Do you ever get discouraged about reaching all your kids in the time you have allotted? I sure do. I have kids I worried about from Day One and kids I didn’t even know I needed to be worried about until day before yesterday. Then there is the lovely habit my kids of making me believe they have ‘it’ when in fact, they do not. They’re knee deep into an ‘awesome’ book one day and the next they tell me, ‘Oh, I abandoned that one, it was boring.’ Or they write me a gorgeous lyrical reading response letter one week and the next week they don’t bother to turn one in at all. What gives, people? Can’t I help you turn into a reader and writer and then just let you fly off to books and stories on your own? …Not so much.
The good news is that discouraging days are often divinely followed by wondrous, magical moments. Moments that give me my footing back and help me believe that the path I so carefully stake out for our students is the one they need to be on. I posted earlier about the ‘awesome’ book Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller. I’ve slowly been rolling out some of the ideas from the book (from my 2 pages of legal pad notes – single spaced) with the kids, not wanting to overwhelm them with my enthusiasm.
One of her ideas is to have the kids do small, informal, book commercials. Now I’ve been doing book commercials for a couple of years, but always by me, not the kids. Hearing a 7th grade boy talk to other 7th graders about the excitement of The 11th Plague is WAY better than Mrs. McG. talking about it – DUH! So, trying to appear subtle, I threw a sign up sheet on the board and said if anyone wanted to recommend a book to the class they should add their name. I watched during silent reading. No one signed up. The timer ticked down to 1 minute – still no volunteers. ‘Well, that was a great idea that didn’t work, I thought to myself.’
The timer went off and suddenly, Huntley yelled out, “WAIT! I wanted to sign up to give a commercial!” I hope my jaw didn’t drop. In my head it certainly did. This was Huntley, our dear boy who is frequently absent and hates to read. He is on book 4 for the year and all of those 4 have been a struggle. Look up reluctant reader in the dictionary, and there is his cherubic face. But, here he was, strutting to the front of the class (the FRONT OF THE CLASS!) to talk about The Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch. He said it was, ‘adventurous and exciting’ and he ‘couldn’t stop reading it’. He went on to say that ‘Jax might like it, he likes the same kinds of books as me.’ All this time, I thought he wasn’t really listening. Turns out…he was!
At writing time, I told the kids the story of how our cats, Ron and Harry (yes, THAT Ron and Harry) came to live at our house. I showed them a picture of the cute little kittens who arrived together in a little tiny crate to meet our very large black labs; Paddy and Molly. Paddy ignored them completely (I’m still not convinced he actually knew they were living here) and Molly has made it her life’s work to turn them into dogs so she can play with them. So far, it’s not working but she hasn’t given up yet.
The kids were to write for 5 minutes about what happened next, after Ron and Harry left that crate. It could be realistic, fantasy, or a combination. The only rule was keep writing and see where it leads. At the end of the 5 minutes, Huntley wanted to share his writing (has not shared ANY writing since the first day of school). He got a round of applause for his adventure story. Jason also shared, the same Jason who has mostly done comic strips stories since school started. He also got an enthusiastic response from students and teacher alike.
Since both of these responses could not have been more uncharacteristic Teresa, my co-teacher, and I were astounded. Why this day? What clicked that hasn’t clicked before? What is it so we can do it again???
I think there are two possible answers. One is that we teach what we value. For Teresa and I, the relationships are the most important thing. We want them to feel cared for and nurtured in a deep and abiding way. We appreciate kindness and thus, the kids are extremely thoughtful. We value reflective reading so the kids strive to notice the words on the page and the effect those words have on them. We encourage writers so the students take every opportunity to find the golden lines in a piece shared, or insist that the writer continue writing so they can see what happens next. What we emphasize is what they notice. That’s step one.
The second part has everything to do with them and very little to do with us as teachers. After all, our students could notice what we wanted but still reject those ideas. I have students in every class that are not buying what I’m selling. This group does, though, in part, because of the level of trust they have created with one another. They feel safe. They critique without being mean. They encourage with conviction. They have each other’s backs and they all know it. Because of that, they can relax and be who they really are, write what they feel, read what they want, and, in the process, lift each other and themselves up.
A group this caring? They can move mountains. They can create beautiful art. They can even pass tests. And they can give their teachers a little magic to make it to another day.