Education Opinion

Start to Finish

By Hanne Denney — September 24, 2006 3 min read
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Time to grow up. I’ve been telling my students that this week. We’re into our fourth week of school and they have yet to really engage in the learning process. I am struggling with methods of motivation. I’m trying to connect to students. I’m trying to find relevance between curriculum and personal stories. I want students to integrate what I’m teaching into their experiences.

Last posting I described my classes - four classes of English 9, and one class of English 12. I am a special educator, and three of my freshmen classes are co-taught sections, meaning that some of the students have IEP’s and some don’t. But all have needs, “special” or not. I teach students with learning disabilities, health impairments such as attention deficit disorders, emotional disturbances, autism, vision/hearing impairments, and unspecified multiple disorders. I also teach students who have not performed well in school, who don’t like to read, who have challenges at home which impact learning. Each student is different, yet they have one thing in common: youth.

I’m going to be careful and call them “youthful” and not “immature”. The ninth graders are fresh from middle-school, where goofing off was appreciated by their peers and sometimes accepted by their teachers. Fun was an important part of learning. School was what you did when you weren’t playing. Now let me be clear that I’m only repeating what the students say – I know middle school is as academically rigorous, but it is different.

High school isn’t so much fun. We’re working. Learning is a job now. School is your life, and playing is in distant second-place. We don’t have much time for social breaks, and goofing off, and recreation. Every class is planned with an objective, a task, an agenda. I need to know, before you leave today, whether you’ve reached this objective. You need to prove to me, right now, if you’re learning.

The freshmen will have their real test when they take the high school assessment exams which evaluate their worthiness for a diploma. But each day in my classroom is an assessment. If you don’t get what I’m offering today, tomorrow won’t be good. So I’ll teach it again, maybe in a different way. We’ll work harder.

Seniors are a little different. My one class of seniors is all self-contained students. This group of ten students has been taking classes together throughout high school, sometimes back to elementary school. They know each other well. They know each other’s family stories, and they know each other’s abilities and struggles. They are accepting of each other, and for the most part, supportive. They are getting worried about next year.

The Seniors discuss things differently than do the Freshmen. We talk about adulthood. The 12th grade English class is studying Beowulf, which has some great themes in it. On Thursday we had a Socratic Seminar on the topic of relationships. What is Friendship? Kinship? Loyalty? Enmity? These kids jumped into discussion head-first. I heard stories about single mothers raising children, and older children raising younger siblings. I heard from a 19 year-old who’s been supporting the family since he was 14. An 18 year-old, college-hopeful man outlined what kind of father he plans to be in the future. He knows what is needed because his father has been absent. A young woman of 18 spoke of wanting to move to Atlanta to experience the excitement and change a big city might offer. I heard stories of friends, and enemies. Some of those stories were remembered from middle school, some from ninth grade, some from last week. Some families had changed a lot in three years, and some students had as well.

How did I know the 12th grade students had achieved the learning objective? They ended the seminar by writing their definitions of those four words. Next class we’ll apply those words to writing themes for Beowulf. That connects literature to personal relevance.

Starting, and finishing. The freshmen look back sort of wistfully – it was easier in middle school. The seniors look back regretfully – I could have done it differently. The freshmen look ahead with excitement and fear – can I do it? What is “it” going to look like? The seniors look ahead with dreams and disquiet – Can I find it? When I do, will “it” look like my dream?

As a teacher it’s my job to present the objectives of the curriculum and evaluate whether or not the students have achieved the learning goals. As an adult, working with children, it’s my job to present students with the opportunity to identify their dreams, and evaluate whether they have what they’ll need to reach them. And if they don’t, I’m going to try again, maybe in a different way. I’ll work harder. Until they get it. Until they grow up. It’s time.

The opinions expressed in Ready or Not are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.