High school teacher learns new lessons from seventh-graders
BOSTON — Teaching is different every year, but three years ago, "different" took on a whole new meaning. After spending more than 20 years teaching high school students, I suddenly found myself the target of cutbacks and was bumped to seventh grade in the Buffalo, N.Y., school district. As upset and confused as I felt with this new assignment, I must admit the experience with junior high has prepared me to return to high school as a better teacher of English.
I realize school is a training ground to continually teach and reinforce disciplines that develop organization. Yet, as a high school teacher, rather than pur-
posefully training my students, I assumed they came with many of these practices. I imposed consequences for shortcomings.
Junior high taught me to assume nothing. Now when I tell students what supplies they need and how they are to organize notebooks, I check and recheck early in the year. Students feel more confident and I am less frustrated. In high school, by January, I always discovered students who jammed all their notes into chaotic notebooks. Now I grade notebooks on neatness and completeness each grading period. I spot-check assignment books and give points for using them. I expect the seventh-graders to date lecture notes and activities. Whenever I give a handout, I tack extras on a bulletin board that absent students are responsible to put in their folders.
Although I always taught student note-taking skills, I now insist on using one of three specific techniques taught early in the semester.
Because the curriculum is so packed, most high school teachers don't take time to review reading techniques or to identify poor readers and guide them toward extra help. Seventh grade has taught me how important it is not to assume students understand or know how to attack reading problems.
Reading is a daily, built-in part of the curriculum in junior high. When I return to the high school, I'll incorporate reading techniques and "SSR," or sustained silent reading, into the curriculum.
It may seem minor, but now I return papers that have incorrect headings marked "without a grade." When a teacher deals with up to 150 students per day, having the correct name, date, section, and topic on the correct side of the paper is no small matter. I have even learned to improve the appearance of my classroom. In general, high-schoolers leave classrooms relatively intact. Not seventh-graders. But I remember well enough the times I spent straightening desks or picking up papers off the floor after my "mature" seniors or juniors left the room.
Now each desk sits squarely on masking tape. I simply say, "Papers and desks" before the bell. In 30 seconds the desks are in order, the floor is clean, and I have a little breather before the next group. Furthermore, this simple activity teaches students to be aware of making the classroom pleasant for other people.
High school teachers sometimes overlook how helpful some elementary school practices like "bell work" - focused activities at the start of class -can be. I have found this work is an excellent tool to settle students down, to alert them to the day's lesson, to review salient points from a previous class, to quiz, and to signal that this is a place where the focus is learning.
Using the overhead projector in a slightly darkened room for bell work gives students one place to center. By daily grading the work - which goes on one sheet of paper per week - students know that this is an important part of class.
There are many days when I long for the settled atmosphere of the high school classroom, but while I'm back in seventh grade, I'll continue to learn its lessons and improve my practices to become a better teacher.
*Evelyn McLean Brady plans to return to high school teaching this fall.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society