When I was a kid, I could not bring my toes to release their hold on the lip of the high dive, even though my girlfriend pressed me forward, begging me to hurry and jump. The first few times on that thin line in the sky, I had to retreat down the ladder, my tail between my legs. All the goosebumpy kids, strung up the rungs, groaned as they stepped backward to release me from my fear.
In much the same way, I hesitated to make the leap into a more student-centered classroom, a place where I paid attention to my secondary students as much as I did to the English language arts curriculum, a place less like a factory and more like a warm community. I wanted to change my focus, to take the plunge and personalize my classroom because I was disheartened by the status quo.
In my school, it was hard to get to know my students, crowded as they were into rows, the bell ringing like clockwork releasing one group of thirty to make room for the next batch. Because my students and I were on a restrictive curricular timeline, we had little time to slow down or speed up the instruction. I found it nearly impossible to add some oral performance while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, to hold a spontaneous discussion about the themes of Night or Chief Joseph’s speech, “I Will Fight No More Forever,” or to read “To an Athlete Dying Young,” by A.E. Housman when our school’s quarterback, Cliff, died in a car wreck on his way to school. I did not have the luxury of time because a district assessment loomed on the horizon, and those grades had to be posted in the district-controlled grade book.
Given that the subjects were separated by cells and bells, my students saw little connection between one subject and another, let alone one unit and another in English. In the mirror of my classroom, it was the rare student who saw his own reflection in the material we covered. When the research paper was the next unit I was assigned to teach, my students had trouble linking their personal interests with the assignment. Out in the hall, kids avoided eye contact with one another. Hallways were a breeding ground for incivility. I saw a kid’s arm snake out of the crowd and shove a boy in front of him–hard. The boy fell flat on his face and the crowd laughed.
My school, like so many secondary schools, was a metaphor for the factory where we bulk processed kids, lumping them together by age instead of individualizing, where we entered them into the system at one end of the assembly line and exited them after they met their seat-time requirements, where productivity rather than creativity was rewarded, and where each component was separated from the next. H.L. Mencken (1924) was right about my classroom when he said that the apparent goal was to train a standardized citizenry rather than spread enlightenment.
Research Supported My Discontent
In my college freshman psych class, I learned from Maslow, Adler and others that the need to belong is fundamental to human motivation. But I grew up in schools designed like a factory. My classmates and I were the raw material to be processed by the teacher workers. We marched from place to place to our assigned stations, and the bells, like the factory whistle, rang to indicate changes in time. When I became a teacher in a similar system, I followed suit. After all, I had no experience with a different kind of classroom, one that broke the mold of age-based cohorts moving together through curricular timetables, taking standardized tests, and listening to whole class instruction. My students were grouped, graded and marked just as we were two decades earlier.
I didn’t have a magic bullet to foster a sense of belonging. Plus, the reality of my teaching day conspired against me–I raced to keep up with district-mandated curriculum; I gave inane tests that measured all the wrong things, and I obeyed the trappings of the bureaucracy–conveyer-belt hallways and counting credits as kids mindlessly shuffled to graduation.
Meanwhile, a growing body of research urges us to alter the factory-style school, aiming at more personalized and individualized classrooms. A 2014 Gallup Poll reveals that kids who have relationships in school have higher achievement. A sense of belonging predicts reading performance according to a study by Beck and Malley. Wilhelm and Smith interviewed male drop-outs who claim that their teachers didn’t even learn their names, a fact that contributed to their failure to finish school. A June 2014 study by Kristi Kaput shows that schools where students have relationships with caring adults and who exercise some choice in a more student-centric curriculum outperformed comparable schools when it came to higher graduation rates and academic achievement (p. 13). In short, students don’t learn very well unless they have a strong sense of community (Lee), and this need to belong begins and ends with teacher-student relationships.
I Stopped Fretting and Jumped
Like most of my colleagues, I couldn’t disregard the whole history of American public education, reform the structure of the secondary school, and rewrite the entire curriculum. Yet I grew increasingly discontented. One summer I participated in a National Writing Project workshop, an extended period of time to both write and reflect on my practice. I found a small remedy that worked for me as I sought to connect with my students.
The Project’s thesis is that a teacher of writing should write herself. I’ve always written little anecdotes about my students in one discarded spiral notebook or another. Given the chance afforded by the summer workshop, I thought about how I could use writing to both warm up my room and model for my students the power of language and literature. I decided to write little prose-poems to my students, polish them up a bit, and give these jottings to the students before holidays and at the end of semesters. Turns out that in order to write about each individual student, I really had to understand them. As I pondered what to say and how to say it, I grew to care about them, a lesson Meg learned in L’Engle’s book, A Wind in the Door; in order to heal her brother of his terminal illness, she had to learn to love Mr. Jenkins, her hated teacher. My students became my own curriculum.
Before winter break, I handed each kid her poem. I held my breath.. Maybe the writing would make me too vulnerable or maybe it’d be too intimate. But when my students looked down on the page and saw their reflections peering back at them, they began to act friendlier. Jason, first row, first seat, turned his desk sideways forming a ragged circle so he could see me and his classmates. Sophie stopped at the door one day and called out, “Hey everyone, you are all invited to my quinceanera.”
Sometimes kids wrote back to me (Lain). Adrianna wrote:
You are my sweet girl,
matching your hair.
Your long, flowing skirts
fit so well
and the state of your mind
fits your smile.
And I love you
if only for being you,
my sweet girl,
if only for being honest you.
Student poems helped me work with Jason, the school anarchist, anger roiling off his rigid shoulders like heat waves trembling over black asphalt streets. Every day, he sat as far away from me as he could and turned his face to the wall.
your haircut alone
turns off half the clean-shaven world.
On each paper, especially spelling tests,
you write ANARCHY in deeply imprinted letters
No school seat contains you.
If the rows are too straight,
you put your head down and leave.
You consider dropping out of school
the ultimate form of freedom.
I wish I could show you
to hold a balance
between order and chaos.
Jason wrote back.
Mrs. Lain. I’m greatfull for all you have taught me. I realy needed that lecture that time in Dr Jensens office. You are a very important person in my life. You are totaly write abought ‘to beat a system yu have to learn all you can abought it.’ That is totaly write. I respect your own non-conformity. And I love that you know me as Jason the Anarchist.
Knowing how much pain Kevin suffered during his sister’s terminal illness, I wrote:
Your sister died of cancer last year.
You grew up through those months
of her long agony.
Now you want to know about the beginning of the universe,
the Big Bang Red Shift Black Hole.
You’re a sophomore quantum physicist trying to figure things out.
I remember the first time I walked into your room this year. You didn’t know this Mrs. Lain but I messed around with drugs the summer before. My folks didn’t pay much attention to anything but Jeana before she died and afterward they were lost in a fog. Well, I feel better now. Got a handle on things. Football, my job, school. I handled the load of work you gave too. The class was hard, but I’m glad I did my Big Idea on the beginning of the universe. Funny how my science piece kinda had a God feel to it. Funny now I can think about Jeana.
Ray hated science, and I decided to validate his antipathy.
You say you hate science.
Learning that way is not for you.
you wade into the river
rushing energy flowing around your thighs
enough to keep you on your toes.
You see the river, rocks below the surface,
the damp bank, roots drinking.
Neck thrown back,
you see the blue sky
the rock walls
the grasses reaching up to meet the truth of the sun.
you know the whole.
This is your science lesson.
Hi. I like the way your able to talk and joke about your life. I like the way you try and help everybody. But most of all I like your kindness to wards others you try and do all you can for everyone no matter what.
I leaped into a student-centered classroom in spite of my worries: Would discipline fall apart? Would parents, colleagues and administration complain? Would my students learn? The researchers assured me that kids learn best when they belong, but in the end, Dina’s words really made me glad I jumped.
There were many different types of people in this class. It is a lot like the world and all of the different people in it. Our English family has different races just like the family of mankind does. Every one also has a different view just like all the people in the world have different views. If there was more love In the real world like there is in our English class I think there would be a lot less crime and violence. Dina
Adler, Alfred. Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind. Putnam, 1939.
Beck, Mitchell and James Malley. “A Pedagogy of Belonging.” e-Journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network, Mar 2003, cyc-net.org/cyc-online/cycol-0303-belonging.
Gallup Poll. State of America’s Schools: The Path to Winning Again in Education. Gallup, 2014.
Kaput, Kristi. Evidence for Student Centered Learning. Education Evolving, January 2018. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED581111.pdf. Accessed 3-9-20.
Lain, Sheryl. A Poem for Every Student: Creating Community in a Public School Classroom. University of California, 1998.
Lee, Jung-Sook. “The Relationship Between Student Engagement and Academic Performance: Is It Myth or Reality?” Journal of Educational Research, vol. 107, no. 3, May 2014, pp. 177-185. DOI: 10.1080/00220671.2013.807491. Accessed August, 2019.
L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wind in the Door. Square Fish, 2007.
Maslow, Alfred. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Viking, 1971.
Mencken, H.L. The Little Red Schoolhouse. American Mercury, 1924.
Smith, Michael and Jeff Wilhelm. Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Heinemann, 2002.
Learn more about Sheryl Lain on our Contributors page