An incident yesterday is very much on my mind. In my STEM Policy class we were talking about possible projects for which students could do Policy Briefs (their deliverables at the end of the semester course). One young lady, a junior like all the other students, had decided to dispose of her original idea and explore another. I immediately saw some possible problems and instead of my speaking about them, asked other students to give her feedback. There was nothing harsh about it - several agreed with her intent but pointed out real practical problems with the idea. I noticed she was starting to lose it a bit and asked if she need to go to the restroom to compose herself. She did, and I gave her the pass.
I had not noticed when she had not returned when the class ended and the students went to lunch about 10-12 minutes later. I was working with another student who was crafting a CV so I could try to find her a Congressional internship this summer (she is an incredible kid) and I realized the first student was missing. I checked the health room, and she had not shown up there, so I went and asked a female teacher to check the rest rooms. The student was brought back to me, apologetic.
We had a conversation. I started by telling her I had been worried about her. She explained about some personal things she had been going through this school year, how she was struggling to get her work done. I was able to assure her that if she let me know what was going on I could work with with her and help her get through what she needed to do.
By the end of the lunch period she was composed, had done most of a piece of work she had failed to do for me (I told her to finish it over the weekend and turn it in on Monday).
I tell my students I start by trusting them. Unless they give me a reason not to, I will believe what they tell me. If they explain things going on, I will work with them.
It is simple - if you ask me what I teach, I teach students. Each is a unique individual, and within the limits of time and energy I need to try to remain aware of each as such.
Please keep reading.
We have now completed around half of the first marking period. Interim reports were generated after school finished on Wednesday, and were distributed yesterday.
By now I have a very good sense of most of my students, except for a few who remain reluctant to do all their work.
Over the past two days I have been going through some work they recently did - including self-assessments in my STEM classes, and the first attempt at the kind of writing they need to do for the AP Exam in my AP Gov classes.
I am making it clear that I am asking them to get well outside their comfort zones. I know that at time they will struggle but I will help them, and I can promise them if they keep at it, it will not jeopardize their grades.
In the STEM classes, as they seek to find projects to complete the requirements of the various courses, I have helped them explore how they can connect their passions with the projects, because it is hard to put in the kind of effort necessary to do a good project if one is not engaged with the subject.
For my seniors in Research and Data Analysis we walked through what happens if one tries a project and it fails, does that mean one has failed? I want them to understand that not everything we try works, and to learn how to learn.
We did work on meta-cognition, on self-awareness.
I am somewhat flying by the seat of my pants, in that I am not following a fixed curriculum. But I am applying my experience and knowledge to try to reach individual students in a way that can help them be successful. This is project-based learning. In STEM policy we will in the next few weeks try drafting some smaller policy briefs so they can have the experience of having completed a brief, and being able to evaluate and defend it. This will help them with the briefs they do for their final project, hopefully on the subjects that engage them.
All of this is important in a STEM program.
But it is less important than meeting the needs of the individual students.
It is always a balancing act - I see a student in potential crisis. How do I provide that student with the appropriate response - time to self-compose, verbal support, a quiet conversation - while simultaneously meeting the needs of what in this case were 21 other students in the room.
Insofar as I am able to do so, it is because we began our time together by my attempting to build a relationship, one of mutual trust.
It is why my students know about my wife and her cancer, since it will keep me out of school on occasion, as it did on Wednesday.
it is why I am willing to share my thoughts on topics that concern them, or let them know within reason relevant parts of my background.
I will not succeed in establishing the relevant relationships with all students.
I had with this young lady.
When she came back from the restroom, brought by the female teacher, there was enough trust to explain to me what was going on, trusting that I would listen and not judge. As a result, we got through this crisis.
It was not the first crisis of the school year.
It was not even the first crisis of the week. Parents of two AP Government students were worried about the course and were trying to get their daughters transferred out of AP (it is not going to happen). In one case the mother wrote that her daughter was being set up for failure. I wrote back that the daughter had a 77 on her interim, and that was without doing the test corrections that would have raised her grade to a B. I spoke to that class about the call without ever identifying the student, in general enough terms. I pointed out that I guaranteed that anyone who did all their work on time, paid attention, and asked for help when they struggled would not get a grade lower than C, and that my expectations for my AP students were that they would earn Bs. What is interesting is that the young lady in question had by the end of the day turned in two missing assignments.
The other young lady, in a different class, had told her mother she did not understand, she could not grasp what was happening. As it happens, she had an 87 on her interim. n her case I pulled her aside at the end of class and had a quiet conversation with her. I told her to trust herself and to trust me, that it would begin to make sense.
My AP Students got back their first attempts at a Free Response Question, on Thursday (two classes) and yesterday. Everyone who did it got full credit, because it was their first attempt, and I had not YET instructed them at how to approach it.
All they saw was the rubric score - out of 5 points - that they would have received from an AP Reader (a role I have done several times). Only two students got 4 out of 5, out of the 83 that handed in the assignment. Some were looking at the first zeros in their lives for work they had actually done. I walked them through with why many had struggled. I then explained that the way they had succeeded in the past was going to be insufficient for this course, but if they would listen to me, they would succeed.
It is about far more than cramming content into skulls, or drilling in skills.
Students learn best when they are taken outside their comfort zones.
To get them to take the necessary intellectual - and thus for many emotional - risks, they must trust me that it will not harm them.
That requires relationship.
I must take the initiative in building that trust.
It is an essential part of what I do as a teacher.
It is far more demanding than finding the appropriate pedagogical approach to a particular set of content and skills.
I will not always be successful. At times I will have to acknowledge to a student or class that I messed up and need to redo something. I have to trust them with me, with the risks I take as a teacher to try to help them.
Welcome to my world.
It is who I am.
It is why I returned to the classroom.