I walked into a 9th grade art class the other day simply because it looked beautiful. Little tangles of red, teal, yellow, orange, and blue fibers covered each table and the students were gluing the fibers to paper to create a design. I asked one group of students who looked particularly engaged, “Are you enjoying this project?”
The students looked at each other, and seemed about to express enthusiasm—and then one girl shrugged. Following her, the others shrugged as well. They went back to work, fully engrossed—but not able to admit it. The girl who first shrugged seemed mesmerized by a teal fiber, pulling it out as if she had big plans for it.
Shaving off the edges of passion
Our school has undergone a population shift in our 9th grade which has brought with it a shift in self-expression.
In the past, as a newcomer school for English Language Learners, most of our 9th graders were brand-new immigrants from other countries. They brought with them an innocence and earnestness that isn’t characteristic of most American high schoolers. They expressed enthusiasm easily.
As our school has become more established and we are now in our 7th year, the majority of our 9th graders now enter high school from local middle schools in NYC, and are not mostly new arrivals. Most of them are still English Language Learners, but they have experienced school in the United States. They have a culturally learned teenage expression of boredom and rebellion that is familiar in most high schools, but usually something we don’t experience with our 9th grade. Classroom management has been more of a challenge this year with 9th grade.
I’d like to say that I didn’t understand my students’ need to be cool, but it’s all too familiar. I see it in meetings with colleagues, in which someone with a winning strategy doesn’t share it if others are complaining—no one wants to stick their neck out and become a target. It’s easier to commiserate than to inspire. The edges of passion get shaved off and dulled.
I see it with myself on social media—if someone has expressed disdain for something I’m excited about, I hesitate before I express myself. If I feel that way as an adult, it must be compounded 1000 times with teenagers. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of being boring. Fear of being unliked, uncool. So our students put a lid on their enthusiasm, and the internal truth of “I love this art project! I’m trying to find the perfect string. I want this to be beautiful” gets translated into a shrug.
However, I’m also certain that the enthusiasm is there. I remember a student I taught many years ago. She started the first day of school by sighing loudly every time I introduced an activity and spent the next several weeks muttering “waste of time.”
“It’s like this everyday!”
One day, I had an instructional coach videotape my class. The class went on as normal—starting with a writing exercise, leading to students having discussions in small groups about an article. At the end, the instructional coach told the class how impressed she was with all of the learning they were doing. The students clapped when they heard this, and the student who had been complaining exclaimed, “It’s like this every day!” She never complained again. All of a sudden, she saw herself as part of a “we,” and it was cool to be a member of this group.
We’ve only just met our 9th graders. We’ll build a culture with them that shows them it’s OK to express their passions. We’ll create a “we.” And I know their passion is there– I saw it the other day in a math class, with over a dozen hands shooting up to answer each question.
I also saw it in our last 9th grade Report Card Assembly.* I saw our 9th graders smiling and cheering. I saw them listening excitedly before each name was called for recognition. I saw their innocence and their raw enthusiasm. I saw that I need to be OK with them when they act like bored teenagers, but that underneath it all, they are still passionate children.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman
*At our school, we do Report Card Assemblies, a new ritual we created last year. Every marking period when a report card comes out, we do an assembly with each grade in which we point out successes and improvements for the grade and for individuals. We also work to create a growth mindset around improvement so that when we hand out student report cards, we have students complete a reflection in which they name what they did to succeed or improve in classes, and name what they’re going to do to improve in classes where they weren’t as successful. This replaced giving reports cards out in classes, the results of which was having half a dozen crumpled report cards littering the floors– which didn’t create much of a growth mindset.