Whazzup with “problem” kids?

I just got through reading a compelling guest column by David Stovall in the June issue of Catalyst. Stovall, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spent most of his childhood labeled as “the one in class who “didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”

As I write this I’m in the heart of the Montana badlands rained out of fieldwork. Around me indoors and out are Project Exploration students – the inaugural team of the “Best Science Program Evah.” These Chicago Public School high schoolers are reading, writing, talking, drawing, cleaning fossils, taking photographs (to scale, with a scale bar) and even blogging. They’re having an adventure, not only in science, but in life. (The group is being led by Elena Schroeter, a graduate of CPS’ Curie High School, a Project Exploration alumna who studied geology at the University of Chicago, worked as Project Exploration’s youth programs coordinator, and is now pursuing a PhD at Drexel University in Paleontology. She came back this summer just to help Project Exploration launch this program.)

Stovall’s piece makes me wonder as I see our students in action, whether the “problem” kids, especially African American boys, who are getting expelled out of school are perhaps EXACTLY the kids we need to get into science.

I think of the kids I regularly meet who are the ones who “just can’t stay in their seat.” When I see these kids I think of them as explorers and wanderers. The challenge for me is to find a way to meet them where THEY are at (which, most often, isn’t in their seat). Then there are the kids that can’t seem to pay attention – if anything is out of the ordinary they draw attention to it immediately and everyone in the classroom ends up being along for the ride. These are the kids who “just can’t stay on target.” I see these kids as “noticers,” “wonder-ers”… curious ones.

What if these are the scientists we need?

Except they’re invisible; we can’t find them because we can’t see them. Sometimes we can’t see them because they’re corralled into the principal’s office, or out of school, or into a cell… not a living cell, a concrete one.

The enduring, relentless picture of suspensions provided by the data Catalyst brings to bear requires us to ask not “what’s up?” with problem kids but why we’re so limited in how we see kids and education.

Perhaps a decent piece of advice we could give to policy makers and funders calling for the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers is that the students they are looking for are already here – they just forgot to check the principal’s office.

2 responses to “Whazzup with “problem” kids?

  1. you have to be one of my favorite writers. This is so true! The best scientists are rogues who break all the rules, or at least dare to challenge them.

  2. hi – i’ve had the chance to work with many scientists and I think a willingness to question is key… now we need to work on questioning a status quo that suggests that only kids who are academically successful are potential scientists!

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