Thursday, August 11, 2011

Books Matter

I want to tell you a story.  This story is for all the folks who have donated books to my classroom. Books matter.

If you read my blog, you know I teach in an inner-city environment. Most of my sixth grade students are years behind in their reading skills. Overall, these students do not like to read. Whether they are low because they don't read or they don't read because they are low is a highly contested argument. In any case, it is often a wrestling match to achieve any sustained reading in our classroom.

Jenna (name changed) came to my class nearly everyday carrying a backpack full of attitude. She is one of those kids who does not hesitate to escalate to the nth degree; lines are meant to be crossed. Her anger, frustration, and attitude went to eleven.

I found within the first couple weeks that I could get her to do quite a bit of study, IF I reasoned with her right. It reminded me somewhat of Harry with the Hippogriff. It was all in the approach.

There was a week towards the end of the school year that I noticed Jenna was regularly reading a book... really reading it! Usually she would just fake-read so I wouldn't bother her... or if she was feeling edgy she would just draw, and give me attitude if I re-directed her back to her reading.

Yet here she was... for the first time, engrossed in a book. I couldn't tell what book it was because she held it in her lap. I also knew not to pry too much. Years of experience have taught me that my asking her about the book, or complimenting her on how well she was reading, would just annoy her. She might quit reading just to spite me. Best to lay low.

A few days later, while the students were working on projects, she approached my desk. "I need another ...," she announced.

"Excuse me?" I said. "Another what?"

"Book! I finished my book and I need another one!" she stated with a touch of impatience.

This interest in books was very out of character, yet I was so glad for it, that I was a bit like the salesman who hasn't had a customer in days - I rolled out the red carpet! I started telling her about this author and that genre, watching to see if anything piqued her interest. Like Olivander describing wands for Harry, I was hoping the book would choose the student.

However, she hadn't shown interest in any book I presented. In fact, she was growing noticeably more irritated; I was probably a bit too enthusiastic. I think I started to sweat as I realized my moment was slipping away.

She finally rolled her eyes and said, "Just a second!" And she marched back to her seat. A moment later she came back and tossed a book on my desk. She pointed at it and said, "Like that one!"

On my desk was a biography of Helen Keller written by Margaret Davidson (I had read the story of Helen's teacher to the class a few weeks earlier). It was one of the books purchased from my Amazon class wishlist by a blogger/Facebook friend.

"Oh, you want a biography!" She gave me a quizzical look. I rephrased, "You want a true life story."


I quickly selected a few biographies and gave her a general description of each. Without a word, she grabbed the biography of George Washington Carver and went back to her seat.

Before school let out for summer, she read that book and one more.

While I was teaching summer school, I heard that Jenna and her family had moved. I probably won't get a chance to see how her story ends. But, for those few weeks, she learned what it felt like to enjoy a book. 

She also read about other children who had tough beginnings, but made it in the end.


Unknown said...

That was a great story. I spent years in the same neighborhoods as a parole officer. I have a handful of stories like that where a light went on and a connection was made. I was aware, occasionally, that I made a difference. It is an incredible feeling and is what kept me going in an otherwise hopeless job.

Do you have a new wish list?

Andrew said...

There is a link to my wishlist in the article. Also, on the left side of my blog there is an amazon widget that displays and links my wishlist.

Don said...

This is why I contribute to your library. You are doing a marvelous work Andy!

Chad said...

Thanks for sharing Andrew. I actually had a similar moment yesterday with one of my boys. He is home for spring break and he told me that he's been reading a book on his off time. He's beginning to get a love of reading as it let's him explore the world without the means of traveling. We were practicing driving for his driver's license and I told him that what we were doing right now was the first step in him actually being able to visit the places he was reading about. Thanks for reposting this today. It was very timely.

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