Monday, June 11, 2007

School Lockdowns

Lockdowns and Teaching

I’ve been remiss, for what it’s worth, in my blogging duties lately. I’ve been too depressed to put anything down on paper. Here is something to consider.

In mid-March, while observing one of my student teachers in a middle school in an urban setting close to NYC, I had my first real lockdown experience. I’ve been in other buildings before which have been said to be in “Lockdown Mode” but this was nothing more than a principal deciding that the only way to keep order in the school was to have the students in the middle school escorted by their teacher to their their next class with the students remaining silent the whole time that they marched through the hall.

This situation was different. The announcement came over the PA by the principal who announced the lockdown, emphasizing that no one would be permitted to enter or leave the building during this period of time. Images of prison films bounced around in my subconscious. This news came halfway through the eighty minute class so I wasn’t worried at that point that I would be detained. Besides, I would have a forty minute post-observation conference with the student teacher before I would be ready to leave. However, I saw my student teacher turn off all of the lights, pull down the shades, and sit with the students in silence for the first fifteen minutes after they heard the announcement. Then she began to talk in a very low voice, guiding her students through some of the elements of the lesson. It was a cloudy day to begin with so the room was very dark as I sat an observed education continuing under difficult conditions. The students were clearly affected by the news but the student teacher did an excellent job of keeping her seventh graders settled and focused on the lesson, despite their fears. I was impressed.

In time, another announcement came, reassuring all that they weren’t in imminent danger, though the lockdown remained in place. The students were escorted to lunch at the end of the period and I had my post observation conference. Part way through our discussion, we learned the lockdown was over. The incident had been about a custody case and someone had threatening to enter the building with a gun but was apprehended. I soon left for my car and was out of the troubled area shortly. As I drove away, I didn’t turn on the radio as usual. Instead, I thought about issues. My student teacher did a wonderful job of allaying the fears of students and continuing instruction. I wondered though what life must be like for many of her students who live in the projects and face threats of violence every day.

I also thought about all of those teachers who experience things like this often. I read in my local newspaper every day about the chaotic situations that exist on a regular basis in some of the nearby schools of Philadelphia. I wonder how teachers maintain their sanity and their drive. I question whether I could persevere in schools like this, schools which exist all around the country in many of our big cities. But I also thought of all of those teachers who have no idea what it must be like to try to teach in such settings. Many of the suburban schools are light years away in temperament from settings like this. I have students in my developmental writing classes at another college where I teach who blame their high schools for failing to prepare them to do college level work. They lament that they find it hard to self-discipline themselves to work and study when they say they were never asked to do this in high school or middle school.

The governor of Massachusetts thinks that community colleges aren’t graduating enough students and wants to pour money into these schools. The teachers at the college would say that many of the students aren’t ready to graduate in two years, for all sorts of reasons.

This topic of effective high schools is just one of the issues that has my attention these days. I don’t know what we are to do.


Anonymous said...

Coming from a variety of middle and high school teaching experiences in both urban and suburban settings, I have a few responses to this post. First, we cannot underestimate the value of the outside world, if there is such a distinct climate, from the culture of the school. We try to separate these two existences, but more often students cannot help but bring their issues into a school and, even if the most trouble represent a numerical minority, can severely disrupt school life. The debate about whether or not a disruptive minority has the right to be disruptive of society is a issue we all face now. Secondly, I would add that lockdown is a term used in prisons that has come into use in schools since Columbine, the D.C. sniper, and possible 9/11. My question is this: if we put our students in a prison, should we wonder why they act like convicts? They often can, and the good work of your student teacher is an exceptional exception. Finally, it is not just teachers but all adults who fail their children by not allowing them some real form of childhood. Parenting and teaching should be serious, purposeful persuits, but often they are not today. We value speed and convenience in all things, including our interactions with our children. This should not be the case.

Anonymous said...

Jim, your experience is all too real in many inner-city schools. It reminded me of an incident that happened while I was at a school in Chicago. At the ripe old age of 30, I laid my eyes on a sawed-off shotgun while in the main office of an elementary school. It was being toted around by a young man no taller than 4'7". His face still carried the remnants of an innocent preteen. But what a scary sight it was. There was no anger in his tone when he spoke. "I need it for protection in case my father comes to take me away" he said as he smiled and attempted to walk away.

I can't help but to wonder when and where did things begin to go wrong in his life and how do we as educators spot these kinds of troubled students before they bring the guns into the schools. It's an age-old question, I know.