I originally intended to publish a blog about my new grading practices, which I am all fired up about. But then I had one of those moments, a moment that reminds me why I love what I do. Warning. This might be a long blog. But it’s why I love my job, and it’s why I keep teaching.
A few days ago, I was having a mini existential crisis about some of my students’ poor showing on their final personal narratives. I was feeling depressed that this new writing workshop thing was a bust, and I should just go back to seizing control of the writing process and return to bossing kids and telling them what to do and when to do it.
This morning, I sat down to assess more narratives, and this happened. I read Alex’s narrative. It took me back to the beginning of the year. Without further ado, here is Alex’s story.
During our beginning of the year poetry unit, I watched as Alex avoided-or appeared to avoid-writing poems. He would hop up, sharpen a pencil. Hop up again. Sharpen another pencil, this time down to the nub. Not writing. Definitely avoiding writing. There was a small pile of tiny pencils gathered on his table by the laptop he was not currently using.
In my head, I made the assumption that Alex was checked out and disengaged, especially since my pencil sharpener was getting a thorough workout. However, when I cruised on over to Alex in my sweet office rollie chair to conference during Writing Love time, he surprised me.
“Watcha writing your poem about?” I asked, expecting him to glance away, avoiding my eyes, and say, “I dunno,” which had been his standard response this fall.
Today, he paused. He glanced away.
I waited. I let the space be silent, too, even though I was dying to break it with my probably not helpful comments.
He said, “Donations.”
My eyes, I know, lit up like a Christmas tree. “Donations! That’s fabulous, Alex! What kind?”
He paused again. Again, I waited.
“Donations you can see.” Long pause. “And donations you can’t see.”
I love to be proven wrong with my assumptions.
Flash forward to two weeks later. Our poems were done. Students selected one poem to read out loud to the whole class as well as share with the class in an anthology. Alex was absent on the big celebration day, where we ate doughnuts and I told the class how when I was in junior high, I’d rather jump out the window, breaking both arms and legs, than do a speech in front of my peers. He missed all of his classmates launching up to the front of the class, quietly reading their poetry to us while we wiped the glaze from our mouths.
I failed here. I should have prepared Alex more. I should have given him a bigger heads up, some time to practice reading his poem out loud, some wiggle room. I didn’t. I said, “Hey, Alex, time to read your poem!”
He started shaking his head back and forth. Then he started rocking back and forth. “Can I-can I just read it from my desk?”
Here was another mistake from me. I’ve got this non-negotiable thing with public speaking. When we perform speeches, everyone does them from the front of the room. It’s part of the deal. Kids can’t read from their desk or make them up at lunch just in front of me or avoid it completely and take a low grade. Believe me, I understand the fear. I almost didn’t become a teacher because of my terror of public speaking, and I tell my students that very thing. However, I know these kids will have to stand up in front of other people at some point in their lives, and I want them to have pushed through their fear before that happens. Alex didn’t hear any of my heartfelt, vulnerable, understanding encouragement because he had been absent that day.
“No,” I said gently. “It needs to be in front of the class.
Tears started rolling down his cheeks like lava pouring from the mouth of a volcano. Choking sobs shook the table. Now he was heading towards a complete eruption.
The class was silent. Then a few kids said, “Come on, Alex, you got this,” God love them for being more compassionate than I was in that moment.
I guided Alex out into the pod. He dropped his head onto the table with a thud, shoulders shaking in his black hoodie sweatshirt. I brought him a Kleenex and let him be for a bit. I did have twenty kids waiting. Five minutes later, I checked on him, trying to convince him to read his poem in front of the whole class.
What was I thinking? I know better. Teaching days are filled with moments like this, and while there are plenty of moments where I handle a situation with the right amount of heart and compassion, I don’t always. Sometimes I just want kids to do what I say, whether they are ready or not. I am all too human. Often, my mess ups and missteps and mistakes haunt me. I worry that I can’t repair the relationship, that I’ve scarred this kid for life. This is me taking things WAY too seriously. I’m working on it.
It turned out better than okay, don’t worry.
But here’s me again, still trying to control things.
The next class, I said, “Alex, how about we get a bunch of kids to stand up here with you, and they’ll all read a line from your poem?” I thought this was a brilliant solution to the problem.
Before the sentence even finished, he was shaking his head no.
“How about if Jake stands up there with you and reads it for you?” Jake is one of my top speakers, and he and Alex are friends.
No way. He shook his head with vigor and determination.
I decided to shatter my bullet-proof, ironclad law for the first time in twenty years. I asked Alex if he would be willing to stay after class for a minute and read his poem to me and Jake. Lo and behold, he agreed.
When he finished reading, Jake said, “WOW. That was really great, Alex!” I could see Alex’s pride in that moment.
Here is Alex’s poem. He chose not to read his other poem, “Donations.”
How eyes can be blue
How some cars are blue
How paper can be blue
How water looks blue
How cabinets are blue
How my binder is blue
How my pencil is blue
How most of everything
Blue is in the RGB scale
Blue is anywhere
Blue makes up every color
never knew it.
Flash forward to this morning. I was reading more narratives. I was dreading it based on my mini-existential crisis last night. Then I saw Alex’s narrative.
At the beginning of the personal narrative unit, we had a number of conferences where I was trying to help Alex find a topic. “Nothing ever happens to me,” he kept repeating. None of my usual cues were working. In desperation, I used the ol’ Phone a Friend strategy. I had seated Alex next to Jake, which turned out to be a minor stroke of seating chart genius on my part.
“Jake, do you remember anything happening to Alex last year in sixth grade?” Jake’s freckled face lit up, and he said, “Yeah! Remember when you slipped on the ice and broke your collarbone?” I slid away and let them talk it out.
Flash forward to yesterday’s narrative celebration. I brought in some chocolate, and we popped a bunch of popcorn while kids got up in front of all of us and read a paragraph or two of their choice. Last but not least was Alex.
“Your turn, Alex,” I said, and I took a deep breath. I had not prepared him. I had not even given my big speech about public speaking to kids today. I just didn’t make a big deal out of it. We share all the time in class now. I had no idea how Alex would react. Would he start crying again? Would he run out of the classroom? Should I have prepared him more for this moment? Here we go again, I thought. I really screwed this one up.
With no hesitation, Alex rose out of his seat and read, loud and clear as a bell. No tears. No volcanic meltdown. He was calm, poised, and confident-at least it seemed that way. I resisted the very strong urge to tell the class to give him a standing ovation, but in my head, I pictured all twenty-two of us rising up and cheering him on. After Alex finished, I whispered how proud I was of him and that he made my day. Once again, I made assumptions. Once again, I was happily proved to be wrong.
This morning, I read Alex’s narrative. He tried a hook. He used thoughts, feelings, and opinions. He tried dialogue, experimented with figurative language, broke up his paragraphs, and used a “So What” (theme) at the end. He was experimenting with many of the strategies we have been practicing. He went from having nothing to say to writing three pages.
I think I need to buy Jake a doughnut.
I think I need to remember these moments more when I get so caught up in my tangled webs of doubt, feel frustrated with the kids who keep misbehaving in epic ways, when I can’t figure out how to get kids to care about their writing, or when I question whether any of my effort does anyone any good. It’s January, full of grey skies that block our sunshine, snow that covers our green lawns, fog that hides our mountains, and doubt. But my students give me hope every single day when I open my eyes, get out of my head, and pay attention.
This is why I freaking love my job.