a. (Your own Biker Bar moment) Describe an occasion on which you felt entirely out of your depth, “other” “I do not fit in here” “everybody gets it but me”; what in you and the situation contributed to that feeling?
I had the distinct honor of being accepted to the United States Coast Guard Academy during my senior year of high school. Coming from a small town in Northeast Ohio, this acceptance was a big deal not only for myself, but also for my community. I was one of five individuals from my high school class to attend a college outside of Ohio. In addition, only forty percent of my high school class planned to attend a four year college after graduation.
It was a big deal for me to receive an acceptance. Initially I was accepted to West Point, but was on the wait list for the Coast Guard Academy. It was after I called the Director of Admissions and asked what I needed to do to receive a full acceptance, that my actual acceptance letter arrived in the mail with a note that stated, “Don’t forget that the squeaky wheel always gets heard. Congratulations!”.
This note and the support from my community gave me an extra little giddy up in my step when I arrived to the campus on the first day of Swab Summer. I knew that everyone else who was attending probably shared similar academic and leadership qualities as myself. As we were sworn in on the parade field, I said goodbye to my family with a smile on my face and headed off to Dimick Auditorium for our first all hands meeting and my first of many “Biker Bar” moments while I was in college.
The first discussion during the all hands meeting was our class’ statistics. They showed us our class average GPA from high school. Since my high school GPA was above the class average, I felt pretty good about myself. Next, they showed us the breakdown of how many of us were class presidents, National Honor Society members, team captains, etc. Again, I felt pretty good about my acceptance, since I had a number of those positions listed on my high school resume. Then they showed us the average SAT score. I knew my score was probably on the lower end of the class average, since I had to take the test five times before I received the minimum score to apply to the Academy. When they put our class SAT average on the screen, the person sitting next to me gasp out loud. I immediately turned towards her and said, “Oh thank goodness someone else is as surprised as me with how high the average is. I was afraid I would be the only one.” I cannot begin to describe the look of disgust that she gave me. “Surprised?” She asked. “Really you are surprised? My score was 200 points higher than our average. How could you be surprised? Our average is so low!”
Insert Biker Bar moment here. I realized that she figured out that our class average was so low because of someone like me who had a very low SAT score compared to others in my class. I felt completely out of place at that moment and throughout my entire freshman year. Especially since I had three classes with the girl who looked at me like I was a disgrace to the institution. I never participated in my classes that she was in with me and I rarely spoke when called on in other classes. I was afraid of what she or others might think of me. It really impacted my first year of college and unfortunately changed the type of student I was for at least a year.
It was not until the start of our Sophomore year when we returned from our separate summer training assignments that I found out that she ended up failing out of the Academy. I realized that test scores were not a reflection of the type of student someone is and I have carried this realization with me when I transitioned from the military to education. Since student test scores are a primary focus of schools, I keep in the back of my mind my “Biker Bar” moment and realize that students are more than a number. It is my job as a teacher to determine where their strengths and weaknesses are and help them improve in all areas.
I look at my Biker bar moment similar Chapter 2 of Gee's book about meaning. What is the true meaning of students' test scores? As educators, I think sometimes we look at test scores and generalize what type of students we have in our classrooms prior to them arriving in class. We see them as either basic, proficient, goal or advanced. Does a basic test score mean that a student is not smart or has the skill set in a certain content area? I think in most cases that is what some of us teachers assume initially. Then again could the student just not be good at test taking? (I always think about this case since I struggled with standardized tests.) Could they have had a bad day when they were taking a certain portion of the test during the previous year? What other things were going on in the student's life that could have effected the scores? The meaning of test scores can change from student to student. As educators I think we need to remember that test scores do not define our students. It is our responsibility to determine where their strengths and weaknesses lie and look at all types of data to determine how we can help them achieve success.
b. Consider your learners as they begin the new school year. How are they negotiating/establishing their own positions in the learning community? How are you seeing them? What “data” about them are you reading? and how are they sending it?
Teaching in a school with one eighth grade class of seventy students, provides an interesting dynamic the first few weeks of school. The students, most of whom have attended school together for the last nine years, have a good idea of the academic abilities of their peers. It is the eighth grade teaching team that is figuring out the students and their abilities in the classroom.
We make it a point to meet with the entire class the first day of school and we tell them that they all have a clean slate. No matter what they did or did not do in previous years, it does not matter now. They might not have been the most studious or well behaved individuals in the past, but they can start fresh this year. We as a team like to do this because each year we always see one or two students who really take it to heart and become more focused and motivated with their studies.
In addition, during the eighth grade year, the students are split into two different math courses. As the math teacher, I look at a lot of data to determine where they should be placed. In addition to quantitative data, such as standardized test scores and previous math grades, I use qualitative data to determine if the student can accept the challenge of the high school Algebra I curriculum. This qualitative data consists of conferences with prior math teachers and phone conferences with the students and their families before the start of school. I can tell you it is surprise for these students to receive a phone call from their new math teacher before the school year starts. I purposely do this though because I want to make sure they feel confident in their abilities to take on the challenge of the higher level math course. In addition, I want them to know before the school year starts that I have confidence in their abilities and that I am available to help them through the class. I think it helps to start the school year off with these conversations. The connections I make before the first day of class is priceless and it allows the students to feel comfortable enough to ask me questions.
There are four sections of math in my school, two Algebra I sections and two Pre Algebra sections. During the first week, the Pre Algebra students always make a statement that they feel stupid because they are not in the Algebra I section. I think it surprises them a lot when I tell them that when I was in eighth grade, I was in Pre Algebra. Their demeanor immediately changes from one of despair to hope. I tell them that everyone’s academic abilities are different and some people may not be good at a specific subject. In addition I make it a point to tell them that I did not get good in math or at least truly understand the subject until Pre Algebra. Once they hear this fact, they seem to start to feel a little bit better about their math placement. As a teacher, the last thing I want is for a group of students to feel below or dumber than their peers. If I can make a relate my personal experiences to their experiences then maybe they will change their perception of the class and their abilities.
With all of my classes, I try to integrate technology as much as possible. I have more flexibility with the Pre Algebra sections since the curriculum is middle school based and not high school based like the Algebra course. It is important for me to show the students how they can use technology to better understand the content, but also practice their math skills. I have a student this year that has already expressed his dislike for math and for school. Some teachers might see this as a turnoff, but I see it as a challenge. He did mention in his class survey that I have all the students complete, that he loves Instagram. I have decided that I will investigate possible uses of Instagram with math and try to design at least one or two lessons that he can take part in to possibly gain interest in the subject. He also mentioned in his survey that he does feel like he is one of the lowest in his learning community. As his teacher, I want to help him understand the content and improve his self esteem while using technology that he likes to use in his daily life.
The class surveys allow me to get a better idea of the students as individuals and not just numbers from standardized test scores or grades. Most of the questions I ask are not about academics at all, but rather their interests, hobbies, and how they spend most of their time outside of school. It is more qualitative data that helps me better understand the students in my class.