Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Got to admit, it's getting better...
We’ve hit April now, and I feel like I’m hitting my stride. The students have calmed down. The potential dropouts have either grown out of it or finally dropped out. Those extremely dysfunctional students now warm the seats at the alternative campus or have been finally rescheduled by the counselors. My classes have started on The Pearl by Steinbeck. Right now, I feel completely in control.
This wasn’t always the case. Many different challenges plagued each day. After freshman thaw from the first shock of high school during those first few months they can really be a thorn in the side of a young teacher filled with hopes of changing a student’s life. The multitude sway in the direction the disruptive kids blow. The disruptive kids try to establish their territory and are happily cultivating the disciplinary records with perpetual flare, triumphing in a teacher’s failure to teach. Students report to class tardy, disheveled with attention to the latest ghetto fashions, and without supplies. Coming out of summer, everyone flaunts with pride just how stupid, lazy, and destructive they are. Those with a gram of maturity hide it for fear of their lives.
For a teacher, even a new one, this situation is not impossible. I had strategies to neutralize the rotters, to pacify the most active disruptors, and to push the recalcitrant yet pliable multitude of students. Still, employing these strategies never assured a calm day. I remember almost everyday dreading at least one or two moments that I know would arrive. There were a group of students that I knew would raise a scene that would wreck my class’s attention and my authority into pieces. Like a general planning his next move, I played a chess game that anticipated the moves of these problematic children strategically placed in my class to make my job that much harder. Other times, I would worry about the acceptable format of lesson plans, staff development sessions, the growing number of rotters sleeping in my class and failing, the frustrations of teaching reading to adolescents still struggling with phonics. Somehow, I made it and kept my cool. I credit getting a sufficient amount of sleep (this was vital), and those close to me serving as sound boards (this was even more vital). Unfortunately, I got to see some others break down under the strain.
Throughout the first semester, I tried and retried different methods of teaching the students about plot, about characters, about setting. I reviewed these terms, modeled them countless times. Repetition was my middle name. I lectured and brought out real world examples. Two thirds of my classes defied the odds and made good progress. Still, my last classes in the afternoon would always manage to dampen my outlook on the day. The students in my 4th and 8th periods (it’s a block schedule) never finished their assignments. I could prod them, explain every question, hint at every answer, but they just languished like cows in the field. A few of them are roused into some kind of activity now, but they still could do better.
Like a composer listing his monumental operas (think of that movie, Amadeus), I like to list my novels that my students have successfully finished: The Outsiders, Animal Farm, and hopefully in a few weeks, The Pearl. Between these, the kids have hustled their brains on short stories, newspaper articles, essays, and vocabulary and grammar exercises (much of this material, I had to write up myself). I’m happy to say that all my classes have expanded their vocabulary and comprehension, becoming better readers and thinkers. The time it took in the beginning for 10 pages ranged around an hour (yes, that long!), now that has been cut in half with more of the material retained. I have been able to eventually sneak in some more mature concepts and higher level thinking with a better reception. Quite a number have finally touched the big black monolith and discovered Reasoning. With this, I keep on chugging, knowing that I have made a difference and that I'm doing a pretty swell job teaching, so I can’t stop now.
Over the year, I find it interesting how a separation emerges between classes because of the dynamics of the students. The level of progress between my two best and my two worst classes fascinates me and confirms a few notions I’ve had about the impact bad and lazy kids can have on a class. To put it concisely, they’re disastrous. A disruptive lazy kid can hold back months, even years, of academic progress the adjacent students might have. They stop activity, delay instruction, annihilate motivation, and will utterly demolish a teacher’s will to help those struggling.
Case in point, I have made substantial progress in my morning classes (1st and 5th), which now prompts me to make a higher track for them with more novels and more opportunities for analytical discussion. The kids are polite, they work, and their minds and abilities have grown substantially. They can rise above my current work. My two worst (4th and 8th) have made the least progress though I’ve worked the hardest with them. Those two classes account for at least 80 percent of my failures for all six of my classes. They are the most recalcitrant towards any new material and they carry very little motivation. The relevance of my material, the failing grade awaiting them, the disappointment of their parents, and the damning stamp of stupidity; all those things have only change a few of their habits. For them, I’m considering a lower track that they might be able to follow, but I almost think this is amoral. They aren’t that different from my other students; they’re just immature and suffer from some dead weights in the class.
One of my duties as teacher is to isolate, mollify, and hopefully extract these bad influences. Like a ruler punishing criminals, I have to punish the bad kids. Those who aren’t in a school in any capacity will assume I’m just a vindictive teacher out to get those free spirits. Where I work, my bad kids are ones that flirt with crime and dropping out, and many of them come from severely wrecked homes. They thrive on violence, aggression, disorder, and emotions. They’ve never been taught to think or to take responsibilities for themselves, but that have learned to make excuses. They need help in the worst way, and sticking them in my classroom only fuels the fire instead of stopping it. A suitable alternative for these kids needs to be developed so this growing number of children doesn’t end up in prison like they do now.
For now, I’ve done pretty well to keep my classes calm and the students have started listening. Even fourth period is starting to turn around. A teacher once told me that Thanksgiving break will be a teacher’s low point in the year, and that by Spring Break, things will start becoming pleasant. This has been true so far. With only six weeks and a bit left, I can say that this year has been frustrating but somewhat illuminating. There are problems beyond my control, so I can only write about them. Just read this blog. Still, through all the miasmic cynicism that looms in a low-performing urban school, I know that there’s still a good part to salvage.