High Standards are Steady Keel in Storm of Adolescence

yostAs a middle school teacher, my days are often filled with the oscillating emotions of adolescence — the lows and highs of week-long romance, intense friendship and betrayal, moving compassion, cruel bullying, impassioned fights for justice, thrilling breakthroughs with “Eureka!” moments, as well as painful insecurity, shame and self-doubt. Navigating the world of the pre-teen requires a strong stomach, and learning to guide those young travelers through its rough waters will earn a land-lover her sea legs.

Before the newest version of the Kentucky Academic Standards (KAS) were adopted and implemented, English Language Arts (ELA) in Kentucky was a much softer, less rigorous subject, one that, unfortunately, was not successfully preparing students for college or careers in great enough numbers.

In the district where I taught, writing and reading classes were divorced from one another. In isolated writing classes, we taught six six-week units and centered each unit around a different genre — poetry, memoir, feature articles and so forth. The writing we did was creative and process-driven in the best classrooms, but did little to prepare students for the types of writing that would be required of them in high school and college.

It helped my middle school students, like Dale and Raeshawna, explore a sense of self and share their experiences, which was valuable in that it empowered them and showed these students that their writing mattered and could reach people. Still, more challenging skills, like literary analysis or nuanced arguments, were left for the high school teachers to start teaching from scratch. Since Dale and Raeshawna (among many other students) had serious skill gaps — such as not writing in paragraphs or punctuating sentences, not organizing a piece logically, using “and” as the go-to transition and spelling it “in” — we really had no room to overlook skills for the sake of developing the process as an end in itself.

Reading classes were grouped by ability, and the classes for lower readers followed strictly scripted textbook programs that included low-level passages aligned with their low-level reading skills. Poor readers like Raeshawna never experienced grade-level texts, and on the rare occasions that they did, we read the information aloud and interpreted it for them. Without independent practice, Raeshawna and students like her continued to fall farther and farther behind their peers. Because they never experience success with rigorous skills, students like Raeshawna were taught to believe they could not handle grade-level reading.

To this day I feel guilty when I think about the students in my first few years of teaching, because I know I did not do everything I could have done to support their academic success. I did not teach them how to think for themselves. As a teacher of low-income, inner-city students, the adoption of the standards in Kentucky marked a transformation for me and my students. I always believed that every child could — and should — learn and achieve at high levels; the standards challenged me to prove it.

The KAS catalyzed much needed, tangible changes to ELA instruction. Reading and writing were reunited as one subject, and I began teach kids to write and develop analyses of their reading that push their thinking to uncomfortable levels. As students work through this discomfort, their brains create and reinforce the neural pathways that will support growth and development throughout their lives.

Before the standards, I wanted to shelter lower-performing students from the pain of intellectual struggle. Today — with the KAS and the instructional shifts that accompany them — I know that without that struggle there can be no growth; and I’ll be there to support my students all the way to mastery.

With the KAS came more opportunities for teachers to choose exciting, complex texts for students. Now teachers can find the texts that capture their students’ interests and reveal the beauty and power of the written word on rigorous levels. My students read more classic literature now with the KAS than they did in our district’s previous reading curriculum, and their literary analysis essays prove they are mastering high school level reading and writing skills.

Despite the fact that middle school is one of the most tumultuous times in our lives, it is also the space in which students form the foundational skills to analyze literature, to think critically about what they read, and connect that reading to other content areas, like science and social studies. Without the standards, middle school could dissolve into an emotional chaos where “drama” (as my students call it) reigns supreme. High standards have instead given teachers a steady ship to navigate these waters and the best antidote for high intensity drama — rational dialogue.

Sarah Yost is a National Board Certified Teacher entering her twelfth year teaching middle school English language arts in Louisville, Kentucky and the surrounding communities. She is a former Hope Street Group Kentucky Teacher Fellow.