Senior Scrapbook: The Second Best Idea I Ever Stole

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During my 36 years as a high school English teacher, I generally substituted creative theft for actual creativity. Some of the best practices that I used were taken from teacher workshops, my colleagues, and journal articles. One of the things that teaching did for me was to keep me engaged in the world, always looking for something I might adapt and use effectively in the classroom. A song lyric, a news article, a documentary, a project my own children might bring home from school were all fair game. This was how I entered the weird world of scrapbooking.

I taught Advanced Placement (honors) senior English for the last 12 years of my career and all AP teachers, particularly those who worked with seniors, quietly dread the day that the AP test has come and gone. Beginning on the day that the students would return from the test for which I had prepared them, they would begin to look at me as some alien being, someone who no longer served any purpose especially when I would insist that we were continuing on with our work as usual.

I faced 4-5 weeks of trying to keep them engaged when nearly every kid had already chosen the college they would be attending the following year, and once AP tests were over, they were done. My best attempts were met, not with hostility, but with a deep and abiding sense of apathy. “Mr. Waldron,” they would say, “why do you keep trying to make us do stuff?”

 I did “stuff”, because I could not stand the boredom that comes from doing nothing. I decided they would read The Rocket Boys, the poignant memoir by Homer Hickam, popularized by the film October Sky. They would write a reflective essay focusing on one significant thing they had learned during their high school years, or to profile one special person who had provided them with mentoring and guidance. Students would also prepare a reflective speech to be delivered on one of the final three days of school. The guidelines were similar to the reflective essay and provided me with an easy way to get through the final three days with little to grade.

Lastly, they would create a scrapbook.

It started with the class of 2001. The entire idea of this four-part unit was to personalize the last 5 weeks and to give them opportunities to look back and consider what this experience of high school had meant to them, the good and the bad. For better or for worse, they were hitting one of our society’s significant rites of passage—graduation from high school. It was also designed to make the last 5 weeks as fun and easy for me as possible. Call it senior-citizenitis.

The seed of the idea for the scrapbook came from an article I read in the spring about a teacher who had used the creation of a scrapbook as a classroom activity. It occurred to me that this fit right in with my theme and that it would be both valuable and fun to have students create their own, individual scrapbooks, full of their best memories from high school.

I kept the guidelines simple. The scrapbook was to be a minimum of 25 pages. Each scrapbook had three required elements: a copy of their reflective essay, a short blurb on each section telling why this sport, activity, person, club, was significant, and three letters from meaningful people (a friend, a school person, and a relative) written to them and reflecting on this moment of their impending graduation. The other pages were up to them. I gave them a list of suggested page topics, but they literally exploded with ideas of their own. The grading was simple. If students met the requirements on time, they got full credit. The scrapbook could be expensive and elaborate with themed paper, stickers, and all of the other scrapbook madness, or it could be in a three-ring binder mounted on typing paper. It had to be completed at home. I took only three class days out to check on the number of completed pages and check on the required elements. The hardest part for me was getting through the class in one period. Some kids wanted to tell me the story behind every picture on every page and I really, really wanted to listen because some of them had worked so hard, but I had to sometimes rush them so I could look through all 30+ scrapbooks in one period.

I kept the same requirements for 12 years with very little adjustment, the biggest change being that after the first year, I told the students about the project during the first week of school to give them plenty of time to take pictures, save memorabilia, and to procrastinate. After the project had become well established, I would poll the students on the first day of school as to whether or not they had heard anything about it. Ninety percent of them had. Some of them had literally gotten into my class specifically because they wanted to do this one assignment. Wide-eyed kids eagerly told me that they already had completed some pages during the summer before their senior year had even begun. The finished projects ranged from meeting the minimum requirements to putting together 80-page productions in multiple volumes. It became a monster.

But it did not catch on right away with that very first class, the class of 2001. In fact, there was open revolt from the moment I suggested the idea. Remember, I introduced it with only 5 or 6 weeks remaining and it sounded like work and work was something that most had grown allergic to by then. But, there was a distinct gender split. As I explained the project, I could see a euphoric expression crossing the faces of some girls as if this was the assignment they had been waiting for, hoping desperately for, for their entire high school careers. Many of the boys were outraged. “You can’t make us do this“ they threatened. “We’re going to start a petition!” I’m not sure what the petition would have been for or to whom they would have given it, but clearly they needed some outlet to combat my audacity. One of the boys came to me and said defiantly, “I’m just not going to do this project!” My response had been honed by years of practice. I looked at him blandly and said, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything I assign. If you can afford to lose the 100 points for the project, then don’t do it. It’s entirely up to you.” While the boys were planning rebellion, the girls were already planning scrapbooking parties.

We made it through that first year. The rebels surrendered and put their mothers and girlfriends to work and everyone completed the task. In the last weeks as I attended numerous senior activities, both kids and parents approached me to thank me. “We are so grateful that you made us do this. We would never have taken the time to do it on our own and now we have something really special to help us remember his high school years” was a comment I received frequently.

Alicia, a wonderful student from the class of 2005 wrote a message to me recently where she stated, “I found my scrapbook last summer and can’t thank you enough for creating an assignment for us to compile a concrete record of our time at Valhalla (High School). I never would have done it on my own, and it was incredible to rediscover the high school version of myself—so concerned with defining my own personality and path, surprisingly struggling with some of the societal and personal issues that I think about today.”

It’s funny the things that endure. I tripped across an article, adapted it for the classroom and decided to give it a shot. I quite unknowingly discovered a tool by which kids could “rediscover the high school version” of themselves. As the years have gone by and I have met up with or heard from students who are now scattered across the country, the scrapbook is invariably mentioned.

So much from the classroom fades away, but clearly, the scrapbook abides.

 

 

 

 

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A Handshake A Day…A Classroom Practice That Changed Everything

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During my 36 years of teaching English at the high school level, I attended many, many “professional development” workshops. I will let you in on a secret. By and large, teachers are terrible learners.

We demonstrate every bad behavior that we spend all day chastising our students about. We don’t pay attention. We pass notes. We ignore directions. We grade papers instead of attending to the presenter. Smartphones have made us even more inattentive, since now we can check email, Facebook, or chat with our friends across the room via text messages.

It is not our fault altogether. The workshops frequently do not meet our most critical or pressing needs. They are often planned by administrators who have lost touch with the classroom. And especially bad are the district-sponsored sessions that are designed to indoctrinate teachers into THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which they are convinced we must begin to implement immediately. Those of us who have been around feel a touch of cynicism about such roll-outs because we know it is likely to be just a couple of years before we are dragged back into the same room to hear about THE NEXT BIG, IMPORTANT THING IN EDUCATION which not only replaces its predecessor, but likely undoes all of the work we just completed implementing for the previous program.

However, one spring afternoon our staff gathered for a half-day workshop with a focus on the importance of boosting students’ self-esteem. This was some time ago when caring about students as individuals was considered as important as producing good test-takers.

The woman presenter was earnest and sincere and I’m sure she gave us a lot of good ideas and strategies, all of which I have now forgotten—all except for one. She told us that she stood at the door of her classroom at the beginning of every period and shook hands with every entering student, greeting every student, every day.

She claimed it was the single most influential thing she had ever done in terms of creating a warmer and more welcoming classroom environment. She claimed that once she began, her problems with discipline were greatly reduced, her students felt better about her and about themselves and most remarkably, that she could wait until the end of the day to record her attendance because she could actually remember who had attended that day.

“Hmmm,” I thought. This actually sounded like something.

There were so many reasons NOT to try it. First of all, we were nearing the end of the year, with barely 6 weeks of school remaining. Introducing a new ritual, a new daily practice would be awkward, both for me and for them. My classroom had two entry doors, so I’d be unable to greet them coming in the door. I’d need to wait until they were seated and then circulate through the room killing more instructional time. Most of all though, the thought of it made me feel vulnerable. I imagined that the kids would think it strange, forced, artificial. I convinced myself several times to put it off to the beginning of the next year. After all, it would be so much easier to start off the year with a brand new group of kids who had no expectations, who would be less likely to see this new practice as being a weird departure from the norm.

But the idea gnawed at me all weekend. If it was really that good, if it really made that big a difference, why not take it on a test drive for 6 weeks and see if it really could have the kind of impact that the presenter had suggested?

I was nervous on Monday morning. The first period kids sat down at the bell, and I began circulating up and down the rows with my first official handshake of what would become a ritual that would endure throughout the rest of my career. Students were surprised, puzzled, skeptical, and amused as I went around greeting each kid briefly. Once I was done, I certainly had their attention because they all wanted to know what the heck that was all about. So, I told them the story of the workshop, of my decision to experiment with them until the end of the year. After we had given it a try, I told them, I’d let them tell me what they thought, whether it was something I should continue with or not.

Over the next couple of weeks, we all became used to the new ritual. I began to look forward to this way of beginning each class. I liked that I had a brief moment each day to acknowledge every student in my classes. If I had a concern with one of the kids, I could pause at his desk and consult with him for a moment. Likewise, the students discovered that this was a good time to stop me if they had a particular problem or question to which they wanted to alert me. I found myself giving impromptu handshake lessons when students would offer up what I called a “dead fish handshake”, letting their hand lie limply and passively in mine. I felt like I was performing a public service by preparing them for using the proper “business handshake” that they would need as they eventually made their way into college and job interviews.

As the year came to a close, I did not feel as though I had seen a huge transformation in the classroom atmosphere. I had, however, begun to feel a significant change in me. By spending that moment every day with every student, I began to be much more aware of the uniqueness of each kid. Especially important to me was that it gave me a chance to chat with and acknowledge those who were very quiet or shy. They couldn’t hide when I was standing over them with my hand outstretched and, over time, I think they appreciated the attention.

During finals I surveyed the class and asked them how they had felt about our little experiment. It had become so routine by then a lot of them shrugged their shoulders. “Fine” some of them mumbled. One brave soul raised his hand to comment, “What I noticed, Mr. Waldron, was that it was really hard to be mean to you when you took time to shake our hands every day.”

Well, that was enough of an endorsement for me. I continued shaking hands for the next 15+ years, every kid, every day. Through it, I discovered not only the importance of creating a non-threatening physical connection, but the importance of having unique classroom rituals. The handshake made our classroom special because no one else (that they knew of) was doing it. Howls would go up if I mistakenly tried to begin class without handshakes first. Returning student might not remember a single thing I had taught them about reading or writing, but everyone remembered our daily routine.

One student who wrote to me on the occasion of my retirement in 2012 summarized it nicely: “I remember your daily handshakes (or fistbumps if we were sick) like it was yesterday. Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student really made a difference, especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in. It was nice to know that at least one teacher really cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in a crowd.”

Just a few minutes a day. Such a simple thing. I’m so glad I was paying attention during that one afternoon workshop so many years ago.