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HARD LESSONS: A YEAR IN SCHOOL : SPECIAL REPORT / EDUCATION : PART 2: THE CLASSROOM : Seeking Peace in Weary War on Ignorance

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON

With pointing fingers, shouts and whistles, Bill Kennedy attempts to bring his class to attention. He looks like a harried traffic cop, pressed in on all sides. The sound of curses fills the air.

One student shouts an expletive at another, but Kennedy doesn't hear it amid the chaos, which is rapidly reaching the noise level of dime-a-beer night at the stadium. Thick round wads of paper are flying back and forth and seven students are up wandering around the room, joking with friends.

A silver-haired science teacher with thick glasses, Kennedy is more kindly and befuddled than angry, like a man whistling for a willful dog, and like the dog who knows its master's mind better than he does, nobody pays him the slightest attention.

One boy runs from one side of the room to the other, hurling a paper missile at a group of students as he flies by.

"Drive-by," someone shouts and the class erupts in laughter and shouts for revenge.

"They're noisy," Kennedy admits, "but they do their work."

Posted on the bulletin board is the list of grades, which show 24 of the students in this class of a little Teachers say their job is more difficult because students don't have the sense of awe and fear about adults that teachers could once use to their advantage.

more than 30 are getting A's. "I'm more in the middle," Kennedy says later. "Some teachers give all A's." Three students got Cs in Kennedy's class.

Kennedy used to be a tougher grader, but he changed after the principal criticized the teachers for giving too many low grades, which she believes harms students' self-esteem.

Philosophical arguments over public education come down in the end to the classroom, where teachers each day join the battle against ignorance.

Touring the classrooms at Northridge Middle School can sometimes seem like visiting the front lines of a war that isn't going well, where each day battle-weary soldiers march against an enemy that seems to grow stronger and stronger.

"These kids make you hate them, even if you start out liking kids," said Margarita Gonzalez, who teaches seventh-grade social studies. She faced her class of surly, out-of-control students with the grim, defeated expression of a condemned prisoner.

"If you don't settle down I'll give you all Fs, and it will make my grading easier," she warned after holding her hand up for silence for a full minute without result.

It's the kind of empty threat born of desperation, and Gonzalez is feeling desperate.

"This is like being in hell," she confided. "This is not what I expected. Sometimes I have visions of working for the IRS. Does it get any worse than that?"

These were some of the worst classes at Northridge. There is, of course, learning going on. The best teachers frequently succeed in keeping their students focused on their lessons.

But the kinds of problems that surfaced in the classrooms of Kennedy and Gonzalez differed only in degree from those confronting other teachers trying to cope with students with greater needs and less readiness to learn than ever.

"There is no doubt more kids are acting out than 10 years ago," said Joe Boss, a low-key English teacher who counsels troubled kids.

"When I started teaching (20 years ago), only 10% to 15% of the students were troubled. Now, it's 40% to 50%."

Students in one math class succeeded in driving away two teachers and looked as though they might get a third. The first teacher left for a magnet school, so a former Lockheed mathematician interested in teaching as a second career was brought in. In just a few weeks, she had developed the frozen-faced, wide-eyed look of a blitz survivor.

"Today is my last day," she finally announced just after the Christmas break over a din of laughter and verbal attacks.

"Awww," the class responded with mock sympathy. "I love you, teach," one boy yelled.

The third teacher was Tony Ransick, a stocky man with a well-trimmed beard who was so enthusiastic in his interview that the administration was ready to hire him on the spot, even though he had not yet completed his credential program.

A few months later, Ransick had lost some of his idealism. The bulletin board in his room, where the bell schedule is posted, had been tagged in half a dozen different places with the letters, "FBA," which stands for Full Blooded Asians. It's one of the school's 10 or so tagging crews, which, according to the kids, have a total of 100 to 200 members.

Ransick asked the class how long it would take to walk 2,000 miles at 3 m.p.h. The answer, he said, was 666.5 hours, which was not quite right. But few students were in a position to know that, because most were not paying attention. Ransick decided to move a boy named Tony to another seat.

"No, I'm staying," Tony responded.

Ransick said mildly that he would have to put a check next to Tony's name on the board.

"What happens then?" Tony asked, considering his options.

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