Education Opinion


By Hanne Denney — September 09, 2006 4 min read
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I’ve had two full weeks with my students and I am beginning to know them. Of the six classes I teach, five are ninth grade English. I’m working with two co-teachers, and I have two self-contained classes. Ninth graders are in that great transition period from childhood to adulthood. The beginning of high school is the bridge they cross to enter this period of their lives.

Week one: students come in quietly, sit where directed to sit, write what they’re told to write. They are fairly compliant and rather anxious. They don’t know their way around, they don’t know the teachers, and they’re thinking of all the bad stories they’ve heard from older siblings. They are wondering how they get to the cafeteria and if they’ll have time to eat.

Week two: it’s not the same group of students as last week. They know their way around and haven’t been lost recently. They’ve made some new friends, and they’ve identified people to avoid so they have their safety zone. They know the teachers’ names, and most of the teachers know their names by now. The building is starting to feel like “my school”, not “the high school.”

Of course in week two some students need to try to carve out a special niche for themselves. So I have dealt with some pre-bullying issues as tough kids try to feel out who the weaker students are. We’ve had a few kids who didn’t turn in their homework on time. So we called parents the second day to let them know their child’s grade was already plummeting. We’ve enforced rules, and changed seating charts twice, studied IEP’s and Behavior Plans. I’ve spent time talking “man-to-man” with a student in the hall to find out what’s going on, or to let them know the possible consequences of their second week choices.

Two weeks in, and we are teaching. We’re passed the procedural/administrative discussions. We’re deep into poetry themes and application of themes. We’re beginning short stories next week. This is my third year teaching, and now the curriculum is well-known to me. But still students amaze me when they offer insights I’ve not heard before. I can apply a poem’s theme to “real life”, but I am inspired when a student applies it to his own life and I hear a story of struggle and courage and persistence. Such as the student who spent years in a foster home, who had to tell the class she didn’t have childhood photos to put on her Life’s Journey Map. Or the shy student who stood in front of the class to say it is two years now since his policeman father died in the line of duty, and his map has a lot of bridges crossing over obstacles. Or the student who realized (I think for the first time) just how great a childhood she’d had as she showed photos of cruises, family reunions, summer camps with friends, and birthday-present bicycles.

I enjoy freshmen because their ideas are fresh and they have not yet learned to think ideas over before sharing. They don’t measure their words. They like to participate.

My sixth class is English 12. I knew every one of the students on my class list before school began. I’ve taught them in US History, World Civilization, or English 11 last year. They are an outstanding group of students. They are not Honors-level students, but they are able students. Some are now thinking of four-year colleges. They are students who have learned how to self-accommodate disabilities and family issues. They get themselves to school, and jobs, and take care of younger siblings. They have an incredible awareness of what it will take for them to get ahead, and they are frightened because they know it’s going to be hard to get there. But these are kids who have always had to work hard to achieve the goals of the curriculum. And I’m inspired because they’ve made it to their last year in high school, and life is just beginning to open up to them. I know we’re going to have some interesting conversations in that class. And I know I have a real obligation to them, to help them conclude this stage of their life.

It’s interesting, how I’m working with both freshmen and seniors this year - the two book-ends of the high school career. I’m excited about it!

My professional focus is on learning from the master teachers, mentors, and award winners in education. This is year three for me. I know how to teach, basically. I know how to grade, basically. I know how to differentiate for IEP students, basically. I’m thinking of our state assessments, with categories of “Basic”, “Proficient”, and “Advanced”. Now I need to become proficient, and move to the next level. “Advanced” is still years away. So let me share something I recently read and which inspires me when I grow tired:

“When I teach my heart fills up with love, my soul deepens, my mind expands, my spirit dances, my hands create, my eyes behold beauty, and praise is what I do.” Linda Alson, winner of the Kinder Excellence in Education Award (quoted in Education World Wire Side Chat). Thanks, Linda Alson, for letting me rely on your words this year.

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