book reports, class, and culture

My seventh grader brought home his last book report assignment of the year.  He and his classmates need to read a book with an adult (preferably a parent or guardian), and discuss it, as if it were a two-person book club.  He decided that he wanted to read a book with me, so I feel honored.  I told him that I would be willing to read a book about sports, because he loves sports so much, but with two caveats:  it would have to be a book for grown-ups, and it would have to be really well-written.  We ended up agreeing to read The Blind Side.  The book report assignment sheet said you could even do something special like go out to breakfast to have your book discussion, and I think that is probably what we will do.

But then I started to think about the school where I work, and if this wonderful assignment would even be possible there.  I can’t imagine that the wonderful middle school teachers at my school would give this kind of assignment.  There are a host of reasons not to:  many parents don’t speak English (although I suppose they could read a Spanish book with their child), some parents don’t know how to read in any language, many parents work two jobs or have late shifts at work, some of the parents are dealing with mental health issues, quite a few are living in homeless shelters with their children, and many are coping with very stressful lives (poverty, abuse, addiction, etc.).   If I taught middle school, I’d think twice about burdening parents with this kind of assignment.

My sons go to a school in my urban district that is only an 8 minute drive from the school where I work.  Their school is a magnet, has a long history of success which draws lots of parents, and has a significant portion of students with parents who are teachers.  The school culture is quite strong, and it is cool to be smart there.  Children are challenged, the parents are involved, and success is the norm.  Most of the families are middle class.  Most are white, and the minorities are often children adopted by white families in an international adoption, or born to middle class families where the parents are of different races.  Some of the non-white students are from one particular immigrant group.  Classes go on lots of great field trips (concerts, plays, dance performances, museums, science presentations), because parents can pay for them.

My school has few white students.  The majority are from low income families, and most are either Latino or African-American.  I have great parental involvement this year, but it is the norm for most parents not to show up for conferences, not to come to PTA meetings, etc. Field trips are fewer, because parents can’t pay for very many.

Both schools have strong principals and committed, caring teachers.  Both schools feel safe.  Both schools have great kids.

But in the end, what does this mean?  The students at my sons’ school get to do harder, more interesting, more challenging academic work — and reach higher levels of success — than the students at my school, because of socio-economic class.  The teachers at my sons’  school can make assumptions about parental involvement and support that the teachers at my school cannot.  How is this fair?

But more importantly — how can it be changed?

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