The Cohort: Reflections on a Rough Group

  • Elementary
Al Fischer

“We truly care for this group but it was disappointing (and still is) that nothing seems to work.” -a 2nd Grade teacher

“I could write a book.  Building relationships with students and parents was key.  Trauma informed practices really helped.” -our Assistant Principal

“I know that there are some kids in that class who will succeed no matter what life throws at them, because they have grit. And there are others who have so little support and resources at home that it will be near impossible for them to reach their potential.” -a 3rd Grade teacher

 

People working at a table

 

We never gave up on them.  This year’s 5th Grade cohort has cut quite a swath through this school over the years, affecting the lives of many.  They were the subject of countless conversations, the stimulus for new ideas and solutions, the reason to try again, and again, and again.  They made us take a look at ourselves, our processes, and our expectations.  We sought help from the community, finding mentors for students and developing partnerships. We worked through scheduling challenges, trying to find the balance of which subjects seemed most successful and when. We sorted and resorted the group through their elementary years, trying to keep certain students away from others.  But we never gave up on them.

 

I moved to Yakima and met these kids when they were in 2nd Grade.  I set out to write this piece with the thought that I’d need the help of my colleagues to fill in gaps from their earlier years. When I talked to some of their Kindergarten and 1st Grade teachers though, I could find no support for my assumption that there had always been challenges.  I confirmed this with our administration, who agreed that the problems began in 2nd Grade.  I can therefore rely on my first-had account of what I did and observed. Music class has been a bit of a 4-year roller coaster.  

 

I need to stress the anomalous nature of this group.  As a cohort, they have far more discipline referrals than any other group. For example, this year’s 4th Grade has a one page list of referrals.  5th Grade has eight.  Trauma is a big factor.  ACEs abound.

 

Picture of the word "start" on pavement

 

2ND GRADE
When I met them, music class was their last class of the day.  They were routinely 10 minutes late for a 30 minute class, because they had to get packed up and ready to go before coming.  In their minds, they were done with working for the day.  Discipline was a huge problem, exacerbated by tired brains and bodies.  I tried to plug into what I thought would be fun and engaging for them, but they didn’t want to be engaged - they wanted to be done.  Their teachers were similarly frustrated and our leadership engaged in endless conversations about how to impact the situation.  For me, it got better the next year.
All hands to the middle

 

3RD GRADE

 

Working with our Principal, I generated the possibility of starting the day with 3rd Grade, rather than repeating the pattern of late day exhaustion.  They lined up at my door when the first bell rang and came in with their backpacks.  We were all fresh and ready to work.  I felt so successful with the group that I chose to employ them as my focus group for National Board certification.  We enjoyed each other and rebuilt our relationship.  The rest of their school day was not so successful. According to one 3rd Grade teacher, “I struggled making connections with them, but there are a couple of kids who stand out to me even now. I mostly feel like some of the kids, especially some of the girls like M and K, got the short end of the stick because of some of their classmates.”  

 

Caution sign- high intensity noise, hearing protection required

 

4TH GRADE

The group was once again at the very end of the day, but I was hopeful that the good energy of the previous year would carry us through.  However, we quickly reverted to old patterns.  One thing that was different was that once every week I had them for 45 minutes.  I started the practice of bargaining with them, using the one thing I knew they valued - recess.  My deal during the 45-minute period with them was that if they gave me 30 minutes of solid work, I would give them 15 minutes outside. Whatever time they wasted in class was taken off of their free time.  This was moderately effective.  Despite my struggle to engage them in having fun making music, many of them would not be persuaded and chose to have fun disrupting our work instead.

 

Image of a marathon race.

 

5TH GRADE
...and that brings us to right now.  I again have their class first thing in the morning, which has had a positive effect.  We are currently working on our spring concert, an all-school outdoor event.  As we considered what we could do, one student suggested doing a “flash mob” in the middle of the show, where they could surprise the audience.  This was met with enthusiasm, and I realized that if I wanted their buy-in, all of the ideas for our performance needed to come from them.  It took time, but we aligned on including some favorite dances from previous years.  I made sure the whole group could see how their input led to what we are doing. 
Thumb up, sideways and down images

 

SOME TAKE-AWAY
While I do not have a feeling of success with this group, I also do not have a feeling of failure.  With my fellow teachers, I can point to our constant reflection, our consistent effort, our good intentions, and the occasional good days that kept the boat feeling afloat, if not sailing forward.  I worked to notice the students who continuously gave their best while their classmates were screaming for my attention.  This, I think, was the most challenging thing - not all of this cohort were part of the problem.  Those giving their best were getting a raw, unfair deal.  They, along with me, were denied the opportunity of focused, excellent work on music.  On the other hand, I did a whole lot of focused, excellent work on behavior management, and I am a better teacher for it.  However, I weep for the elementary school experience of more than half of this cohort.  The good news, I hope, is that their middle school experience will be that much better as they matriculate in a whole new world and get a fresh start with new friends.
Many of us have worries and hopes about their future as they continue their education and lives:
“I would hope that the middle school teachers will find the students' strengths and build on their positive attributes. I always remind myself that kids need six positives to one improvement.” -our ELL teacher
“I feel that with the right guidance and environment they can eventually change their behavior and do well in life. They are bright kids who need to learn coping skills.” -a 2nd Grade teacher
Our Assistant Principal summed up our journey with them by saying, “Looking at them as individuals instead of a group was also important, they each had such different needs.”  There were so many kids with so many different challenges; so many real life issues were being worked on, both in and out of the classroom.  We gave them our attention, our love, our sleepless nights, our early mornings, our earnest work.  We gave them our best effort.  We never gave up on them.
I am sure you are picturing your rough cohort, whether this year’s or a blast from the past.  Do you have any take-away that you can share?  How did you pick yourself up for a powerful next year?  For me, I am looking forward to this year’s 4th Grade being 5th Graders.  Oh… and saying a little prayer for a brand new cohort of 5-year-olds.  
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Al Fischer Board

Al Fischer is originally from Michigan and achieved his B.M. in Vocal Music Education from Wayne State University.Then he spent 0% of his time teaching, devoting a couple of decades to musical theater work.Then he spent 50% of his time teaching in St. Louis Missouri, filling out the rest of his time playing piano in a synagogue, directing choir in churches, and serving as artistic director for the Gateway Men's Chorus, St. Louis' gay men's group.Now he spends 100% of his time teaching in the Yakima School District and is proud to be a brand new National Board Certified Teacher.