Confessions of a Teacher

The Summer School Diaries

Six in the morning is early for any faculty meeting, especially on the Monday after the July 4th holiday, but I was told to report to the library in a large high school I have only driven past.
Hired over the phone, I wonder what kind of Gong Show I am attending. Is my employment a product of the growing teacher exodus?
Upon arrival, many greet me warmly, but I feel adrift as others seem to know each other. This 25-day-long experience consists of a consortium of over six school districts in the central New York county I reside. I teach “regular school,” as it is referred to during summer school, in the neighboring county. Although the building and the system is a bit foreign, ultimately there are more similarities than differences.
Two female administrative interns organize the meeting exceptionally well. I marvel at the amount of information disseminated in only half an hour. However, as the minutes fly by, I sense within myself and others familiar anxiety–the students will be here soon! Upon release, the teachers move quickly to the makeshift office, lining up for the copy machine. I make a beeline for my classroom.
The classroom door is thick, representing a well-made building. I open it and experience the blessed cold air. During my phone interview, I failed to inquire as to this benefit. The classroom has a chalkboard with a Promethean Board attached. Promethean, what? I will need to figure that piece of educational technology out later. The room is good-sized with many posters on the walls and many reminders of the true occupant’s personality. I feel like an intruder.
The butterflies disappear as the first class of students enter. Teaching is like riding a bike. I jump back in and give them all I have. They don’t want to be here, I wish I didn’t need the money, but I tell myself that summer school kids deserve dynamic teachers too. I create the weather in the classroom; I am responsible for the quality of education delivered.
I begin with the “because, but, so” technique from The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler,  a work that my colleagues continue to use as teacher-led book study and point of collaboration.
Luckily, I figured out how to pull up Google Slides on the Promethean Board seconds before the students entered.   I take my first dive into teaching reluctant students writing. The students see my confession as I model the technique for them:
I am in summer school because I love teaching social studies.I am in summer school, but I also need the money.I am in summer school, so I will give you my best teaching efforts.
The students open their 25 cent Walmart notebooks that I purchased for them ahead of time to use for interactive notebooks. They eagerly write down their versions of because, but and so. Some responses are funny; some are predictable. All students are participating. I smile, recognizing that good teaching is finding ways to get students to think and express themselves. These students may see themselves as characters from The Bad News Bears, but I see untapped potential. My goal is to foster their efficacy.
I inform the students that I will not waste their time.  They will memorize and then learn deeply twenty concepts from the ninth grade New York State Global History and Geography curriculum.  I call this challenge:  20 Questions.
The second two-hour session brings a new set of students. I find myself floating back to the reality that is wrangling outspoken students who like to cuss and play on their phones. As I am going through procedures, one girl yells out with the authority of a veteran summer school participant, “We get a break at 10:30.” I tell her that it is not a union shop, and there will be no extended break. I intend to work them hard for two hours. The reward will be the absence of homework. That brings cheers from this rowdy group.
I drive home tired and relieved to have survived another teaching challenge. Moving out of my comfort zone will be good for me…I tell myself.
If the Monday, the first day of Summer School was like September, Tuesday feels more like November. Everything about summer school is on overdrive, and time moves both slowly and fast.
By Tuesday, however, these students are my kids. Back off, world. I will give them everything a crazy veteran teacher has in her Mary Poppins bag of tricks: drill and kill, we do, I do, you do, individual whiteboards, internet-based games, and interactive notebooks. The goal is success.
As I review the 20 questions, I hear a girl in the back of the room during the second class session say, “Wow, look at us getting the questions right.” I think, damn right kid. We are going to rock this thing. This is second-Chanceville. This is another opportunity to move forward.
On Wednesday, a few students are missing from my roster due to the absence policy.  I confiscate a pocket knife from a student who attends one of the rural schools in the BOCES program.  The kids appear tired.  The actuality of waking early and doing the work of school has set in.  However, I make sure to stop for a large coffee to fuel my energy.  I greet each student and marvel at knowing their names after only three days.
By Thursday, the kids grab their notebooks as they enter. Routine is established.  Watch out, world.  I see their intellect.  I note their struggles.  They have shared their lives with me already.  I know one students’ house lacks air conditioning and sleeping has been difficult in the humid summer air.  I recognize that one child struggles with reading, but comprehends the facts well.  I see another student desperate for attention.  I am aware of which student will leave for a long break in the restroom.  Another student has told me of her kidney issue and a different student demonstrates a panic attack.
Despite all of the pressures of modern life, the kids that remain in the program can tell you the answers to twenty questions concerning the Global History and Geography curriculum.  In fact, they are proud of their knowledge.  During an observation the following week, they show the assistant principal their “stuff.”  They are like peacocks strutting their feathers as they write the answers to the 20 questions without their notes on small, individual whiteboards.
The underestimation of these students stops with me.  We may all have the summer school blues, but that does not mean I will show movies and give them seat work.  No, I will have them read, write, listen, and learn.  Summer school, like regular school, needs to be rigorous yet flexible.  Summer school students are not dumb or lazy.  They should not be “punished” for failing.  There are many reasons why students need a summer of school, or maybe more than one summer.  I am glad to share this small time with them and I hope that I can offer them methods for being better at “regular school.”

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