You Have to Get to Them

We just finished our third quarter of school. The kids and I have worked well over one hundred days together. We have spent a lot of time getting to know each other. We’ve created a loving, trusting community of learners. That doesn’t come easy and we have to come to it each day ready to challenge ourselves emotionally and intellectually. And I know that the work of getting to know each other is important because there is no learning without meaning and there is no meaning without connection. This makes our work of community and connecting essential to learning.

This week at a grade level team meeting we were told that some children were not progressing in their reading. Apparently these students need a reading intervention. The one thing according to the reading specialists that we have going for us is that we as teachers know our kids. There is the implication that we are somewhat lacking in other areas but congratulations, we do know our kids. So the people who are the experts at teaching reading are going to take those kids who are not progressing and they will give them intensive daily reading interventions. In theory the children will progress in their reading.

I was talking to a colleague about this and she said something that really struck me. “You have to get to them before you can teach them.” Yes, you do. You have to get to them. And I had an image of my kids bobbing in a treacherous ocean. As a teacher I have thrown them a life preserver by way of a snack, a winter coat, a smile, a listening ear, an encouragement, a refusal of anything less then their best. I have spent all year trying to get to them. I can tell you how every one of those children has progressed over the last one hundred days. I can tell you about the obstacles in their way. And I can tell you our plan to go farther. But for the powers that be it just isn’t fast enough. It doesn’t look good on paper.

Honestly I hope that someone has a magic that I don’t have. I hope that someone who better knows the ways of teaching reading will give them something I have not. But I don’t like sending my kids out into someone else’s ocean, someone who does not know them. I’ll be preparing them. I’ll be sending extra encouragement and smiles. I will be giving a little extra time with a listening ear. That’s what you do when someone is connected to you and they go out on a difficult journey. You send all your love and care in the best ways you know how and then you hope they come back stronger then when they left. There are so many things I want to tell those reading specialists about these children. If you push this one too hard she shuts down. You have to wait that guy out, patiently. She doesn’t have confidence and is always trying to please. You see I know them but all that knowing, it takes a lot of time. And we don’t have time for that. It doesn’t look good on paper.

Just Read the Story

The school counselor did a lesson with my kids about how to behave when they are bored. At the end of her lesson the kids left their notebooks open on their tables as we hurried to music class. When I returned to class I looked at the open notebooks, curious about what they had been doing. I saw the following in several student notebooks:

Times when I am bored

When the teacher is reading a story.

My heart was broken (and my ego as well.) Some of the children who wrote this were students who I felt were the most attentive and interactive during read aloud lessons. I was crushed. Obviously something was not working. I needed to have an honest discussion with the class about what was going on with our read aloud lessons. The next day I just put it out there. I explained that after the counselors lesson I noticed that some of them had written that they were bored during our read together time. I explained that I wanted them to be interested and thinking about the book. If they were bored I wanted to know why. They all just stared as if I had read their personal diaries.

Finally one brave soul offered “We don’t want to hurt your feelings.” I explained that just like them I had a lot to learn and that they would be helping me and all of us by sharing. One by one they began to open up.

“It’s just that you keep stoping and talking and then it gets boring.”

“I like when you just read it like a movie.”

“It’s just like it takes a long time and gets boring.”

I thanked them for being honest and for sharing and explained that I would think about what they had said and how I could make our reading together better.

And so my world of the carefully crafted interactive read aloud lesson was shattered. You see there is no time to just read a story for enjoyment, no time to just get lost in that world of story. We have to front load vocabulary. We have to look at story elements, character traits, inferring, talk about problem and solution and on and on and on. Each time we read a story together there is an agenda.

This has turned reading together into a task, not at all the experience the author intended it to be. Does any author build all those elements into a story to be picked apart by small children and analyzed? No! Authors use these things to get you to enter their world, sink into their words, to experience the magic and power of story. As a writer I know that with all my heart. The craft of writing a story is to draw the reader in and fill them with the thoughts, feelings, ideas and places of your story. I wanted my kids to know that experience.

The next time we read a book together I vowed to read it all the way through, just as the author had written it without stopping to discuss (or have the kids discuss) any given teaching point.

I was sitting in my chair waiting for the kids to settle in and I hear Diva Girl whisper, “Please read it like a movie.”

I start and on page 3, there is a tricky word. I stop to explain. Mr. How to Be Awesome mumbles, “You are stopping.” I quickly recover and manage to read the rest of the story with no commentary. The children clap and cheer. The magic of the story is revealed.

So this is my struggle, What are we doing when we focus on teaching seven year olds to analyze text so minutely and specifically? What are we accomplishing? Are we teaching them to think deeply about stories or are we driving them away from reading?

Listening and Choosing

Spring break has brought me a taste of summer. I am yearning for long days strung together where I can write, read, dream and live inside my head. I live in two places. One place is inside my head and one place is out in the world. I love being inside my head until I hate being inside my head. I love being in the world until I hate being in the world. The greatest luxury is when I can make the choice to live inside my head or to live in the world.

Tomorrow I head back to school for a teacher work day. I don’t like being in my classroom without the children. I miss their voices. They have so many questions and stories, sorrows and joys. Every moment I am with them I am connected. There is an invisible thread that tethers them to me, me to them and all of us to each other. Being in their world it helps me to create, to make sense of things, to understand.

Tomorrow will be meetings and me alone in the classroom, two events that send me to places in my head where I do not want to be. This is when I hate being inside my head.

On this last day of spring break I am restless. I walk outside and feel a gentle breeze on my cheek, I hear the wind chimes singing. Spring is coming. I can feel the connection.

I hear some children as they walk down the sidewalk. I miss the voices of children. It is time to come out of my head and reconnect.

Your soul I’ve heard knows where it is suppose to be, everything you need you already have within you. You just have to listen. I am listening. I am choosing. I will listen to the children.