I spent yesterday afternoon and evening helping my neighbor, Fatima, make a model of a cell. She came to my apartment armed with a Hobby Lobby bag full of things her mom and she guessed she might need to make a model (Styrofoam balls, pom-poms, pipe cleaners, paint, paint brushes, a glue gun) and full of questions: Did I know what a cell was? Could I help her make one? Did I have a computer with internet? A printer?
Fatima is in the seventh grade. She is bright, enthusiastic, and responsible. However, she was given an assignment that was beyond her capability to complete on her own. I remember plenty of projects like that in middle school and high school. You remember those, right? The kind of projects that I’m pretty sure our moms did most of (thanks again for all those dioramas, Mom).
Fatima’s family immigrated to the United States from Honduras. Her parents speak only limited English. They do not have internet or a working computer in their home. She told me she had asked her mom for help with her project, but that her mom didn’t know what a cell was. She doesn’t have her own science textbook, because text books are required to remain in the classroom. All she had was a grading rubric stating how many points the project was worth. The expectation was that the students could look up any information they needed on the internet.
Hey, I have a good idea! Let’s give a twelve year old a list of really big words like endoplasmic reticulum and phospholipids and say hey, go build a model of all these things with no picture to follow. Don’t worry; it’s only worth most of your grade for the quarter.
I’m not placing all the blame on the teacher (although there is a part of me that wants to march down to the middle school and complain about the lack of clear instructions or any kind of diagram to follow). I know that teaching middle school science is, in the best of circumstances, a hard job. We don’t have the best circumstances. Here in small-town Georgia, literacy estimates for our county show 21% of the adult population as illiterate, meaning as many as 6 students in an average-sized class come from homes with illiterate parents. That’s as many as six kids in EVERY class whose parents can’t help them with their homework.
I guess what I’m trying to say from up here on my soapbox is that if we want our communities to thrive, the education of children—ALL children—needs to be a priority. Even really great teachers cannot do it all alone, and in cases where the parents cannot fill in the gaps, we have a responsibility to step in and help out where we can. Give your time. There are kids in each of our communities who need extra help in order to succeed.
In case you were wondering, Fatima’s model turned out great.