Friday, May 3, 2013

My Best Day in the Classroom

For the past four weeks my freshman students have been engulfed in learning about the Civil War, a fascinating time period in American history. Teaching the Civil War is a challenge in that there is so much going on and a teacher can only cover so much material in limited amount of time. It's not only the battles and politics of the mid-19th century, but the individuals who impacted the fate of our United States. As a high school student I never imagined there were things happening behind the scenes, and this unit provided me with the opportunity to explore such unique things as 3D photography, commonly referred to as stereoview in its time. Nowadays students think 3D is new, but they are surprised to learn how commonplace it was almost 150 years ago. After I purchased a DVD with almost 100 stereoview photos, I was amazed when I discovered how they were digitally colored, bringing scenes to life as I had never imagined possible. My students loved it when I distributed 3D glasses, logged into my iTunes account with an hour's worth of music from the Civil War, and then turned out the lights. I guided them on a one-of-a-kind journey into the past. It was amazing!

It wasn't until the Civil War unit came to an end that I experienced my best day (to date) as a teacher, and once again I've realize the best lessons in the classroom are those made with a connection with life. When the Civil War unit began, I informed my students that I would allow them to use their notebooks for the unit final, provided they were written notes in their own handwriting. In other words, no xeroxed copies or worksheets from textbooks- rather, everything they transcribed from notes in class or taken from assigned readings. Throughout the unit I reminded them that by taking good notes and organizing them appropriately, they would improve their chances for success on the unit exam. For those who chose to ignore my warning, the day of inevitability hit home on Thursday, May 2nd. As I handed out the test, I caught a glimpse of some of their enlarged eyeballs and a sudden realization that they had made a huge error in judgement as to my sincerity of the difficulty of the test. For those who heeded my advice, they excelled like never before.

It was on this same day that I celebrated the success of two students who had previously struggled with tests such as these. Other teachers refer to 'Joe' and 'Jim' as dysfunctional and derelict in nature. They are kids other teachers quickly toss from their classroom, while I tend to tolerate and focus on ways to motivate their passion for learning. Our relationships have grown over the past several weeks after heart-to-heart talks after school when they dropped in to grab a Jolly Rancher from my candy jar. I challenged them to take my advice to prove, if only to themselves, that they could ace the test just by following through on my advice. There were times when they worked together to update their notebooks, talking smack with one another...all the while having just the tiniest of doubts in their abilities. When I finished grading their papers, I was elated to be able to place 'A+' in the top corner. They popped their heads into my classroom this morning and I sat them both down in front of me with a stern glare, then broke the news of their success. They NAILED IT like never before!

I asked if they would allow me to use their names and notebooks to share with other classes, if only to model how successful others could be by following my advice. They were proud of their accomplishment and I matched their elation by suggesting they do it again on the next test. They jumped on board immediately!  Later in the day I strolled into the Dean of Students and asked Shawn to seek out these two students at some point in the afternoon by congratulating them in person in front of their cohorts. In the past Joe and Jim have been frequent visitors to his office, always being reprimanded for their negative actions. Today was genuinely different!  :)

As the day progressed, I had heart-to-heart chats with each class in hopes they would understand the sincerity behind my words. In one of my most difficult classes, one-third of the students received an 'F' on their test, and I shared that they were capable of better work. After all, three students in this specific class earned top honors with perfect the issue of attitude and attentiveness in class clearly came into play. Rather than rubbing their nose in the results, I elected to challenge them to do it 'right' when we begin the next unit on Reconstruction. My students were STUNNED (yet very happy) to discover that Joe and Jim did something that no one expected, much less ever considered possible.

While the good news has yet to spread amongst my comrades in the Social Studies department, I take great satisfaction in knowing that kids who are often tagged as "impossible" can turn their academic lives around in short order. Their success can truly inspire it the teacher or the achieve what was once considered unattainable.

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