There is a restless excitement in my school right now-- teachers have countdowns on their calendars while students groan every time I ask them to do work because the last day of school is only one week away.
And as always at this time, I am inevitably looking backward instead of forward pondering my effectiveness as a teacher: how have I served my students; has my instruction benefited them; who did I reach and not reach?
At the beginning of the school year, I started my teacher blog by asking the question, "Who will be my son this year?" By this I meant, which student will remind me of my own son because he/she shuts down when lost, not understanding what to do; who will push back to test me because he/she doesn't think I care; who will test my patience and professional knowledge? Who will that student be? And the answer to that question this year is Joel.
Here is Joel's story.
As a reading workshop teacher, it is imperative for me to ascertain the reading level of each of my students to ensure the majority of novels he/she reads are not too difficult nor too easy. This is important because in a workshop classroom, students spend 20-30 minutes every day reading novels of their choice as I move around the room talking or "conferring" with them about their reading.
Soon after school began, I discovered while conferencing with Joel that he was decoding text but not comprehending what he read. As we continued to talk, it quickly became evident that he had no idea what his book was about. After more discussion, I decided the problem was Joel had chosen a book that was too difficult for him. So, I began the work of finding a book on his level that engaged him. The Creature From My Closet by Obert Skye became that book.
In addition to finding the right book for Joel to read, I knew I would have to periodically spend more time with him in and out of class than with my other students. Unfortunately for many students, secondary teachers today don't believe they have enough time in their day to give to a student like Joel. Yet, if this time commitment on the teacher's part is not made, I personally do not believe a student's potential will be reached and other interventions will fail.
But how does a teacher find extra time to devote to one student when the day is already full? Bottom line--you just do it. Perhaps you don't check your email that class period or the text message you heard chime. You write a pass for the student to come see you every day during study hall/advisory--not just on your tutoring day. But you make this commitment because you believe that ultimately there is nothing more important than reaching that child. You know that if you don’t there is a chance that no one else will try.
And thus began the process with Joel.
Monitoring Joel's comprehension and his use of critical thinking skills while he read was paramount during this time period to ensure he was actually reading and not just decoding. In a secondary "traditional classroom," a teacher typically would assign chapter comprehension questions or give pop quizzes to assess comprehension. However, neither of those assignments would help a student like Joel who needed immediate feedback and instruction as he read--not after. To enable this to happen, I sat alongside Joel, reading with him in class, stopping to discuss meaning, plot, and characterization frequently. I modeled making inferences, predicting, and going back to previous pages to look for text that could help both of us understand things that weren’t clear. I also read my own copy of The Creature From My Closet so I could spontaneously talk to Joel about the book in the hall or as he entered the classroom.
After devouring The Creature in My Closet series, Joel read Among the Hidden by Margaret Haddix--his first experience with science fiction which is typically a difficult genre. Joel loved it! I saw Joel quickly gain confidence as a reader as he carried his novel with him everywhere. I even spotted him in line at the book fair where he proudly held up three books he was buying. Joel was no longer merely decoding; he was reading!
As first semester transitioned into second, Joel read every book I suggested. He was eager to be in class and read. However, his enthusiasm waned as I began to give the class assignments in preparation for the upcoming state assessment. Once again he was faced with text that was too difficult for him. The assignments were standardized reading passages with multiple choice questions to help the students practice for the upcoming state assessment--STAAR-- in April. Difficult for weaker readers, these passages were typically nonfiction and long. Joel found these assignments intimidating and frustrating. It was deja vu—Joel was lost in meaningless words on the page.
To help Joel and other students manage this type of difficult text, I taught reading strategies to help them break down the text into chunks. One of my favorite strategies, called "caveman," entailed drawing pictures or words to the side of the paragraph in order to summarize. By doing this, students were forced to think about the text instead of just decoding. As with many students, Joel participated, but the pictures he drew and words he wrote were meaningless. Attempting to help break it down into even smaller chunks for him and others, I told Joel and a small group of students to draw pictures and write words every three lines or so instead of at the end of a whole paragraph. Predictably, Joel did not want to do this because it was painstakingly slow and tedious. Not only did he openly complain, he refused. No amount of reassurances nor explanations from me that this strategy would help him mattered. When I required him to do it, he sat and did nothing. When I wrote him passes to come in and see me during advisory so I could help him, he sat and marked random answers. In addition to refusing to use the strategy, he became openly defiant. It was clear that a power struggle had begun.
A phone call home was the next step. When I told Joel I planned to call his dad, he just shrugged as he left the room. But what Joel didn't expect was that my phone call home wasn't about the disrespect and bad attitude he was showing in class--it was about the potential I saw in him; it was about the fact that I understood this was hard for him; that he would to have to work harder maybe than anyone else in class; that I knew he failed this test two times in 5th grade before he passed; but that I wasn't going to give up on him--ever.
Luckily, Joel came in the next day and apologized, promising he would no longer be disrespectful. I could work with that. So, I forged on, praying I would find a way to convince him he could do what I was asking him to do. I wish I could say that Joel had a Damascus road conversion that week and eagerly began to use the strategies I taught, but there wasn't, and he didn't. When given a reading passage assignment to complete independently, he would partially attempt to use the strategies I taught, but the words he wrote and pictures he drew were still meaningless. So, instead of expecting him to do these assignments independently, I did them with him. Side by side we read, and I talked out loud about what I thought the passage meant. I verbally pondered what I thought I should draw or write out to the side to summarize the meaning. Slowly, I withdrew my commentary while still sitting next to him, and he began to do more and more of the work on his own as I watched and praised. Progress.
About a month out from the upcoming state assessment, Joel aced a unit test which had been formatted to match the upcoming STAAR. His excitement with his grade was palpable! Joel finally saw the connection between the efforts he was making to the end result--he could understand what he was reading and answer questions about it. When we worked together I saw determination replace indifference. After class one day and about a week before STAAR, Joel followed me to my desk. Hesitating at first, but then looking me straight in the eye Joel said simply, "Thank you." I nodded, letting him know I understood his thank you encompassed many things that he didn’t yet know how to articulate. Reaching out to fist bump, I answered, "Of course. I wouldn't have it any other way."
As an aside, I do realize many teachers believe the state assessment is meaningless; it puts too much pressure on students; it is just a snapshot of one day. And I concur to some degree. But I also believe the STAAR reading test is a fair test that does give a good indication of the student's reading ability. I find it very troubling when my students do not do well on this test because I internalize their successes and failures. My students are part of me. I am responsible for growing them and stretching them to their potential because I am their teacher. It is my job.
And so we come to end of Joel’s story…the end of the year is here, and I am thinking back. The STAAR test has come and gone; the last day of school is only one week away. The students are eagerly awaiting summer swim team, vacations, and long hot days which stay light until 9:00 p.m. So, how does Joel's story end? The question I know you are asking is, "Did Joel pass the STAAR?" Yes, he did. And he is still reading. With only one week left of school, he picked up my classroom copy of Divergent today and began reading it. I can't wait to talk to him about what he thinks it would be like if our world was divided up into factions like Tris'. I know he won’t finish it before the last day, and so as a goodbye gift, I plan on telling him to take it with him. The world of books has opened for Joel. I want that to last forever.
Joel rose above others' expectations of him as well as his own this year. He looked uncertainty in the eye and decided he was going to take a risk because he knew he had someone who believed in him--someone who was willing to invest the time that was needed to get him to where he needed to be. Joel tested me, frustrated me, and challenged me to be the best teacher I could be. Joel was my son this year. Thank you, Joel. You taught me, too.