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Learning control

By Jessica Shyu — July 06, 2008 3 min read
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My students on the rural Navajo Nation have far more in common than I would have ever imagined three years ago with the kids in the border town colonias of the Rio Grande Valley and the children of inner-city Anacostia in Washington, DC. The more I move around the country, the more I see firsthand that communities-- in this case, under-resourced ones-- in America are more similar than different-- and not always in the best ways.

That’s why I had to click on this article from last week on The New York Times education page: To Avoid Student Turnover, Parents Get Rent Help. Because, omigod, if there is a solution to student turnover, I want to know about it for my kiddos in New Mexico, Texas and DC.

The article points out that many students from low-income families in Michigan frequently move because of financial issues with rent. It also points out that this constant moving around has an impact on how students develop academically, socially and emotionally. The solution: Help with rent payments so kids and their families can stay put.

“In some of Flint’s elementary schools, half or more of the students change in the course of a school year — in one school it reached 75 percent in 2003. The moves are usually linked to low, unstable incomes, inadequate housing and chaotic lives, and the recent rash of foreclosures on landlords is adding to the problem, forcing renters from their homes. The resulting classroom turmoil led the State Department of Human Services to start an unusual experiment, paying some parents $100 a month in rent subsidies to help them stay put — a rare effort to address the damaging turnover directly.”

I’m not so certain about this policy and I don’t have a better idea to contribute. But my mind lingered on this article because of Chris*. Chris was an eighth grader my first year of teaching and he was the coolest, slickest rebel on the rez. Those were among the reasons why he was at a third grade math level and was in rehab for the greater part of the previous year. His father had passed away, his mother was in jail and he and his brother were constantly shuffled among his aunts. Yet in two months, he had memorized his multiplication tables, mastered manipulating fractions and had improved by a grade level in word problems. He was still a rebel, but one who was set on starting pre-algebra by year’s end.

But like so many students in under-resourced communities, Chris’s family fell in greater financial trouble and he had to leave our school to move in with another aunt in Arizona. It was my first few months of teaching and I was devastated by having to give up this potential math genius-- and everything that this may have stood for in his life. What could I do? I gave him a pep talk, his flashcards, and gave him a packet of assignments to complete and show his new teacher when he arrived at his new school. I was desperate to help him continue his learning trajectory, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, I was trying to empower him to take control of his own learning, regardless of what life threw at him.

I was able to much better articulate this concept of independence and control to my students over the next two years of teaching. Many of my kids became advocates of their learning, and made it clear to high school transition specialists what they knew and what they needed to learn. I had the chance to plant the seed for empowerment.

In the Rio Grande Valley, I’ve seen what this seed can do. In the border towns, many students in schools come from families who migrate north mid-spring and return to south Texas in early autumn. Can you imagine the academic impact? Schools have departments dedicated to helping students of migrant families transition, but it’s rarely ever enough. But every so often, a student will come around who had a seed planted at some point and who was empowered to control their learning. These students would go to their classes (halfway through the first marking period) with packets of their previous work and explain to their teachers what they struggled with and what they had already studied. These kids would take the initiative to ask for after-school tutoring from their teachers, and before they leave mid-spring, they would ask for copies of their assignments and grades, and request written recommendations from their teachers. Life is tough, but these kiddos-- some just in elementary school with parents who worked three jobs and didn’t speak a lick of English-- took control of their own learning.

In short, I don’t know what to really think about the rent supplement. A good idea, potentially, and I’m looking forward to seeing its impact. Until we find better answers, however, I’m down with planting seeds.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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