jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

Students: an Evolution in Thinking

​I am completely, totally, and irrevocably tired of the narrative that says kids today are in some way less than the kids of yesteryear.  It’s a false assertion supported only by the tint of nostalgia-infused glasses.  The core kid is not lazier, more disrespectful, or less bright than kids were from when I was in high school in the late 60s and early 70s.

We have always had dropouts, underachievers, confused loners, bullies, rebels, and the apathetic.  Reading for fun has always been considered odd by the majority.  In the same way, there are still overachievers, hard workers, geniuses, and the ambitious, audacious, inventive, clever, honest, humorous and idealistic kids.

I have come to wonder if the adults I talk to who argue the opposite aren’t actually saying that they don’t like kids: that they’re the kids-only version of misogynists.

That’s my starting premise.  And even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter to my job as a teacher or my evolution in thinking about students.

Right now, this quarter, I have way more students who rock my world and make me glad to be in front of a classroom than I have students who don’t.  If my classes are typical, I’m optimistic about the future or our country when I’m sitting in a rocker at a nursing home (in about fifty years!).

I’ve always been kid-centered, but my thinking about them has changed through time.  My first year, I started with a tough-love attitude.  Deadlines and discipline were important.  Part of this may have come from my coaching background.  My classes were like my teams.  We set goals.  Everyone had to work hard for the common good, and the expectation was that everyone was equally motivated.

With those attitudes in mind, I met with my students.  Sheesh!  In my first class, right after the starting bell, a sophomore boy called across the room, “Hey, Alice, that sweater looks good on you. It would look better on my bedroom floor.” In my second class, which was just called READING, I asked the kids how many of them liked to read for fun.  I expected all the hands to shoot up.  Two kids out of thirty raised their hand.

That began my evolution in thinking.

My initial breakthrough was that I had to adapt to conditions that I found.  Clearly I couldn’t teach my sophomore class as if they were all equally mature, or that reading class as if they all already loved to read.  I trashed my lesson plans I’d been working on for weeks and went a different direction.  My “adjust to the conditions on the ground” attitude stuck with me for the rest of my career.  That’s why I’ve always been at a loss when a kid tells me that they will be gone in two weeks, and can he have the assignments.  I have to say, “Ask me when we get there.”  I don’t know what the conditions might be in two weeks.  It’s possible that I could have totally new handouts and assignments, ones I’d never done before, two weeks from now.

Most of my handouts, assignments and tests are ones I’ve created myself.  I went digital early.  Not only does each class have hundreds of files, but each concept has numerous variations as I’ve created different approaches.

I may be guilty of many things as a teacher, but being stuck in a rut isn’t one of them.  Even my first year, I was horrified by a long-time teacher who showed me her yellowed lesson plan book.  She said, “These are my lessons from when I started teaching, and I’ve never changed them.”  She spoke with pride.  The teacher who copied all of his handouts and tests for the year before school started equally baffled me, although I had to admit that his boxes full of class sets, organized by subject area and quarter, was impressive.

My second breakthrough came when my oldest boy turned five.  It’s an embarrassingly late breakthrough, since that was 1995, fourteen years after I started teaching.

I had always been annoyed by squirreliness.  This is why I knew I couldn’t teach in the middle school.  It drove me crazy to watch freshmen or sophomores poking each other, grabbing each other’s stuff, squirming around in their seats, talking when other people were talking, etc. I even made handouts defining immature behavior and went over them with classes that were particularly bad.

The problem was that I knew by the time they were seniors, for most of them, squirreliness would disappear.  I could see the seniors in them that hadn’t expressed themselves yet.  When my boy turned five, though, and I had to be patient with his five-year old behavior, I suddenly realized I’d been thinking about the younger students incorrectly.  I shouldn’t be mad because of the seniors they hadn’t become; I should be patient because of the five-year olds they still carried around with them.

It was a revelation!

I learned a ton of other lessons along the way, each with their own stories.  They include the following what should have been obvious conclusions:

• Small-group and one-on-one interactions with students are more powerful than large-group presentations.
• Sometimes large-group presentations are the way to go.
• Don’t make rules because of bad behavior that punishes kids who haven’t behaved badly.
• Don’t point out mistakes without teaching them how to fix them.
• Kids grow at uneven rates.  You might not be the teacher to see the greatest growth with that kid.
• A one-on-one conference with a student who is having problems can solve many of them, and if that doesn’t work, a phone call home can solve many more.
• Classroom culture is the teacher’s responsibility. If the teacher is unhappy with a class, the teacher needs to take responsibility for the problem and fix it (and work on it immediately).
• Give students multiple ways to demonstrate learning.
• Retakes, rewrites and redos should be the norm. It’s not, not, not important that a student demonstrate learning on the first try.  What’s important is that they demonstrate it on the last try.
• These are high school students, not adults. That means that some of them need help learning timeliness and responsibility.  If that’s the lesson they need to learn, teach it.  Their college instructors and employers will thank you later.
• The gradebook is not the only place to teach timeliness and responsibility, and it’s weak teaching if that’s the teacher’s only tool.
• Students respond to genuine enthusiasm.

Where I arrived in my evolution of thinking about students is that they are individuals.  I have to treat them as individuals.  Large class size works against that.  An eight-period day where I only see them for forty-five minutes works against that. Standardized tests that encourage me to think of kids as statistics, and that tell me what to do with this year’s kids based on last year’s results work against that.

I see I’ve gone on for a while about students, as well I should.  The pity about retiring is that my thinking about students has been evolutionary.  I’m still learning.  Now that I’m getting an inkling about kids as learners, I’m moving on.

I know, though, that in high school I’m a better teacher when I see the student as a person.  Teaching is a person to person interaction.  One of my many weaknesses as a teacher is that I’m terrible with names. I think I would have been better if I could have always been able to greet each kid by name by the end of the first week.

I wish that when I see them on the street years later that I still know who they are.

Tags: teaching, teaching life

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