Getting ready to present at a few conferences this summer, I found myself browsing folders on my computer, pictures in my albums, and videos created by previous 9th graders I had the privilege to teach and learn from as a high school English and reading teacher. Ninth graders who have now graduated college and are living lives they were dreaming about in our classroom—Room C234. I found myself getting nostalgic. Longing to return to those teaching days. Why? At the time, I was tasked with working with students who had repeatedly not met expectations on the standardized state reading tests, were plagued with “remedial reading” on their middle school schedules, had attended numerous summer school and after school opportunities and were still struggling in their academics. Reflecting on why this challenge proved to be one of the most impactful and fulfilling periods in my education career was enlightening.
I am convinced I loved that time in my career because:
- I LOVED those students. Dr. Ernest Morell talks about how we need to show outrageous love to our students. This wasn’t talked about in my methods classes. My mentors didn’t teach me this. And sometimes I really didn’t like the adolescents in my class. They could be moody, apathetic, squirrelly, and extremely attention-seeking. But I could (and did) shift my lens. I learned to look at each student knowing they were someone’s Andrew or someone’s Ainsley (my own children) and the same unconditional love I show my kids, I can show to others’ because I would hope my kids’ teachers would do the same. I learned to see past the barriers of moodiness, belligerence, distraction-seeking, charm, avoidance, and humor into the souls of my students. I spent my time listening to them and then using what I learned to introduce them to new worlds, new ideas, reflective scenarios, and engaging stories.
- I LEARNED alongside my colleagues and students. We were in the midst of creating a home grown reading intervention program. Our school did not buy us a package program. We had no teacher guides. No computer program to plug our students into. Instead, we had a budget to buy books and create a teen-friendly environment where students would look forward to coming to room C234. In the past, these students looked for their exit. What score do I need on the test to get out?This process forced my colleagues and me to turn to the research and the practitioners. We read John T. Guthrie, Nancie Atwell, Peter Johnston, Richard Allington, Kylene Beers, Kelly Gallagher, Carol Dweck, and others. It was a lot of reading. A lot of discussion. A lot of stretching of our own paradigms. It was hard work. But as we tried on what the research told us would work, and it worked, we were energized and could continue to learn and grow. When we tried something and it didn’t work, we didn’t throw it out. We listened to our students. Often it didn’t work because we tried to control some aspect of the practice. We weren’t letting go enough.We also learned it was better NOT to know. Better to have NOT read a book a student was reading. We could ask better questions and LISTEN more. This gave students more of an opportunity to stretch their comprehending muscles instead of answering leading questions trying to guess what was in my head. Plus, it gave students an opportunity to do book selling and often I would pick up a book to read based on what the students told me about it. How empowering! Instead of me selling books to students (which I still did often), the students were selling their books to me.
- We got RESULTS. Even though we were in trial and error quite a bit of the year…our students absolutely excelled. Yes, they passed their standardized tests. We did have statistically significant results to show the growth of our learners were at four times the rate of their on-grade level peers. But more importantly, they saw themselves as readers, writers, thinkers, and scholars.
As I was browsing the videos, writing, and pictures of my students from 2009, I found myself looking for several on LinkedIN, Facebook, and Instagram. Many I have stayed connected with since they graduated high school, but some I haven’t. It was so fun to see graduate students, devoted parents, financial analysts, models, personal trainers, and more smiling at me through the screen. It was a reminder that while early literacy is critical, it is NEVER TOO LATE to intervene and create an environment where students can learn and grow.