Working together to transition freshmen & transform schools from the bottom up!
9th-grader Keisha (not her real name) entered my Algebra class older than most of her classmates, having been held back a year in elementary school. And based on her test scores, she would have been repeating eighth grade if it hadn't been for the district's social promotion policy. So there she was in my classroom, giving no effort and getting 0 upon 0 on one assignment/exam after another.
Not attempting an assignment and getting a 0 on it is a common face-saving strategy for kids like Keisha, since they can always say, "I could have done that but didn't feel like it." Trying their hardest and getting a 25 or 30 would be worse, since failure would then reflect lack of ability rather than apathy.
But I wasn't buying it, and at 10-week report card conferences I reminded Keisha's grandmother (mom was incarcerated, and dad came and went--mostly went) that I stayed after school to tutor students. Keisha showed up for tutoring the next day. At first, of course, she didn't want to be there. But at least in this safer setting--with just a few other "dumb" (her word) kids there--she set aside her "I could do this but don't feel like it" facade, and said tutoring was pointless because "I'm no good at math."
After a day or two of sulking, Keisha decided the time would go faster if she actually did some work. And what soon became apparent to me and, more important, to her was that she had much stronger math ability than her prior experience had led her to believe. Within weeks, she was earning a "C" in class, and her grandmother excused her from tutoring. But Keisha decided to keep coming anyway, so instead of remediation, I gave her extension problems and sneak previews of upcoming lessons. And soon the "dumb" kid was the go-to kid for students who needed help.
Keisha was upbeat until I gave a test that she should have aced but instead bombed--a result, I was sure, of test anxiety rather than lack of ability. But newfound confidence is easily shaken for kids who've doubted themselves for years, so you can imagine Keisha's response as she stormed out of class: "I told you I'm no good at math." Still, I tracked her down later that day, and convinced her to retake the test after school. And when I told her she got a 96, Keisha looked at me and said, "Are you for real, Coach G?!" I've never seen a prouder or happier kid.
What Keisha's turnaround illustrates is the need for students to feel hopeful in order for them to learn to their potential. Instilling hope in students at school must therefore be an essential goal for us as educators. And the way to achieve it is not, as I wrote in Success Comes From the Heart, by preaching optimism, but through policies and practices that give students cause for optimism. Here are some examples: