School is hard and it is awkward. No matter what age of children, it can be a traumatic place. In elementary school we snatch tiny children from their families and immerse them in a world of "strangers." In high school we do the opposite, we hold them back from the real world - just as they are chomping at the bit for new experiences and broader horizons. And middle school is, well, middle school: puberty, hormones, acne, and braces. The "cringey-est" (as the kids say) time of their lives. School, if done improperly, can completely ruin a young person's life. And whether through bullying, academic stress, authoritarian teachers, weak (or overly involved) administration, lack of resources/activities/sports, or whatever, we are hearing more and more that school isn't doing its job of preparing students for the "real world."
But in order to address this issue, I feel it is important first to look at and define the "real world." The difficulty here is, it is constantly changing. So in order to properly prepare students, we must be constantly adapting - to my mind, at LEAST every year. Although it is easy, we can't be re-using and recycling the same lessons, quizzes, tests, projects, year after year. Because if we do, one day we will have the children of our former students in our classes and will feel very strange assigning them the same work we had once assigned to their parents.
I tell my students all the time: "I am only double your age. I remember exactly what freshmen year of high school was like. I can still remember conversations I had with people. I'm still with it. I get it." And then I tell them: "oh wait, when I was in high school, students didn't get cell phones until they were seniors and about to go off to college. Social media didn't exist. Our home internet was dial-up. When you wanted to talk to a friend you called them on a (does this word even still exits) landline or you knocked on their door. The point is, although only fifteen years ago. The lives of students have changed drastically. I bring up technology because it is one of the focal points where real change is so incredibly evident. With students nowadays living on their phones (whether for texting, social media, games, music, or movies), these situations didn't exist when I was in middle and high school - and I am only now finishing my sixth year of teaching.
With the lives of our students changing so rapidly, we need to make sure we are keeping up. We need to be meeting their individual needs. And we need to be ensuring that school is a positive place where students learn and grow (and in doing so) are prepared for the real world - not our real world (which will no longer exist when they reach our age) but THEIR real world. One of the real tricks in properly navigating this is our age gap with the students. In order to best understand their world, we need to get to know THEM. Several of my past blogs have discussed getting to know students on a personal level, so this one will not - but it is the most imperative first step we must be building into our teaching at the beginning, and all throughout our year.
And while we teach each year, we need to be getting to know the students in a way that is shaping our thinking for the following year. Where every summer we must be re-inventing the wheel. Every break we need to be taking major reflective time (not just R&R) to ruminate over where we have been this year, what we have learned, and what we will be changing for the future. In English, our content is always changing because books keep getting written, because no two essays are the same (unless they are plagiarized), and neither are two oral presentations (unless we do students the horrible disservice of assigning their topics). This means we can always teach new novels, new writing projects, and new styles/types of presentations.
In six years of teaching, I have changed my entire instructional delivery system three times (and from here on I guarantee it will become even more frequently than that). In my first two years I taught "traditionally." We had units, literature circles, the occasional essay, the occasional oral presentation, vocab quizzes, unit tests, etc. I taught from the front of the room, students sometimes worked in groups, sometimes played games, sometimes worked individually, sometimes engaged in workshop, etc. In years three-five, I taught through an original system I developed called "the curriculum menu" - details of which can be found in my first blog. The basic idea behind this system was, students would work at their own pace to formatively learn every state standard and would then work with me to develop their own summative products to prove mastery of concepts. And this year, along with my colleague across the hall, I ran a classroom office (check it out at misteramistera.weebly.com - you can use the links on each tab to navigate through student work spanning the entire school year).
Next year I plan to teach my classes (I hope to be teaching freshmen and seniors) like graduate school methods courses. I have decided that I want to teach my students how to be teachers themselves - and in doing so, our English work will be woven through the experience. My thought process behind this is: if students know how to teach, they will be able to help themselves in any of their classes. I hope in doing so that they will know how to organize and prioritize work, how to study, how to get the most out of their homework and assignments, etc. I know from working with my #bowtieboys that giving them the textbooks I read in graduate school has given them a whole new understanding and appreciation for their teachers and school as a whole. They have also learned a ton of valuable "English" skills including tips/tricks for reading, writing, and presenting. I want to make this #bowtieboys experience broader next year. Rather than an elite group, I want all students to get to experience what these fine young men have been able to achieve.
This idea was born out of listening to my students and getting to know them. I like to talk to them when they are stressed - when school isn't going well, sports are monopolizing their time, they're having trouble with friends or family, and just nothing seems to be going right. In those moments, it is easy for them to talk about their stress. It is clear. One of their major fountains of stress (if not the number one) is obviously academics. They don't know how to organize, prioritize, manage their time, study effectively, visualize goals, step back, take efficient breathers, work truly collaboratively with groups. If they learn these skills in our class, they can always be practicing. They can immediately apply the information they are learning to THEIR real life. My hope is this will greatly reduce their stress because they will know "the secrets" we now know as adults. I remember thinking when I was a senior in high school (as many seniors do) "man, I wish I could go back to freshmen year and do it all over - I would ACE it the second time around." Let's give our students the opportunity to ACE it the first time around. Let's pinpoint their specific needs and make our classes the places where we address these needs (not make them more glaring).
Too often I hear about students hating school, whether due to the monotony, the never-ending workload, social problems left unchecked, or other issues - there are plenty. It is important to ensure our classes are safe havens for our students - and not just a place where they can "chill" - but a place where they can get prepared. Not for some mysterious future (that won't be the same when they arrive) but for the here and now. If students are having academic issues, let's address that in our classes and help them to solve. If the issues are extra-curricular, let's address that in our classes and help them to solve. If the issues are social (friends, family, relationships, etc) let's address that in our classes and help them to solve.
I haven't blogged in a while because I had the two production weeks of my musical at the end of March (and then needed to catch up on some end of the quarter grading). But our program (which has several won national awards many shows over) is one that helps students to love school. Every show, every year, I am humbled to listen to the voices of these middle schoolers (as they cry in front of each other during "circle") and discuss how musical is the place where they finally found their "peeps." They finally found the place where they belong. I am so happy our program can be that for them. And we work very hard to ensure we live up to their standards year after year. I know sports programs that do the same thing. I know classes that do the same thing. After school clubs etc. If we can all commit to listening to our students, learning from them, and actively shaping the places (over which we hold control) in our buildings to meet these diverse needs, maybe school won't have to be so hard and awkward for many. Many school can be a call to action, a resurrection, a benefit to all.