The Girl at the Back of the Science Class

BlogHer Original Post

When I was in high school, I signed up for the "slow" physics class--the one without calculus--because I had fallen behind in given up on math courses after failing intermediate algebra on the second try (first try I earned a C).

I sat near the back of the class. With each passing year, I sat closer to the rear of the room in my science classes. In addition to making me a smaller target for teachers' random questions about vectors and suspensions and whatnot, it also provided me with the opportunity to do a lot of observing.

Such as: When my physics teacher used the phrase "as the crow flies," he received blank stares from most of the 35 students in the room. He asked which ones of us had heard the phrase before and knew what it meant. Only the white kids (all four of us) raised our hands.

Naive as I was then, I was stunned. Sure, students in our district spoke something like 50 languages, but we all spoke the same English, right? "As the crow flies"--it's obvious what that means, isn't it?

And then I realized I didn't really speak the teacher's English either, as far as comprehending physics was concerned. Listening to him, I felt I was suddenly in the world of Peanuts, where the teachers squawk instead of speak: mwah-mwah-MWAH-mwah.

The problem, I think, was not so much with us as it was with the physics teacher. (For the record, I'm not a blame-the-teacher type, since I am one and since I come from a family packed with public school teachers.) It was painfully obvious that he favored the accelerated and Advanced Placement classes filled with my identified-as-gifted cohorts. At Open House, he wanted to speak to the AP and accelerated students' parents and avoided chatting with mine.

Later, when none of us earned higher than a C on an exam, he blamed us for our failure to perform well. He tossed our exams at us and locked himself in his back room, but not before telling us we'd all be sleeping on park benches some day.

I went home that day and told my parents what had happened, watching with delight as they swelled with righteous indignation. Dad called the teacher the next morning, but only was able to leave a message.

When sixth period began the next day, the teacher waited for all of us to settle down before asking, loudly, "Leslie, what did your father want to talk to me about?"

It was obviously a ploy to shame me. I hadn't spoken much in class because, hey, I was totally lost and even when I did ask questions, he tended to brush them off as jejeune.

I flushed. I swallowed hard. Then I crossed my hands on my lab table, pursed my lips, and cocked my head to one side. I decided to stand and walk slowly toward him as I told him exactly why my dad had called him.

"He's concerned about your teaching," I said. "He feels, as do I, that you don't have any respect for the students in this class."

It was the teacher's turn to gulp, only instead of blushing, his face turned pale.

"He's worried," I continued, "that you're not putting the resources into us that you do into the gifted classes. I told him about your test-tossing yesterday. We both thought that was really juvenile and uncalled-for. I. . ."

The teacher held up a hand. "I'll call him tonight."

"Thank you." I smiled, turning on my heel and heading back to my table. Students were smirking.

That evening, the teacher called my father and told him he found me to be "surprisingly articulate."

Well, duh. Just because someone sucks at physics doesn't mean she's an idiot.

While there's no way I can clearly point to this teacher or to others and say, "These people are the reason I didn't pursue my childhood dreams of science," there is something to be said about the importance of creating environments that nurture as many students as possible, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, class, ability, whatever.

Bloghers recently have been responding to the New York Times piece by David Brooks on the education of boys. In it, he claims that "gender is not a social construct," and that boys and girls need to be taught in ways that speak to their biological programming.

Pat of Fairer Science weighs in:

I`d like to send Brooks a copy of Why Don't They Hear What I Say? But I wonder: Would he be unable to connect because the main character is a woman? And would the subtleties of the plot, also lacking violence, bore him too much?

Shrinkykitten shares some of her own experiences. They're worth a read. She concludes,

There were plenty of girls at my school who didn't apply themselves - who were super smart but who fell through the cracks. It wasn't any easier for us than it was for the boys. We just were quieter and demanded less attention. Thus, our underachievement wwent unnoticed. I remember my best friend H kicked ass at a match competition when the math club went to a statewide competition down at Cal Poly. She was another underachiever who one day - when the stakes were low (for her) - just shined. Another friend, S, who was constantly not seen as being very smart got a perfect score on her SATs.

So all this stuff about boys being so disadvantaged and girls having all the advantages in school is just crap. I read somewhere that boys have done poorly in school and have had behavior problems since the 1800s. This is nothing new. And as noted in today's NYT, my new favorite columnist (Judith Warner; except for her op-ed piece on obesity) noted that boys still outnumber girls in Ivy Leagues - and that it is boys of color who have the dropout rates of concern - not middle and upper lcass white boys - as Newsweek would have us believe.

Girls get lost. Girls are seen as a dime a dozen. Girls aren't seen as being as smart - as worth the effort. A failing girl isn't nearly as of concern as a failing boy.

PLS at WhirledView Whirled Viewwrites,

well motivated boys have no more trouble than healthy, equally active girls in applying themselves to their studies.

So we come back to sociology. There is a serious problem. It affects boys from black, Hispanic and lower-income homes more than boys from white middle- or upper-middle class homes. As Sara Mead demonstrates, boys with fathers, grandfathers and uncles who are lawyers or doctors or managers are doing quite well in school, thank you very much. Their brains aren’t wired differently.

Check out her blog to learn her solution to the problem.

What about you? What are your experiences in the classroom? And what do you think is the solution to differences in performance between boys and girls?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks also blogs at The Clutter Museum and Museum Blogging.

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