Appreciating My 89

I have to admit that I am not into the whole “Appreciation Week” thing. It seems like we have them for one thing or another every week so it sort of loses its impact with me. So, when I saw that it was Teacher Appreciation Week, I just sort of moved on like I always do. You don’t really get into the field for the appreciation. Sure, it is a great feeling when a student figures something out and you played a part in that. But, for many teachers, the impact on kids–and it is a great impact–isn’t really known or felt for quite some time after, if ever.

Maybe that is why we have “Appreciation Weeks”.

Teaching usually isn’t about instant gratification. It is really about connecting with kids, setting up a process for learning, and getting a kid to be curious enough to continue to learn once the formal classroom setting is finished. But, we have these “Appreciation Weeks”, I guess, to recognize those often unrecognized moments that happen every day in classrooms. For that, it does serve a purpose as so many of my colleagues do amazing things every day. Most importantly, they are impacting kids each day and for the rest of their lives.

My parents instilled something in me when it comes to these types of recognition days. On every Mother’s Day (and pretty much at every family gathering), my Mom will always say that her three kids are her finest accomplishment. And, she’ll always make a point to highlight what each of us do. My Dad does the same thing on Father’s Day. I remember one Father’s Day, maybe about 10 years ago or so, when he wrote something about how we–his three kids–were the reason for his day and he was grateful to us. It’s now something I make sure to say to my daughter each Father’s Day.

In that same way, Teacher Appreciation Week is really about the group of kids we have in front of us. Like every year, this year I have been fortunate enough to share a classroom with a group of amazing young people. Unlike every year, we have gone through an experience that was completely new to all of us. The lessons they’ve taught me through our first year as an AP Seminar class have impacted how I will finish the rest of my career. I can only hope I have taught them as much.

So, as my parents taught me, I would like to flip the script and thank my brilliant group of sophomores and highlight some of the things I most appreciate about them.

Fearless

I’ll put it this way. A year and a half ago, I walked into their ninth grade English classes with a sales pitch. We had just been approved, as a District, to run AP Seminar as part of College Board’s Capstone Program. I went in and told them about how great the class was going to be; I told them it would be the best English class they would ever take. We would argue about current events, write a lot, and discuss a whole lot more. Inevitably, during each of my presentations, I would pause to take a breath. When I did, one of them asked, “ok, so what are we going to do in the class?”

I had no real answer because I didn’t really know. I had still not gone to training so the “guts” of the course were still unknown. I told them that it would be a college experience and the most practical “hard” course they have taken. And, if they wanted to take it, they had to take an AP Social Studies class too.

89 of them signed on. They were fearless. They were walking into class that was not only unknown to them, but to their teacher as well.

This year, that fearlessness has shown in everything they have done. They dove right into examining argument. For those who had some fears about public speaking, they faced them head on, even if that part wasn’t in the sales pitch when they signed up.

They wrote pieces with a complexity that they were never previously asked to produce. And, quite frankly, they may never be asked again until college. With each new challenge thrown their way, they faced them without complaint. Seriously, they never complained or whined about the work in our class. Over 500 other sophomores didn’t choose this path; these 89 did. That is something I’ve never lost sight of.

Work Ethic

This generation gets a bad reputation for their work ethic. In fact, we even read articles in our class about it. Yet, each and every day, this group showed up. They embraced their strengths. They took to heart the lesson about embracing their weaknesses as strengths. With each performance task, each paper revision, and every detail questioned, they continued to work.

I’ve written about this previously, but it should be repeated here. While I never once assigned homework, this group would continue to revise their papers at home. They knew that they could email me with questions about their work or if they wanted some feedback. Requests would come in all night, even as late as 11:00 PM. Again, this wasn’t a requirement. We would have our writing workshops in class. But, they were workers. As the deadline loomed for our first paper to be uploaded to College Board, the emails would be coming in at 1:00 AM or later. Finally, one night, I had to post on our Google Classroom a message and a directive for them to go to bed. Since when does a teacher have to tell students to stop working?

For those who say this generation of kids don’t have grit or a work ethic, you should just meet my 89. And, I know that they aren’t alone. They just happen to be my 89.

Writers

On day one, I told them what I tell all of my classes: “You are a writer.”

They lived that each and every day. Each one of them has a perspective that they were not afraid to share. And, when they wrote, they kept revising. One student would pretty much have a standing appointment with me each class session, even though her papers were good from the jump. While she definitely needs some confidence to realize that she is, indeed, a great writer, she wanted to wring out every possible space on the page to make a powerful message. She would draft, outline, draft again, question each sentence, ask me for feedback, and continue this until she produced a piece that she was kinda, sorta happy with. Meanwhile it was amazing.

The other 88 were the same. They wrote and refined each word until they had original, publish worthy pieces. They each had something to say. When they were working on subjects that they were passionate about, their words were even more powerful. The future of our world is alright. These 89 young people can change the world with their writing.

Voice

Because they are all writers, they were all able to differentiate themselves. There were no cookie-cutter pieces. Each of the 89 had a different voice or, as we say in Seminar, a different perspective. Their writing resulted in 89 distinct pieces, making writing workshops much more interesting as each meeting was a fresh conversation.  But, their voice was also shown in other ways outside of writing voice. Early in the year, our classes would decide the theme/topic that would be the focus of discussions. They would choose topics such as social protests and women’s rights. Obviously, these were choices before the wave of protests that were seen throughout the country because of the terrible events in Parkland, Florida. The 89 already knew the issues that their generation faced. They voiced those concerns early.

Compassionate and Kind

One of the preconceived notions that I had about AP classes was that kids would be too competitive; they would be all about the grade and nothing else. Grades are obviously important to my 89, but the grade does not define their character. I am the advisor to our National Honor Society and would regularly receive different community service opportunities for the group. Since our class was always discussing topics about our society, I would post these opportunities on our Google Classroom as well. And, despite not being eligible for the National Honor Society until next year, taking a tough academic schedule—most of the 89 were taking three AP classes as sophomores—and many of the 89 involved in athletics, so many showed up to events. They were there. Many gave up a Saturday to help out with our EdCamp. Many joined our Heroes and Cool Kids group. Many are in our Best Buddies group.

This generation gets tagged with so many unfair labels. Selfish is one of those unfair labels. This group is anything but selfish. They are always willing to help.

Well Rounded

The 89 are not just about the academics. While they are obviously all getting good grades in their classes, they are so much more. One of our 89 is one of the Nation’s top runners. She also happens to be one of the nicest, most focused people (of any age) that I’ve ever met. Another is a nationally ranked swimmer. So many are key members of our athletic teams that have won state championships this year. Some are talented artists. Others are talented musicians, actors, builders, cooks and debaters. Others are gifted in the sciences. Many are involved in our student government. They aren’t just members; they have taken leadership positions.

They are an interesting group of young people. Just yesterday, one young lady–a huge Yankees fan–came up to me and showed me a drawing. She said, “I nailed Didi’s (Gregorius) nose.” She did nail it; it was a great sketch. You don’t get many AP students, just a day before their test, excited about a drawing of a baseball player. But, because of their well rounded lives, it wasn’t a day of just nervousness about a test. We had other stuff to talk about, even Didi’s portrait.

Prepared

It’s a given that an AP class would be prepared. The 89 would take it to another level. While we would always embrace those who were procrastinators, the 89 would always come with their information complete, their presentations rehearsed, and their papers thoroughly revised. They would put in the work, even with their overbooked schedules. And, they were always willing to put in the time to be prepared. The Seminar course isn’t about memorization or a set content so they were constantly researching, revising, and refining. So, despite the “no homework” rule, they would take it upon themselves to work at home, stealing some time on the weekend to do things. How do I know this? Well, the weekend emails with questions or requests for feedback were good signs. Their preparation led me to bring my “A” game each day. There was no choice because they were always ready.

Unique

Another one of my preconceived notions was that everyone would be the same type of kid. I realized I was wrong on day one. Each class of the three groups had a different personality. My first class is the quiet, methodical group. We would have laughs. We would have really great discussions. There wouldn’t be a whole lot of questions asked during class. Most would handle that part quietly. My second class is the one that could debate anything at any time. The same lesson that was given during the first class wouldn’t look anything close to that for the second group because the questions would come fast and furious. The third class is a combination of the two. There is a group that would make up their own words. There is another pocket who would have the deepest philosophical discussions. There is the one particular young lady who has the standing appointment for a daily writer’s discussion. And, within those three classes, their were 89 unique students, each with unique interests, personalities, and convictions. Each day was something new, something different.

Open

All of these traits led to a group that is unafraid to express who they are. They acknowledge their “weaknesses”. They have always asked for help when needed. They’ve expressed their anxiety, their fears. They’ve always been willing to share their thoughts about their community, their lives, and the happenings of the world. They’ve always been open enough to express if things are working well in class and when things weren’t working well. As a result, we were able to adjust our approach. Their openness and their willingness to be so invested allowed me to get better as the year went on.

Yet, another label that their generation gets saddled with is apathetic. The 89 destroyed this notion too. They care about their work. They care about each other. They care about what’s going on around them. And, they are not afraid to share their feelings, whether in class, in a discussion, or in their writing. Last night, the night before their AP Test, many emailed me to say thank you. I feel fortunate when I say that I get those notes a lot. I’ve had great groups of kids over the years and teachers certainly get notes like that on occasion. This year has been different. My 89 have been open about their feelings throughout. Their willingness to share how they feel, both good and bad, has led to the type of year that we teachers don’t normally get to experience.

Fun

And, the most important thing…the 89 are fun. Each day has been unique. Each discussion has always had humor. Whether it was lively debate between a male and female swimmer regarding which team was better, the quiet “back and forth” between two brilliant minds in my first group, the young lady who entered over 40 lottery tickets to job shadow me for the day, the group who would regularly put up random post it notes throughout my office, the class that is working on an end of the year olympic games (think more The Office rather than the real games), the class that randomly decides to throw parties by coordinating when they are bringing in food without telling me, the group who thought there was a gas leak when it was really someone’s lunch, the group that would get the serious case of the giggles at really random times, or each of the three groups insisting that they are the favorite class, each day has been fun. Seriously, who goes through an entire school year without having a bad day?

Final Thought

Every teacher gets one of “those” years. It’s the year when everything goes your way. You have a great schedule. Your classes come together quite easily. Practically everything you plan comes out reasonably well, even if you Forrest Gump your way through some of it. And, most importantly, the kids in your class are all nice, hard working, giving, open, compassionate, and willing to try just about anything. They are special years, often not recognized until years later. But, when they do happen and you can realize that they are happening, one of “those” years turns into a truly special year. I’ve always been fortunate to have great classes, but in year 20, it’s been different. It’s been special in every way.

For that, I say thank you to my 89.