“So are you calling us stupid?!”

Teaching the standards takes time; so does building trust.

 

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Photo: Autumn Goodman on Unsplash

 

“So are you calling us stupid?!” a middle school student asked me two months into my first year of teaching. Her eyes bore straight through to my heart. It was 9:15 a.m. on a Monday during my first year of teaching in a small rural school in Missouri. Friday of that week seemed as far away as the following summer.

A sickening ache throbbed in my stomach. I clutched the lesson plans I had printed out the day before at home, and took a breath.

“No, I’m calling you careless,” I retorted.  I don’t even remember exactly what we were discussing. Probably sloppy handwriting, perpetual lateness, or a general lack of responsibility that I was amazed existed to such a degree in the vast majority of the students. Sure, some students cared. Some turned in their assignments on time. With their names on their papers. With legible handwriting. With responses written in sentences, instead of one or two words.  How my observation on my students’ work could be so questioned, and in such a belligerent tone from this particular student, stupefied me.

I had not signed up for this disrespect, this arrogance, this chaos at this point in my life. Sure, I had signed up for a Master’s degree. Actually, I was still in the process of obtaining a Master’s of Art in Teaching from Missouri State University and was teaching under a provisional contract, and honestly, that may have been part of the difficulty. After all,  I had not completed any student teaching. I had jumped right into full-time teaching because the school had had an urgent need to get the position filled.

As a result, that Monday morning made me fear that my foray into education was, at the least, a huge mistake.

Now, six years later, I teach in the same classroom, albeit a slightly different subject—from reading to language arts, specifically writing. My students better understand the priorities I place on handwriting, presentation, and a degree of professionalism in their work. We are learning together about ourselves, history, literature, current events and then writing about those in various ways.

Yes, they still moan and groan when I pass out their weekly written homework assignment. And slightly more than half turn in those assignments on time. But they are learning. Their ability to convey their thoughts on paper slowly, ever so slowly, improves with each assignment.

I also take heart in knowing that several former students tell me they now appreciate that I gave them those assignments because producing a solid essay on a weekly basis built self-confidence in their writing skills, developed their writer’s voice, and helped them conquer the fear of filling up a blank page.

On that Monday morning during my first year, my students just didn’t know me well enough. Relationships, credibility, confidence, and respect all develop slowly over time. So while it does take time to organize and plan instruction to teach the learning standards, it takes more time to establish trust with your students.

Today, I’m confident my students trust me. They know I’m interested in their interpretations. They know I value their ideas. They know I believe they are capable of discussing complicated concepts, of thinking through those concepts and figuring out how to put those concepts into written pieces. They also know I give them real opportunities to be published; in fact, many of them have already been published. Some of them even win contests. Above all, they know I would never call them stupid.

 

My Seventh-Graders Told Me This: Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

The future of the country is in good — albeit small — hands.

 

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Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

Just when you think the country is spiraling out of control due to natural disasters, political upheaval, and lone wolf violence, you read some words written by twelve- and thirteen-year-olds and you realize that kids will carry us through. In short, everything’s gonna be okay.

I  just finished reading some first drafts written by my seventh-grade students. These drafts will grow into essays they will submit in a couple of weeks to an essay contest sponsored by our local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Each year has a different theme and this year’s is “America’s Gift to My Generation.”  What are these gifts, as determined by my students? Here are some my students wrote about:  freedom,  the ability to make choices, security, free speech, education, medical technology, optimism, diversity, the opportunity to seek meaningful work, the Bill of Rights.

These gifts make me hopeful. My students could have written about video games and unlimited data, but they didn’t. To know that Sarah values her education, Eric treasures the freedom to speak out, and Kaila cherishes being secure, makes me realize that the future of the United States is in good — albeit small — hands.

A cynic might say, “Well, what would you expect? The kids want to win the veterans’ contest. Of course, they’re going to write about freedom, for example.”  And to the cynic, I respond, “You’re exactly right.” My students know their audience. They know what’s appropriate (most of ’em anyway). That speaks well of their judgment and foresight, and again, I am encouraged.

I’m also encouraged because my students are diverse. Some occupy the lowest rungs on the socio-economic ladder; some rest comfortably at the top. Some have the latest Smartphone; others are living the digital divide. Some ask to borrow scissors and glue-sticks to take home for a class project; others have all these supplies at home plus full bookshelves.

However, despite their various circumstances, these first drafts reveal that deep down my students know what’s important and worth writing about. They understand priorities.  They know that being an American provides advantages that millions in other parts of the world simply don’t have. More importantly, my seventh-graders — tomorrow’s leaders — know whom they should thank for those advantages: our veterans.

Next week, we’ll start revising these first drafts. They’ll become more focused, more eloquent, more concise. These short writings will blossom into hopeful messages that confirm our future is secure.

Our local VFW post will generously award three students with recognition and cash prizes during our Veteran’s Day assembly in November. When that happens, I’ll share with you the gifts the winners wrote about. Until then, no matter what happens in the meantime, trust my seventh-graders. Everything’s gonna be okay.

Thanks for reading. If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow this blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students, including the VFW contest mentioned above.