“Be the change you want to see in the world.” That one belongs to Gandhi. No doubt a tall order. So close to some spiritual truth, it’s hard for it to mean anything concrete to most of us. It makes a good inspirational quote to place on some distressed wood and hang in your home or classroom. A reminder to be your best. The closest I ever got to it went something like this — “Write the book you want them to read.” That’s me. A little closer to Kevin Costner’s cornfield whispering to him, “Build it, and he will come.” No Gandhi, but not bad. It is the closest I ever got as a teacher. Like a lot of good ideas, it started with a typical middle school problem – they don’t read.
For my first few years teaching middle school, I had classes devoted to the struggling reader, and I was able to skirt around the issue with bells and whistles. Some issues fell under “willing” and others that were more clearly linked to “able.” Were they unwilling or unable? They were all unwilling to varying degrees. And though out of pure atrophy, like an unused muscle, there were some unable issues. But I found ways around. Have you ever heard of Mike, the Headless Chicken? True story about a farmer that went to prepare a chicken for dinner, lopped off its head, and the chicken continued to live for over a year. They went on the road and made some coin.
Have you ever heard the story of Lobster Boy? He was a young man that worked in a traveling “Freak” show with hands and feet that did resemble lobster claws. He got tangled up in a lover’s triangle, killed a man, but then was let go because the prison system didn’t know how to care for him. Outrageous, right? Of course, it is. High interest was my first best instructional practice. I knew how to tell a good story that left them curious enough to read a few pages to get the details. It was a needle I consistently was able to thread. But it wasn’t enough.
How could I get them to engage in a deeper reading? How could I make that switch go off in their brains? Many often bragged to me that they hadn’t read a book since second grade. How could I put any of them on the path of the lifelong learner? That first summer, I read some books that had been labeled as high interest. When I went back in August, they worked. Sort of. They hated them less than traditional texts. But it’s hard to bridge a gap with a book perceived as sucking less. So, what next? I decided to write the book I thought they would read. Simple, right?
It wasn’t quite that clear. I didn’t wake up one morning and start hammering out a book they would read. It was something that built up over time. When younger kids struggle in school, our district does a good job of catching it. Considerable effort goes into catching kids before they slip through the cracks. But by middle school just about all of the kids that were dealing with special education or mental health issues have been caught. We got them.
So struggling kids in eighth grade are usually just showing us symptoms of their much bigger struggles with poverty or abuse or addiction or hunger and the list goes on and on. And teaching a reading class with thirty or so kids that won’t read turns into a parenting class. Sadly, for many of them, I was a bit of a unicorn. I was a decent guy that was going to show up on a regular basis, care for them, and show them respect. I was more father than teacher. If you are meeting the kids at the point of their greatest need, then my anecdotal data suggested that I was differentiating my instruction in the best way possible.
And, by the way, many of these kids are angry. School has now officially turned out to be a grand lie. Young kids cling to hope that a little extra help will go a long way. But these guys had been in every intervention designed to bring them up to speed and here they are, years later, with nothing to show for it. Pretty difficult to be the tenth or fifteenth person to hand them a book and ask them to buy in one more time.
Written For Them – and About Them
As someone who enjoys writing, their plight became my muse. And the next summer I decided to write about them. A story told by one of their own — an angry kid so frustrated with the big lie of school and all the stuff in their world that teachers either don’t understand or simply choose to ignore. I fueled my keyboard with righteous indignation and had at it. It’s damn cathartic to put on the mask of a fourteen-year-old and cry out into the face of your world. It’s a yearning that is often just below our own surfaces, but we are now responsible adults and have learned to swallow and bury those feelings deep within, so we might continue the grind unobstructed. This was a character speaking directly to the secret lives of struggling students. With my soul feeling a little lighter, I headed into the next school year.
“Welcome back, Mr. Bowen.” When you teach struggling older students, educational miracles are few, and so you often get many of the same kids in eighth grade you had in seventh. So, here we all were once again.
“I wrote a book,” I told them while we talked about our summers.
“You wrote a book?!” Instantly, with those four words, I had garnered more interest in a book than I had since I taught second grade. It might have even seemed more interesting than Mike, the Headless Chicken.
“Like a real book? How many pages?”
“So, you sat and wrote all them pages this summer.”
“Yup.” One student shook his head at me.
“It’s like you gave yourself homework all summer. That’s messed up.” As messed up as I seemed to some of them, they were still interested.
“Can we buy this book?”
“No,” I said, and I pulled the manuscript out of my bag. “This is it.”
“Why don’t you publish it and sell it?”
“I don’t know if it’s any good.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a kid in a class like this one.”
“Is he handsome like me?” The kids laugh.
“Not possible, sir.” He seems to like the answer even though some of the girls boo.
“I just need some teenagers to read it and tell me what they think.”
“If you want us to read your book, you can just ask us, Mr. Bowen. You don’t need to be playing all your teacher games.” One of the drawbacks of having kids a few years in a row is that they get to know you a bit too well.
That’s what we did. I made copies of chapters, and they read. And almost instantly, there it was. Silence. Not just standard silence, but rather the kind that comes with deep thought; with losing yourself to the page. It took me a few years, but here we finally were. They made annotations, corrections, suggestions, and had no issues sharing them all with me.
“You’re using the wrong “there” all over the place. Don’t you teach that to us?”
“Yes, and I’m glad to see you putting it to good use.”
“Shit! On page 73, Mr. Bowen is dropping those F-bombs!” The sound of flipping pages sounds like rushing water.
“Correction. The CHARACTER is dropping F-bombs. I’m just writing them down.”
“Well, now I want to hear Mr. Bowen drop an F-bomb!” A chant of “cuss…cuss…cuss…” starts up in the room. I’m pretty sure most editors don’t chant for their writers to cuss. I have a credential and a job to keep, so I won’t tell you how that one ended. On more somber days, I would have kids confide in me that there was some chapter where they felt I was writing about them.
They read every chapter, rereading many and beaming with pride when they saw I had taken some of their suggestions and corrections. This took several months, and it was the most consistently productive time I think I ever spent with a class — deeply reading with the kids that don’t read.
Soon after, the way we put kids in classes changed, and I didn’t have a class quite like that again. But usually, I found a handful of kids more than willing to read my book and give me their feedback. Eventually, I found myself teaching higher achieving students and the exercise seemed less necessary. So, after years of toting around dog-eared copies of my manuscript, I self-published the book, and it became a big hit as an option for literature circles. You feel like a true best seller when young readers are turning away Percy Jackson and Harry Potter just to get to you. I shamelessly chose a cover that suggested it was too taboo to read and I wasn’t lying to them when I told them our school librarian refused to carry it. In her defense, it made sense since this was the cover —
It really does beg for a teenage boy to read it against all adult supervision. And admit it. It does pique your interest a little. In the end, when there is no real blood and when they realize it’s a metaphor, they don’t ever seem cheated or tricked.
It’s probably a bit much to suggest that you write a book and use it as a teaching tool. And it probably feels obnoxious for me to tell you that you should buy my book if you have struggling young teen readers, although I think you’ll forgive me when you see the link at the bottom that will take you straight to Amazon. But, having the kids correct your work is an excellent gateway into a topic or a genre of writing. If not a book, could you have them repair your poem? Your persuasive essay? Your short narrative about growing up? Your three-chord song? A little vulnerability and some writing chops can go a long, long way. Be the writing you want to see in your students. Who knows, maybe be the highly acclaimed and popular writer of your classroom. And forgive me, but here it comes….