Earlier in the year, Victor stayed behind after class to ask about his grade. For someone doing well, I love to be the bearer of good news. But there was no joy to report to this young man. Though I knew his grade, I turned to the computer and brought up the gradebook, hoping the delay might soften the blow. He stood nervously as I announced, “Sorry, Victor, you’ve got a ‘D.’”
Instead of begging for an extra credit assignment or whimpering, “I’ll be grounded ‘til 2017,” Victor raised his arms and hollered, “Yes!”
A ‘D’ is a pass, and that was good enough.
Victor is in a class with lots of Victors. Think Lord of the Flies. This particular class is rowdier than my others in the same proportion that the football team is rowdier than the chess club. Once a month, the boys play the [male appendage] game. One student whispers, “[male appendage].” His competitor whispers it louder. They go back and forth, each time a little louder, until “[male appendage!]” is screamed from across the room. I yell. They laugh.
Once while I was working with a small group, there was cheering from the other side of the room as two boys were arm wrestling. I rushed over. Instead of being chagrined at being caught, the winner held out his open palm and smiled, “C’mon, Biers, let’s go!”
One may wonder why so little learning takes place given that I use research-based pedagogy, and the, “you-must-go-to-college-to-succeed-in-life,” mantra has been hammered into their heads by every teacher starting in kindergarten. While there are many reasons for the lack of learning including poverty, language barriers, and dysfunctional families, it’s impossible to tease out a single culprit. But forget all that. They don’t learn because they don’t read, and they don’t read because paper books can’t compete with the electronic hegemony of YouTube and Facebook. This is old news.
Out of desperation, I laid out a selection of classic novels from Catcher in the Rye to The Stranger and gave a quick overview of each. “Pick a book. We’ll be reading every day for 15 minutes.” They laughed. Victor said, “I’ve never read an entire book in my life.” “No way,” I replied. He smirked in that way that said, “Way.”
On the first day, a third read, a third pretended to read, and a third did nothing but whisper things like, “[male appendage!]” and “Big!” They knew the experiment would end like my other failed teaching attempts. But week two rolled around, and each class started with, “Take out your novels,” and each day a couple more kids got beyond page one. By week three, when the 15 minutes were up, they asked for more time. Victor was well into Lord of the Flies.
Even in our day of ubiquitous internet and incessant texting, it is possible that a good book can still hold a student’s attention if given the time and space. I tell my colleagues only half-jokingly that out of all the workshops on lesson planning and all the times burning the midnight oil trying to come up with lessons that capture the students’ attention, the most successful lesson with my class of Victors is, “Take out your book and read.” A book provides a respite from the yoke of being perpetually wired. The psyche breathes a sigh of relief during SSR.
The satisfaction of watching them read is sublime. The only thing that could top this would be if Victor were to finish Lord of the Flies and reflect, “You know, Biers, this book sounds kind of like us.”
If that were to happen, I’d give him an A.