Grade Levels

This post will be a return to a discussion of my career as a high school English teacher. I want to explore, for myself as much as any reader, how I regard teaching each of the grade levels I have experience with, and break down some basic elements of my teaching that I’m hoping to come back to with more depth in the future of this blog.

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To start, I don’t know how valuable any sort of comparison is between grade levels, but let me tell you – comparing 9th and 10th and 11th and 12th graders is an absolute favorite pastime of teachers. To be honest, I really don’t think there’s much of a difference between full classes of these grade levels, certainly not nearly as much as we high school teachers make it out to be. I’m absolutely guilty of that, and even now I can’t shake the mental concept that teaching 9th graders and 10th graders is absolutely going to be totally different experiences. There is a difference, but how much of it is just the school system siloing kids into these broad categories, which are ultimately arbitrary? One group of kids labeled freshmen, yes, will all conceivably be about a year younger than a group of kids labeled sophomores, but there will certainly be exceptions, I think. I doubt it would be hard at all to find freshmen who are actually older than some sophomores, and vice versa. The school system, however, has taken this rough classification and propelled it to incredible heights. Teaching freshmen in high school is absolutely going to be different than teaching sophomores, not to mention a class of high school seniors.

So, that being said, I’m going to set the arbitrary nature of ‘grade level’ aside and take it for granted that a freshman will be different than a sophomore, in ways which teachers love to generalize and argue about. I’ve been a teacher for four years, and I’ve moved around somewhat in the grade levels I teach. My first year I had just 9th and 10th graders, two classes each. Since then, I’ve had classes of sophomores every year, and so that group (and that set of curriculum) has become the most familiar for me. Starting my second year, though, I have had the privilege of teaching a specialized, 12th grade English course, called Language and Gender (this course will have its own dedicated post). I’ve taught English 12: Language and Gender for three years, and next year will be the fourth.

So I’ve taught freshmen, sophomores, and seniors. What’s the big deal? Here’s my chance to make some sweeping and likely somewhat inaccurate generalizations about these approximate groups. I’ll start with the seniors.

12th Grade: This is a watershed year for students, starting with the summer of 11th grade when they realize that their next year will be their last. The year proceeds, filled with this moments and realizations that wow, high school is almost over, and for much of the senior class the gravity of that gradual realization sets the tone for the year. Different students respond to this concept in different ways, and nearly all of them grow to resent the awful question (what will you do after high school??) that hangs over their heads. Some will respond by shutting down, putting themselves in precarious academic positions on the eve of finishing secondary school. I’m happy to say that, in my experience, the vast majority are able to get themselves back on track by the end, but there are also inevitable close calls, and the few students who, for a variety of reasons are unable to pass my course, or I learn have found it necessary to pursue other ways to earn their GED and finish or move on with school. Taking this in mind, I have found that teaching 12th grade is both the most rewarding, intellectually engaging, and also the most stressful and heartbreaking grade to teach. I think just about everyone has vivid memories of their last year at high school.

10th Grade: This is the grade level I’ve taught in each of my four years of experience, and so it has become the grade and the curriculum with which I am easily the most familiar and comfortable. Tenth graders, to over-simplify, come to school with something to prove. They are no longer the new young faces at school, they have some knowledge about the system, and they often seem determined to cause a ruckus. However, once engaged with a class, I have found 10th grades to often be deeply thoughtful, aware of their surroundings, curious about the material and larger implications, and often already motivated to do well in their studies. Tenth grade English class is, however, often fairly bleak. Our district English departments have collectively agreed upon a set of texts, one per grade level, to be regarded as a obligatory reading in order to promote departmental and cross-school cohesion. The text that every 10th grader (more or less) in the city reads is Elie Wiesel’s Night, a gripping Holocaust memoir. The other units I teach for 10th grade are often similarly dark, I won’t go too much into detail with them, but another is the perennial sophomore text The Lord of the Flies. Over the last two years, I’ve tried out various units and texts to try and mix things up, with some successes. I guess I like teaching 10th grade because its the grade I’ve been able to put in the most trial and error with my teaching, and I’ve found that 10th graders are often the most forgiving when I’m trying something new. They will not hesitate to provide feedback, whether its a grudging acceptance or blistering criticism, but all my sophomore classes have shown a wonderful ability to come to each day’s class with the potential to engage – something that starts to evaporate in the late spring for the senior classes.

9th Grade: This is the grade level with which I am the least familiar. I’ve only taught freshmen once, and it was back when I was a first year teacher. It was pretty tough, as every teacher’s first year is. It has been interesting, though, to see some of those same students back in my classes in later years, most notable again in my 12th grade classes, and I got to see them them graduate just this last June. Getting back to the freshmen class, I would characterize them simply as new. They all have their individual personalities and study habits and curiosities, but all of that is a little reserved while they sit back and wait and see what the others will do, what the upperclassmen will do. Of course this is probably the most sweeping and least accurate generalization of them all, certainly there are countless brash, impatient, and fearless freshman. As they make their transition from middle school to high school, though, the observation I recall from my classes is this moment of hesitation.

Next Year: I’ve recently learned that there is a good chance I will, once again, have 9th graders next year. Its been a long time, and those classes will sit next to my course for 12th graders. It will be interesting to return to this grade level, as much as the difference between 9th and 10th graders is arbitrary. I’ve started going over my notes and reflecting on what I’ve discussed with other teachers in my department, and I’m excited to start planning out my units and the year in earnest. The curriculum, certainly, will be a big chance of pace for me from the material I have for 10th grade.</p>

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