Senior moments

So what is going on with seniors, anyway?

This year is another first for me (though these are getting increasingly rare as I approach the six-year mark): I’m teaching about 15 students for the second year in a row, from junior to senior year.  Some of them are students from last year’s AP Lang who are now taking AP Lit with me; others were in my regular second-semester junior American literature class last year, and are now in the first-semester senior world literature class with me.

In general, I would say that these are the major differences that I can observe:

  • They are older (duh, but a year makes a big difference when you’re still growing)
  • They are more experienced (we have to assume that some of these kids have had some major life experiences in the past twelve months, including but not limited to family crises, travel, important successes, important failures, and maybe big changes in friendships or romantic and sexual relationships.  The average age of first sexual intercourse in the U.S. is around 17 for both females and males, so I’m going to assume that some of our kids are–well, average.  And minor life experiences matter, too–a fenderbender, a summer job, a crush).
  • They are less anxious about doing everything well at school, in part because junior year is behind them (junior year being, supposedly, the big year for college admissions).
  • They are more anxious about college applications (again, duh).
  • Their behavior is looser.  The AP students come in ready to party–engaged, but sillier and chattier than last year.  One group of regular students is chatty, the other is somewhat inclined to be disengaged.
  • In AP, they are way, way less concerned about the AP test.

And these are the things that people (other teachers, college counselors, kids themselves) have told me:

  • They are getting a fantastic amount of pressure at home about the college process.  Their parents nag them about their applications.  Lots of conflicted feelings about leaving home.  Every adult they meet asks them where they want to go to college and/or what they want to do with their lives, and most of those adults are not shy about expressing their opinions about their responses.
  • They feel (and, to a large extent, they are correct) that grades don’t really matter any more.  They don’t want to start flunking everything, but kids who used to care about getting A’s now sometimes slack, get B’s, and shrug.  I’m not absolutely sure this is happening from B’s to C’s yet; the shrugging, that is–they are certainly getting some C’s.
  • They are going to stop doing most of their work in the second semester, once the first-semester grades are in the bag for college apps (say other teachers).  They are far more focused on their friendships and social lives (or so I’ve read).

So, how do these observations and this reportage affect–how should they affect–how I teach seniors, now and in the future?  I should add that I just read a thread on Facebook (on the page of an recent grad who had invited me to look at some of his college photos) in which a current student, probably one of the top three  in the senior class, commented that he’s coming to the realization that “nothing I do at Starfleet Academy matters anymore, I’m hardly learning anything (except in physics), and grades in particular don’t even matter now.”  I found this a little bit hurtful–and thankfully, he is not currently my student, though he is someone I’ve taught in the past, and a kid I have a nice rapport with.  He’ll probably be the valedictorian of his class, as long as he doesn’t really give up on earning the grades (which I doubt he will).

But aside from feeling stung and defensive, I also found his comment rather thought-provoking.  On the one hand, it is appropriate that the seniors outgrow us and go on to other challenges!  On the other, what a dismal thought that the last six months of high school don’t matter!  I might be reacting too much out of defensiveness–and of course a seventeen-year-old kid, even a very smart one, is not the best judge of what he is or isn’t learning–but I feel challenged to think about what I can do so that my students will perceive that they are learning something and feel that their time in my class is meaningful.

A lot of independent high schools have rethought the senior year experience, and do projects and internships and that sort of thing in the second semester of senior year.  We don’t have a schoolwide program for that, but we do have some students who propose and carry through independent projects for credit, usually culminating in a performance or presentation of research, something like that.  They have to show a fair bit of initiative, writing a proposal, assembling a committee, and so forth.

Then, too, in courses that are primarily for seniors, most teachers have developed projects for the second semester.  I’m thinking, though, about the day-to-day–about what we can do in the classroom that will feel different, relevant to their needs, engaging and challenging.  We already talk about how we try to shape our students’ lifelong communication skills, reading experiences, and relationship to language and literature.  And we try to think about what the experiences they’re having with us will mean to them five, ten, twenty years from now.  I guess now what I’m wondering is–how do I approach those questions now that I am teaching students who are already beginning to make the transition away from high school?

I am reading Michael Riera’s book Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers, and one passage that has struck me is the one where he says that children think concretely, so they can answer the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” by selecting among a series of concrete possibilities: nurse, fireman, paleontologist.  Adolescents can think abstractly, so they are more engaged by the question “What kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?”

“What kind of reader do you want to be when you grow up?” is also not such a bad question for senior English students.  In AP, we do a certain amount of reviewing the books that they’ve read throughout high school, and I’m wondering whether an independent choice might work well in the second semester–a book they choose themselves, with consideration of what works have been most meaningful to them in the past, and read and journal about and read a little criticism of and come to possess on their own.

Anyway, I’m thinking about this stuff right now, and not a moment too soon, I’m sure.  The Christmas music is already on the damned radio.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by meansomething on November 17, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    Just putting this here so I can think about it later: about grades–maybe along with this would go an alternative assessment process. Conferences, and/or narrative evaluation. Maybe. Easier to think about this kind of intensive process when I have fewer students, as I do now (down to 46 since Lucinda’s return).


  2. I taught second-semester seniors for the first time last spring, and will be doing it again this spring. I tried to model the class to be much more like a grad class than the way I taught juniors–I asked for frequent response papers as well as a longer essay, led Socratic seminars and fishbowl-style discussions, and had them be responsible for leading class/discussions as a graded assignment. We sat in a circle every day and I always had prompts and things for them, but tried to keep the focus on their contributions as much as possible, and pushed them as hard as I could to take risks in discussions. They want to be treated like college kids, and they feel ready to take a class that’s not like anything they’ve done before, but they are also reluctant to do a ton of work. It’s a weird mix.


    • Posted by meansomething on November 18, 2013 at 2:48 am

      Hi, Jackie,
      Thanks for sharing your experience! I like these practices for juniors as well as seniors (I had good results last year in AP Lang with taking the notetaker role in discussions, and with giving students the opportunity to prepare and lead discussion). I’ve seen them work with students who are highly motivated, but I’m wondering what will happen if the only person who’s done the reading is the one appointed to lead discussion, for example.

      One thing I have been doing in AP Lit that I like is doing away with daily assignments and giving them longer-range deadlines. (Putting this down in a comment will remind me that this is part of the mix.) They seem to appreciate the opportunity to manage their time more, and of course this is a good skill to practice in advance of college.

      I think what I’m seeking is an approach that will be meaningful in terms of what they need as they approach the transition to college, and that will keep their interest because it’s new, different, or resonant with what they are most engaged by right now. For example, Mike Riera mentions that seniors often strike up a new friendship with someone who wasn’t available for friendship/connection before. I’m wondering if the deliberate matching of people who don’t know each other well might be worth doing!


      • For me, the value of having them lead discussions is seeing each other crash and burn if they don’t all hold up their end of the bargain–I think it’s one of the big transitions from high school to college, feeling more like they are responsible for a class flying or sinking too. I’ve sometimes graded the participants as well as the leader to reinforce the point.

      • Posted by meansomething on November 18, 2013 at 1:58 pm

        Very true! Thank you.

  3. Posted by Bardiac on November 17, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Ahh, senioritis!

    At least our college students really DO still have stuff they should have learned in high school. I hope you can think of some really engaging work for your students, otherwise, they may be in for a surprise by how much work college is supposed to be.


    • Posted by meansomething on November 18, 2013 at 3:04 am

      Hi, B,
      Well, our students definitely have things they have learned at some point–and often had reinforced multiple times–that they seem to forget! For example, WHY would a senior AP English student not integrate her quotations? Isn’t this something she’s practiced for four or more years? I am fascinated, also hugely exasperated, by how students regress sometimes. So I can’t promise that they will arrive at college in total command of all the things they should have learned in high school, but we’re trying.

      As for the possible shock of the level of college work–I have been told by graduates that junior year at SA is harder than freshman year at a wide range of colleges. I think this may be in part because even college freshmen with requirements to complete have more control over their programs of study and schedule than the typical high school junior. They say that high school is the last time we expect everyone to be a generalist; after that we get to specialize more, and most of us choose to specialize in what comes more easily, or what we love enough to work really hard at (or both).

      Sadly, the other reason that kids feel that junior year of HS is harder than freshman year of college is that they and their families buy into the idea of the make-or-break junior year, and they take on too much and drive themselves too hard. I guess senioritis might have a strong element of burnout in it, too…


  4. Posted by Bardiac on November 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    I might guess that your students have a different culture in their high school experience than ours had in their high schools, mostly, too.


  5. […] in November, I wrote that my feelings were a bit hurt by reading a Facebook comment by a senior boy: “nothing I do […]


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