Winning students hearts and minds

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Robin Quinn, an English teacher at Steinmetz High School in Belmont Cragin, deals daily with a largely typical slice of Chicago’s freshman class.

The school’s student body is more diverse and a little better off economically than average for Chicago. But the performance of its freshmen last year was close to citywide averages: 25 percent failed English; on average, they missed 20 days of that class due to absences or class-cutting; and only 29 percent scored at or above the national average in reading.

Quinn’s professional situation could be considered above average. She has colleagues she trusts and a veteran principal whom she says is a good listener—”If there’s a problem, he’s the first to say, ‘Let’s address it.'” She has a master’s degree in reading, which added tricks to her bag. For example, her students read Shakespeare into a tape recorder to make “radio theater.” They critique each other’s writing. And they teach literary terms to the class.

After 21 years in the classroom, Quinn wields a powerful combination of empathy and good-natured sarcasm that can penetrate the bravado of the most aggravating 15-year-old. She’s “straight,” the kids say. That means cool.

Still, Quinn struggles to motivate her students. Even her best strategies—”I try music, rap songs”—fall flat on some kids, she says.

While the mayor and School Board officials propose extending the time high school students spend in class, including an extra year of high school and double periods of reading and math, teachers have a tough time engaging students during the time they have them already. Quinn, who likely is better at it than most, illustrates the challenge.

It’s a Monday morning in mid-December and, as usual, only a handful of students have completed Quinn’s homework assignment, several pages of questions on John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl,” a standard for Chicago freshmen. The questions ask students to explain characters’ motivations and to give examples from the story of literary terms such as irony.

As a rookie teacher, Quinn started out strict, taking a cue from her own schooling under the Dominican sisters. Don’t do the homework, and you’ll get an F, she told her students. “All my kids failed,” she recalled.

Now she goes easier on them. Students can work on the study guide in class but must finish it tonight if they want credit.

The poor showing on homework makes class time even more crucial, so Quinn tries to keep the energy level high. Moving around the room, she interacts alternatively with small groups and individuals, quizzing, coaching, prodding.

Some students are far behind. A boy who has only started the book gets some encouragement—”Look how well you knew Chapter 1!”—and some advice: sit down tonight, turn the T.V. off, and read the other five chapters.

Stefan, 15, has been absent several weeks and truant at least part of that time. Sitting on an empty desk beside his, Quinn questions him on what he’s read. Some parts he has trouble remembering.

“What did you prove to me just now?” she asks.

“That I didn’t know it.”

“”No … I’m not saying you didn’t know it.” If he feels too defeated, she reasons, he might not press on.

“It was sketchy.”

Quinn agrees.

Later, on his way out of class, she calls after him: “Stefan, you’re going to do what tonight?”

“Study!” he promises

Stefan appreciates the personal attention; he says it makes the class more interesting. “More teachers should be like that.”

While Quinn has gone somewhat soft on homework, she sees no advantage in reverting to her former ways. Colleagues who remain strict about homework don’t get better compliance; they just get higher failure rates, she says.

The Board of Education has mandated 120 minutes of homework a night for freshmen and more for upperclassmen. Quinn says that while that sounds like a good policy, it’s unenforceable. If teachers called parents every time children failed to turn in homework, they’d be making upwards of 100 calls a night, she explains.

She saves phone calls for serious attendance and behavior problems, like a boy who is faking seizures in the middle of class. His teachers aren’t sure if he’s just desperate for attention or has a behavior disorder. They’re having him evaluated for possible placement in special education.

Some administrators, and her husband, too, think she’s crazy for not throwing disruptive kids like that out of class. “I can’t because I have too many of them,” she explains. “I can’t kick them all out of the room.”

Quinn is more concerned with getting kids to class. When a student fails a class, she says, it’s usually because of attendance problems.

Some just won’t get up in the morning. One girl in Quinn’s homeroom explains that she would rather serve after-school detention than get to her first-period science class. The possibility that she might have to attend summer school is not a pressing concern even though it might interfere with her vacation plans. “I don’t think about it that much,” she says.

Teachers aren’t left on their own to handle absent students. An automated phone system delivers a recorded message to students’ homes whenever they cut class. Chronic cutters are referred to the attendance office. After a parent conference, the student is given a form that his or her teachers must sign each day to verify attendance.

A team at the Steinmetz truancy office visits the homes of truant students. A coordinator and two parents handle up to 200 truants at a time, and refer them to school counselors when they return, staff report.

Fear of failure, cold weather or a family crisis can hurt attendance, they say. Even a student’s personal appearance can interfere, Quinn observes. One girl from her homeroom is ridiculed so mercilessly because of her weight that she rarely comes to school.

Standing at her classroom door one morning between periods, Quinn points down the hallway at the hundreds of students streaming by. Do you see anyone who isn’t slim and well dressed? she asks. “They don’t come.”

Confronted with so many failing students, Quinn has seen new teachers lose their confidence and crumble. “Some are on sick leave because of the stress of the job. They’re overwhelmed. They blame themselves.”

Quinn calls her own confidence hard-won, “It took me over 20 years to get here,” but now she’s got what she calls “the edge,” knowing just how far to push students and when to back off. “If you establish a trusting rapport with students, they’ll let you do your job.”

Things were simpler for her own teachers, Quinn recalls. She grew up only blocks from Steinmetz in a working-class Italian family and attended nearby Catholic schools. “When I was a kid, the nun was always right. You were always wrong. … You do [the work]. You don’t do it, you get beat.”

Handling today’s kids takes more diplomacy

It’s mid-January, the start of a new semester. Quinn is seated at her desk, projecting her voice across a room of restless students.

“A lot of you want to give up right now. Don’t give up,” she tells them. “Come see me, and I’ll figure out how to get you some extra help. Nobody gives up.”

Of 27 students, all but four failed at least one course first semester.

The School Board provided funds this year for both before- and after-school tutoring, but only a few of her homeroom students attend, despite her constant urging. The problem, she says, is that most failing students are class cutters or truants; they aren’t likely to come early or stay late voluntarily for tutoring.

The School Board is also funding after-school classes for students who need to retake the first semester of a failed core course. In Quinn’s homeroom, five students will sign up, but in the end, only three will attend regularly.

Continuing her homeroom pep-talk, Quinn assures them, “Everyone is starting out with A’s. The only way you go down is if you don’t do your work. No cutting, no absences.”

“I got an F, F, F. Maybe a C,” a boy in the back of the room calls out as he tugs a comb through his hair. He grins at her.

When she asks why, he says it’s because he doesn’t like the teachers.

“There are many times in life when we don’t get along with our boss,” she points out. She’s been through this with him before.

“If I don’t like my boss, I’m going to quit,” he insists.

“I’m going to be my own boss!” boasts the boy sitting beside him, who failed every class first semester.

The first jokes that he’s going to bust his head on the ice and sue someone, and make his living that way. The two burst out laughing.

“Aren’t you worried about your report card?” Quinn persists.

“I don’t care anymore,” he shoots back.

“You said you don’t care anymore, so you did care.”

“In November. … OK,” he says, squirming a little and looking down at his desk. “I sort of care, but I sort of don’t.”

“I think you really do care,” Quinn says kindly. She warns him he should be careful what he says, lest he leave his teachers with the wrong impression.

The boy’s attitude is just a defense mechanism, she remarks later. She sees it all the time. “If you act like you don’t care, then you’re not a dummy. You just got F’s because you don’t care.”

This particular student, when he gets frustrated, will curse loudly in class. Quinn has been counseling him to approach his teachers calmly and explain what’s upsetting him. “They can’t read your mind,” she tells him.

She’s concerned that new teachers in particular may not see through his pose and, even if they do, are too burdened to handle it.

Some will just order a kid like this to the back of the room and tell him to keep quiet, she says. “Do you blame them?”

By mid-February, the same student reports that he has resolved a conflict with the teacher he was angriest at last month, a drama teacher who cast him in a role he didn’t want. “I didn’t yell at her or anything. I just talked to her.”

Although he won’t go to tutoring, he says he is trying to get his grades up this semester and that Quinn was right about him.

“Yeah, I really did care, but I didn’t want to show her.”

“Sometimes she gets on my nerves,” he adds, with a grin. “But she’s still straight.”

“Do I feel successful?” Quinn reflects with a slight, weary smile. “It depends on the day.”

There are days when a lesson goes so well, she feels like she’s struck gold, and then there are days, even still, when she goes home crying.

Like most teachers, Quinn wishes most for more support from the home, for structured homework time, regular bedtimes and a deep desire to learn.

Many students in the school’s poor, immigrant neighborhood live with single parents or grandparents. Putting food on the table may be the best that many can do, she thinks. “I never met a parent ever that does not care that their child is a success,” she insists. “I don’t know a student who doesn’t care, but are they doing anything about it?”

Quinn sees 150 students a day, but the number is less daunting to her than the enormity of the problems some students face. “You do the best you can,” she says. “You can always do more. It’s so hard.”