On Teaching and Learning With High School Freshmen

This is the first year I've taught freshmen since the 2006-2007 school year (my first year teaching), and it's been challenging.

My big learning this year has been about how 14-year-olds think and how to create experiences that expand their learning. I'm afraid the older I get, the more difficult it is for me to remember and appreciate what's happening in their heads.

When you enter high school for the first time, the experience is a little overwhelming. I remember obsessing over the first day of high school for weeks before it came. I'd planned my outfit for the first day far in advance and imagined how I might make friends and impress people I'd never met. Throughout my first day, I remember constantly pulling down my shirt to make sure it was in the right place, rearranging my shoe laces so that they looked okay, and running my hand through my hair over and over again to ensure it sat right on my head.

Needless to say, your typical highschooler's primary concern is with what their peers think of them. From the teacher's perspective, this poses a significant learning barrier. When called on to consider a question, many students worry first about how others will judge them rather than how trying an answer will help their learning.

A second challenge is that so many students' brains seem devoid of metacognition. Not only are they unaware of how they learn and what helps them, they are also largely unaware of what they're learning. Or they are at least unable to put their learning into words, and therefore mistakenly believe they haven't learned anything.

The more I think about it, the more I think that what we're mostly doing in school across the content areas is teaching students to transform knowledge and understanding gained into words and sentences that others can access. Those who have a more difficult time with this process are often labeled stupid or disabled. They don't match our conventional understanding of intelligence.

I think this is difficult for people to understand because we have such a strong association between intelligence and language that it is sometimes hard for people to accept knowledge or information that the possessor cannot linguify (like quantify, but for language, and not actually a word). I think there is an unconscious misconception among many that language can always accurately code knowledge and information, despite that it cannot. Even when it does, it often does so imprecisely; which is why diagrams, pictures, practice, and demonstrations are often so important.

So how do you communicate big understandings to students who don't effortlessly swim in the huge ocean of language that you do, who don't quite understand what they're learning, and who spend far more time worrying about how others perceive them than how their brains could be growing? Furthermore, how do you help those students demonstrate what they've learned when they struggle with the language to do so?

Four things have worked for me this year.

1) Spending significant time breaking down student social barriers and building community

At the beginning of this year, our principal had us read The Mask I Wear. It struck a chord. As humans, we tend to distance ourselves from one another by pretending that we're more different than we really are. In all of the ways that matter, we are actually strikingly similar. TĂș eres mi otro yo. The more students see that the important things that make them who they are, are the same important things that make their peers who they are, the more accepting they become. And the more accepted the feel, the more attention they have to pay their learning.

2) Language scaffolds

When I've explicitly given students the words and phrases adults use to discuss academic material and allowed them to try them on and toy with their meanings, I've found students develop more agency in their pursuit of explanation. Sentence stems and repeat-after-me's allow students to develop their language so they can develop their thinking.

It reminds me of doing a bench press. The exercise is designed to work your chest muscles (which, in this analogy, would represent your thinking and learning). But if the muscles in your arms are too weak, they will not support the weight long enough for your chest to be worked to its full capacity. And so the muscles in your arms would represent language development. Language facilitates thinking.

3) Teaching through stories

Perhaps partly as a result of their language level, and partly as a result of the way we naturally learn, many of my students are incapable of internalizing a lesson that is stated to them explicitly.

(And I think this is true for everyone on some level. I'd always heard that attitude was a choice, but I never internalized it until I had very personal experiences that supported it.)

But students (and, indeed, all of us) learn a great many things by imagining other people's experiences - i.e. through stories. What is most fascinating to me is that these lessons are often internalized unconsciously. Students will say they learned nothing from a story when asked, but then alter their thinking and behave differently in minute ways as a result of their experience with a story. And thus it is the job of the teacher to help students bring that learning to their consciousness and put it into words.

4) Building strong relationships

It seems that the stronger a relationship a teacher has with their students, the more students will internalize explicit lessons given through language. The weaker the relationship, the more covert the teaching must be (through stories or fun/interactive experiences that "trick" them into learning something.) But when students value their relationship with you, they are more likely to place value in the words that come out of your mouth and trust them to be true, which might imply that the stronger a teacher's relationship is with a student, the less time they might have to spend coming up with complex and entertaining lesson plans in order to get through to their students.

We have one week left, and it's been a long first year at my fifth school. I am thankful to have found a place I can stay next year, where I cannot wait to apply the lessons I've learned and forge new ones.


  1. I'm in my 9th year of teaching, been doing 10th grade for the past several years, and I still think #4 matters hugely. Being new to a school has felt to me as bad as being new to teaching. And even now, when I've been in the building for two years and the kids know me, I feel things go worse in my 2-day-a-week elective than in my 3-day-a-week elective, for the same reason.

    As for freshmen, after a few years of teaching them I began saying that the best and worst things about teaching 9th graders is the same thing: their energy level. Hook 'em, and they can be fabulous. Lose 'em, and forget it.

    Have a good summer!


  2. Hi James-
    I think you have some great ideas here. Could you elaborate a little more on the specific language scaffolds that you use. I've been working on these with my English students, especially the ones working on their senior research projects. Just like you, my goal is to give them the tools and language to engage in an academic discourse.
    Love the blog man. Keep fighting the good fight.

  3. Chris,

    Thanks for reading my blog. One example that comes to mind came from a professional development coach I got to work with this year. She helped me help students identify what things made reading difficult for them. We gave them four things that contribute to difficulty level of a given piece of text: vocabulary, density, their interest level, and their background knowledge.

    We gave a few mini-lessons on what those things mean, and then modeled a few conversations between the two of us in which we described whether a particular reading was easy or difficult using the areas we'd taught them.

    Then we created opportunities for them to talk about various texts with each other, sometimes with sentence stems that helped them begin their conversations.

    The density of this text is...

    The vocabulary the author uses makes it...

    My interest level is..... because....

    Now, keep in mind that I work with a large number of English-language learners and "reluctant learners." This exercise was particularly useful for them in beginning to think about their reading, how text is different, and how to choose appropriate texts for themselves.


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