Each class has its own personality, which either enhances or detracts from learning.
Carol Charismas’ three seventh-grade English classes are no different. The most challenging one starts at 8:15 a.m. It became more difficult to cover lessons on myths and legends after an announcement over the public address system said some of Charismas’ anchor students were being pulled out for testing.
Watching that unfold was another lesson for me while watching Charismas’ classroom this school year at Paseo Academy as Kansas City Public Schools works to attain full accreditation in 2015. Some of the students who remained had done their homework and were prepared to give their reports on Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, Athena and Aphrodite as it was projected on the smart board for others to read.
But others hadn’t done the work and thought their conversations were more important than the lesson that Tuesday. It was as if the beautiful quotes that Charismas had posted in her room to inspire the students had never been read.
One said, “To listen, be silent.” Another from Lyndon B. Johnson: “You never learn anything new while talking.”
A third read, “The more a man knows, the less he talks.” The class disruptors and Charismas’ attempts to quiet them kept other students from learning.
She kept trying, however, peppering the class with questions when she wasn’t working to retain order.
“The myths are all fictional people,” she said. “What were they trying to do, class?”
She gave the answer: “They were trying to figure out the universe.” Ancient people invented stories to explain earthquakes, storms and the seasons.
“Do some of you try to make sense out of the lives you live?” Charismas asked. “What is your purpose? That’s a universal question.”
The students weren’t as attentive as they should have been and far less so than the class that followed. Charismas told me that in her grading, 25 percent is based on class participation.
“I have a great amount of patience with the students and I don’t get angry,” Charismas said. “But when I get home at the end of the day, I feel so disheartened.”
Part of the problem lies in there being no meaningful consequences to prompt students to take responsibility and correct their behavior. “You don’t do kids a favor when you don’t have consequences that affect them,” Charismas said. Respect for students who want to learn, for the teacher, for the school and for all families is essential.
“Their heads aren’t in the right place,” Charismas said. “No one who disrespects others respects himself. I stay patient. I don’t take what they do personally.”
But from decades of teaching she has noticed how students today are different from those in years past. Seventh-graders in the 1970s were not as physically developed as Charismas’ students today.
Yet, she said, the seventh-graders today are mentally and emotionally more like third-graders were 40 years ago. Students today carry into school a lot of anger with them, shaped by their community and their homes.
Charismas explained that one girl has unresolved anger from her father being stabbed to death. With others, it’s from divorce and families splitting up or from abuse the children have suffered. It affects their behavior, their class participation and their ability to learn.
Back in class, Charismas told the students who came unprepared or were disruptive, “Those of you who didn’t do your work today, you might think of something to make up for that zero.”
She put it in the context of what the students should have gotten from lessons on myths and legends and people in ancient times trying to control their destiny.
“If you choose to work, you pass,” she said. “You don’t, you fail. Do you control your destiny?”
Kids can only if special services help students get past their anger and anguish.