(Editor's note: This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
The girl was sitting in the doorway of my classroom. Her legs stretched out straight, her heels propped about three feet above the floor on the doorjamb. The front legs of her chair were slightly elevated, the back of the chair resting against a bookcase.
She was probably chewing gum.
She had a book in her hand, Mexican White Boy. A book that, needless to say, is not on the district pacing guide for today or any day.
If any administrator had come into room they would have certainly rebuked me for my lack of classroom management. This young lady was clearly not participating in class activities.
I was happy as a clam.
Most of what I do with regard to literature seems fruitless. The district-mandated stories we read, and the work that springs from those stories, are of no interest to most of my students. Even when they behave well it’s clear their minds are not engaged.
At the recent English teachers’ convention in Las Vegas I heard the same two messages over and over from veteran teachers: if you want to inspire kids to read, allow them to choose their own books; and look to the field of Young Adult literature for texts that have a prayer of insinuating themselves into the reading lives of younger adolescents (like the 14 year olds I teach).
It occurred to me recently that my situation is directly parallel to the person who runs the school cafeteria. There is all that healthy food that we all wish kids would eat.
Yet the more we urge broccoli on them, the more they defiantly insist on chips and Coke.
The cafeteria carrots end up in the garbage. My books end up on the floor of my classroom, bindings broken, pages ripped out, and mustaches drawn on cover pictures.
Despite my history of frustration, I came back from Vegas with a revived energy about student reading.
I have always tried to turn my students on to books. I pack my room with multitudes of every genre, reading level, and subject. I schedule regular periods of silent reading where students can read any book they choose. I make ardent speeches about the value, for their future lives, of reading.
Tuesday I decided to begin a series of readings to my Companion students, a few pages from the most popular titles on my shelves.
But getting my Companion (remedial) kids to listen to me read seemed almost impossible. They won’t tolerate it. They’d throw things, chat loudly with each other, and wander the room. Not listening is a point of pride. It’s a way of demonstrating resistance to anything schoolish.
I persevered. I boomed out a 10-minute introduction to Mexican White Boy ignoring their indifference, emoting over their chatter.
And I got lucky. I have the young-lady-in-the-doorway two consecutive periods, first for Companion, next for regular English. She got a taste of the story in Companion.
Early in her English class she came to me: “Mr. Heverly, can I borrow a copy of that book you were reading?”
By some mysterious alchemy she found Mexican White Boy to be up her alley. I can’t explain why. Maybe she felt at home with the modern dialogue, maybe she identified with the half-Latino, half-white teen protagonist. I was shocked to learn that she had been listening to my reading.
When I play golf I can tolerate as many as 17 bogies. All I need to keep my hopes alive is to meet the course standard on just one hole.
This week I achieved the classroom equivalent of that one, precious par.
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