Am I Part of the Problem?


Since we’re early in our novel study, I asked my freshmen to work in their Trio Teams to find a line from ch. 4 that they found interesting or meaningful. When Team 5, the International Bureau of Brains (IBB = their first name initials put together), shared the line above, my classroom exploded with a discussion about how school lets them down. Some of the points were typical complaining teenager stuff (“I mean, why do we even have to learn math?”), but other points held a lot of weight.

In my state, only 79 percent of kids graduate and many of those who earn a diploma don’t go on to a four-year university, yet the focus of our writing has been on academic research and SAT-style rhetoric.

During the conversation, one student told us she just got a job at U-Swirl Frozen Yogurt but had no idea how to complete her W-2 tax form. “I didn’t even know what that was,” she told the class. “I had to keep calling my mom, asking her what to put in the boxes.”

Resumes, cover letters, and financial documents are a mystery to my kids. Adding to my concerns, Stanford University this week released a depressing study of 7,800 students (middle school through college) showing that 80 percent of them couldn’t tell the difference between valid and fake news stories. Seriously.

Now, I’m no Miss Caroline and all my students seem to be lice-free, but I’ve still had a few moments this semester when I’ve needed to just sink down into my chair and bury my head in my arms. I don’t have all of the answers for how to meet my students’ diverse needs, but two realizations came to me this week:

1. More than ever, I need to add relevancy to my lessons. I’m generally pretty good about hooking into pop culture or selling students on a lesson with a fun intro, but I also need to add more real-world writing tasks/skill-builders into my routine. What’ll that eventually look like? I have no idea, but it’s clear my kids need these tools.

2. My spring semester plans are going to change. I recently wrote about the time crunch I’m feeling on this new block schedule and one of my solutions was to set aside my 20Time experience this spring so I’d have enough time to fit in regular curriculum. Uh…scratch that. The conversation with my freshmen (and the robotic, going-through-the-motions work created by the majority of my sophomores and juniors) has convinced me that these students need the real-world 20Time experience more than they need me to squeeze in an extra novel or play. Calendars, prepare for a slashing.

So that’s where my head is this weekend. If you have any advice or resources to share for those real-world document lessons, please leave a comment or url below. I don’t know when I’m going to have time to build those tools, but I know it needs to happen.

Teach on, everyone!

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12 thoughts on “Am I Part of the Problem?

  1. I cannot overstate how relieved and validated I felt reading your experience in your new community. Sometimes when I read blogs and inspirational books from motivational educators, I get excited, try it, and then I’m perplexed when it doesn’t hit home with my students. It IS a relief to know that an experienced teacher like you is having to revamp your schedule to meet your students where they are. Your new school sounds a little more similar to my deeply rural one. I am heartened to see that you will bring back 20Time and encouraged to see that even you have to toss out great, well-intentioned lesson plans sometimes. Now, if only I could figure out how to use 20Time as well. Maybe after we retake EOCs next week.

  2. I’ve had this same feeling. I had my Jr (plus two senior kids) AP Lang kids discussing deadlines and grades the other day, and they talked about how much of their day was (what they saw as) busy work. Some of the things I gave them fell into that category initially, but then I explained (again) how that practice would help them on college writing and on the AP exam. Still, I’d given them artificial deadlines when I really didn’t care when they completed the work–I just wanted them to get the work done and not wait til the end of the semester to cram it all in. So then I gave them target deadlines for those assignments (rhetorical précis writings) and the majority ignored them again until I gave them another hard deadline.

    I don’t know what the answer is, either. There’s some part of it in flexible deadlines, I think, but I’m refiguring, too. One of my seniors said that he gets aggravated about some of the classwork because he could get it done at home in half the time. He’d rather use school time for conversations, etc, that he couldn’t have on his own and then use part of the school day for work time.

    Don’t know what the answer is, but I think there are lots of us right there with you. I’ll be watching to see what you come up with. 😊

  3. Amen, Dana. I’m struggling right alongside everyone else because this job is just so very hard. There’s no magic bullet, secret sauce, perfect lesson plan, whatever that’ll work for every kid in every classroom. That’s part of what makes this job so perplexing, right? I heard once that teaching is an art. If that’s true, then I suppose great artists are never done; we all just keep evolving.

  4. Right, Mrs. Turner, and even 20Time (one of the most relevant lessons of all time) isn’t a hit with every kid. I’ll have some that catch fire for their projects and work almost completely unsupervised to create something awesome and then I’ll have others who need constant monitoring and artificial deadlines to get something – anything! – done.

    I know that having teenagers complain about school is hardly new, yet I can’t help but think that some (a few?) of their criticisms have merit. Solutions? Let’s keep thinking and working…

  5. Laura,

    First of all, thank you–I’ve been a long time reader who has used many of your materials.

    Our district has recently rewritten our curriculum using a system of backward design based on Jay McTighe’s work. According to his website, his philosophy is based on “Improving the quality of student thinking, mapping the curriculum around “big ideas” and essential questions, developing the 21st Century Skills of critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration, creating performance assessments for measuring what matters most, engaging students in meaningful learning around authentic tasks, [and] teaching for understanding and transfer.”

    Assessments are often project based, and aim for an authentic audience. For example, after reading The Crucible, my pre-AP students didn’t take a test on the play; they wrote their own allegories for middle school students (one of the main standards addressed in that unit is that authors aren’t always literal–the other is that authors make decisions based on their audience). The project shows they can meet those standards in a creative way and the authentic middle school audience (I will share them) puts them on their toes a bit. Because our curriculum is based on understandings aimed at real world transfer, we have freedom with the types of assessments we plan–and they tend to be more engaging and relevant.

    Whenever I plan an assessment or class activity, I ask myself–if the students asked why they were doing it, could I give them a legitimate answer? True, some students will just complain because they don’t want to work, but others have valid points. I’m honest with my students. Sometimes the value or skill of the activity is clear; others I tell them that they may not see the value yet, but they will later. I find that the more authentic their work is, they more willing they are to do work they don’t see the immediate value in.

    It’s interesting to hear that your students, thousands of miles from mine, share the same concerns about being able to complete basic life tasks. In one of the classes I teach, their cornerstone task (major project at the end) is to find an issue in our district, research the issue and possible solutions, plan a solution, and present their solutions in a group presentation to their class. 3-4 are chosen to present to an audience that includes our superintendent. Last year, one of the groups I sent had planned an entire personal finance class they thought should be mandatory. They polled almost 200 students, the majority of whom supported a mandatory class. They want to know how to do taxes, maintain checkbooks, etc. And I’m sure your students and mine aren’t the only ones.

    Enjoy the rest of Thanksgiving break!

  6. Thanks for this, Jess! I’m not familiar with Jay McTighe, but I’ll definitely check him out. I’m also big on the power of writing for real audiences and making projects have some authentic value in a student’s world. Funny, my juniors also just finished The Crucible and their final assessment was a modern witch hunt narrative in which they showed how something like Salem 1692 could happen today. Stories were built on a variety of scenarios, including a cheating scandal at a private high school, rumors about a newly enrollment unidentified student who might be HIV-positive, and a suburban New York neighborhood turning against a Muslim family in the aftermath of 9/11. The final results were impressive and actually interesting to read/score. I love the idea, though, of also making these available to the middle school or an online audience because it’ll increase the importance of my juniors’ work.

    As for your students’ financial class, I’m in love with that idea, too. In the conversation with my freshmen, it came up that my school offers a “Business Essentials” class and I asked if these sorts of topics were taught in that elective. The kids told me that, so far, none of that has happened; instead, it seems to them to be just a typing class. Not sure if that’s entirely accurate, but that’s the way the kids see it. Huh.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comment and idea seeds. Good stuff here! 🙂

  7. Jess, that sounds interesting. I’ll have to look at that, too.

    Laura, have you read Conversion by Katherine Howe? It’s a contemporary novel that pairs nicely with The Crucible and is based on a real event in a school in New York (in 2012, I think).

    😊 Sinead (MrsTurner)

  8. Thanks, Sinead, for the book tip! I haven’t read it, but I’ll see if I can get my hands on a copy. I also point students who like The Crucible to Jodi Picoult’s Salem Falls, an updated witch hunt (and inspiration for our modern witch hunt writing assignment) featuring a popular male teacher who’s falsely accused of having sexual relations with a student. It’s a real page turner!

  9. I struggle, too, with finding real-world and relevant activities with everything I teach. Of course, trying to explain to middle school students why diagramming IS useful and relevant can be a challenge–no matter what I tell them, they look at me in disbelief.

    I would love to see what other people contribute. Teaching students to take their state assessments takes most of my day, so there’s little room for creativity.

  10. State test prep takes most of your day, Michelle? Yikes. No. Thank. You. I’m going to work on making more items as real-world skill builders for my kids. Not sure where this path will take me, but I’ll definitely keep sharing any goodies I find here on the blog. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

  11. Kristen Coronado says:

    Hi Laura,
    Your comment about needing to make things relevant really resonated with me. We don’t want our students to feel like they are on a “treadmill” of “unrelieved boredom.” Students need to feel like what they are learning matters and is useful! Whether they find it inspirational or merely practical, relevancy matters. It helps with motivation and engagement and sometimes even with behavior. This has made me rethink my approach as well. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and for all of your wonderful resources as well!

  12. Thanks, Kristen, for reading and commenting. Also, I’ve found that when I had student buy-in on larger projects that students were more willing to do some of the district-mandated humdrum tasks because they knew that, ultimately, I was in their corner. Sort of like I had money in the bank with them. Hope this helps. 🙂

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