On Friday, we unboxed the books. Brand new, hardcover books.
“These are for us?” asked one boy, incredulous.
“Yes!” I laughed, “but you have to give them back.” He made a funny face and shook his head a little, dismissive of my excitement. Why would he keep a book?
“Can I use the stamp?”
“Can I choose the number for mine?”
“Yes!” I said yes over and over. Yes, these are for you. Yes, they are new. Yes, you can stamp them. Yes, you take them home.
“This book sure has won a lot of awards,” marveled a boy near the front.
“How’d you even get these, Miss?” asked another student, turning his brand new book over in his hands.
I laughed again, “I begged, borrowed and stole!”
His face got serious. “You didn’t steal, Miss. Don’t say that.”
I took it back. I should know better than to joke about stealing.
On Friday, we started reading Jason Reynolds’ novel in verse, Long Way Down. I had offered the class several options for reading – book clubs, individual choice, whole class – and they told me flat out that they would never read a book on their own. “No point in that,” muttered M.
We’ve been reading all semester, but always short pieces. In general, my students are a little wary of my ways, but they were willing to try poetry with me last month, so I knew we were making progress. Still, they were nervous about reading a book, like maybe I’d gone a bridge too far – a whole book. Some of them are enthusiastic readers, but many of them haven’t read a book for years. When I told them that I would NOT read the entire book out loud, one boy looked down at his desk, shook his head and made a loud “tsk” sound. “That is NOT gonna work.”
And then came Jason Reynolds. Actually, first came the discussion about a shooting death in the neighbourhood. I was shocked to learn that gun violence is a part of so many of my students’ lives, then I was surprised by my own shock. (That’s a reflection for another post altogether.) Then I got upset because I realized how little support these students were receiving for their reality (also a reflection for another time). I had a long talk with the (amazing) EA who works in my classroom who insisted, “That book you’ve been telling me about is the right book for this class.” And she issued a challenge: “If anyone can get them that book, it’s you.”
So I begged. I told the principal I would buy half with my own money. I talked about the awards, the subject matter, the poetry. I told him about our progress, the growth, the learning. I found other pots of money. Finally, I said, “I have to teach these kids this book right now. I just have to.” Hats off to my principal and our Student Success teacher: they bought the books.
On Thursday I gave the students photocopies of the first few pages. “AW! It’s more poetry,” groaned one kid. But they tried it. We used the same technique we used with Nikki Giovanni’s kidnap poem a few weeks ago: students wrote back to the text right on the paper. They asked questions, made comments and generally had their say. When we shared, they had made lots of inferences and had plenty of evidence to back them up.
Friday was the new books. After everyone had one, I explained that they could take a few minutes just to read. No set goal, no required number of pages, no plan – just read to see what’s there. My goal was 15 minutes. Boy did I underestimate them.
They would not stop reading. T looked up after ten minutes and said, “Can we read as far as we want?” I nodded, he gulped some air and dove back into the book. S turned around and said, “Did you get to the part where he took the gun yet?” H nodded and kept reading. Silence. No phones. No sleeping. Eventually, one student lost focus, and I decided to stop them before the magic spell broke: “Hey, let’s take a break and see what we’ve discovered so far.”
They took a break, talked about the book, started to do the activity… and then I noticed that one, two, three kids had snuck back to their books. Then another. I asked if they wanted to just go back to their seats and read. “YES!” So we did.
As class came to an end, I found two kids surreptitiously trying to slide the book into their backpack. “You’re allowed to take it home if you want,” I said.
One book went right into the backpack, but T hesitated. Finally, he put it back, “I want to make it last a little longer, Miss.”
I have a feeling that, for some of them, this will last for a long time.