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.