Mentorvention and Student Success

As a Browns fan, I find little excitement in watching the Superbowl. My most compelling reasons to watch the spectacle a few weeks ago were:

  1. Tom Brady was the quarterback for my playoff fantasy football team.
  2. Julian Edelman, a fellow Kent State alum, was playing for the Patriots.
  3. Madonna’s half time show
  4. The commercials

It ended up that reason number four was the best of all, because it became the basis for my American Literature lesson Monday morning.

I have been teaching literature analysis, contrasting several adolescent short stories with Catcher in the Rye, and I want my students to understand how tone is expressed differently in each work. When I saw Chrysler’s new ad, narrated by Clint Eastwood, I immediately knew how I could use it in my class. The next morning, I showed it to my students and we had a lengthy discussion about how the commercial used images, music and words to create a defiant, determined and hopeful tone. From this engaging discussion, we turned to our attention to the way tone is established in literature.

Even when watching the Superbowl, my classroom is in the forefront of my mind. It’s part of my commitment to connecting with and teaching every student. That commitment is why I get so excited every year to make improvements on my lessons from years past, in order to have make them better and more compelling for my new crop of students. It’s why I spend my summers at teaching conferences and in my classroom. It’s why I spend my Sundays tucked away from my family in the basement office, so I can grade essays and create lesson plans for the week.

My investment of time is not the only way I work to make sure all students succeed. Every year, I examine the novels I teach, considering what pieces of literature are most apt to engage my classes. I found that my tenth graders were not enthusiastic about reading a series of classic novels, like Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace. Many did not complete the daily reading assignments or show willingness to participate in discussions. I decided to go beyond the classics and merged Jodi Piccoult’s novel Nineteen Minutes into my curriculum. Although I don’t see the novel as an outstanding piece of literature with underlying symbolism, like Lord of the Flies, it deals with bullying, school shootings and interpersonal relationships. It’s a suspenseful, high interest book, which kids understand, and can easily relate to. It makes students reflect on the way they treat each other.

Along with the new literature, I created a real-world connection, by showing clips of various news clips about bullying incidents, and had students write reaction journals, in class, about the stories. These assignments were graded on completion, and by giving class time, I was assured that all students would do the assignment.

This unit was a success, and what was most rewarding was that I had several students admit that Nineteen Minutes was the first assigned novel they had ever finished.

The place where my commitment to student success is most evident is in my mentoring. If students aren’t feeling emotionally balanced at school or have anxieties and unresolved issues, it doesn’t matter how good my or my colleagues’ instruction is, because students are not focused on class. For that reason I teamed up with colleagues and we created a program we coined “Mentorvention.” We encouraged staff members to reach out to students who seemed to be in need of a positive adult relationship or who were struggling academically. We planned a connections day, where we invited all the mentored students to a day-long workshop where they had opportunities to talk with their peers and adults outside the school setting. Students let down their guard, shared personal stories and even shed some tears. Their connection to their teachers, peers and school, grew and, for some, grades and behavior improved.

Beyond the formal mentoring program, I try to foster strong connections with my students by sharing personal stories about my family or my own high school experience, usually at the beginning of class. It gets the students attention and makes them more willing to talk about their lives in class and in writing assignments.

Making the commitment to helping all my students succeed is one that takes energy, creativity and time. It may mean giving up a Sunday afternoon to grade papers and make lesson plans, but it’s a far more rewarding way to spend an afternoon than watching the Browns.

By Dan Greenberg, Sylvania Education Association

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