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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 4, 2017

Photo on 12-4-17 at 7.26 PM

It’s a Monday and it’s my birthday. None of my students knew and I didn’t bother to tell them. It was a rough day. Last night, I stayed up too late. This morning, and all day really, I was suffering as a result. My cold’s getting better, I think, or, at least, no worse. But what made the day especially challenging, on top of the fatigue, was the growing realization that my students are not ready for prime time, cannot or will not do certain things that seem to me kind of no brainers, hence: they were really difficult to teach today.

I’d like my sophomores to take more responsibility for their own learning. I’d like my sophomores to be able to have conversations with each other about important things. I’d like them to be interested in what they’re doing. I’d like them to be present, to engage fully, to work hard, to monitor their own behavior. They want none of the above. Let me restate: most of them want none of the above. Most of them are either unwilling or unable to do any of these things. As long as I’ve been doing this gig, I feel like I’ve never really mastered how to teach them to do this stuff. It’s like this: they need to be taught how to be: how to be civil, how to be interested in other human beings, when to speak and when to shut their mouths and listen carefully; they even need to be taught (apparently) when it’s the appropriate time to go to the bathroom. And again, I’m not speaking about all of them, but I am speaking about a large enough number of them so as to make three periods in a row with sophomores today feel almost like a wasted day. Is it just that they’re 15 or 16 years old? I know that, partly, yes, that’s the culprit. In large part it’s also a “boy” thing. If I think about every single kid that was making my life difficult today, with a few exceptions, I’m thinking about a boy. They can’t sit still. They can’t take direction. They don’t read. They don’t do homework. They don’t take responsibility. They’re totally self-absorbed. You call them on a disruptive behavior and they look at you like you’re crazy. What!? they say. Or, that wasn’t me. Or, you’re treating me unfairly. It is infuriating. I have to remind myself again and again, (almost impossible to do in the moment), that they will grow out of it and most of them will be okay, will grow into those characteristics I listed above, and that I should just lighten the hell up. They’ll make it.

But many will not.

Over the last few weeks, my department mates and I have been agonizing over what to do about our seniors who enter their last year of high school short the English credits they need for graduation. If they haven’t taken a credit recovery class, summer school or some such band-aid approach, kids who have failed one or more English classes over the course of their high school years find themselves taking LOTS of English as seniors–sometimes two classes at once. And because we are loath to put seniors in classes with freshmen and sophomores, and because we have a limited list of things to take for seniors, they end up inappropriately placed, for example, in College Writing (WR 121). Sure, let’s take kids with a history of failing English classes and put them in a college level English course! It’s ridiculous, especially if the teacher of this class is concerned about maintaining his level of expectation for all the kids in the room, not diluting in any way. The kids placed in this class to make up for lost credits will most likely fail and it will bring them no closer to graduating. The English department dilemma, we thought, was about WHAT courses we’re offering, but I think we should have been talking about WHY so many kids are failing.

I have sophomore boys who come to class habitually late. They come without having done any homework. They come without pencils. They come without pens. Even if they have a pencil or a pen, they come without any paper to write on and they don’t have their composition notebooks. They don’t have the book we’re reading. They have no sense of agency or purpose. They see no value in the process. They see no potential in themselves to change direction. And these are the habits they bring with them through their schooling and these are the kids who will be short of earning enough credits to graduate.

I asked one such student today, in exasperation, trying not to be didactic or sarcastic, if he knew why we were here. He said what he thought I wanted him to say, and just maybe, he believed it: we’re here to get an education. Okay, there’s a start. I asked him if he felt like he was getting an education. He said, not here. Not in English. Okay, fair enough. And I’m thinking, I wonder, you without pen or pencil, you without notebook or paper, you without book, you who are mostly absent and when you’re not absent you’re late, I wonder why you don’t feel like you’re getting an education here. At some point, he or his buddy said something like this: we don’t learn anything in English! We just read and write and talk! Never mind that the teacher has given you a list of thought provoking essential questions. Never mind that the teacher has tried to be super explicit about why we do what we do, about the value of story, about the necessity of hearing from other perspectives, about empathy, about the urgency of being able to articulate critical thought in speech and in writing, about the dangers to us in the absence of these things. This boy was absent that day, I guess. I delivered the little mini-lecture, and he was somewhat receptive. But it’s hard to imagine him turning things around, even though I know that that’s part of my job.

At the lunchroom table today, my friends Richard and Jack and Brad and I were talking about these things and wondering if we sounded like a bunch of grumpy old men. Yeah, we probably sounded like that. We asked the question, are we in a groove or in a rut? Are kids any different today than they have ever been, or is it JUST US? How good do you have to be to love every kid and to communicate to every kid that you are on their side and believe they can be successful? How do we balance, or should we balance, kids feeling good about themselves with the fact that hard work and persistence and failure are the very stuff of learning and of life. Our superintendent and our vice principal are very keen to talk about drop outs as “push outs” instead, shouldering all the responsibility for failing students squarely on the backs of teachers and the institutions for which they work. For many of us, this does not sit well. It’s too much to bear. It’s true that there are many students who are not served well by our schools. They need something else. They need something we are not prepared or equipped to give them. But there is no other alternative and here we are, between a rock and a hard place, all things to all people, trying to do what’s right, trying to keep it together, wondering why Johnny can’t or won’t read, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, rejecting and resisting burnout with every fiber of our being.

All right. That’s out. Time to celebrate my birthday.

 

 

 

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Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School

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Public schools take all comers, don’t they? And that’s as it should be. Those of us who support and desire a healthy public school system believe that this is a fundamental principle that makes a democracy viable, that all our citizens deserve equal access to an educational experience that will grow them into literate, responsible, thinking, productive, engaged individuals who will realize their fullest potential. We know the reality is far from the ideal, and perhaps the most incessant and visceral dilemma teachers face on a day to day basis is that group of students who, for whatever reason, resist our efforts to provide for them this thing we believe is so essential. Our issues are rarely ever with students who are motivated to do their best, and we have huge love for those students of ours who struggle with skills and yet work hard, sometimes harder than any other kid, and despite great obstacles, succeed. No, our issues are with kids who are openly and explicitly defiant and resistant to schooling, who devalue learning, who champion stupidity or childishness, who disrespect benevolent authority, who disrespect their classmates, who cynically reject any understanding about how education could possibly be in their favor, who create disruption for others and deliberately poison classroom communities with their trolling behaviors. These kids make teaching and learning less joyful, more difficult, and sometimes impossible.

We have a moral obligation to educate them, of course. As we understand that their recalcitrance often comes from some deep suffering, we also have a moral obligation to care for them, and, as difficult as it is sometimes, to feel compassion for them. But here’s a Newsflash: teachers are not saints. It’s impossible to educate someone who doesn’t want to be educated, and it’s really difficult to love someone who is fighting you, preventing you from doing your work, sabotaging your intentions, making your sacred space unsafe.

More and more I have come to believe that the traditional classroom, no matter how progressive and inclusive, is not the correct place for these students. The title of this piece suggests that I will have a handful of suggestions to create effective interventions and alternatives for students who do not function well in school. I’ve got nothing. Nada. I only know that in a perfect world, in my educational utopia, these interventions and alternatives would exist. In this educational fantasy, all of my students, every last one of them, at the very least, would understand the importance of education and would be ready and willing to do intellectual, academic work with energy, integrity and respect. Meanwhile, in this fantasy, there is some program that provides students who are not ready or willing with some other thing that, 1. meets their academic needs, 2. teaches them how to be human and humane, 3. gives them an outlet for the release of energy usually expended in disrupting a traditional classroom, and 4. gives them some occupational/vocational skill, a skill that could be used to make things, build stuff, design, create, or fix. And in this program, whenever they decide that they want to join me in the appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare, they are welcome to come back to my classroom.

Honestly, I lack perspective. I’ve taught English at the same high school my entire career. I know there are likely programs in place around the country that work, that have developed strategies for dealing with at-risk kids, but I also know intuitively and anecdotally that these profound and effective strategies are not widely practiced, do not find their way into every nook and cranny of the vast public school system in this country–for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that strategies to help at-risk kids, if they are in place at all, are likely specific and tailored to the districts and communities that implement them; there seems to be no sure-fire way to make certain effective programs are implemented elsewhere, anywhere else, everywhere.

My district has an alternative school. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know what they do there. I know that some of the kids I’ve described end up there and some of the ones I currently have in my classes talk about wanting to go there. I don’t know why. Students cannot tell me why outside of saying that they think it will be better for them. They can’t say what they mean by that. I doubt very much that our alternative school has the capacity to welcome all students who need its services. And I am even unsure of the process by which students are selected for such an alternative. I have no reason to doubt the effectiveness of this program, but I also have no reason to celebrate. Is this alternative school successful? And by what standard? Despite the fact that I can’t answer these questions, I am thankful for it, am curious about it, and am hoping that maybe they could take on about a half a dozen of my freshmen boys.

And if the alternative school doesn’t work or can’t expand, what might possibly work as an alternative to the alternative school? Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom.

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#232: The Writer Dreams of a Debilitating Incompetence

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When I don’t drink
my dreams are more vivid
and sometimes that’s not good.
Last night I dreamt I was
workshopping a piece of fiction
with a large group of super smart
writers. I had the manuscript
in front of me and I was supposed
to read a section of it out loud,
but I couldn’t decide what to read
and the pages were all out of order
and none of it made any sense to me
and I couldn’t even remember what
I had written about or even recognize
the words and sentences and paragraphs
on the page as my own. It was
terrifying and I was struck utterly dumb
while this group of people impatiently
and in painful silence waited for me
to get my shit together enough
to give them a reading while
I pointlessly thumbed through pages.
I continued in this torturous
manner until my alarm went off
and I was jarred awake, feeling
like somebody had hit me over the
head with a rubber mallet,
a hangover after not drinking.

I wondered what it meant.
There’s the obvious interpretation,
just fear of failure sneaking in,
or worse, the fear that some day
the things I love and the skills I most
value will be lost to me.
And then I worry: in my waking
life, have I become more forgetful?
Do I more often find myself searching
for a word I know but can’t place?
Do I forget a student’s name when
I see them in the hall, or when I call
on them in class? How long did I spend
this afternoon searching the room
for my copy of the novel we were
studying until I realized that it was there,
right where I left it, almost under my nose?
Why don’t I write more fiction?
Or maybe these images are not at all about
what I fear I may lose, but rather,
substitutes for a feeling or an experience
recently of being out of control,
not having a handle on things,
being unable to use my wits or skill
to solve a problem. Maybe, just maybe
what I was really dreaming about
was my 7th period freshmen,
most of whom won’t or can’t do school
while I feel powerless to help
or motivate them. It’s a similar
feeling, and after almost an entire
career, when one should feel at the top
of one’s game, it’s scary as hell
to feel like you’ve got nothing up your sleeve
but a demoralized resignation. And on
the eve of this nightmare I had trouble
getting to sleep stewing about this
very group of young people. I seethed
for an hour.

They’ve already called a snow day
for tomorrow even before
the stuff comes down.

I think I’ll drink to that:
To a snow day and more pleasant dreams.

 

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