How Do You Teach Someone To Love What is Difficult?

“To love [a child] is to bring out the best in him, to teach him to love what is difficult.” -Nadia Boulanger from Words to Warm a Teacher’s Heart

I stepped into my first teaching assignment in November of 2007. I actually got to leave student teaching a week early because I had a job offer–score! It was mid-year and the students had been with a sub until I filled the position and the lessons they were given were created by the Reading Department Head. I was given one week of lessons from each of the other two people in the department and after that I’d be in charge of creating my own content.

The classes were remedial high school reading–an elective, not a required class, unless you failed the standardized test which all the students placed had–and I had finished my English Degree and was beginning graduate work to become a Reading Specialist.

I floated room to room with my cart of reading materials and well-researched, well-documented handouts that were created to help students learn the most effective reading strategies that would improve their fluency and comprehension. As I observed the students working busily on worksheets, using the terminology, and implementing these well-researched reading strategies, I looked around the room and realized no one was reading.

Are you hearing what I’m telling you? NO ONE WAS READING!

How do you become a more FLUENT reader, if you don’t read? 

How do you COMPREHEND a text that you don’t read? 

How do you EXCEL at anything you don’t even like? 

98% of the students I was serving HATED reading. 100% of them had failed the standardized English Language Arts test which is why they were placed in my class. More than 3/4ths of them were reading below grade level.

I know what the system wanted from me. They wanted me to get these kids to pass the test. The kids wanted to pass the test too mainly so they wouldn’t be singled out among their friends as someone who got placed in a special class. They were not, however, enthusiastic about being in my class when they could’ve been in an art class or a sport but instead they had an elective replaced with another WORK class. If only they didn’t see reading as work. 

I had to figure out how to get reluctant readers to read.

So going back to those high quality worksheets and activities that taught kids great READING STRATEGIES; These kids knew how to get through assignments. They didn’t have to understand everything in order to PASS. When a school’s funding is heavily dependent on kids passing, they create a lot of alternative routes and kids figure it out. Take this conversation I overheard between two students for example:

“Man, principal says I’m going to have to go to court if I get any more absences and my parents will be fined and I’ll fail this class.” 

“Dude, principal lied.” 

“What?” 

“Just don’t get over 9 and if you do go to attendance recovery. In fact you can get 18. They’ll count you as failing if you have more than 9 this semester but if by next semester you are still under 18 for the year they don’t do nothing to you. That’s what I do, I’ve never failed.”

You think a 15 year old can’t figure out how to work the system?

A lot of kid’s can do reading assignments all day and get by while their skill level stays stagnant and they perform way below grade level. That’s how kids pass classes and fail exit tests. Take it from someone who has observed an AP English Student test at a 4th grade reading level and a 12th grader who is completely illiterate. You might be shocked to know how common this is. It’s no wonder they hate reading.

While I was trying to find ways to help these students build their skills and pass the state test I observed one kid who propelled me on a quest to MOTIVATE the most reluctant, struggling readers. He was a Katrina Evacuee who stayed in Texas, loved his teachers, and came from one of the poorest performing school districts in the US. But another teacher put a Bluford High School Series book in his hands and he read it. (Background: They are books about high school students that are written at an easy readability) He loved it and I think it built his confidence so he read the next one, then the next, then the next. At the time we were doing 10 minutes of SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) 3 times a week in each class because my mentor teacher said, “We don’t want anything to be TOO Routine.” But this kid would start reading at the beginning of every class and I didn’t want to stop him so I told everyone they had to read for 10 minutes every single day. This one kid, compared to his peers, had gained the most grade levels in reading performance. It was about 6 years worth of growth in 8 months. The only difference I observed between him and everyone else was reading for pleasure.

So in the 2008-2009 school year my mission was to motivate a passion for reading in every student I met. I didn’t achieve my goal 100% because some reluctant readers are hard to crack and some factors such as illness, family trauma, and moves are out of my control; but more kids were ACTUALLY reading. I’m pretty sure I had colleagues and administrators who thought I was a mere dreamer (And TOO ROUTINE!) and even got told by one that I should have taught elementary because I wasn’t good at handling high school stuff, but my students made gains in their skills and had a shift in their motivation–which lends itself to being able to pass a test in something that’s hard. One time I heard a veteran teacher say, “More kids were passing these stupid tests when we didn’t spend the year talking about them.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some things we teach that will only stay with the kids for a short while, yet other things will be with them for a long time. Helping them learn to enjoy something they once hated will last a long time. Skills are used more than memorized bits of information. My persistence in doing all that I could to inspire or at least hold kids accountable for ACTUALLY READING instead of pretending/skimming paid off when I saw the looks on their faces when they did pass the dumb test, when they found a book they liked reading for the first time, and when I told them I was proud of what they had accomplished. Seeing a room full of 9th graders–who all failed their test in 8th grade–scream, jump, hug, high five, and all out celebrate like their favorite sports team won because they passed the state test proves to me that teaching them to love what is difficult is one the greatest ways to love them.

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