Tuesday, December 2, 2008
When I ask for a volunteer to read, hands shoot up. All around the room, faces cloud with disappointment when I choose one reader and the others have to wait their turn. For the thousandth time my students shatter my expectations. I assumed that those who were participating were the students who were confident in their abilities. When I was younger I would fall out of my seat trying to be chosen to read. I would look ahead and find the longest paragraph so that I could volunteer to read that one, carefully calculating when I should raise my hand if I wanted to be chosen for that lengthy section. Getting chosen for a shorter paragraph was a great disappointment. I was confident in my ability to read – prided myself on how fast and accurately I could speed through my paragraph, and was eager to show off my skill. In math, where I struggled, I tended to sit quietly in the back, praying not to be embarrassed by being called on for a questions I had no answer for.
Silly me, projecting my own experiences on my students once again. How could I possibly think that my life is in any way a model for what to expect for these kids. They shoot their hands up not because they are looking for recognition and praise, but simply because they are so desperately thirsting for my attention. I will call on someone and be surprised when they can barely stumble through a sentence. Why would they want to show off if there is nothing to show off?
It is strange, and surprising, and there is something incredibly wonderful about their unabashed willingness to struggle. They aren’t afraid of the judgment of their peers – at least not at this point. One student will whisper the correct word into the ear of a student who is struggling with a sentence, and the student will calmly accept the help, or continue to audibly work through the sentence until they reach the end on their own. Students are patient, reading along with the slow reader, while I silently panic that if I allow themt o continue reading at this pace I will lose the whole class. But I don’t. They listen, and the reader doesn’t lower their voice to a whisper or try to skip over the hard words. I say circle all of the words you don’t know, and they all shoot their hands up, eager to tell the class what they don’t know.
It’s so healthy! I always felt weighed down by the pressure to appear effortlessly good at things, and to feign disinterest in those things that were hard for me. Here, where they all struggle in some way, it’s not a competition for perfection. I planned to give lots of grandiose speeches to them about different types of intelligence, pumping up their confidence and putting salve on the wounds of being less good than their peers at any one thing. And yet I wasted my time in preparing that speech. I was thinking that these kids would have my own insecurities, when in fact they are largely immune to those, plagued instead by a set which I would never have dreamed of having. Most of them don’t define themselves by their academic prowess, and so they aren’t afraid to be vulnerable. They will tell you that they don’t know something, and dutifully write down the definition or answer in order to learn it for next time. When I tell them they have to yell, or stand up, or go to the front when they read aloud, they don’t put their hands down or avoid eye contact. Most of the time they raise their hands higher and wave them wildly, desperate for the attention, negative OR positive, that that chance in the spotlight will afford them.
It drives me crazy that they don’t define themselves by their academics, and yet it saves them. To be in seventh grade, reading at a first grade reading level is scary and discouraging. To feel ashamed of it would make overcoming it nearly impossible in a class of 32. In point of fact, the only thing that will make it possible for most of my students to succeed, is their willingness to fail.