Start where the kids are was a mantra in my teacher certification program. This imperative served my students and me well for the first 13 years of my career, when I taught in diverse but predominantly middle-class, suburban schools. But last year, after transferring to an urban school just south of Seattle, Washington, I gained a new and deeper understanding of what it means to start where the kids are—and why it's essential for effective teaching and learning.
In September 2008, I began teaching at Health Sciences and Human Services High School (HS3), one of three new autonomous themed schools on the campus of what had been a large comprehensive high school. I had been searching for a small school where I could pursue my passion for reform, and here was an opportunity to be part of establishing a school's identity, structures, and practices. I knew that my new school, where about 70 percent of the 350 students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, would also offer me new challenges in the classroom. But as an experienced, accomplished teacher, I believed that I was ready to take on those challenges.
No Culture of Compliance
When I met my students at the beginning of the school year, I was prepared to meet them where they were. I expected this would mean addressing large skill deficits. I quickly discovered, however, that most of the students did not have skill deficits; what they had was a level of disengagement and even anger toward school that I had never before encountered on such a wide scale.
When I taught in predominantly middle- or upper-class suburbs, I took for granted a culture of compliance. Although there were always a few disengaged, disobedient kids, they were the exceptions, the ones who didn't fit the system. I either tried to make them fit or accommodated them by tinkering around the edges of the system.
Although my colleagues and I talked about differentiated instruction and personalization, it was easy for me not to do those things very deeply as long as students played the game. When students who didn't have the skills to engage meaningfully in instruction at least made an effort, the most I had to do was provide extra help or slightly modify the assignment. When even students who didn't go through the motions were at least quiet in their disengagement, I could urge them to get on task and remind them of how failing to do the work would affect their grades. If those tactics failed, I could call their homes. Neither the culture of the school nor the culture of the community challenged my assumption that what I was offering would be meaningful to all students.
My current students, on the other hand, don't play the game of school. They do not suffer fools gladly and they do not offer strangers the benefit of the doubt. They broadcast
their disengagement through either words or actions.
A typical class: Angie, Shauna, and Sabrina text their friends rather than focusing on the reading. Ian draws in his composition book. Nicholas does not even bother to take out his composition book; he just watches Ian draw. I call for the students to join me in the meeting area at the front of the class for instruction, but they stay at their desks on the opposite end of the room, as far away from me as possible. When I do manage to gather them for instruction, Donny interrupts after just a few minutes with, "This is stupid!" I carry on. Lexi rolls her eyes and sighs loudly. Carlos says, "Can't we just go back to our desks? This is boring."
Although such classroom behaviors are challenging, they also present an opportunity. The fact that my students don't even attempt to hide their lack of interest forces me to face it head on. If a particular assignment or activity is not meaningful to my students, they won't do it. I don't mean that they have to think it's fun. They want to learn, but they want to learn things that matter and in ways that matter to them.
"I Know What to Do"
Because they have been unsuccessful in school for so long, many of these students don't think they are smart. Others do realize they're smart, but they feel no connection to school. One of my students, Alexandra, would spend the entire 100 minutes of the class period reading a book. She could speak and write insightfully about what she read. When she wasn't reading, Alexandra wrote poetry. She saw no connection, however, between her own reading and writing and what happened in school. I spent a lot of time thinking about Alexandra and how I could help her to find meaning in her education. I fought my urge to insist that she "get to work" and instead tried to get to know her.
This approach with Alexandra reflected a shift in my stance as a teacher. When I first encountered my students' widespread disengagement and outright hostility toward me and toward learning, my instinct was to try to establish control. They were challenging my authority, and I went on the defensive, imposing new seating charts, sending students to the office, writing referrals—all responses that provided some breaks from the most distracting and disruptive students but failed to address the underlying issue of their disengagement.
With the support of a literacy coach who offered me new ways to think and talk with students, I was able to shift from a focus on control to a focus on inquiry. "Starting where the kids are" became an exercise not merely in diagnosing their skills, but also in discovering who they were and what was important to them. Sometimes that meant hanging back and watching them; sometimes that meant approaching a group of students who appeared off-task and sincerely asking, "What are you doing?"
Often, when I take this approach, I learn that students actually are engaged in their learning. If not, it's an opportunity for me to learn what is getting in the way. Sometimes this inquiry stance means sitting with a student and saying, "So, it seems like you're trying really hard not to do the work in this class. Why is that? Where do you really want to go?" Students find this approach disarming. It's no longer about them either complying or resisting. It's about me trying to understand where they are and meeting them there.
After months of watching Alexandra cling to her identity as a student who did not participate in class and failing to find an entry point with her into what the class was working on (writing editorials), I realized that even with all the choice inherent in the process, the idea of writing an editorial just was not meaningful to her. I approached her while she was immersed in her latest novel:
"Alexandra, I see that you are not interested in writing an editorial. I also know that you do a lot of writing. Is there another form of writing you'd like to do that would allow you to show the process and skills we've been working on?"
After a brief pause she replied, "I could write and publish some book reviews. I just finished one book, and I'll be done with this one soon."
I had vowed years ago never to assign book reviews again because they are so painful to read. But I had to honor Alexandra's choice.
"OK. I have some published reviews you can use as models."
"I know what to do," she assured me. And she went on to describe the elements of an effective book review. We negotiated a deadline and agreed that she would use her class time for writing the reviews. She followed through, and in the end her book reviews were some of the most well-crafted pieces of writing I have ever read.
The benefits for Alexandra extended beyond that particular unit. After the experience of being part of the class in a way that was meaningful to her, during the next unit she joined her classmates in reading and discussing shared texts; and she has begun to see options for herself.
"That Makes Sense"
Alexandra is not unique among my students in her ability to challenge the status quo of school. Even the ones who regularly participate push back when I ask them to do something that doesn't seem reasonable to them. One morning I became frustrated with a group of juniors and seniors who were having side conversations during writing instruction. I sent them out of the room for the duration of my lesson, and then had a heart-to-heart talk with them while the rest of the class worked independently. I told them that I felt a sense of urgency because we didn't have a lot of time together, and their writing skills were not as far along as they needed to be. "It matters," I told them, "even if you're not going to spend the rest of your life doing literary analysis."
In my previous schools, at that point the kids would have just said, "OK, we'll get to work." But these kids were more thoughtful that that.
"Why does it matter?" asked Juan. He wasn't trying to stall or to be disrespectful. His question was sincere.
Darn it. Now I had to have a good answer.
I tried: "It matters because it's about taking something apart and looking at it closely to figure out how it works, and then being able to explain clearly what you figured out. And that's a skill you need no matter what you do."
"That makes sense," replied Juan.
"It does?" I was surprised and relieved.
"Great. OK, then. Are you ready to focus on your learning?"
And they were.
Had I simply reprimanded them for disrupting my instruction and directed them to do the assignment, it is unlikely that anything useful would have resulted. Moreover, it is unlikely that they would have responded positively to this conversation if I had not established credibility with them over the previous four months.
Stepping Back and Listening
When I am effective, I don't meet students where they are just once at the start of the year, or even just at the start of each new unit. I meet them where they are every day, and rarely as an entire class. To engage these students in learning that matters to them, I need to repeatedly ask the question, "Where are you?" and be prepared to step back and listen.
Author's note: All student names are pseudonyms.
Jessica Towbin is a language arts and social studies teacher at Health Sciences and Human Services High School, Seattle, Washington; towbinje@HSD401.org.
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