The first of hopefully a series of posts doing some actual reflecting and processing of my job here, not just my silly side jaunts and adventures in household appliances.)
One of many differences between Bulgarian and American education is that Bulgarian students attend all of their classes with the same section – they travel as the same group of students all day long, every day of the school year. Our school is actually unusual in that the sections change from year to year, and 11th and 12th graders actually have some classes, including English, in — gasp!! — mixed sections; in many schools in Bulgaria, students remain in a section with the same kids from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Different sections develop distinctly different personalities. Take my two 10th grade sections. One of them is full of very sweet, generally very well behaved students who are meticulously organized and diligent about homework and classwork – give them a set of instructions and questions to answer and they are happy to do their best to obey. They generally ask good questions and make good connections. However, only about half of them participate regularly in class discussions. I have to impose certain measures to get everyone to speak in a class – because when I directly state it, and it’s required of them, they will do it, but otherwise they’re mostly happy to sit back on their heels and let the outspoken members of the group carry the load. They also don’t tend to do as well on papers or tests – they do worse than you would expect, based on their homework and their quarter grades.
My other section has several tense dynamics, in particular conflict between the boys and girls in the section. Some of the boys are too good friends with each other and cause a distraction for themselves and sometimes hurt feelings, bullying, or distraction for others. Other than a few very precise and focused students (mostly girls), they are a complete disaster when it comes to homework and minutiae – I wish I had taken a picture of one student’s cumulative Macbeth homework, every night written on a different kind of paper, with French handouts and Human Geography notes on the back, a corner ripped off of one sheet, half sheets mixed in with whole, lined with blank, and two nights of homework missing. I had to piece together several other kids’ homework in a similar fashion. And while the more organized kids in that section do tend to be girls, there are also girls whom I love dearly but are completely flaky and scatter-brained in a way I just don’t see in my other section, from boys or girls. A considerable number of them didn’t write their name on the front of their semester exam. Nearly half of them have had their cell phones confiscated, by me or other teachers I know about (and this already happens way less than it did at my old school), compared to one kid in the other section.
But they all participate in every class, without being explicitly required to do so. Even on their worst days they have a dynamism to them that the other section doesn’t have. And they are bright as all hell – they can routinely wipe the floor with the other section on major assignments – their papers especially, on the whole are light years beyond – and a much higher proportion of them have top grades than in the other section. There are kids in there who might not write down a lick of homework or class notes, yet they were listening the entire time and can synthesize all the information into a kick-ass essay that rivals my seniors’ for quality.
Of course this happens everywhere – different classes have different personalities. But what’s so interesting to me is that these kids, this combined personality, stays with them all year. These kids exist as an entity. They are most often referred to by their section numbers and are often discussed and compared by teachers as whole sections (i.e. “what’s the naughty section this year?”). For Bulgarian students, parents, and teachers alike, what section they are in is a Very Big Deal. And this would just NEVER happen to this extent in the U.S. Elementary school yes, but not really beyond that. My school in the States does this to 9th and 10th graders, but I always got the feeling it was more out of necessity/schedule restraints than an actual desire to keep the kids together; I think if there were any convenient way around it, we wouldn’t do it. The sections get broken up as quickly as possible once the kids hit 11th grade and there’s more of an attitude that this is what “real” high school is supposed to be like, that this is the natural state of being.
I started thinking about why this might be. Is it the American fixation on the individual that prevents us from shuttling kids around in pod-like formations, with no differentiation or chance for diversity? Is it the Bulgarians’ bizarre system of organization and record-keeping that keeps them enamored of this system? Is it a Communist holdover? Or is our rhetoric of independence and self-discovery just as limited and “backwards” as Bulgaria sometimes seems to be? Continue reading