For me teaching is about relationships. This includes my relationship with the content I offer, of course. Even more, it is the building of relationships with students. That does not necessarily mean that I will, now or in the future, be close friends with those that come through my classroom, although that does happen. But it should mean that we re able to build a relationship of mutual trust. And it is at this time of year that I begin to see the fruits of that.
Thursday was our school's annual college fair. Ever since 1998 I have represented Haverford College, my alma mater, at that fair. And there are two parts to my presence beyond the hope that I might encourage some students from my school to apply to that highly competitive institution, whether or not they have had me as a teacher. The first is the number of former students who stop by and ask me, sometimes in shyness, if I would be willing to write recommendations for them as they apply to colleges. And he other is the number of my current students who come to the fair - remember, most of my current students are tenth-graders. Let me explain about both of those below the fold, starting with the latter.
I want ALL of my students thinking about their futures. For those in my Advanced Placement (college level) classes, going to college is almost always a given. In the years I taught government in 9th grade (and thus did not teach AP), those in my honors classes were similar: most were in our school's highly competitive Science and Technology program. And I can think of only one who did not go directly to post-secondary education: for financial reasons she chose to go directly into the Navy.
But even for these intellectually gifted students, knowing that they will be heading off to some institution is not the same as taking action to explore the possibilities. And while about 90 percent of the seniors will immediately enroll in post-secondary education, I have students who will be the first in their families to go to college, and I have others who are not really focused on their academics, and only by encouraging them to think of the future can I hope to connect what is happening at our very good high school with their long term future.
This was an odd week. The day after our Fair there were no classes: Maryland schools were all closed for the Maryland State Teachers Association convention, and meetings of various state-wide content area associations, such as The Maryland Council for the Social Studies. The day before all of our 10th and 11th graders sat for the PSAT paid for by the school system, 9th graders either paid for the real PSAT or sat for a practice one, and our seniors had a long meeting - a class picture, talking about graduation and prom. This was also spirit week, with students competing by classes, wearing crazy costumes. We had short classes on Thursday, so that we could have a 90 minute pep rally. Yesterday was our homecoming, with a big football game and last night a homecoming dance. At the same time as the week is full of excitement, it is clear that we are trying to get our students to think about their futures. And in that regard, I do two things.
First, The week before last I gave all my students a one-period crash course in SAT prep: I used to teach and tutor for several different SAT prep companies, and if the devotion of one period can demystify, and perhaps enable each student to get a handful of additional questions correct, it is worth it. But the key thing is that I give any student who comes to the college fair extra credit. It is not much, equal to perhaps 1-2% of the total for my class for this, the first marking period.
Some might object. What, they might inquire, does that have to do with learning government? I would respond that it is a great deal. Exploring the alternatives they will have a few years hence (although for a few of my students, they are seniors which means they will need to apply soon)helps them take their academic work more seriously. And remember this: I teach not only the specific content of government, but also vocabulary, critical reading, making arguments both verbally and in writing. I work on their writing skills, on how to take notes, and on how to prepare for a variety of examinations, including the required-for-graduation state High School Assessment and for my AP students the exam from the College Board that will determine if they get college credit.
Fewer of my non-AP students show up, which given that they are all local, in the town in which we are located, might seem surprising. Still, each one who does come is demonstrating motivation, curiosity. And if by offering credit I encourage an additional handful or two, that might be almost a dozen more who are thinking of their futures. And since most don't drive, unless their parents or a neighbor can provide transportation, it may seem like an
I teach total of 185 students (two withdrew this week, and I had one transfer in to my classes). Those who want the extra credit have to stop by the Haverford table and check in with me. Just under a third of my students showed up. Very few wanted to talk about Haverford, and even those who did, I kept it brief, gave them literature, and suggested they move on: after all, if they have more questions they do know where to find me, and this was an opportunity to get information about many colleges. This year we had over 100 present, many quite prestigious, drawn by the superb reputation of our high school. Many of the reps were, like me, alumni. For example, Princeton was represented by a woman whose daughter I taught two years ago, and whose son is one of my current students. But there were also people from admissions offices from places nearby (Johns Hopkins, U of Maryland College Park, American U, Catholic U0, and far (Cornell, several of the colleges in Atlanta University, the black college consortium). We had representatives from the famous, including Harvard and Stanford, and the lesser known: Clark University in Worcester MA is the only US institution to have had either Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung lecture, and the hundredth anniversary of that is 2009.
This is the time of year when seniors are working on their college applications. The daughter of the woman from Princeton had already asked me to write recommendations for her - that is one of my tasks for today. Several other students had previously contacted me. At the fair I had another 8 seniors ask if I would, only one of whom is a current student. When I am asked, I usually engage in a dialog. If it is a current student who is doing well, I will still inquire as to why they think someone who has taught them for less than half a year is a better recommender than someone who taught them all of last year. For those I taught as sophomores I will want to know why me rather than someone who taught them more recently. Usually I get some form of one of the following
"You know me better than any other teacher"
"I grew so much in your class"
"You can help explain me to colleges"
"I trust you to be honest about me"
If I have doubts that a letter from me will be helpful - look at that last point above - I will explore that with the student. In most cases if the student still wants my recommendation, I will take the time to write it.
For some students I may write only one recommendation, to a college with which I have some connection: I did my undergraduate at Haverford, which meant I took courses also at Bryn Mawr, I have a masters from Johns Hopkins, I have taken additional courses at Penn, Catholic, and George Washington, and am currently getting credit from UVa for my political leaders program. In addition, I know Harvard quite well, as my wife and I were dating all four years she was there, and both of my parents went to Cornell. Any of my students applying to these colleges knows that I will write a letter explaining why I think s/he is a good fit for that particular college.
One of the real joys is to see how much my students grow during high school. One reason I used to love teaching government in 9th grade was that I could follow students for three additional years, but it made more sense for them to have the second year of American History before they took government, so now I only get two additional years. Often some students come around to talk with me, to ask about particular colleges, to to inquire if I have any ideas about places they should consider, given their interests. I am honored when they ask, and will always make time.
And the real delight will come in the future, when they stop by to tell me they have been accepted and to thank me for the recommendations, at which point I will tell them my recommendation ws only one additional window on who they are, and that they got in on their own merits. Later, particularly when they are college freshmen, they will often stop by when home from school. I may ask them to talk with current students: it helps make the connection between my current students' work and their futures. Every now and then I get announcements or even invitations to graduations and senior presentations from college, just as I get invited to senior presentations in high school. I try to chat with my former students when I see them around the school: the relationship does not end when they leave my classroom, even if our contact may become somewhat more minimal. Some stay in touch via email.
Others move on with their lives, which is fine. I will see most of them on graduation day, either as they line up before processing in, or as they re picking up their real diplomas (we give them an empty holder on stage) after graduation is complete.
This year was a special treat. The representative from the University of Virginia was one of our graduates. Ginger played goalie for soccer and lacrosse while she was here, and got a partial scholarship to UVa for the latter. I have occasion to be at UVa once or twice a year, and while she was a student we got together several times for breakfast, or I would stop by and chat while she was at her campus job in the college bookstore. I have known her since she was a freshman: she was one of two varsity goalies while I coached the girls JV that year. And she was my student in an upperclass elective in Social Issues in which I really challenged students' preconceptions about controversial issues. We had a brief, but enjoyable chat, before the fair started, and made sure to exchange current emails to to stay in touch. And I sent a number of students over to talk with her, both because UVa might be a good fit for them, and because I wanted them to have some idea of what they could look forward to as a graduate of our high school.
We are now at the most intense part of our political season. Most of the diaries here will rightly be about candidates and elections and tactics and polls and news coverage. But we should never forget that the purpose of our political participation should be for something other than merely gaining control of the levers of political and governmental power. The purpose of our wanting control should be because we want to improve the lives of people, we want our society to be a more hopeful place, our nation to restore its sense of honor. I participate politically because I care about all of that, especially because for 180+ school days each yearI am with adolescents who will be the future of this nation. I have no biological children, unless one considers the various four-footed creatures who allow Leaves on the Current and me to share their living space. Of the 2,800 students currently in our school I have taught, worked in musical theater, coached, or advised in the Muslim Students Association, close to 700. And I know many others: they are siblings or close friends of students who have passed through my care. My political passion comes from a desire that they have at least as great an opportunity as I experienced, that they can look forward to a society, a nation, a world that still allows them to dream, to have hope. Looking forward to college is in itself a commitment, a belief in a future, a time of hope and dreams and anticipation. Thus it seemed appropriate for me to write this diary at this time.
We are less than a quarter through the current school year. Even with a three-day weekend, I am tired. But I look back on this week, especially on Thursday night, and I find my exhaustion melting away, and I smile: the students now considering college will be contributing to a better world well after I pass away. The hope and anticipation they have, which they share with me, are such joys. And that is in large part why I am here, and on phones, and knocking on doors when I do, and wearing Obama paraphernalia, and engage in conversations with others about the future.
This is a major part of my world. Thank you for letting me share it with you.