Reaching At-Risk Students: A Success Story
Diane Phillips is an English Language Arts teacher in Cocoa, Florida. Working with mostly at-risk students performing below grade level, Diane faces challenges that few graduate programs can really prepare you for. But Diane isn't daunted by the challenges she faces. Instead, she's been able to form real connections with her students by showing interest in their lives and their tastes. Here is Diane's story.
Junior year as a sophomore teacher. That's the way I refer to it. Year 3. In 2007, I made the decision to give up a 24-year career in textbook editing to bring my love of literature to teenagers in the classroom. I interviewed at a number of schools in our county's school district. During my interview at one high school, I was offered an English teaching position on the spot. I accepted it. When friends asked about my hiring, I was able to tell them I had landed a job fairly quickly into the process. That's fantastic! they had said in support. Until they heard that I had accepted a job at Cocoa High School : #15 among the 15 high schools in our otherwise high-achieving Florida school district. I had heard the same rumors they did, but I refused to let discouragement take hold. This was a new chapter of my life. A foot in the door. If I hated it, I could always apply for a transfer after my first year. (In the meantime, God, please don't let any of the students throw a desk at me!)
It didn't take me long to realize that I have found a home here. So many of my students have seen things many sheltered adults, myself included, will never see. Many of them are the adults in their households. They are often scared, scarred walking wounded. If any of them have ever considered tossing a desk-and the rumors, thankfully, were grossly inflated-it would be because the world first tossed them its ills and anguish. Drugs. Abandonment. Abuse. Death. Divorce. Homelessness. Poverty. The night the cops came. Moments that caused them to grow up too fast, to bring into my classroom a boulder-sized chip on their shoulder and an expectation that I wouldn't care about them either.
Of course, all they needed was to be loved on their own merits and to be respected. And that began with listening to them, getting to know what they enjoy, breaking down the barriers between student and material so that education would become more accessible, keeping them coming to school because the alternatives are grim and because it can actually-who knew?be enjoyable! All educators know that a solid command of language and vocabulary opens doors within any content area, making reading easier and more fluid, but weekly vocabulary lists can seem more punitive than inviting, alienating the groups we most need to reach. Just say SAT vocab, and prepare to hear at least some kids say, Yeah, well, I ain't goin' to college. But think like that reluctant reader and play a lesson-loaded rap song instead and, bam!: engagement, connection, laughter. For Pete's sake, they even sit up straighter in their chairs!
Flocabulary has done more in my classroom than draw skeptical students toward the lofty material they would normally have shunned. It has enhanced my credibility with them for having gone outside traditional boxes in order to make work fun. And it has empowered them to communicate in a world that used to speak what sounded to them like a foreign language full of big words. Now I hear students whine about an unwieldy backpack, refer to a behemoth football player, or tell me about feeling listless after all that dancing at Homecoming this weekend-and I see them grinning about how smart they feel. They're reading more than they were, no longer intimidated by a word they don't recognize. Instead, they're bringing novels to me and saying, Look, Miss! There's one of our words! Its been wonderful. This whole adventure, in fact, has been wonderful. And I'm glad to say that the students naysayers and mine couldn't be more wrong.
English II Honors
Cocoa High School