How to Teach Ninth Graders

Forget that you are cool. You are necessarily lame. You are the father with bad puns. You are the mother who asks too many questions. Don’t feel bad about this. It’s a role you must play. And it will make it much better when your students are pleasantly surprised when you know who Frank Ocean is or when you can dance beyond the few “white-boy” dance moves.

Forget that you have opinions. When your students talk about abortion or same-sex marriage, remember you are there only to make sure they are supporting their arguments. You want them to be skilled free-thinkers, not brain-washed automatons. Remember that now you are capable of brain-washing, too.

Remember you are not their friend in a ninth-grade sense, but also remember you love them dearly. When you get angry, remember to tell them it’s because you want to best support them.

Remember every student is capable of success. Sometimes, it will seem like many of them aren’t. Sometimes, it will seem like many are doomed for failure. But keep teaching. Keep providing extra help. Keep going over comma splices. Eventually, the unwanted commas will disappear from their writing.

Remember to always be excited. There will be days when you don’t like your lesson. There will be days when the kids are so hopped up on hormones that you almost feel like you are going through puberty again. There will be days when every kid in your class is mad at you. Be excited. Especially on those days. Jump around the room. Yell and scream. Make them yell and scream, too. Remind them that learning is always fun.

And when you go home at night and are thinking about the day, forget you were the teacher. Instead, be a student with fifteen teachers. Remember what they taught you about forgiveness and love and knowledge.

Be inspired.

Lessons from Eighth Graders

I’m in this really awesome national organization called Students for Education Reform. I started a chapter at my university. Our mission is to educate the next generation of leaders about the achievement gap so that we can close it. Because it needs to be closed.

This is our first quarter at OU, and it’s not been terribly easy. A lot of our plans have fallen through, but throughout the quarter, there have been some really great things that have kept me excited. Today, I had an experience that will keep me excited about ed reform for the rest of the year. I got the chance, with a couple of other students, to visit KIPP Journey in Columbus. The school was, simply put, kick ass.

KIPP Journey is a charter school for fifth through eighth graders. Most students enter KIPP well below grade level in both reading and math. By the time they leave, though, they are not only testing better than most of their peers in Columbus but also than most KIPP schools around the nation. That’s incredible!

One of the most notable things about the school was that in most of the classrooms we observed, the teachers had visible and public graphs, tracking each student’s test scores. I have heard stories about teachers doing this, and I’ve always been skeptical. I know in my own public schools, public information like that would have been toxic. Those at the top would have been ridiculed for being nerds and those at the bottom would have been ridiculed for being stupid. At least I thought so until today.

We got a chance to talk to a couple of outstanding eighth graders. I asked them about the charts. They smiled at me, knowingly. The following is a paraphrase of their answer:

Of course we like knowing where we are. It’s important to know where we have come and where we are going. And plus, we can see where other kids are. So we can help the ones who are beneath us. And we can ask for help from the ones who are above us. It’s not really about being smart or dumb. Sometimes certain subjects are just easier for some people. I may be better at math. But she might be better at science. It doesn’t really matter. In fact, it’s better that way. It makes it easier to help each other. We have a goal here of everyone scoring Proficient on the OAA. That’s a tough goal, but we are helping each other get there.

I still don’t know if the chart thing would be successful in my junior high, but I do know that the culture at my school was completely different than that. At my school, being an A student was important in and of itself. I didn’t really care about learning as long as I was getting A’s. A lot of this was my fault, but a lot of it was also that I didn’t know what else to base my academic goals on. If someone had told me, “Hey, you are reading at a tenth grade reading level. That’s great, but here’s what you could do to be reading at a college level,” I would have loved it.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in KIPP Journey. The culture isn’t about valuing the grade. It’s about valuing knowledge and learning. If a student masters a skill, s/he doesn’t say, “This is good enough.” Instead, s/he asks, “What else can I master?” And they realize there is always someone who is above them. That’s so so healthy. KIPP Journey isn’t about being the best. It’s about being the best you can be. And somehow, as the test results show, when kids/people concentrate on that, they become the best.

Leadership as Servitude

As I’ve mentioned once before, I help with a Writer’s Workshop for middle school students. It’s rewarding work. And I am blessed to be able to work with these young people so often. This past Friday we were finishing up our acrostic name poems. We work with them in the school’s library. The volunteers are waiting for the students as they come in and so we watch them group off to the several library tables. Most of the time, this is done down strict gender lines. This Friday was no different. The girls giggled into their respective corners. And the guys guffawed into theirs.

I like to change up who I work with so I can start to get a feel for tailoring instruction methods to different groups of students. This week, I targeted the boys’ table full of the class clowns. Two of them weren’t even finished with the rough drafts of their acrostics. The third was rather above and beyond where he needed to be. I sat down and introduced myself and then waited. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of these kids if I tried to force feed it. So I sat there and watched how they interacted, trying to catch on to their inside jokes and get a feel for their slang and junior high jargon.

After a couple of minutes, I had a rough sketch of how they interacted as a group, what made them tick as individuals and what was holding them back, and then I started instructing. Boy number one, the most creative of the group, was held back by his need to be the class clown, which he mostly achieved by self-deprecating humor. I know how that is. But when I showed him that his poetry could involve things like noises or slang, he immediately took a new liking to it.

Boy number two was mainly held back by his lack of will. All he needed was a few reminders to keep working, and he was fine. Boy number three needed someone to buffer the disruptions from the other two or else he got distracted.

As I have more interactions with people in which I am in some kind of position of authority, I am becoming more and more convinced that I cannot help them unless I actively work against the formality of that position. Leadership as servitude is a very powerful thing.

I’m interested; do you find that it is easier to lead when you are attempting to serve others?