Small, big changes

Lisa Demro
May 27, 2019
I have seen every single one of my students move forward as readers and writers in measurable ways. I’m talking about kids who went from never reading so much as a letter of a printed page on their own to finishing two or more novels this year...

Restoring humanity doesn’t have to be difficult.

I have a reputation in my building; I’m aware of it. I’m too nice. My classes are too easy. I don’t teach the kids anything about the real world.

Okay. You know what? I’ll take being the too nice teacher over the one who sends students home in tears every other night, any day.

But now let’s break down what’s really happening in my classroom.

First of all, despite the perception that I don’t challenge students enough in a real-world sense of the word, since I made it my mission to restore humanity in my classroom, I have seen every single one of my students move forward as readers and writers in measurable ways. I’m talking about kids who went from never reading so much as a letter of a printed page on their own to finishing two or more novels this year, kids who could barely write a paragraph who are now writing multi-page papers without my asking.

How did these events come to be?

First, I made building their confidence as humans, readers, and writers my priority at the very start of the year. That meant forgetting about grades for a while. Don’t worry — they weren’t getting trophies just for meeting expectations. There are still high expectations in my classroom. However, I teach upperclassmen who have been told for years that they just aren’t good at English — which simply isn’t true. But their struggles through elementary and middle school have manifested themselves in a ‘I’m gonna fail anyway so why try?’ mentality by the time they get to my classes.

Enter the unilateral grading contract. This year, in an effort to boost confidence and engagement, I asked for one simple thing: if you completed all steps of the work I laid out for you in the manner and spirit in which I asked you to do so, your grade would be safe. No failure unless you simply failed to turn in the assignment or follow through on all the steps.

That sounds easy, right? It wasn’t. I had a ton of push-back initially. First, they didn’t understand why there was no rubric to tell them what to do. Then, they were confused about my new method of conferencing, not knowing what they were supposed to say, confused about why a teacher was pulling up a chair next to them to work a piece of writing side-by-side rather than standing over them dictating rules and criteria. And revising? Nobody has time for that. But that blank space in the gradebook bothered them. When will this be graded? My answer was, when you finish the work in the manner and spirit in which I have asked you to do so.

What did that mean? Finish the work. Be proud of what you create.

It took a lot of time. Months. I had to be infinitely patient and stick to my values. I had to be okay with letting them struggle. I had to make them write more and be okay with not slapping an arbitrary grade on all of it.

Finally, they started to ask fewer questions about their grades (or lack thereof) and more questions about their actual writing. I suddenly had an inbox full of queries about introduction strategies, students lined up at my desk to go over their latest topic ideas, papers that spanned pages without my having to set a length requirement. I don’t use this word often, but it was magical.

Their semester reflections revealed they had similar feelings.

“I used to hate writing but I guess I’m not that bad at it.”

“Just do the work because you literally can’t fail.”

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions because Mrs. Biber is seriously there for everything you need, and she never makes you feel stupid.”

What was the next step? Abandoning the classic literary canon.

My colleagues and I have been struggling for nearly a decade to instill a love of reading into our students. We tried all the teacher gimmicks: providing book choice, weekly silent sustained reading time, reading logs, ‘cool’ projects…none of it worked.

Enter Book Love by Penny Kittle. Her formula for getting reluctant readers hooked on books seemed too simple: daily reading time, daily book talks, daily conferencing, no tests or projects tied to this independent reading time.

That worked for about half of my students, the ones who wanted to read but simply didn’t know how to make time for it in their busy lives. But the other half of my students struggled with this new daily reading routine.

So the next small, big change? Building a classroom library that reflected my student population.

For years, I had been putting books in front of students that were largely unreachable: 500-page tomes of psychological goodness by Karin Slaughter, space-opera-esque fantasy a la Amie Kaufman, romances riddled with 90s nostalgia by Rainbow Rowell. I’d point to these books and talk about how good they are, then be disappointed when no one rushed to check them out. These were my favorites; why were they not theirs?

It wasn’t for lack of trying.

This year, I listened harder. During our daily 10 minutes of choice reading time, I pulled up a chair next to three students a day and asked questions about their interests, their successes, their struggles. Again, this initially garnered some confusion, as my students have been so conditioned by saying what they think teachers want to hear that they didn’t understand my angle. Some of them seemed to think I was trying to trick them when I would ask, “What do you like doing when you’re not at school?” I would get even more side-eyes when I would proudly present them with a book that I thought would match their interests.

Just like I needed to with the grading contract, I needed to be persistent with the reading routine. I had to show them that under no circumstances would I allow them to talk me out of these 10 minutes. If they came unprepared, I either sent them back to their lockers to retrieve their books or placed a stack from my classroom library in front of them to peruse. No one got to hide. No one got to fake read.

As they began to get more comfortable with this new system, I was able to match my reluctant readers with books more tailored to their personal interests. Nothing was out of the question. I invested in a small graphic novel collection that appealed to my visual learners, a series of biographies about rock stars and rappers for my non-fiction lovers, and I used my partnership with Project LIT to fill in the rest of the gaps in my library. I began taking requests through bi-weekly Google Form check-ins, then asking for donations through an Amazon Wishlist.

You should have seen their faces when a donation request appeared in my room. I would bring the book to the student before class began, and they would drop everything and clutch it like a wrapped gift on Christmas morning. “Is this really for me?” they would ask, starry-eyed.

By filling my room with high-quality young adult literature rather than lining my shelves with books about white saviors and old dudes who haven’t learned that money can’t buy happiness yet, I helped reignite the readers lying dormant inside nearly every student in my classroom.

Again, quarterly reflections revealed things like:

“This is the most I’ve ever read without a teacher making me.”

“I would like more than 10 minutes to read.”

“I have never finished more than a book in a quarter before.”

“Keep doing what you’re doing. You are the only teacher who understands.”

“I haven’t finished a book yet, but I appreciate you trying. Keep trying. We will find something.’

“I can’t believe people want to buy books just for us. Like random kids they don’t know. That’s lit.”

Dare I say it again? It was magical.

So yes, go ahead and paint me as the teacher with the too-easy classes. My students, who have appreciated the restoration of humanity and risen to the challenges I have laid before them, will gladly argue otherwise.

Lisa Demro
Lisa has been teaching English Language Arts for 12 years in her home-state of Wisconsin. She's also a registered yoga teacher with a passion for bringing mindfulness to the classroom.
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