In reverse order. And then a little reflection on what if anything it might mean.
The Ugly - I have a problem class. 12 failed 1st quarter, and more had Ds (they are guranteed a C if they simply do all the work). This week two were put up for expulsion. While they are out of school I have to give them assignments, in case they are not expelled. The reasons for the expulsion are not for things in my class.
The Bad - . In my non-AP classes I am giving them all the terms and definitions for which they are responsible at the start of a chapter so that we can try to explore things in more depth. While doing a check of knowledge yesterday over a third of them had already lost the paper, and about half the rest had not been checking back on it during the week when we were attempting to apply the material. This is still a work in process.
The Good (and the Very Good) - my AP students had a guest speaker, and once (halfway through the 1st of the 3 classes) he adjusted to keeping his answers short enough, it went very well.
And the VERY GOOD? Let me get to that in a while. Yes, I am a tease. I want you to keep reading.
As teachers we have to be flexible. What works with one groups of students does not with another. Sometimes a particular class can have a mix of students that can be destructive of learning. Sometimes there are one or two strong personalities in the class that can set the tone for all the rest and the teacher has to figure out how to coopt that strength, because attempting to break it almost always fails if the goal is to have the class focus on learning. Why? Because the students will often stop doing anything except to watch a contest of wills. And besides, if the task is to help the class learn, all efforts expended on imposing the will of the adult are contrary to that goal. One might get sullen compliance, but not the active cooperation necessary for real and deep learning.
Last year 5 of my students were put up for expulsion, for things like bringing a knife to school, scratching the face of a woman in the cafeteria, having drugs on their persons. We have Code of Conduct assemblies once each semester, and students and their parents have to sign statements that they understand the consequences of certain actions. It is not that we have bad kids, or at least not that many. We have 2800 students. If one percent are really bad, that's 28. If any three of them go off on one day, and two or more of them are in the same room, group fights can occur far too quickly - these are adolescents, some are in gangs (not that many, fortunately), and far too many lack emotional and social control. Of the two students facing expulsion, I do not know the reasons for M___. He is normally fairly quiet. He is quite strong, and I have been told he has a temper. J___ is a different story. I have worked very hard on helping stay focused in class and do his work and he has been improving. But he has to play the tough guy.
On Wednesday, I was on Hall Duty 7th period (10 minutes at the beginning of my planning period trying to get kids to go where they belong). I was out early, before the late bell, was talking with one of our security guys. A very small student brushed J___ while walking by and he turned around and started to go after the smaller students. The security guy and I stopped him, I told him to go to class, but a gleam of recognition came across the security guy's face. He had seen J___ before while checking video on several incidents of strong-arming kids for money. J___ wears his hair in a very distinctive manner, and he seemed to look like the kid in the video. He called the principal, I told them the kid's name, since I had addressed him by name, they checked his schedule, he was pulled out of class and questioned. He confessed. Even though we tell them there are few spots in the hallways that are not covered by cameras, they tend to forget. On top of which, he was wearing the same shirt as he had when captured by video.
It is bad that a kid does something like this. I feel frustrated in that for me he had begun to turn his work around. But this is a no-brainer. His behavior was well outside anything acceptable, and in the incident I witnessed had adults not been present to stop him he would have slugged the kid who brushed by, probably sneak-punching him from behind.
The Bad - it will take a while for the new approach to sink in. It is something those students have not experienced before. I still think it is the right way to approach things. It was disappointing, but I have been teaching long enough to know that a change in what I expect of my students takes a while for them to learn. What makes it bad is that a good chunk of the students are already making the adjustment, but I cannot move forward as quickly as I want on content until the others also begin to adjust.
The Good - the speaker was Larry Roberts, who now serves as chief of staff in the office of the chairman of the DNC. Larry got to know Tim Kaine when Kaine was running for Lt. Gov. in 2001. Since in Virginia a governor cannot succeed himself, once Tim had (narrowly) won, he began planning his own run for governor. Larry, who had by then chaired the local party in Arlington, wound up chairing Kaine's campaign, then serving as his Governor's Counsel. When Kaine became head of the DNC, he still had a year to go as governor, so Larry moved back to the DC area and served as Kaine's eyes and ears in running the party. Because of his closeness to Kaine he has also met the Obamas. That of course fascinated the kids. He talked about his own growing up (near Trenton and Princeton), his education (UVa and Georgetown Law). his previous work career (as one of top communications lawyers, with a practice before the FCC). The quality of the questions was good, the kids greatly enjoyed it, and they had an opportunity to see how some of what they are studying connects with the real world.
And the VERY GOOD - remember my diary on Race to Nowhere? Remember the two videos? I spent some time in each of my classes yesterday on those videos and more. They were especially applicable for my AP kids. I have a few already taking three college level classes as sophomores. Most will take at least three next year. About a quarter will graduate with 10 or more APs.
I started by asking questions coming from the issues addressed in the film - how many hours of homework, how many hours devoted to athletics or other activities, whether they felt pressure by the parents to do more . . . I then showed the clips, and asked how they connected with what they saw. Then I explained the context of the film, and the context in which I saw it.
And then we talked. Or should I say, they talked. Many of them have trouble going to sleep at night. Far too many do not really enjoy school. I explained the conflict I feel. I would rather not teach AP because of all the information they have to learn. Were they simply in honors classes we wouldn't have to worry about being prepared for the state test, and we could do a lot more of things like simulations and debates and creative projects. Part of my new approach to AP is to try help them find a better way to learn what they must without my adding to the excessive stress that many of them were feeling.
There were a couple of dicey moments, particularly in one class. One of those, for reasons of privacy, I will not discuss here, but it required me to notify other adults and follow up with two students the next period. We think it will be okay. The other involved one of the most prominent students in the school suddenly admitting that s/he was so involved in doing all the activities s/he does that s/he has not really had the time to really be friends with other kids. S/he was close to tears, and several other students responded by going over and giving this student a hug.
At the end of the period of that class several students thanked me for it. At the end of the day one came back to tell me how important it had been for her. The kids I saw in the hallway from the three AP classes were a lot more open, and smiling, despite the difficulty of the topic.
Perhaps because I acknowledged the reality of the lives they live. These are adolescents, and often they feel as if the adults with whom they interact at school, in classes and various activities, see them only as the student in that class/activity, and thus are oblivious to the demands we are placing on them.
I have been thinking about what happened in those classes since the school day ended. My mind has rarely gone more than a hour while I was awake when my thoughts did not return to the faces, the body language, the words of some of the kids. From my perspective, they now have little doubt that I care for them far beyond how they do in my class. I pointed out that school should be a place where it is safe to make mistakes, because that is the only way we can really find out the limits of our knowledge, and thus correct mistaken ideas and the like.
I only have 45 minutes a day with my students. Since I no longer coach or do musical theater, I lack the additional contact outside of the classroom that used to be a part of the relationships. I might only have a handful of kids I both taught and coached, but those relationships fed out to other kids, and because I had some kids in two different functions it was clear that I understood they had lives beyond my class. Perhaps I have needed to make clear my understanding, and have not done so.
The things I mention are perhaps a unique combination to this one week - after all I rarely have students up for expulsions, and two from the same class in one week is very much an extreme example. I will have perhaps 6 guest speakers during a year of AP classes, although I am now trying to figure out how to get one at least every 3 weeks or so. I certainly would not often devote an entire class to the kind of discussion we had in AP yesterday. I had told the kids the day before to come with open minds, open eyes and ears, and hopefully open hearts. Most did.
But every school week has it share of moments that are good, bad, and ugly. In one sense, the worst or ugliest was how I felt at the end of Monday, when I wondered whether my new approach was failing already. I had forgotten that kids needed time to adjust.
And I did give them something VERY UNUSUAL on Tuesday. On Monday evening Rep. Carolyn McCarthy suggested to me that she thought I looked better without a beard. I went and got a haircut, went home and shaved, and the next morning wore a top quality suit. With my eyeglasses off and my id not on, many students walked into my class and did not recognize me. Some were really surprised when they would ask another student "Where is Mr. B today?) and I would respond "right behind you." It made for some humor. Most did not tell students in other classes.
I explained briefly some of the reasons (more than just the Congresswoman's remarks) about why I had done it. In some classes we were able to have a brief discussion of not making assumptions based on appearances, before we got to work with a renewed focus.
One week of a teacher's school year. A week after 5 day's off for Thanksgiving break. A week full of highs and lows, perhaps a bit more extreme than many weeks, but also representative of what a teacher has to deal with.
I thought I would share.
Do with this what you will.