Friday, February 13, 2009

Beaky's not bringing home a diploma

Phrenology is an old, discredited art, and like many old, discredited arts, not completely without merit.

Phrenologists would read skulls and determine personalities, akin to astrologers reading stars today.

While I no longer practice medicine, obvious pathology still jumps out at me. The heart of pediatrics is child development, and after years of looking for specific signs associated with delay, most pediatricians automatically scan the facial gestalt of just about everyone--we can't help ourselves.

There are obvious socioeconomic factors working on the distribution of our students in the high school. While any kid from any social class can end up in any honors class (and often do), the ratio of well-to-do to ne-er-do-well families is higher in the honors classes than the lower levels.

No news there (no matter how much we pretend otherwise). The blessed children of Essex Fells, the wealthiest town in our county, are going to outperform (on average) those in the poorest, the blessed children of Newark, under the current testing conditions. (Hunger, lead, wheezing, family stress, frequent moving, diesel fumes, neighborhood noise, access to books/internet, violence, etc....a long, long list.)

But that's not why I am writing.

A child lounging by his locker a few minutes after the late bell lashes out at me--I notice the thin upper lip, the erased philtrum, the impulsive behavior, all suggestive of prenatal alcohol exposure.

Later I watch a tough group of "low performing" children stream out of class--a few have noticeably small heads. Microcephaly. If the brain does not grow properly, neither does the skull around it.

Some of these children will never pass the test.
All of these children can learn.

Those are not incompatible statements.

Remember Beaky the Buzzard?

I'm bringing home a baby bumble bee
n't my mama be so proud of me....

Take a look at him--slouching posture, droopy eyelids. He has hypotonia, reduced muscle tone. He's a nice kid, but slow. Really slow.

Look at any slow cartoon character--cartoonists see what others don't. Hypotonia. Bad posture. Eyes too close together. Dyskinetic movement. Teeth in the wrong place.

Bad brains.

Yep, you heard me--some kids have bad brains. And most of the bad brain crowd can be seen in the less challenging classes, what we call the "Level 1 College Preparatory" stratum here, but I'm sure other districts have similarly euphemistic names.

While more than a few bright children hide in the lower levels (often placed there for the wrong reasons), you won't find Beaky in the honors class.

I can pump Beaky full of Adderrall, inflate his self-esteem, and pay his way through a dozen Kaplan Kourses and he's not going to pass the test.

But I can still teach him a whole lot of things he needs to know, and his time in my class will not be wasted.

Even if Mr. Duncan denies him a diploma.

The Beaker Buzzard cell was found on Wikipedia.


GEM said...

Thank you for your commentary on the high schooler of today.


Clay said...

Enjoyed it. You channel Dickens a bit when you touch on the test conditions.

doyle said...

@ GEM,

Thanks for visiting!


Leslie said I should have thrown in some Dickens, since he was a master of recognizing signs of illness, and I almost did before she said anything.

(I still would love to post on your blog--do I send you a post in html via email?)

Kate Tabor said...

One of my advisees has always seemed to me to have FAS. She's got all the facial and cognitive features that would lead you there. And I don't know that our fancy school is going to give her a diploma either. And she's been here since she was a little one. Makes me sad.

J. Allen Crowe said...

I appreciate what you said. I am an educator who worked on Indian reservations for 18 years. I researched the connection between prenatal exposure to alcohol and school shooters and published a book on the results. The Fatal Link.

Charlie Roy said...

How plastic is the brain? Can an enriched learning environment overcome these deficiencies or is the damage done and permanent?

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

It should make all of us sad--a child does not choose to have a bad brain. We have compassion for the severely disabled, especially if the look deformed--we have scorn for the not-quite-disabled crowd, and that's a shame.

Dear J. Allen Crowe,

Of all the prenatal drugs that lead to dangerous impulsiveness in children, I bet alcohol ranks the highest.

Why not send a link to your book in a response? I'm sure a few people would be interested. (You can use the html "a" tags, or give me a holler and I'll throw it in for you.)

Dear Charlie,

The brain is plastic, true, but much of the damage associated with FAS appears to be permanent. That's not saying that a child with FAS cannot learn; it is saying, however, that learning desired behaviors may be far more difficult--a regular public school is not well equipped to handle random impulsive behavior, and most private schools won't tolerate it.

Even if a kid in school had FAS tattooed across his forehead, you still need to hold him to social boundaries to function in (and outside of) school. Like anything else out of the ordinary, this would cost money (the training, not the tattooing--I do not advocate that, of course).

The brain is plastic for all of us--a healthy brain is capable of more than a damaged one in the same circumstances. It would be nice if NCLB had more wiggle room for the damaged ones.

Jenny said...

This post has been rattling about in my brain for the past two days. You have so succinctly described ways we fail some of our students. I teach first grade and it pains me to imagine the future some of my students have, for reasons that are completely out of their control. What will it take for us to recognize the realities and attempt to truly meet the needs of all of our children, rather than only those who will be successful in traditional ways?

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

That is the question as folks with an agenda independent of the well-being of our children seek control of our schools.

Keep asking the question, keep pushing for an answer that serves our children.

In the long run, people will either remember why caring for all our children matters, or our culture will wither away.