Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mission (Not So) Impossible: teaching English to high school students with ADHD

***Disclaimer: I am not an expert on ADHD, ADD or any related disorders. As always, medical and counseling professionals are the people to turn to when looking for a diagnosis or treatment for these conditions. The following post is based solely on my experience as a classroom English teacher, and should be taken as such.***

At the outset of this semester, I looked at one of my new class rosters with a bit of leeriness. Or, perhaps dread defines it better—in a cruel twist of fate, all of my sophomores who have been diagnosed (or who self-diagnose) with attention difficulties were now grouped in the same class. Even more to my chagrin, a heaping handful of my counterpart sophomore teacher’s toughest crew were ALSO on my new roster. The memory of my pre-service teaching education reminded me “now, don’t judge these kids before you see how they actually act together.” Reality nudged me closer to thoughts like “heaven, preserve me. This is going to be a nightmare.” The chuckles of my co-workers while viewing my class list did not help the situation.

True to my trepidations, the first few days involved a lot of firm shutting-down of jumping, blurting out offensive or (or just loud) statements, banging on desks, and flicking/poking/trying to pick each other up at the beginning of each class. I was whipping out my strictest persona all over the place. I held things together… but probably just barely. I started to wonder if this class would break my record of zero referrals since working at SFHS—then again, it’s hard to know who to kick out when the entire classroom is a powder keg of chaos. I found myself thinking, “I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to facilitate this class at the same level as my others.” Every day, it seemed like I was expending a herculean amount of effort just to keep the ball rolling in one, straight direction with minimal deviation.

Now, one quarter later, I am proud to say that my “nightmare” class and I have reached an understanding, and I have grown extremely fond of them. As always happens, once I began to have human conversations and humorous interactions with my students, my assumptions about them began to fade away and I found myself charmed in spite of myself by their occasional antics. They have also met me halfway and, in general, show me respect, perform fairly well academically, channel their energy in positive ways, and answer “yes, ma’am” to the occasional redirection. Looking back over these nine weeks, I’m trying to identify the miracle. I mean, I am no Mary Poppins. In writing this post, I’m trying to explore these questions: What did I do right? And how can I do it again?

I think, on the most basic level, the key to reaching this understanding with my students comes from knowing that their initial behavior was not a hateful vendetta against me. Part of it was brain chemistry, forgetting to take medication, and the stress of a new classroom environment. Another big part of it was their default instinct to fulfill the prophecy of the messages that have been fed to them for their entire educational lives. I can make this assertion with confidence, since several of them came straight out and told me, upon our first meeting, “I have ADHD so… yeah, we might not get along” or “you’re not gonna be seeing a whole lot of homework from me. I mean, really…my mind is WACKO!” I said what I usually say to such things, “Oh. Ok. Well, thanks for telling me.” That shook them up a little bit. I always refuse to react in a major negative way with students, even when they come at my class from a negative mental place. Diffuse and redirect are always my actions of choice. That basic principle, combined with the hopefully helpful tips below, is my way of revising the prophecy to one of classroom success.


  1. Identify the instigator(s). In a class full of behaviorally reactive students, it is important to figure out who typically begins the cycle of distraction or deviation. It’s usually not the loudest kid who gets the class rolling. Figure out who that young man or lady is, and address their behavior, privately and firmly, as soon as possible. They need to understand that one initial action that they view as harmless can send the entire operation reeling. Often, this student doesn’t even realize that he or she is instigating and will apologetically shape up. When the leader is suddenly a good example rather than an instigator, the majority of students will begin to really try to fly right.
  2. This next one is good classroom management practice no matter what, but it’s even more important in a class with several ADHD students. Make sure expectations are crystal clear, always consistent, and easy to understand. Also, try to express your expectations in physical terms rather than conceptual ones. For example, “Let me see your eyes so that I know you’re paying attention” works better than “Please pay attention.” It’s also better to describe what you want to see, rather than what you don’t. So: “I need to see you sitting down and writing right now” is typically better than “stop messing around.”
  3. Teach students ways to recognize and manage the thought process that leads up to disruptive behavior. This is what I say to my class almost every day: “You need to make a choice before reacting to something somebody else says or does, about whether or not it’s useful to react. If you have no useful reason to react, ignore it. Do not worry so much about what other students are doing. Your job is to make sure that you are doing something positive and good.” [Repeat, repeat, repeat]
  4. Give students tools to use when that thought process management attempt fails and they begin to escalate or lose attention completely. In my eyes, sending a student on a “walk” (with a pass, and no longer than 7 minutes), is a completely acceptable and good way to manage extra energy. As long as students don’t abuse it, this policy offers them time and space to cool down and collect themselves, before they do something that will require a different type of walk to the principal’s office.
  5. Try your best to empathize with and verbally acknowledge the extra effort it takes for students with ADHD to focus and produce a product. They don’t often get to hear that validation and understanding that, yes, it is tougher for them to do the same things that other students do. However, that’s not always a detriment. The same kids who seem to be focusing on a million things at once can often focus at an intense level on a goal, once they “get in the zone.” It’s getting them in the zone that’s the issue. Setting many short term goals and giving lots of genuine praise as goals are achieved sets students up for a good experience.
  6. If at all possible, stay fast-paced and active in your teaching lessons. Give the students constant things to look at and do. Be excited, theatrical, and loud, if appropriate. (I’m pretty sure anyone watching me teach this particular class might think that I, too, have ADHD.)
  7. As always, I’ve found that personal relationships are key. A kid may act like a terror during an “off” day in class, but when I see him two hours later in the hallway, I’m still going to say “hi” and “how’s it going?” Just giving any student the small recognition of noticing and caring about their existence does wonders for managing that student in a classroom setting.

Not every day in room 209 is a shining example of classroom management, even in the sections with very well-behaved students. There are always rough days (for instance, my recent lesson in the computer lab when all the power went out and everything went to heck). But I guess the message to come away with here is that there can be far, far fewer rough days when the students and teacher understand and respect one another. In some cases, that’s way easier said than done. But a lot of times, it’s those same cases that are all the more rewarding.

Teaching AP Literature: Maiden Voyage

It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the reality that I’m just months away from finishing out my first year teaching AP English Literature and Composition. This new part of my teaching load was daunting at first, considering I knew nothing about the AP program and that I had never before had the opportunity to put together an honors, let alone an AP course. I knew I was up to the challenge, having always been a person who demanded academic rigor of myself. Still, I knew that this would entail a lot of work… especially considering that, for the first time, I’d be working with students who are all academically very pretentious. Deep down, I had to question whether I would be able to convince them of my knowledgeability and credibility. I knew I couldn’t really “fake” my way through this, not even a little, because students who expect a lot of themselves expect even more of their teachers. My fears were not quickly assuaged; for the first two months of the course, my students regarded me in mostly silence–a silence I had absolutely no way of comprehending. “They hate me,” I thought to myself on a routine basis. Then: “Maybe they’re scared of me? Or scared to fail?” Or sometimes: “God, I hope they don’t think I’m an idiot who’s just faking my way through this.”

Luckily for us all, I have been investing a good percentage of my life since last June studying, preparing, reading, experimenting, and evolving in order to be worthy of my position as an “expert” teacher of literature, and my students now do speak to me, smile at me warmly, and laugh at my (usually stupid) jokes. [Example, for discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son: This man’s criminality stems from BIGGER influences than just his own independent choices… Um… no pun intended.] And, they are learning. They are making progress in their writing that I can visibly see. They tell me that they feel “enlightened” by what they’ve learned this year, and recently played a role in electing me as the commencement speaker for their graduating class. To my shock, awe, and happiness, I must be doing something right!

Don’t get me wrong–I am still very much the novice when it comes to teaching AP. Just look at a list of commonly cited texts of the essay portion of the exam, and it’s very difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the amount of canonical literature one hasn’t read and hasn’t taught. It seems I’ve already got a list a mile long when it comes to things that I’ll be doing a little differently next year. But for the most part, it’s been a great success. Granted, the students’ scores on the exam in May will be a more accurate measure of that success in a quantitative sense, but I am proud of what these students have been able to accomplish no matter what number they pull on the actual test. I am looking forward to building upon this first success, and eventually becoming a master AP Lit teacher… someday!

Since I learned a lot by doing, I’d like to share the outline of my course for those who are interested either to adopt aspects of it into their own AP plans, or those who’d like to offer new ideas that I (or anyone) could incorporate into this initial frame.  I found syllabi that were posted online to be another great help in the initial formation of my course, so I’ll make my own available as well.

Ms. H’s AP Literature Voyage Log

Summer syllabus: AP English Literature and Composition Summer Syllabus (PDF)

School year syllabus: AP English Literature and Composition Syllabus 11-12

My basic approach/primary goals for students

*Thorough exposure to great literature: Over two semesters, students read twelve novels/plays and dozens of poems and supplementary readings from a wide range of time periods and authors.

* I took a chronological and philosophical approach, organizing units by time period but also by the mindset of the time. When needed, I filled in gaps in students’ history knowledge (like more intimate details of the French Revolution or a deeper analysis of colonialism/racism in America than textbooks provide). I made sure that students could understand the unique historical terms, literary period, and worldview under which each story was formed. This really helped their analyses become more sophisticated, rather than repeating tired aphorisms gleaned from simplified impressions of history.

*Nearly every day, students define and apply a new literary term. From “foil” to “colloquialism” to “ballad meter” to “deus ex machina,” they need to be able to wield these terms in writing and identify them on the multiple choice section. I also focus on teaching the many words that can be used to describe tone, like “elegiac” or “pedantic.”

*Close reading, close reading, close reading… we come back to this often–learning and practicing how to truly interpret language, identify the effects of language choices, and using that information to support a well-crafted thesis. [Click on this link for a Powerpoint fashioned to introduce the concept: Writing-about-literature]

*We take, dissect, and question practice multiple choice exams, in an effort to learn what to expect and how the questioning process seems to operate.

*Constant writing. Ask my students, and you will find that they write quite a bit. There are eleven formal essays in all, each of which I spend copious time commenting on. I identify and explain moments of success, problematic sections, and give a final remark along with the grade at the end. It’s worth the entire day that it takes to grade a full class’ worth, because the students respond and enhance their writing as a result. Revision is expected and encouraged.

*Much academic discussion is required, as a full class, with smaller groups, and with me. Students annotate their texts in preparation, and are pushed daily to make comments (spoken and in writing) which, in the words of the AP course description, are “insightful” and “acknowledge complexity.” My students have come an extremely long way in this category, and it’s the one that I’m most proud of. They truly have gone from making banal, insipid generalizations to impressing me on a daily basis with the kinds of things that they observe and characterize. [Click this link for my presentation on insight/complexity: developing-insight2]


Fellow AP instructors, I have a new respect for what you do. Congrats on all the work you’ve done, and that which you’ll continue to do. Academic rigor is something sorely needed in American schools, and it’s truly a gift to have a group of students who embrace that opportunity with open arms. Best of luck on the exam. *Fingers crossed for a class full of threes, fours, and fives*