Ladies and Gentlemen … Calling Students to Distinction
by Antavia Hamilton-Ochs on February 3, 2016
How One Teacher is Working Her Magic to Help Struggling Students Reclaim Their Education, Part 2 of 2
As is my usual style, my little ideas quickly take on a life of their own and turn into BIG magic!
Since I was already pulling out all the stops for Lham, as described in last week’s blog post, I scoured my roster for others like him. These students were caught up in a political Groundhog Day from which they could not escape. There was a lot of identifying and re-identifying of the problems, without any real plan to remediate the issues.
I started to think carefully about the overriding themes that kept my students from experiencing the highest level of success. Mentally, I methodically listed the ways the students’ needs were not being met by the current education system—HOLES. Then I began brainstorming ways to better support them—PLUGS.
I set out the enormous task of plugging as many of the holes as possible where students could fall through the system cracks. It was a huge project.
Casting the Magical Dragnet
I felt an intense sense of urgency. I was more than angry that these students had been suffering in an educational system that was supposed to help improve their lives. For years there have been initiatives aimed at improving these students’ academic achievement. However, the real down-and-dirty work needed to address their distinct lack of many key contributors to scholastic achievement never followed.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 1,000 times: I can’t stand it when time is wasted! No more of these students’ time could be wasted. I was DONE! “I’m DONE!” is notoriously my battle cry. I start uttering, muttering, and sputtering it, right before I’m about to set off a magic bomb and END IT—whatever the offending “it” happens to be.
I chose to not to dwell on negative emotions, as positive ones are infinitely more productive. “I’m done” is my official shift out of anger and into action. Channeling my frustration into productive action is my magical sweet spot. When I’m in my magic zone, things fall into place rapidly.
I was explaining my vision to a dear coworker and friend of mine with a mixture of excitement and exhaustion. She was gracious enough to let me rant about the system failures, my frustrations, the heartbreak I felt for my students, and how this dragnet I was creating would be successful for many of our most vulnerable students—our young men of color. I just knew it.
She turned to me as a true friend does and asked, “What do you need?”
I was reminded that other people see what I see too, and they want to help. This was bigger than me. I needed to organize a Magic Squad to surround my school and these kids. That night I sent an e-mail to my friend listing ways she could help. I organized my thoughts and posted an open letter to my friends on Facebook. I listed all the resources, skills, and supplies, my groups would need. I explained why it mattered. I told them about my classroom. I asked people to pass the message on to others. By the morning I had an inbox full of people offering to help write note cards, find and write grants, create logos, host websites, organize volunteers, provide guest speakers, and knit scarves to distinguish these students.
The League of Gentlemen and Ladies of Distinction
Because of Lham, a student in my LANGUAGE! Live class, my school now has established two groups to better support at-risk students. The mission of the League of Gentlemen and the Ladies of Distinction is to provide much-needed support through a multifaceted program that addresses the students’ barriers to academic and personal success.
The ideas and supports are rapidly unfolding. What started out as an outreach between my students and me quickly spread. Teachers, administrators, community members, and students wanted to know how they could become involved.
Students in these groups will have memorabilia, as other school organizations do. Members need to be highly visible so that the school community helps hold them up until they can do it on their own. We need to rapidly increase the positive interactions these students have in school to provide an insulator for the rough comeback trail on which they are embarking. They need to have a cheerleader around every corner.
Strategies we are employing include:
- Homework club/tutoring sessions
- Weekly check-ins
- Assistance in working with teachers
- Notes of support or encouragement randomly delivered to classes
- An assigned upperclassman big brother/big sister
- Character-building activities
- Self-advocacy coaching
- Guest speakers
- Connections to needed community resources
- Community involvement through service
- A business casual luncheon with guest speaker off campus once a month
- Reliable, affordable computer access for each student
So far, members of my community have stepped up to knit scarves (Carmen, a "Lady of Distinction," is modeling one here), make note cards, be speakers, donate to the luncheon, and more. Other teachers are pitching in to help organize more support behind the scenes. Our principal has agreed to take on the role of Head Gentleman and personally mentor the group of young men. They will report to him directly during our monthly luncheon. I will act as the Head Lady for the young women. The school is getting excited about showing these students just how much we are invested in their success.
The students have already started showing improvement. Many swing by my room throughout the day for a quick update on a turned-in homework assignment or to ask what they should do about work in a class. The students are tethered to caring adults in the building, and we in turn have started to connect them to other good things.
You Got Me, and I Got You
Our motto is: “You got me, and I got you.” Teachers and students are starting to point to each other in the hallway and say, “I got you” as a way of acknowledging the effort and showing support. My colleagues are responding to e-mail requests for help with, “I got you.” Our school psychiatrist, Dr. Linda Jessie-Jones (pictured here), has proved herself a master textile artist, knitting beautiful scarves for members of the club.
What makes me so excited about these ladies and gentlemen is the fact that they are starting to engage … no, IGNITE! They have been chosen, and they belong. They are starting to see their own potential. They are policing each other and helping each other make good choices.
I think very highly of each of them, and it’s been made very clear that their best is the only acceptable choice from here on out. Their standing as ladies and gentlemen depends on it. They are being held accountable for their choices while being supported. They are making their own little tiny puffs of magic in the world and getting a taste of what more they can do.
Do you have questions or your own tips for motivating adolescent readers? Please share your thoughts in the comment field below.