Love Meets Praise

Some days, a student will say or do something that serves as a reminder to me that they are just kids -- antsy, energetic, social-minded, kids. Other days, a student will say something so profound, wise, and thought-provoking that I can't help but feel a spike of defensiveness when a non-educator friend makes such a heedless remark as "how does it feel to work with a bunch of hormonal kids who think they know everything?"

Today was only my second day on the job, technically, but I also like to think that I've spent a lifetime preparing for this. Teaching, that is.

The subject was chemistry for high school students. I was only in for tutoring, not even teaching, but I was still anxious. I thought of something one of my 9th grade students said to me yesterday:
"I always get nervous when I'm about to try something for the first time, you know? Like, I was nervous to come here to tutoring. And I don't want to do it because I'm nervous. But then I do it anyway because I know it will be better for me in the long run. And when I do it, it's not so bad. I even have fun!" -S
This is one of the reasons I teach: students inspire me every day.

One misconception of after school tutoring is that the kids are there voluntarily, so they are ready to get their study on. One may also think it is necessarily easier to teach in tutoring settings rather than class settings because you're working one-on-one and little to no management is necessary. 'Fact, I was even going in to tutor at a small, high-achieving charter school, so really, nothing to worry about, right?

OK, so maybe I'm projecting; I thought these things. I thought that a couple hours of tutoring in chemistry would be the easiest earned *mumble mumble* dollars of my life!

Instead, I was met by a group of five students, not one. Oh, and none of them wanted to be there, it seemed: they were assigned to "intervention tutoring", as it's called around here, by their principal. Everyone had different information gaps, the task at hand was to annotate pages and pages of CST prep questions, and even though the big test that they are studying for is in about two weeks, students still did not quite understand the difference between an atom and a molecule, covalent and ionic bonds, and nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Hmm...

One and a half hours is a long time to stay after school on a subject that gives you grief for two block periods every other day. The students reminded me of their annoyance by constantly getting up to use the bathroom, grab a drink of water, take a stroll around the classroom, run outside to say hello to a friend, and check their Facebook on their phone. All in the span of an hour and a half.

Miss April in high-school-tutor-mode is a lot more laid-back than Miss April in 8th-grade-science-class-mode. This afternoon, however, I quickly had to toughen up when students started play hitting each other and throwing things across the room. "No, R, you may not touch the teacher's laptop." "Yes, you may use the bathroom -- again -- but hurry back." "Please, stranger, leave the classroom because your friend is in tutoring right now" "A, I know you want help in this, and so does X, so please do not distract him."

Luckily, my teacher prep instilled a lot of quick teacher tricks and reactions in me: Multiple students in our study sess? OK, pair-work time. "I don't have the answer, but I bet you and your partner can figure it out." "I'm not looking for answers right now, so don't worry about it... I'm looking to see how you're thinking". "I'm working over here, but you want to see what's going on? OK, let's do it on the board for everyone." *Look over shoulder to keep an eye on students while simultaneously writing on board* "Does anyone have an extra periodic table for me?" (-me) "No? Oh, that's OK, I'm wearing one on my shirt" (true story). "Somebody read the question to all of us." Blahblahblah...

One thing I like about these students is their confidence to try out wrong answers. Praise the Lord for wrong answers! I much prefer a student toying with a wrong answer than having nothing to work with at all. I also prefer wrong answers to quick, correct answers because only then can we begin to understand their reasoning and misconceptions; if a student spits out a correct answer and learns that they are, indeed, correct from a fellow student, the student does not dwell on why their answer correct. Perhaps they guessed -- it doesn't matter, because they're ready to move on. This does not fly with me. Give me your thorough explanations and wrong answers!

These students seemed to tag-team their attention on the task. Tell me why students will zone out for a good 5-10 minutes and then suddenly check in with something outstanding and brilliant! I am learning to give them their space to take personal mental breaks if that's what it'll to get through the material.

It's so funny trying to describe atoms and molecules -- things already so tiny that they are basically invisible, imaginary, and pure fantasy to brand new chem students -- when you don't even have classroom props to fall back on. It makes me wonder what mental images students conjure up as I try to explain how electrons and protons do their thang.

We took a quick break in our hardcore thinking for a moment during our tutoring session. During this break, one student mused,
"It seems like only smart people understand chemistry. Is that true? If you understand chemistry, does that make you smart? I don't understand it. At least, I don't any more. Man, at the beginning of the year, I totally understood everything! Remember, A? I was even going around helping everyone! That felt so good.

"Why is it that it's hella hard to understand something... and then just when you start to understand it, we do something new?! It's like I'm just always confused! And when something is finally easy, we don't even do it anymore!" -X
We pressed on for a little longer. I could feel that I was losing students, so I had us end at the hour-and-a-half mark rather than pushing through for the scheduled 2 hours. I ended by recapping a topic in chemistry that I knew that they knew, with slight variations on how the material was presented. Students nailed it. Amazingly, they left tutoring with comments like, "are you coming back next week? We understand it when you do it, please come back! I'll tell my friends to come, too!"

I saw so much improvement in their work by the end of our session. They were helping each other out and throwing around chemistry terms like it was nothing. They also dropped a few kind words about me to their parents who were picking 'em up from school and to their chem teacher.

I am elated and completely floored. These students who were giving me grief for the fact that they had to stay after school for a couple of hours while their friends got to go home -- the same students who were texting and picking up their phone in the middle of our lesson -- were gushing about how much the learned today and how they can't wait for me to come back.

Sigh. X is right: to learn is to struggle. Learning is living in confusion. I'm learning how to teach, and if I'm lucky, I'll learn something new every day. For now, I'll just be happy that I'm doing something that I love and, apparently, am pretty decent at it.

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Photo credit: Jane Genovese and Sharon Genovese via Mind Map Art.

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