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A real world education in real world problems

BY GEOFFREY GAGNON
G-ology
Published November 27, 2001

Its no secret that students find it easy at times to get lost in the world they create in Ann Arbor a world of idealistic realities and hopeful aspirations where social change can be measured in big ideas and bold plans put forth in the comfortable confines of a classroom. Its easy to paint the world the world beyond State Street and South University in very distinct shades of black and white and do so in convenient 50-minute blocks of time twice a week with our desks arranged in a circle.

Before I began spending my Fridays at a local middle school here in Ann Arbor, I thought I had public education pretty well figured out. Armed with a few facts from a political science concentration, a few studies I"d heard of from a sociology class and my own public school education, I figured I could offer ideas with some degree of expertise. When I signed up for a mentoring program at a local middle school, it was with no hope or idea that my "profound" understanding of the problems facing our public schools would be challenged. After all, my opinions were seasoned with four years of well-considered academic reasoning safely conducting miles from the nearest public elementary, middle or high school.

When I finally bothered to gain a bit of perspective by signing on as a mentor at a local school, I found that the vague understanding of topics like funding issues and teacher competence that I had gleaned from coursepack readings and shallow discussion sections couldn"t begin to prepare me for what I saw.

On my very first day at the middle school and in the very first class I visited I saw a teacher hand out a letter to be taken home that stressed to parents that the school was taking seriously the recent incidents of violence on campus after students armed with knives were disciplined the previous day. In subsequent weeks I"ve worked with a student as he devoured a jar of peanut butter supplied by a special education teacher as he explained that he hasn"t had food available at home in several weeks. I"ve watched an eighth grade student who can barely read explain how lonely he gets at home and I"ve heard a teacher explain how frustrated she gets when she leaves the room during a test hoping her students will cheat, only to find that "they can"t even figure out how to cheat."

Scenes like these leave me walking away from the school ready to cash in the optimism that"s passed around like a currency in classes here at the University and throw up my hands in frustration. The problems with education seemed so much easier to figure out before I considered kids who go to school afraid of knife fights or who haven"t eaten more than a handful of crackers and peanut butter in days or before I saw teachers so disillusioned and frustrated that they pray for kids to cheat on tests.

I"ve seen kids with emotional problems disregarded and kids with exceptional talent equally ignored as my feelings of hopeful assurance that the right political plans and proper funding would somehow change the system have slowly taken backseat to a frustrated sense that makes me wonder where we should even begin to tackle a set of issues so big.

Yesterday as I sat with other mentors in the program that sends University students to area schools, I listened to another mentor explain how she had grown frustrated with the middle school. She told of how she sat in a classroom with special needs students for hours waiting for a substitute teacher who never arrived. And she told us how the event was the last straw for her, that she was never going back to the school.

I wanted to tell her that I knew how she felt that the problems seemed too tough for a few kids from the University to solve. But instead I thought that despite the fact that the experiences were raising more questions than they were answering, I was finally getting close to understanding the complexity of an issue. The problems I never thought to consider a few months ago are the ones I can"t stop thinking about now despite the fact that they grow bigger the closer I get to them.

The facts these days aren"t as clear to me as they sometimes appear in a discussion section, and the answers aren"t like the ones written in the coursepack. The problems are real and surprisingly so is my education.

Geoffrey Gagnon can be reached via e-mail at ggagnon@umich.edu.


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