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I’m not…are you?

“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Jacob Riis

I have been putting this post off for awhile…

Last year I wrote a post the summarized the results of the evaluations that I give to the students at the end of each year.  I thought it was going to be an annual post and this year would have made my third post summarizing the results.

Last year the results blew me away.  When the year was over I knew that I had nailed it.  I proudly handed out copies of the evaluations at parents’ night this year so that they could see what was in store for their kids.  But it was not to be…  I always expect to improve each year, so I was expecting 100 miracles this year. I was expecting to top last year and have people carve my bust out of stone and place it at convenient locations to view across my town.  But it was not to be…halfway through the year I realized that I was not being as successful as I had been in the past.

By the end of the year I knew that I had not nailed it.  No, things weren’t bad.  If I compared it against my first year of teaching, or my tenth year of teaching, I would be ok …but I was comparing it against last year, my 22nd year of teaching, one of my best.

This year lots of things I planned did not go as expected.  Lots of skills I had hoped to instill never stuck.  Some attitudes and behaviors that my magic wand should have altered stayed they same.  I can explain away the problems that I had… It was a team of youngest siblings, it was the team that we had been warned about for years about being immature, it was the team in which the parents would not back you up, horrible new schedule, or I could just ladle on descriptors such as lazy, stubborn, and complacent.  All I know, is that for one of the first times in my career, I felt as though I had taken a step backwards.

When it came time to hand out the evaluations I did something that I will forever regret…I did not hand them out.  I did not want to read what they had to say.  Please realize that my year was not that bad, I just took it very personally that I had gone backwards.  In order to feel as though I had somehow won, I handed out the link to the evaluation on the last day of school.  A little piece of paper with a long link, on the last day, being shoved into pockets, yearbooks and backpacks.  I knew that most kids would lose it or forget about it.  See…it would be their fault for not caring enough to fill it out, not my fault for not letting them do it right in class or handing it out when everyone was much more organized.  The results were as expected, less than 25% filled it out during the summer vacation.  I will give a summary of the results, but I will never be sure if the views of the 25% represent the rest of the team.  The survey can be seen here.

The first question is simply “Write one word to describe the teacher.”  The answers always crack me up and ranged from creative, courageous, hippie and wacky.  The most used word was inspiring.

The second question is write one word to describe the class.  There was no pattern, the number one response was different, and some other responses included silly, motivating, life changing, and original.

For all the other questions the pattern was mostly very goods and excellent.  One was mostly average and fair, and one was mostly miserable and fair.  That last one has not happened in a long, long, time.  No name was left with that one so of course it is the one that will stick with me the longest.

The last “question” is usually the one I love reading the most.  Usually the students fill out the evaluation in class and the responses will be almost a page long or more.  This year with the online evaluation the answers were much, much shorter.  The “question” is:

Use the space below to freely express your feelings about the course and teacher.  Please be as detailed and specific as you would like but do limit your words to what is truthful, respectful, and most of all useful to future students.  Minimum number of words is thirty-five, maximum is 1,000,000.  You can write freely, or use the above questions as a guide.  This is the most valuable part of the evaluation and I cannot stress enough how carefully your words will be read and listened to!

Below are some quotes from the answers…

Many mentioned the classroom environment:

… he created an environment that had motivated me… Mr. Bogush also allowed us an environment in which we feel comfortable in and not having to feel worried or lost.   

In this class you feel safe to be yourself.  I honestly struggled in this class, it was life changing in a good way.  I was taught that mistakes were good, it’s okay to take chances.  it helped  me get more self confidence in my self. 

…You changed my life in such a positive way. One thing you did that no other teacher I have ever had did was not give up on me. You showed me that you believed in me and knew hat I could do it. Your class gave me the chance to learn and be able to express my feelings and opinions as much as possible. 

What is always interesting to me is that there are always comments like this:

Suggestion: Do less of the copying notes sort of thing from the text books. If possible try to terminate the use of them completely. Also, when making quizzes you can try to mix up the style of questions. For example, don’t make all the questions on a test a short answer or writing out one. Try to incorporate multiple choice, matching, etc.

I think we used the textbook about 5 times during the year, and had one or two optional quizzes.  I was out for surgery and a conference and during that time the sub used the textbook and the students had a traditional quiz at the end.  So even though it was rare, many kids remember it and want even less.

This year I was very surprised at how few kids mentioned the technology we used.  At first I was kind of upset that no one cared…but after pasting the quote below into the post I though that maybe I had finally integrated it in such a seemless way that it just seemed natural.  Sounds like a good explanation to me anyways…

He kept me determined to try new things. I love that he uses technology to teach kids new and better things!  

There is really one sentence that I truly wish I would get from each kid.  Not many kids used it this year as in the past, but here is one:

I have realized that I have big potential to change things in the world. 

Here is one that I just have to leave in it’s entirety:

“During the year you will probably at least once hate his class because of the ample presentations you get to present. But after the year, you will be incredibly grateful for the class and think of it as the best Social Studies class ever.

In his class you don’t just do possible. In the beginning you will think most of his projects are impossible and you could never do them. But Mr. B pushes you everyday (and that’s probably when you hate his class) and you eventually accomplish the task. You don’t just do “”as mush as possible””. You will push past possible to achieve greatness. And afterward you feel extremely proud of everything you accomplished in the year.

Continue to push your students to let go of themselves and their comfort-zone, Mr. Bogush!

There is always another type of comment that I have been getting for years, that I still haven’t figured out how to handle.  One problem I have is that my class does not necessarily feel like “class,”  the activities we do have social studies skills built in and are usually not explicitly taught, and our class jargon is usually devoid of the standardized testing/educational buzzwords that usually the kids would always hear.  So after a year in my class many times kids will not feel like they “studied” history because they were not given information to memorize, etc.  Comments like this one are not uncommon:

Nothing really stuck out in my head besides the poetry slam and that isn’t really something I feel that I can use next year to further my knowledge in history…You tried teaching us how to act and I feel like you should’ve spent more time on the actual information. 

I thought it was interesting that the poetry slam was mentioned specifically by this student.  The poetry slam was on the Lowell Mill Girls.  It happens to be the number one activity most mentioned by kids who come back to visit and email.  In one of my classes I actually stopped and asked them, “Next year when a high school teacher asks if you have ever done a DBQ (document based question) how many of you will be able to say yes?”  Not a single hand went up.  So I explained how the 20-30 primary and secondary sources that they were pouring through to complete their poem was actually a DBQ in disguise, and then went on to explain all the other DBQs we had done that year but just never used the words. I even did one this year that had the same questions and sources as one they have used in sophomore year in the past.  I always wonder if each unit I do should include an explanation of what traditional assignment we are replacing or doing in disguise so that they realize that they are in fact still doing “school.”

 

I know that the above summary probably does not seem like a big deal.  But the reality is that I missed the mark with a lot of kids.  Again, things weren’t bad but when you are expecting perfection, missing the mark by so many can be demoralizing.  I often wonder about the pros and cons of not being able to spin a pretty damn good year into an uplifting post instead of focusing on what was missing from it…why do I end of focusing on what did not happen instead of what did?

Interesting timing (not making this up)…My wife just walked in after having watched Dead Poets Society with my daughter, and not knowing what I was working on she delivered some advice.  Referring to the last scene in the movie (watch it if you have never seen the movie), she said “Remember that even at the end of the Dead Poet’s Society only half of the kids stood up and that was for Robin Williams!  You can’t be everything to everyone, but you can be everything to the ones that need you.”

My lesson for the year is in there somewhere.  After last year, I did indeed think I was everything for everyone.  I thought I knew exactly what to do this past year.  When my new group of kids came in I repeated the previous year with them, I expected the same results because I treated them the same–how did I miss that?   I left them no space to deviate from my plan, and unlike the previous year, I allowed no one but me to steer the ship.  Because of past successes I thought that I was the smartest person in the room and could force them to “realize that they have big potential to change things in the world.”

This is where I should wrap up the post with some snazzy transition and bring it to a sweeping uplifting ending that you will hopefully connect with.  Instead just a one sentence bold reminder…

I am not the smartest person in the room, and you’re not either.

 

4 comments

  1. You might not be the smartest in the room but you are the one that cares the most. I know each year I have trouble remembering the kids I “saved” but cannot forget the ones I lost. I think it’s those failures that make us better. I know it makes me try harder each year. Keep doing what you are doing! You inspire us all!

  2. I would surmise that the students that have a difficult time with your class feel much more comfortable in a more ‘traditional’ classroom. Why should they give up something they have been successful at to try something new? The good news is that they will be just fine when they go on to high school and college where the more traditional classroom is the norm 🙁

    It would seem many of us are doing some heavy duty reflecting right now before the start of a new year. (I just finished reading Lisa’s post that was inspired by this one.) I am grateful because with all the excitement of a new year it is really easy to get caught up in unimportant things and waste a lot of time and effort chasing learning mirages.

  3. Paul,

    When I got to the paragraph “My lesson for the year is in there somewhere,” I started to laugh in that way that teeters on tears. I told my summer class, the one you’ve visited, that I felt I was two steps behind them since the course started. OF COURSE I DID– I was still teaching the class who came before them. (And, of course, this class has its own unique personality.)

    I think we all do that, especially if the prior class has been special in some way. I also think that the easiest thing to forget is that sometimes it really *is* the class. (My summer class hasn’t been, but I certainly have had my share in the past.)

    Personally, I have no issue with you opting out of the assessment/feedback thing. Sometimes a class can leave you too tired out to exert one more iota of energy on them. If your class was one of those, really, who cares what they thought? I mean, the year the kid threw the chair at me, I didn’t run after him or his pals asking his opinion of class or me.

    I’m not the smartest person in the world and I’m not perfect either. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and trying to be the best I can.

  4. I love this – your survey, the results, your thought process, your wife’s comment!!

    So great. I think we teachers often try to replicate things with new classes that worked well, forgetting that the students and the mix is not the same.

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