1.1 Teachers know their students
1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate
I work in a team. John and I run a multi-age 2-6 double classroom of around 53 children. We like to think our classroom is like a small community. Many children spend three years with us and we hope they feel safe and secure.
This year we inherited some grade 6 boys who didn't seem to understand the importance of community. They made no attempt to make friends or contribute. They were disruptive, badly behaved, rude bullies and had an unsettling effect on our class. I think some children wondered if our room could ever be the way it was.
Because we were spending an incredible amount of time dealing with problems arising from these boys' behaviour we were neglecting some of our more needy children.
One child we'd neglected was Tony.
Tony is a very bright grade 5 Vietnamese boy, sensitive, gentle, highly emotional and prone to depression. He would never make a fuss. Most of the time he's happy and has close friends. One of his closest friends - in fact, a boy he takes responsibility for - was being drawn in by the destructive ways of our new boys. Of course, he was getting into trouble and Tony couldn't save him. Loyalty prevented Tony from talking to me explicitly about his concerns.
Tony's preference for reading is fairytale or magic and mystery. Because he's a fluent reader who makes almost no miscues when reading difficult text, it seemed strange that during literature sessions Tony started choosing and reading simple junior novels with a single plot and basic characters. This can be OK, as just like adults, children like to take a break and read texts they don't have to think about. Tony was a bit different. His written responses to these books were all saying the same. 'The book was boring and too easy for me.' Not only was Tony reading and writing out of character, he wasn't enjoying reading and didn't seem happy.
Tony's capacity to manage his own reading development was being indirectly affected by the bullies. Tony was depressed and in his own quiet way asking for help. If his friendship group hadn't become fragmented or his emotional energy used to support his friend Nikki, Tony would have been able to meet his own reading needs in a cohesive social group. Tony needed emotional support, my attention and a quiet word. He chose to get these things through his reading.
I had to help him make a move. I sat with him for quite a while at a reading conference (this is not unusual in our classroom). We talked about his favourite books, books in our classroom library, and whether or not we were catering for his personal reading preferences.
What emerged was Tony really wanted to read more difficult books but the ones he'd tried had a context and words he couldn't understand so he was settling for simple books he could understand. His emotional state had led him to believe it was all too hard.
Together we decided on James and the Giant Peach. If Tony got to a part he couldn't understand he was to use a sticky label and write questions. The idea was we'd discuss his questions at reading conferences.
Tony didn't need to come back to me. He solved his own problem by talking with friends as questions arose. Tony had reconnected his strong social relationships and shifted his focus from the bullies into an understanding of the books he wanted to read. Since James and the Giant Peach, he's read many other Roald Dahl books and been able to discuss the plot with full understanding.
I'm not suggesting that sticky labels made a difference to Tony's attitude to reading. What made a difference was taking the time to find out what was going on in his head, asking questions and listening to the answers. I guess, Tony needed me to help him take control of his work during a difficult time.
For whatever reason, if teachers don't have time to listen to their children, we're in big trouble.
When I first wrote about Tony I wanted to explore the importance of relationships between a teacher and child. One year later this remains to me important. But re-reading this piece and reflecting on Tony's class makes me think of much more. It reinforces my belief that teaching is more than delivering curriculum in uninterrupted blocks, administering levelled texts or testing for competencies to rank children in an increasingly hierarchical system. All children learn best when they belong in a socially cohesive group which gains its strength through the knowledge and support of all its members.