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Start to Finish

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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.

5 Comments

As usual well done...I look forward to reading your new insights and challenges

Special needs and all needs seem to come back to social and emotional roots. Teaching in an accepting enviornment and focusing on communication and creativity are keys.
It sounds like your time spent bringing everything full circle to personal experiences will pay off.

Hanne, you would love publishing your students' stories in a real book. There is nothing like a real audience to engage them to do their best work, boost their esteem and validate their voice. Powerful stuff "Start to Finish" just like the research shows. PenandPublish.com has made it simple.

Hanne, you would love publishing your students' stories in a real book. There is nothing like a real audience to engage them to do their best work, boost their esteem and validate their voice. Powerful stuff "Start to Finish" just like the research shows. PenandPublish.com has made it simple.

Hanne,
We all go through and will continue to wonder if we are giving our students everything we can. I think what I love most about teaching is getting to know the students as individuals. Each child is so different and yet wants to be like everyone else.
Most kids will get ready to leave the insulation of school. We have to have faith in ourselves and them that they will do well. Several years ago when I was a teaching assistant, I worked with a boy who I thought had zero ambition and caring about anyone else.
For his final essay, he had to write about a teacher who influenced him in some way. He sat there for the longest time & said that he couldn't think of anyone. I told him to just pick anyone and get finished. He chose me, saying that I amazed him by never being absent even when I wasn't feeling well and he knew that I would be waiting for him each day.
When I started teaching, I found him sitting in the principal's office looking like he was in big trouble. It turned out that he had hit a boy in the face during lunch. The reason? A hall monitor explained to me that the other boy was repeatedly making fun of a mentally disabled student and he wasn't going to stand around and let that happen to someone who could defend himself. I don't condone the the violence but I applaud the development that went into the action.

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