“Is this a detention? Cracking the whip?”
Looking at my motley lunch crew, I can understand why he might jump to that conclusion. It’s a bit rag-tag, with all-stars from both leagues; the league of usual suspects and the league of chronic distractions.
“Nope. This is voluntary. No one has to be here,” I explain, finishing up my lunch. My colleague takes another confused look around and leans in.
“But you’ve got Timothy reading a book at lunch. He’s a pain in my ass.”
“He’s a total pain in my ass, too. That hasn’t changed. But now, he’s a pain in the ass that reads a book at lunch a few days a week.”
“Is it extra credit?”
“No. He had to earn the right to be here.”
“So, how’s he earning this if he’s still a pain in the ass all day?”
“I can’t ask a thirteen-year-old to perform a miracle on himself. I just found a way to lure him to a few books.”
I wish I could say that this was my grand plan, but it wasn’t even my idea. Like a lot of good things, it just sort of snowballed. See, we have more than one classroom on campus designated for students with advanced special needs. The rooms are in the back, a few doors down from me. It’s in no way an attempt to hide the rooms or the kids. Luck of the dice is all. It’s a shame, though. I have worked on a campus where students with disabilities have been better integrated into the mix. Somehow, watching kids in wheelchairs turning jump ropes and shooting baskets just seems to make the world better. Everybody involved is a slightly better version of themselves.
I can’t ask a thirteen-year-old to perform a miracle on himself. I just found a way to lure him to a few books.
When we got our second classroom for students with severe needs, the new teacher approached me a few months into the semester.
“You have this eighth grade class for struggling readers during third period?”
“Would it be possible to send three or four down each day to read with students from my class?”
“Sure,” I answered. I felt a little guilty that I was so quick to farm them out, but I
I felt a little guilty that I was so quick to farm them out, but I have to be honest, this was not my favorite class. A room of struggling eighth-graders doesn’t make for the best mix. Give me thirty struggling second or third graders. No worries. There is still hope, and the kids and I can still cling to that hope. We’re a little behind, but we still have a shot. Heck, hand me a room full of fifth graders that are still off the mark. At this point, they are slowly transitioning into the “long shots” for all of this reading and writing business. But long shots still have a shot. It’s in the title. It takes a lot more than just bad odds to kill the hope inside a kid.
Eighth grade is something different. Nothing has gotten much better at this point, and school just seems like some big lie, some bill of goods they’ve been sold. For some, this is the first big lie they have had to settle into. For others, it might be the second. Family and all the stability it brings might have been their first. Frustration mixed with puberty isn’t always best. Motivation is low. It’s a stacked battle against apathy.
“Great,” she smiles.
“Happy to help,” I say. She smiles and she starts to walk away.
“No, no. I’m helping you. You’ll see.”
The next day, every kid is quick to volunteer to get out of the room for a period. I send four. I sort of split the difference. I send her two with some behavior issues and two kinder kids. With about fifteen minutes to go they come back, each with a small stack of picture books. They seem genuinely excited and one smiles for what seems to be the first time in my room.
“She said we can come back tomorrow, but we have to practice the books.”
“Can we come in here at lunch and practice?” they ask me.
“You want to come in here at lunch and practice?” One kid laughs, appreciating how it sounds.
“But it was fun. Not like all this other stuff.”
“And her class really likes it,” another adds.
Soon, Tom Sawyer’s fence is in full affect. Now, every kid wants to read and practice at lunch because it seems like fun. Within a week or so, we have a rotation and a schedule. Everybody gets excited for their turn. It’s so much more than books too. For some of them, they simply feel useful. They feel validated. Nobody is judging their reading or anything else about them. Maybe, for the first time in years, they are having a positive experience with education. Their audience members are grateful and so are they. Everybody feels good about being in a classroom. One day at lunch, I throw in a twist.
“Timothy, you still failing history?”
“Yup,” he answers, without looking up from his lunchtime practice.
“What if you read your history book to Armando when you go down tomorrow?” Timothy looks up at me as if I am a bit off.
“Ain’t nobody want to hear that book.”
“They would if you sold it the right way.” Timothy gives me a perplexed stare.
“Armando isn’t necessarily understanding your words when you read to him. It’s your voice and your attention that he really likes. So, read your history chapter to him like it was some exciting story.” I pull a history book out and open it randomly, then clear my throat.
“Andrew Jackson had been financially damaged by tightening bank credit in his business career. He retained distrust of financial institutions for the rest of his life.” Timothy laughed.
“You read that like Andrew Jackson was evil or something.”
“The man had some seriously evil moments.” He seems surprised.
“Why’s he on the twenty if he’s evil?”
“You should read it to Armando and find out. Just sell it to him like you’ve been doing with those other little books. Practice it here.”
“Well damn, if I’m going to read it a few times, I might as well just do the homework packet.” We stare at each other and start laughing.
“Might as well,” I suggest.
I wish I could say we all lived happily ever after and the cruel world was righted. Not so much. But! Timothy turned in homework packets sometimes. Kids started taking their textbooks down to read them and to sell someone on a textbook while reading aloud requires basic understanding. Kids felt a little better about coming to school. They felt valued and you can’t really put a price on that. Most importantly, a few kids moved from “total apathy” back to “long shot”. There is always a glimmer of hope for a long shot. A little something to cling to. Just maybe, for a few, school wasn’t such a big lie anymore.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent best seller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, HD_Vision.