I love my school 'family' - except when I don't

When a colleague exclaims in exasperation "These families!" she refers not to the parents or siblings of our students but rather to an innovation put in place by my school district.

With more than 5,000 students, Elizabeth High School is one of the largest in New Jersey. Incoming freshmen tended to be swallowed up in anonymity.

The solution? Form learning communities of freshmen, 100 students each; divide these students into four homerooms; and assign them to a cluster of five teachers for two years.

Four years ago, along with four colleagues and 100 students, I became a member of such a community. Our classrooms were all adjacent, and we teachers met daily to plan and discuss.

And how wonderful the discussions - always intense, sometimes humorous, occasionally argumentative. Could students write one research paper and have it count for both science and English? How could we make a special-education student talk? If we planned a program involving all the students, how could we get their friends and families to come?

But we also noted something odd taking place. "Meow." "Quack-quack." "Mrs. Gorman, Rossana's bothering me!"

Were these high school sophomores? Our students - in the protective family embrace - suddenly seemed suspended at an eighth-grade maturity level.

An argument among them might start in first period and grow in intensity all day, since the same students traveled together from class to class. And they seemed to be regressing in personal responsibility. They declined to do assignments or carry a notebook or a pencil to class, no matter what the penalty. Your family still loves you no matter what you do, right?

In a way, the family was too successful for its own good. Teachers, like parents, were played against one another. Sibling rivalry, whining, irresponsibility, and misbehavior were the downside to the closeness fostered by the learning community.

And yet, without the family, I would have missed the stimulating daily work sessions with colleagues. I might not have connected so closely with my students; who knows how many problems would never have come to light? And surely, I wouldn't have become a "grandparent" twice. (Two students gave birth during their stint in my family.)

In September it will be with mixed emotions that I will greet my third "family" of freshmen.

Linda Gorman teaches English at Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth, N.J.

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