In my last post, I mentioned that Sticks had nearly failed Pre-Algebra in 8th grade. Not because he didn’t know the material, but because he had a teacher who didn’t exactly record the same point values in her grade book that she recorded on their work, and because he was less than consistent with turning in the homework. In a math class, that’s the kiss of death.
Despite the fact that I was able to get her to change the grade to the right one, Sticks entered high school with a “Title I eligible” classification. For all of his freshman year and half his sophomore year, we received monthly invitations for him to take advantage of the Title I benefits; namely, tutoring, extra work and classes after school. We declined, particularly since he’d been scoring A’s in his math classes after his freshman year.
The light didn’t suddenly go on for Sticks. He didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly discover that he could understand math. He’d understood it all along, sometimes so well that the homework just became a boring, uninteresting grind. He could prove his mastery of the material consistently on tests, but that pesky homework grade just kept dragging him down and the stigma came with the math class as a freshman. Nevertheless, he pulled out a B in that first year and moved on to Geometry as a sophomore.
In his sophomore year, miracles happened. But they weren’t performed by Sticks. They were performed by his teachers — teachers who like most teachers have too many students, not enough time, and lots and lots of standards to teach before the end of the year. However, they still get all the credit for figuring him out. In the first quarter of 10th grade, Sticks came home with not just an A in geometry, but the highest grade in the class. His teacher called to ask why he hadn’t been placed in honors. She couldn’t understand why, with his test scores, he would be placed in College Prep and not AP or Honors. (By the way, that’s a whole culture unto itself — College Prep was the gold standard in my HS days; today it’s merely the middle, just one step over Trade School).
You cannot imagine my amazement when he came home with extra credit assignments over Christmas vacation that he was EXCITED about. His teacher emailed him directions for constructing an extremely intricate origami polygon (it was HUGE when he finished) and he spent all vacation doing it. (As an aside, his sister has always been the origami master…so this was really a stretch for him to do it without asking the 5-year-younger-female-sibling for help). He didn’t NEED the extra credit because he still had the highest grade by .005 points, and he intended to keep it there because he was so competitive with the boy who was just nipping at his heels.
My mouth dropped further when I discovered that his Biology teacher thought he was as brilliant as the math teacher did. He mentored Sticks, encouraging him to get the notebook organized so that he could get that A in Biology.
In one year, the GPA went from a 2.4 to a 3.8. He went from being a marginal ‘performer’ to being a star. He was awarded one of the school’s elite awards at the end of last school year. So what was it that made these teachers pay attention to him? Here are my ideas:
- They listened to him in class. During class discussions, he would participate and THINK. He likes to challenge ideas through discussion and he learns best by doing. If “doing” involves discussing, he synthesizes the material. Sticks has always had a gift for identifying and memorizing patterns — this is why he’s a great drummer and was a great dancer. His memory for patterns is nearly photographic. Being free of the need to memorize means he can focus on the LEARNING/ANALYSIS piece. These teachers saw this in him right away.
They recognized his intolerance for repetitive homework and took the time to challenge him with more difficult assignments that built on what he had already learned.
- They considered his individuality and creativity. They recognized his unconventional learning style and adapted themselves to HIM, rather than trying to force him to adapt to them. Both of them told us in meetings that they felt it was easier for them to give him challenges than constantly hound him for busywork. By the time he had gotten to them he was pretty well-known in the school as a top musician and they said they wanted to nurture that rather than stifle it. THEY wanted to. It was up to them and they did it.
- They cared enough to think of him as an individual rather than just another student number. I want to emphasize this — they CARED enough to do this. Caring is a characteristic of this particular school. The Eldest did not have the same experience at all (he went to a different school in the same district). This school has a unique place in the overall district. It’s in a rural location, has students from one of the poorest areas in Oxnard, students from some of the most affluent areas of Camarillo, is the hub for all special needs students in the district, is the only school in the district with a full hearing-impaired education program, and is the school where the pregnant teens in the district are sent, because it has the space for an on-site daycare center. It is diverse, challenged, and a school where the principal at the time (he passed away suddenly at a football game last year) nurtured a sense of family. He would sit down at the beginning of each school year with yearbooks and memorize every student’s name and face, so that when he saw them on campus he would greet them by name. There’s something incredibly powerful in that gesture. Of all the schools in the district, this is the only one that has a MAJORITY of teachers who were students at this school. The teachers cared. The school cares. It is a “culture of caring”. It lives on, even though Mr. Philips isn’t there to lead it. This caring rescued my son.
- They fostered a healthy competitive spirit inside the classroom. By constantly updating and posting grades, they gave Sticks a yardstick to measure his performance. When he saw that he was succeeding and was almost at the top, he pushed himself to take the extra steps to get there. Don’t misunderstand — I’m not suggesting that he got there at the expense of other students, but they gave those students who are spurred by competition the opportunity to stretch and USE that to their benefit.
- The school’s culture lends itself to flexibility. This is key, in my opinion. This school is the district stepchild, and they always have to work just a little harder, stretch a little more, and are never complacent. Until this year they were a Title I school that was in danger of losing funding if they didn’t show gains in their scores. Of course, no real consideration was given to the fact that 75% of the school is minority and a high percent of that 75% are non-English speakers who have had 3 years of English immersion and still must perform on the exit exam as well as the standardized tests. There is no way that a formula will work in this environment. By the way, I’m glad to say that they did reach their goals and are no longer in Title I status. They still have the same flexibility with the students, but at least now can have some space to work with the ones who really do need the help with an administration that’s willing to try creative approaches to reaching the goal.
- The school as a whole supports his passion – music. I credit the band director with adding this to the culture. Her groups succeed, and succeed big time. They went from worst to first in the first year that Sticks was there. They stay in first. They get recognition for the school and the students, consistently. They get parents’ involvement and support. The school’s administration recognizes that and the teachers do, too. They want him to succeed academically and musically and they put their effort where their heart is.
I say AMEN and how do we get more schools to develop this culture? I really believe that most teachers DO care about their students. I don’t think this school just ended up with all of the caring teachers on the planet! At the same time, many teachers are not free to be flexible, to be supportive, to be unconventional.
I am still thinking on this, but I would say that one of the pieces of the puzzle is that the administration had a school-wide challenge in diverse and difficult circumstances which forced them to really think about how they could adjust their methods to bring the best out in their students. I think the diverse student population has a TON to do with it, and wish that all kids could go to a school with the population that Sticks’ school has. Finally, the principal really does have a ton of influence on the staff and the students. Every teacher I’ve talked to in the course of nearly three years expressed a desire to do just a little more because they knew that Mr. Philips did.
Maybe if we brainstorm this we can start a movement to encourage schools to develop and nurture a culture that loves learning rather than being standards-focused. I think the two can be compatible.
- The “Boy Crisis” in Education
- Comments and Conversation Redux