We drive by them every day. Those big, elusive buildings that bring back so many memories of tests, papers, peer pressure, cliques, insecurities, nice teachers, mean teachers and, of course, our very first crush. But do we really know what goes on behind the scenes of school from a teacher’s point of view? Unless you are a teacher – probably not. So here you are: Welcome to sixth-grade reading class!
The day begins quietly enough. Though school doesn’t officially start until 8:20 for the sixth-grade students at Lewis F. Mayer Middle School in Fairview Park, Jeff Hicks arrives promptly at 7:30 a.m. in the bitter cold of a typical February morning. The halls are quiet as teachers lug in their props, ready to set up for the day. Mr. Hicks’ first priority: to make copies of the quiz and character assessment for approximately 135 students. Inevitably, another teacher also needs to make copies and a line begins to form, but luckily another copier is available upstairs. By 8:10, Mr. Hicks is organized and ready for the day.
Yet as most well-intended plans go, they are quickly interrupted by unforeseen issues. A student – a young girl of about 11 or 12 – had an incident in the cafeteria the day before with a friend, and the two are now fighting. Obviously concerned and worried about how the day would go, the young girl confides in Mr. Hicks with tears streaming down her face about what happened. Though fighting friends would seem trite, if you’ve ever been a sixth-grade girl, you would understand how that little incident could turn into a life-changing event. Middle school girls can be some of the meanest people on earth (talking from experience), and it was important to the student and Mr. Hicks that the issue be resolved immediately.
Homeroom, 8:20 a.m. Gone are the days of intercom announcements that no one listens to. Today’s high-tech classrooms stream a Web-based student version of CNN, reporting on the Olympics in Sochi and weather patterns across the country. Students filter in and grab their netbooks from a charging station. Girls wearing headbands and ponytails (far from the hair-sprayed perms of my day) squeeze in a few brief minutes of a fashion game while the boys work on their buildings in Minecraft. What is amazing to an outside observer is the disparity between the growth spurts of the students. Most sixth-graders (boys and girls) fall in the normal range of about 4 feet 10 inches to 5 feet 3 inches. And then, in walk two students who look like high school linebackers at about 5 feet 10 inches. It’s crazy to notice how differently they all enter their teen years.
8:50, 1st period. Students promptly arrive for Mr. Hicks’ reading class. Students aren’t late because they seem to absolutely love Mr. Hicks. They feel comfortable with him and make jokes as they make their way to the seats, awaiting the day’s discussion. Mr. Hicks has found that students are pretty well-behaved for him because he has been able to find that sweet spot between being “cool” and being respected. Students know that Mr. Hicks has high standards for their education, but they also know that he is human and not a dictator. Though our education system has a “one size fits all” approach, Mr. Hicks believes that “if every teacher has an approach that is student-centered, you will eventually catch every child.”
On the whiteboard are two questions that the students will discuss from the book “Holes,” written by Louis Sachar. There is a 10-minute discussion among the students as to what they would do if they were Stanley. Did Stanley make a good decision about the gold tooth? Why did Stanley do what he did? How did the warden know all of their names though she had never met them? Through this discussion, students are learning to use their own deductive reasoning to read between the lines of the written page and draw their own conclusions. All of the students are engaged and anxious to be called upon. The discussion gets so lively, that once again, the best-laid plans must now be adjusted because there is now not enough time in the 42-minute period for the quiz. The students will only have time to create a character diagram that they will use tomorrow for their essay question. The quiz will take place the following day. And thus the story goes throughout the next three periods.
One point of interest is the effort the school makes to help students who may need extra help. In the second period, a reading intervention teacher sits in the back of the class. There she observes what Mr. Hicks is teaching and then takes about 10 students to a separate room, where they work on the character development sheet together. In a world where more students are playing video games and watching SpongeBob, reading is not a hot activity – therefore “a lot of kids don’t like to read because it is hard for them,” Mr. Hicks explains. Therefore Mr. Hicks has every student sign a contract that they will read for at least 15 minutes each night. And it doesn’t matter what they read. Students can read comic books, newspapers, novels, whatever they want. They just need to read 15 minutes every day.
12:15, lunch duty. What most of us remember as complete chaos, lunchtime at Mayer Middle School is relatively peaceful. The majority of students bring their own lunch as they feel that is a preferred option. What is nice to see is that the two girls who were mad at each other the day before are now sitting together and laughing. Another middle school crisis averted.
After only a 20-minute lunch, it is now time for the sixth grade academic staff to eat and have planning time. During the next two periods, students either go to band, orchestra, art, gym or enrichment. Unfortunately (from the writer’s point of view) there are no computer programming classes as of yet. Perhaps someday. And though some of us may think of “enrichment” as a study hall, it is much more of a controlled study hall than that from “back in the day.” No sleeping, no hacky sack, no throwing spitballs. Actually, here the kids work on projects and games. It is amazing to witness the level of sophistication these sixth-graders have at their fingertips.
Watching a young lady working on her science website in Weebly, this student had immediate availability to YouTube videos of rock formations and the cycle – and recycling – of magma to igneous rock, to sediment, to sedimentary rocks and finally to metamorphic rock, all while listening to Pitbull and Ke$ha on her headphones. This is a very different world than most of us knew. The ease with which she was able to follow very specific directions, toggling back and forth between the Web and her project at lightning speed, was amazing to watch. These kids know how to use technology like nerds knew how to solve a Rubik’s cube in 1983.
2:15, last period. Having two periods of art, music, band or enrichment sounds like a good schedule on paper, but in reality it’s a handful for the teacher. Now that the students are all abuzz from playing dodge ball in gym or tearing it up on a trumpet (and school is out in 45 minutes), trying to get back to the books is like trying to herd cats. The students are antsy and take some serious coaxing from Mr. Hicks to get back into “the zone.” Unfortunately, the teachers do not have a lot of input about the schedule. But eventually they settle down, and once again, the discussions about the book are lively and engaging. Finally, at 3 o’clock they are free to go. But the day is not over for Mr. Hicks.
Mr. Hicks has volunteered for detention from 3 to 3:30, and though there are very few discipline problems at Mayer Middle School, one student wanders in, likely due to tardiness. And though one would think his day would end there, Mr. Hicks also tutors a student in the evening two nights a week who is seriously ill and cannot come to school. On top of that, Mr. Hicks typically spends about 1 ½ hours a night grading papers and preparing for the next day. Anyone who thinks that teachers have it easy working 7:30 to 3:30 has never spent a day with a teacher.
While Fairview Park residents are blessed to have such a great school system, many teachers have very different classroom experiences. They deal every day with hungry students, homeless students, students who do not have anyone to oversee them to make sure they are doing their homework. They deal with students with anger issues, mental and physical problems, and students whose parents are incarcerated. There is often no technology in the classroom, let alone the Internet or a computer at home. So here in the western suburbs, we are very lucky and blessed to have the schools that we do, and while there is still much to be done to catch up to the rest of the world in math and science, we can be thankful for teachers like Mr. Hicks, who work every day to keep the students engaged and excited about their education and future.
Tanya Foose has been working in higher education administration for over 15 years and is the founder of EdCorr.com, a research website for education reform. For questions or comments, you may contact Ms. Foose at firstname.lastname@example.org.