sure you're confident in that answer." He typically didn't say anything when Annabelle picked the correct answer, and so she used this to her advantage and passed. Annabelle reads at a lower than a 6th grade reading level.

Carlton, whom I've written about here, is quite the expert on asking leading questions to get teachers to give away the answer without really giving away the answer. Carlton, like most of my students, knows that teachers want students to do well on assessments. He figures out just how well by constantly asking clarifying questions. They start vague, and then get more and more specific. Every time he raises his hand, he he has a big smile on his face. When he asks his question, his expression changes to super serious. Carlton sets the nice-guy-who-just-wants-to-be-right trap very well.

Some of the students I've mentioned actually believe teachers care more about how well students do on assessments rather than how much they learn. That may not be true across the board, but it does say something. In reality, gullible teachers like the ones my students trap exist and like a cunning used-car salesmen, our students are quick to take advantage of the suckers. These idiots are definitely one of the causes of under-skilled elementary schoolers making it to middle school and so on.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for my students, my face nor my emotions get in the way of my teaching. I would rather annoy the shit out of my students with sarcastic responses than tell them the right answer. The right answer doesn't matter. Great educators shouldn't (don't) care whether their students can correctly factor a difference of perfect squares [or insert any other irrelevant topic from your content area here]. Great educators care about the education process: watching that light bulb go on when an idea is understood.

I could care less if my students delete 90% of the content they learn in algebra once they earn those algebra credits. I really just want them to gain confidence and learn how to think comfortably when life gets uncomfortable.

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