Last week of the semester. I always feel like I’m a pilot getting ready to set down a jumbo jet after a cross-country flight. And, that I’m not sure if all my passengers are still on the flight. Truthfully, it’s a battle sometimes. I teach kids who hate math and hate school. Algebra is just not on their list of enjoyable pastimes.
Even the students who do play the “game of school” well are a little worn down at this time of the year.
I don’t buy “My kids can’t”. I’ll accept “My kids can’t *yet*”. But I’ll tell you for sure, “My kids won’t” is real. There is no downside to “not trying”, with a very real possibility of “trying and still getting an F”. Maybe that’s my problem. I have tried Standards Based Grading in the past, I definitely see the value, but I was never able to get my students to buy in to going back and studying, getting extra help and getting re-assessed on stuff they’d already done. So the icky grade would sit there, and come the last couple of weeks of the term, well, we might as well sit and play Halo all day for a couple of weeks for as much as gets done.
One of my biggest challenges each year is to make sure I’m not The Enemy. Each year, during finals review at the end of every term, we take time out of one class to walk through the math to figure out how the final exam will affect their term grade. (Doc here: Final exam score worksheet). And every time, there are students who are stunned to find out they cannot possibly pass the class, even if they ace the test.
And I tell them, “I’m sorry.”
I tell them I have never been that teacher that roots against his students, who wants them to fail. As much as they want to make me the bad guy, I think most of them recognize that as real. I’ve been Mother Teresa in the classroom. And I’ve been a raving lunatic.
I’m back to being very chill. Partially because I don’t want to get snapchatted, but mostly because no 15-year-old needs to get hollered at by a grown-up for not getting math. Or for acting like a fool in class because they don’t get math. For a lot of my students, life in general isn’t great. My job is: Not To Make It Worse.
I teach in a city. I live in a green leafy suburb. (Full disclosure: yes, I know that is not cool.) Many of the kids my sons go to school with “know about” poverty in the way I “know about” polar bears: Someone has told them about it, they accept it as real, but they’ve never actually seen it. Not that we don’t work hard to help. Every year parishioners donate enough food to pack and distribute Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner to more than 200 local families. Our school students volunteer to pack the boxes and carry them out to the car. We have a year-round collection for our local food pantry. Our students are involved with service projects throughout the school year. But still, sometimes it takes more to “get it.”
Mrs. Dull facilitates the middle school youth group at our parish. We alternate between catechetical nights, social nights, and service nights. This weekend the EDGE kids volunteered at a shelter for homeless families, helping to sort and organize Christmas gifts that had been donated through Angel Tree and Secret Santa programs. They also got a tour of the facility’s food pantry, and heard some startling statistics from the Executive Director. Among them: oft-quoted research that places the average age of a homeless person in our county at 9 years old. The kids also found out that all the school districts in the county bus students from the shelter – they are the first to be picked up and then dropped off last so no student will have to be tagged with the stigma of having their classmates see them boarding the bus at the shelter.
Here where the magic happens. One of our students sees a classmate’s name on a box of presents. He had no idea the classmate was homeless. He was… stunned. And saddened. His eyes were opened. And his world changed.
Even some of the moms who helped out with the service night were shocked and saddened at what they heard. It’s not that they are indifferent to suffering, it’s just that… our brothers and sisters who are hurting the most are often hiding in plain sight. They literally live in a different world, even when that world is the library downtown, or the parking lot at Walmart, or the classroom.
What I know for sure is, after Saturday night at the shelter, they can never pretend they didn’t know. And several of them committed on the spot to take action. One girl, a leader in the service club at her school, promised to raise money to buy manual can openers for the shelter families. Because canned goods from the food pantry are great, but worthless if you have no way to open the cans.
One Last Thing: many times we are stunned at what our students don’t know – things we take for granted as common sense. Many times it just means that is something they haven’t been exposed to yet. But we rarely think about the things our students *do* know. And you know what? A lot of them know poverty in way I never want to get close to. You know what else? They give from their scarcity. Every time we have a penny war or a jeans day to support a school family who has been hit with tragedy, our kids come through. They dig deep to help.
Hell, a few years ago when a severe flood inundated a wealthy neighborhood across the river from our city, it was our students who were among the many folks who volunteered to help clean up.
Saturday night, we enlisted a whole new corps in The Resistance. Welcome to the fight.