Sunday, October 16, 2011

Breaking Away Together

Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the students and families of the Senior class of 2012

“My mother says I am the devil child,” an IS Senior recently said to me.  “Ask her to call me and I will tell her stories about some truly bad kids,” I responded in a semi-sarcastic tone.  This flippant comment from my discouraged student, however, continued to resonate with me long after he had left the room.  I find myself wondering why we, as a society, are so set upon recognizing birthdays,  graduations, communions, weddings and so forth, and yet we do little to recognize and prepare both young adults and their families for the one of the biggest life transitions of all: breaking away.  This processes spans over an entire year, as the student begins applying to, planning for, and ultimately going off to college.
Perhaps we underestimate the emotional drain that the application process places on the student, and all of the close family members involved.  When my own children were going through this process, my husband philosophized that it’s an evolutionary necessity for children to get combative enough that we actually want them to move out.  Otherwise, he contended, how would we ever let our little darlings go?  Thus, as a child’s yearning for greater independence and control escalate, so do the family arguments based around the child’s ever changing wants and needs.  This signals that the process of breaking away has begun.
I hear the complaints from both the student and parental points of view.  Parents will contact me behind their child’s back (which I always tell them may backfire and encourage honesty when seeking my input), saying that their child has suddenly turned secretive and defiant.  The student doesn’t want to listen to the parent’s advice regarding college choices, nor topics for his/her personal statement.  A student’s typical rebuttal: “That’s what AVID is for.“   As the parent pushes harder to stay involved in the decision-making process, the student often resists even more. 
The student from the same family may come to me, complaining that all of a sudden new restrictions are being placed upon him/her, such as an earlier curfew or fewer opportunities to use the family car.  “It’s often about control,” I try to explain.  “As you withdraw from your parents, you create suspicion, and it is a normal response for them to try to keep better tabs on you.  Share your life with them,” I suggest.  “Be the one to initiate doing the things that you used to love doing together.  When is the last time that you actually went out and had fun without talking about IB exams, college applications, or career choices?”  Most students can’t remember.
No one is at fault for this dilemma.  Trying to evaluate the situation from the other person’s point of view and realizing that this is difficult for all the parties involved can sometimes lead to a little more patience.  Knowing that most families go through some type of adjustment during this period of time, and merely acknowledging that this is one of life’s most stressful transitions, can help the family members be less reactive to each comment and gesture as they arise.  It does not have to be a tumultuous time for both the student and the parents.  Focusing upon strategies that will create more successful ways to “break-away together” can make all the difference.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Art of Advocacy

Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the class of 2014

For the past two days, the low scores on the latest Honors Chemistry quiz have been concerning me.  It is the same quiz that I give every year at this point in the semester, my students are top notch, and yet the failure rate was unexpectedly high.  These are the moments I envy the teacher who can accept the situation as status quo, walk to her car at 2:30 pm, and leave the work day behind her.  I cannot. 
Today I prepped my Science Scholars for their after school tutorial, making sure that the focus would be upon achievement.  My students need to know that they still have multiple opportunities to recoup their grades.  I can’t imagine what it feels like to live in this competitive pre-college environment, and I will go to great lengths to promote success in my class.  Where I stop, however, is that I don’t “gift” grades; students must rise to my standards and earn them.
One problem with our educational system, where it stands at the moment, is that open communication is discouraged.  Recently my students were disappointed because I didn’t go over the homework assignments during class (due to time constraints) and yet no one asked if I could make an answer key available.  I have a Science Scholars website to assist them in any way that will enhance their understanding.  Scanning the answer keys and posting them online is an easy solution to this dilemma.  And yet, not one of my students asked me if it could be done.  Lectures are posted online.  I told them old quizzes could be posted online.  Why would I withhold homework answer keys if it would increase student success?
This leads to another key element that is lacking in most classrooms, apparently in mine, and that is the element of student-teacher trust.  When a student is in elementary school, he/she knows that the teacher can be counted upon for comfort and support.  Somehow that thread of trust is squashed in the high school years, and teachers and students are viewed on opposite teams.  This is damaging in a class such as Honors Chemistry, when the process of accessing the information is unique for each person, and communication is critical.  Obviously, if a group of students put any teacher on the defensive, they will be shut down, and their needs will not be met.  Advocacy, however, is an imperative component of education. A student should have the ability to politely state his/her needs to a teacher who is striving to enhance student success.  Unfortunately this is not usually the case. 
Too many students in this era are withdrawn and in fear of repercussions.  They are not in the habit of their ideas having validity.  Allowing for student input in the teaching process does not undermine the authority of the instructor, but empowers the students to take part in their own learning.  When students identify ways in which they will be more successful in a class, they are developing  life skills that will carry them through college.  Taking the next step, and learning the art of advocacy, is one of the most important lessons a person can learn in high school.  Therefore, students, I now challenge you to think about how you best learn, seek the help you need, politely share your ideas, and work with me to achieve a memorable and successful year in Honors Chemistry.  For, regardless of what you may think, I will not accept this as status quo.  Although it sounds great in theory, I will not leave my work behind at 2:30 pm, until I am certain that you all have mastered the content of this course.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Inspired by my Marine Biology students, MVP Arts
Dedicated to all of my students facing academic challenges; you're all MVPs!!
Okay, MVP’s, we are starting on a journey.  I listened to each of your concerns and will address them throughout the school year.  Now we need to focus on a new topic.  Learning.  Once you walk into my classroom, learning is the main thing.  That does not mean you will be sitting in your seats for 90 minutes listening to me speak nor reading from a textbook.  You will be a part of the teaching and learning process, each and every day.  We will not be focusing upon grades because, in my class, I insist that your scores will be good.  You will work, you will learn.  We will learn together. 
Marine Science is a course of discovery.  Like the hidden gems of the sea that take effort to uncover, so does a person’s talents in the field of science.  In order to fully comprehend the remarkable secrets of the ocean and its surrounding environment, basic concepts in Biology and Chemistry must be attained.  Therefore, we have our work cut out for us, already six weeks into the semester, and some catching up to do.  Consider it a challenge.  I am like your coach, the one who will push you beyond the limits you knew you could achieve.  However, this is important work.  For it is only the educated who will bring positive changes to our society, and save the beautiful things we all enjoy, such as the seacoast, coral reefs, and exotic fish.
Just as with a coach, you will not always like what I have to say, but you will respect it.  Just as with sports, sometimes you will grow weary and want to stop, but you will keep trying.   And sometimes things may not seem fair, but you will trust that I am making the best possible judgment in each situation.  This is our classroom code of conduct. 
Learning, true learning, is not easy.  It requires questioning, reasoning, problem solving, and compromise.  But in the end, succeeding in a rigorous science class will be one of the most satisfying experiences of your high school career.  More important, however, once you have mastered all that I have taught you in this course, you will have rightfully earned your title of MVP, which, in this case, does not stand for most valuable player, but for most valuable person.  And that is precisely what each of you are.