As you may have noticed, I blog a lot about the Jeffco school board—the politics, the lack of respect for teacher and community input. Sometimes, though, I think it’s best just to give readers insight into me, my classroom, what makes me tick as a teacher, because I think it will lend insight into teachers as a whole.
So today I’m going to tell you how ridiculously excited I am to be starting a ninth grade ACE class at Columbine High School in the fall. First, ACE stands for Alternative Cooperative Education, and it is geared toward at-risk students. Unlike other classes at Columbine, this one meets every day and counts for two credits, but for all other classes, they’re with the rest of the students in the school. For around 20 years, ACE classes have existed only for juniors and seniors at Columbine. It was designated for higher grades because we didn’t want to “label” students “too early.” For years, I have been frustrated, because I kept thinking I could have done so much more for my students if I could have gotten to them before they dug a hole so deep in failed classes and missed credits that they gave up hope. At last, we realize that ninth grade ACE isn’t labeling kids too early; it’s intervening in time.
As a 15-year+ veteran ACE teacher, I have been consistently challenged teaching a class filled with 16-18-year olds who generally don’t get the relevance of school and often don’t much like authority figures. It’s been rewarding beyond measure to get to know them, learn their stories, earn their trust and respect, and more often than not, see them graduate. A few weeks ago, I got to meet a boy who will be one of next year’s freshman ACE kids, and he was so, so young! The reality of a class of 30 at-risk 14-year-olds hit home full force. I was filled with a mix of anxiety and excitement I can’t begin to explain. Oh, the challenge, and oh, the promise!
Freshmen, under any circumstances, are a very different critter than juniors. They are more physical, more impulsive; their attention is harder to keep. But they are easier to shape, in the long run. For those who use drugs, I’m getting to them much sooner, before those drugs can annihilate their first two years of high school. I can teach them to be proactive at school. I can engage them about the pitfalls that imperil high school before they fall headfirst into them. Oh, they’ll trip into some of them anyway, I know, but maybe fewer, and hopefully not headfirst.
How will I do this? I’ll be having a panel of ACE seniors come do an “if I knew then what I know now” discussion. I’m hoping (so if you’re a former student, I may be in touch) to have former ACE kids come talk about the paths they took after high school. Recent studies have shown that drug use and addiction are directly attributable to a lack of sense of community, not to mention plain boredom, so I’ve purchased a set of cooperative board games like Pandemic and The Walking Dead, and we’ll have a game time every week to build community and teach kids that they can have fun without drugs and alcohol. They’ll also build the collaboration and cooperation skills employers say they need graduates to have. I’m hoping to do family nights where kids can teach their families to play. I’d also like to do an evening conflict resolution class, teaching interested parents the skills I’m teaching their kids.
I’m choosing books I know they’ll love. (Ask any junior ACE kid or senior contemporary lit kid—I’m pretty damned good at picking literature for kids who think they hate to read.) We’re starting with Unwind by Neal Shusterman. Over the summer, I’ll figure what the next book will be (Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, perhaps?). Then comes the gathering of small collections of choice reading novels: Something Wicked This Way Comes to challenge the strong readers (who needs drugs to take a trip?), Room for those who struggle but want something that feels adult. For an English teacher, buying books to ignite a love of reading is like a parent shopping for a preschooler at Christmas. If you’ve had that pleasure, you know it is, indeed, better to give than to receive.
Now, one thing about ACE is that being there is a privilege. Kids, even freshmen, sign a contract to be there. Students cannot pass the class without turning in every assignment. Yes, you read that right. Every assignment. And just turning them all in isn’t enough. Each one must meet the standards set 100%. Like I tell the kids, no one wants a mechanic who fixes brakes correctly 60% of the time.
There are 30 kids and 2 teachers, so there’s plenty of help. They can redo and rewrite as many times as necessary. Juniors call their parents or guardians every six weeks to update them on their performance and to alert them to the possibility that they will be kicked out of ACE if they don’t catch up. Freshmen will call their folks every two weeks, and they will be expected to provide an update, not only on their progress in ACE, but in their other classes, as well. Students with F’s at each 6-week interval lose the privilege of being in the program.
Most juniors are beginning to realize how close they are to actually not graduating, and that is often sufficient motivation. It doesn’t work that way with freshmen. Their frontal lobe is nowhere near developed enough to grasp the future that concretely. The challenge to me is to make ACE so awesome that kids are willing to do anything—even work—to stay.
So you can see why this is both daunting and exhilarating. In 3 years, I will have 30 years in the system, and I can retire. At the beginning of this year, with everything that was going on, that was my plan. Now…retire before my first ACE freshmen graduate? I don’t know that I can do that. I’d like to reap a little of what I sow. Suddenly, I’m not so sure I see the end of my career yet.
This is reform.