An annual challenge to my senior-level A.P. European History students.
“What will we do after the test?”
“Yeah, what do we do after we are done, Mrs. Brown?”
Ah! The perennial question: what meaningful task can I give a group of hardworking seniors who have finished their Advanced Placement European History requirements, but are still stuck in the purgatory that is the final quarter of a high school that continues for an additional six weeks after the exam?
For the past five school years, I have answered my students’ inquiry with a challenge: “So, you think you can teach?”
This year, my small, but mighty group of thirteen students lets out a collective groan as I unveiled my plan. There were many raised hands, with the following questions:
“Will our grade be tied to the grade the student earns on the Regents exam?”
“What if the student is resistant? What if they act like a punk?”
“What materials we will have? Will you give us review tools?
These were insightful questions. These were telling questions. I laughed sarcastically and told them, no, their grade, unlike my APPR score, would not be tied to how well their students performed on the Regents exam. I assured them that I would help discipline any unruly students, and I reduced their anxiety by showing them the many review materials that they would have at their disposal.
The four-week challenge commenced.
Each senior was assigned two sophomores: one motivated and another, let’s say, less eager for the tutoring experience. The sophomores earned extra credit, the seniors completed their final exam project. Every available academic advisement period was utilized for four weeks. (Academic advisement is a forty minute block of time when the entire high school stops, every day.) There were constant hurdles: sophomores did not always show up for the forty-minute block of time, the seniors had fun senior activities to attend during that time period, academic advisement was canceled due to scheduling conflicts, and both the sophomores and seniors had other academic obligations to meet. My room was chaos — loud, messy, and disorganized. Some tutors successfully convinced their students to meet at alternative times and places, often the incentive of food was offered.
Slowly, I began to notice cohesion. The sophomores began to claim the seniors as “their” tutors, proclaiming in class that: “Oh, I went over that topic with my tutor.” As the seniors helped me grade review assessments, they became deeply invested in the success of their sophomores. Rapport and trust were established. The tutoring sessions were more frequent, the previous hurdles were trampled.
And then, I looked up from the pile of grading on my desk and saw this:
The students were engaged. The seniors were telling the sophomores useful test taking strategies. The sophomores were organizing essay details. The seniors were discussing historical events and figures with mastery. The room was filled with the music of teaching and learning. It was all fleeting, and I was exhausted, but as a public school teacher, I will always embrace what positives I can get!
On the last day of class, the seniors handed in their reflections. I passed out candy as we sat in a circle. We chatted about the positives, the challenges, and their takeaways from the previous month.
One young man smiled as he recalled how his student began with a defeated attitude, but by the end of the four weeks was actually trying to complete his work and was willing to participate. Another senior stated that he was happy that he could explain the historical events in a manner that the sophomore could more easily comprehend. I commented that the seniors showed the sophomores that there was light at the end of the tunnel; the seniors modeled for the sophomores that they too would survive Mrs. Brown and global history class!
Most of the seniors cited time and motivation as their biggest challenges. One female student lamented her frustration over being asked to explain content repeatedly. Another female student commented that the many interruptions to the schedule broke the “flow” of the process. Overall, the students all agreed that teaching takes considerable knowledge, patience, and skill.
I asked the students to reflect on what they learned about public school teachers from this experience. One male student said that he felt it was very difficult to teach such diverse learners. He had learned that teachers need to meet the needs of many types of people. Another female student said: “I realized how important public school teachers are. Without you all, we might as well go back to living in caves.” We all chuckled at that image of suburban caves, but I told her that I sensed that she meant that public school teachers provide structure and guidance in an uncertain world during an often confusing time in a person’s life: childhood. Many of the students expressed that they felt proud of their school. They commented on how they have been nurtured, supported and well educated by our public school system.
To conclude the class and the year, I polled each student as to their future career plans. One student emphatically said he would never teach. He found it very boring. Three of the thirteen said they planned on being social studies teachers. The rest were a mix of business, communication, and undecided majors. All, however, will be taxpayers. Many of them will have children of their own.
Hopefully, this challenge will help them appreciate the value of public education.
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