PBS in the Classroom

Working with "the Bad Kids"

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March 20, 2017


Last August, I got amazing news: a position at Black Rock High School had opened, and my transfer there was successful.  I would finally be working with the ‘Bad Kids.’ You see, teaching at Black Rock—whose staff and students were recently featured in the award-winning documentary, The Bad Kids—with some of the most underserved students in our district is a coveted teaching position.  It’s rare that a job opens up, and I was going to join the team.

These last six months have been some of the best of my career. At Black Rock Continuation High School, I can make a difference that goes way beyond the norm.  Sure, I teach English five periods a day, but teaching is only a small piece of what I do.  Imagine knowing every student at your school by name and being able to make personal connections with most of them.  Imagine a school where the teachers meet every day to discuss student and school needs.  Imagine a school where students learn to trust, and where instruction is just one component of our day. 

These norms—what we consider part of our teaching role—are crucial to the success of the staff and students at our school.  What does this mean in practice?  Here are some examples of how we serve our students so they can graduate and have tangible options as they move forward with their lives:

First, the Resume

Two weeks ago, a student asked me to look at his resume.  This isn’t an abnormal request, because students are required to submit a resume as part of their Senior Portfolios. I asked him if it was for the portfolio, or if he was using it for an actual job application. He told me he needed to get a job as soon as possible, because his mom was struggling to pay bills and he needed to help her.  We stayed after school to get it done.  I asked questions and probed into his life just enough to help fill out his resume to make it as strong as possible.  Along the way, I found out we had another problem. 

Then, the Driver’s License with a Dose of Perseverance

As we working on his resume, I asked if he had his driver’s license.  He told me he couldn’t get one because his mother couldn’t find his birth certificate; apparently, she’d been looking for it for more than a year. Together, we were able to obtain a copy of the birth certificate and start the process.  But of course, that wasn’t the only obstacle: the request for his birth certificate had to be notarized.  Vonda Viland, our principal, called the local notary to verify location and costs, gave him $20 and directions, and he came back the next day with the notarization.  A week later, he came to see me to tell me he got his birth certificate, but he still needed a job.

Always on the Job

This story has a happy ending.  I was on Facebook and saw a job fair advertisement for a new restaurant, but it was for the next day.  As soon as I got to school, I found my student and told him about the job offerings. We pulled out his resume, his food handler’s certificate, and prepped for the interview.  He left school, went home to change clothes, and went to the job fair.  The next morning, before school, he was at my desk with a huge smile and in his hand he was holding a job offer.  Today, he is employed.

More than a School, Black Rock High School is a Community

Living in poverty is real for our students. Often it means they are going without meals when they’re not at school. And we all work together to make sure our students are getting what they need to succeed.  The staff is committed to our students, but we are also committed to each other.  That’s why when one of us learns that a student and his family are hungry, we come together to make sure the family will not go without food. This happened recently: the staff came together to purchase groceries and gift cards for the family of a student who would otherwise have not had any food for a week. The BRHS staff came through so he could concentrate on earning credits and graduating, instead of concentrating on where his next meal might come from.

It’s also about academics

It’s true, at Black Rock we do our best to help our students, and sometimes this means providing food for a family.  Sometimes it means talking things through with a student to help them solve a problem at home.  But at the end of the day, it also means providing them with an academic foundation—we discuss their assignments, we help them understand who they are and how to articulate their worldviews.

Some may believe that our students lack motivation or ability.  As their teacher, I can tell you that this notion is patently false. Student choice is a cornerstone in our teaching practice. Instead of assigning a novel to an entire class, students decide when they’re ready to commit to reading a novel. When they are ready, we work with them to find material that will align to a student’s reading level, interests, and past success. My students study a wide range of literature: from Pride and Prejudice, to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; from Of Mice and Men, to The Giver. 

In an average class period, I jump from how Holden Caulfield is dealing with his angst, to the beauty of Ponyboy Curtis, to the relationship between George and Lenny.  What is even more interesting is that when I speak with one student about what they’re reading, others are listening.  It’s not uncommon for a student to request a novel after overhearing one of these discussions.  As a teacher, I learn a great deal about my students through these discussions.  I can get a glimpse into their lives by how they relate to literature. 

One of my students told me he never read an entire book prior to this year.  He didn’t believe he’d be successful, so we first tried The Outsiders.  He is now on his fourth novel of the school year, and is currently reading The Crucible

I am an English Teacher

So, yes, I am an English teacher.  For me, some days are harder than others.  Some days I want to cry when I get home.  Some nights I worry that a homeless child didn’t find a bed or couch.  Sometimes I struggle to find a way to fire up my students to write their essays. But, every workday, I wake up and go to work knowing that I will make a difference.  I also know in my heart what all educators know: my students aren’t ‘Bad Kids,’ they’re kids. They want to graduate and they have dreams of their own.  Helping students find their dreams is the best part of my job.

Editor’s note: The award winning documentary, the Bad Kids, premiered on Independent Lens, Monday, March 20.  But you can catch a special online screening for students and teachers on Wednesday, March 29, 1pm ET / 10am PT

Explore and integrate the following topics in The Bad Kids in a classroom setting: social-emotional learning, resilience, effects of trauma, and trusting relationships using the following resources from Independent Lens. 

Jolie Kelley teaches English at Black Rock Continuation High School. Although previously a Junior High School Principal, she missed working directly with students and decided to return to the classroom in 2015.  

Jolie Kelley

Jolie Kelley High School English Teacher

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