What Teaching and Tutoring Taught Me About Reading

Part 2 in a series about what I learned about education
Warning: This post contains a line of explicit language that may offend some readers

I had scant preparation for my first teaching gig, but I knew I’d better “start out tough.” “You can always ease up later,” went the conventional wisdom. I was a little worried about that. I’m not exactly tough – really more of an empath – plus, the ebullience I felt at the prospect of helping so many cool, New York City kids learn – the difference I was gonna make in their lives – all of that wiped out the realistic possibility of a stern demeanor from me.

Still, sitting at my desk in the Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School Annex on my first day of teaching, armed only with class lists and a blue binder full of attendance cards, I expected I might get run over. Five classes of between twenty eight and thirty eight students each. All ninth graders, ranging from Honors to ESL to repeaters, who, I’d been warned, might be as old as nineteen. Despite the peeling paint and drab green and beige checkerboard floor tiles, I felt lucky to be in a large, generously-proportioned classroom with huge windows looking out onto stately sycamores on Fifteenth Street.

Turned out, I had nothing to fear. For the first couple of days at least, my students met my enthusiasm with friendly, open faces.

The idea of “education” fills the heart with hope. We hope to scrape off the barnacles and emerge transformed with new information and abilities. We hope for our children that their schooling sets them up for effective, satisfying, prosperous lives. And for our society, we imagine education not only improving the informedness of the informed citizenry needed for democracy, but also providing ladders out of poverty, thereby making our world better and more fair.

The first few days of almost any class hover on the updraft from all that hope. Some innate instinct about possibilities buoys us like an eddy of calm in the rough torrent of ordinary experience. A great teacher nurtures that moment – channels those aspirations into meaningful action. Instead of “be tough,” someone should have told me to make those kids work hard and succeed right from the first day.

I went around the room and had each student tell the class something they liked – the Knicks, Dominican food, Whitney Houston, Biz Markie, football. Many of them struggled with this request. They turned beet red or repeated what a neighbor had said. Still, I made a big impression the next day when I remembered every one of them by name – first and last: Hermelio Velasquez, Keisha Goodwin, Terran Van Exel.

Good will ran out by the third or fourth day, however, and I found myself running on fumes.

New teachers get assigned to the least desirable classes. I taught only 9th graders, and two of my sections were repeating that year for at least the first time. Reading obviously mattered, but the school mandated a reading list that had next to nothing to offer these kids. I had plenty of copies of The Miracle Worker and even more of the abridged version of Oliver Twist but no copier access. If I found a poem or short story I wanted to use, I paid for copies at Kinko’s or projected the text with an overhead projector.

I can’t recall how long my students tolerated my tedious lessons, but other impulses soon – often jarringly – superseded basic decorum. Lisa Sweat who won effusive praise from me one day for her sharp insights about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, inexplicably rebelled the next. “Suck dick mother fucker Bardin dick,” read the note she tossed in my bag.

My supervising Assistant Principal, I’ll call him Albert, had firm convictions about how to help me. Cooperative Learning, an educational technique where students worked in groups, would solve all my troubles. Albert had the zeal of the uninitiated. He was completing his PhD dissertation on Cooperative Learning at Columbia but hadn’t done much actual teaching himself.

I had my doubts. No matter how thoroughly I planned it, group work accelerated the chaos that occurred naturally when I led whole classes in discussions. Albert offered to come in and demonstrate. I discouraged him, but he insisted.

His lesson began badly and quickly devolved. Someone sniggered during Albert’s explanation of the process, and he pulled rank: “I am an Assistant Principal, young lady!” Things degenerated from there. My class found this small enraged man with self-consciously unkempt hair and a three-piece, herringbone suit hilarious. When Vance Dean, a tall, elegant, formal boy with a history of impeccable behavior, threw a wadded up ball of paper at Albert, the future principal stalked out of the room, leaving me to clean up the mess.

I desperately consumed teaching stories, but the books I read ignored the part I needed. The I-was-a-teacher-for-a-year-or-two-and-wrote-an-important-(or, at least, best-selling)-book-about-it genre focused more on the authors’ outrage than on the students’ learning or progress. Their depictions of crumbling schools and children growing up in squalor read like lite versions of today’s reality TV. I noted the distinct lack of success stories.

Stand and Deliver, the one tale that reflected the kind of triumph I envisioned for myself and my students, was about a Latino AP Calculus teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles named Jaime Escalante. Miraculously, every single one of Escalante’s students ended up passing the extremely rigorous, nationally-normed AP exam (AP stands for Advanced Placement and passing scores confer college credits).

Escalante refused to acquiesce to the low standards everyone else accepted for inner city kids. He challenged his students to excel and backed up his talk with hard work.

Right on! Now how could I do the same?

I decided I’d better focus on writing. The books I had been given to teach were all but useless. Writing would allow me to connect directly with each student. Most English teachers complained about grading papers and with good reason: every assignment produced hundreds of pages of reading. But how else could I succeed? I asked every student to write an essay about something that mattered to them. They could write about anything they liked. Anything at all.

Silence.

“Yeah, but what’s it supposed to be about?” someone wanted to know.

“Anything you want. Something that happened to you. A person you like. An event. Anything.”

More silence.

“How long?” they wanted to know.

“As long as you want- “ then, sensing the unfortunate intent of the question: “At least two or three solid paragraphs, though.”

“Well, Mr., which one? Does it have to be three or is two enough?”

Most of my students tried. They really did. I stayed up till all hours writing detailed comments. What is it exactly that you love about the Knicks? Why is your grandma so important to you? I get that she cooks every day and buys you clothes, but what makes her different from other parents or grandparents who raise children? What makes her special? Describe her. Elaborate. What does she look like? What kind of work does she do? Give me details.

To the extent that my efforts elicited a response – only my Honors students stayed with me for more than one draft – the rewrites quickly lost the scent:

The Knicks has the best colors and they players is the best ones for all New York City and they is known throughout the league for playing hard and beein the best. That what make them best teem and that why I chose the Knicks for a team cause no other team can compare. That’s it. Even when they loose Ima fan 4 them.

Or:

My grandma is the special one that always have a smile for me. And she have that same smile for even other people to. She is kind for all the people and is a good, good person. Her heart is the thing that make her so special and why she so special to me. Unlike to the other parent I see shouting at they kids, my grandma only shout if I deserve something.

My disappointment must have been obvious to them. I had no idea where to go next and lacked the teaching chops to realize how toxic my tepid responses would be to the shoots of new life that hid in these writings.

Even with unlimited resources, however, this was never gonna be The Dead Poets Society. You can’t teach reading and writing the way most people teach math. Escalante could go back to basics. He could break his subject up into dozens of discrete units of knowledge. He could test his students to make them demonstrate their abilities. To be sure, there are rules of grammar and English usage that matter, but knowing them does not make one a capable writer. The mental agility required for writing a compelling cover letter or reading a New Yorker or Economist article, much less scoring respectably on the LSAT, does not flow from a knowledge of comma use or dangling modifiers.

Knowing the rules is essential, but you only master and internalize them when you use them. No one ever excelled at writing without first reading a great deal. Because hardly any of my students read, expecting them to write well was as hopeless as expecting them to play polo well – here are the horses! Here are the mallets! Just follow the rules!

Learning to excel at reading and writing can and should be a lot more exciting than memorizing trig identities or solving over and over for x. My team and I at Veritas Learning Labs are building digital tools to that end.

At the time, I ascribed my failures to the system – too much poverty, too many incompetent teachers letting students fall through the cracks. Several more years of teaching in very different environments, however, would reveal a great and terrible truth. The elephants in our educational room do not discriminate by race, gender or socioeconomic status. The difficulties with reading and writing that stymied my students at Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School, though better managed elsewhere, undermine students at every school in the world. And these sorts of struggles are not the exception – they’re the norm.

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