He may be right; I may be crazy

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He is late again today. In fact, despite my repeated warnings, he’s been coming to class later and later as the semester nears its end: 30 seconds after the bell rings has become 1 minute, 2 minutes… today it is closer to 5. He tries to slip into his seat when I’m not looking – as if I won’t notice with only ten kids in the class. Then, like most days, a few minutes later he casually saunters up and asks to use the washroom during our reading time. He’s driving me crazy.

The EAs I’ve worked with over the years have told me that I am too slow to respond to these minor transgressions, that I should send kids to the office earlier and more often. I need to be more strict. I hear this. I hear, too, what these kids are asking “How far can I go? What can I get away with? How much does she care?” I care a lot. And I should be strict, but I want to know the why behind the transgression. I’m a sucker for the why.

“I’m worried about you,” I tell him.
“Don’t be,” he shrugs. “It’s not like I miss anything at the beginning of class, anyway.”
I bite my tongue and wait.
“What’d I miss?”
I raise my eyebrows.

See, the truth is, he’s kind of right: he doesn’t miss much content in that first minute, though I pretty much always start on time. We use the beginning of class to connect, to set the tone, to share, and, of course, to talk about books. But he’s not interested in being part of the class, and he doesn’t want me to know him. If he’s late, he doesn’t have to learn about his classmates and he can stay disconnected.

“Why do you care so much about 2 minutes?” He eyes me warily.

I have to think about this. I mean, I knew the answer before he asked, but now I need to answer for him. Why do I care so much about him being in class on time?

“Well…” I hesitate, and my voice trails off. “I’m worried.” Hmm. I already said that. I’m not making a good case for myself. His chin juts forward and up, but his eyes go down. I take a deep breath and the truth tumbles out.

“I know you’re bored. But you’ve got a good brain. And I think you might be bored because you’re not engaged in the work we’re doing, or in school, really. I see you skimming around the edges, cutting corners, breaking little rules to show that you don’t have to do this. That you’re not involved. And I’m worried. Because I want you to be interested in something. I want your brain and your heart, and you’re not sharing either. You think it’s about a few minutes; I think it’s about you learning.”

He’s not impressed. I’ve said shorter versions of this before.
“What are you even talking about? I was, like 2 minutes…”
“5 minutes,” I really can’t help interrupting.
“Ok, 5 minutes late. Like 5 minutes.” He’s shaking his head.
“Today. And yesterday. And last week. And what about tomorrow? And you don’t put your phone away when I ask. And you do the writing I ask for, but you don’t share it. And you read when we’re talking and go to the washroom when we’re reading. You have a lot of ways of making it clear that you are not following the rules, that you aren’t one of us.”

He is quiet. I may be right, but he thinks I’m crazy. I’m asking for something way beyond just following the rules. I’m interested in more than just his compliance, and he knows it. We both wait.

“Do I have to stay after class?” His question is a whisper.
I know how much lunch means to him. I know how he needs his friends, how he needs to move. I know I should be stricter earlier with these minor transgressions. I know that punishment rarely leads to engagement. We appraise each other. I see such potential in him, such possibility. I wonder what he sees in me?


Finally, I sigh. “I guess I don’t know anymore. Can I think about it?”
“Yeah,” he says. And then, as he’s turning around, “Thanks.”

It’s the “thanks” that gets me. I don’t keep him in at lunch. And I hope he’ll be on time tomorrow, but he probably won’t be. He may be right: I may be crazy.

Update, Wednesday morning: And… he was late again today. But he was in a good mood, and he sat down to read without complaint. Baby steps?

 

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New Year Reading Blues

Coming back to school after Winter Break is always tough for me. It’s not that I don’t want to see my students & colleagues – I do! – but, frankly, Ottawa in January is cold and dark. I would be just as happy to spend most of the month curled up under a bunch of warm blankets drinking tea and reading books. My students, I fear, would choose to spend their free time differently.

Before break, we were on a reading roll. My little class of 11 (now ten – long story) had read 55 books as of  December 4. We were up to 63 right before break, and I was seeing great signs of what I thought was an emerging literary life, at least, if you count Diary of a Wimpy Kid as literary – which I do. Some of my students had plans for their next book. Some were recommending books to others. Rupi Kaur’s poetry was getting passed around – and not only because it is a little racy. When we left for winter break, I was really pleased.

I had a great break. As it started, my own children and I finished our read-aloud of Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider. (An incredible read-aloud, although be prepared to encounter lots of complex pronunciation.) On my own, that first weekend, I tore through Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys. As our family headed off on vacation I read Debris Line by Matthew Fitzsimmons (a former colleague who’s written a fantastic series of action-packed thrillers), then Ami McKay’s fun new novella Half Spent Was the Night and finally Bill Bryson’s slim biography of Shakespeare. And, we finished our read-aloud of Funke’s follow-up to Dragon Rider, The Griffin’s Feather. So, um, yeah, that’s six books in two weeks. But one really was a novella and Bill Bryson’s book is full of information but it’s not really super-long… and we were on a plane…

I am not actually a crazy person. I really didn’t expect that my students would read much over break. The class I keep writing about this semester is not the “Academic” track and most of them do not identify as readers. But maybe I am crazier than I seem, because yesterday, as we were talking about our break, I realized that I was kind of hoping that they would have read *something.* So I was disappointed when only three of nine students said they had read anything other than social media over the holidays. That’s only 1/3. Even my student who most identifies as a reader didn’t read. The only silver lining is that one student was absent, and I’m betting he read something, so that’s four of ten. 2/5 – ever so slightly better than 1/3.

I really really really really (that’s four “really”s, if you’re counting) want them to be readers. And I deeply believe that a) they need to read more to learn to read well and b) that reading well – and even enjoying reading – is important. (To paraphrase Donalyn Miller, I’ve got the research. Here’s hers and there’s plenty more: like this, and this, and this…)

And guys, I did not want to write this blog post. Because there are only 12 more teaching days before exams. 12 days x 20 minutes of independent reading + me cheering them on. No matter how I do the math, I just don’t think that’s enough time to help them see that they can be readers, that they are readers. I just don’t know if one semester was enough. And some of them are *so close.* I feel like if we could just keep reading…

But we can’t. And I kind of feel like I failed them. I’m bucking myself up by reminding myself that this is the first semester I really went all in with choice reading, that I’m getting better and better at reading conferences, that I’m building my classroom library (and making extensive use of the school & public libraries when my own library isn’t enough), that the reading survey I did at the beginning of the semester suggested that many of the students hadn’t read a single book in the last year. We have made real, tangible progress.

I just don’t know if it’s enough.

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(I asked my husband to read over this blog post before I published it.  He reminded me that I’m not supposed to approach teaching like a major league baseball player looking to maintain a high batting average. Instead, I help my students get a little better every time they step up to the plate, and by that measure each one of them is better off today than they were at the beginning of my class. I hate it when he’s right, and when he uses baseball metaphors.  He also reminded me that everything looks a little darker in January when you live in Ottawa but grew up in the Southern US: both a figurative and literal truth. He’s also right about that.)

I know everything, apparently

How do dolphins have sex? How do fireworks work? How come the fireworks echo like that? How do stingray tails sting? How are stingrays related to sharks? How do you know if you’re in love?

My one little word for 2019 is “listen,” but we are nine hours and fifteen minutes into the year – and let’s be clear that I was asleep for most of those hours – and I have already yelled (just a little). We are on vacation. I am sitting on the couch trying to write, listening to the gentle creak of the hammock behind me, the not-so-gentle rise and fall of the children’s voices as they talk their way through some version of tennis on the beach (raquets, a ball, and nothing else), the heavy footfalls on the stairs as the adults try to get ready for the day.

The sounds paint a lovely picture, and I am listening, but I have already been asked approximately 304 questions this morning. Can we go to that abandoned house you found? Can I take home a seashell? Why not? Can I use your phone to take pictures? Can I have more for breakfast? Can starfish swim? Can you read to me when you’re done writing? Can we go swimming? Can we go now?

The metallic thud and clank of the screen door warns me that I am about to be joined again. The boys know that I need some space when I’m writing, but somehow quiet space is hard to find in this tropical paradise. Our senses are alight with novelty, and experiences blossom around every corner. No one is getting quite enough sleep because every minute – even the quiet ones – is full of something.

What’s the name of this bug? What is cassava? What makes bioluminescence? Can we keep it in a jar? Why not? What are you writing? What time is it? What’s for lunch?

So, this one little word thing, this “listen”, this may be a challenge for me. I guess I already knew that. But now – literally as I am writing – the sounds have come together and, astonishingly, I have found the quiet in the centre of the noise. And what I hear behind the tennis negotiations, the breeze, the hammock and all of those questions, is security, admiration, love. There will come a day when these boys will know that I do not, in fact, know everything – or even all that much. There will come a day when they will think I know nothing at all, in fact. These questions show me what a central role I play in their lives right now. Right now, I know everything, apparently.

So here is my blessing for myself today: May I hold onto the revelation that questions are love in wrapped up in words during the 4,537 questions that are yet to be asked today. May I listen and may I hear. May I not lose my temper. (And may I forgive myself when, at question 4,538, I do.)

Why do the birds follow some people and not others? Why do stores close on holidays? Why do we have to go home? Are you done writing? Can you come play yet?

Yes, yes I can. I’ll be there in a minute, my loves.

 

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