Wednesday, February 15, 2006

There's Always One

So, I’m STILL thinking about the fifth period, level 400 English class. I find it occupies my thoughts so often because I’m growing increasingly frustrated by not only what I’m observing, but also my total inability to do anything about it.

There’s one boy who’s gotten under my skin. This particular young man is handsome in a very boyish way, with clear skin and penetrating blue eyes. Those eyes reveal a character that is very clever and crafty. He’s quick to anger and is particularly fond of mumbling expletives under his breath, though he’s often not aware enough of his surroundings to realize that an adult is standing right beside him. He has decided that the class is a colossal waste of his time, but has also figured out a way to skirt the edges of acceptability in such a way that we can never actually catch him doing something “wrong”.

He’s been “reading “ a book called Monster. It was a book of his own choosing, recommended to him by several of his classmates. The book is slightly below his tested reading level and is arranged very much like a movie screenplay, so there is a visual aspect to the text that he was certain would make the process of reading the book easier for him.

Every day, he strolls into the classroom and sits in a different seat. Once, he got the book out without being asked, but the rest of the time he’s come in and gone straight to another student to begin a conversation. When he’s asked to settle in and do the work, he’ll dutifully open the book and stare at the same page for the entirety of the period. He constantly looks up to see who’s looking at him (and very often sees me looking at him), grins, then goes back to looking at the same page again. At the end of the period, he’ll go to CT and claim that he’s read several pages - today’s number was thirty - when, in fact, he’s barely read a single paragraph.

CT has given the students a worksheet with a series of exercises they’re expected to do with their reading. Half of them are hands-on, creative projects from which they get to choose (create a CD, complete with artwork, as a soundtrack for your book; create a book jacket, cast a movie and explain why you chose particular actors to play each role); the other half is very English-class oriented: describe the narrative style of the book, describe the main character, summarize the story. The assignments are written down and very clearly explained, and CT took a class period earlier in the week to go over them out loud and to explain how many points each component is worth.

CT’s standards for this work are entirely attainable. One student turned in three sentences describing the narrative style of her book, and that work earned her the full point potential despite the grammatical and structural errors in those few sentences. My point here is that these children do not have to exert themselves to an unreasonable degree to achieve success in this class, yet most of them - and the above mentioned boy in particular - choose not to do any of it.

So my question becomes this: how does an instructor cope with students who simply refuse to participate? We’re clearly in “you can lead a horse to water” territory here; we’ve made efforts to offer the students control over the books they read, we’ve given them choices concerning which projects they want to do with the end result being that they don’t want to do it at all.

My blue eyed boy affects me so deeply, I think, because I see a spark in him. I know, for sure, that he could do this work, and that he could thrive in the class. He’s quick, he’s got a sense of humor, he’s got an energy about him that resonates to me. He’s decided, though, at all of fourteen, that he doesn’t need to know any of this, that it’s all a waste of his time. This isn’t the cool thing to be doing, all this writing and reading, and he doesn’t want to be seen doing it.

I wonder what the source of all that apathy comes from. Does he not have a trusted adult in his life who has appreciated the value of learning? Is he incapable of understanding how important this literacy stuff is, even (especially?) to him? Perhaps what bothers me so much is that he’s also decided that he doesn’t like me, so he’s not at all open to allowing me to model that behavior, or letting me close enough to tell him how deeply I believe in his ability to do this well.

Of course I don’t know what the future holds. I fear, with his temper and lack of respect for authority in pretty much any form, that he’s headed for a life of struggle and trouble. Maybe, though, he will decide that being able to read and write and communicate effectively really IS in his best interests. Perhaps he will choose a profession or a trade or find a passion that requires his focus and attention.

I just hope he figures it out sooner rather than later.


Blogger vanx said...

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February 16, 2006 12:05 AM  
Blogger vanx said...

I wonder if you're dealing with the non-science, non-math part of the curiculum being devalued in public education. There is this great hue and cry for more math and science so that we can compete with India and China, but as a parent of a junior in high school and an eighth grader, I can say that I've consistently seen English and language arts languish as the emphasis is placed on math and science. I've even picked up on a bit of tension between English and science teachers at my kid's schools. It all sends a rather overt message to the students, a message that doesn't promote real literacy.

February 16, 2006 12:08 AM  
Blogger vanx said...

What I'm saying is hang in there. We need good English teachers. An English teacher can do a lot to straighten out young blue eyes by hooking him up with the great books and giving the tools to get something out of them. Of course you know this. So...good luck!

February 16, 2006 12:15 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

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February 16, 2006 1:17 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

I am so scared of having a student like that in my class-- one that absolutely refuses to participate at any level though there is definite potential there. I remember a classmate of mine was very rebellious in lit class and one day my teacher (who was always at odds with this student) walked up threw a copy of "Catcher in the Rye" on his desk. The only thing my teacher said was "Keep it. You can do whatever you want with it."

Not too long after this incident happened the kid straightened out and started to show a slight interest in the class. Not a huge change or anything, but I like to think my teacher was able to break down the wall a little. After reading the book myself I realized how much Holden and my classmate were alike.

I don't know what to say. Maybe this student needs to relate to the material more? If he doesn't show any interest in the subject I can understand why he's not reading (he probably picked up some book without even looking at it). Maybe try to find a book that will suits his personality (like my teacher did), or his interests (like a book that has recently been made into a movie... say, "Friday Night Lights" if he's into football).

Whew, that was long. First post had way too many typos in it, so I felt compelled to correct them.

February 16, 2006 1:20 AM  
Blogger Kizz said...

I think that the direct pressure on this kid isn't going to work. From what you say he knows he's being watched and feels that while being watched he needs to act a certain way. I remember being a teen (and younger...and much, much, older) and feeling that when someone told me to do something or pointed out how wrong I was it made it harder to change. (My mother, even now, is a fan of waiting until I'm in front of a big group and, if I haven't said it fast enough, reminding me to say Thank You. Never mind that I might be trying to say it quietly or directly. Never mind that I may already have done it. Never mind that I'm 37 freaking years old. And there in that moment, trapped I can't say Thank You and I can't stay Quiet.)

When I read this entry I thought, "I wonder if this kid is reading at home and just faking at school." You've pointed out that this isn't an option for him so I'm not right but I do think that out of the line of sight is where he's going to change IF he changes. I love Karen's story about her teacher and it was what I was thinking of suggesting to you as I rode the bus this morning thinking about this. I think some time of easing off the pressure would be required but a casual gift of a short story or a novella and something like, "This made me think of you." or "You should have this." No requirement attached to it. There's no guarantee it'll work. But there's also no guarantee that he won't stick the book under his bed, find it in 6 years, read it because the cable is out and finally get what you meant.

One of the hardest things about teaching is having to let someone go even if you haven't gotten through. And yet it doesn't mean that your lesson won't be learned, you just might not be around to see it. All you can do is try.

I don't know what the reading level is with these kids but it seems like anything by S.E. Hinton would be good for them and some of the vintage Stephen King short stories are worthwhile. Four Seasons has the 4 novellas in it and the one about the old Nazi is provocative and a good teaching tool. Anyway, good luck!

February 16, 2006 10:12 AM  

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