First Person

I was frustrated with my toughest high school students. Then we went to a farm to scrub pumpkins.

imageedit_4_6651445239

If you had asked me on a chilly, overcast Friday morning how I would have liked to spend the day, you would not have heard, Oh, I can’t wait to scrub down pumpkins with vinegar with 20 15-year-olds.

But that’s exactly how I spent one Friday last fall — and it was the best thing to happen to my relationship with my toughest students.

I had handpicked those students to be in a class I’d designed. I chose them because I knew they needed something that school wouldn’t or couldn’t offer otherwise them. I called the course Connect because my sole goal was to reconnect these kids with learning.

Designing and teaching this class was an interesting experiment. Small moments would made me glad to be a teacher — a perfectly worded sentence, or 100 percent engagement, even if it was only for 10 minutes. I also hit wall after wall, thinking that a lesson or a project would be just the ticket, only to see it fail miserably. These kids were tough nuts to crack.

But I was the one who cracked on that Friday.

We had not had a good week together. I was frustrated with them, and they were probably more frustrated with me. I didn’t think their work was living up to their potential. I didn’t think they were really trying. And I took it personally, so much so that on the morning of the field trip, I told my husband, “I don’t even want to go on this field trip because I don’t think they deserve it. They’re being so lazy right now.”

I felt like hovering by the space heater by my desk and tossing them a few worksheets to make a point. But I dragged myself to school, bad attitude and all, and hopped on a bus headed to the farm.

When we got off the bus, a couple of the farm workers asked the kids to scrub mold off of huge pumpkins piled in giant boxes around a field, using vinegar, water, and old towels. I was praying for a storm to come so we’d have an excuse to haul out of there. Meanwhile, the kids hopped off the bus like they were penny-pinchers on “The Price Is Right.”

They got right to work like old pros. And watching them, I couldn’t help but crawl out of my funk. I walked around asking them if they’d rather be warm inside writing an essay or out there scrubbing pumpkin mold, and they all laughed at the stupidity of my question.

It hit me then: These kids are not lazy.

They are a lot of things — unmotivated, frustrated, bored — at school, but they were anything but lazy. I was reminded of why I chose them to be in the class in the first place. I had promised them a new experience, but I had thrown that promise out the window the second they didn’t perform the way I thought they should. But why would they? I knew who they were from the very beginning; I was the one pretending.

As Americans, and as teachers, we are trained to think about education in a certain way. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that sometimes the way we learn in school and the way we choose to learn outside of school are not only different, but polar opposites.

That means I have to ask myself some hard questions sometimes about why I do what I do in the classroom, and why I expect certain things from my kids.

The bottom line is that I want success, and a lifelong passion for learning, for every kid who walks into my classroom. Of the 20 kids in my Connect class, I want the kid who wants to be a veterinarian to write an unbelievable essay to get into vet school. I want the kid who wants to be a hair stylist to be the most requested stylist in the salon because she knows how to tell good stories and persuade clients to try styles she knows will make them look their best. I want the kid who wants to be an entrepreneur to refuse to sign a shoddy contract because he knows to what words really mean for him and his business.

The key, for me, is finding the best ways to translate the motivation those students showed for scrubbing and hauling pumpkins to the skills that will help them live the best life they can. That’s the grand experiment.

We ended that day on the farm with a nature walk on a path around a pond. The boys bounced around like Tigger, breaking sticks, hopping on logs, jumping through puddles. The girls led the tribe from the front, their laughter trickling back through the humid air to me as I followed from behind. The rain finally came while we walked, but the tree canopy above shielded us, so we felt only a mist as we paced through the woods together.

I told one of the kids ahead of me that it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Some people feel the rain, and others just get wet.” She didn’t really listen because she is 15, and I’m just the old teacher saying words to the sky, but I needed to say it then.

I needed to remind myself that learning is a beautiful mess. I made a promise to myself as we ended our lap around the pond and stepped out into the open air, that I will do my very best to feel the rain whenever I can. And I will spend my days letting them teach me how to do it.

This piece first appeared on Literacy & NCTE, the blog of the National Council of Teachers of English.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.