Saturday, May 19, 2007

Our seniors are gone - a personal reflection

yes, this is NOT strictly speaking educational policy. I am posting this in a number of venues, and as the perhaps the only K-12 public school teacher participating here, thought it relevant to share because it is my connection with young people that drives my participation in educational policy discussion

Yesterday was the last day for our seniors. That may seem strange. Graduation is June 1, and the school year goes for almost another two weeks beyond that. I won’t try to justify this. But yesterday was the beginning of a time for goodbyes, and when one says goodbye, it is not unusual for one to look back. So before I begin what will be a hectic and peripatetic day I thought I would take a few moments to share some thoughts. This posting will contain thoughts about teaching, about students, about society. It will personal but it will also be political. I invite you to continue reading, but will also understand if the subject does not interest you.

I have just over 150 students on my roles right now, of whom 16 are seniors. 6 of these will have to return next Friday to sit for (but not pass) the state examination in Government - they joined us this year and the examination is a requirement for graduation. For the young ladies it means they will not be able to begin preparing for that night’s prom until 1 PM, which given how extensive the preparations can be will squeeze a few for time. 15 of the 16 are going on to further education next year, two in the local community college, others to places like University of Chicago, William & Mary, MIT, UMBC, and of course Maryland. This group of students includes two born in India, one in Jamaica, one in Syria, and one in Jordan. They are black, white, yellow and brown, with family members also born in Taiwan, England, and Canada. They are Catholic, evangelical, Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and no religion. Their politics range from anarchist to exceedingly conservative with everything in between. There are superb athletes and equally superb musicians, people in our championship model UN team and one who missed her last week because she was in Albuquerque for the international science fair (where she partnered with a student who was in my classes two years ago). One has been an intern at the US Senate (her father is a senate committee staff director) - she’s a Democrat, and another has been a page at the Maryland General Assembly - she’s a Republican, and personally close to former state First Lady Kendall Erlich. 5 of these 16 took regular government from me as freshman before we changed the sequence of the course and enrolled in AP to have me as a teacher again. One had her younger brother ace both the course and the AP exam as a sophomore which provoked her to sign up this year. One other was new to us last year and took regular government as a junior, and I urged and persuaded her to take on the challenge of AP this year. I wrote college recommendation for 7 of the 16. 9 of them asked me to sign their yearbooks.

But none of the foregoing gives a full sense of what it has been like to have these seniors in my classes. Most of my students are sophomores, and the two-year age difference represents a serious difference in maturity, both intellectually and emotionally. It provides a leaven to 5 of my six classes, although I acknowledge one young man, who is repeating the basic course, may be the single most immature student I have. It was touch and go until yesterday if he would pass 4th quarter and thus pass the required course and be able to graduate. He was up most of the night completing a project that was late for which he got only partial credit, but 40% on the assignment was the difference between passing and failing.

I will hopefully see all of these students again at graduation. After the ceremonies are completed they will come to get their actual diplomas (they receive an empty container at the ceremony so we don’t have to worry about the order of about 600 walking across the stage) and at that point there will be time for hugs - they will no longer be our students. Some will stay in touch, and there is something I insist upon - one year from now they will no longer address me as Mr. Bernstein or even Mr. B, but at that point I am Ken - if they want they can make the change now, but in a year I will insist on it. If experience is any guide, I will see about 1/2 of them some time during the next school year. Some students stop by several times a year. A few will remain in ongoing contact via email. I am always delighted when that happens, but understand if it does not - they are now in new phases of their lives, and while it is normal to remain in close contact with a few of their classmates, their lives will be so busy that it is easy to lose contact with former teachers.

Some of the most interesting former contacts are from students who perhaps resisted what I tried to do for them, or for whom it suddenly begins to make sense a year or more out of high school. Perhaps once or twice a year I will have contact with a former student with whom I either was not close or who really struggled. The former want to show me their success as if to say “so there” and that’s great- whatever motivates them. The latter want me to realize that they kept at it, and it is very gratifying that they choose to share their success with me. They can tell me that I made a difference, but when the success comes well after they have left my pedagogy, then they should claim the lion’s share for themselves. I am appreciative that they remember any part I may have played.

These students have spent their high school year’s in a time of unnecessary war. I have watched the evolution of the thinking of those I have taught more than once, and over several years there has been a lot of change. But even those who were my students only this year have evolved in their attitudes about politics and government. I think of the young lady going to William & Mary, whose younger brother I taught last year (and coached both both his freshman and sophomore years). The family is politically conservative and evangelical Christian, seriously so. She plays volleyball and bass clarinet. She has an acute intelligence, and a strong sense of honor and responsibility. And she is now one of the first to laugh at the president. My task with her, and with the young lady going to Chicago who is about as far politically left as any of these 16 young men and women, is that they not become totally cynical about government and politics, that they remain willing to be engaged, and attempting to make a difference. I reflect back on what has happened in our classes this year and in the world around us. And it is remarkable to me that so many do remain as optimistic about the future as they do. Perhaps it is their youth, that they anticipate so many possibilities among which they can still choose. The two who have been most politically active and have served as pages and interns, neither has yet been turned off to politics or government - in fact in both cases it has inspired them to want to pursue careers in the arena. My U of Chicago leftist hopes to use film/video and photography to persuade people, even to radicalize them. She remains engaged in the political processes, and I suspect will continue to be engaged.

In the two weeks until they graduate I will inevitably think about them. I will step into a classroom and see up to 5 empty seats, and that will remind me - I will miss their voices, the expressions on their faces, the insights they shared with their classmates and with me. I will wonder if I did enough as their teacher to challenge them, to support them, to encourage them? Of course, I do that with all of my students, but most of those who are not seniors will be back in our building next year and I will have an opportunity to somewhat observe any impact my teaching may have had, to hear from other teachers how they are doing. I might encounter them in the hall, or perhaps they will participate in an activity with which I am associated, soccer, musical theater. Some may come to talk with me about colleges to consider, as some of last year’s students now ending the junior years have already begun to do - I already have about a dozen who want me to write recommendations for college. Some of those underclassmen will ask for help getting into programs - one of last year’s students will intern this summer in the office of a Senator who is running for president, perhaps in part because of the recommendation I wrote for him.

Teaching contains inevitable transitions. Students pass through our lives, as I supposed we are sometimes but a fleeting part of theirs. I may hope that they have positive memories of their time with me, but I do not control that. Nor do I have sufficient time to thank them for the positive contributions they have made to my life. I am inevitably affected by every student who passes through my classroom, however briefly. I regularly wonder what I could have done to be more effective for these young people, and am delighted when I learn of their subsequent successes. At times they may drive me nuts, but I am nevertheless the richer and the wiser for having known them.

I will try to see each on graduation day, to thank them for being part of my life this year and is some cases over several years. For now let me end this the only way I know how:

TO: Latoya, Keenan, Lina, Sarah, Chloe, Brandon, John, Alex, Rino, Jessie, Ibrahim, Melissa, Cathryn, Amanda, Lindsay, Kesha -

thank your for sharing your lives with me this year. I am honored to have been a part of your learning. You taught me, and I love you all.


Mr. B

1 comment:

A. G. Rud said...

Ken, thanks for taking the time to reflect deeply on the transition for these students, and for yourself.