Down to the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 03 2012

With Rigor For All

The title of this post comes from a book that my team teacher often mentions. I have not read it, but I feel the title applies to what I have been noticing in my classroom and feeling recently.

I have really been pushing my kids this year. When I was teaching math, I did not know how to push them. I knew what higher level thinking looked like, but I hardly knew how to begin trying to move my kids in that direction. I felt like their struggles with some basic skills were really holding us back. Without real passion for the subject, I was unable to muster the energy that would have been required to really push my kids. A lot of that has changed since I started teaching social studies.

Recently I have started to question whether I am asking too much of my kids. Is my class too rigorous? It isn’t that we (my team teacher and I) give really hard tests or lots of homework, yet the grades in the class are low. In my class, I ask the kids to do what I feel is comprable to what I did in 9th grade English and social studies. We are working on three part thesis statements, some basic analytical skills, and critical thinking involving asking questions about the world around you. We write a lot, but not what I would consider an unreasonable amount. The kids are supposed to read on their own, but we are still struggling with that for a lot of them. So with all of that said, why would I even consider that fact that my class might be too rigorous?

I return to the subject of grades. My kids are not doing super well. At the end of the first nine weeks, the kids with Fs, Ds, and Cs vastly outnumbered those with As and Bs. I sometimes wish that the problem were simply that kids weren’t doing their work. For many of my kids, that is not the issue. The issue is that while they think what they are doing is trying their hardest, for many of them, it really isn’t. What I am asking them to do is fairly difficult, but they do not always see it that way because it does not involve the mountains of worksheets they have often encountered. This volume of work is often what they define as what makes for a “hard” class, so they are unable to explain why they are not doing well in my class despite the fact that they do not view it as “hard.”

I am not trying to comment on what any of their teachers before me have done. I teach 9th grade, and I fully believe that in 9th grade the teachers should be asking different things from junior high teachers. Eighth grade in Arkansas is tested in English and math, so much of the focus revolves around test prep. Ninth grade is not tested, so I have the luxury of teaching a little bit more of what I want.

So why do I continue to question whether or not my class is too rigorous? All I am asking my kids to do is the same level of work (if not arguably a bit lower level) that teacher at my high school asked freshmen to do. Again, back to their grades. Many of my kids who have always been A and B students are struggling to get Cs this year. Despite what many students think about their teachers, I WANT them to be successful. I want it so badly that it leads me to question whether I am asking too much of them. After all, they are only 9th graders…should I really be expecting them to be capable of writing analytically when they never have before? Should I really be expecting them to grapple with issues like affirmative action and Obamacare? Should I really be expecting them to interpret political cartoons and analyze campaign ads?

My conclusion. Yes, I should. To ask any less of my kids would be to do them a disservice. To make my class easier or move toward work they are more comfortable with would be to leave them unprepared for the AP classes they will encounter later in high school. To fail to teach them to really write now would mean passing that burden on to another teacher later. Watching my kids struggle and not be able to verbalize why is painful, but I think it is the right thing.

One of the teachers on my New Tech team asked me the other day why it is so important for me to keep my standards for my kids high, even if it means a lot of frustration for all of us. My immediate response: Because they deserve it. And they do. My kids are smart, talented, creative, wonderful 14 and 15 year olds, and I love them. They deserve the same opportunity to be prepared for college and life that I was given at my high school in Virginia. I feel lucky to be surrounded by a number of other teachers at my school who feel exactly the same. To ask them to do anything less than what I know they are capable of (or will be capable of, with a little bit of prodding), would be to say that they are less deserving of an education than I was.  I could never look them or their parents in the eye and tell them I am doing what is best for them if I lowered my expectations and allowed them to crawl back into their comfort zones. My students deserve the best, and since I am not the best teacher in the world, the most I can do is give them MY best and hope that it turns out to be good enough.

3 Responses

  1. Ms. Math

    I worked on teaching a very rigorous Calculus course in college. We were well aware that many of the problems our students faced were because of unproductive meanings they had developed in earlier math courses.

    We had meaningful tests, interesting homework, and engaging class lectures that were all very carefully designed to promote more than memorization.

    The trouble is, that so many students, despite doing the work, failed, because they had never been asked to think critically.

    To keep people from dropping out and giving up there was some test curving and grade inflation. On some level it just wasn’t fair to hold students accountable for a life-time of poor math classes. They just couldn’t fix it all at once, even if they came in for tutoring 5 hours a week.

    If you have some kids who are turning in almost everything and still getting a D or an F, I would have a chat with them and see how they are feeling. I would also consider opportunities to improve their grade because I don’t think it will end well if kids who do all their work fail. At least at my school, I know I would have gotten in trouble for that, even if my heart was in the right place.

  2. Ms. Math

    Also, after a month or two of really high expectations, kids stopped being so frustrated. It got easier.

    Don’t lower standards, just give them HOPE for making up grades later IF they meet standards during the semester.

  3. Lizzledoodle

    Aw Mir Bear.

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