The Sort-of-Scientific Method

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 18 2012

How Do I Compete With That?

Day 69: I teach science to four classes. Three of these four classes are nearly always straightforward. They have their challenges, but they are manageable, and I have a healthy number of students in each class who are incredibly invested in my class, and in me.

This is not true of my homeroom. My homeroom is an interesting constellation of personalities. There are some hyper boys, a girl with attitude, at least two girls following the girl with attitude, some chatterers, and a general dearth of leaders.

My homeroom is my only class that still struggles to enter silently. Inevitably, KA begins talking, MJ starts talking to his boys, AC starts talking in the back, and before I can get to any of this, JT and EC in the front row bombard me with questions … without raising their hands. At some point, the class settles down to write their Do Now, but then fails to stop writing and look up when I ask them to. I fight with them to track me and actively listen to directions.

None of this is TOO bad, partially because I’m making it seem worse than it is, and partially because these are low-level disruptions. The Do Nows are usually OK. Dealing with drawing while I talk and giving out a warning or two for shouting out are not the same as the dealing with active disruption and disrespect. Once the class gets to work – for example, today, by doing the cheek-swab lab to see animal cells – they are nearly always on-task and productive.

Above all, this class is learning. Students are meeting my big goal, nailing unit exams and quizzes. Beyond the tests, students are demonstrating a mastery of content and higher-level skills I never saw from students last year. These same students who struggle on Mondays to come up from the cafeteria quickly and quietly blow my mind in a Socratic Seminar by discussing which is more important to being alive, the heart or the brain.

However, the thing that kills me is a lack of enthusiasm. When I told every other class that it was lab day, I got fist pumps and exclamations of “Yes!” When I told my homeroom today, I got disinterested silence.

I go back-and-forth on whether or not this is OK. Once they got into the lab, they did well, and I heard more than a few exclamations of “That’s so cool!” as kids looked at their cheek cells. I am not worried about my ability to manage this class, and as they stay on task, I know they’ll stumble into more opportunities to be excited about science.

However, I do worry about compliance without excitement – about following directions, but not being invested in a mission. I firmly believe my other classes are working hard every day to meet the big goal, and see it as a meaningful source of motivation. My homeroom does not look and sound invested in success in my class beyond the typical desire to do just well enough.

My concern with this state of affairs was exacerbated by a chance meeting after school. I ended up talking for a while with two of my students in my homeroom who struggle, CJ and JT. They told me I needed to “bring my game up” and “get some swag” because I was not as funny nor as much fun as another one of their teachers.

Apparently, this teacher let students have open conversations about interesting questions, even if they were a little off-topic. This teacher also did not make students SLANT, line up in line order, put up a thumb to show readiness to enter the classroom. In fact, according to my students, this teacher called these routines stupid.

That’s OK, those are only grade-wide procedures we’d all agreed to uphold to maintain order. Totally doesn’t make someone who is holding students to those expectations look like a draconian jerk.

One of my best students in my homeroom has decided not to apply to student council (which I run), has started talking more, responds to my queries with “your class has gotten boring” and says she wants to sit next to someone fun. I’m at a loss. How do I compete? I don’t want to pin everything on this teacher, but I’m being made to feel like the uptight, un-fun one right now, and a teacher calling corny routines like hand signals and thumbs “stupid” undermines my authority and my style.

For now, I’ve made my decision. I told CJ and JT how they could earn tickets tomorrow. CJ could earn two by tracking the speaker better. JT had to come in silently and do all of her work. My approach isn’t perfect, but I’m not going to lower my expectations. I respect my students too much to do that. I can only hope to get more than compliance very, very soon.

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Experimental Procedures of a Second-Year Teacher

Greater Boston
Middle School

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