My students this year are different. Two years ago my students were on average at least one year older, which meant most of them had been held back at least one grade before they got to me. They were larger, more mature in some ways, less developed in many others, and far more aggressive. The current batch looks and acts much more like they are supposed to in the eighth grade, which has been a throw-back to teaching middle school outside of the city.
Yesterday in class, the high-tracked class had something of a melt-down. Two sets of students nearly got into physical altercations. One was started by a boy tapping the back of a girl's neck, which led to her smacking him pretty hard across the side of the head (deserved, but detention). The second was between two boys, which led to one almost bawling in the middle of class and the other wanting to knock over desks and things. The crying surprised me. I've only seen one student actually cry in class since I arrived in the South Bronx and I haven't seen any boys come even close. This has probably been due to the fact that they were older before, but probably also because those students had rougher home lives and simply did not display such emotions in front of their peers. The current students are emotional, have some pudge, and their drama is really juvenile, as opposed to the dropkick, screaming, insane-human drama of the past two years. While these new students aren't sheltered, they have fewer scars, seem better-fed, and still have characteristics such as curiosity and respect for adults (for the most part).
In terms of academic preparedness, these students bring to the table a far different arsenal than their predecessors from last year and two years ago. This week our learning specialist provided me with some important academic data on these students. She tested both the current eighth grade and the current ninth grade's reading levels with our English teachers. On average, the current eighth graders read at a higher level than the current ninth graders. That's nuts. That statistic alone shows the incredible disparity between the two classes.
Last week the same class that melted down today did provide me with a reality check on where they come from. While I've been sitting on cloud nine, eating up the glowing reports from their former teachers, and delighting in the work they've already done this year, they reminded that their own lives are no cake walk when, during an activity on timelines, I gave them the prompt, "Name an event in your life that has changed the way you think or act every day." The regulars volunteered their answers to the prompt and each one gave me the same response: the death of a sibling or parent is what has changed their lives the most. Initially, I was caught off guard by this, as the topic has never come up in class before (at least not part of the class's conversation). In the past I may have heard one student telling another that such an unfortunate thing happened, but it never made it's way into academic conversation. This might be for a variety of reasons, but I believe the students of two years ago and many last year faced tragedy more consistently in their lives- death in the family, being removed and moved around by the state, excessive drug use at home, etc.- while for this class of students, such things may not be as much an everyday reality. Still, the discussion demonstrated in part that while I have the highest flying kids I've ever had in my current position, my job's location certainly hasn't changed.
I have no doubt these students will do well this year. They can read better than their ninth grade peers- students at least a year older than them, but they still perform below grade level on average. Of the students I've taught thus far, they have been failed fewest times by adults and are considered by all adults who have worked with them the most "normal" group of middle schoolers that have walked our halls. While none of these students are already EX-gang members and I expect (knock on wood) that none of them will be shot in the leg while hanging out with ridiculous people in even more ridiculous situations, they still do no have the safe, secure lives of the middle-class military brats I taught two and a half years ago. In spite of the academic skills and ability to stay out of sticky situations,the most important factor is that they still have it in their heads that they are students, not just young people showing up to school. This will make all the difference.