69: Tough School

69: Tough School

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Tough School

From a little spark may burst a flame.

~Dante Alighieri

Although I’d taught many years, this was my first year at this particular school — a South Florida high school located in a town so poverty-stricken it didn’t even have a grocery store. During orientation, I found myself sitting beside another teacher new to this school. We shook hands and he introduced himself. “I’m Jim, a college professor from Indiana. I’m teaching English. I asked for the toughest school. I want to make a difference in these kids’ lives.”

“I’m teaching intensive reading to juniors and seniors who can’t pass the state test,” I answered. Unlike Jim, I hadn’t asked for this school. I had simply been assigned, and it was a challenge in many ways. I commuted fifty miles each way, leaving home at 5:30 to get there by seven, driving past endless fields of tall, green sugarcane.

Tough school? That was an understatement. My students threw things, ignored directions, cursed, even threatened physical harm. One day, they stole my grade book off my desk while I helped a student in the back of the room. They kept asking, “Miss, you coming back tomorrow?” hoping the answer would be “no.” But I kept saying “yes.”

I’m one of those people who love a challenge. Tell me I can’t do something, then get out of my way because I’ll try twice as hard.

I asked other teachers for advice.

“They’re going to test you,” they said. “Don’t show them you’re afraid. But don’t turn your back on them, either.”

I gamely followed my lesson plans, ignored the kids who abruptly jumped up and ran out of the room screaming curses, and drove home exhausted each afternoon. I wondered how in the world anyone could ever learn anything in this environment. I racked my brain for some way to reach them.

One day, I ran into Jim again. He was carrying a carton of books out to his car. “This is the most dysfunctional, disorganized school I’ve ever seen,” he declared. “And these kids! Their only goal is getting teachers to quit. Well, they win. I’ve had it. I’m going home.” He’d lasted less than two weeks. That wasn’t unusual; one teacher didn’t make it through her first day!

Despite all the challenges, or maybe because of them, I came to love those kids. They were coarse, rough and untamed, but just as smart and funny as kids anywhere. What they lacked was civility, background knowledge, and context. They had abysmal vocabularies, asking, “What that mean?” about common words. My heart bled for their lost opportunities.

Drug abuse was rampant; gangs roamed the hallways; many girls became pregnant; violence was a daily occurrence. One of my students — a sweet sixteen-year-old boy who struggled in class but shined on the football field — was shot dead one Saturday night by another teen, simply because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I spoke at his funeral, held in the gym, the following weekend.

I struggled to find some way to make reading enjoyable for the kids. One tried-and-true exercise, which never failed at other schools, involved Readers Theater. Kids worked in groups, practiced a short script, and then read it aloud to the class. For two months, I handed out scripts each Thursday, hoping to see a spark of joy. They grumbled and mumbled and stalled and complained about yet another dumb thing this teacher was making them do.

One Thursday, I gave them the scripts as usual, wondering why I even bothered. But that day, a group of three students got a script about some catty girls. When they presented the skit, they invested the characters with humor and emotion, acting out the comments, striking poses, and shaking fingers in faces.

The class roared its approval — stomping, applauding, and whistling. That’s when they realized Readers Theater wasn’t about what I liked; it was about what they could do with those scripts to shine in front of their peers. The next group couldn’t wait to present theirs, to see if they could do it better than the girls, and so it went.

“Miss, we do that play thing again?” they asked. And, yes, we did that “play thing” again every Thursday.

Readers Theater improved their pronunciation and pacing. They had to read at a certain speed to make it sound like ordinary conversation. They discovered that how they said something influenced its meaning. They paid attention to punctuation — pausing for a comma and coming to a full stop for a period — something many had never grasped before. They learned to be comfortable speaking in front of people. Most of all, perhaps for the first time, reading was fun.

The best day came when I had to attend an in-service training program, spending the day in the school auditorium rather than in my classroom. I met the substitute who would run my classes. One of the students wandered into the room and spotted the worksheets I’d prepared.

“Naw, Miss, it be Thursday,” he pointed out. “We do that play thing today.”

“It’s too complicated to explain to a sub,” I said, but he smiled and shook his head.

“We teach her how,” he said. So I gathered up the worksheets and left the scripts instead, giving the sub a list of “helpers” she could call on each period. That day, my students ran the classes themselves, practicing and presenting their scripts. The sub left me a note: “I never had an easier or more enjoyable day covering classes, especially at this school.”

By the end of that year, most of my students had passed the state test. They were relieved, but I hoped they took something more important with them: the memory of being captivated and entertained by written words, and seeing, perhaps for the first time, that reading and fun weren’t mutually exclusive.

That summer, I rested, recuperated, and got ready to return to my dysfunctional school. The first day, a crowd of hulking seniors shuffled in and found seats. One boy picked up a textbook and hefted it, clearly about to launch it at me. Another boy leaned over and grabbed his arm.

“Naw, man, she cool,” he said, then turned to me. “Miss, I heard ‘bout you. We do a play thing?”

~Ellen Rosenberg

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