Monday, April 07, 2008

The effect of kids on kids

It would be fair to say that there are a few themes that recur over and over again on this blog. One of those themes is the effect that students have on other students. I hammer away at that so much because I think it might be the single most important factor in the education that takes place at the high school level--even more important than the quality of the teachers--yet it is completely ignored by reformers and policy makers.

Usually when I write about this topic I harp on the destructive effects that disruptive and apathetic kids can have on a classroom. I think that's terribly important, but I don't write enough about the positive effects that good students have. Well, here are updated stories about two former students of mine who demonstrate the wonderful effect that good students can have on other students. I originally ran them as separate posts in June of 2006. One reason I'm running them again now is because I think I've got some readers that I didn't have back then. But the other reason is that the star of the first story, T. J. Oshie, will be in the national spotlight this week. The story about T. J. tells how a group of students can help direct an individual student in the right direction, and the second story tells how an individual student can have a profound effect on an entire class.

T. J. OSHIE AND THE POWER OF PEERS

This is T. J. Oshie. This week T. J. will be playing for the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux in the Final Four of the NCAA Hockey Tournament. T. J. was one of the captains of Warroad's 2005 state championship team, and he is the most talented hockey player I have ever coached. Because of his accomplishments in high school, he earned a full scholarship to UND, and he was a first round draft choice by the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League.

In addition to his wonderful talent, T. J. is one of the most enjoyable kids I've ever had the opportunity to work with. Many of our hockey practices at Warroad were grueling, but I've never seen anyone work so hard, yet have a smile on his face nearly all of the time while doing it. The spirit of joy that he brings to the game is contagious, and he boosts the morale of any team he plays on. But T. J. is also a classic example of what having peers who are good students can do for an individual.

T. J. moved with his dad to Warroad from the state of Washington at the beginning of his sophomore year. I had him in my American History class, and he was not a good student. His effort was rarely better than mediocre, and I put him on our school's scholastic ineligibility list a number of times. If he'd have kept going the way he started at our school, I firmly believe that he'd have never been able to play hockey at a college.

But T. J. was very lucky because he came to our school at exactly the right time. T. J.'s number one love was hockey, and it would be the hockey players in his class--the class of 2005--who he would end up spending much of his time with. It just so happens that this group of hockey players were not just good athletes; they were an exceptional group of students.


Here is a picture that this group of hockey players had taken during their senior year. In order to avoid confusion and make my point, as well as to shorten things up a bit, I will only go through the players in the front row. I want to point out that if I say that a student was on the A honor roll, I mean that he was consistently on it, and not just for one or two marking periods.

On the far left is Kyle Hardwick. He was a defenseman, president of the senior class, and an A honor roll student. Kyle is now going to school and playing hockey at Bemidji State University. Next to him is Josh Brodeen, who was T. J.'s right wing, and a B honor roll student. He is now a student at UND. Then, Eric Olimb, a defenseman, T. J.'s best friend, and an A honor roll student. Eric is now going to school and playing hockey at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Next is Mark Thiele, our goalie, and an A honor roll student, who is now attending University of Minnesota-Duluth. Next is T. J., then David Larson who was a defenseman and a B honor roll student. David is now a student and hockey player at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Next is Andy Brandt who was our third line center and a B honor roll student. Andy is now in our armed forces. Finally, on the far right is Ben Bengtson, T. J.'s left wing and an A honor roll student. He also is a student and hockey player at Wisconsin-Stout.

Believe me, our hockey players usually don't get grades like this (I wish they did!), but this was a very special class. These are the kids that T. J. would be hanging around with for three years, and when you hang around with kids like this, good things happen. So by the time this picture was taken in January of 2005, T. J., too, was a member of the A honor roll. Qualifying academically at UND never became an issue.

The one who deserves the most credit for T. J.'s success is T. J., himself. He is a young man who is very human and makes mistakes like the rest of us, but what talent, what personality, what a work ethic, and what character he has! And when you have big hopes and big dreams, it sure helps to have great friends to help you along. That is something T. J. was definitely blessed with.

After the NCAA hockey tournament is over, it is expected that T. J. will sign a contract with the Blues, and he will make more money in one year than I've made in my whole life. When that happens, will I be jealous? Heck no! In fact, I couldn't be happier and prouder. T. J. could have signed with the Blues a year ago, but he turned down all that money because he wanted to go back to UND and try to win the national championship with his friends. He is that kind of person.

A SOPHOMORE NAMED NICK: THE POWER OF ONE GOOD STUDENT
T. J. Oshie's story tells how a group of good students can affect an individual. But is it possible for an individual student to have a significant influence on a class? The answer is a resounding, "Yes!" Having Nick in my class taught me that lesson very well.

Class discussion is an important part of almost any social studies class. There is nothing like a good class discussion to make otherwise dry material meaningful to high school students. But there have been times when I've conducted class discussions on the same subject on the same day, and gotten completely different results in different classes. In one hour, there will be a number of kids who jump into the discussion with both feet, and my most difficult task is to keep the kids from interrupting each other. Then, in the next class, it might be like pulling teeth just to get a few kids to say, "Yeh," "Nope," or the ever popular, "I dunno." The difference in the class might be made by only three of four students, and sometimes it can be just one.


Like T. J. Oshie and his friends, Nick was a member of the Warroad High School Class of 2005 (Yes, that was quite a class!), so I had him in one of my American History classes six years ago. Nick was a big, bright, good-natured young kid, and I've never had a student who was better in class discussions. Every teacher knows what it's like to have kids walk into class and say, "Do we have to do this again?" when they find out what is planned for the day. Teachers in our school never had to worry about hearing that when Nick bounded into class. In fact, any day I had class discussions planned, I could count on hearing him say something like, "I love these!" As a teacher, I'm here to tell you that makes you feel pretty good.

Nick loved to laugh and he loved to argue, and he was one of those rare teenagers who could get himself to really care about things that happened 100 or 200 years ago. You want to talk about whether or not we should have gone to war with Britain in 1812? Nick could get fired up about it. Better yet, he could get other kids fired up about it. When Nick was in my class he would literally goad other students into getting involved. As a result, his class consistently had the best discussions of any of the American History classes that I had that year. There were a number of times that class would argue right up until the bell rang and then they'd continue the argument in their later classes. Some of the other teachers didn't appreciate it, but I sure felt good about it. Nick was a very special student.

I am the sophomore class advisor, and one morning in December, our principal, Bill Kirkeby, called me out to the hallway from my first hour class. He said that we were going to have to call all of our sophomores into our mini-theatre to meet with them. I asked him why, and he replied that he was going to have to tell the sophomores that Nick had died. When his father had gone to his room to wake him up in the morning, he thought it was strange that Nick's reading light was still on. He had suffered an aneurysm sometime shortly after going to bed.

Obviously, this was a terrible personal tragedy for Nick's family and many friends. His funeral was held in our gymnasium, and the next month was a very emotional period in our school. Mention Nick's name any time during the rest of the year, and some girls in my classes would break into tears. The sophomores on our hockey team had his initials pasted on the back of their helmets, and players on our other athletic teams did similar things. But besides the personal tragedy, Nick's death was also a real blow to the education that took place in our school. He was not just missed because everyone liked him so much and because of his fantastic personality; he was also missed because of the contribution he made in every class he had attended.

My American History class that he had been in was never the same. It was still a good class, but it was never again what it had been when Nick was there. I can still picture in my mind students who took part in almost every discussion when Nick was there, but almost never got involved after he was gone. Our discussions in that class were just never able to take off the way they had before, because Nick was no longer there to get his friends going.

Do good students make a difference in the learning of their classmates? You bet they do. Nick was a student who his classmates and I will never forget.

8 Comments:

Blogger Mrs. C said...

Waah! I love this post. I could just tell Nick was too good to last as soon as you introduced him.

*sniff*

The silence must have been awful after he passed, Dennis. For everyone.

4/07/2008 4:54 PM  
Blogger Amerloc said...

My feeder tells me to come by when you've posted, and I always do. My feeds are diverse, but other than the political ones, they're always good. Nevertheless, I rarely comment here, mostly because you're right so much of the time that it would feel like I was a member of the choir patting the preacher on the back after the sermon.

Having said that, I realize that preachers need an occasional pat on the back, too. I'll try to remember...

Thing is, you're right here, too. Any teacher who's worked the trenches has some degree of T.J.'s story to tell about a kid who was elevated by other kids. And we can all tell others of the kids who elevated the accomplishments of those around them.

But Nick? I'm with Mrs. C. /sniff /wipe tears /suck it up and post a comment

Thanks for what you do professionally, Dennis, and thanks for what you write here.

4/07/2008 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this amazing article. I'm going to send it to several of my colleagues and friends. It's good to be reminded of all the fantastic young people who are present everyday in our school and what a positive impact they have on everyone around them. Sometimes, in the midst of dealing with the problem children, we forget about the good ones. I keep a list in my journal of the students I am particularly thankful for every year and read through it once a week, at least.

Amy P. in Tennessee

4/08/2008 7:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, Thank you for reminding all of us of the importance of who our kids hang out with...and for teachers to encourage positive friendships. I forwarded your blog link to the Principal of my child's high school in NC. I missed you as a teacher, having graduated many years ago (1976) from WHS.
Thank you for your caring about our children of today.

4/08/2008 7:55 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., Amerloc, Amy & Anonymous (Once a Warrior always a Warrior!), thank you for your comments! I'll be pulling for T.J. and the Sioux as they take on Boston College tomorrow night, and I'm hoping Nick will be, too. I know that in the years between 2003-2005 we always felt like we were getting a little extra help from somewhere.

4/09/2008 2:35 AM  
Anonymous Betty said...

Your post should make us remember to always look for that special something in each child. All some kids need is for one person to take an interest and show that they care. Thanks for telling us about these two boys.

4/10/2008 2:13 PM  
Blogger Oshie-Blogs said...

I can tell you this. You become a direct relection of the mentors, teachers and coaches that inspire you as a young person. Dennis Fermoyle was that mentor to T.J. Oshie from 2003-05. Even though Coach Fermoyle won't admit it, T.J. appreciated every word of wisdom, advice and inspiration from DF (as the hockey players say).

Last Tuesday, on May 13th, 2008, T.J. Oshie signed his first National Hockey League contract with the St. Louis Blues. The team that drafted him in 1st round of the 2005 NHL draft.

Coach Fermoyle was one of the first to contact me after knowledge of TJ's signing.

Dennis is a close friend of mine, as we were fellow coaches at Warroad HS from 2003-07. I know in my heart every kid has the ability to attain dreams never thought achieveble. Because of the author of this book and this web site, one now can say, "Coach, dreams do come true."

5/19/2008 10:47 AM  
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