The Brightest Part

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 14 2013

Not far enough

For me, the hardest part of teaching is not the planning, the behavior management, the discipline, the administration or any of the typical teacher complaints.  The hardest part is getting to know my students, seeing how smart and how much potential they have, but then also how behind they are academically.  I teach 11th graders, who are less than two years away from college.  Most of my students have not passed the FCAT reading exam, which is a state exam that is approximately an 8th grade reading level.  This is an exam they need to graduate high school, and last year 70 seniors were not able to graduate because they did not pass the FCAT or get an 18 on the ACT reading exam.   One of these 70 students was one of my students, who I worked with for weeks and months after school and in ACT class on Saturdays.  And even though she managed to get a 17, impressive for a student still learning English, it was not enough for her to get a high school diploma and be able to walk across the stage with her peers.

Most of my students have GPAs below 3.0s and the class averages on the ACT Science baselines are 12-15.  From hearing my students read out loud in class, and reading their lab reports and writing, it is clear I have to push them and provide them lots of support and resources so they can be ready to apply and be accepted by colleges next year.  If my students don’t improve academically, and if their reading and writing skills don’t improve, then high-paying, in-demand career opportunities will be closed for them.  I have 9 months with my students to help prepare them for what’s ahead, and the hardest part for me is worrying that it won’t be enough time.  And worrying about what futures my students will have if I don’t succeed in investing each of them and providing them with more opportunities through academics.

I have a student, J., who has a 1.08 GPA.  J. has been skipping class or shows up late.  When I called the mother, she basically told me she was overwhelmed with 2 jobs and 4 children and can’t deal with J. anymore.  J. almost got kicked out of school last year and if she doesn’t turn things around, she will not make it to senior year.  I know it seems dire, and perhaps I shouldn’t focus so much on J., but if I don’t try to invest this student, who will?  I can see sparks of interest and greatness in J., and right now I’m the fan slowing trying to nurture these sparks into a great fire, but I’m so scared a wind will come along and kill these sparks.  And as a teacher, we don’t just have one J., we have dozens of students who have sparks that need to be fanned to build their confidence, motivation, and investment.  I see so much potential in all my students, perhaps the most so in students like J.

Today I was staying after with my students, helping them do research for their history essay about how minority groups were discriminated against after the Civil War.  It quickly became clear the students didn’t understand the words ‘discrimination’ or ‘segregation’, so we looked these terms up.  We also looked up the Jim Crow laws, and I saw my student’s eyes become wide and they shook their heads as they read these laws in disbelief.  And then they asked me about the literacy tests that were used to restrict African Americans from voting.  It seemed my students didn’t understand, so I told them the first analogy that came to my head.  I told them the literacy tests were tests that people had to pass to be able to vote, kinda like high schoolers have to pass the FCAT reading to be able to graduate.  Once I said it I realized how sadly correct that analogy was, and I had to pause for a few moments to hold back the tears.  I had to hold back the tears because it hit me that my 11th grade black students were learning about segregation and the jim crow laws for the first time, and neither has passed the FCAT reading, our modern literacy test.  In FL, African Americans are passing the FCAT reading at a rate of 32%, compared to 66% of the white students.  If this is an exam that students need to graduate high school, and have the opportunity to go to college, and African American students are passing at a rate of 32%, have we really come far enough?

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"What we see in the shadow as the darkest part of the flame is, in reality, the brightest part."

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