The ties that bind
For three 9th graders sharing their stories with the Notebook, connecting with teachers is a critical step in staying engaged with school and on track to graduation.
By By Benjamin Herold on May 20, 2009 04:05 PM
It takes a lot to rattle Will Green. An unexpected move after his mother’s landlord refused to fix their flooded basement? A three-day suspension for throwing crayons in English class? His photo on the front page of the Notebook?
The quiet 14-year-old just shrugs.
At South Philadelphia High, Will’s unassuming demeanor sometimes means getting lost in the shuffle.
At a large school with a 56 percent dropout rate, that is scary. But in his physical science class, where he has the chance to conduct all manner of hands-on experiments, Will’s steadiness often works in his favor. Never is that more true than during teacher Segan Millington’s “earthquake challenge.”
Millington gives students a variety of materials and challenges them to construct three-tiered structures that can withstand her efforts to topple them. Will and his partners select popsicle sticks, cardboard and glue, then get to work building a solid base and supporting the walls.
The next day, theirs is the lone tower still standing.
“Everyone else used Play-Doh,” explains Will, “so theirs fell apart.”
“[Will] can’t get enough of hands-on material,” laughs Millington, a third-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Syracuse University who worked in an endocrinology lab before getting a master’s degree in science teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Science can easily go either way,” she said. “Kids are either very excited or think it’s the most boring thing ever. I try to come up with as many hands-on activities as possible.”
This strategy clearly works for Will. Whether mixing chemical solutions or investigating marshmallow-filled syringes, Will always seems to make class when there’s an experiment to be conducted.
His general attendance, however, is less steady. In the first 150 days of the school year, Will has 31 official absences and 33 latenesses.
His poor attendance stretches back to elementary school; from 5th through 8th grades, Will missed 36, 56, 58, and 33 days.
Will blames this on his asthma. But in 4th grade, the year he had Charlene Jablow at Abigail Vare Elementary, he was absent just 20 times and late only twice.
“I liked Ms. Jablow’s class,” remembers Will. “She had animals all over the room, and we got to take care of them.”
Like Millington, Jablow has strong credentials – undergraduate degrees in elementary and early childhood education, a master’s in curriculum and instruction – and keeps her students engaged with multiple activities. Her training, she said, drove home that “doing hands-on experiments was fundamental to helping students grasp concepts.”
For Will, that meant feeding and observing a guinea pig named “Fatty Patty,” building underwater environments using Tupperware and clay, and turning a lemon into a battery.
His favorite lesson, though, was dissecting owl pellets to learn about the bird’s diet. “We found all kinds of bone and fur, then had to figure out what animals they were from,” he recalls animatedly.
All along, the presence – or absence – of that enthusiasm has been reflected in Will’s performance. Fourth grade was his last year of all A’s and B’s. In the most recent marking period at South Philadelphia High, he received an A in science but a C in Algebra and a D in English.
In his other classes, says Will, “Sometimes we get on the computer or we get to make posters. But Ms. Millington’s class is the only one where we really get to build stuff and do experiments.”
His connection to school – and his dream of becoming a veterinarian – would feel shakier if not for the promise of more such instruction.
Rarely one to talk about the future, Will is looking forward to one aspect of 10th grade.
“I hope I have Ms. Millington for biology,” he says brightly. “She said we’ll get to dissect animals.”
Fifteen blocks away at the Academy at Palumbo, Corey White, 14, is struggling to get ready for his English test on The Odyssey.
“I really didn’t get it because there were a lot of names that all sound alike,” he laments.
Fortunately for Corey, teacher Latoyia Bailey, 35, is devoting an entire period to a Jeopardy-style review game.
Bailey – a 10-year veteran who has a Ph.D. in African-American history to go with her undergraduate degree in English education – goes all-out to engage her students. She has turned the blackboard into a giant scoreboard, and she cracks up her students by adopting the voice of a Greek god.
Corey said that he feels comfortable with both Bailey’s teaching style, which he describes as “going from parts to the whole,” and her personal style, which feels intimately familiar.
“I really can’t describe it,” he says of her classroom presence. “It’s just a feeling I get when I look at her. I automatically feel natural.”
Research suggests that matching students of color with teachers of the same race can positively affect academic performance. The “natural” feeling that Corey describes may play a role.