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How Will My Students Be Different This Year?

August 28, 2010

As I enter my 16th year of teaching I am quietly anticipating a new cadre of students who will undoubtedly surprise, test, challenge, and inspire me.  It happens every year; you get your roster of students and at that moment, you have no attachments.  But soon I will re-enter the world of Middle School Land, a place that can be very bizarre, hilarious, and humbling.

Preparation begins before Day 1, and in reality, it never stops.  During the summer I read several Young Adult Literature books recommended by the school librarian; these will be made visible on the chalk tray in the front of the classroom, for students to check out at any time.  This weekend I will rush to finish Mockingjay, the third book in a trilogy about a post-Apocalyptic world where districts are forced to sacrifice their young to the Hunger Games in order to win the favor of the central government.  The thrilling book  just came out this week and I know my students will be fighting over the library’s one or two copies; my students will get an additional one to share amongst themselves.

Whenever I returned to campus for business this summer, I would see my students participating in the after school programs, even though our track was on vacation.  “What have you been up to?” I always ask.  The answers range from “visiting family”, to “sitting at home playing video games because there is nothing else to do.”  They are downright excited about returning to school.

What music are you listening to?  What’s the latest viral video?  Ok, just what does ROFL mean?  Are kids doing the Jerk or the Dougie, or are those both so last semester?

It gives you pause to think of how different the students were just 10 years ago.  Texting did not exist in the U.S.  Cell phones were a luxury for the very few students.  Far less students had computers or internet access at home.

In the classroom, the LA Unified School District was embarking on an increase in formative assessments, in preparation for the state tests in May, that also resulted in a reduction of actual classroom instruction due to the 3-4 days lost to testing each year.  Hints of economic turmoil were starting to be seen, with the electricity crises and outages in Northern California; Enron was shown to have manipulated the power crisis to its financial advantage.  California would be hit hard by these events, a chain of ever-worse dominoes falling to engulf us in today’s economic crisis.  Teachers who thought they had job security found out there is no such thing during a recession.

Yet in many ways, the students remain the same.  In Middle School, they are still trying to figure out who they are.  They do not want to stick out, but blend in.  They are goofy, curious, and trying to figure out where they fit in this thing called life.

At my school, the very first question they ask about a new teacher is “is she nice?”  I often wonder why my street-smart, no-fear students are even concerned about a teacher’s temperament.  Some of them have the power to reduce teachers to rubble.  Yet they do care; I think what they are really asking is “is this teacher going to respect me, value me, make the classroom a safe place to be?  Or do I have to be Johnny-Tough Guy like I do everywhere else?”

I truly have to say I have never encountered a student who did not want to learn.  They may not want to learn from me, but they do want to learn.  In some cases, serious, tragic events put students on a road that separated them from academic achievement.  Others lack the support they need to make it through the ever more rigorous curriculum.  But even the most removed of students  can be reached by someone; that is why my colleagues in alternative schools, non-public schools, and specialized academies play such an important role in the education system.

On Monday, when I stand at my door at the beginning of my first class, I will greet my students with a stern disposition, but a hint of a smile.  They will know this means “I will keep you safe, but hold you accountable.  You can trust me.”  What an honor.

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