I work my butt off to make sure my kids don't fail my class due to missing work. I issue detentions, I write notes in agendas, I harangue them to stay after school or come in early, I call parents, I have them call parents, I harass them in the hallways and at lunch....I spend a ridiculous amount of time on it. Because, frankly, I think it's dumb for kids to fail because they just didn't hand the work in. That's just stupid.

First trimester, I had only one student fail. Everyone else I managed to badger into getting enough in to pass. They may not have passed WELL, but they passed. This one....not so much. And it killed me.

So I started working on DC (he's a skater and loves the brand - nothing political) harder. A little more individual attention, started pulling him in at lunch every now and again, pointed out how one more assignment turned in would get him to a B. And it worked. Sort of. He was passing, though only my class, which wasn't going to be enough to get him out of summer school (okay, technically he was also passing gym and band.)

I started working more on his grades, asking him to stay after school to catch up, both in my class and in his other classes. Every day, he agreed. Every day, he booked it out of the building. I'd look for him in the hallways, and nothing. I'd ask (or even bribe) other students to remind him, and nothing. I got nowhere. Then I got creative.

My core changed his schedule. (Okay, relatively creative.) We swapped when DC had Social Studies and Language Arts (me). The 8th period Social Studies class was really big, so it took that down a kid, and put him in my 8th period, so I could hold him hostage after school and just kinda....not let him leave. When we did it, I talked to him about the reasons for it and asked if he was cool with it. He hemmed and hawed a bit, said he wasn't really happy about it, but...he guessed it was okay. We got his dad to agree to it, which was an achievement in and of itself, and we went for it.

DC stayed after school three days a week for the last three weeks of the trimester. He'd dropped to a D for me; he pulled it up to a C. He got his math grade to a D. He got science and reading to really HIGH Fs (he still failed, but only by like one or two percent - okay, it's not ideal, but it's progress, right?) He was into it - toward the end, I said something about how next trimester we were going to aim at passing everything with at least a C. He said no way; he said at least a B in everything. It was great. He'd never had any real academic success before - even in elementary school, his grades were almost all Ds and Fs, with a C here or there. That didn't reflect his capability, because on his state test scores, he was proficient in math, very close in writing, and not too far off in reading. He's very funny, very nice, very kind to others. But he's a sensitive kid, with asshole older brothers and an unstable family, and he'd always met the expectations they'd laid out for him. DC loved being successful for one of the first times in his life, even if only partially.

A couple of weeks before spring break, though, he changed. During the day, he was fine. Into my class, talked about what he was going to work on after school that day, totally willing and excited. But when 3:45 hit, that ringing bell turned him sullen. He'd make excuses as to why he couldn't stay, or if he did, he'd sit there and stare into space. When I'd try to persuade him to work, I got glares and monosyllabic answers. It sucked. Hard.

I thought about a lot for a couple of days - what had happened? Why was he suddenly acting like such a pain-in-the-ass teenager? I mentor three seventh graders, kids I had last year and who just need some extra support, and though they're a year older, they act way less like obnoxious adolescents - why was DC different?

The day before spring break, I talked to him about the whole thing. I told him what I'd been seeing, and how these after-school sessions had become really unpleasant for both of us, and how neither of us needed something else unpleasant in our lives. I gave him my theory as to why this was happening: he'd never had a choice. When we changed his schedule, he hadn't had a choice. He'd been told the schedule was changing, he'd been told why, and he'd been told that he'd be staying after school to work on his grades. I'd asked him if it was okay, but really, the times, they were a-changin', whether he liked it or not. That wasn't fair. No one can make you want to change your life. It has to come from within. DC'd never had that chance.

I told him to think about it over spring break, to decide if he wanted to continue this but that the decision had to be his. If he decided yes, the attitude would have to change because bleaaaaaah; if he decided no, then....then he decided no. He nodded. He left.

Spring break, I worried about this. Habits take a long time to change and this kid was in the habit of failing - he needed support to change that and he wasn't getting it anywhere else. And he's 12 years old, which is not an age at which one is fully capable of making all one's own decisions (at least in my opinion). If he said no, if he said he didn't want help anymore, he wanted to try it on his own.....I was pretty sure he'd fail at that too. What would I do?

I saw him in the hall a few times today. He didn't bring it up and neither did I - I knew he was going to refuse any more help and I was heartbroken about it. Finally, a few minutes before the end of the day, I asked him if he could talk to me after school for a bit. Mondays I sponsor the school newspaper, so he hung around while I got my writers going.

Once everyone was writing, I asked him if he'd thought about what we'd talked about.

He had.

What had he decided?

He still wanted to do it.

....Do what? Quit? Or start staying to work again?

Wanted to stay. Wanted to pass. Wanted to succeed. Apologized for acting like a tool before break. Had a plan for work for the rest of the week. Will be ready to go tomorrow.

I'm so relieved.


"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
Copyright 2009 I'm a Dreamer All rights reserved.
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