The quiet drop outs

It’s not shocking that the December 30th deadline for confirming my National Board Certification candidacy has forced me to ask the right questions. If I’m co-teaching two sections of Honors English 12 and teaching solo two others, which class would be best to film for Component 3? Or should I use my 7th period ELD Seminar class that has only 10 students? Should I certify in English Language Arts (the subject I’m actually teaching) or English as a New Language (my career specialty)?

It turns out that I have to scrap the videos I’ve recorded, delete the written commentary, and wait until next semester when my new schedule includes 51% English Learners in a sheltered Honors English 12 class. Teachers have to pivot all the time. Good thing I checked before spending the rest of the school year completing unscorable components. One thing, however, has come out of this frustrating process that I cannot dismiss.

The data I’ve collected on my students may not be valid for National Board Certification, but it deserves some written commentary. So here it is.

Out of the 106 students in my four classes, 30 have missed 20 or more days of instruction or they have stopped coming to school altogether. Some have withdrawn from school officially, some have switched to “credit recovery” classes online, and one had a baby. Many English Learners are working full time and miss class because they’re exhausted. But where are the other students? Why aren’t they coming to school?

Over and over again, I try to contact the students on my roster. I call home, I send an email to the counselors, administrators follow up, kids get referred to the Wellness Center, I involve the Parent Community Coordinator or the Bilingual Counselor. Some will show up once a week or two. My school and school district have wonderful resources, fully employed. But why aren’t these students coming to class?

Teachers and school staff understand why. These students are suffering from enormous mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic. It’s not just a disengagement. This year’s seniors spent the spring semester of their freshman year and 90% of their 10th grade year online. These are crucial formative years, where adolescents naturally break away from their families and seek peer friendships as they develop independent identities.

Schools have made incredible adjustments to accommodate student needs. But we must keep asking the right questions. How can we better address the experiences of high school students whose natural growth process was stunted? What new programs or new staffing can we put in place to support the whole child? School is not just for academics. We’ve known that for a long time. Why has it taken a public health crisis to begin to address this?

During the pandemic, articles about the “great resignation” began to appear. Workers seeking better jobs jumped at new employment opportunities. Now we hear about “quiet quitting,” where workers are opting out of any extra tasks outside their primary job duties (in the teachers’ union, we call this Work to Rule). High school students are paralleling what companies and employers are seeing in the workforce.

Seniors are doing the absolute bare minimum to meet graduation requirements. It’s a huge problem in the classroom when 30% of the students missed the intro lesson and we can not make progress. I have to completely re-think discussion groups or project-based assignments that require peer collaboration. What social-emotional skills are they also missing?

It’s a quiet drop out crisis. The soft skills that today’s teens will need to be successful members of society are not developing normally. We can help them if every school, every district, and every state begins to ask the right questions, gather data, and reflect on possible solutions. It would help to have a deadline.

Hamlet and the Class of 2022

Appearance vs. Reality. Anxiety. Mistrust.

The themes of Hamlet could be taken from today’s headlines. Or maybe from our students’ social media posts. When we asked Honors English 12 classes to find elements of the play that are valuable and relevant for today’s young people, many chose to make a personal connection to Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind. Who can blame them? The mental health crisis among teens today is well documented and serious.

Like Hamlet, this year’s seniors have experienced plenty of disruptions in their lives: school shootings, toxic political discourse, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and two years of pandemic schooling. Hamlet spends half of the play depressed and brooding. Then in a moment of rage he lashes out at the man behind the curtain, killing Polonius instead of his evil uncle, the king.

Fortunately, student fights in the hallways don’t usually end in murder. Most school districts saw a huge uptick in violence as students returned to school buildings in the fall of 2021. School police officers had been removed in response to the BLM movement and administrative teams were overwhelmed. Something was definitely rotten in the state (of Denmark), and our leaders were very slow to recognize it.

In the classroom, however, we see almost the opposite effect: lethargy. Here we are, two months from graduation, and it’s almost like the entire class of 2022 presents with Ophelia syndrome: they’re going through the motions of writing an essay, but waiting for authority figures to tell them what to think. I don’t truly believe that, but wonder how much their social-emotional development was stunted by 18 months spent going to school from a corner in their bedrooms? Is that why they identify so much with Hamlet?

Teachers continually try to find ways of connecting Hamlet to the real world. Here and here are some of the best ways that is being done this year.

Polonius counsels his son Laertes before he heads back to university. “To thine own self be true,” he tells him.  What does that even mean for the Class of 2022?