Saturday, March 8, 2014

"This is stupid, that is stupid, EVERYTHING is stupid"

Just now, while re-reading "To Kill a mockingbird" (because this is my first year teaching it since I read it in eighth grade *mumblemuble* years ago), I realized why my students and I have the relationship that we do. We argue and butt heads and they often ask me why I don't like them. Most days they are lazy and unmotivated. When I make them do work on their own, they gather together like an angry mob and attack me. When we first began reading "To Kill a Mockingbird", I'd spent a week on building historical knowledge and then introduced the novel and said "now begin reading the first ten pages of chapter one". Several heads popped up with confused looks on their faces. Read? Well, OK. Several students opened their books and stared at me. Apparently, they were waiting--waiting for me to read to them.

Our classes run on a block schedule of 95 minute classes for one semester each. Ninth graders take "Reading" in their first semester of high school, then they may or may not have a different teacher in the second semester for English I. Most of my students were new this semester, and many of them had come from a neighboring teacher who was new, young and looking for an easy way out. Students had often listened to audio or watched movie versions of our texts before or while reading the text. I made it clear that I do not read books aloud and my class is about developing self control and independence. The students that I'd had the previous semester did not accept this statement that I do not read aloud as we'd read parts of "A Raisin in the Sun" aloud and all of "Romeo and Juliet" was read aloud. So, when the angry mob set in, it wasn't just new students. I had to explain to my former students that we read aloud plays but we do not read novels or even short stories aloud. One of the new students looked at me, eyebrows gently furrowed and said, "what, you don't feel like teaching today?".

Changing grade levels every year that I've taught had left me questioning every decision that I'd made until this semester. Now that I finally understand Common Core and I continue to use GLEs, I have had an easier time of setting the level of expectations for these students. I still had a rude awakening when it came to their actual reading levels, though. I'd had the idea, and even discussed with first semester's students, that passing the LEAP should mean that they have a basic knowledge of skills that they would need for ninth grade but that they would be at varying levels of mastery of those skills since they come from a variety of schools all over the city. However, I hadn't anticipated that many of them would still be reading at the sixth grade level, some lower, and why they were reading at such a low level. Eventually, it hit me.

Every time we work on vocabulary or grammar I get mass numbers of students shutting down. Working on fragments resulted in yells of "this is stupid!" or bugging students about completing vocabulary work ended in "that's stupid" or when I use just about any polysyllabic words in class I am faced with "why are you using big words?". And I don't mean excessively academic language, I mean the language that is used commonly, like on the news or on the average TV show. Each time was like a big puzzle piece being laid out in front of me.

If you are an experienced teacher you might be thinking "duh" at this revelation. However, I am not experienced yet due to my never repeating a grade level, however, my varied experience is what made this awakening happen. I know that vocabulary is not a separate skill to be worked on in middle school. I had gone into middle school thinking that there were grade level word lists, much like the Dolch sight words lists, that I could look up and teach my students. I went back and forth between several lists online, but lack of knowledge and experience coupled with no pacing guide or curricular support from my instructional coach (who, might I add, had never taught above fourth grade), left me piecing together a myriad of skills in no sensical order which often left vocabulary cast by the wayside. If my experience was anything like any of my students' experiences, then they didn't adequately develop their vocabulary before reaching high school, and this is most likely why reading a complex novel was daunting to them.

Our school uses a vocabulary system called "Wordly Wise 3000" for ninth and tenth grade. Although I've grown to dislike the way that the system tests, it is still a set of grade level appropriate words complete with five activities for each lesson, supplemental comprehension activity and tests. I wondered why vocabulary wasn't done like this at the middle school level when there is still time and ability to learn new words. My ninth graders are using the eighth grade level book and I have been asked on several occasions why that is. Thinking back on it now I understand why the kids think everything is stupid.

Conversations with my students, much like the ones referenced in this post, have made me realize that my students aren't actually mad at me; they are frustrated that I ask a lot of them, and they are worn down because, for them, the work is hard, and they are sad that I won't rescue them and give them the answers or tell them the page number to find it on (when they haven't done the reading) and they are confused that, at this stage, reading is about analyzing and there are a variety of ways to analyze a story. They are angry that the system has failed them. They are angry that they have gotten all the way to ninth grade and no other or few teachers have challenged them. They are angry that they want to go to college but, for the first time, our school is telling them "yes, we want you to go to college but you will have to work very hard to make that happen". I have heard at least two students say, when discussing their academic weaknesses, that it wasn't their fault. And all I can do is reply, somewhat sadly," I know". And while I know it is a bumpy road for these kids, I realize now that deep down they knew that the responsibility to work hard was on them, but they just wish I would have been more understanding about how hard it is for them to do something for the first time, even if they should have been doing it all along.

Next year there is going to be a complete overhaul of the Freshman English curriculum that will allow us to keep the bar high but give better supports to the students while they stretch and climb to reach it.

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