Chalk Talk

Last modified: Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The end of the year often has me feeling stressed and flustered. All those moments where I felt the year was dragging screamed by me, and with it, precious time. The familiar panic rises as I wonder whether we will finish “Romeo and Juliet” before our final exams.

Have I prepared my students adequately for next year? Did we do enough writing? Have they made enough growth?

Yesterday, a large group of students came after-school to finish up some projects. Watching them made me realize how much we’ve accomplished in a year.

Let’s start with Eddy. At 6’6”, he looks like a professional basketball player and towers over me. During the first half of the year, he grumbled constantly: “I hate school. I hate writing. This is hard. I’m not doing this.” He whined so much that I started calling him Eeyore. Yesterday morning I found him in my room at 7 a.m., getting extra help on his paper from my student teacher.

Looking up at me he grinned and said, “Look, Miss. I think I’ve got a pretty good introduction. I just need some help on the conclusion. I’ll be staying after for that today.”

That afternoon he was full of questions about italicizing book titles, combining sentences and he even talked about his decision to change, “Capulet was pissed off” to “Juliet dishonored her family when…” When another student was stuck on her essay he bolted out of his chair and said, “It’s OK, Miss, I got this. I can help her.” Even though his height hadn’t changed, Eddy went through a heck of a growth spurt during the course of this year.

Then there was Adam. Despite my best efforts, Adam failed all three quarters.

When I first spoke to his grandmother in September, she bluntly told me Adam didn’t stay after school and he didn’t do homework and there wasn’t much that she could do about it. As I walked into the room after school, Adam was sitting at the desk with another student, working on his project.

Not only did he hand in a completed project, but he also wrote his analysis paper — the first and only completed assignment he’s ever submitted for the class. And it was done well. Adam is the poster child for why I just can’t give up on students at any point during the year.

I looked around the room at the masks students had created to show the complexity of “Romeo and Juliet” characters. One thing I love about the end of the year is it is the perfect time to work on more creative projects. In the midst of MCAS tests and final exam reviews, my students were pondering over pipe cleaners, glitter and ways to utilize tissue paper. This was the first year we made masks and, frankly, I was nervous this was going to be an exercise in futility.

As usual, the students surpassed my expectations. One student had attached braids to Romeo’s mask to show hoe he was “tied down” by love. Another student created a wolf mask for Mercutio, a sign that Romeo’s kinsman was an independent thinker who knew how to defend his pack. What had not previously shown up in their writing was crystal clear in the design of their masks. As I talked with students about their choices, it was apparent they understood the multiple sides of their chosen characters.

That afternoon was not unusual in terms of the number of students who stayed after school, or the activities taking place. What was unusual was the sense of calm I was feeling so close to the end of the year.

Watching them work, I wasn’t nervous for the next year, and I wasn’t panicked about the end of this one.

My students had learned all the important lessons — and even managed to teach me some in the process.

Bettencourt, of Hatfield is a teacher at Central High School in Springfield, a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and the 2013 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.


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