Life is all about connections. Early in my teaching career, I prided myself in connecting with my students. I thought I could relate to them easily, and that I truly understood who they were. Our proximity of age did not produce the disconnect that many veteran teachers experienced. Yet, as I think back to two separate situations among many, I realize in hindsight that I didn’t know my students at all.
The first situation occurred in my second year of teaching. I was trying to help my students appreciate poetry by having them write their own original poetry. On the day the poems were due, students were to share their writing. One of my students who had very few inhibitions, instantaneously raised her hand to read her poem. She stood up at her desk, and began, “The title of my poem is ‘Topless.’” I automatically stopped her and refused to let her read the poem, assuming that the material in that poem was inappropriate. She was angry and tried to explain, but I wouldn’t let her say a word. I knew her to be somewhat of a class clown. There was no way I was going to allow her to have the stage in my classroom or the last word.
I later read her poem and discovered that poem called “Topless” was about her convertible. And it was a beautiful poem. I definitely made a mistake that day by refusing to let her read that poem. So, the next day, I told the class that we had one more poem to hear. I embraced my mistake and learned to be a little more trusting of my students. I also learned that perhaps I need to know a little bit more about them as people before I am so quick to judge.
A year later, I was coaching track, and one of the sprinters on the team was wearing huge clunky high top sneakers at practice. I teased him, asking him how he was ever going to improve his speed with those heavy shoes. He didn’t answer. Later at practice I learned that money was tight in his family; he didn’t have enough money for new shoes. The next day another coach and I took him to buy a new pair of sneakers. Again, had I known my students, perhaps I would have been able to avoid such a situation.
Over the years, I have learned how to connect with students more effectively. As a candidate for National Board certification working on my final component, I used to think if I did an initial student survey at the start of the year that I would have all of the information I needed to get to know my students. National Board has taught me to obtain information from multiple sources to understand my students. National Board has taught me to design assessments based on the needs of my students. And National Board has taught me the value of student engagement and real student connections in the classroom.
I’ve always had a rapport with teenagers. I genuinely like being around them, learning from them, and watching them think. This year, I tried some new ways to connect with them. One such way has been a blog I write and share with my students. (kellyapace.blogspot.com). It started as a way to demonstrate that writing does not exist in a vacuum; it is a real-life skill. After all, if I call myself a writing teacher, I should be writing regularly myself. However, the blog turned into something more as I began to write monthly entries. It became a way for me to connect with my students and get to know them. They started to ask me more about the topics of my writing. They emailed me and started talking to me before school. I learned that I had more in common with many of my students than I thought, which enabled me to develop a mutual respect with them. Suddenly, every part of my classroom was positively impacted. Students grew more engaged; they wanted to know what I thought and how I would react. I also began, with my students’ encouragement, using Twitter as a means to post articles to discuss and questions for them to consider. Many came to class feeling that connection and wanting to continue the conversation in person.
Later, I realized how interested in memes my students were. I designed a project to discuss Their Eyes Were Watching God by having them create a meme depicting at least one of the characters and a quotation from the text. The project truly connected with my students, and the analysis I received from them on this assignment was far better than any other work I had received. Again, this is proof that knowledge of students–knowing they were interested in memes–is truly important in helping them learn.
This year, I’ve come to the point that I know my students so well, it takes me five seconds to pick a book off of my bookshelf when looking for something I think they would like to read. Why am I able to do this? I know my students. I took the time to learn about how they learn, what they think, and why they act the way they do. I talk with students regularly in both reading and writing conferences. Again, I get to know their fears and inconsistencies. I know how to guide them next.
In continuously reviewing my standards as I pursue National Board Certification, I am attempting to know my students to foster student growth and learning. According to Standard 1, “Accomplished English language arts teachers understand that teaching is founded on the knowledge of students.” National Board has helped me find ways to know my students and more importantly, to use that knowledge to improve my teaching. I have been granted the ability to truly engage my students in the English curriculum because I have been inspired to know them. It has been the experience of pursuing my National Board teaching certification that has enabled me to do this.
I often think back to those early years of teaching; I should have had so much in common, being only five years older than the eleventh graders I was teaching. Yet, there was a huge disconnect because instead of attempting to truly know my students, I knew the curriculum. That was my focus. Pursuing National Board teaching certification has helped me gain true knowledge of my students in a way that has changed me as a teacher for the better. While I am no longer close in age to my students, I am definitely connected to how they think and learn. I am grateful for this knowledge of my students and the opportunities to connect with them. After all, life’s all about connections.