You know the boys who cannot sit still? I’ve got a gaggle of them in my second period. Now, I’m not talking about elementary school kids, nor middle school. I’m talking about the juniors I teach in high school.
No sooner do I blink, and at least one of them is up walking to the tissue box. He’ll slowly take a tissue. Saunter on back to his seat (for about three minutes — I’ve timed it) and then waltz on over to the trash can to throw the tissue away and then mosey on back to his seat.
With eight of these guys, it’s constant motion. And I need Dramamine.
One class period. Five days. Two boxes of tissues. Gone.
At the end of that first very long week, I realized the reality. All kinds of memories flooded back from Tom Newkirk’s class “Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”at UNH Lit Institute the summer of 2015. (If you haven’t read Tom’s book Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture, it’s insightful.)
My tissue-loving boys were posturing all over the place, and somehow I needed to stop the Tissue Issue.
It’s been easier than I thought. Really, it’s all about getting them into books they want to read.
On the first day of school, I’d prepped my room with stacks of colorful engaging books on every table. We did a book pass and wrote down titles we thought we’d like to read. I showed my passion for books and reading, and my students rolled their eyes at my request they read for three hours a week.
“No way,” I heard one young man mutter, “I ain’t reading.”
This attitude doesn’t deter me.
Even if they were faking it, after just a few days and lots of one-on-one mini-conferences, every kid in a class of 30 at least looked like they were reading. Except two.
I invited these two separately into the hall for private chats about their social PATT (party all the time) moves in the classroom.
“You know, they all follow your lead, right? I need you working with me to make this class work.”
Both agreed, and I asked them to shake my hand on it.
But old habits die hard.
Then, today — 13 days into the school year — gold.
“Hey, Mrs. Ras, can I talk to you in the hall?
“Do you think you could help me find a different book to read — one with music. You already know I like music.” I remembered his free verse rap at the end of class last Friday.
“So give me some ideas –”
“Well, something like that book JaBo’s reading…the long way one.”
“A Long Way Gone?” (I’m trying to remember if there’s any music in this memoir about a child soldier.)
Both of my copies were checked out. I had to think fast. Crash Boom Love, a novel in verse by Juan Felipe Herrera, National Poet Laureate, flashed in the corner of my eye. (Thank you, poetry shelf just inside the door.)
We flipped through the pages, and I explained that it’s a book written in verse — all poems that make a complete story.
“You mean like one long poem?”
“Yep. Do you want to trade me this book for that one?” I said nodding at My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel in his hand he’d been fake reading for 12 days. (I know he chose it for the pictures. “It’s weird” is all he could tell me in our first conference.)
Not six seconds after we’d entered the room, I saw Kameron flipping through the pages and showing his new book to JaBo.
That’s when you know you’ve got them — or at least got a chance at getting them to read — when they do a book talk to their friend before they’ve even read a page.
Meet Kameron. He may be a famous rapper one day.
I love this work with adolescent readers. I know we can change lives as we help young people grow in literacy skills, as we help them recognize themselves in books, and help them see others so different from themselves in the books they read.
It might be the only hope we have as a nation. Empathy, compassion, tolerance, justice, mercy, and love all wait for discovery like healing treasure and hope in the pages of the books we share with our students.
And when that book gold finally glistens — well, that’s when I have to cross the room for a tissue.