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The Graduate

An Adolescent’s Development

Katelyn Phelan
MSM Class of 2011

(4/2012) The odd, or I guess completely normal thing, about adolescents is that they’re just like everybody else—unique. However, despite this overall individuality, there are some trends, as anyone who’s been around a teenager knows. Adults can anticipate that teens are often moody and taciturn, sometimes bubbly and enthusiastic, and sometimes combative, especially with parents or siblings. Adolescence is a time of moving away from the safe and familiar settings and expectations of childhood and moving toward the individuality and responsibility of adulthood.

This semester I’ve been studying adolescence in a course through Wilson College on my way to achieving my teacher certification. The course is "Adolescence development and cognition" and many people in the class are adults who are in the process of leaving their current job in order to become teachers. As such, many of them are still spending their days in computer labs or administrative buildings. They don’t have the opportunity (or is it a punishment??) to observe adolescents all day long. However, as a new teacher, that’s exactly what I do all day.

I teach a wide range of teens—two of my classes each day are freshman courses, while my other class is comprised of juniors and seniors. Because of this, I am able to compare the vast differences between the two age groups, which can be very interesting, entertaining, and occasionally frustrating.

Let’s start with freshmen. At the beginning of the year freshmen have no idea where they are. They’re petrified of doing something wrong or getting in trouble. As a result, you can basically tell a freshman anything you’d like. You don’t need to expend much energy on discipline because at the beginning they’re scared to do anything wrong, but on the other hand, you need to be more careful about things that you say, because they can also be more sensitive.

However, by this point in the school year, most freshmen have grown accustomed to their new lofty status as high school kids, and have therefore coaxed their egos into ones of monumental proportion. This makes them chatty in class and confident that they’re not only cool, but always right. They’ve almost completed an entire year of high school, and they’ve figured out their way around things and people. They can also almost taste the release from the last thing that’s holding them back—the title of "freshman." Soon they’ll be sophomores (which literally means "wise foolish ones," by the way) and they won’t be at the bottom of the high school heap anymore; they’re moving up.

In contrast, juniors and seniors are much different. They’ve embraced the "cool scene" and thrived with that status attribution or else just grown accustomed to their position as high school elders. For most of them, high school isn’t the "be all and end all" anymore—there are too many other pressures. For one, the end of high school is fast approaching and many have options barreling after them—job or college and a major—which are demanding a decision. These decisions are often made more difficult, or at least pressure-laden, by concerned parents breathing down their necks. Some of them also have jobs in order to pay for things like cars, cell phone bills, or general leisure activities. In general, high school juniors and seniors are feeling the pressure of the future, but they’re confident where they are. In terms of the classroom, that means they could care less about anything and therefore want to cause as much chaos as possible or they do care about learning and are interested in the material and want to do some work.

These two different attitudes create some different approaches to classroom management, but the mindsets of these two groups mean differences in actual learning also. For example, I experienced varied results teaching poetry to the freshman and juniors/seniors. With the freshman I did a poetry unit for the year. We talked about form and technique and also looked at several examples. I did a similar unit with the juniors/seniors in creative writing, also looking at form, technique, and examples, but with more focus and in greater depth. With both groups I read parts Dante’s Inferno and gave both groups a similar assignment.

Reading this epic poem with these two groups was interesting because of the questions they asked and the areas they focused on. The freshmen tended to be much more concerned about literally what was going on at any given point. They wanted to know what was happening and why it was that way. For example: why is a particular circle set up in such a manner? Why are the souls there punished that way?

The juniors and seniors sometimes asked those kinds of questions, but were in general more accepting of the basic logistics. They tended to ask questions about the fuller picture, for example, how is Dante’s world of hell, purgatory, and paradise set up? How do purgatory and hell differ? Who are the different souls in the various categories? They tended to want to fit the selections I had chosen into a broader framework. They also asked more historical questions about the significance of the work—how did the Catholic church react to this at the time? How do they react to it now? How "true" to the text of the Bible is this? And so on.

Honestly, it is more difficult to teach the older students because they asked much better and deeper questions than the freshmen did. This isn’t an indication of inherent intelligence, but just of the different ways they are able to comprehend information at this point in their development. Things which are easy for a senior to do are sometimes much more difficult for a freshman. And to an even greater level, what’s easy for me to do is sometimes very difficult for the freshmen to accomplish. This is part of what teaching is—encouraging this development of skills through practice and lecture, while acknowledging that in pushing them to learn and expand their minds, sometimes what we ask the students to do, isn’t possible for them yet. Some of the more difficult concepts go right over their head.

I’m anticipating and almost fearing this truth for the next few weeks as I teach the freshmen Shakespeare. We’re reading Romeo and Juliet, and I’m anticipating that while I understand Shakespeare’s words, they probably won’t, and explaining the Bard’s language is likely to be a difficult task.

But I anticipate that some of the fun of teaching will be watching how these freshmen grow and develop as they go through high school. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to have some of them again as juniors or seniors and be able to see for myself how they’ve changed and grown in intelligence and curiosity. The goal for everyone is, of course, to never stop growing, developing, or learning throughout life. This goes for myself, and is something which I strive to keep after with each day, and let me tell you, teaching certainly helps with that.

Read other articles by Katelyn Phelan