Truth: Last Friday, I sat on the floor of my classroom library with a student who’d moved to our district just a few weeks earlier.
Truth: He is in the eighth grade, but he reads at the first-grade level.
Truth: When he left, I locked my door, and I cried.
The Leap? If you’ve ever uttered the words “learn how to play school” to a student or about a student, stop now.
Another Truth: I’ve said those words myself. WHY? As a struggling reader, I learned that part of succeeding in school was “playing the game”. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t play the game better. I thought that I was giving good advice to my students. And I am guilty of waiting too long to recognize a student’s learning needs because she played school well.
Our world cannot continue to educate with the notion of walking the walk at the expense of original thought. Or talking the talk without the ability to read words. Frankly, Common Core standards ended that game by requiring students to read at higher levels and learn to think through concepts. CCSS ended it by requiring teachers to change their game and begin growing thinkers, collaborators, and inventors of ideas, technologies, words and thoughts – an intensely different task than we previously faced.
The student I mentioned above was passed from first grade to second grade to third grade to eighth grade without the teaching he needed. He does not have the decoding skills most students learn in first grade. He doesn’t understand morphemes or the blending of sounds- skills most of our students possess, but don’t even notice because they’re a natural part of learning language. Yet, a loud and frequent complaint about children in his situation is that they don’t know how to “play school.”
Last Friday, I had an entire 44 minutes of one-on-one time with this kiddo. We talked about his family, his recent move, his reading level, his difficulties, and his intention to leave wherever he is, whenever things get embarrassing and tough. He read aloud half of a page of one book; it was too high. He read aloud one more; we found his level. I promised him that I’d get him to grade level. I told him, point blank, to follow my lead.
I promised that I’d get him to grade level, but I won’t do it alone, and he won’t take part if he’s being harassed about not having a pencil or forgetting notebooks in his locker. He’s been avoiding the tough stuff since the moment he realized that he was behind his classmates. I understand the frustration teachers feel when students don’t bring supplies or do homework or when they try to leave class hourly, but the frustration needs to be tabled. It cannot get in the way of teaching and learning.
Another few truths? I borrow a pencil at more staff meetings than I bring one. I have an online calendar and a very pretty leather and paper one I bought at T.J. Maxx this summer (my attempt to be on time, remember one-zillion things, and appear to have it together). But I still forget appointments, meetings, and bills. My desks at home and at school are covered in papers and piles, but if I put the papers and piles away, I’ll forget about my tasks at hand. I am the last teacher to turn in emergency phone numbers, emergency sub plans, and my CONTRACT every year… I sound like a nightmare, but I can can navigate the reading difficulties kids face, I read and read and read, and write and write and write, and I learn from the mistakes that matter. I base all that I do on research, standards, and my observations of students. When I say I will get you or your child to grade level, I mean it. I will champion, guide, educate, learn from and be part of the team who does it.
Another leap? Let’s table the “playing school” issue until we know whether there are real learning issues with a student. If we see that problem, our first step needs to be: zero-in and gather data. Playing school matters as part of a whole picture of learning, but it is not the picture, and it cannot cloud our ability to see the learning difficulties our students face. Let’s sit down and listen to our students read, talk, and make sense of the world. Instead of canvasing the room for off-task behavior (which can be taught, revisited, and non-issue for most periods of the school year), let’s observe conversations, talk one-on-one, and take notes in order to reflect and make the next steps each student needs.
I promised this reader that I’d get him to grade level, and I will. It will not be by myself. It will be with people who see his whole picture. Those who table the little things to focus on educating for the larger issues that created them. Those who learn from the mistakes that matter and who notice the truths and leaps we can make once we notice them.
It’s not easy, but it makes the difference.