River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 29 2011

Since When Can You Read?

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” –James Baldwin

I have been home on break for almost a week now, and while I’ve enjoyed being away from the at times depressing Delta, I have also been reminded of why I joined Teach For America in the first place. In my application essay, I wrote that I strongly respected teaching as an undoubtedly technical profession; one requiring refined skills and expertise. At the same time, having decided not to become a teacher in 9th grade, I gave this career a second look because of TFA’s emphasis on leadership and role modeling. For me, I’m not motivated by test scores so much as serving as an inspirational source of support to help children find their potential and reach their full potential. I see evidence of this ethic in my relationship with my 11-year-old sister.


The Greatest Debt

“You owe me three stories tonight,” my little sister politely reminded me two days ago.  Where did that come from? You might ask. Well, when I was in 8th grade, I made a pact that I would read to my sister as much as possible. My mom had done it for me after all. Perhaps because of that, I enjoyed reading beyond my teacher’s requirement of 30 minutes per night and averaged around 60 pages per night. I couldn’t sleep without it.

As she got older, I promised to read to her whenever she asked no matter what. I figured she would tire of it, but to my surprise, the only thing tired was me! There would be times when I was so exhausted from the school day, late basketball practices, early student council meetings and what-not, but this self-imposed obligation was perhaps most important to me.


What a Novel Idea!

Well, that answer is a simple one: my mother did it for me. I had that type of role modeling growing up. I know I got my love of reading from seeing books around the house, and I wanted to share this basic pleasure with my sister. Although I would soon go off to college, I would still read with her when I came home for the holidays. Notice how I said “with,” rather than “to.” Since starting school, my sister had continued to grow by leaps and bounds.


Growing By Leaps And Bounds

I loved seeing my sister’s progression towards literacy. As with any commitment, I started strong and would read the books she picked in full. As time passed, I began summarizing pages when I was tired or didn’t feel like detailing what the little brown bear discovered in the basement…again! However, that didn’t last long as she caught on quickly and was able to call me out:  “that’s not what it says!” In shock, I replied: “since when can you read?”

Later on, we would alternate sentences and pages- I would read for a bit, then she would take over. Next, we would alternate nights of who would read. This became a spectacularly handy arrangement for me because some days I was so exhausted I’d fall asleep either listening or reading. It became a question of who was reading to whom!


Open Books to Open Doors

Even though she is now in 6th grade (and on the High Honor Roll), she doesn’t feel to old to read with her big brother. Earlier this week, she asked me: “can we set a goal of reading an entire chapter book before you leave? It’s a little less than 200 pages!”

Wow! “Can we set a goal?” Perhaps her self-directed ambition shouldn’t be a surprise to me by now, but part of me wondered which TFA staff member she had consulted with that one! Many doors are already opening for her because she can read well. Yes, she has a television* in her room, but she also has a bookshelf. More critically, she also has a caring, experienced mother who enforces strict discipline and standards.

Today, we’re working on her plant cell project for science class. Since I’m a science teacher, I guess I’d better have the answers’. To be honest, I’m probably learning more from her and the resources she’s using than she’s learning from me. If the design of the assignment is good I will probably steal it.


One Day…?

I often wonder what would have happened to me if my mother had not adopted me. Would my then-teenage mother have valued reading and been capable of instilling this value in her son? I’m not so certain. I want the world for my students in the Mississippi Delta, but how can they obtain what they don’t know exists? Reading exposed me to things I wouldn’t have encountered living in rural Maine.  You don’t have to live in a city to be successful and have opportunity. The Internet can serve part of this purpose too if kids a.) have internet access and b.) are given greater direction than to play games to keep themselves occupied.

Echoing the words of Will Smith, I joined TFA in part to show low income students that you can read and run at the same time; that reading a screen in basketball is not all that different from reading a story in class. When I return to the classroom in 2012, I am tempted to survey my students about their outside reading habits and parental influence.  I don’t think it’s too late for my 8th graders, but the next generation needs to work on literacy starting at birth if we want to see truly transformational change, rather than merely incremental.

Interesting discussion: Why early learning matters

*For my part, I had to unplug my TV in high school to improve my study habits. I was ultimately too lazy to dig under my wires to plug it back in, so I was better student because of this inertia. Smh

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    Remove Barriers, Raise the Bar

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