So, I’m STILL thinking about the fifth period, level 400 English class. I find it occupies my thoughts so often because I’m growing increasingly frustrated by not only what I’m observing, but also my total inability to do anything about it.
There’s one boy who’s gotten under my skin. This particular young man is handsome in a very boyish way, with clear skin and penetrating blue eyes. Those eyes reveal a character that is very clever and crafty. He’s quick to anger and is particularly fond of mumbling expletives under his breath, though he’s often not aware enough of his surroundings to realize that an adult is standing right beside him. He has decided that the class is a colossal waste of his time, but has also figured out a way to skirt the edges of acceptability in such a way that we can never actually catch him doing something “wrong”.
He’s been “reading “ a book called Monster. It was a book of his own choosing, recommended to him by several of his classmates. The book is slightly below his tested reading level and is arranged very much like a movie screenplay, so there is a visual aspect to the text that he was certain would make the process of reading the book easier for him.
Every day, he strolls into the classroom and sits in a different seat. Once, he got the book out without being asked, but the rest of the time he’s come in and gone straight to another student to begin a conversation. When he’s asked to settle in and do the work, he’ll dutifully open the book and stare at the same page for the entirety of the period. He constantly looks up to see who’s looking at him (and very often sees me looking at him), grins, then goes back to looking at the same page again. At the end of the period, he’ll go to CT and claim that he’s read several pages – today’s number was thirty – when, in fact, he’s barely read a single paragraph.
CT has given the students a worksheet with a series of exercises they’re expected to do with their reading. Half of them are hands-on, creative projects from which they get to choose (create a CD, complete with artwork, as a soundtrack for your book; create a book jacket, cast a movie and explain why you chose particular actors to play each role); the other half is very English-class oriented: describe the narrative style of the book, describe the main character, summarize the story. The assignments are written down and very clearly explained, and CT took a class period earlier in the week to go over them out loud and to explain how many points each component is worth.
CT’s standards for this work are entirely attainable. One student turned in three sentences describing the narrative style of her book, and that work earned her the full point potential despite the grammatical and structural errors in those few sentences. My point here is that these children do not have to exert themselves to an unreasonable degree to achieve success in this class, yet most of them – and the above mentioned boy in particular – choose not to do any of it.
So my question becomes this: how does an instructor cope with students who simply refuse to participate? We’re clearly in “you can lead a horse to water” territory here; we’ve made efforts to offer the students control over the books they read, we’ve given them choices concerning which projects they want to do with the end result being that they don’t want to do it at all.
My blue eyed boy affects me so deeply, I think, because I see a spark in him. I know, for sure, that he could do this work, and that he could thrive in the class. He’s quick, he’s got a sense of humor, he’s got an energy about him that resonates to me. He’s decided, though, at all of fourteen, that he doesn’t need to know any of this, that it’s all a waste of his time. This isn’t the cool thing to be doing, all this writing and reading, and he doesn’t want to be seen doing it.
I wonder what the source of all that apathy comes from. Does he not have a trusted adult in his life who has appreciated the value of learning? Is he incapable of understanding how important this literacy stuff is, even (especially?) to him? Perhaps what bothers me so much is that he’s also decided that he doesn’t like me, so he’s not at all open to allowing me to model that behavior, or letting me close enough to tell him how deeply I believe in his ability to do this well.
Of course I don’t know what the future holds. I fear, with his temper and lack of respect for authority in pretty much any form, that he’s headed for a life of struggle and trouble. Maybe, though, he will decide that being able to read and write and communicate effectively really IS in his best interests. Perhaps he will choose a profession or a trade or find a passion that requires his focus and attention.
I just hope he figures it out sooner rather than later.