Monday, October 10, 2016

First week of school

I wrote this a week ago but somehow didn't get around to posting it:

While mystifying a new experience is natural, it is also dangerous. Part of what drew me to the north is the sense of adventure: going to a place very few people have experienced, a place with conditions harsher than you've ever experienced before, a place both rapidly changing with overwhelming numbers of youth and a place rooted in a tradition entirely foreign to you. But while all of this may be true from my perspective, it is important to that I remember that the frontier for you is the everyday for them. Your thoughts about the issues the community struggles with are new to you, but very old them; most have been mulled over for a generation. The owl that visited me on my first night is a common creature of not much particular use.

Perhaps the best way to demystify a place is to try to teach teenagers there. Before I began teaching I had planned on connecting with the students by sharing with them a book about sculpture largely from the Inukjuak area. I have for a long time appreciated Inuit art but I don't know a great deal about it. I thought that having them teach me about their culture as I teach them English and math would help make a more reciprocal relationship. To this idea, one of my other teachers responded, “some of them might be interested in this, but you have to remember they are teenagers first and Inuit second” and boy is that true.

I teach an IPL class, hypothetically containing 9 boys aged 14 to 18. I say hypothetically because I have taught for more than a week and I have only met 6 of them, and there have rarely been more than 4 in my class at once. Francis, the other IPL students, has 12 hypothetical students, he has yet to meet one of them, and several others have been to class only a handful of times. I believe IPL stands for something like Independent Personalized Learning. At this point I have only heard the acronym expanded once, even in the mass of literature I have been given about the class (some of it surprisingly useful) they use only the acronym. Whatever the acronym stands for is quite irrelevant in the end the important details of the class are as follows:

  1. Students are placed in the class when the administration feels that they are at risk of dropping out.
  2. Some of the student have learning or developmental problems and some have behavioral problems. Some have both. Some have experienced poverty. Some have had a bad home life.
  3. I have no outside pressure for these students to achieve any academic standards. My primary goal is keep the students from dropping out.
  4. Each student has his own independent academic goals which I help them set for the semester. These goals are based on their needs, abilities and interests.
  5. Much of the learning is centered around one large project. In this case (as it has been at this school for the last several years) a cafe which sells treats during recess and fast food once a week after school.
I have not yet asked for permission from my students to talk about them in this blog. Out of respect for them I will try to keep my comments general in this post.
Teaching this class is complicated for a number of reasons. First off I am teaching students with learning disabilities sometimes fairly profound learning disabilities, which I have no training in. Also I am dealing with students who have behavioral issues, who often do not struggle with academics. When you provide the same material to all of the students, the stronger students complete it quickly and act out—distracting and sometimes discouraging the students with learning disabilities. The fact that I am hired to this job without any special training (not even a completed education degree), and little previous job experience, speaks more to the severity of the teacher shortage in northern Quebec than it does to my character. However, before I came my spot was vacant and none of the boys I'm teaching right now had a teacher.

It will most certainly be difficult, but I do feel up for the challenge, as the class has already proven to be at times rewarding. After my first week I was asked by Emily (one of the travelers that accompanied me in the first post) to give a run down of each of my students, and in giving a few details about each it became clear to me that I like all of them, in one way or another. “He's very sweet, he always smiles but is very quiet”or “he is usually the first to show up and he goes straight to the back, gets on a chair and looks out the window” or “he's funny, not as funny as he thinks he is, but funny” or “he just thinks that school is bullshit and doesn't see why he should have to listen to me, but he kind of has a point”.

I'm finding myself sometimes enjoying their defiance of me, partially because it reminds me of the shit-disturbing friends I had when I was young, and partly because it limits my teaching to what is immediately relevant to them, better to have them tell me what they think is useless then to let me carry on secretly despising the material. When they express distaste for a lesson there are two possibilities.
  1. They dislike the material because it is not relevant for them, in which case I can set it aside until it becomes relevant.
  2. The lesson is important to them now and they are resistant because it is easier for them not to learn, in which case I have to find a way to make it more palatable to them, or apply my will to teach them over their will to not learn.

I'm sure as the class progresses I'll become better at discerning between the two.

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