My biggest challenges while designing and teaching Course 5 of COETAIL has been first, not knowing the students personally and second, working with students who do not have the work ethics that I would expect my own class to have by Spring.
LACK OF PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
I learned the host 8th grade students’ learning styles, friends, ability to focus, motivating factor by being hands on. I have been with this 8th grade class for 5 weeks and feel that I know most of them well. I know the ones who are willing to take on a challenge, the know it all, the ones who really struggle, the ones who do not want to work etc. You know how it goes…..
My lack of knowledge about the individual students and resulting weak relationships with the students places me at a disadvantage to help students on personal level as much as I would like to.
For the first time in five years I see poverty in the classrooms and it breaks my heart when I see one of the smartest students in the class not have any ambition to take the IB curriculum and AP classes that I know he can ace. He does not have a computer at home either. I am saddened when a student tells me that she likes school better than home. And most of the students do not have the confidence to raise their hand or believe their teacher that it is okay to be ‘wrong’ and they give in too quickly or ask me if this is the ‘correct’ way to answer. As I tell them that there is no ‘correct’ answer just their answer and they will be correct if they can give evidence they look at me blankly.
I believe that students can gain confidence to push themselves, defend their answers or get guidance if they have a relationship with their teacher. Someone who believes in them and wants them to work hard and is also willing to work with them. These students have a friendly, young teacher who mostly understands them but he does not always have the time or energy to invest.
I wonder how far these students will get and it reminds me of the most inspirational teacher talk that I have ever heard. This is my go to talk for when I wonder why I became a teacher and why educational reform matters to me. It is Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk.
In all fairness, with an age group of 13-14 year olds it is not easy to ‘ask for trust’ rather you have to ‘earn trust’. And it hurts me when they do not speak up and do not believe me when I tell them that they have immense potential and they can do really well. They need a ‘champion’ just like Rita Pierson says who will push them to be the best that they can be, who will try to understand them and who believes that they matter as a person and their opinions matter. I share this belief and it is built off Rita Pierson’s powerful mantra for her lowest performing students (TED Talk):
“I am somebody. I was somebody when I came. I’ll be a better somebody when I leave. I am powerful, I am strong. I deserve the education that I get here. I have things to do, people to impress, and places to go.”
LACK OF ACADEMIC RIGOR
Surprisingly, conducting research and using credible sources other than Wikipedia, Ask Jeeves, etc. was a new activity for these 8th graders. I know that as an 8th grade teacher last year I started the academic year using credible sources of information, MLA citations etc.
I should have used a starting benchmark in the guest classroom to check where the students were in their research skills. I had assumed that they would be at the same place that my other class had been but that was not the case.
Students also lacked skills such as annotating text or knowing historical texts to turn to for information. In addition, if questions seemed too hard my teaching colleague (their teacher) would explain or provide information. This enabled students to get answers and work as little as possible.
In addition, unlike my teaching experience at Dhahran Elementary Middle School, Saudi Arabia most of the students were reluctant to use new technology like Wakelet for curating information. Although, they enjoyed using Popplet and Mindmeister a lot for generating their questions about war. However, the easy acceptance of new technologies is less evident here.
I have missed pushing students to do more and then some more like I used to. And as long as you believe and are willing to give the extra help that is needed most of the students come through. It then becomes a personal relationship between them and you.
I have empathy for the 8th grade students who are so smart but will likely get sidetracked in high school unless there is family or peer support to push them. And they might not challenge themselves.
I know that teachers want students to get good grades in End of Course exams and they need to complete all the course work. But we should not cut corners as teachers so students don’t end up learning vital skills that they need for high school; They need to know how to conduct research, the difference between primary and secondary sources, what are credible sources and how to annotate.
It seems that HOW we teach is as important as WHAT we teach. If we teach students to believe in themselves and teach them to think critically, then we will have done the best job possible as educators.