I am a ninth and eleventh grade English teacher at a charter school in Columbus. My class is comprised of students who dropped out and regretted it, had to take maternity leave, were expelled, or moved after open enrollment. Most of my kids are either homeless, in gangs, parents, or a combination of those.
I really love my job, though I never expected to end up here. I had an interview that I thought I had nailed at a public school in my home town; I had prepared for hours for it. When I got the “Thanks, but no thanks” email, I went on an application rampage on the Ohio Department of Education website and filled out applications for every school within a forty five minute drive, including the schools I had no interest in. I am so glad I did. Most of my students come from a world vastly different than my own even though they are a twenty-minute drive away. They are gang members, refugees, homeless, parents, addicts, children of addicts, etc. I get stories from international students who had to flee their country in West Africa in the middle of the night because rebels were opening fire in protest to the government. One of my students told me how excited he was that in America he doesn’t have to pay for elephant insurance since there is no worry about elephants trampling their house, unlike their hut in Nepal. My proudest moment is seeing a male student completely turn his life around. After he spent several months in jail for a drive-by shooting in which he was the shooter, he got shot last Christmas and it was a close call. It scared him and I saw a complete turnaround. For one of his writing assignments, he wrote a twenty-page narrative about a young boy in the gang life that closely followed his own experiences. Their experiences have really opened up my understanding of what my students need in their education.
To help make the connections between the students and the curriculum, I’ve been pulling up old assignments and notes from my English classes to brush up on books I never thought I would need, like The House on Mango Street. It was the first book I had to teach and one I never expected to see again (Thank you Dr. Waterman!) Sometimes I end up wanting to kick myself for not taking some parts of a lecture more seriously so that when I need to trace back the entire history of the English language I can do so (Thank you Dr. Donatini!).
Another professor I owe a thank-you is Dr. Knickerbocker. I remember so clearly that she would spend the first half of every class period discussing the books she had recently finished. Working in a charter school, our curriculum is preset and the students work at their own pace, which has its advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is the possibility for cheating—when students finish a novel unit, for example, they hand off answers to students approaching the unit. An advantage is the flexibility I have. Since we are a credit recovery school, the students work at their own pace and aren’t typically working on the same novels or assignments at the same time. I can change books for individual students as I see fit, and many of the books I have swapped were books Dr. Knickerbocker told us about. She would only discuss young adult novels. The books were never within the same realm; she covered books that would work for a variety of demographics and helped me to discover a number of books that my students relate to.
Going into my second year, one of my priorities is my international population. The modifications they need are tricky sometimes, and I wish I had more resources to support me. In particular, I have a small group of students who are from Senegal. They grow up speaking Wolof and Fulani, which are both complex languages. They can barely speak English, but in school, in Senegal, they speak French. So I’ve had to go back to my high school days and try to remember elementary level words to communicate with these students.
Charter schools can be tricky sometimes. The classrooms are not traditional, because these students are unable to function in a traditional setting. They need more individualized attention. I think they can be great stepping stones for beginning a career. My advice with charter schools is to find one that fits. Some charters are focused on specifics skills or subjects: job prep, athletic training, art and design, or, like mine, credit recovery. Each type of school creates a different culture because the goals of the students are different.