Thursday, February 8, 2018

Snot Bubbles and Students Who Don't Always Work

ONE PROBLEM I NEVER SOLVED (and I doubt any educator ever has) was getting all my students to do all their work on time. 

Or ever! 

In my class, I gave everyone who needed help multiple opportunities to catch up, until even they were usually forced to admit—well—it was their fault for not getting work done. Once a boy or girl admitted it was a problem of their making, I felt we could make progress with anyone. That still doesn’t mean we would.

If I could convince a student to work, it was hard for them to fail my history class. I offered to stay and help after school, to miss my lunch and help, to come in early, to give extra credit so kids could fill in zeroes in the grade book. If you had a D or F and weren’t interested in taking me up on these chances, I phoned your parents and encouraged them to require you to stay.

NOT EVERYONE was thrilled with my system. On one occasion I called a young man back to my desk and whispered warning. He was failing the class. He returned to his seat without a word but by the time he sat down he was crying. I asked him to step to the hall and tell me what the trouble was. As soon as the door closed he began blubbering.

“I hate you,” he explained.

I asked why he was crying.

“Now I’m ineligible for basketball,” he sobbed.

I reminded him he had missed multiple chances to make up work. I wanted to know how it was my fault, since he had to be failing at least two classes to become ineligible.

“I hate you,” he repeated. 

It was hard not to notice a snot bubble collecting on his upper lip.

I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Come in for makeup work tomorrow at lunch and let’s see what we can do.” Then I told him to take a moment to gather his wits and I went back to work.

Students had to memorize the section of the Declaration of Independence provided.
They had to be able to answer the six questions on a test.
Number 5 initially baffled them.

I USED THE SAME approach, offering a hundred chances to any kid who needed them, over decades to come. Each year I asked students to memorize a crucial section of the Declaration of Independence, 84 words in length. To my thinking, the ideas in that document are critical to understanding what makes this nation great. Every year, like swallows returning to Capistrano, you could count on a significant minority of students failing the quiz. 

Failing, not “struggling.”

I remember Henry showing up for class, taking out a blank sheet of paper, and writing…nothing. He didn’t know the first words, not even, “We hold these truths.” I told him to come in at lunch and try again. The next day Henry missed half his lunch. I missed half of mine. Henry still didn’t know the Declaration but smiled when I told him he could leave—as if his ordeal was ended. 

“See you again tomorrow, Henry,” I told him, flashing the peace sign.

The next day Henry was absent. The day after, he didn’t show for lunch. I hustled down to the cafeteria, interrupted him between bites of cheeseburger and marched him to my room. 

Henry missed half his lunch. 

I missed all of mine.   

HENRY STILL DIDN’T know the Declaration. He did know something nearly as good.

“See you again tomorrow,” I called as he was leaving. He knew I wasn’t willing to watch him let his talent go to waste.

The next day Henry stopped by my room before school. “Can I recite the Declaration now and not miss lunch again?” he wondered.

“Certainly,” I replied. “I don’t like to miss my lunch either.”

Henry delivered the section with two words missing and earned an A. Most teachers in this situation average grades, one high and one low. Not my style. I wanted to catch kids at their best.

I inked an A in the grade book and told Henry he was free at last.


POSTSCRIPT: I once had a student who rarely did homework, a problem that lasted the entire year. By actual count, I called her house fourteen times between August and the falling June. I don’t think, as a result, that her parents managed to get her to do fourteen more assignments in all. So I did the best I could. I often requested she come in at lunch or stay after school.

I won’t try to say I wasn’t often totally frustrated; but it was interesting a few months back, when the same young lady friended me on Facebook. “Mr. Viall,” she said, “you were the only teacher who ever got me to work.”

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