21.2.11

Remembering 7th grade

I make an effort  to remember myself at the age of my students. This can be difficult: most of us have either romanticized our own past through nostalgia or wishful thinking or we have blocked it out because it was a painful or awkward part of our lives. Digging past all that has been a part of my success as a high school teacher.

I have taught grades 10-12 almost every year, so my memories and experiences with those grades are fairly fixed, although my observations of and interactions with students will sometimes trigger something new. But since I am teaching grade 7 this year for the first time, I took a day at the beginning of the year to try to recall my own life as a grade 7 student growing up in Los Angeles County.

In general, it was a transitional year for me. I was interested in girls but could not express that interest out of fear of rejection and mockery. I was sexually naïve but was confronted by a boy and girl in Social Studies describing the illicit acts they performed on each other in the toilets, a girl I had known since kindergarten getting pregnant and pornography being passed around in classes.

I started getting in trouble, both at home and at school. I was interested in being independent, and while my parents allowed me a lot of leeway, I sometimes overstepped my boundaries. (I got brought home in a police car (the first time of several, I'm afraid) for hitchhiking back from the beach.) At school, I got into a few fights, but I built up a socially advantageous reputation and discovered that getting into trouble wasn't very troubling. (My parents didn't allow me to be paddled, so I had in-school suspensions which were only slightly duller than going to class.) I discovered the joy of being a class clown but rarely got in trouble for it.

Academically, grade 7 was not great. I have almost no memory of science, not even my teacher's name or face. Language Arts seemed to be mostly the questions at the end of the story (in complete sentences) and vocabulary quizzes. The only thing I remember about Social Studies is a large-scale assignment I didn't understand. Reading was OK because I tested higher than the modals and so I was allowed to read whatever I wanted and do book reports that nobody read. I liked math. The teacher had a personality that filled the room and he didn't put up with any nonsense. He was passionate about math. When he taught us proportions, he said it would be the most useful thing we would ever learn and didn't stop teaching the principle and its applications until we all got it. (And he was right -- I still use proportions all the time.) His enthusiasm and clarity were unfortunately rare for me.

While my academic classes didn't do much for me, I did a lot of learning. For the science fair, I did an experiment for measuring yeast interaction with different fluids using bottles and balloons which I found enjoyable and rewarding. I loved the practical aspects of Journalism and discovered the joys of photography. Perhaps most significantly,my middle school was incredibly diverse, both ethnically and economically. Operating socially in the school required me to negotiate cultural differences, assess complex interactions and avoid awkward or even dangerous gaffes. I cannot remember the diversity or the resultant issues ever being discussed byt the school or in classes, but I managed to equip myself for a degree of social success in grade 8. Those skills are still with me.

So how has this reflection helped me as a grade 7 teacher?

  • Every day I need to do something active and compelling. I never want to bore kids like I was bored.

  • I need to be like that math teacher, motivating through my own force of personality and enthusiasm for the subject.

  • The sense of confusion about what to do with an assignment or keeping track of assignments requires some support -- breaking large assignments down into smaller steps and providing models to follow.

  • I don't comment on students' experiments with socializing, especially flirting or whatnot. It's cute as hell, but they need the space to try it out without my interference (or anybody else's).

  • I can give students some models and some language for coping with their shifting social realities, including the loss of innocence that is a part of the age. This requires me to know their social realities.

  • I need to under-react to naughtiness (but not meanness). And the threat of negative consequences is not a great motivator: positive reinforcement and a space of inclusion is much better.
Does anyone else reflect on themselves as students? Do you picture yourself in your own class? How has it affected your teaching?

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