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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Transitions

It happens every year. In the month leading to the AP exam, I worry.

Are my students prepared? Have they read a wide enough range of texts to support any Q3 prompt they might encounter? What could I have done to encourage them to read more? How many students missed good lessons because of the multitude of field trips - especially in the spring? How can I help students individually when they rarely attend tutorials?
These are just some of the questions that keep me up at night, but then I realize: much of this is completely out of my control. Students know (or at the very least, they've been told) that it is necessary to practice reading and writing to become better readers and writers. They know that tutorials are available. While of course I will continue to revise lessons and look for better ways to teach course content, the real questions I would like answered are:
  • How can I help students take ownership in their own learning?
  • How can I make students want more for themselves than mediocrity?
  • How can I teach someone to have a work ethic (other than modeling one myself)?
You see, if I only cared about English, and the acquisition of skills related to my content area, I would just issue the grades earned and never look back. But I want more for my students. I want them to be lifelong learners. I want them to be excited when they learn something new and feel an uncontrollable urge to share their new insight with others. I want them to know how to communicate and understand that it is this ability, combined with empathy, that makes us human. I want them to know how to get stuff done even when they don't feel like it because let's face it: that's a reality of adult life.

This is why in the month leading to graduation, I worry even more.

I worry that a system that was designed to make sure that no student is left behind might in fact be enabling people to hold themselves back from their true potential. I worry that by making it so difficult to fail, we are failing students by making a little bit of effort seem like it's enough. It's not enough.
I worry that teachers doing their best to cover curriculum don't always have time to teach the truly valuable life lessons, but I know the greatest teachers try. One reason I love teaching seniors is that I can support them during this exhilarating yet scary phase in their lives and offer some of the wisdom I have gained in the 20-something years since I was in their shoes. As my students transition into the adult world of college, work, and societal roles, my pleas to them are the following:
  • In everything you do, please do the best you can. If you feel like it could be done better, learn from someone who knows more than you do. Ultimately, aim to find a more efficient or innovative way to perform the task. Innovation made this country great; let's perpetuate that practice.
  • Be kind. It might sound trite, but this is one of the most basic yet important concepts that, sadly, seems to be forgotten at times.
  • Try to learn something new every day. Try to teach something every day.
  • Technology is an awesome tool that can be used to bring people together. The trick is to know when it is separating you from other people. Don't let that happen. Look up from your device every once in a while. Actually see the world around you and the people in it. Make connections.
  • Balance work and play. In the end, no one ever says they wish they had spent more time at work; alternatively, diligence can allow you to do more of the things you want to do to achieve spiritual or emotional enlightenment. On a related note: travel as much as you can afford to; see the world; meet and seek to understand other people; visit historic places and great works of art and architecture.
  • Read. It really does make you smarter and more interesting. I know, I know. You think it's an English teacher thing. Nope. It's a scientifically proven thing. (Well, the smarter part at least - the part about you being more interesting is admittedly based on empirical evidence.)
When I reflect on my life, and the fact that I learned these lessons despite numerous obstacles and adversity, I know that as long as they are open to new experiences, education, and relationships, they will be okay. Heck, they will probably be a great deal more than okay - as long as mediocrity is no longer enough.

And when I remember this, I stop worrying and celebrate their graduation and transition into adulthood.
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On a related note: one of my friends and colleagues just brought me this poem. I think it ties right back to one of my original questions: How can I make students want more for themselves than mediocrity? Read it and see what you think, and remember: comments are welcome :) 
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