A story I don’t know that isn’t mine to tell

Many years ago I had this young man in my classes, we’ll call him Johnny, which isn’t his name. Johnny was in an all-boys’ class, the only one I’ve ever taught, and a group that, in general, drove me insane, because temperamentally I am not very well suited to teaching large groups of boys. I had him in 6th grade. He was a pretty good kid, as it went, but he was prone to getting dragged into shit if shit was nearby to get dragged into. I have described this type of student to parents before as a “kindling kid”– he’s not going to do anything on his own, but if there’s fire, he’ll burn.

Anyway, I was describing his behavior to his mother at parent teacher conferences once, and she was reacting quite a bit more strongly than I really felt like she ought to have, and at one point she looked at him and hissed something at him that I actually had to have her repeat to make sure I’d heard it correctly.

Quarterbacks don’t act like this,” she’d said. And I was immediately of two minds; the first being of course they do, and the second being why are you laying that on your twelve-year-old right now? And let me get to the moral of the story before I tell the rest of it: parents, can we not set our kids up to peak in high school, please, and can we absolutely definitely not set them up so that if they aren’t the star QB they don’t feel like their lives are over before they’ve had a chance to start?

This is the part where I start making stuff up, by the way, because I really don’t have any evidence for any of what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s on my mind.

Anyway, this kid randomly popped into my head this weekend– I found a random little gift that he’d given me in the course of cleaning up, and it had his name on it, and this story came to mind. And I did a little bit of research. Johnny did play football in high school, but didn’t play quarterback, and frankly while he was on the team he doesn’t appear to have played much at all– I was able to look through the box scores of his senior year, because America’s obsession with high school football is genuinely creepy, and I couldn’t find any evidence that he’d contributed to the team in any meaningful way. I didn’t look at every game or anything like that, but it was pretty clear that, at the least, this kid wasn’t the star player.

And then I found a picture of him, from what would have been his sophomore year of college if he’d gone, posted by a local Painters and Allied Trades union. The tone of the caption is celebratory; they’re honoring their newest member. And I honestly can’t believe that they chose this picture to post, because the kid looks like his life is literally crumbling down around his eyes. Johnny grew up getting his head pumped full of stories about how he was going to be the star quarterback, and then he was going to go on to college and then probably the NFL and be a famous football player, and instead he’s 20 with no degree, no sports career, and joining the painter’s union.

This isn’t to say that I look down on these people; I don’t, and as a union member myself I consider the trades unions members to be brothers and sisters. I don’t look down on anybody who works for a living. But Johnny very clearly got raised to believe that there was one way his life was going to go, and it didn’t, and I know I’m reading a lot into it and I haven’t seen the kid in years but the look on his face in this picture is just fucking heartbreaking.

And maybe Labor Day isn’t the best day to post this, either. But fuck it, I’ve been thinking about him all weekend, and I hate it how quickly young kids are willing to cling to sports as what’s going to make them rich and famous when the truest thing I can say to any of them is no, it’s not. You’re not going to be in the NBA or the NFL or really anything else. You might play in high school, but I can count the number of college athletes I’ve taught over the years on one hand. This isn’t any more realistic as a life goal than “I’m going to win the lottery” is.

We’ve gotta stop doing this to our kids.

On giving up

My kids took the NWEA this week, which ate up my Tuesday and Wednesday, and will knock another couple of kids out of class on Monday while they finish up. I would, in general, prefer not to have to worry about standardized tests, but as such things go the NWEA isn’t bad. It hits most of my checkboxes for what I want for these things: first, it’s a growth test, meaning that it’s keyed to individual students and it’s possible for a very low student to demonstrate a lot of growth and have that treated as a positive thing even though they don’t do objectively as good as a more advanced student who stayed the same. Second, there’s no notion of passing the test. Their score is keyed to grade levels, yes, but there’s no cutscore where a student is arbitrarily determined to have “passed” or “failed” regardless of their grade. And while we administer it three times a year, any given administration doesn’t take very long– I was able to get most of my kids tested in a single block, and two blocks got basically everyone who was present to take the test in the first place done. That’s not that bad. Realistically, we’ll lose more days this year to me being sick or absent for training than we will to the NWEA.

The median percentile score (also: percentile scores are more useful than arbitrary scores, although the NWEA generates both) of my three groups, nationwide, was 19, 16, and 13. Meaning, in case you haven’t studied measures of central tendency recently, that if 100 randomly-chosen kids took the test, 81 of those kids would outscore half of the students in my first block, 84 would outscore half of my kids in 2nd block, and 87 would outscore half of my kids in 3rd block.

Eight of my students are in the 1st or 2nd percentile, meaning that 99 or 98 of those randomly-chosen kids would outscore them.

Let us, for the moment, simply postulate that there are a number of possible reasons for these scores including but not limited to that a large percentage of them effectively took 1/4 of 6th grade and all of 7th grade off and then lay that aside. I’m not especially concerned with why for the purpose of this post.

We are supposed to discuss these results with our kids, which for the record is something I support. If we don’t talk about how they did, the test becomes meaningless to them, and there is absolutely nothing that is more of a waste of time than a standardized test that a student isn’t taking seriously. So it’s useful to let them know how they did, what it means for them, and what they might want to do to improve.

Where I am struggling right now, though, is this, and forgive me for another post whose point gets boiled down to a single sentence after five paragraphs of lead-in:

I do not know how to tell a fourteen-year-old kid “99 out of every 100 people who took this did better than you” in a way that does not sound functionally identical to “You should give up.”

I can couch it as as much of a pep talk as I want, and I already know that at least one of those eight kids is going to work her ass off for me this year because that’s who she is, and if I have her at a third- or fourth-grade understanding of math by the end of the year it will be a triumph. And unlike many years, I think all of these eight kids are at least potentially reachable still. There have definitely been years where I had a kid at 1% who I was privately convinced was going to stay at 1% out of sheer spite for the rest of the year, and these aren’t those kids.

Similarly, it is difficult to communicate those median percentile scores to a classroom of kids without a number of them concluding that they’re just dumb and should give up. When the highest-scoring kids in the room aren’t past the 60th percentile (which is the case) they all need extra help, and I can’t provide “extra” help to 27 kids at once. One of my classes can barely get through a basic lesson right now because of the number of behavior issues I have. And that’s before I have to give them information that demoralizes the hell out of them for what are, unfortunately, entirely reasonable reasons. In most circumstances, if 99 out of 100 people are better than you at something, you are probably going to stop doing that thing! So what the hell am I going to do in a situation where not only are 99 out of 100 people doing better than my kids in math, but many of them don’t even want to be good at it? Remediating this would be a Herculean effort from someone fully invested in improving. And right now I just don’t know how the hell to ask for that kind of effort (and expect to actually get it) from people who, to be charitable about it, don’t have academic success as a high personal priority right now.

Sigh.

Bleurgh

Shoulda written a post during one of my preps today. As it is, I just individually created and emailed 64 progress reports; I’ll do the rest of my kids tomorrow. My eyes are bleary and my head hurts and at least a third of these kids if not half are never going to open the email. One of them actually replied to it– a progress report, mind you, containing all of his assignments, his grades on said assignments, and the dates said assignments were assigned– and asked for a list of what he was missing and when those assignments were from.

My reply to the email did not contain the word “motherfucker,” and for that I deserve an award.

I’m going to bed now.

In which I cannot worry about what I cannot control

Progress reports for 3rd quarter come out today. These are the current grades for my 3rd hour class. They are not unrepresentative of the rest of my classes.

THREE day WEEK end (clap, clap, clapclapclap)

Pretty sure I’ve used that as a title for a blog post in the past, but whatever.

It was a really long fucking week, and not an especially good one, either professionally or mentally. My principal (who I really like, for the record) sent out a couple of emails at the end of the day regarding some walkthroughs that are going to be conducted next week and some expectations for how instruction should be going, and I read them and reflected on how I had to keep a seventh grader after class earlier today to make sure that he understood that if you have six pencils and you want seven you need one more.

That is not a joke, and the kid wasn’t fucking with me. At one point I literally put six Post-Its on the table in front of him and counted them and asked him how many more he needed to get seven. He said one instantly.

“Okay, what if they were pencils? If you have six pencils and you want seven, how many more do you need?”

(Pause)

“Forty-two?”

This has not been a week where I’ve been able to feel confident about my skills as an educator, let me put it that way. I have three days to get my head back on straight; I’m not sure that’s going to be enough time, and after several months of thinking yeah, it would be okay if I ended up doing this same job again next year, I’m very much in the mode of thinking that a night job at 7-11 might be a better use of my skills right now.

I’m not talking to anyone under twenty who I wasn’t personally responsible for the birth of for at least 48 hours. Hopefully that will improve things.