“You do know what happened on September 11th, right?”
This is the question a volunteer asked a group of our tutors during Wednesday’s training session. Using engaging op-eds (at least I thought so!), I was trying to get our students to practice summarizing the arguments on two sides of a debate. One article, written by the mother of a paramedic who died during 9/11 rescue efforts, was about Rep. King’s hearings about the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism.
Two things became very clear in this particular group. First, these 9th grade students did not have a complete understanding of the events of September 11th. For this reason, it was very difficult to have any sort of advanced discussion about homeland security, terrorism, or the discrimination faced by some Muslim-Americans. Second, when we asked the students to create discussion questions and set up a debate, they really struggled. They are so accustomed to choosing from presented options that the activity of creation is particularly challenging.
Let me be clear. The failure of this lesson was mine. I did not appropriately support them in getting where I wanted them to go. At the same time, it was almost shocking to think about how our students could have such significant troubles on this task. As the volunteer and I walked to our cars, we tried to understand this challenge.
In my opinion, both these issues can be traced back to testing. It is without doubt that accountability and assessment are important aspects of the educational process. However, our current approach plays a large role in defining content – the DC-CAS only tests Math and Reading. Additionally, the multiple choice approach so common in today’s schools means that students never have to generate potential solutions. They are always choosing, never creating.
I have had high level discussions about issues of race and discrimination with these tutors. It is certainly not that they are not capable of impressive intellectual exchanges; however, my failure to provide appropriate structure for Wednesday’s session revealed some important gaps. As we continue to learn, it will be imperative that we find the right pace to relax the structure to which they are so accustomed.
We want to help support the development of culturally competent tutors that can consider multiple viewpoints and weigh different opinions. Only when our tutors become comfortable with these practices will they be able to transfer these important comprehension skills to our elementary school students. As we learn more about the gaps in the current educational approach, we can respond by providing the content and structure necessary to develop the knowledge and competencies needed for success.
Thanks, as always, for reading.