Pedagogy is Poetry: Ahmed and What We’re Not Talking About

UnknownBoy gets arrested for showing off a clock. What was the hot take from my Facebook feed and Twittersphere?

Texas, sheesh. Or. Of course, Texas. If that’s your ire, you may be missing the point.

Yeah, you’re not wrong. A police officer comes to the school to investigate, takes one look at the young man and says, “Yeah, that’s who I thought it was.” We all hope we don’t live in that community. We hope that kind of profiling and xenophobia exists, if it must at exist all, in faraway places. Ew, like Texas.

Yeah, there is a lot of this story to be disgusted by concerning this arrest and the Irving community at large. There’s also an opportunity to #standwithAhmed, as our President has done, or #trollforstoriesthatdonotserveus.

What I’m afraid of is how many other students are out there that don’t have the courage to share something authentic from their soul. Obviously, Ahmed is a pretty amazing little dude. And if he showed me that clock, I’d be flabbergasted. But I’d be inquisitive. What an opportunity to spend time with one of my students! And that’s the entry point for this post: For me, this issue hits a more nuanced chord than our pervasive, vitriolic Islamophobia.

With that in mind, let’s talk about MacArthur High. According to US News and World Report and using their statistics from 2012-2013, Ahmed must be one of 2,600+ students at this high school. He must be also one of nearly 1000 freshmen.

As well, if Ahmed continues attending MacArthur, he could expect to compete against the stereotypes borne of these statistics: 2/3 of the student population lives in poverty, nearly 85% of the student body is minority, more than half of the student population scores unsatisfactory on an English proficiency exam.

Ahmed, obviously, would have been tracked out of those classes where these language deficiencies can hold back entire classes and curricula. Ahmed was destined for MacArthur’s AP program. He would have beaten the statistics that often hold back our students of color in this country when it comes to the simple things like graduation.

I wonder, three weeks into the school year, how many adults in that school actually knew, or at least engaged, Ahmed. I wonder, with the reported 16:1 student-teacher ratio, what the sizes of his Freshmen classes really are. Any rooms with 30 kids, like my school and our 19:1 ratio? I notice from their calendar that there were at least three days of new teacher support for first year instructors, and another two days of professional development for the rest of staff. I wonder what staff reviewed and initiated in those days. If it was anything like the professional development in my district with presentations about differentiation geared toward the entire district or conversations about accountability and technology, staff attended begrudgingly and passively.

I’m afraid that Ahmed’s situation pulls back the curtain on everything that’s wrong with education in 21st Century America. I would make a pretty strong bet that none of the PD in Irving focused on relationship building with students. I would also go out on a limb and say that there aren’t many conversations happening in that school focused on supporting incoming freshmen.

This year, faced with teaching nearly 180 students in six classes, I used index cards to find out about my students. Within the first week, I had asked every student to fill out an index card to tell me what/if they read, what they do after school (even if that was only taking out the garbage), if they have Internet at home. Then, with my sophomores who all struggle to read and engage with class for more than ten consecutive minutes, I used a deeper survey to hear about what they’d like to learn about in World History, what their aspirations are for school, how I can help them better.

If I was to be lucky enough to have a student approach me with a FREAKING TINKERER’S PROJECT (!), I would have been prepared, at least slightly, to know engineering is an activity they enjoy. Shit, they’d be one of my few students (in the sophomore classes) that are engaged in any self-motivated activity aside from cruising the Taos Plaza or staring at snapchat.

Ahmed, who has shared with the world that he was bullied in middle school, was looking to create a relationship with his teachers. To put himself out into the world and hope he’d find some validation. Instead, cruelly, he was arrested. What a lesson. He was expecting his peer group to marginalize him for his being. Now he was finding out the teachers at his new school were quick to do the same.

It’s depressing, really. Teachers are not supported, encouraged, eager, courageous, curious, human enough to go beyond their initial reaction/impression with young people? Do too many of us succumb to this? Is it just a few? Are we turning into Teachbots who can only speak of evaluations, value-added measures, or accountability. I know I am frustrated in my community by how often the rhetoric in admin and teacher circles revolves around all the negativity associated with the job. Or the negate aspects of our students.

Mired in that negativity, we forgot that every classroom has an Ahmed in it, maybe even 30 of him. They are with us every day. But we’re operating in a classroom that is stuffed to the gills (5 of my 6 classes have more than 31 students). We are threatened to raise test scores and measure progress. We are pressured to report data and curriculum.

The darkest part of this story is that these teachers defaulted to Columbine and Sandy Hook than recognizing the shining, nerdy genius in front of them. Maybe they (grossly) defaulted to seeing him as an Islamist terrorist. I prefer to think they envisioned that first idea. And it’s weird these days. I have been subjected to a shooter drill where police officers come into the classroom and pretend to shoot all the students who haven’t hidden well enough. That’s scary shit. But the idea that a such macabre thought process would overcome an adult when confronted with a boy and his engineering project is crazy to me. But it’s also a sign of the times and how we all exist, perhaps nervously, within the education monolith.

From top to the bottom of this education industrial food chain, we’ve forgotten that you, Ahmed, are the reason we got into this gig in the first place. And supporting students like you, and myriad other overlooked kids, is a way to thwart the tragedies your teachers so feared.

We forget that teenagers are interesting little rascals. And they need to be seen. And they don’t get enough nurturing or encouragement from their world.

And some of them, like Ahmed, are way smarter. Or more creative. Or more fragile than even we teachers have been made by this education system.

Sorry, Ahmed. And sorry to the rest of the 2600 students at that school. I hope I’m honoring the 800 in my school.

2 thoughts on “Pedagogy is Poetry: Ahmed and What We’re Not Talking About

  1. Kati Schmuecker says:

    Ned, keep up the good work! Who said it? “Silence is tacit agreement”. Glad you are not silent! I love reading your insights and poetry. All the best, love, Kati

    • This is such a great note to receive! Thanks for reaching out. I thought of you and your family often as I taught at an Expeditionary Learning school way out here and your daughters attended one in DC. I am thankful you are still keeping tabs on me! It was great to see your mother a few weeks ago. She will always be an inspiration for me as a teacher.

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