Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pep Talk

In my homeroom class, I have 7 students who are struggling with their TAKS scores. I am expected to get them to pass the TAKS test in April. We've been working on various objectives the last few weeks, and I've been trying a variety of approaches to get through to them. I'd like to think we're making grounds, but the only way I can say that I am is that the class hasn't rebelled against me yet. They are not being disruptive, they are cooperative (though they are very quiet and timid,) and they do what I ask for the most part. In a class where no grade is taken and into which the students were not asked to be placed, the students have been ready, willing, but not so able.

The early signs show that their "post" tests are no better than their "pre" tests, but they ARE enjoying playing on the computer and the hand-held manipulatives. Can it be called progress if they are not miserable during the 21 minute period? I think so, albeit, it is very small progress. Many of these students have hit the wall mathematically and are deeply frustrated and lost in the entire game we call "school." The fact that I can see occasional grins on their faces tells me that the pain is slowly healing, and that, perhaps, the mastery of math skills will soon follow.

But today was also "progress report" day, whereby each student received their 3-weeks grades in each class. It was alarming, but not unexpected, that these students are needing more help than just on their math TAKS test. Most of them were failing multiple classes, and by failing, I mean "precociously" failing. The entire boat is sinking for these kids. There's major hull damage, and by focusing on math TAKS, we're just teaching them how to bail water with a bucket rather than repairing the structure itself.

Today, after discussing the "sinking ship" with another math teacher with similar kids, I decided to forgo the usual "math beating" today, opting instead to "dry dock" the ships and empower the students to repair and captain their own vessels. In essence, I gave one of the best 21 minute pep-talks I've ever given. I didn't use a coaches voice, nor did I work them into a frenzy with cliché analogies, platitudinous double-speak, or empty promises. What I did was speak to them frankly and candidly. I exposed myself a bit, giving stories from my personal life, sharing my weaknesses and my strengths, offering them a fresh perspective on their current situation.

Reminding them that they are young adults, excuses are no longer relevant nor amusing. They must take personal responsibility for their life. Blaming their parents or "bad" teachers was a convenient lie that they had to quick telling themselves. Four years of high school is going to go by with or without them--did they want to be left behind? The opportunity they currently have is a once in a lifetime chance to launch themselves into a successful future, however they defined success. The bad, negative habits are holding them back, keeping them in the comfortable safety of predictability, but new habits can be formed, that can put them on a different course, a bold and daring adventure into unchartered waters. Many complained of boring teachers, not realizing that their submission to their excuses or the temperament of others was assuring them that they would remain bored. I assured them that if they weren't making waves, they weren't kicking hard enough. If they were bored, they weren't trying hard enough.

My tone remained spirited but genuine, optimistic but not unreal. In addition to the heads nodding in periodic affirmation, and the smirking smiles of hope, I could swear I saw each student sitting up a little taller in their desks. I was even holding MY head up a little taller when the bell rang. Only time will tell if the pep talk worked. We'll get our first chance tomorrow, when it's back to math.

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