Facing La Frontera

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 04 2012

Transformational Change


Lately, my students have had the ability to bring tears to my eyes quite unknowingly. I am proud to say I haven’t had any negative teary meltdowns in class this semester (read: yet), but here are some examples of why my students are the apples of my eye. For example, last week, 2 of my girls asked me if I would sponsor a debate team next year. I told them we could discuss it later b/c I didn’t know how to phrase – no, I’m sorry, I’m leaving you in May.  This week, one of my students asked how our tutoring group could be sustainable next year. I told her to speak with 8th grade teachers. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. May is going to be terribly difficult.

But anyways, this semester, I began a group for my tutors. The only day we could meet was on Fridays. In exchange for them tutoring for me, we meet for an hour on Fridays and complete ACT prep and are reading “Tom Sawyer” and do ACT vocabulary. This group is the highlight of my week. It was originally supposed to be an elite group of 10, but when 20 applied, I didn’t have the heart to cut anyone. So I established standards, i.e. can’t miss more than 2 meetings and must tutor at least once a week.

A few unexpected students dropped out, mostly due to overcommitments, but        now, in March, I have a consistent group of 16 who show up. And they’re not all high students. I’d say I have my top 6 students, then about 5  A/B students, and then a few C’s, and even one student failed one quarter . It’s the highlight of my week; the ideal classroom. I have actually stopped myself from taking off a Friday b/c I didn’t want to have to cancel the club.

I quickly realized I would have to read most of Tom Sawyer with them, but they’re into it and excited. They want to be there, and they want to know more and to be prepared for the ACT. It reinforces for me the belief that all the initiatives being taken at high school should begin in middle school.

With this, I was asked a month ago to help with two ACT preps for our 11th graders. Although I protested on the grounds that my experience with the ACT was limited to my taking it many years ago, I was told that “it didn’t matter, they had promised parents ACT prep, and they needed someone to do it.” So I signed up for grammar & writing, contingent upon my 7th graders being able to attend.

What ensued was glorious. I expected 4 of my 7th graders to show up……12 attended, and I was SO proud of their brave souls. I grouped them each with a high school group, and in some groups they were leading the discussions and keeping students on task.

Now, in particular this semester, I have been working with one student, *Ricardo*, who last semester averaged 2-3 good days per week & 2-3 bad days per week. We were up and down all throughout January as well. This is the student who would tell me “miss, you always look at me with a mean face,” “Why do you use such a mean voice?”

I explained to his mom in January, almost in tears, that he has a tremendous amount of potential of leader, the charisma to lead all his peers, but that if he didn’t learn to read (he’s at a 4th grade rdg level), he would never find beyond minimal success.

At the end of January, when he bombed his benchmark, I had a heart-to-heart with him. He told me his dad had been talking with him about engineering since our project on colleges. He wants to go to MIT. We talked about how that would require him being at the top of his class by the end of next year. I changed his partner in class; I paired him with *Delia*, one of our top students. I pulled them both in and had him explain to her his current rdg level and why he needed to be completely focused in class. I gave her permission to keep him focused.

Now, a month later, we are seeing results. Don’t get me wrong, we still have our bad days. But let me finally (two chapters later, lol), tell you about his progress. Ricardo has passed his mastery quizzes for the past 3  weeks. He still fails book quizzes, but when he comes in to make up the reading time, I can at least know that he reading once a week. He participates in class. His writing has improved dramatically. He asks me if he can come to tutoring, even though as far as writing goes, he isn’t on my radar. He practically begged me the other day.

Then, Friday, he asked if he could come Saturday. I told him only my lowest 10 were coming. He said please. I told him ok only if he would be a tutor. The look on his face was priceless. He also then decided to stay for the tutoring meeting and reading of Tom Sawyer. He loved it and said he would continue coming in following weeks.

Tutoring begins at 9, but most students arrive around 8:30, especially the ones with siblings of other grades who begin at 8 a.m. I ended up at 8:30 with 8 students there already, including 3 of my “fickle 5,” the term I have given to my 5 boys who will pass or fail depending on their mood that day. I don’t even remember how it began, but we ended up having a 20 minute conversation about Ivy league colleges, the US rank in education compared to other countries, and the Thomas Friedman talk I had attended earlier that week. We googled the education rank, and they were appalled to see how low the U.S. scored. We watched a clip of Thomas Friedman explaining why he thinks we have dropped. We talked about why the buildings of the colleges they want to attend look so old.

In a word, I was in teacher heaven. While I know these are students who would have to make drastic changes to be competitive for these colleges, I also know that the first step is investing them in these goals. My student, Ricardo, has owned his goal of attending MIT. Luke tells anyone who asks he is going to Harvard. They can tell you they need an ACT score above a 30. They still haven’t completely made the connection that their C’s are not leading towards scoring above a 30 in high school, but we’re making progress.

Anyways, this began my morning with a huge smile, but back to Ricardo. Him tutoring was a leap of faith because 1/2 of the people who needed the tutoring were his guy friends with whom he gets terribly distracted. Before we began, I went through the apostrophes worksheet at his station. He missed about half of the questions, but we corrected them, and he’s quick, so he understood quickly.

Then, right before beginning,  I told him how important it was for his classmates that he stay focused. That this could make the difference for some of them for passing or not.

Ricardo: “But miss, they won’t take me seriously!”

Me: “You have to be serious. Be a leader. If you are serious, they will be serious.”

Ricardo: “Ok. Ok, so like, don’t follow them, but set the example.”

Me: (inside – omg, he’s getting it!!!) Yes, exactly.


I hovered near his station for the first 5 minutes, but I was amazed by his focus and commitment. I did have to remind him to be positive (one of his comments – how can you not get this?), but he exceeded my expectations. When one of his friends was off-task, Ricardo got me, and I got him back on task. When his friends came to his station, they were like, “What? Ricardo is a tutor?!” and I said, “Yes, he’s excellent at apostrophes; he’s going to help you alot.”

Afterwards, he asked if he could attend the ACT prep with the other 7th graders. This week, only 3 11th graders showed up, and 6 of my 7th graders. It was wonderful though seeing Ricardo engage with high schoolers about different arguments for essays.


We’re on the brink of transformational change.

2 Responses

  1. Jamie


    Love :)

  2. Kurt (Community Manager)

    Congratulations! Your post has been featured on the Teach For Us homepage.

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