“Miss, how long have you been teaching?” In one motion, he picks up a stool, arcs it under his body, and plunks himself down across from me. I stop eating my lunch and look up.
“More than 20 years. I’ve kind of lost count. Why?”
“Ok. So. You know how to make kids stop talking, right?” He’s taking up a lot of space – legs spread, elbows on my desk, newly-bearded chin balanced in his hands as he glares at me intently.
I’m not sure where he’s going with this line of questioning and it makes me a little nervous. He’s not an easy kid to read. He arrived at our school early last year, and his life before that was not easy. Heck, his life after that was not easy. He’s intense and funny and thoughtful, but he can be impulsive and independent well beyond what is good for him. When I taught him during that rocky first semester, I learned quickly that his questions are almost always multi-layered and that he wants real answers.
“It’s never that easy,” I tell him, and I think of some of our stand-offs in the classroom.
Some of those memories must occur to him, too, because we look hard at each other until I finally break. “Spill,” I say. “Who do you want to stop talking?”
Three ninth grade girls in the math class he’s peer tutoring are driving him crazy. “They talk all the time! They’re so rude! They don’t know what a great opportunity they have! Mr. W’s an excellent teacher.”
He’s already tried to divide and conquer. He’s figured out who’s the leader. He’s tried being nice…
-Pause here for a second-
He is a peer tutor.
He is working with 14-year-olds in a math class.
He’s seeking advice from teachers he respects because he wants to go to the classroom teacher with ideas.
He is a peer tutor.
He is helping out in a math class. He is seeking advice from teachers.
We had a good talk, and I made a few suggestions. And I told him that the suggestions probably won’t work – who can stop three determined 9th graders from talking? – but I doubt he’ll give up.
When he left, I might have been a little teary. He’s a peer tutor. A peer tutor. I might be a little teary again right now. Sometimes teaching is the best job ever.
The last teaching days of this semester were snow days. Two of them in a row. What a way to go out.
Shocking precisely no one, I like to teach right up to the last minute. I had planned one more guided academic discussion (for a mark!), an exit survey/ teacher evaluation (which I keep and use to improve my teaching every year – and also to check that I’m teaching what I think I’m teaching), and a celebration/ reflection on our learning. No, not a party (imagine my students’ disappointment), rather a moment to take stock and find ways to represent our learning and then celebrate (and yes, I sometimes bring food). I was even going to read them one more poem. (Hey, who knows when they’re going to hear another one?)
So none of that happened. On the plus side, despite the lack of busses and the general emptiness of the school, six of my students showed up for the last day, which was kind of miraculous. (Because snow days here are really “no school transportation days” so schools are open and the teachers are required to be present, but the school buses don’t run. Since I teach at a magnet school, no buses = very very few students; “snow day” more accurately captures our truth.)
I was really sad about the way the semester petered out. I don’t think I realized how much I value the final moments with my students. I love helping them take the time to pause and see what they’ve accomplished. They are often astonished. I think this class would have loved this moment; I know I would have.
Instead, they came into their exam yesterday more nervous than they needed to be and without the sense of forward progress that can propel them to even greater achievement on their final exam. We made do: I added a group discussion to start; I circulated and reminded them of their strengths; I had donuts to entice them to take a stretch break if they wanted. They did fine, but I’m still thinking about the sense of an ending and how important it is. Finally, I couldn’t stand it and positioned myself to catch them on their way out the door. I asked each student what they thought they had learned. I knew that there was a possibility that they would say “nothing”, but most were thoughtful. In turn, I shared with them something I learned or was reminded of because I taught them.
Unusually, I got three hugs as the exam finished up. I’m going to miss this group – and next week, I’ll start to fall in love with the next.
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?
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.
(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.)
We’re working on sharing our opinion in grade 10 English. Wait, I’ll be more precise: we’re working on politely sharing our opinion. That’s a little harder.
Last year, I learned that sharing opinions can be a little easier if we start with oral work and move towards written work. Not that group discussions are easy. How
many times have I witnessed “discussions” where three kids dominate while two fall asleep and everyone else says one thing and is done? Sigh. Over the years, I’ve developed a few ways to support kids when they’re just getting used to group discussions. We pretty much always do a penny discussion (everyone has to put their two cents’ worth in before anyone can talk a third time – I use actual pennies, and students have to pay to talk) and a
visible web (twine goes between students as they speak – in the end we have a physical map of the discussion). The kids mostly hate the artificial confines of these discussions; the magic is in the debrief. As it turns out, the best discussions involve everyone, but not everyone needs to talk equally.
Once we’ve laid the groundwork for talking, we start using conversation cards that I made up last year. These cards have sentence starters to help students politely agree, disagree, ask questions and state opinions. I developed them because last year’s crew was having trouble using, um, “academic” words. They laughed their heads off when I suggested that “I hear what you’re saying, nevertheless…” could replace, “What the *#$! are you talking about?” It was slow progress, but we got there.
NYTimeslist of 1,000 writing prompts for students. Each one links to an introduction and an article that provides some background. Careful though, the Times has a limit of 10 articles per month if you’re not a subscriber.) They were excited at first, ready to dish about their horrible parents, but once the discussion got going, the kids came quickly to the conclusion that their parents and guardians are doing the best that they can because they generally want the best for their children. The kids responded to each other, (using those cards!) and by the end they agreed that they really wished that adults would listen to them. In fact, as the conversation shifted to advice they would give to teachers, they talked their way to the same conclusion: they know that we want what’s best for them, but they really want us to listen.
“I know that I’m just a kid, but sometimes I have good ideas. But adults interrupt and they talk over me and they don’t even want to know why I did something. I just want them to listen to me, to take me seriously.”
That was Thursday. Since then, I keep hearing the same thing: listen. On the web somewhere, someone said, “Listen for the request in the complaint.” My son asked me to snuggle at bedtime and listen to the things that had happened during the day. I thanked my husband for listening to me as I worked through a sticky problem. My friend called and asked, “do you have time to listen to something that [my child] did?”
Listen. Just listen.
It’s a straightforward request, powerful and important. I value this, yet it’s not something I’m always good at. By the end of Thursday’s discussion, my students decided that if they could give their parents and teachers advice, if they could make a New Year’s Resolution for us, it would be “Listen.”
Well, I’m listening. For 2019, my resolution, my one little word is listen.
On Oct 9 I published a blog post about my 11 Grade 10 students having finished 10 books. We were so excited that I ordered everyone pizza. They could not believe that they had finished ten books in just over four weeks. I was excited and a little relieved that my crazy “read what you want” book experiment with “lower track” students appeared to be working. (Once again, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s work has really inspired me on this road.)
Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, today I bring you (drumroll…): FIFTY FIVE!
Just take a peek into our classroom:
And look at the readers:
And check out these reader behaviours:
Students are recommending books to each other. As of now, 3/4 of the class has read Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down and one student just convinced another that she “has to” read Carlos Luis Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind.
Students are reading at home. One girl lost phone privileges over the weekend and finished a book!
Students have their next book ready to go. They are developing lists of books they want to read.
Finally, let me tell you what we are reading right now because the sheer variety of levels and topics reminds me of why choice is so important as a motivator for these readers.
Nancy Drew, Amulet, Long Way Down, In Cold Blood, Shadow of the Wind, Tupac’s poetry, The Hate U Give, The Crossover, Skellig, a hockey memoir (forgot the title), The Lovely Bones
They’ve also read Trump’s Art of the Deal, Hatchet, Crabbe, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, 39 Clues, Rupi Kaur’s poetry, another one by Kwame Alexander, One of Us is Lying… and so many more.
So, four-ish more weeks of class, two weeks of Winter Break… We’ll keep reading – and I’m pretty sure that, in the end, we’ll have some readers.