written by Matt Repka, corps member serving on the Serve DC team serving at Johnson Middle School
City Year Washington, DC serves in 14 of the highest-need District of Columbia public schools, where corps members work full-time to address the dropout crisis in American education by working as tutors, mentors and role models. But corps members are hardly alone in their fight. Every day across the District, teachers, administrators and other educators work to turn around the lowest-performing schools and close the achievement gap. This is one such story.
By 10:12, the catalyst has begun again. The six minute timer has begun. There are 15 students and one corps member, Sarah Theobald, who travels with this homeroom class.
The overall environment can vary greatly from period to period, and after the hum of 1st period, 2nd period is subdued. One student seems off-task, laughing uncontrollably. Ms. Theobald moves to quietly address him personally, and the laughter subsides. The class as a whole is locked in on the catalyst.
At 10:19, the timer is expired, and Ms. Wallin is moving swiftly through the room, desk by desk, awarding stamps to students who completed the activity. As she walks, she briefs the class on today’s activity. “Last time we saw each other was last Thursday, when we took the human body quiz,” she says. “The main part of today’s class will be you calculating your own score, then you’ll be correcting anything you may have gotten wrong.”
In order to calculate their score, the 7th graders today will need to process fractions, dividing points possible by points earned. Ms. Wallin reminds the class of a trick she learned from a student last year. BOTI, an acronym for Bottom Outside Top Inside, is an easy way to remember how to set up a long division problem. Remedial concepts like this one often become the core of these science lessons, Ms. Wallin says.
At 10:27, the students with behavior issues are beginning to make themselves known. In this environment, where all it takes to lose the classroom is the will of a single student, effective teaching requires a constant vigilance. Teachers must learn identify incipient problems; sometimes before a word has been spoken.
“I know you’re listening when your hands are still, knees are forward, mouth is shut, and eyes are on me,” Ms. Wallin addresses the class – a popular refrain of hers.
Students begin to act out. A pencil flies across the room, and a fight seems imminent. Swift action by Ms. Wallin and Ms. Theobald brings a resolution with no disciplinary referrals required. “Make your own choices in this situation,” admonishes Ms. Wallin. Check-in with students continues.
By 11:30 the most disruptive students are winning the battle,. An announcement comes on the PA, but the in-class volume is too high – the announcement cannot be heard. Despite the disruption and chaos, there are still several students still on track. Ms. Wallin is now in overdrive, redirecting and managing behavior with individual interventions; Ms. Theobald is working one-on-one with one of the more disruptive students. Classwork is proving difficult to execute.
Nine minutes later, the clock runs out on this period. Quizzes are collected, catalysts are turned in, and students line up to begin the trek to lunch. Some students decline to wait to walk downstairs, bolting out the door.
Back in the room, Ms. Wallin’s door shuts behind her, and it’s quiet for the first time since 8:30 in the morning. “Not the most successful morning,” she tells me. Behaviorally, the 1st period was typical; the 2nd period was not, she says. “I actually do pretty well with that group [the second graders], but there are time bombs.” The problems arise from the skill gaps that by 7th grade are chasms – “perfect essays versus classmates that cannot write.” This presents a challenging set of circumstances for a teacher to navigate.
Lunch is a brief respite from the action – a chance to microwave some food in the teacher’s lounge and do some on-the-fly analysis of the morning’s lessons. Often, the day’s plan is revised based on what has worked and what has not. Today’s 4th period class, for instance, will be greeted with an additional handout walking them through the steps of calculating percentages. It’s a time to get updates from teachers, do graduate school assignments (Ms. Wallin is in her last semester of her MA in teaching at American University), make additional photocopies, work on tomorrow’s lesson, and catch up on grading. “It never feels like enough time,” she laughs.
At 12:30, an email that was sent last night suddenly pops up in her inbox. Ms. Wallin has a lesson planning meeting scheduled for today at 1:15. Suddenly, the timetable is even more compressed.
This is a multi-part series. For the final chapter, click here.