A Little Context
Imagine yourself a sophomore or junior male, getting your schedule in the fall with not one but two English classes listed. English is the last class you would ask to double up on and it means you lost an elective. The paths to finding yourself in SBA Support are many, but you are there for whatever reason and Mrs. Hargrave determines whether or not you “get out,” which means proving you know your stuff. For the foreseeable future, you are stuck. The one saving grace is that there is no homework associated with the class, but it’s English and it’s 7th period and, if you are a junior, it is probably your second year in the course! Threats to drop out of school are issued weekly.
Let’s get honest, the reaction to finding it on my schedule for the year is not too different than that of my students. I start my day with English 11 and then comes English 10, followed by English 9. After lunch is Film Studies and the Humanities, with English 12 Bridge to College walking through the door next. After all this, I end my day with my SBA Support class.
Based on just the name, would you want it on your schedule as a student? As a teacher? What preconceived notions accompany the name?
Right now the class has ten young men enrolled. The school year started with sixteen students and last year was consistently eighteen, at least last year did have a couple of young women in the course. Why the class is primarily composed of male students, though, is a discussion for another blog post, but helps establish the climate challenges of the classroom.
I have taught this class for a year and a half and thrown everything at it in terms of activities, approaches and materials. There is no curriculum, so I build or find everything. It has not been a pretty process when compounded by me being the “new teacher” in school, the unknown outsider. Since the start of last school year, I have tried EngageNY units on topics I thought would engage them, self-chosen topics for group projects, building business proposals, traditional writing units, cherry-picking short stories, self-selected short stories, non-fiction reading with NewsELA.com, NoRedInk.com grammar practice, Kahoot quizzes and much, much more. (Very little of this is direct test prep as the name of the course may lead you to believe.)
From my point of view, nothing worked for increasing engagement and buy-in which is necessary for classroom management, productivity and LEARNING.
A Turning Point
In early December, they had won. I was worn out and their resistance was getting the best of me. The class looked like a work slowdown–or full strike?–had been organized while I was planning my next move. Anarchy was looming. Then two things happened at the same time: I pushed to exit four students who passed the fall make-up SBA, thereby proving there was a way out and also began rewarding the class with stamps on a piece of paper. Fifteen stamps equaled a pizza party. Suddenly class periods could be found working in silence. The turnaround was dramatic and shocking. As one of the more diligent students said, “Seriously? This is so elementary school,” yet it helped get the class on track, him included.
There are many lessons to be learned here, but a couple “ah-ha”s include:
- Motivation for this group is found when the rewards are more immediate. A diploma seems too far away and nearly impossible. Even now, if I don’t tell them daily how many stamps they have, the old habits begin to come back.
- No matter what they do in class, they do have the ability to participate in successful student behaviors, such as sustained focus and impulse control. The habits of mind are there.
- I forgot about fun when given the task of preparing students for a state-standardized test and pushing them to gain two and three years growth in one.
Building on Momentum
After seeing an increase in the willingness to work, we had a few weeks where SBA support was a true extension of their English class, and they were writing synthesis essays. I saw students begin to use what I had been saying for as long as a year and a half in two different classes regarding writing elaboration and organization. My determination began to pay off. This attentiveness and effort carried into a direct test prep reading sample as we worked through understanding how the SBA is scored, trying to make the test as transparent as possible. During this activity, one student even re-wrote his short answer question without my prompting to make sure he could write a 2-point response. Small efforts have become big victories.
After the intensive writing units were finished, I allowed a couple of days down time, with time for homework from other classes and a completely free twenty minutes to do with what they wanted. After being asked whether or not I was sick, they organized an impromptu dance party with the help of a student’s bluetooth speaker, flashing lights included.
Now we are heading into the last reading unit before the spring SBA test session. The class is going to read The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, but we are watching Casablanca first and there is a different tone I hope we continue to build on as we move forward.
The last eighteen months of teaching this course has been a constant battle. I have to remind myself not to give up because they already have. Everyday I wage war against the mentality that writing and reading are not important or that the students are not good at “it.” If I win, they win too.
Thanks for letting me write about SBA, guys!
I enjoy working with teachers to pool our collective ideas and talents.To fill my teaching bucket in this way, I participate in the ESD 101 ELA Fellows, lead a community of practice for Bridge to College and enjoy working with the CorelaborateWa teachers.
I am in my twelfth year teaching; two doors down the hall, my husband is in his second year as an AgEd teacher and FFA adviser . Our two young daughters, 8 and 5, keep us crazy-- I mean busy--as we juggle 4-H, dance, basketball, t-ball and more.
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