Meryl Johnson has been teaching for decades. And during that period of time she has always felt intrigued by the wide diversity of students she encounters in the same classroom. These days, however, that fascination is sometimes tinged with frustration as she begins wondering: How can she, or any other teacher for that matter, be expected to prepare such a disparate group for one-size-fits-all standardized tests?
“Some of the students are very motivated and live in supportive homes,” Ms. Johnson said. “Others come from situations where tennis shoes and video games are considered more important than books. How can these kids be expected to perform the same on a test?”
This quandary has not, however, dampened Ms. Johnson’s enthusiasm for teaching. Nor, does it keep her from using the teaching skills she has honed over the years. They are based upon some shrewd understandings of young people.
Ms. Johnson, for example, informs her students from the very first day that she expects them to be polite, but lets them determine exactly what that concept means. They usually pipe up with comments such as: You shouldn’t talk when others are talking. You should respect other people.
To reinforce these ideas, Ms. Johnson brought in a sign that read “This classroom is a “hate-free zone” and stapled it to a bulletin board.
“You will get the students respect if they know that you care,” Ms. Johnson, who in addition to teaching is also a Trustee at Large with the Cleveland Teacher’s Union, said. “They can a strong sense about that kind of thing.”
And Ms. Johnson long ago learned that students are social animals who do not want to be isolated; even the most disruptive young people feel uncomfortable when they are removed from the class. So, you can gain considerable leverage by not permitting them to rejoin their buddies until they have learned how to behave.
Also, important in Ms. Johnson’s classroom: She makes books, particularly books by authors to whom they can relate – Paul Volponi, Sharon Draper – a priority. And she pushes them to write about how passages they read touch them on a personal level.