What I Learned in Summer School

I just finished my last session of summer school, ever. (We are not allowed to work in a public school for sixty days after retirement. I retire in June, 2014. After that, it’s unlikely that I would return for summer school.) I’ve taught summer school for many years. Why? Three reasons: (1.) The summer school kids are different from my regular school-year kids, and they sharpen my skills as an educator; (2.) I know I’m making a difference for these struggling students in how they view their own literacy skills as well as school in general; and (3.) the pay is decent.

My summer school classes were a pretty rough bunch. We gathered each morning at 7:30 a.m., about twenty students, each of whom had failed sophomore English at least once. The record was five times, a record tied by numerous students over the years. We were together until noon. Four-and-a-half hours is a long stretch.

I like these kids. They are energetic, after they wake up, and they have good hearts. School and life have not been easy for most of them, but they have also done a good job of making it hard on themselves. Some of them have parents in prison. Some of them are parents themselves. Many of them have very difficult home lives for a variety of reasons. On the first day, I asked each student to tell everyone why he or she failed. The most common answer was a variation of “I didn’t get along with the teacher.” The second most common answer was “I didn’t do any work.” Other students also admitted that laziness and poor attendance contributed to their failures.

When I asked what they wanted out of summer school English, two-thirds of these students said they simply want to pass. The others said they want an A or a B, although Dean said he wanted to “expand [his] knowledge of the English language.”

I had no interest in spending long days with this crew and ending up with a bunch of repeat failures. My goal was to help them get what they wanted, and maybe a little more. If we can believe the reasons they gave for failing Sophomore English, and I have no reason to doubt them, their failures had very little to do with literacy. Many of them are struggling readers and writers, but they are not F-level readers and writers, whatever that might be. Their failures were largely due to behavioral choices and other obstacles, many of them self-imposed.

So, what if we remove the obstacles? Will they make better choices? Will they learn more if they are not embroiled in dramas that have nothing to do with their literacy skills? Those questions guided me each day with these students.

The attendance obstacle is automatically removed. If they are absent three times, they are dropped from summer school. A tardy counts as half an absence. If they are not in class when the bell rings or when the fifteen-minute break is over, they are docked half an absence. Absences are the most difficult obstacle for me to remove because they are set in motion an hour or so before the school day begins. I offer to call them in the morning, but none of them took me up on it. One girl missed the bus, and her mother made her walk to school across town in the rain. She was late, but she was there. Roughly one-third of the students registered for my class each semester was dropped due to attendance issues.

After they arrived, I dismantled every obstacle I could. I provided paper, pens, and pencils for those who didn’t have them. (One student ate most of a Bic pen every day. At the end of each day I would find by his desk a completely gnawed pen, the cap chewed into oblivion, the barrel crunched and cracked. I frequently saw him with a pen in his mouth, but I never saw him going after it with such vengeance; yet, at the end of each day there was a mangled pen by his desk.) I freely admit that I was not teaching them maturity, responsibility, or any other efficacy components by providing them with school supplies, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to show them that they are smart enough to pass if they make better choices.

Many students failed because they didn’t do homework, so I removed the homework obstacle. All work was done in class during the school day. If students were absent, all work was made up in class on the day they returned. By the end of each semester, out of dozens of grades for these students, I had fewer than ten zeroes. When they could do their work in class, they did their work. When it’s homework, they don’t do it.

What about the teacher conflict obstacle? I’m pretty easy to get along with, but I have clear behavioral expectations. When those boundaries are crossed, it gets ugly fast. Two lads caused problems on the first day, and we had “clarification sessions” in the hallway about their behavior. Two days later, one of them started screwing around again, saying he “needs a lap dance,” “can’t stand being confined,” and “needs a bitch to slap.” I sent him to the principal. The principal told the student he had one more chance to shape up. I called home and told his mother exactly what had happened. The student’s mother was shocked but more than supportive of our discipline attempts, and the next day this young man respectfully asked if he could talk to me privately. We stepped into a seminar room where he tearfully promised that he would be “totally chill” and asked me to please not call his mother again. His behavior was fine from that day forward.

What about the laziness obstacle? In my mind, “lazy” is synonymous with “unmotivated,” so I did my best to motivate them. I gave these students frequent feedback. I provided a report card every other day. They got their un-homework back very quickly so they could see what they were doing right and wrong. I wrote encouraging, positive comments in their journals. I gave them choices in how they could do many of their assignments. They were still a little sleepy first thing in the morning, but I don’t see that as laziness. I see that as sleepiness. Laziness is an obstacle that disappeared.

Did they learn anything? Everyone passed. Each semester I had one student earn a D. The most common grade was A. Some of this grade inflation is due to a mandated change in how we figure grades that made it almost impossible to fail if a student did even a minimum of work. One student passed with a 19.62% based on the new grading system. Should she have failed? I think it’s a moot point. If she had been closer to failing, even with that dismal percentage, I would have found a way to get her to a passing level. The new grading system resulted in much higher grades, but the students also demonstrated that they learned some things about reading, writing, and thinking.

These students maybe didn’t do everything right, but they accomplished more than they did in the regular school year, and they saw some positive academic results. Yes, I’d like to see them bring their own paper and pencils to class. I’d like to see them successfully complete homework. I’d like to see them come to school regularly without the threat of being dropped. Those are challenges for another time. The challenge for summer school was to show these students that they could do it if they try just a little bit harder.

An interesting realization for me with these students had to do with the physical considerations of writing. They responded well to suggestions with physical aspects. For example, one day Calvin said, “I know I have more to say about this, but I just can’t get the words out.” I could tell he was being sincere. I looked at him, over six feet tall, scrunched in a hard plastic chair with a flip-up, auditorium-style desktop, and said, “Why don’t you try standing up to write for a while. Just go over there and lean on the wall and see what happens.” Calvin unfolded himself, went to the wall, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

Louie enjoyed cranking out words but seemed to have no conception of a sentence. His words just went for miles and miles with no periods in sight. After a day or two of this, I asked him, “How many sentences would you say this is?” Louie said, “I don’t know,” and he started counting the lines on the page. He equated a line of writing across the page with a sentence. I pointed out to him that they were not the same thing, but he didn’t quite make the conversion. He knew that sentences had periods at the end, but he didn’t know where they should go. His words just flowed out, and he didn’t think much about punctuation. My suggestion to Louie was one I’d used before: “Make your periods really big. Like crazy big. It will look kind of funny at first, but it will help you think about where sentences end.” So Louie started making his periods really big. His writing had a unique look, but in order to physically insert those big periods, Louie had to say to himself, “I think this is where a sentence ends,” a new line of thought for Louie. Some of those huge dots still popped up in fairly random places, but as the days went by, Louie’s sentence sense improved, thanks to gigantic periods.

The other example of using physical senses to help students write better was a simple suggestion to “Fill the page.” Just keep going. They were required to write at least three pages a day. They could tell simply by looking at their paper whether or not they were going to get full credit: If the third page was full, 100%. Some students wrote more, and I challenged them to try to fill whatever page they were on.

The biggest realization for me with these students—and it’s an epiphany that I believe applies to every student and every classroom—is that we must meet them where they are. We must deal with the students in front of us in whatever shape they arrive. We can wish they were more accomplished, better behaved, or more studious, but our decisions and actions need to be based on where they are now.

If faced with a class of students—or even one student—for whom the standard way of doing things didn’t work, we have a responsibility to make changes. We don’t need to coddle each student’s every whim, but it’s also kind of crazy to repeat the circumstances that will lead to predictable failure. (Lowering the grading scale is not my favorite way of avoiding failure, but I had no choice in that one.)

Sincere empathy is motivational. A taste of success is motivational. Choice is motivational. Personal feedback is motivational. And when our students are motivated, they will learn.

On the last day of summer school, we had a little celebration party for Claudio who had earned his diploma after failing sophomore English five times. As we enjoyed bagels and juice, I told these kids to get a D if they have to, but don’t fail any more. Audrey said, “If regular school was like summer school, I would never fail.” Well then, maybe regular school should be more like summer school in some ways.

(Some material from this post appeared in an earlier blog series on English Companion Ning.)

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