I vividly recall my first teaching assignment. Speech and Drama in Southwest Nebraska. I grew up in Northern Colorado, where labels were abundant. Every student was in a group, they could move between groups as they saw fit, however, they were assigned to a group by their peers. My teachers and the administration never seemed to buy into the labels. The “theatre kids” were different. They dressed different, acted different, thought different, and some of them were good friends of mine. I remember thinking; “I know nothing about speech and drama.” Yet, there I was.
Upon teaching those first seven years, I was confronted with every imaginable label. I loved them all regardless. I still love them all. I also taught German the first six years and then gained a Freshman English class. That was the class and still is the class that I think about when I think of kids that get labeled unfairly. That group of kids was a diverse group. I had twenty-six students in that class, and right about half of them qualified for some sort of special education service. They were the kids that couldn’t pull up their pants, had skulls on their shirts, heard my “no boobs, no tushies” speech more than they cared for. There were also about five gifted students in that class. I constantly heard from other faculty that I should not do this or that with them, simply because it was out of their reach. I should give up and just baby-sit.
Having someone put my kids down is not something that goes over very well with me. I believe that all kids have it in them to be successful, given the right environment and the right tools. So I told the other faculty that. I made enemies. I didn’t care. My administrator was behind me. My co-teacher was behind me. I believed in me.
I told my students, that I wasn’t going to let them make excuses for themselves, feel sorry for themselves, or see themselves the way others saw them. They got to be who the wanted to be. They didn’t believe me. I am a little thing and don’t look scary, until I am. Then one day, they believed in me, and themselves.
We started the semester with personal narratives. We read Frederick Douglass The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave as we journaled and wrote our own narrative lives. Through this process, I got a feel for their reading levels and writing levels. I did find out I had as low as 4th grade and as high as 12th grade. Writing came naturally to some and others struggled. It also gave me the opportunity to teach grammar in a way that did not involve worksheets. The discussion that we had about the labels slaves were given simply because they were black was amazing. I was so impressed at this group of “misfits”. I knew it was in there somewhere.
We then moved on to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This is the novel I got hammered on for teaching to this group. I had a teacher tell me that a group with that many struggling readers could not possible read such a difficult text. I think she forgot that the readability level is fourth or fifth grade. It was a great book for them. I tied it to Douglass and to the discrimination that some of them felt daily. This was all about grounding them in the literary experience. It was awesome. Watching this group of kids bloom and come alive in class was so rewarding. They had an environment that was non-confrontational and where they were free to be themselves. If that meant they were a rock star in their head, then so be it. Some of these kids had barely passed eighth grade English and we had been told that they were going to beat us up. No one beat me up. Instead, they learned to love reading, writing, and they learned to trust a teacher. They still trust me with some of lives hardest issues, and that was years ago.
After Lee, with Board permission, I taught Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk. All I had to do was tell them it was challenged and every single one of them read it. Kids that had not read a book on their own since fourth or fifth grade. They loved it. Again, we tied into the labels that were in the novel and they identified with the characters in the book. This particular novel is so full of labels that they jump off of the page at you from the moment that you open the novel. One of my students told me that he felt like his life was that way. I later walked down the hall and heard another teacher telling a class with some of these same kids that they were good for nothing in life but flipping burgers at McDonald’s. I hurt for them, and that made me work that much harder to look past the labels that they may have walked into my room carrying. During this unit, I pulled in several different tasks. I made them journal about prejudices they had encountered, things that they could do to help those in need, they drew, they wrote, they sang, they did so many different things that were simply amazing. The talent that was in that room stunned me. I was also stunned by the way the kids were doing in my class, by the way their parents were reacting to their grades, the way I was teaching, and the way their high school career was starting out.
As the year progressed, these kids became my kids. I knew their fears, their triumphs and when they fell. They are still my kids. They are the kids who make teachers cringe when their names appear on a roster. I do a cartwheel, not literally of course. I love them. They work for me, we have an understanding. They know that I nag them like no other because I love them and I know what they are capable of. They worry when I stop complaining at them. Through all of this, I have gotten a label myself.
It is something that is difficult for me. I grew up in a rather unassuming home and school, so this label is not something I care for. I am not into labeling anyone simply based on the clothes on their back or the color of their hair. Goodness knows, some of my own friends look fairly scary. It seems that some of my peers have taken to juvenile measures of eye rolling, sighing, and put downs about me and my classes of “misfits.” They just don’t seem to understand how I am getting them to actually work. I believe they think I am just giving them good grades. In reality, they are working their tails off in their own ways. I am just playing to their strengths.
Teaching is about being unassuming. Assume something about a child and they are going to prove you wrong, nearly every time. Give a child the chance to learn and excel. Just because they have a Mohawk, a skull on their shirt, or might have done something you don’t agree with last night does not mean they are a bad person. They just walk to the beat of their own drum. I like the beat of my own drum and who cares if our beats don’t make music to everyone else. It sounds fabulous to me.