Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable. ~Wendy Wasserstein
The motley looking group of eleventh graders didn’t look like any “honors” U.S. History class I’d ever imagined. They shuffled into my classroom, which I’d painstakingly decorated with Presidential portraits and colorful maps and framed copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with an “attitude” that was apparent even to a rookie teacher.
Which is exactly what I was. Fresh out of college with a degree in history, a teaching certificate, and not a lick of experience. I was grateful to have a job, even if it was in one of the rougher high schools in the city where I lived.
“Good morning,” I said brightly. I was greeted with vacant stares. “I’m so excited to have been selected to teach this honors class,” I continued. “They usually don’t let first-year teachers do that.”
Several of the students sat up straighter and cut their eyes at each other. Too late, I wondered if I should have tried to hide the fact that I had zero teaching experience. Oh, well. “We’re going to do things a little differently in this class because I know that all of you want a challenge.”
By now, every student was staring at me with a puzzled expression.
“First off, let’s rearrange these desks,” I said. “I like lots of class discussion, so let’s put them in a big circle so we can all see each other’s faces.”
Several of the kids rolled their eyes, but they all got up and began scooting the desks out of the traditional straight rows. “Perfect! Thanks. Now, everybody choose a seat and let’s play a game. When I point to you, tell me your name. Then tell me what you hate most about history.”
Finally, some smiles. And lots more as our game progressed.
Amanda hated how history seemed to be all about war. Jose didn’t like memorizing names and dates. Gerald was convinced that nothing that had happened in the past was relevant to his life. “Why should I care about a bunch of dead white guys?” was how he put it. Caitlyn hated tricky true-false questions. Miranda despised fill-in-the-blank tests.
We had just made our way around the circle when the bell rang. Who knew fifty minutes could pass so quickly?
Armed with the feedback my students had given me, I began formulating a plan. No teaching straight from the textbook for this group. No “read the chapter and answer the questions at the end” homework. These kids were bright. They were motivated. My honors class deserved to be taught in a way that would speak to them.
We’d study social and economic history, not just battles and generals. We’d tie current events into events from the past. We’d read novels to bring home the humanity of history. Across Five Aprils when studying the Civil War. The Grapes of Wrath to learn about the Great Depression. The Things They Carried when talking about Vietnam.
Tests would cover the facts, but also require higher level thinking skills. No tricky true-false questions. No fill-in-the-blank.
At first, I was surprised by how many of my students used poor grammar and lacked writing skills. And some seemed to falter when reading out loud. But we worked on those skills while we were learning history. I found that many of the kids were not only willing, but eager to attend the after-school study sessions I offered and to accept the help of peer tutors.
Four of my students came to love the subject matter so much that they formed their own “History Bowl” team and entered a countywide contest. Though they didn’t take first place, they were ecstatic over the Honorable Mention trophy they brought home to our classroom.
The school year came to an end more quickly than I could have imagined. Though I had grown fond of many of my students, the ones in the honors class held a special place in my heart. Most had earned A’s and B’s. No one had averaged lower than a C.
During our final teacher workday before summer break, the principal called me into her office for my end-of-the-year evaluation.
“I want to congratulate you on a great rookie season,” she said with a smile. “Especially on how well you did with your remedial kids.”
“Remedial kids? I don’t understand. I didn’t have any remedial classes.”
Mrs. Anderson looked at me in a strange way. “Your first period class was remedial. Surely you saw that indicated at the top of the roll.” She pulled a file folder from a drawer and handed it to me. “And you must have suspected the students in that class were below average by the way they dressed and the way they carried themselves. Not to mention their terrible grammar and poor reading and writing skills.”
I opened the file folder and removed a copy of the roll from my first period class. There at the top, plain as day, was the word HONORS. I showed it to Mrs. Anderson.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “What a huge mistake! How did you ever manage, treating slow students as though they were…”
I couldn’t help but finish the sentence for her. “As though they were bright?”
She nodded, looking more than a little sheepish.
“You know what, Mrs. Anderson? I think we’ve both learned a lesson from this. One they didn’t teach in any of the education courses I took. But one I’ll never forget.”
“Nor will I,” she said, circling the word HONORS with a red marker before placing the paper back in the folder. “Next year, I may just have this printed at the top of all the class rolls.”
– Jennie Ivey