∆ Jackson

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 02 2013


This week I was highly disappointed in my students.  And of course, Teach for America has trained me to think this is my fault and I have not done enough.  I didn’t build strong enough relationships, I did not create a classroom vision my students bought into, my classroom culture was not strong enough, I wasn’t a good enough leader to lead them to success.  Whatever it is, I feel like I have failed my students.

Because the facts are:

Fact #1. Notebooks are a test grade in my class.  I think it is essential to teach students good note-taking and organization skills and by collecting and grading notebooks as a test grade, I hold my students accountable for this.  Their notebooks grades have been getting better and better and I have been really proud of them.  And then, fourth term.  I collected notebooks.  45 students did not turn in a notebook an received a zero.  A ZERO for a test grade.  A ZERO for a test grade that should be an easy “A” as long as you are in class and taking their notes.  Their fourth term grades were at record highs!  ..until our first test.  Then they went down a little.  Even though they scored higher on this test compared to all the others, it still wasn’t stellar.  (And test grades, you see, are worth 60% of the grade while daily grades are only worth 40%)  “No worries!”  I told them, “You have a notebook grade next week.  Turn in a good notebook and that testing average will go up and your overall grade will go right on back up with it!” 45 zeros.

Fact #2. I made a pact with myself at the beginning of the semester (see this blog post: http://vskk.teachforus.org/2013/02/01/cry/) that I would make my students better writers, better prepared for college.  I created a Semester Research Project for them, walking them through the research and writing process step by step.  They were to research a career of their choice (anything!).  Maybe not Physical Science related, but definitely important to their futures.  I noticed that my students wanted to be things like Doctors and Lawyers but had no idea that it required years and years of schooling or that the college their cousin went to does not offer the major they are interested in.  So I created this research project not only to teach them how to research, but to educate them on the path needed to reach their future goals.  They were excited about it!  It was great to see them work on it and hear them talk about it.  We spent three days in the library.  They had an outline due in March and their rough draft was due Thursday and Friday of last week (Monday for lates-65% credit).  So few people turned in an outline that I told them I would not accept a final paper if they did not turn in a rough draft…because let’s face it, if they copy and past from online like they did for the last project at least I can notice it before it is a ZERO on the final paper for plagiarism.  I thought that would motivate them to actually do it…. Why?  Because it is a 200 POINT ASSIGNMENT!   That’s a HUGE assignment.  Huge.  Seriously.

Twenty-two.  That is how many rough drafts were turned in to me.  22 papers for me to grade this weekend.  Out of over 100 students.  22.

And I’m STILL getting excuses about why they don’t have them on THURSDAY, when the last day to turn them in was MONDAY… “I don’t have it with me today because I left it [insert location of choice here]”  What I want to say: “Actually I don’t care why you don’t have it with you today, because it was due four days ago…and technically it was due seven days ago, but I said you could turn it in for partial credit on Monday…”  But I think that would make me a terrible person so I just tell them, “I don’t want to hear excuses.”  And move on.

Also… Kids are still turning them in to me and I am so conflicted on whether or not to even accept them!  Because this due date was written on my board in GIANT lettering for two and a half weeks along with the words “NONE accepted past Monday April 29″ and “will not accept final paper if you do not turn in rough draft”.  I made an announcement about it in class EVERY SINGLE DAY for the past two weeks.  And while a large part of me wants to accept a late paper anyway, because I do not want students to fail my class, another large part of me knows that by accepting a late paper, I am reinforcing a lesson they have been taught for most of their life: Due dates don’t actually matter.   This lesson may be part of the reason so many of our students who do go to college end up dropping out.  So if I am trying to prepare my students for college, how can I continue to enforce this lesson and still feel good about what I am doing?

Some excuses are good, too.  They don’t have internet at their house.  They were out four days last week because they had to take care of their son while their mother was out of town.  But that’s the thing.  My students face more challenges than most.  But if I allow them to use these challenges as excuses, the education gap will continue.  I need to teach them to rise above these challenges, not use them as excuses.

AND…. in case all these disappointments and let downs were not enough… I got another dose of it today, which brings me to…

Fact #3.  My fellow Physical Science teacher and I gave a take home test for the unit on waves we just completed.  While I don’t love the idea of a take-home test, I have only seen two out of my five Physical Science classes for the past two weeks due to the Biology tutorials I have been participating in, so it really was the most logical thing to do.  Plus, I figured it would help them bring their grades up this final term.  Wrong.  Because today the first round of  take-home tests were due.  When passing out tests, I repeated to each class about THREE times, “This is due on THURSDAY.  It is a TEST.  It is a test grade and I will treat it as a test.  It is not homework; you may not turn it in late.  It is a TEST and it is due THURSDAY.”  I put a line on the test where they had to write the due date.  Out of my three classes today, about 8 or 9 students had completed the test at home and had it ready to hand in to me.  The rest either did not have it with them at all, or were frantically filling out answers as I walked around to collect it.  The results?  I have only graded one class so far, but in that class, only three people passed.  And guess what?  They were the three that had completed the test at home.  Other grades ranged from 0% to 55%, with most of those closer to the former. On a TAKE HOME TEST!!  I had a 5% from a kid who is super duper smart and whose father makes me call him whenever he gets lower than a B.  I am not looking forward to that phone call.

So, now what?

I guess I just want to know where did I go wrong?

When I calculate my percentages for each class of how many students are failing, it makes me want to give up.  And why does my class with the lowest test average ALL YEAR have the second highest passing rate?  Oh, that’s right, because they do their work.  So why can’t I get them to do their work?!  What am I doing wrong?  I could bribe them with candy or something like that, but then would I really be teaching them the importance taking responsibility for their education?  Is it wrong for me to want them to do their work simply for the sake of wanting to pass my class, get a decent grade, or (God forbid) the desire to LEARN something?  How do I create that intrinsic motivation?

WHY has our education system failed to do that thus far?!

My percentage of failing students in Physical Science: 53%.

If I include my Physics students in the mix (who are all passing): 50%.

This is unacceptable.

…Now, where to go next?

6 Responses

  1. Jay

    I taught for ten years with a department head and mentor who used to say: You don’t have to lead students to water as much as you have to convince them that they are thirsty. :-)

  2. Dan

    There is literally nothing else you can do. It is up to you to get intouch with parents and let them know what is going on. After that the ball is in the parents court.

    Sometimes that is just the way it is. An old adage is still relevent,you can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Welcome to the real teacher’s world. TFA doesn’t admit that this kind of world exists.

  3. Mom

    If you haven’t made a list of all of the things you have done this year that have had a positive impact on your students, it’d time to do it now. It will be LONG!

    Just like any successful “movement” for social change, TFA has to speak to you in extremes (haven’t done enough, need to try harder, etc).
    Those are motivational tools, not to be taken literally all the time.

    You cannot undo the culture in which your students have lived. You can only be a beacon of light that all will see and some will follow.

    The Bio study weeks have broken your classes’ stride, something you didn’t know would happen and could not control. Keep up your energy and help your students and yourself to finish with a successful event of some sort.

  4. Cioci Amy

    Ronnie, I would say that you are one teacher, in one classroom, and it would be miraculous if you by yourself could un-do 8 or more years of poor study habits in just 8 months. And yet you never give up.

    On days like this when you feel discouraged, remember that all the things you have done this year are having a positive impact on your students. Some of your students have never recognized before that a teacher actually cares about them succeeding, but you have shown them that. It might not always be obvious in their classwork, but you are a positive influence, and your integrity makes you a role model for your students.

    As Steven and Jay have commented, keep thinking of ways to improve things (PopPop has taught us that, right? He is always taking a good idea and making it even better!). But always remember that you are an awesome teacher. You care deeply about having your students learn– and not because of test scores or grades, but because you want them to be successful in life. That’s the best kind of teacher.

  5. Jay Fogleman

    I agree with Steven about the importance of enlisting what parent concern is possible. It also sounds like your heart and mind are engaged in your teaching. Bravo!

    I will add that you should be patient with yourself. You are trying to develop a learning environment that addresses important goals for challenging students. It may take several iterations (over years) to develop an effective “bag of tricks” and raise your success rate.

    Practically speaking, some suggestions to consider:

    Try establishing homework patterns with low stakes assignments early on before being surprised by low buy-in on a take home test. Start with very small take home “quizzes” after half page worksheets for example.

    Same with class work/notes. Why not do a completion check at the end or beginning of each day instead of checking their whole notebook “for a test grade?” It sounds like the threat of an extrinsic “zero” is not enough to engage them.

    If they don’t have their notes at the end of a class. then check on their progress halfway through the period. If they have not made progress then you know that they are not engaged in the lesson. This is a different problem, and has different solutions, than students not keeping their notebook.

    Parents will be more appreciative and helpful if you can give the early warnings instead of bad news. Providing early feedback on the child’s participation at the beginning of the year may help them help you.

    As you know, these are the things that keep caring teachers awake at night. Keep trying new approaches and in a few years you will have a strong fan base if students and parents!

    Good luck!

  6. Steven Calvario

    As I read your post, I can really feel what you’re going through.

    You’re an amazing teacher and, to be honest, I think you’re doing more than enough. You have actually been successful for your students.

    I think that the missing piece is parental involvement. Sure, there are some parents that really just don’t care, but the majority of them want the best for their students.

    Where to go next? Try to finish up the next few weeks strong. Then, let’s come back and collaborate on parental involvement for next year.

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