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“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” ~~ Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

As I read this week’s chapters I couldn’t help but wish that we could discuss them in person. There is SO much to think about in each chapter and I’ve loved all the different perspectives we’ve all brought to the reading. Trying to narrow my response to only one or two issues was challenging for me this week!

I feel like I need to start by sharing a story that doesn’t come from my own experience. It is a story shared by my mentor. Some of you may have heard this story before but I think it’s worth hearing again. It relates directly to one of the main ideas of this collection of texts – a child’s experiences with the printed word impact that child’s ability to learn to read the printed text. As a doctorate student I have been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time outside the confines of a classroom with some of the reading faculty. Most of the time I sit in awe as I listen to each of them share their experiences. One day Dr. Morris shared a story that was told to him by his mentor, Ed Henderson. One day Dr. Henderson was asked by a colleague to observe a first year teacher in her classroom. The colleague was principal of an inner-city school and had been unsure of the instruction the new teacher was providing her new little readers. Dr. Henderson agreed and came to observe the teacher. He also talked with her to see her perspective on her instruction and her reasoning behind it. I don’t recall how many days he observed her but after it was all over, his colleague asked him, “So, what do you think?”. Dr. Henderson told him that he had nothing to worry about. The young teacher was doing exactly what she needed to do. As it turns out this teacher had learned that many of her students had little experience with books and reading. Many of their parents worked 2 and 3 jobs to care for their families and had little time to read at home. Some of the parents never learned to read as children. Some were struggling with moving to a new country and just knew that they wanted their children to be in school but weren’t sure what they should do to help them. This teacher decided that for now, in their first year of school, she would read to them and read to them and read to them. She worked hard to bring the world of books to them, to teach them that the squiggles and shapes on the pages of books meant something and could be read. I think too often we are quick to judge students who come to us unable to read, yet isn’t school where we promise to help them learn?

One other story - The first year I taught fifth graders, I had a student who had already lived through more than I ever had – her mother was in prison, her dad had left some time ago, and she was living with her elderly grandparents, who unfortunately, were dealing with difficult problems of their own. Each day my student would come in looking tired and hungry, and she was. The hungry part I could partially take care of because I tried to keep quick breakfast foods in my room, but as soon as she got into our room, her head would hit the desk. At first I let her sleep. I was a young teacher and thought that I was showing her I cared by letting her sleep. But then I was in one of my master’s classes and we read the same piece by Victoria Purcell –Gates. As I came to the part where she observes an African American teacher in an inner-city school, a light went off for me. I realized I wasn’t giving my student what she really needed. In trying to help her I was actually hurting her, allowing her to miss opportunities to meet her potential and create a better life for herself. Once I saw what I was doing I talked to the teachers she had had before me. I already knew from her file that she has been held back twice. I also knew from my initial reading assessment that she was reading about 2 years below grade level. Her previous teachers weren’t surprised to hear that she slept in class because it had happened with them as well. Year after year, our school had failed her. I honestly don’t believe that any of her former teachers meant to let her fail. I think that they, like me, thought that they were doing the right thing. For the rest of that year, my teaching partner and I tried to make Purcell-Gates proud. We already had high expectations for the class, but we worked hard to make sure that we had those high expectations for all of our students. We demanded that every student stayed awake in class and that all assignments were completed to the best of their abilities. It was hard to wake up our sleeping students and immediately direct them to finish their work. You feel like a bully at first until you realize that what you are giving them is a reason to try. Our student knew that we expected her to work hard but she also knew that at the end of a long day we were there to celebrate her success – for her that became a reason to stay awake.

I think that all teachers need a wake up call from time to time. It’s easy to get caught up in the quickly moving school year and forget that you had planned to work closely with the student reading below grade level, or that you meant to spend time just talking to the student who had lost a love one. Sometimes the wake up call comes in the form of a student different from any you have had before, a student that pushes you to change your instruction to make sure that everyone can learn and grow. Usually, for me, the wake up call comes as I read the words of other educators who have been there before and then I realize what I need to do and it is at that moment that I am grateful for all the others that have taken on this noble career with me.


Amie Snow

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Comments (8)

JayneThompson:

Amie,
Thanks for sharing those stories. I feel like they gave me "Permission to Try Again." I could see myself in the Purcell-Gates chapter, allowing some students to fail. Sometimes it happens because student needs are so great and there is just not enough of me to go around. Sometimes, like you, I thought I was being nice to let them sleep or do less work. I see now that I'm not doing them any favors. I'm thankful that I get a chance to try again tormorrow.

Sarah Feinman:

Amie,
You are absolutely right. Teachers do need a wake up call from time to time. I have a student in my class who always falls asleep in the morning. I assumed it was just because he was staying up late. That is, until Thursday, when another teacher caught him trying to sell football cards. I asked him why he was trying to sell them (knowing he LOVES football). He beat around the bush for a while, and then finally said it was because he wanted to buy food. After getting the social worker involved, it turns out that he was not getting much food at home. The social worker stepped in and offered to help the family. I feel like I was giving him permission to fail by letting him sleep some mornings. But I now realize that I should have dug a little deeper to find out why he was so sleepy in the first place. This event has made me look a little closer at my students.

Heather Coe:

In response to Dr. Morris' story: I believe that if Donny's teachers had responded to his limited literacy experience in the same manner that the first-year teacher did, he could have been more successful. Teachers need to reach their kids wherever they are at. Often, we get caught up in the idea of where our kids should be in X grade. We try to provide them with grade appropriate materials/lessons, rather than taking the time to develop the level that they are at.

Now, I understand that this is much easier "said than done." Teachers are placed under the pressures of performance. It is often tempting just to reach and uplift the average kids. It is up to us to find a way to work within the system.

Lisa Rasey:

Amie,

Thanks for the reminder that it is my responsibility to give my students a reason to stay awake. Whether it is to celebrate a success or to participate in an activity that is truly relevant to their lives, I must provide that reason. I believe most teachers are truly concerned for their students or they would not be teachers. However, I also know the pressure of having teacher effectiveness measured by the results of standarized tests squelches many attempts of teachers to connect with low-achieving students. And yet it is that very connection that does more to promote learning than any method.

Stefoni Shaw:

Amie,
I love reading any thoughts you have! Will you mentor me? I love the idea of meeting in person--I had the same thought this week, maybe we should all meet at a Starbucks before the end of this semester and converse.
Now, I need to stray from the personal invitations and comment. You offered such great real life situations. I think I heard the same story from Dr. Morris in class last spring when we were reading an article by Routman. I was so impacted by the power of reading that I decided to start each day that way this year. We read for 30 minutes from 8:30-9am each day, then we delve into literature study. This may be my favorite time. We do author studies, non-fiction works, selections from The Book of Virtues, ANYTHING that can be read, we try it. The discussions that have arrived are powerful. Second graders have amazing thoughts, providing a forum to share them is easy. I have found that this time sets a great tone for our day. Sometimes a topic or specific story may create so much conversation, our time bleeds into other areas and I have to free myself from becoming rigid, type A teacher. I think I appreciate the learning curve you address. We are figuring out what works best in our classroom, and in the process not every idea or action we take will be the right one or the most succesful one. We learn just like our students. We need to model the motto, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Amy Spade:

After reading Purcell-Gates' chapter and your story I thought of a student I had my third year teaching. He came to school hungry, tired and thankful that he was in a safe place. In the beginning of the year I wasn't sure what to do because he slept no matter whether he was sitting or standing. I tried to make him stay awake but nothing seemed to work, so then I let him sleep assuming I was giving him what he needed, a safe place to sleep. He wasn't receiving much instruction but I thought how could I teach him if he was sleep deprived. When he was awake my assistant devoted his time to working with him one-on-one. I thought I was doing the right thing but now, like you, I don't think I was. I now wonder and pray that another teacher had the knowledge to know to stop the cycle and to stop allowing him to fail by allowing him to sleep.
Amy Spade

Whitney Gilbert:

Amie, I think that it was great that you really pushed this child to strive to achieve. Of course you know what these little ones go through. They are hurting, starved for attention and love. But you are right. By letting them sleep, we do not provide them with the skills to better their circumstances. That is just like with children that miss lots of days. I come up with my own attendance reward plan to try and get them into school. Maybe they will push mom and dad or whoever to get up and help them get ready. Maybe they will do it on their own, but the point is that they cannot learn if they are not at school. I think too often poverty becomes habitual. They see their parents doing nothing but having fun and living off the system or barely getting by with no responsibility and they begin to try and pursue that life. That is when it is our responsibility to reel them back into the class and show them ways out, take them to better places with wonderful stories, make history exciting and really find each child's driving factor that makes them want to succeed, whether it be simple praise or science. Each child deserves a dream, and that's why we are there.

Alecia Jackson:

Hi Amie,
I know -- there is so much in this week to think about and discuss! I just may divide this section into two parts the next time I teach the course..... :)
Anyway, I admire your conclusion to the second story:
Our student knew that we expected her to work hard but she also knew that at the end of a long day we were there to celebrate her success – for her that became a reason to stay awake.
I truly wish teachers would realize that their permissive behavior can only enable problems rather than help children push through them.
It's such a tricky place -- a fine line, if you will -- to be responsive to and respectful of a child's home life, while also helping them to achieve their dreams. To me, that's the most demanding aspect of teaching.

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