A Teaching Miracle in English 12
By Matt Biers-Ariel
I teach high school English. On the last day of the semester, a student asked about his grade. For someone doing well, I love to be the bearer of good news. But there was nothing happy to report to this young man. Though I knew his grade, I made a show of opening the grade book; perhaps the delay might soften the blow. He stood nervously as I announced, “Sorry, Oscar, you got a D.”
Instead of whimpering, “I’ll be grounded ‘til 2016,” Oscar pumped his arms high and hollered, “Yes!” He passed the class; the D was good enough.
While Oscar was satisfied, he clearly learned nothing in class. Unfortunately, I teach an awful lot of Oscars. How can there be so little learning given that dedicated teachers use research-based pedagogy and students understand that a college degree is the surest way to a successful life?
While there are many possible reasons, if I were to name a single culprit, it would be this: students don’t read. Since reading is the foundation on which the rest of education stands, those who don’t read, don’t learn. They don’t read because paper books can’t compete with the electronic hegemony of YouTube and Facebook. Everyone knows this. It is old news.
Oscar is in a class of 25 boys and 7 girls. The boys are feral. Think Lord of the Flies. Though I am the teacher, I am like Piggy, ignored, for I am a lousy disciplinarian. Even though my classes are always a bit rowdier than other teachers’ classes, this particular class is rowdier than my others in the same proportion that the football team is rowdier than the chess club.
The boys enjoy playing the penis game. One student whispers, “Penis.” His competitor whispers it louder. They go back and forth until finally I hear, “Penis!” screamed from across the room. I yell and they laugh. Once while I was working with a small group at my desk, there was cheering from the other side of the room as two fledgling behemoths were arm wrestling. I rushed over. Instead of being chagrined at being caught, the winner held out his open palm and smiled, “C’mon, Biers, let’s go!”
Finally out of desperation, I laid out a selection of classic novels from Catcher in the Rye to The Stranger and gave the class a quick overview of each one. “Pick a book. We’ll be reading every day for 30 minutes.” They laughed. Oscar said, “I’ve never read an entire book in my life.” “No way,” I replied. He smirked in a way that said, “Yes way.”
On the first day about a third of them read, a third pretended to read every time I looked up, and a third did nothing but whisper things like, “Penis!” They knew the experiment would end like my other failed teaching attempts. But week two rolled around, and each class started with, “Take out your novels,” and each day a couple more kids got beyond page one. By week three there was twenty minutes of silent reading in the classroom. Oscar was well into Lord of the Flies.
A teaching miracle
Even in our day of ubiquitous internet entertainment and incessant texting, it is possible that a good book can still hold a student’s attention if he is given the time and space.
I tell my colleagues only half-jokingly that out of all the workshops on lesson planning and all the times burning the midnight oil trying to come up with curriculum that captures the students’ attention, the most successful lesson with my class of Oscars is, “Take out your book and read.”
Why? Perhaps besides opening their minds to new worlds and ideas, a book provides a respite from the yoke of being perpetually wired. Their psyches breathe a sigh of relief during silent reading.
The satisfaction of watching them read is sublime. The only thing that could top this would be if Oscar were to finish Lord of the Flies and reflect, “You know, Mr. Biers, this book sounds kind of like us.”
If that were to happen, I’d give Oscar an A.
Matt Biers-Ariel is a high school English teacher in Winters, CA and author of Lighting of a Fire, a novel about high school.
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