Monday, October 01, 2007

Kids these days!

This post should fit in very nicely after my last one in which I identified with crotchety old teachers.

For most of the nineteen years that I've taught here in Warroad, Minnesota, I've had all of the sophomores for American History. I've always liked that situation because I end up knowing all of the kids in the high school from grades 10-12, except for the few who move into our district for their junior or senior years. I really like walking through the hallways and being able to know just about everyone. This also gives me a very good feel for all of the classes that come through our school. To be frank, so far, the feeling that I have for this year's group of sophomores isn't very good. My basic class this year is wonderful, but one of my regular classes is the worst I've had during my entire career. Here are some observations and thoughts that I have regarding the kids I've got this year. Some of them are particular to this group of kids and our school but some of them are more general.

1. The most frustrating and maddening thing is the lack of seriousness that these kids have regarding their education. Now, I know that I am 56, and most of my kids are 15 going on 16, and I understand that there are things in their lives that excite them more than George Washington or the Declaration of Independence. (To tell the truth, there are things that excite me more than those things, too.) But every year, I expect a certain amount of seriousness and attention, and every year I am at least somewhat disappointed. This year I have been disappointed more than usual. I know that school is a social situation, and I don't have any problem with that, but for many of our teenagers it is little more than that. The sophomore year is such an important year in the lives of these young people, because education is a matter of keeping doors open. When a student is a sophomore there is still time to recover from past failures, but it's going to be very difficult to recover if they don't make an effort this year. It is so hard to get many kids to understand or care about that. They really have trouble seeing past next Friday night. By the way, I don't think this is a problem that is particular to my school or this group of kids. I think this is something high school teachers are seeing around the nation.

2. The defiant attitudes of some of the kids I've got this year is shocking to me. I have never dealt with so many kids who do the opposite of what they are directed to do, even when I am looking right at them. There have been times in a couple of my classes this year when I've felt like the little Dutch boy. As soon as I deal with a disruption in one corner of the room, another disruption pops up in another part. If I was going to kick out all the kids who deserved it, I'd have about a third of one of my classes sitting in the Principal's office every other day. I don't think he'd like that.

3. Size matters. Up until a couple of years ago, my class sizes were rarely over twenty-five. (I know there are a lot of teachers around the nation who would kill to have that situation, but I had it for most of my career.) Due to cuts our school has made, having thirty or more kids in a class has become normal. Getting and keeping the attention of kids, effectively dealing with disruptions, and just walking around the room are all considerably more difficult for me than they used to be.

4. Cuts matter. The larger class sizes all of the teachers in our school are dealing with are a result of cuts, but that's not the only effect. Some of the lack of seriousness and behavioral things I'm seeing are societal, but some of it is a result of our school system not being as good as it used to be. Those kids who behave so poorly are coming into my classroom assuming that their behavior will be tolerated. Obviously, they've learned that. Over the last few years, a number of younger teachers have been cut, and at least a couple of them were excellent--teachers who set high standards for performance and behavior. They made my job a lot easier when their kids came up to their sophomore year and walked into my classroom. We've also had a lot of teachers get bumped into subjects that they hadn't taught before, and weren't really comfortable with. And then, as I already mentioned, we're all dealing with larger classes which are harder to manage.

5. It will get better. Part of my problems, so far, stem from it being early in the year. As the year goes on, some kids will improve as they get used to my performance and behavior standards, and there will be some others who will drift off to our alternative learning center. Included in the latter group will be at least a couple of kids with the worst behavior problems, and a couple of other kids who do nothing in class. I have a good idea which kids will end up leaving, and it would save everyone a lot of grief if I could make that decision for them right now. If only!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If I was going to kick out all the kids who deserved it, I'd have about a third of one of my classes sitting in the Principal's office every other day. I don't think he'd like that."

Does the principal handle discipline? My high school (private, not public) had a dean of students to handle discipline. He would have been perfectly fine with 1/3 of a class in his office ... that was a large part of his job. Then he would have been fine running the after school (and weekend!) detention to get the kids attention...

-Mark Roulo

10/01/2007 6:04 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mark, I don't send kids to the principal's office so that they can be disciplined. I send them there to get them out of my room because they're behaving in a way that I don't think should be tolerated. What usually happens is the school secretaries get stuck with them, so I rarely send out more than one student. In fact, I can't remember the last time I did.

10/01/2007 6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I don't send kids to the principal's office so that they can be disciplined. I send them there to get them out of my room because they're behaving in a way that I don't think should be tolerated."

If they don't get metaphorically spanked for misbehaving, how do you keep them from misbehaving in the future? This is starting to veer off into Mamacita territory :-)

-Mark Roulo

10/01/2007 9:16 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mark, I'm not blaming our principal. The fact is, we are very limited in our discipline options, and no one knows that better than our disruptive kids. We can give detention, which bothers these kids about as much as a pesky gnat, we can suspend, which these kids often view as a vacation, or we can scold, which these kids ignore. What I think we need is a full-time in-school suspension room with someone with a drill-seargent's personality running it, or an expanded ALC. But you're in a situation where everyone is wondering what is going to get cut next, like we are, that just ain't gonna happen.

10/02/2007 4:46 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Unfortunately, anything you've tried as punishment hasn't been aversive enough.

My father, a music teacher for many years in a school for emotionally disturbed kids, at one point suggested to the principal that they play "soothing" music in the detention room. Naturally, the "soothing" music would be something that the kids would absolutely hate (e.g., Neil Sedaka elevator music). I think along with this he suggested painting the walls a light pink and putting stuffed animals in the room to "calm the unruly child".

Not sure how well it worked, but keep in mind that your current "punishments" are simply not working, and you (your school) would need to find something actually aversive. If not Neil Sedaka, maybe the Barney theme song over and over. Or, you know. . . extra (recorded) history lectures. ;)

10/02/2007 8:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Mark, I'm not blaming our principal."

Actually, I didn't think you were :-)
I was just wondering what the school (you plural, not you singular) did to avoid a repeat of the undesirable behavior. It sounds like there isn't much you can do :-(


Good luck!

-Mark Roulo

10/02/2007 9:38 AM  
Anonymous cranky said...

I have World Civ sophomores, huge classes (33 average) except for AP Euro, which helpfully has 34 in it, and I have found much of what you said to be true. The logistics of classes that size are themselves rather daunting--I am a prisoner in my own room, trapped in a forest of desks that go from wall to wall. I'd like to agree more with your last sentiment, alas, but I'm afraid I'll be stuck all year with some of them. And there's nothing I can do--because we have an extensive credit recovery program that can be done during the day or after school. It's all done on the computers, so it's a big time for the kids, so when you confront a student with "Don't you realize you have to pass this class to graduate?", you get a shrug and he/she will tell you'll they'll just make the credit up later. Meanwhile, since they don't care to do your work, they make life miserable for you and everyone who is interested in learning.

10/02/2007 10:17 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Cranky, it sounds like it is your school that is at fault for implementing such a screwed up system in which students are reinforced for doing no work and disturbing others.

It's no secret that some kids need more reinforcement to motivate them to learn, why isn't your school providing it? Motivation is a prereq to learning. Providing a competent teacher is also a prereq to learning, but we wouldn't dream of not providing a teacher to each classroom, so why do we think it's OK to not provide the other prereqs. More importantly, why are we blaming the students and excusing the school?

10/03/2007 4:56 AM  
Anonymous cranky said...


The answer is simple, and it's not entirely the fault of the school. Such programs have become commonplace in the area I teach--it's not a school level phenomenon. We had a real problem with dropouts/attendance, as they are not just part of NCLB figures but also for the state's non-academic accountability index, which can sink a school even if its academic test scores are good. (It happened to us numerous times). Thus there is a very powerful incentive to beg, beg, beg kids to stay no matter what, and to an extent we are held hostage to the threat that they'll drop out. Administrators push this kind of stuff because it's their rear ends directly on the line when the non-academic index falls short because of this; it's the same way we're pressured to "do all we can to help the kid's grade. No I'm not telling you to make up a grade" though that's really what they want.

10/03/2007 2:57 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Cranky, I understand exactly what you are saying, but don't you agree with me when I say it is so misguided? The sad fact is that there are some kids who should drop out. The more things we do to make it easy for high school kids to be crummy students, the more crummy high school students we're going to have. The best time to do things to prevent the kids from dropping out is in the early years of their education, and KD has made that point frequently. It is totally counter-productive to encourage kids who won't try and won't behave to stay in school, yet that has been exactly what we have been told to do for many years.

10/03/2007 3:16 PM  
Anonymous cranky said...


I agree wholeheartedly--there are some who ought to be shown the door at some point. I know why the state does what it does--to keep schools from driving out the low scoring kids so you can run up your academic scores without theirs dragging them down--but you can see as well that they created an incentive that was not foreseen (how often does that happen with government?) And frankly, I am not as optimistic as KDerosa is when it comes to intervening in the earlier years: even if everything was done perfectly you would still have motivation issues in middle and upper grades (upper especially) from external AND internal factors. The thing to consider is this: principals pushing bad policies like the credit recovery are acting rationally, responding to incentives. If one looks at schools through the lens of behavioral economics, there are a lot perverse incentives that make things worse, and some actions--like dropping out or ignoring school--can actually be rather reasonable(rational ignorance). This is why I oppose one size fits all curricula instead of targeted ones; I also think some basic logic needs to be applied the accountability system that states and NCLB use.

10/03/2007 6:16 PM  
Blogger mybellringers said...

I think it all goes back to that "starfish" mentality--that we can somehow save them all one at a time, or the Bloom mantra that every child can learn. Some how, somewhere the majority seems to believe that every child can be a success in every endeavor and that every child is college bound material. In our state we now make our freshmen have to take four years of math, four of science, four of English and four of social students for graduation. Looks good on paper, but not every child needs that type of curriculum nor will every child necessarily be successful with that type of curriculum. So I think Cranky is right… one size doesn't fit all

Now I'm afraid I've rambled and not made any point at all so I'll stop.

10/04/2007 1:35 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Cranky, after reading some of the things you've said, I'm starting to wonder if I'm sleepwalking and writing comments under the name of Cranky.

MBR, if you didn't make any point at all, I still got it. (I'm starting to sound like Yogi Berra.)

10/04/2007 5:49 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Most kids are currently shown the door when they hit high school.

Only a small fraction are on a true college prep track. Most areon some kind of general academic track which might be euphamistically called a college prep track, but it isn't.

Then we have the kids at the bottom of the curve on the lifeskills track.
So we've already lowered the bar considerably from the real college prep track.

Making all students take four years of math or English does not mean that all students are going to be taught the same amount or the same level of math or English.

And, yet we still struggled to teach these kids despite the fact that little is expected of them academically.

You'd be hard pressed to find a state's 11th agrade achievement test that tests material above what a decently prepared 8th grader should know. There is nothing in these tests that isn't covered within the first month of any algebra or geometry class on the math side. Reading comprehension is another matter, but most of the deficiencies here are the result of a failure to teach kids how to read on a timely basis and to follow up with making the student read a lot.

So, basically we're talking basic reading comprehension skills, arithmetic, and a bit of higher math. Are the commenters saying that we can't achieve that within 12 years of formal education? You don't need a big brain to learn any of this stuff. Yet many kids fail to learn this stuff early on in school and then educatorse act all innocent and surprised when they discover that these students aren't motivated to learn when they hit middle or high school.

10/05/2007 7:10 AM  
Anonymous cranky said...


I couldn't disagree more--you are generalizing way beyond the facts that you have at hand. You are inventing "straw schools" and imaginary curricula--I am talking about the curricula and expectations that I actually have to deal with. Try using some specifics to back up your claims--it's something I am always harping on my AP kids for their essays, but you could benefit from it as well.

Where I teach, the ACT is given to all students at state expense. Theirs scores count both for college entrance, and now count for a portion of our overall state accountability. Our accountability is now directly tied to a college readiness test. We sit in meetings and compare our scores to the college readiness benchmarks from ACT, which provide the minimums scores that relate to success in college classes. Do you wish to seriously argue that the ACT is too easy? And that the idea behind such testing isn't that every student is to be prepared for college? I think the idea is patently stupid but at least the state put its money where its mouth is and paid for it. Maine introduced statewide SAT last year (it's the reason SAT scores fell for last year)--this is the new trend. On top of that, our state content tests were re-written last year to make the multiple choice much harder--as an AP teacher, I recognize the style: they're trying for AP style questions with 4 choices instead of five. All of this is on top of whatever school specific issues exist that push the "let's push everybody go to college" mentality, aka "Yale or jail". Now we can argue whether or not this is a good idea, but at least in my case (and it's from that experience that I was speaking) you can't argue that it isn't true and happening now.

10/05/2007 7:32 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Cranky, I must not have been clear. I am not saying that all kids are capable of college level work. (we don't really know at this point.)

I did say that most could hand 8th grade level work, which is about all that most 11th grade state assessments test anyway.

I don't consider the ACT to be a typical state assessment. It's more difficult.

The ACT is an achievement test, moreso than the SAT. However, a student that is not ready for college according to the ACT is not necessarily a student incapable of college work. The student clearly hasn't learned enough, but that could just as easily implicate a teaching problem as it could a student deficiency.

10/05/2007 4:59 PM  
Blogger Ernie said...

I apologize for taking this argument back, but I am really discouraged by the lack of sympathy for SOME of these kids.

I know I am slightly older now, just having left college. However there are so many distractions nowadays that plague students. This generation is the most heavily infomred generation ever. Students have information coming from them at all angles. Not only from teachers who want them to memorize their lesson plans and mathmatical equations that go with them like my teacher did, The Cyber Professor you have kids pressuring you with all types of bad s***! (Forgive the language) But seriously these kids that are disenfranchised, its the administrators and/or teachers job to captivate their attention and bring them back in. The teachers job is no easy one either, competing with all those other sources of information that plague the students minds. Sometimes conflicting information comes from the homestead as well.

Dont give up hope on them, I remember walking around the hallway burnt out on Catcher in the Rye, the anatomy of frogs, and the derivative of an equation that looked like another language to me. Topping that off with the notorious peer pressure that only high school kids know how to do.

Newark, DE

12/01/2007 8:56 PM  

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