A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 04 2011

The Peculiarity of 12th Graders

For whatever reason, I keep moving up the grade-level ladder as each semester passes:

  • Fall 2009: 2 periods of 10th grade and 1 period of 11th grade English
  • Spring 2010: 1 period of 10th grade and 2 periods of 11th grade English
  • Fall 2010: 2 periods of 11th grade English and 1 period of Journalism
  • Spring 2011: 2 periods of 12th grade English and 1 period of Journalism

And if there’s anything that I’ve learned from my 12th graders, it’s that they are fantastic. Essentially, I’ve noticed an extremely sharp difference in the quality of my students this semester.

In general, it is fair to expect that, in any given class, there will be a handful of students (between a half-dozen, if one is lucky, to a dozen, if one is unlucky) who will create problems, in one way or another. Some students are chatterboxes; others have the anti-authority streak in them and will act like it’s “Opposite Day” every day; others will pick up phone calls, eat fresh hot dogs and complain when you tell them not to; finally, there are the hidden students who, disengaged, sit quietly in the back of the classroom and try to slide by unnoticed.

I have very few of these problem students this semester. I can’t say my seniors are perfect. But I have sensed an enthusiasm and energy for learning that I have never sensed before. I am needing to spend less time on investing my students in the work that we are doing and more in the actual discussions and analyses of the content. We can get right to the point of a lesson.

This might come off as somewhat politically incorrect, but it seems like I can actually teach like a “normal” teacher. My experience as a teacher has led me to believe that teaching in struggling schools requires a different type of teacher and pedagogy from your average suburban, white, middle-class school.

So far, I’ve honestly felt that half of my job is as a motivator, as someone who urges the student with his head down not to give up, or the student who questions the relevance of reading about Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf to see the value in such knowledge. This process of constantly motivating students has been, no doubt, the most stressful, challenging part of teaching. Indeed, what good is a teacher who doesn’t have students engaged in what they are supposed to be learning?

The other half of me is focused on teaching the content–the actual knowledge and skills my students need. In an ideal world, I’d spend all of classroom time focused on this. Yet, in reality, this has been difficult, since pure content is often dry and uninteresting. I have to pull out the “hooks,” the “bells and whistles” to connect to, and make relevant, the lesson. (Granted, every good teacher will connect content to the students with ease. But I sometimes feel like this process requires so much effort and takes up so much time that not enough good comes of it.)

But I’ve noticed a difference over the past 2 weeks with my new 12th graders–I can get right down to business. I don’t need to waste time on the bells and whistles. I don’t need to use engaging hooks like YouTube videos or Lil’ Wayne lyrics.

Instead:

  • I project key points and literary terms on the board and students, without guided notes, write them down, on their own, in their own notebooks.
  • I teach them our SAT Word of the Day each day this week and they respond that they want to learn and be held accountable for two–maybe three–new words a day.
  • I ask students to read pages of a textbook and it is done with little cunning–they are reading.
  • I ask students to analyze diction’s effect on the mood of a few lines of our story on a notecard and they ask for another notecard because there isn’t enough space for the response.
  • I assign homework and students complete it.

It is a completely revolutionary idea, for me, to have a classroom where I don’t have to pull every play from the book to get students to do things.

I think there are a number of explanations for this.

  • First, I may just be extremely lucky and have an amazing crop of students.
  • Second, it is seniors’ last semester in school, so given how close the finish line is, they might be putting in the effort to end strong.
  • Third, the procrastination of preparing for college might be dissipating and a furious effort at doing so might be in the works.
  • Fourth, the last 4 years of high school may have already shaped them into responsible self-motivated learners.
  • Fifth, it is possible and likely, sadly, that many of those students who weren’t self-motivated dropped out at some point in the past years, leaving only the “best” in my classroom today.

*****

One of my 12th graders is a student I’ve had for a while. Her attitude has changed significantly over the last semester and I’m confident she can make even more progress going forward.  She also senses the confidence that I have in her learning, as the following response to the question, “What is one example of someone who has shown virtue in your life? How?” shows:

I certainly believe more in the possibility of significant progress now, in a classroom where the expectations–not only of the teacher, but also of the students–create an environment fully geared towards learning. I know we can do it.

I am excited by the start to the new semester and look forward to continuing to help my students grow as learners and as virtuous citizens of the world (William Bennett’s book is a great way to teach virtues). At the end of the day, they will take themselves where they want to go.

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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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