What Do You Do?

Including myself, there are three freshman language arts teachers at my school. Among us, there are five sections of ninth-grade language arts, four of which have around fifteen students. I have the one section that has twenty-six students.

All three of us are extremely concerned about the freshman at our school, and none of us really know what to do with what we perceive to be a dire emergency.

How do I describe it?

The freshman class (of about 116) seems to have collectively established a culture of apathy. They will do their work, but at a snail's pace. Attempting to collect major assignments is excruciating, mostly because of the anticipation that fewer than half of them will have anything remotely resembling a final project by the time it is due.

In classes larger than fifteen (e.g. my twenty-six student class), chaos reigns. I never thought twenty-six students was a large class size until this year. It feels like I'm trying to get the attention of fifty or more people. And, in that class, my primary concern is management. When contrasted with my other language arts class, my twenty-six student group makes my fifteen-student group look like angels. But it's pointed out to me by the other language arts teachers that the students in the smaller classes aren't exactly achieving at a stellar level.

As one of the other language arts teachers put it to me the other day, "If you didn't know anything about authentic learning and you walked into my class, you would probably think things were going swell. But from my perspective, this is a disaster."

She was referring to the pace at which students work and the completely apathetic (although often respectful) way they approach academics. They have learned how to fake learning, and they've developed successful habits for keeping task-minded teachers away from them, but they're a great distance from authentic learning and thinking.

Today, a colleague and I arranged for her seniors to observe my twenty-six student class. They observed "students staring at the wall," "students ignoring instructions," "off-task behavior," "inappropriate language," and "students walking in and out of class without permission." The seniors were equally as concerned as the teachers about the freshman behavior.

Part of the problem with our ninth-grade class likely has to do with the enormous changes they've endured this year. One of our math teachers left about two months into the school year. Students in her class dealt with subs for about a month, and many were then moved under the care of a different math teacher. One of our language arts teacher left for maternity leave about a month later, and there is now a long-term sub teaching her students. At the end of the first semester, it was decided that schedule changes were necessary in order to decrease class sizes for the ninth-grade students. As a result, many ninth-graders again had their language arts teachers changed, and some had their science teachers changed. The grade that demanded the least schedule disruption received the most (as is often the case).

With about seven weeks left in the school year, the question is what do we do? There is grave concern that these students will leave the ninth-grade woefully unprepared for tenth-grade and a college-readiness path. They also seem to have hardened in some already dreadfully harmful anti-learning habits that allow them to navigate their school day without thinking or real work. The teachers see the problem, the administration sees it, the seniors see it, but the ninth-graders are largely unaware. And those ninth-graders who are concerned are unwilling to voice their opinions to their peers for fear of social reprisal.

What to do, what to do?


  1. I taught elementary school so perhaps my experiences wouldn't help you, but I'll share anyway:

    In order to get my students involved in the learning process, I took careful note of what type of learning experiences best appealed to them. When I noticed they were particularly interested in something, I wrote it down.

    Do your students come alive at any time? Do they enjoy classroom discussions, creative dramatics, read-alouds, choral reading, sharing their writing, singing? If so, base more of your lessons on these activities.

  2. Are you sure you haven't visited my 9th grade class this year? I teach all of the 9th grade English and if I let it, the apathy I fight against every day could demoralize me. I've been a teacher for 30 years and do not remember ever having a year like this. Did something happen in our environment nationwide the year these kids were conceived? It's scary!

  3. This sounds like a real struggle. How about turning the situation back on the students? You say that everyone is aware, except for the kids. So how can the students see what is going on? When personal or environment difficulties come up, so many unproductive coping habits come up. How about beginning the class with five minutes of awareness. Ask the students to look within, see where their mind is, their thoughts, their expectations. Just five minutes of silently going within can be a powerful and transformative exercise,

    These are just some ideas. Perhaps it can help.

  4. Really appreciate this wonderful post that you have provided for us.



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