Good times in Summer Bridge

It sucked being told, with less than a half hour’s worth of notice, that I’d be teaching Summer Bridge. And it still sucks now, even though the program is over, because I have a pile of work to do that most everyone else has had the chance to get started on 2 weeks ago. But all in all, it was a good learning experience.

Transitioning from working with 10 or less students at Institute for 45 minutes a day to running my own class of upwards of 25 for 4 hours a day presented many of the challenges I had anticipated, especially in terms of delivery and management. Moreover, I didn’t have any time to do any rigorous planning ahead of time, let alone draw up my glorious plans to achieve student investment.

On the other hand, I learned how to think on my feet, the hard way. Far and away the majority of the time I taught these last 2 weeks was totally improvised. I met about half of my students, and have learned a lot about their respective strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and aspirations. I can’t say my classroom management has been perfected, but I think I’ve found my style, learned what won’t work, and formed some good ideas for where to go next.

Not to mention, I had the chance to begin the process of forming this initial group of students into the nucleus of the culture we’re determined to build at Friendship. I believe I’ve earned outright respect from a few students. But at the very least, I think most of them know that I care about them as people, I won’t let anything slide, I stand up for my principles, and that I’m a lot tougher than my low-key demeanor might indicate.

For example, I learned an important lesson Friday in classroom management. Thursday was supposed to be the last day of class for my school’s Summer Bridge program, and Friday, we had the celebratory field trip to the roller-skating rink. Well, I get a call Thursday evening informing me that because of a miscommunication between the skating place and the school, we were actually going to be leaving for the trip 2 hours later than planned, and because the school’s auto-dialer isn’t in service yet, the students would be showing up at their normal time, and I’d better plan something for those 2 hours. I wasn’t exactly shocked—at this point, I’ve learned to be surprised if something like that doesn’t happen.

I talked with the co-teacher the night before, in half-freakout mode, and she assured me she’d come up with something. When I showed up the next day, she had some promising ideas. I had assumed that the language arts teacher, who had been running the other 9th grade class had also gotten the memo. Not so much. He showed up right around the time class was supposed to start, and when asked if he was going to help occupy the kids, he replied that he was not; he was going to work on curriculum. (You know who else would love a chance to even see his curriculum? THIS GUY!)

So, it fell to me and the co-teacher to handle the whole 9th grade. We decided we’d try the possibly foolhardy idea of cramming the all the 9th graders into one classroom. Needless to say, the students were confused and pissed off We thought they’d somewhat enjoy the opportunity to play some games. They wanted none of it. They were becoming increasingly irritable and disruptive. We tried hard to redirect them. We punished them for not participating in the game by making the write reflections for 15 minutes. Then offered them the choice of playing the game or sitting silently. They chose to sit “silently”, and were anything but silent. I started giving out warnings, and telling them we were now operating on a two-strike system. Two strikes, and you’re staying home. This flew for all of maybe a minute and a half before they started testing me. And as I’m sure they suspected, I was reluctant to toss people off the trip, and pretty soon we were back to square one.

But no way was I about to give in. I noticed that there were a handful of folks in the class who had been perfect or almost perfect all day, and who had managed to stay above the chaos, and it occurred to me that in addition to the fact that everything I was trying wasn’t working for most of the kids, I hadn’t spent enough time recognizing how well that other group was behaving. So, without talking, I walked over to the board, and next to my Warnings section (which was 2 full columns by now) I made a new section called Commendations and wrote down the 4 or so names of kids who had been more or less perfect. Then I put a big X through the entire warning section of the board. Pretty quickly, the room got silent, as the kids got curious about what was happening. One of my ring-leaders spoke up, “are those the people who are going on the trip?” I replied that she was exactly right. The warning system was dead, and the new commendation system was in force. Through good behavior, the people not on the Commendations list could be put on it, but by the time the buses left, anyone not on that list would not be boarding a bus.

The results were immediate. There was about a half an hour of nearly perfect silence. Even my stubborn students were angels. To further make a point, after the assistant principal announced that the buses had arrived, about a third of the class still hadn’t paid enough penance to have made the Commendations list, and I let them sweat it out, adding them to the list one-by-one to release them to the buses.

The trip itself was fun. The kids were pretty shocked to see that Mr. Johnson knows how to skate and bowl, and is also pretty dominant at Tekken Tag.

So what did I learn from this? First of all, incentivizing works way better than punishment. The stakes were exactly the same in the Warnings and Commendations systems, but the results couldn’t have been more different. Secondly, don’t threaten punishments you are not willing to follow through on. I was reluctant to kick a kid off the trip simply for making a side comment to a friend, even if it was a repeated offence. Once that message was sent, most of the class ran with it. I also learned that behavior expectations need to be explicitly stated and that it needs to be extremely clear that the teacher has the final word. If allowed, kids will complain, debate, and try their hardest to manipulate. I was steadfast about not giving in to any verbal debate, but through their actions they manipulated the situation into getting away with a lot. The key response to any attempt at argument is “this is not the time to discuss that. Save your questions and comments for after the activity, and we can talk about it then.” The questions rarely come up again.

All in all, my 9th graders are pretty good kids. A handful of them are going to be pretty challenging, but I feel like they’ll all eventually fall in line. One of the biggest problems I face is that although most of my kids have fantastic goals for themselves, right now, most of them don’t make the connection between their goals and the level of effort and engagement it will take to reach them. As one of my coworkers put it, by telling these kids they can be anything they want, we’ve almost done them a disservice, because they haven’t been given the skills it’s going to take to get them there. So this year is going to be a jarring experience for many of them as we slam them into a much higher gear right off the bat.

Keep checking back, because it’s going to be an interesting year.

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