By Sarah Junek
They plod through ditches, instrument cases swinging in the mist, sometimes as early as 7 a.m., hours before school. Where not long ago Indians hunted buffalo and a young girl drowned in the creek that later took her name, they walk with their iPhones, past small houses where immigrants from Mexico or further south have settled.
Do you see it? A half-century-old two-story red brick building with faded green eaves and peeling beige trim, slouching on a curve. Not much to notice, but to sixth graders on the west side, a haven, the best they have known. The backstreet entrance is just off the creek and a side-road. From here all you see is the original Wycliff Elementary School entrance, used before they widened the farm-to-market road to four lanes and the school swapped orientation to become Leonard Sixth Grade Center.
I pull back the heavy iron handle.
I get a brief smile, then silence. Not much of a thank you, but it’s only visible in the eyes, past the look of being twelve and for most, a fear of being seen. Leaving behind elementary school is a rite of passage. I try to remember that smile. A laminated sign tucked behind iron bars admonishes visitors and students to enter through the front. But the band hall is just beyond this back door. I smile as we walk through. Rules are sometimes meant to be broken. I am the teacher.
Less than a year ago I was walking into the Keller Citizen newspaper office, not a room full of adolescents on the brink of puberty. I covered everything that happened in the town except school news. I did long hours and weekends, night meetings that lasted until two in the morning, and all for almost half what they pay me to teach. It had been a mom-and-pop paper in a town known for its hot politics – the kind of place where truth was guarded and newspapers were browsed for the week’s pictures. Bought out twice by the same big city paper under two owners, readers felt manipulated, their small town being overtaken by growth.
I can’t say I always liked it or that it came easy to hammer out stories. I wanted to learn, but I worried the paper would shut down. The Internet was squeezing in. Stories were shorter, so was ad revenue. Within a few months of taking the job, I knew I needed to break for a bigger paper soon or find other options.
A student walks in wearing round-toed coal-black dress shoes, his head cocked back and to the side. The usual swagger in his step is missing, just a brisk clip right up to the row of beat-up blue lockers. One arm clutches a briefcase, the other is bent, his fist pumping along in step. He wears a borrowed black tie and clean oversized white dress shirt. Other kids surround him. It’s a ritual of attention.
“What’s all that for?” one says.
The smile comes out, confident eyes brighten. “What’s what?” his voice squeaks.
“I’m trying to look all professional,” he says.
His shirt billows from beneath a black vest over a pencil waistline, and the kids nod and smile. Andre is tall and lanky and he plays off his awkwardness with the ease of a comedian. It’s his shield for what has been a very hard year. He has quickly found his place for the second semester in a new school after moving in with his uncle. In this new environment he looks relieved, uncertain and resigned. But there is hope in his expression, however muddled. It hasn’t taken him long to become a favorite, beating out rhythms and singing his way through my classes for the last half of the year. Other kids may dream of becoming the next big pop star, but Andre stands out over all of them. They like him instantly.
“I’m a business man,” he grunts, slamming his locker, turning on his heels and heading to class.
It’s now or never. Though Andre may have his life situation back under control, he is a student in the at-risk category. Life situation or ability always catches up to you in middle school. Taken together, more happens during these years than any others to determine whether a child will survive school. It’s this combination of emotional and educational hurdles that pummel kids in middle school to the point that, by high school, they become dropouts, statistics. The Alliance for Excellent Education set the high-school dropout rate at 7,000 a day nationwide in 2006. The main reason students drop out: they can’t understand the material. They can read the words, but they can’t think about or apply what they read.
“Hey that looks like a 3-D on your screen,” Andre says as he walks into class.
By the time the bell rings and I walk in from monitoring the hall, I hear a one-man band drumming out a series of rhythms accompanied by a clear on-key voice.
“C’ma, c’ma, c’ma, c’, c’mun out atcha. Stickin out atcha. C’mun out atcha.” Within minutes the accompaniment to all things 3-D has turned into classic rock medley, “Bum, bum. And still those voices are callin’ from far away…”
“Dead” is lettered in black, “space” in white on the binder he’s drumming, a reference to a video game he’s got at home, he explains. “About to upgrade to two.”
Students play 4-second Frenzy, a repetitive game where they have to manipulate the mouse to do random things in 4 seconds. “I’m gonna sic PETA on you, Juan, for branding a cow in a video game,” one sing-songs at the top of his lungs while wandering the room.
“How do you spell graffiti?” asks another.
“Can you do the jerk in skinny jeans?”
“Her mamma doesn’t let her wear skirts.”
The voices start to drown each other out.
Samantha addresses the room. “I don’t know why people keep messing with my backpack. I mean, sure, it’s awesome but why do they have to keep messing with it?” Her waist-length blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and serious expression, along with her leather-jacketed approach to the world, keeps most of the class at a distance, definitely the girls. She’s too smart for them. The best reader in the school, she hides it by not being perfect. She’s failing some classes.
“Look at how severely goofy that guy is,” Jarod says to Sam. Samantha’s fashionable Gir backpack, a Nick Tunes robot dressed in a dog suit, hangs on the back of her chair. I’ve been told while trying not to laugh that this character is “incredibly awesome.” Jarod explains, it’s “because they put trash in his head cause they hated Invader Zim back on his planet.” They’re completely engrossed in this wide-eyed conversation about a backpack cartoon character.
At Leonard Sixth Grade Center, this is the biggest dilemma facing the 450-plus student body: It’s games, not books, that connect with the modern student.
Students sit back, natural and relaxed. I monitor from screen to screen with friendly reminders, and most of them don’t abuse the privilege – finish early, keep a good grade, and then, it’s game time. After all, serious rewards are at stake. Some days are silent writing days. When students are finished with the writing assignment they can move on to their reward - unlimited free time, at least until the bell. Lucky. This is what most kids say of those who get to take my class, Computers and Writing. It’s an elective focused on state English Language Arts standards.
I sit at my desk in the back by the windows and ask one of the biggest troublemakers how she would teach if she were doing it.
“I don’t think we should be told not to jump around because no job is going to ask you to shut up and listen,” she says. I figure they deserve a few minutes to choose what they’ll learn next, even if it is how to brand a digital cow faster than they did yesterday.
The school smells of rusted iron and pencil lead. In the old wing, the 1950-era pale green tile in the hallways and short chalkboards in the classrooms have acquired sophistication with the years. It’s grandmotherly and is treated with respect, well loved by its patrons. I like it too. Leonard Sixth Grade Center was named after two brothers who quit farming to open up a merchandise store in 1918. In winter the boiler bubbles hot water up through leaky pipes into a steaming puddle on the sidewalk by the back door, and in summer box fans buzz futilely against 80-plus-degree indoor temperatures. But it’s not a bad place to be.
Yet in many ways a school building is still a roadblock to life, just like it was in the days when you couldn’t wait to get outside its walls. Not much has changed. Nothing can keep up – not the buildings, the staff, technology, techniques, materials, metal detectors, motivation to not miss your bus. You might even feel sorry for kids who have to endure the same slow system you did, or sigh and nod that they seem to be going through so much more – just to learn.
We adults really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what goes on inside those walls, between late and on time, the flashing yellow lights and white lines of the crosswalk. We put down our cell phone and impatiently tap the steering wheel. We hold strong opinions if we still have one of our own in the system. Otherwise, that’s how much time most of us spend thinking about education.
She likes Cheez-It Duos, the green and red kind, and calamari, lasagna, and Denny’s Maple Bacon Sundae. Samantha the nonconformist wants to be a brain surgeon some day. “It’s been a life-long dream.” Already decided at 12, she plans to pursue a surgical career, and then finish off her later years pursuing another dream: tattoo art.
“Really,” I say.
Her eyes are in super-stealth stare mode, fixed on the screen. She wants to convince me of the seriousness of her statement.
“It’s actually pretty cool. I figure, I’ll retire early, and then open up a tattoo parlor. You know, attend classes over at that art institute at Ridgemar.”
I start to wonder what signs a teacher should look for in a future brain surgeon. I mean, is she likely to get there?
Sam often comes in at lunch to play on the computers and talk. She says she’s not eating. I ask if she is feeling ok.
“What did you have for dinner last night?”
“Oh you know, we had some potatoes,” she says, “and stuff.” A long pause interrupts while she concentrates on the game filling her screen.
“But I had to watch my brother and his girlfriend eat Chicken Express,” she adds as she slumps further in her seat. She is lost manipulating a colorful dinosaur with her arrow keys.
Whenever the education system is pondered, it’s through the eyes of adults. The system is rarely judged through the eyes of a child. Can you remember your days in school? A moment of reflection more than likely turns up an unpleasant or inaccurate memory, all that awkwardness seeping into a well-ordered now adult mind. Would any of us go back to those days of uncertainty? What you were thinking in sixth grade? It’s a lot different than what’s in the minds of today’s kids. Sure school is still all about the friends. But the schoolwork - it’s worse than boring; it’s hell.
The assignment’s been up on the board since they walked into the room: “Go online and read today’s blog post.” There are usually links to passages to be read. “Turn in a 400-word response by tomorrow.” That’s the length of a short news article.
Maybe it’s exacerbated by technology, but for the most part you can tell when a student is interested in listening to instructions and when he or she isn’t. It’s part of what it means to be a modern student. Getting 25 students learning at different speeds in the modern classroom to listen to a teacher is like trying to get a whole city to start biking to work because it’s good for them. It’s hard to change back to something that seems so – old school. These kids were born with personal computers in their pockets. No wonder a classroom’s homogeneous environment won’t motivate them to learn. It’s not personalized. Our primary job as teachers – convincing students they need to know this -- can’t keep up.
With five minutes of the last period of the day left, the girl next to Sam looks up at the blank board in panic and says, “Can you put the board back up?” The laptop is logged out. I log back in to show her the assignment. I can tell she’s not convinced doing the assignment is good for her.
I try to put myself back into the emotional and physical needs of a twelve-year-old. What was I doing at that age? What did I think of adults’ expectations of me? I remember wanting to read the big classic books I saw on the shelf, Huck Finn or Native Son, to make parents and teachers proud. They seemed important to me, what smart people did, but I couldn’t understand them. I was a reader-of-the-month club member and a Highlights magazine reader. Those things were cool in elementary. Writing my name in the front of a book on the line under the words: “This book belongs to,” seemed so official to me.
Still, reading books wasn’t really my thing. We were not a reading family. We loved being outside.
In sophomore English we read Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Diggory Venn, an outcast painted red by the dye he sold to mark the sheep -- it was my first memory of being transported to another time by a book. Still, by graduation I hadn’t read much beyond the school reading list. In two years I would go to college and get a cell phone and Internet and email accounts.
Reading is a tough skill to develop.
In some ways, I think, I can’t blame them. My hands are flat on asphalt pavement in a shopping strip parking lot. In a line up of parents with ten years on me, I am the slacker in this classroom. I’m pushing my body toward the sky when I begin to feel my trainer’s hand gently pushing me down, holding me at the waist. He is quiet, but it feels like a yell. It’s a subtle signal that I’m not really pushing myself too hard.
“I won’t let you go,” he says and pushes harder. “C’mon all the way down. 5, 4, 3, 2, last one.”
It’s on that last one where I let out what I’ve never before let out in my short athletic life of two weeks: an all-out grunt of agony. There is no way I am going to push against that pressure and not fall, I think to myself, not at the end of a 15-round sprint rotation.
I leave with a sense of focus. I think, if I could just combine writing with something like that, I’d have a connection. My students would be able to relate to the process better, see the pain for what it is. Now all I get is, “Ms., this story is too long!” Weaklings. Let me put the pressure on.
“Wait, you wrote this, Ms. Junek?” Jarod asks
“Shaa-ha yeah!” Samantha says.
It was a stretch, but I’d put them on to a great article I’d read in graduate school, a New York Times piece about the closing of the Fulton Fish Market. I edited out parts of the feature where content was too complex or not appropriate, and I fed it to them. It was a stretch, “too long.” They booed, literally. But I explained the theme to them up front. I showed pictures of stinky fish and asked them to think about why the world should care about an old fish market. Then I had them read a story I wrote about a local rancher trying to preserve his ranch as a family heirloom.
Some of them liked it. A few got it. Given something way out of their league, the gifted kids soared. The struggling kids snuck back to gaming. I felt doomed. It was awkward. I back peddled. I asked the classes how many times had they been forced to move? Did they remember the places they lived? Which ones did they miss? Some I asked about their grandparents’ homes. What was it about that place that made it special? How will they feel if one day they move, or one day their grandparents have to move? I got stories back from Mexico. I started to see it was possible. Maybe at this young an age they could get how important place is for rooting us to the past and to memory.
It was my first try, but I think they started to believe I was either crazy or that finding a theme in a piece is actually more worth their time than texting a friend.
You’d be surprised how few times students are asked to write an essay, a narrative, anything. None ever find their way to a real-world audience. None are published, even on their school website. “So why do we need to write, Ms.?” They might not ask if they saw a convincing reason.
I read my computer screen, crushed and pressed into accepting this as my reality. This is the cycle the system can’t shake. The last great writing movement of the ‘80s had its day. Now it’s being taught by a few, at best, rekindled by some, but more likely is collecting dust in some file cabinet of materials handed down by a retired teacher. I wonder, why am I the only teacher in the district who has put student-written articles up on their school website?
Just yesterday, I’d set out to write down a few tips on teaching writing, getting them published somewhere a top goal. I hadn’t read much on education practice, what’s been done. I Googled a name, Nancie Atwell, writer of a book I had been given. I read about The Writing Process Movement. I left my desk with little hope of changing anything. It’s an old idea, a thirty-year-old idea that died.
When a policy doesn’t measure up, time runs out to comply or it just never happens. Another movement, an update with more political and financial backing, replaces it. Writing or reading get treated this way far too often, dislodged by a movement.
What seems so obvious isn’t discussed enough. Students can learn more on their home computers than in a classroom. Walk into most middle school rooms in America, and you’re likely to find 30 desks and only a few computers. Walk into any job in America and you’ll probably find a computer at every desk. In my writing class, I’m lucky enough that every student has a computer. Most have a phone in their pocket or locker, and many have a smart phone. They certainly are highly motivated by digital rewards. Shouldn’t students be using technology 100 percent of the school day by now, not only as a reward?
“It got quiet.”
Keyboards click. Motors hum. Screens flash. Bodies pop up for a better view. Headphones in the back continue to play their music a bit louder than the sanctioned level – one any other class member cannot hear from any distance. Yet the usual din of conversation has lulled into a pause that seems like quiet to them – one that predictably at this age gets quickly followed up with acknowledgement.
Pause. Short set up for what everybody sees coming.
“That was awkward,” a student concludes.
Catharsis achieved. Samantha pushes conversation with a non-conformist challenge.
“It’s only awkward because you said it’s awkward.”
Matthew Needleman, an Apple Distinguished Educator and author of the blog, Creatinglifelonglearners.com, thinks not having this kind of class environment is what’s dangerous. It’s said that if it’s not a child-centered learning environment these days it’s irrelevant, and that makes sense when access to all information is handheld and in a student’s pocket. They should be able to choose more of what they learn - choice is all around them. But isn’t reading as irrelevant to kids as video games are to your grandmother? If reading becomes a choice, will it become irrelevant?
I pass out yearbooks, student science boards to take home, award certificates for those who didn’t make the award ceremony. It’s 3:45 and we’re planning our adventure trips, the last project of the year. They have a set amount of “money” to survive. Their mission: see five amazing sites in three countries – 15 destinations. “Where are you going?” I ask Samantha and Jarod. I already miss them.
“The Machu Picchu temple in Peru, the Louvre in Paris.”
“Ms. Junek, can you milk a llama?” Jarod asks, putting it down as part of his co-trip with Samantha.
“I do not want to milk a llama,” Samantha says. A verbal slap-fight breaks out.
“Ms. Junek. She was being mean, then she took away my keyboard. I was like, what the heck, Samantha just erased that.”
“You don’t have to milk a llama. I told you, you didn’t have to.”
Out of nowhere, Mackenzie, a mousy brown-haired girl goes over to Steve, a loud future quarterback, and rubs perfume from a broken bottle on his head.
“Ewe, I smell like girl now,” he whines. I smell it from the back of the room and go to investigate.
“Can I break this pencil over my head?” Steve asks. Before I can answer he snaps it over his head into two pieces. I’ve traded moleskins and mechanical pencils for a blue eraser-topped multi-colored pencil with footballs and basketballs on it, traded newsroom din for classroom chaos. My notebook is wide-ruled now.
“Why do you do that?” I ask.
“Cause we do that sometimes.”
My desk at home hasn’t been used since I inherited a teacher’s desk. I clear off the top of my desk, pushing the piles of papers and books into a semi-circle around my chair, dust off the surface, and start to type. It’s now or never.
Many student faces hover in my mind but one I especially remember. Kyle had been called in with his mom for several conferences. He was barely passing my class and failing many more. He never pecked out more than a few broken sentences on the page the entire year of my class. I watched and I let him slip through with a 70. He’d clearly given up, was too far behind, too shamed by language to keep up with anything I asked him to do. But play games.
It seemed he needed this respite from miserable failure in so many other ways. I wanted him to have a safe place to talk, feel him out. If there was some way I could get him to write, I knew it would be this way or no way, but I’d gotten busy with the others and never gotten back to dealing with him. He hadn’t turned in a draft of the “Life’s Not Fair” assignment. It was his last shot. I was going to deliver the first F in my class if he didn’t write. I pulled him from his computer for one of those feared chats with the teacher. I sat him down in a chair next to mine and pulled out a pencil and paper.
“Kyle, tell me about your mom.”
His head sank low, freckled round face dodging the attention.
“Who lives at home with you?” I go on sweetly and without confrontation. I always enjoy it when time affords me the luxury to stop the teacher routine and put on the reporter face. It’s so natural, waiting contentedly to get it out of him; to stare him down, future football player though he is, and grab at his heart if I can find it.
I’ve had a few moments like these with students, where I felt for sure I wasn’t repeating some slathered adult cliché they’d forget in an hour.
He said he’d never met his dad, that he’d just done a search for him on Facebook and gotten a reply. His dad had sent him a message saying he wanted to meet him, that he’d work something out this summer. After twelve years of waiting, Kyle had started imagining what it would be like to meet his father. His round eyes curled at the idea when I asked him, “what have you found out about him so far?” He discovered where he’d gotten his love of motorcycles, he told me. With enough time between him and the computer to forget there was a blank piece of paper staring back at him, he began to open up. I said something about what a lucky guy his dad was; he was finally going to get to meet his son. What else would he want his dad to know about him?
Then I asked the harder question. “How do you feel about all this?” Kyle just stared past me at the window.
All student names have been changed.