Articles for Teachers

Lets Make a Deal - How to Help Fading (and Failing) Students End the Year
By:Matthew Amaral

Everyone loves the end of the school year, especially the teachers and students. The parents, maybe not so much.

The reason I like the end of the year so much is because it is such a clean break. At no point during the regular school year do I feel anything but an impending sense of doom every day when I get home from work. I am always behind and playing a game of catch-up. Unfortunately, the game only comes to an end one day a year-sometime in June. Aside from summer break, the rest of my life is spent wishing I had more time to grade papers, prepare effective lessons, and work on curriculum.

Of course I never get to do any of these things.

With summer comes the promise of TIME. I'll have time to finally read those books I always say I'm going to. I'll have enough space to kick my heels up and think about improving my Fahrenheit 451 Unit. I won't have deadlines to meet with my coordinator positions and I won't have to worry about planning any field trips. I don't even have to fundraise. And most important, there aren't any papers to grade.

Okay, I guess I should slow down. The end of the year isn't here yet, and there are a lot of students out there crawling their way to the finish. So what do we do about the senior who has already signed their letter of intent but now has a D in your class? What do we do about the Sophomore who had an A all year but is now chilling with a C, and therefore won't get into Honors? And what do we do about the kids who have had Fs all year, are going to get an F for sure, and everyone knows it?

Well, with about a month left, I think it's time to make a deal.

I love making deals with students. I've said before that what really gets to the students is the daily grind. They can put together some pretty good stretches, but where a lot of kids fail is being consistent through the whole year. I could go into the reasons for this, but that is for another blog. Let's focus on how we can help kids string together a strong final month so that they accomplish their goals, or even if they don't, feel a sense of accomplishment at the very end.

Let's make a deal.

I'm going to use the examples above, and talk about what kind of deals I might make with some of these kids. They are all going to follow a pattern, so pay close attention, because you can probably apply many of these principles to almost every kid you have.

The first thing I will say, just to help you out, is never to make them any promises. I once told a girl with a D she might be able to get close to B if she did all the makeup work I gave her, turned everything coming up in on time, and aced every test, quiz and essay from here on out. Well, she didn't do all the work, makeup or otherwise, and didn't ace a damn thing. But at the end of the year all her and her mother remembered was that the letter "B" had come out of my mouth. What did I do? I still gave her a D. I don't care what her mom said, she didn't come through on her end of the deal. But I guess the first thing I'll tell you is this: They probably aren't going to make it all the way through the deal, so don't promise them anything. But just maybe they can get from a D to a C.

The Fading Senior

He's already signed his letter of intent to go to Cal State East Bay, but has Cs and Ds with a little over a month to go. All of a sudden he pulled his head out of wherever it was and has decided to talk to you and his other teachers (hopefully you have been trying to talk to him for a while now). What kind of deal do you come up with? Well, the first part of it is that they are going to have to WORK. Let them know straight up that you aren't going to give them some weak-ass handouts that amount to 1/40th of the work they've already decided to miss. Make it very clear to them that if they want to pass your class, they are going to have to work their butt off in the next month. Make that very clear, even if it is a lie.

Yes, you need to decide as an instructor what you are going to be satisfied with for them to pass your class. Let's be honest. With a month left in the year, if this kid has a D, he could probably get 150% A+++ on every assignment from here on out and be lucky to get a C. That's how grades work. By the last month, there are so many grades in the book lost ground is almost impossible to make up. So what do you do?

Give them makeup work. Look back and decide what assignments you cannot let them pass the class without. Make sure they know they WILL NOT PASS if they have not done those assignments. The Fading Senior might be your best bet for a deal. They know they only have a month left of high school, and might be willing to put in enough work to satisfy you. Then you sit there on the last teacher workday, and decide if what they did is enough to allow them into college, even if technically it wasn't.

The Flaky Honors Kid

This was the girl I made a promise to that she could get a B if she did all her work. She wanted Honors English next year, even though she had got a D the first semester and had a D currently. She was smart enough to ace everything and get her homework all done, and after a family counseling session, I really thought it was going to happen. It didn't.

With this kid you need to talk to them about excellence. You need to make sure they know what is in store for them next year, and you must remind them that if they want to be an honors student, they need to start acting like it NOW. Make the same sort of deal as the senior. Lots of make-up work, especially the really important assignments, projects or papers they are missing. Then wait and see. Sometimes they prove they are an honors student, sometimes they don't.

The Kid Who Will Fail No Matter What

Most likely this is going to be half your class if you teach in a low-income public school. It's a hard question. What do you do with all the kids who are failing, are going to fail, and really have no prayer. Well the first thing I do is talk to them about it. I usually do this as a class.

I like to go into the fact that just because they have an F in my class does not mean they are a failure, and I don't want them thinking they are a failure because of this. I'm serious. They are teenagers with jacked up lives, and just because they weren't able to navigate the dangerous world they find themselves surrounded by in order to prove to me, or the state of California, that they can write an essay, doesn't make them a failure in my book. I'm serious. And if you think so, you might need to check yourself. Just remember what I always say: If you were their age, living their lives, with their parents, you wouldn't be passing your class either.

I just read a study that talked about how the most successful public-school teachers are successful because they are able to empathize with their students on a deep level. If you can't do that, then you are going to be in trouble. Just remember how difficult their lives are, and let them know you care. Tell them, "Hey, so you got an F, so what? It doesn't tell me you're stupid. It just tells me you had a rough year, and you weren't able to focus on academics. It doesn't make me mad, and I am not disappointed in you. In fact I admire you. So what are we going to do in this last month?"

Well, hopefully you have something cool planned for your final unit of the year, like a Poetry Slam, or showing them how to mix gunpowder. Whatever it is, you can still use it to make a deal. Ask yourself, if some of these students give me their best work at the end of the year, am I willing to give them a D? Or maybe a C? Are they allowed to leave your class this year with any sense of accomplishment? I certainly hope so.

So make a deal. Make it with the whole class. Promise them you will bump them up an entire grade if they give you their best work for a month. Even if it is not possible in the gradebook. Offer extra credit. If they are serious about doing extra work, I see no problem with it.

I know what some of you are thinking. We always let them get away with mediocre work. We let them think they can make up 5 months of school in a week. We're not doing them a favor, and we are being irresponsible and weak. We give them so many second chances as it is, with makeup credits, summer school, and deals with counselors, that they know they can mess around for most of the year and still get by. And I agree.

That is why you need to push for their best work. If they can give that to you for a month-their best stuff of the year, then don't you think you need to take that into account? Aren't we supposed to be grading them on how much they improve? Doesn't anyone grade based on improvement anymore? So the first two months were some of the worst two months of their lives. Does that mean that if they do better in the next two, they should only get the grade from earlier? Don't we grade them on how much they learned, not how much they didn't know in the beginning?

Sometimes we have to step outside of our gradebooks and think about their growth.

And at the end of the year, if they see they weren't a complete failure, if only for a few weeks, they might just look at the next school year a little differently. And that's what we're really trying to do-create for them they're one big break-the one that gets them to realize they can actually do it, and gives them their first sense of accomplishment.

So try to end things on a positive note, even if half your class is failing. Let them know they aren't failures, and make sure they know you don't think of them in that way. And in the last month, MAKE SOME DEALS. The end of the year is a clean break. The kids go home, and wait three weeks to get their grades. They pretty much know what their grades are going to look like, and they know that when they arrive in the mail they're probably going to get some fresh bruises. But despite all the negative things going on in their life, maybe, just maybe, instead of an F from your class, they'll see a D.

They might even smile, and remember that for one month, they earned it.

Matthew Amaral is the founder of teach4real.com, a website dedicated to Real Teachers in our Toughest Schools. Matt is a writer and English Teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read his blog, "Teaching in the Ghetto Ain't Nufin' New" at http://www.teach4real.com. You can also recieve his FREE Romeo and Juliet Starter Unit, which comes complete with a Final Exam. If you teach public, you should hear what Matt has to say.

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