Credit Recovery Summer School

After the hectic end to the school year, a mini-vacation to visit family in Wisconsin, and starting summer school, I am back!

I'm teaching credit recovery for 9th grade English - read that as "you are assigned to my class if you did not pass English."  Read that also as, "We are not excited to be here with you, Ms. Hagen."  Luckily for these kids, I am excited to be here with them!  For me, it's another opportunity to get kids who don't see themselves as readers or writers to change their view of themselves and of literacy, and maybe even their view of school itself.

Who are these students?  They are a true mixed bag - I have struggling readers and writers; I have attendance problems, behavior problems, compliance problems, language problems, attitude problems, and probably a variety of other problems that I'm not aware of.  And, I have students who did not meet deadlines, did not like the books or the paper topics assigned to them, and those who simply did not follow through and turn in work.

They are with me for 19 days to try to regain 1/2 an English credit.  But far more importantly, I am with them for 19 days to try to restore hope, to rekindle (or create) the idea that reading can be a pleasant, useful experience and that writing about about topics we care about is powerful.

While I don't have complete control over the curriculum, I did make sure students chose books they can and want to read and writing topics that they care about.  For books, I used the provided "list" of books as a starting point - I introduced each one and asked if the kids had read any of them during the school year and wished to use them for the literature assignments.  Looks of horror flashed across every face in the room.  "Or,"  I told them, "you can look through the 8 bins of books under the window, and choose a books that feels just right to you."  The horror fades, and is replaced by a different expression.  I'd like to say it was relief, but it was less trusting than that.  It was more like hope, very cautious hope. They needed to see what was in those bins first.

So, with a few instructions, I turned them loose.  I asked them to look at the front and back covers, to see how long the book was, and to check out the size of the print.  These are all things that matter to struggling and resistant readers, and need to be acknowledged.  Then I asked them to read the first page or two to make sure the language feels right.  "Does it flow along for you, or do you find yourself re-reading or tuning out?" I want them to tune into the meaning, the way the language is put together, the feel of this book.  I mingle as they pick up books.  Clearly they have not browsed books for a while, if at all.

Book choice validates who my students are.  It tells them, "It's OK to be you, to like what you like, to have the interests you have."  It's always sad to me to see my high school kids so hesitant , like scared cats that come to my house as fosters, peaking their heads out from under my bed, trying to see if this place is safe, or if they should hide. And it's books, people. Books!

Then we switch to writing time.  There is a prompt I have to use for the narrative piece - a character in conflict with society.  This works for my students, but not if I just hand it out.  First, we brainstorm people in their lives.  Then we brainstorm problems we know about.  Then, we begin talking, sharing, and idea-trading, to flesh out our ideas.  Some kids write real - they have had lots of conflict and have plenty of stories to tell. Other kids decide to create a fictional character based on an issue they care about.  In our talk, they sound ready, so we begin.

But just like book choice, writing down a whole story becomes scary, and the excuses begin.  We stop for the day, and I decide the next day to bring in "Thank You, Ma'am" by Langston Hughes.  We need a mentor text, something to help us know how to write, to think about narrative technique, to give us some confidence that we can do this.  We read the story together and talk about it as writers.  Then I pull out a narrative planner with a series of boxes on it.  Graphic organizers like this help kids who feel overwhelmed. The boxes are small, with just enough room  to jot quick ideas - who are your characters?  What is your setting?  the problem?  Slowly, I realize I've lost them, but in a good way.  They've tuned me out and they're writing! Ideas in small boxes are safe.  Then we'll begin drafting...tomorrow.

We have a choice when it comes to the summer school experience our credit recovery students have.  We can look at it like a chore and having to "make" the kids get it done. We can view these kids as lazy or troublemakers who chose not to succeed.

Or, we can hold a radically different view.

We can choose to see summer as a time to build relationships with kids who may have disconnected during the regular school year.  We can choose to help these students see reading and writing as valuable and enjoyable tools to help them learn and communicate their own ideas.  By offering choices, we can choose to help these students see that school is here for them too.

And that can make a huge difference in 19 short days.


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