Today, I visited my former high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology. This magnet school was formerly listed as the #1 high school in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. As a student, I took the culture of achievement at TJ for granted; how could I have known how unique my high school education was, when it was the only one I’d ever known?
This afternoon, I went to TJ with not-so-fresh eyes, with eleven weeks of teaching under my belt. I wanted to see how my own school had prepared me for success to see how I could bring some of that experience to my own kids. Beyond the technology & state funding, what makes TJ a unique place? How can John Marshall exhibit some of those same qualities?
1) Student ownership of learning. TJ’s halls are covered with student-created flyers & student-created projects. Lockers are decorated. Even the bathrooms, have been painted by students, each one showcasing a different ecosystem. Need evidence of student work? Look up. The ceiling tiles display student learning — including a hallway of the periodic table of elements.
What does this mean for my classroom? Put student work everywhere. Allow my students to take ownership of my room & take pride in their successes. I remember how important I felt walking underneath the ceiling tile painted by me & my friends throughout high school — I want my students to feel that same sense of pride & ownership in my classroom.
2) Integrative learning opportunities. Since freshman year, students at TJ are required to participate in projects combining different academic disciplines. It all starts with the IBET project (integrative Biology, English, & Technology) and culminates in a senior tech lab project. What’s more, these projects are not based on hypothetical conditions — many of them require that students partner with external organizations & report their findings. My project involved working directly with our county’s health department, through which we reported our findings (and were on local tv — again, feeling pretty important).
What does this mean for my classroom? Create partnerships to bring my students’ work to life. Plan ahead to find authentic applications to our local community. Partner with other teachers to determine if we can work across content levels. At the very least, I can continue reinforcing my lessons with a strong literacy focus.
3) Students need to become advocates for their own education. What shocked me here? This issue exists in schools across all lines — socioeconomic, racial, geographic, public/private/magnet/charter. Whether it’s disinterested parents or “helicopter” parents, students struggle to take ownership of their academic success & to ask for help when they need it.
What does this mean for my classroom? We are not alone. Motivating students & connecting content beyond the classroom is a struggle for teachers across the board.
Over the past week, I had been feeling frustrated for my students. Many of them have such drive, such passion for their futures…and I felt frustrated by how the odds are stacked against them. I recently read a blog post that quoted a college student at a top university as saying “I strive to do the bare minimum to get by in my classes.” How can we live in a world where someone who isn’t willing to work hard is able to receive better opportunities than someone who works their butt off every day?
So, my takeaway is this: I may not be able to reach 5 years of academic growth in a single year with my kids. I may not be able to turn them all into math-loving geometry whiz kids, like the students of my high school. But I can give them the confidence to take on a new mindset. I can help them see that their hard work will pay off, despite the odds. I can take actions to reinforce those admirable character traits that will make them stand out against their peers who strive for the “bare minimum.”