Monday, December 28, 2009

La Sorpresa

Last week my school held parent teacher conferences. it's a new quarter and I finally have my own classroom. Because I've only had these students for a couple of weeks, I didn't make any phone calls home to arrange appointments.  The way our school works is you leave your door open and whoever can come has an opportunity to talk to a teacher. I wasn't surprised to find that most students who came to my classroom with their parents were doing well in my class and could count on some kind words from me. One student I didn't expect to see was Jaime, who has a well deserved reputation among students and faculty for vandalism and poor academic performance. His reputation had preceded him to my classroom where one of my faithful informants had told me that the damage done to some of the textbooks and the thermostat during the previous teacher's residence in that class had been done by him. For the last two weeks Jaime has been one of my best students.
 
It is the natural tendency of science to want to categorize in order to better describe and understand human beings. As Valdes looks back at the scientific attempts to partition students in terms of race, which is of course scientifically a "fuzzy concept", then in terms of IQ tests which Binet, the inventor of the test, did not think were a good predictor of intelligence and ultimately in terms of culture and socioeconomic status which are so complicated it seems these last two categories could be divided into infinitesimally smaller groups until you simply arrive at one individual. I think Valdes does a good job of understanding the potential differences of students of Mexican origin between first, second and third generation Americans and between the way in which they identify either to tradition or to the streets or to aspirational America or to all of the above. Jaime is an all of the above type of student. Like so many kids his age he is till working out what and who he is and with whom he will identify. 
 
It seems that the reasons children of Mexican origin may not perform well in school are numerous and varied. There are plenty (a highly scientific description) of children of Mexican origin doing well at my school. The reasons for their success are less varied, As Luis Moll and Norma Gonzalez point out (at the moment of this typing my spellchecker has no problem with the proper nouns Luis, Moll or Norma but cannot recognize  Gonzalez or Valdes), students who bring to school knowledge from home which is valued by the teacher and the student already feel more successful than those whose cultural experiences are not recognized. That expectation of success engenders more of it. 
 
I told my students on our first day together in my new class that everyone would begin with an "A" grade. I told them that whether or not they held on to that A would be up to them. Jaime took me at my word and has worked hard to hold on to his A. Jaime's dad was incredulous when I told him Jaime was an excellent student. He told me in Spanish that he was surprised and could hardly believe we were talking about the young man standing next to him.  The dad looked at me then looked around as if there might be a hidden camera somewhere. When I told Jaime's dad that I hoped Jaime would think about going to college, the dad shook his head as if I was suggesting that Jaime take a rocketship to Pluto. So Jaime has to contend not only with the low expectations of some teachers and classmates at his school but also with the negative expectations of his own father. From my own ethnographic observations this makes the father more unique than Jaime. Most of the parents of Mexican origin that I've met have been like the mom encountered by  Cathy Amanti and Deborah Neff, they value education highly and want good relationships with their kids' teachers.
 
Compton is like the Placita in South Eastern Los Angeles that Rocco describes, a place where even though Latinos make up the majority, the rules, customs and leadership do not reflect that majority. For that reason the Latino community in Compton is very close knit and can be distrustful of outsiders, which carries over into students' attitudes about teachers and teachers' expectations of students.  The complexity of these relationships is accurately comprehended by Valdes.  A Mexican American teacher can be wary or even prejudiced against a Mexican American student if that student dresses like a cholo for example.  In Jaime's case the outward appearance of a thug belies the potential within. Given the opportunity to recast himself he has become, at least in one class, a diligent student.

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