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Teacher Voice

The Chemistry of Student Success

The “belief gap” is about the difference between what society thinks minority students are capable of achieving, and what they are actually capable of achieving. It is my job to try to undo the damage students have experienced and internalized. I have to convince my students that they can achieve so much more than they imagine.

Ms. Campbell’s Science Class

I have been teaching high school science (chemistry, physics, and biology) for the past 20 years in Los Angeles County in classrooms filled primarily with students of color. By the time 10th and 11th grade students reach my class, they have experienced many years of underachievement compared to their white and Asian peers. The majority of students who enter my chemistry class at the beginning of a term feel that they are destined to fail, or to pass with a low grade, because they have not been encouraged to believe in themselves. I have seen this over and over again. Their confidence is so shaken that they do not expect to master the subject nor feel competent with the material. My job is not just about getting students to trust me, but also getting students to trust their own abilities. Unfortunately, they will probably continue to fall in the belief gap, so it’s imperative that I help build their self-esteem to surmount whatever obstacles they face in the future.

Escaping the Belief Gap

Take, for example, the story of Vicki, a student I had earlier this year. She had some strong skills in algebra and was very organized. At first, she was quiet and timid in class, but she quickly got the hang of my methods and found herself performing quite well—so well, her classmates started to turn to her for help on their work. She began to volunteer to answer questions in class and even go to the board to demonstrate how to solve problems. By the end of the term, she responded to me and to her peers with confidence and competence. She wrote me a letter explaining that she had never performed well in a science class before, and thanked me for helping her to find a love of chemistry and an understanding of her talents in science. Vicki may still confront the belief gap in society, but now she can face the discrepancy between what she knows she can do and what others believe she can do because she’s had specific experiences to boost her confidence. That is the magic I strive for every day, and one of the chief reasons why I continue to teach.

How I Do It

Very few students fail my chemistry classes. I have one of the lowest fail rates for chemistry in all of Los Angeles Unified School District. Here is my magic: I make failure a lot more work than passing, and I give students plenty of opportunities to pass, to improve, and to show they have mastered a concept. I give students a lot of feedback. I grade everything that my students turn in and go over every assignment with them once it is graded, even if it counts for zero percent of the grade, because these assignments are chances for them to develop mastery of a concept. Students are often really surprised by this. They are used to handing in assignments that are never returned, but I feel that students who are disadvantaged need more support than those whose parents attended college and can afford private schools and tutors. About a third of the class will fail my tests (anything below 70 percent is a fail in my class), so I give my students a personalized test map that shows them how many questions and points were on the test sorted by concept, and how many they got correct. Then they get a worksheet that helps them to practice the things they missed so they can prepare to take the assessment again. I let them work on this during class and I ask them to go over it with me before they retake the exam. I have several versions of each test so I can give them another version that tests the same concepts. Most of the time students improve their score on the second try. Sometimes it takes more than a second chance.

I Don’t Give Up

But the point is, I don’t give up on them and they learn they can succeed no matter what. I teach science, yet the most important lesson I impart to my students is the knowledge that someone has faith in them and their ability to excel. In my classroom, they can fail and try, try, try again until they get it right. My students know I’ll be there every step of the way and when they leave, they feel secure meeting the challenges that will arise in their lives. I know they’ll be able to handle them.  
Angela Campbell teaches chemistry, AP chemistry, honors physics and advanced biology at Polytechnic Senior High School, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Angela Campbell
Angela Campbell teaches chemistry, AP chemistry, honors physics and advanced biology at Polytechnic Senior High School, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Angela is National Board Certified and was a 2013 semifinalist for TNTP’s

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