January 13, 2006

2-minute warning?

The end of each semester is always a challenging time. The courses I teach are built sequentially: each assignment builds on the previous one. At the end of each semester the students combine all of their work into a portfolio. The portfolio assignment requires them to use literally everything they have learned since their first day in class. If they miss a day along the way, and don’t make up the work, it is reflected in the portfolio assignment. If the portfolio assignment was a building, then some of the structures would be sound and upright, and many are. However some other portfolio-buildings look more like a bomb has exploded in them leaving huge gaping holes and placing the entire structure on a 15 degree lean. Students with incomplete portfolios often experience an increase in panic as the days remaining decrease, and they realize that their building will not stand. In a desperate effort to rectify the condemned project, and raise it to a safe position, students scramble around to complete their missing work like a football team down on points with only 2 minutes left to play.

The hurry-up offense might work in some football game situations, but it rarely makes a significant difference in the academic life of a student who has fallen behind. Few things make me more crazy than a student who suddenly “wakes up” two weeks before the end of the semester and asks to be tutored in everything they have missed when they have not attended class either physically or mentally. I know, it’s part of the job, but it’s a lousy part of the job, and at times I feel like I am on the defense. Honestly, sometimes I just want to tell the hopelessly behind students “too bad.” But that type of sarcasm is ineffective and inappropriate. Yes, the students are responsible for their learning experience. Student buy-in is critically important to their success. Teachers can’t teach the unwilling. But it’s worth taking the time to help a kid who experiences an epiphany. I have witnessed students with less than a minute to play carry the ball in for a winning touchdown. However, despite our best efforts, it doesn’t always work that way. In cases like that, who is responsible? Do we just “wash our hands” like Pilate? Or do we “stick in there” until the time has elapsed completely?

The problem with sticking in there is the degree of stress that it places on us teachers. If we are going to stay in the game, then both pacing, and maintaining mental and physical health is important. I went home every night this week completely exhausted and fatigued. Not good for my family, my teaching, or me. My fatigue was a result of spending 6 periods a day, every day this week, trying to help the recently resurrected catch up so that they could not only pass the class, but also (and more importantly) finally learn the material. Sometimes that’s what it takes to be an effective teacher: a willingness to teach, review, re-teach, remediate, and spoon-feed over and over again, whenever we are asked, for as long as we are asked, until the students “get it.” Teachers unwilling to do so are not serving their students well. Students must be willing to come to the teacher, sure; but sometimes the teacher must be willing to go to the students. Be nice if that was the first thing taught in teacher prep programs.

I learned from my master teacher to tackle the last 6 weeks of class by creating a cumulative assignment that students could work on independently. That way the teacher is freed up to work with those who need extra help. I have found this to be an extremely effective teaching tool. However, I find a greater number of students needing more and more individual help in the last few weeks of the course. Instead of being a time for me to take-a-knee, I find myself kneeling next to students spending the majority of my class time working with those who need extra attention. Clearly they are not getting the help they need during the normal classroom day. Is this a reflection on my teaching style, or a statement about the caliber of some of today’s students? Probably both. I am most frustrated by those who simply throw up their hands and say, “I can’t do it.” These are often the students who get left behind. Of course they can do the work, it’s a question of their personal level of commitment. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter where a student starts, so long as they are committed to success in the end. I’ve seen it happen. Even those with the least preparation can catch up and can succeed. But students do themselves a huge disservice when they wait until the 2-minute warning to figure it out and make that commitment. It’s like the Packers down by 21 with two minutes left trying to win the game. Even the mighty Brett Favre would be hard-pressed to pull a victory out of that one. And yet, kids try it all the time. Ah youth.

Sometimes the result is that kids fail, even in the last 2 minutes. I hate that result. But there is as much if not more of a lesson to be learned by failing then there is by squeezing out a last second field goal for a "D-". Sometimes a “F” drives home the point that school is serious business and requires the full commitment of both students and parents if success if to be reached in the end zone. We teachers are already committed (and as a result, some of us are ready to be committed. After a week like this, I know I am.) Sometimes the winning play can be called, and the team can win in the waning moments of the game. And understand: teaching is a team sport. Like football, the teacher is the quarterback, the students are the players, and learning is the goal achieved by putting in that extra effort and kicking the ball between the uprights with no time left on the clock. “And the crowd goes wild!”

Please post your comments below.

1 comment:

  1. "Of course they can do the work, it’s a question of their personal level of commitment."

    I am a resource room teacher and sometimes it appears that we spend more time in meetings with parents over why Johnny is failing, versus the time that Johnny puts into his own work.

    How do we teach to achieve that personal level of commitment in students? I have learned not to take it personally when students fail, but it does not make it any easier. Funny that your blog is similar to one that I wrote earlier this week.