The Chaotic Side of Learning: Keeping High School Seniors From Falling Asleep
Atlanta English Teacher Susan Barber on “Creating
a family in the classroom.”
Senior year. Hearts and minds elsewhere than the classroom, seniors seem to lose interest. They talk, they sleep, they stop turning in work. They are, in a word, done.
As with everything in education, it’s more complicated than that. Students at the end of high school are steeped in contradictions: they can’t wait to leave, but fear the loss of structure and consistency. The rote schedule of high school can be a bore—and a comfort. More than one senior has told me, quite directly: I’m not ready to grow up. We know students have to grow up—and yet. We understand the hesitation.
Teachers of seniors have to work extra hard to keep kids interested, and Susan Barber is up for the challenge. She teaches almost half of all seniors at Grady High School. Founded in 1872, Grady is one of the oldest high schools in Atlanta. Barber takes that history seriously—which means real investment in tradition, and the recognition that she needs to help students make the transition into the wider world.
Before coming to Grady High School, Barber taught for a decade at Northgate High School in Coweta County, Georgia. Honored as Teacher of the Year twice at her school, as well as county teacher of the year, Barber served as English department chair. Although she knows “teaching is never routine, Northgate had become comfortable, and I wanted to push myself both professionally and personally.” She had always wanted to teach in the city, and when a position opened at Grady, she applied. Like most teachers at a new school, she didn’t know a soul. But she says that “having to prove myself in a new setting—to both colleagues and students—gave me the opportunity to rethink my practices and reflect on who I am as a teacher. The process of starting all over again has made me a stronger teacher.”
Teachers know that’s a brave and admirable decision. Barber was originally inspired to enter the profession by her own high school English teacher, Mrs. Roby, who gave Barber blunt advice: education is changing. Be realistic. Teaching is not easy. “However, she did say if I chose to do this, I should do it with all of my heart.” Barber keeps teaching because she believes “the next generation is misunderstood and they not only deserve an ally but also someone to speak up and speak out for them.”
That’s the perfect sentiment necessary to teach seniors: be optimistic, realistic, pragmatic. Seniors—perhaps because of their inherent skepticism—need to feel like their teachers genuinely care about them. Barber begins the year with her AP Literature seniors by writing a letter to them, in which she introduces herself and the class. Students then introduce themselves in a letter, while also reflecting on “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, “Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, or “Boyhood” by Billy Collins. I like that; it gets kids thinking that poetry can be a way to help them articulate their views of the world, and themselves. As the year progresses, Barber keeps her classroom “anything but routine.”
On any given day, students “piece together poems line by line, speed date books (complete with chocolate and candles on Valentine’s Day), make black out poetry, analyze film and art, condense Hamlet to 50 lines, annotate books through SnapChat, read and write blogs shared with other students nationally, write poetry, participate in Twitter chats, Skype with authors and poets, create Sketch Notes to review novels, and learn about embedding quotes through ice cream and sprinkles.” Barber loves the “chaotic, messy, and loud side of learning” (she wonders if her classroom placement at the end of the hall was a tactical decision).
She shares her love of reading with students, packing over 500 books into her classroom library. Some favorites that she has shared with seniors include Counting Descent (Clint Smith), Homegoing (Yaa Gaysi), Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel), Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward), Southernmost (Silas House), The Nix (Nathan Hill), The Poet X (Elizabeth Acevedo), There There (Tommy Orange), The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead), The Testaments (Margaret Atwood), Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson), I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Erika Sánchez), The Leavers (Lisa Ko), Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue), and poetry by José Olivarez, Jericho Brown, Fatimah Asghar, Hanif Abdurraqib, Victoria Chang, and Nicole Tong.
On the first day of class, Barber tells her seniors “that we will be family by the end of the school year because we read literature that touches the very depths of our souls and challenges and changes us as people; how can we not grow closer?” By March, they are holding on to that sense of community as the future takes shape. Her students “put up college admission letters, military commitments, gap year adventures”—a celebration of what comes next.
Barber says “investing in the next generation on a daily basis is a privilege—not a burden—and one teachers should not take lightly.” One of the best gifts we can give seniors as they leave our classrooms for the last time is to show them how reading helps us find ourselves, and helps us connect with others. Our communion with stories is a powerful one; a lesson that can become a practice for the rest of their lives.