Jennie’s story is about her first year teaching. She was fresh out of college, with a degree in history, a teaching certificate, and not a bit of experience. She was excited that she had been chosen to teach an honors-level U.S. history class, because new teachers didn’t usually get the honors classes.
But Jennie got lucky as she was assigned an honors class during first period. In preparation for the eager learners she expected, she decorated the classroom with Presidential portraits, colorful maps and framed copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. When the kids shuffled in unenthusiastically the first day, she figured that was just how high school kids were.
“I’m so excited to have been selected to teach this class,” she told them. “We’re going to do things a little differently in this class because I know that all of you want a challenge.”
When the kids stared at her, dumbfounded by her perky enthusiasm, she soldiered on, asking them to rearrange their desks in a circle so they could have class discussions. Then she asked them to choose a seat, introduce themselves, and then tell her what they didn’t like about history class. That got the kids smiling.
“Amanda hated how history seemed to be all about war,” Jennie said. “Jose didn’t like memorizing names and dates. Gerald was convinced that nothing that had happened in the past was relevant to his life. ‘Why should I care about a bunch of dead white guys?’ was how he put it. Caitlyn hated tricky true-false questions. Miranda despised fill-in-the-blank tests.”
Armed with that feedback, Jennie made a plan. She wouldn’t teach from the textbook. She wouldn’t make her honors students read a chapter and then take a quiz. She wouldn’t limit their topics to generals and battles. Instead, she would explore social and economic history and tie in current events to make the past feel relevant to their lives today. Jennie bubbled over with ideas to appeal to these kids, with their higher-level skills.
“We’d read novels to bring home the humanity of history. Across Five Aprils when studying the Civil War. The Grapes of Wrath to learn about the Great Depression. The Things They Carried when talking about Vietnam.” Jennie decided to spare these students the normal fill-in-the-blank tests or lists of true-false questions. She would create tests that covered the facts, but required higher-level thinking skills.
After all, these kids were bright and motivated. Jennie says, “My honors class deserved to be taught in a way that would speak to them.”
Jennie was surprised by how many of her students used poor grammar and lacked writing skills, but they were, after all, in one of the rougher high schools in her district. She knew they were great kids and treated them as such, with the result being that many of the kids were not only willing but also eager to attend after-school study sessions and to accept the help of peer tutors.
Four of Jennie’s students even formed their own “History Bowl” team and entered a countywide history contest. They were ecstatic when they won an Honorable Mention trophy.
The school year came to an end more quickly than Jennie could have imagined. When she thought back over the year, she couldn’t help it — the kids in her honors class were her favorites. She was so lucky to have gotten that class her first year. No one had averaged lower than a C and most had gotten A’s and B’s.
On the final day before summer break, Jennie’s principal called her in for her end-of-year evaluation. “I want to congratulate you on a great rookie season,” she said. “Especially on how well you did with your remedial kids.”
Jennie was confused. She didn’t have any remedial classes.
The principal pulled out the roster for Jennie’s first period class from a file folder and handed it to her, saying, “Your first period class was remedial. Surely you saw that indicated at the top of the roll.”
She went on to say that Jennie must have noticed the kids’ poor reading and writing skills. “And you must have suspected the students in that class were below average by the way they dressed and the way they carried themselves.”
Jennie looked at the class list. There at the top, printed plain as day was the word “HONORS.”
She showed it to the principal.
“Oh, dear,” the principal said. “What a huge mistake! How did you ever manage, treating slow students as though they were...?”
Jennie knew how that sentence was going to end, so she finished it herself.
“As though they were bright?”
The principal nodded sheepishly. The “mistake” was a big lesson for that principal, and for a first-year teacher who saw a class of remedial kids through rose-colored glasses and turned it into a class of motivated learners after all.
Before their meeting was over, the principal circled the word HONORS at the top of the class roster and put it back in its file folder.
“Next year, I may just have this printed at the top of all the class rolls.”
It was a lesson that neither of those educators would ever forget.