Back in Halls of High School: The Ultimate Déjà Vu

I’m attempting to be a fly on the wall in Chapel Hill High School. For my Schools in the Community education course, we are required to observe and get hands on experience in Chapel Hill schools. I was a little anxious to be in a classroom setting and observe someone just a little older than me try to command a classroom and teach a lab lesson, knowing that I could be in the classroom in a little over two years (yikes!).

While speaking to a student teacher, I was informed about the inequity present in Chapel Hill, a known middle-upper class community. The student teacher, we’ll call her Wanda for the purpose of this blog, illuminated the notion that students are tracked, and this is reflected in the student makeup. Students who take “physical life science” rather than chemistry tend to be the lower-leveled students. These students represent the diversity of the high school and simultaneously embody the pigeonhole effect of tracking students. I asked the student teacher if the students had a choice in which course level they took. She hesitantly replied yes, but implied that although there is a “choice” that students seldom break free of the track they were placed in.

Wanda wasn’t joking when she said that this class was extremely homogenous, 3 students out of the approximately 25-person classroom would be considered minority students. She said that this period specifically was more diverse than the higher-level chemistry courses. Wanda also made sure to emphasize that Chapel Hill High has a high influx of Burmese students and many Hispanic students, most of which learned English as a second language. Although there aren’t many mechanisms for assistance in the classroom for teaching students who aren’t well traversed in English, I did witness the student teacher use short Spanish phrases, as a way to connect to the two Hispanic students in the class.

One of the most shocking incidents I witnessed was an awkward exchange between two students.

Female student: “I don’t want you being part of my lab group, you don’t do anything.”

Male student: “I have an 85% in this class.”

Female student: ‘Okay and I have a 95% so I don’t want you to be in this group.”

Not only was a baffled by the blatant rudeness of the female student, but I was also surprised by the inherently competitive behavior of the female student. Not only did she want to make it abundantly clear that she was the “superior academic” but she also wanted to ensure that the male student knew that he didn’t meet her qualifications for a lab partner. The male student walked away from the verbal altercation, feeling less confident about his ability as a student, and noticeably upset. Does this interaction epitomize the effect of our grading culture? Or does it embody a wider range of issues?

Lastly, I want to touch upon the fact that this chemistry classroom has a lab, within the classroom itself. When I was in high school, all science courses shared a single lab, and had a rotating schedule of when certain teachers had access. It’s evident that Chapel Hill High School has more than adequate funding. The classroom was teeming with posters, textbooks, lab instruction books, huge white boards, a laptop, etc. So, while there may be an achievement gap within the high school or poor representation of students in upper level courses, funding appears to be a less problematic concern.

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