Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Success in School (for teachers) - Part I


Last year I wrote a snotty two-page note to students about how to be successful in school. It consisted of about seven bullet points that listed the things that they needed to stop doing in order to be successful. Basically, the note said, "cut it out you stupid kids and stop wrecking all the good I'm trying to do here!" I am very happy to say that I never passed that note on to students.

I found that note a couple days ago when I was thinking about things that do or don't make students successful in the at-risk program at which I teach. I was remembering it as brilliant and was a bit crushed to find that it was just the opposite. Right away, I figured that it would be the perfect thing to write here at bgfay750, but when I started sketching ideas in my notebook I found that I didn't have a lot of good stuff to say. Not yet.

It turns out that before I could talk with students about how to be successful I had to think about how teachers can be more successful. And so, here we are.

Success in School for teachers begins with kindness, compassion, and generosity. I'm convinced of this. Standards, expectations, and all the rest are good too, but they are secondary to kindness, compassion, and generosity which, I suppose, could all be filed under the general heading of understanding.

This year, my second in an alternative to homebound instruction program, I came in with a new goal. In other years, I have set about to raise scores, to get kids to write more than ever, to (for lack of a better phrase) do things to kids. Those initiatives have worked fairly well but have always left me disappointed in the larger sense. This year was different in that I spent the summer teaching summer school and developed a new sense of what my role is in the classroom.

Over the summer, I met kids who had stumbled for a wide variety of reasons and were now looking out the window at summer sunshine instead of being out in it. They weren't excited to be there and they weren't looking to learn a whole lot so much as they expected to serve their time and be released with the credit. Knowing this, but also knowing that I wanted to help them achieve something (and knowing that I was being paid to help them learn), I designed a program that was based on knowing them, letting them know themselves, and putting a focus on their lives and who they wanted to be.

The resulting curriculum began with writing practice every day. For five to ten minutes we wrote from a prompt and then we shared. They handed these in to me and got them back the next day with a personal note from me. That note did not ever discuss grammar, spelling, mechanics, or give advice about how to write better. The writing itself was the instruction and the note back showed how writing could be a conversation. Along the course of 24 days, kids wrote more, spelled better, structured writings, and acted in the ways that writers do.

After writing practice, we read a poetry, short stories, a novel, a play, and we watched two movies. All the while we took time to talk about things. Sometimes the talk was about the stuff we had read or written, sometimes it was about how one guy's math class sucked and how it made him hate math. Sometimes it was about a car, a trip, a game played on the football field. All of this was in the curriculum.

And at the end of summer school, all but two kids passed the course, and all but one who needed to pass the state exam did, with pretty high scores. More than that, nearly all of them talked about how they felt differently about writing. Okay, that was enough evidence for me (I don't really need too much hard data) to try it this year in school.

Thus, I have begun building a curriculum based on kindness, compassion, and generosity. It isn't as though I haven't had any models for this. The program at which I used to teach and the one before that were designed on personal relationships. In each instance, people realized that before real achievements come real relationships.

Tomorrow, I'll go through the three words guiding my curriculum and describe the types of relationships I'm trying to build. Then, either tomorrow or the next day (depending on how verbose I am), I'll talk about how this has radically transformed my approach to conflict and discipline in the classroom.

Until then, write on.