Summer school

Friday was the last day of the summer school program I was teaching with. For me it was four weeks of at times very frustrating work with ‘rising eighth graders’ – the local euphemism for kids who have made it through (notice I don’t say ‘passed’) seventh grade.

The kids I had were not doing remediation; supposedly they had all been successful in seventh grade, and were actually getting a ‘head start’ in getting off to a running start on eighth grade. This was a concept that was lost on most of the students. The idea of getting the chance to jump start a key year of their education was much too abstract for them.

A little background might be in order.

Eighth grade is a pivotal year in Louisiana, as the state has taken – quite literally – one of the key tenets of ‘No Child Left behind’ legislation and made it a Holy Grail of sorts; that is that as the 4th and 8th grade are the key grades for federal reporting years, therefore they are where the mandatory testing is done, meaning that an abundance of resources and attention are pumped into those two grades.

That might make sense to some people, but it is totally lost on me, especially based on what I have seen the past two years here. Third graders are essentially thrust from a world of ‘little kid school’ into a very different world of ‘teaching to the test’ – as are the kids going into eighth grade, who in essence, get very little pressure to perform on standardized tests in grades five, six and seven – while having it made very clear that come 8th grade, they will need to perform…big time.

My summer school gig marked the 24th school I have taught at this year, and there is one thing I have seen all over the place: 8th grade is treated much more like high school than elementary school. It is simply the nature of the beast, even without the emphasis on teaching to the 8th grade LEAP test. On this basis the summer school plan was to delve into one specific book, and go in depth with analysis, writing assignments, etc. This was the school’s plan, not mine, but I agreed with the approach – especially since it was made clear we didn’t have to cover all thirty-one chapters of the novel. (We tried for 15, but only completed chapters 1 through 12.)

Again, this was all lost on the students, and (with the blessing of the school curriculum administrator) I ran the class more on the high school way, with multi-part essay questions, class discussion and group work versus reading aloud and doing worksheets. I was told they had done this a fair amount in 7th grade, so it shouldn’t have been a total shock, through I did probably ‘up the ante’ somewhat. I also spent a lot of time verbalizing the idea that they, as 8th graders, were done with ‘little kid school’ and would have to get used to this way of doing things.

Realizing from the start that I was going to meet with resistance all the way did not help ease some of the daily frustration, but I think we got some things accomplished in three-weeks of work – and I didn’t totally antagonize all thirty kids who showed up semi-regularly. The real frustration came with the really incorrigible students that I had to keep sending to (another great euphemism) ‘Homework Club.’

Summer school here is generally set up as a carrot/stick thing, with academics in the morning, and ‘camp’ in the afternoon; do well in the morning, go to lunch, and then spend the afternoon in band, cheerleading, film class, art or one of the other cool things going on. Do what needs to be done for three hours in the morning, the afternoon is fun time. Or, don’t do what you need to do, or just mess around, you go to Homework Club.

I do believe that the 8th graders spent more time, per capita, in homework club than the other three grades represented – and we also had a lot of repeat offenders who just couldn’t get the hang of things.

The summer programs in New Orleans are four weeks in length, but week four is an oddity. The state has mandatory testing retakes set up for the first three days of that week, which necessitates some creative scheduling. While those that need re-testing take their tests, the rest of the kids had field trips scheduled; this included the ‘rising eighth graders’ – none of whom were retesting.

The original schedule called for the kids to go on field trips Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, then coming back for their electives in the afternoon, with a return to the ‘regular’ schedule on Thursday and Friday as a program wrap up. The idea of getting the kids back on track after three days of off-site fun wasn’t appealing to me, but that wasn’t my call. Also, I was the stay at school guy – hanging out with the kids who either didn’t have permission slips to go, were discipline issues, or who opted out for whatever reasons. This made sense to me, as one of the few contract teachers in the program, it made more sense to have regular staff trying to ride herd on the kids in public.

Mother Nature threw us all a curve for Monday and Tuesday, with rain forcing postponing all but a couple of things. That brought the kids back to school, where they spent the day in classrooms watching movies, playing board games and just hanging out – again, not an ideal from my standpoint as we spent a lot of time just getting them to not go overboard with their now ‘free-time’ behavior. We all got to do our time as being the stay at school folks.

Come Friday, the eighth graders were supposed to go on a canoeing outing at City Park, and I was asked if I would like to be one of the two chaperones. I have spent my share of time in canoes and being outdoors, so I jumped at the chance to see how these very urban kids would handle it, as well as get some time out of the classroom myself.

The canoeing program is really pretty cool, run by LOOP – the Louisiana Outdoor Outreach Program – which gets city kids into the outdoors in a variety of settings. City Park is one of the largest urban parks in America, and quite rustic in places. All in all, a cool place and great situation for 20 rising 8th graders and two chaperones to hit the water.

Some of the class had attended other LOOP events earlier in the year– including a truncated-by-rain session on Monday, where they got some basic instruction -but they had never really been in the water. When we showed up on Friday, it was overcast and a bit muggy. The LOOP staff brought us over to the shoreline where the sixteen-foot, two-person canoes were, and students started pairing up while also choosing their vests. As we were grabbing life jackets, I noticed that one student was eager to get started, but didn’t appear to be paired up with anyone, and I thought I knew just why.

‘Jerry’ is a big kid; five nine or ten, a good 225-230 pounds – solid, athlete pounds. Jerry hopes to play football in high school and certainly already looks the part. My assumption on why Jerry didn’t have a partner had nothing to do with personality – Jerry is a popular guy, a little on the shy side, not a trouble maker – but I thought that nobody wanted to be in a canoe with a big dude like that.

“Jerry! You got a partner?”

“Not yet, Mr. Lucker.”

“Me neither. Let’s grab a canoe.”

“Okay, Mr. Lucker.”

We walked over, stood next to our canoe while the LOOP staff went over the basic rules of canoe navigation. Jerry and I were toward the back, and were the last ones to put our canoe in the water. ‘Leroy’, one of the staff people, was waiting for us. He and the girl student he had in his canoe would be bringing up the rear of our little flotilla of a dozen canoes. Leroy had been giving Jerry a crash-course in canoe piloting; how to hold the paddle, basic left and right turns, reverse and back sweeps, etc. Now it was time to push off and give it a shot.

Jerry had never been in a canoe – or a boat of any kind – and if he was nervous, I didn’t see it – except for the tightness in the grip he had on his paddle. One of the staff people gave us a final push away from shore, and I guided us to a stop just a few feet from Leroy’s canoe. He asked if we were ready, and told us that we were going to try a few maneuvers right there by shore before trying to catch up with the rest. He told Jerry to start paddling, and gave a few quick directional instructions. We turned right, then left, then right again; the canoe equivalent of parking lot donuts with a car. We were good to go.

Jerry handled each move with ease. In less than three minutes, we were paddling out into the main portion of the stream running through City Park. We glided effortlessly through the water, dodging partially submerged trees and low hanging branches; our hair was brushed by languid, overhanging Spanish moss. Whenever I needed a course correction, I called it back, then complimented my pilot and gave him a thumbs-up.

Every time I glanced back at Jerry, he was concentrating on the task at hand – and smiling broadly. In ten minutes we had caught up to the rear of the rest of the pack, and it was obvious that our canoe was moving at a much more even pace (and in a straighter line) than most of the Jerry’s contemporaries. About two-thirds of the way into our hour-long jaunt around Scout Island, we stopped as a group so the LOOP leader could tell us the legend of ‘Dead Man’s Pass’ – a seemingly innocuous inlet that apparently has quite a history.

As we began our trek toward where we had begun, I yelled over my shoulder to Jerry; “Start paddling!” And the big guy’s rhythmic strokes got us out in front of the pack. As we glided by a final classmate, the kid hollered at us and said “There ain’t no way you guys are getting’ back before us!”

I laughed as we left him in our wake. We were the second canoe in, trailing only that of Steve, the LOOP leader. We even had our canoe pulled up on shore and our life jackets off when the kid who had chided us earlier pulled up. It is not in Jerry’s nature to trash talk, but I couldn’t resist a little ‘what-took-ya-so-long’ to incoming canoeists. Jerry just leaned on the railing of the dock, shaking his head in amusement and smiling broadly.

As we gathered for the debrief, Steve and the other teacher chaperone were complimenting Jerry on his quick adaptation of paddling a canoe. Standing next to Jerry, I could see that he was enjoying the attention – in his own quiet way. “You know, I have a new nickname for Jerry” I said, adding with a slap to Jerry’s shoulder, “I call Jerry ‘The Natural’.” The guys gave their approval, Jerry gave a very quiet, “Thank you, Mr. Lucker” and we got back on the bus and returned to school.

When we got off the bus, he stretched out his hand, said “Thank you, Mr. Lucker” once again, and we went to lunch.

As a contract teacher working just the morning session, I wasn’t a part of the afternoon programming, so I went upstairs to finish emptying out my classroom. As I was leaving the building for the last time, I saw Jerry headed into the band room and called his name. He smiled, and I walked up to him, slapped him on the shoulder.

“You did a great job out there today.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lucker.” He stuck out his hand, I grasped it. He shook my hand firmly and warmly.

“Have a good rest of the summer, and good luck in eighth grade.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lucker.”

“Maybe I’ll see you around somewhere along the line.”

He smiled even more broadly. “Thanks, Mr. Lucker. You have a good summer, too.” I slapped him on the shoulder. “See ya around.”

“See ya, Mr. Lucker.”

And with that, school was out for the summer.

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