Saturday, March 17, 2012

Student challenges

I’m teaching mainly fifth graders this year for YO NOLA, which has been an incredibly fun age; the kids are still young enough to be playful, but also have a level of humor and sophistication that fourth graders don’t have. However, as we get further into the second half of the year I’m noticing some changes in two or three students (as are teachers in their other classes). Mostly it has to do with attitude, a willingness to participate, and a real joy for the material. This joy, clear and present in the first semester is now hidden behind a veil of aloofness. Ah yes, a veil of aloofness popularly called “adolescence”.

However I hesitate to distill such a complex set of behaviors into one word. The truth is these students are going through a lot in their lives beyond hormonal changes. A few of the students have very difficult and erratic home lives, some of them have anger issues, and some of them just have trouble resolving social differences with their peers. I don’t mean to exaggerate; I have a great group of students who love to perform. But the factors I just mentioned make it difficult to figure out how to both support a positive class atmosphere while ensuring that the students who are having trouble stay in the class.

I’ll give an example.

I have a student who I’ll call Stephanie. Stephanie is a brilliant writer, a poet, a great performer, and an intelligent thinker…when she wants to be. Depending on the week, Stephanie will either be my star pupil or my biggest pouter. On bad days Stephanie refuses to participate in activities and sulks in the corner. If I correct her, she sulks more; if we talk about strategies to get her more involved, she shuts down. So, we (I mean my co-teacher and I) took action. We sat down with Stephanie and reminded her of the contract that she and her mother had signed to be in the class. We asked her to stay out of the class for one week in order to think about whether she really wanted to be a part of the program. So she did. Stephanie took it seriously and came back to the class and seemed to really jump in with two feet. And yet… I’ve noticed that some of those bad days are creeping back into our routine.

The problem with all of this is that I have no intention of actually letting Stephanie ever get ‘kicked out’ of the class. Not only is she incredibly talented and funny, I strongly believe that this performance outlet for her is a rare opportunity and an important part of her day (even though she might never admit it). Some of her writing was performed as part of our first semester celebration, and I know how much it meant to her. Stephanie comes from a tough home and she needs every positive outlet for her creative energies possible. It does make it difficult to give “shape up or else” threats when, in reality, I have no intention of getting to the “or else.”

So we continue. I try to put her in as many positive situations in class as possible, while making sure that her attitude on the bad days doesn’t effect the entire class. We’re going to perform some more of her writing as part of our final performance, so I’m hoping that this will be a motivating factor in the last part of the year. The joy in all of this, of course, is that performance and creativity can be truly healing and nurturing for a student like Stephanie.

Chris Kaminstein

YO NOLA Instructor

Southern Rep

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