Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Losing the battle, winning the war

10/33 of my students in one 11th grade section completed the homework today. I gave them a stern lecture about how the class is not graded on a curve, all work is compulsory, and I had no qualms about failing all of them if they didn't take class seriously. Here is our exchange from the end of class.

ME: So do you all understand tonight's assignment?


ME: Do you think you can do it?

CLASS: Yes, sir!

ME: Are you going to do it?

CLASS: No, sir!

ME (exasperated): Are you going to repeat the 11th grade until you're 50 years old?

CLASS: Yes, sir!

ONE BOY: Fifty-one, sir!

Since the midterm and final are supposed to be 80% of their grade, and since I'm told just passing rather than achieving high marks is emphasized by many families, I can understand that my kids are frustrated by the high volume of work I'm giving them. I wouldn't be frustrated if they weren't so funny--a trait that shows me that in general they are very bright. Many of them remind me a good deal of myself in high school--precocious without being offensive, subversive without being directly rebellious. The difference, I think, is that I always understood the consequences of not putting in my best effort in school.

I am teaching the way I was taught: homework every night, constant quizzing to reinforce concepts, major emphasis on in-class discussion and a democratic classroom. I think some of this methodology is just going to prove too foreign. I remain astonished at how my kids were raucous and unable to pay attention during a fun activity like in-class debate, but work diligently and quietly when I give what I find to be a boring grammar lesson. Well, as I told them, I'm happy to teach grammar and syntax all year. They could certainly use the help. As could we all.


  1. Kids actually crave and need structure. The more planned and scaffolded your activities are, the more likely it is that they'll be on task (and, actually, enjoying themselves.)
    Weird as it is, kids are very judgmental of adults who don't do their jobs, especially teachers. And they know your job is to teach them, in the context of school as they know it. Deviating from that is both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. (As if a Princeton professor said, here, look at my naked body. It is flappy, is it not?) The trick is to build slowly from less democratic, more traditional models that still feel like school, and then jump off into more experimental/interesting stuff. School is school.
    (End of rant)

  2. Also congratulations on losing your first game of Asking Questions You Don't Want The Answers To. It's a tradition!

  3. Hi Jon,
    So great to read about your experiences. Despite the obstacles, I can tell that you are doing a great job. Hang in there. My first teaching job was in the inner-city and I had similar first attempts.
    Good luck to you my friend!!!