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When did the stakes get so high for schools? When did we start putting so much responsibility on teachers for the success of our youth and so little responsibility on the youth themselves?

When a student in my classes is unsuccessful, the discussion immediately turns to what I can, as a teacher, do to accommodate the needs of the failing/struggling student, instead of how the student can change their behavior in order to be more successful. By no means should teachers be removed from all responsibility, but students should absolutely be held accountable for their own academic success.

My own high school experience (not all that long ago as I graduated from high school in 2001) did not mirror the above situation at all. Yes, there was absolutely an expectation that my teachers should do a quality job of teaching me, but my parents were also informed enough to send me to a good school, and I recognized that success was completely my responsibility.  The responsibility did not fall solely to my teacher. My freshman year of high school, I learned the hard way that I wasn’t entitled to excellent teachers and only doing interesting and authentic assignments. My transcript suffered, but I learned from that experience and changed my own behavior so as not to repeat the same mistake twice.

It was not the mission of my teachers to make class fun, motivating, or particularly interesting. Those were bonuses of a particularly high quality class. For much of my high school career, class was class, and just like eating your veggies or doing your chores, it was something that you did because you were supposed to. You go to school, and to be successful after school, you need to be successful in school. If I didn’t like math that was my problem; I’d better still pass it regardless. There was no discussion of talking to the teacher about why or how to make things different because I wasn’t interested in the class or didn’t do my work.

When did society lose the value of individual student responsibility? When did a student’s success fall at the feet of the teacher instead of the student (let alone the parents)? I’ve had countless emails, meetings, and discussions with parents, students, and counselors asking me to change my standards by excusing assignments, modifying assignments, or giving extensions because little Joey or Susie is “having a tough time right now, but they’ll do all their work in the future,” only to have the same conversation a month or two later when nothing has changed.

Even more frustrating, is when a student attempts to shed responsibility because “the teacher only told them when it was due once, and they forgot.”  An argument I have heard far too often.

I respect the idea of individual educational advantage. Some students enter the public school system significantly advantaged over other students. There is no doubt about that. At the same time I watch students work diligently to overcome their disadvantages and learn despite significant barriers while students with every advantage fritter away their opportunities. It takes hard work to be successful regardless of your starting point. When did we lose sight of that?

To use a sports analogy if you are trailing someone in a race you have to run faster than the person ahead of you in order to overtake them. If the person in front of you had a head start you may have to run significantly faster, but if you both continue running at the same pace they will always stay ahead of you. The same is true when it comes to educational advantage. If you are a disadvantaged student you have to work harder to overcome the barriers that were placed in your life through no fault of your own.

Is it fair? No. Is it easy? Of course not. Does it work? Yes.

My point, however, is not limited to students who are academically disadvantaged. Those students who are academically advantaged have just as much need to learn the value of hard work and self-control in order to be happy and productive upon graduation, regardless of their goals for college or employment.

When we hold teachers accountable for the success of every student in their class (while continually increasing caseloads without increasing compensation) we’ve removed individual responsibility from the student while constantly increasing the burden on the teacher.  . If I have students who are not engaging with my class it is definitely my responsibility to try and make class work for them, just as they have a responsibility to engage with any material they wish to learn.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how motivating I want to be, I cannot and will not pick up a pen and write an essay for a student. I cannot read a book for them, and I cannot make them think. They have to want it. I can do everything in my power to make a student see the value of their work through transparency and contextualization, but a student who is actively choosing not to learn will not learn. My pedagogical ability is not going to be the deciding factor. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb: teachers open doors, but it is the students’ responsibility to walk through them.

We need to bring individual responsibility back into public education. The consequences are too severe not to. By regularly spoon-feeding assignments to students that are precisely targeted to their academic ability, we teach them that there is no significant challenge to life and we tell them we think they are only capable of progressing by baby steps. We may teach them how to write a structured paragraph, but we forget to teach them to work hard and overcome challenge. A student who doesn’t know how to work hard easily becomes an adult who does not know how to work hard and a country of adults incapable of working hard does not bode well for our cumulative future success.

Dead Prez: They Schools (NSFW – Lots of Swears)

I have two classes of seniors this year.  1st period and 7th period.  Today I had two very different discussions with them regarding motivation, accountability, and the importance of being prompt.

First period has the classic issues of high school.  Class starts at 7:30 and by 7:28 I have between two and four students in class.  Many more pile in during the last two minutes and by the time the bell rings at 7:30 I have roughly half the class.  The remainder trickle in during the first thirtyminutes of the class.  To remedy this I will be implementing daily graded assignments that will be completed in the first 5-10 minutes of class.  This is a lot of work on my end and is definitely a top-down way of handling the attendence issues in the class.  For students who are regularly prompt they’ll have little trouble keeping up and will essentially be getting credit for showing up to class on time.  I have no problem with this remedy though it is inelegant and I would prefer a more bottom-up option.

During seventh period I had a similar discussion.  I discussed my issues with my first period class and applauded them for generally being on time and doing the work of the class.  I was caught off guard when students though my solution for first period was unfair. 

Their claim was that first period now has many more chances to earn credit in the class and as such it would be easier to earn a high grade.  By giving one period credit for making it to class and participating, but not the other one I was not being equitable.  I allowed their reasoning and we discussed options.  After brief discussion we decided that the best solution was to implement a regular participation grade for doing the work of the class.  The class was on board with this and so there will now be a weekly participation grade in seventh period to mirror the regular “warm up” assignments in first period.

My hope is that because they were part of the solution seventh period will be more invested in participating in class now.  In theory their ability to impact the grading in the class should help increase their buy-in and work to myadvantage to increase participation beyond it’s current level.  I plan to informally track the participation levels of seventh period and the attendence patterns in first period.  My hypothesis though is that the option that students worked with me to implement in seventh period will have a greater effect than my top-down approach in first period.  I’m now wishing I’d had the presence of mind to bring the topic to the students first before implementing a solution.

We began our unit on politics and elections to day in government.  I’m havin students actively debate the current Washington state ballot measures in an effort to show them how difficult it is to be a truely informed citizen.  As a way to hook them today I had them vote on a copy of the actual ballot.  The reactions were as I expected though much stronger.

The immediate reactions were that the initiatives were difficult to read.  I had many students say “I don’t know what I’m voting for,” and “I don’t understand any of this.”  After the exercise we debriefed the activity.  When I informed students that a large number of people go to the polls in their exact same situation, trying to vote just based on the ballot, they have the same reactions.  The students coped with this issue much in the same way as adults do.  The had unfinished ballots, made assumptions, voted along party lines, based their votes on advertising, and voted the same way their family does. 

What was different is that they were upset with themselves for doing it.  The students had a very visceral reaction and made comments that if we don’t know what we’re voting on we shouldn’t be voting.  This statement will inform my objevtives for the unit.  I hope to give students the tools and skills to overcome those negative feelings and inform themselves instead of giving in to the negative feelings and becoming apathetic and non-participants.

Teaching the bill of rights to students. It’s all about the relevancy of lessons. Why are we studying this? Because you need to know your rights and be a participant in democracy. First amendment cases are good for teaching because they get at the basics of student beliefs and misconceptions. It’s surprising how many of them think that it’s illegal to criticize the government, or the military, or that it’s illegal to burn the flag.

 In order to facilitate this discussion I framed it in the current Snyder v. Phelps supreme court case. It’s a strong teaching case for two main reasons. One, it is so outrageous that we avoid the discussion of are they correct or not to say what they want. All of my students agree that it’s in bad taste, it’s rude, it’s abhorrent, it just shouldn’t be done. Because we all agree on that we can have a real discussion about should this speech be protected. We don’t argue about the content of the speech, but the constitutionality of it. It allows us to have a real issues discussion. Secondly it helps so much to have an undecided court case. I introduced the case on the same day as oral arguments. It’s a prediction of how the court will decide, and that give the students agency. They are actively interpreting current events in a way that directly relates to our school work. The current events aren’t tacked on, and there is true context and relevancy for the issues that extends beyond the classroom. They matter to the world, and that matters to the students.

As I continue to teach government I plan on keeping in mind that the court begins its sessions in October and intentionally lining my lessons up with that schedule. It’s so meaningful to use current cases as opposed to cases that have already been decided. It takes more work as a teacher, but it makes a clear link to following the news and education. Citizens have to be informed, and structuring the government class in a way that makes students participate in current events as well as understanding the structure of government dramatically increases student engagement and helps them create meaning from their schooling.