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Monday, July 22, 2013

To My Principal....I Must Confess!

To My Principal:
Yes, I lied to my students. Faced with an entire grade level of at-risk students who would rather do almost anything than write an essay, I was desperate. These were possibly the worst fourth grade writers in the school's history, (and I do not use superlatives lightly). Furthermore, the dreaded state writing assessment loomed on the horizon like a dark cloud above my head. An initial writing inventory of fourth grade at-risk students left our department feeling hopeless and desperate. As the new principal on our campus, you would undoubtedly notice an entire grade level failing a state assessment!
So I did what every good literacy coach would do. I approached each writing lesson with the rigor and determination of a sprinter at the start of a race. Tell about something fun you did this summer or If you could have any super power what would it be and why? Each prompt was met with grumblings. "Why do we have to do this?" What does this have to do with anything in real life?"

"Expressing your thoughts and ideas is a skill everyone needs in life," became my staple answer. "You can't be successful without the ability to express yourself on paper. You DO want to be successful, don't you?"

Weeks passed and with each writing assignment discipline issues surfaced, as well as, a slew of excuses like, "I have a blister on my finger" or "I didn't take my pill today and I can't focus because I'm ADD." (I swear I felt a permanent twitch forming in my left eye).

We had just finished reading a Scholastic Read 180 book called Yuck! showing how different cultures considered insects a delicacy. Exasperated, I blurted, "Would you rather eat a bug or write?"

To my horror and dismay the ring leader shouted, "We'd rather eat a bug!"

It was time for plan B.

My cousin from Arizona became somewhat of a pop icon in her community when her team of teachers agreed to swallow a live worm if 100% of 4th grade students passed the reading and writing exam. The plan worked. The local newspaper captured a still shot of the unlucky worm dangling from my cousin's fingertips before meeting its fate. She was nominated for Teacher of the Year and the fourth grade team were all given "Super Teacher" tees. I'll never forget her words of wisdom, "Be careful what you promise your students...because you can win their trust and respect or you will end up with more discipline problems that you can imagine!
The next morning, I stopped by your office and presented the idea of eating a bug as collateral damage for our at-risk students passing the state test. "As long as no PETA laws are broken," you said. "I'll support you." My team opted out, but supported me 100 percent. After all, the odds my at-risk students not passing were more favorable!

My kids approached daily writing exercises with the vengeance of a hitter in the world series. By mid-November their reading scores (lexiles) showed noticeable gains, as well as, improvement in their writing. They began begging me to read their daily journal entries..and so I did. I actually looked forward to student conferences. My kids were becoming confident writers and readers, even if it was for the reason of seeing their literacy teacher eat a bug!
Mid-May the scores arrived and a mass email was sent to teachers. To everyone's amazement every single at-risk student enrolled in our literacy recovery program passed the writing and reading state assessment that year! In all my years as a literacy coach and teacher, this was a first!

The class voted and it was decided that I'd eat a chocolate covered baby cricket. My neighbor worked at the local to Petco and routinely brought home baby crickets to feed to her pet
iguana. I took one look at the little crickets jumping around in the air-filled baggy and knew that not only would my students witness their teacher eat a cricket, but they would also see me gagging and perhaps vomiting on the carpet, spewing tiny legs into the air.

So I did what I had to do....create a fake bug.

I made my husband pinky swear on his life that he wouldn't tell a soul. He is a raisinet lover. Holding out a handful he said, "You could fake them out with one of these."

I rolled my eyes. "Really? My students may be at-risk, but they are smart enough to know the difference between a chocolate covered raison and a chocolate covered cricket!" I exclaimed.

In the secrecy of my kitchen, my husband proved his point. He microwaved a clump of nestle chocolate morsels and with the finesse of a master chef, he meticulously dipped raison after raison into the gooey chocolate. He purposefully added swirls to resemble a toothpick thin leg or a bulging cricket head.

The next morning I took a bag filled with live crickets to school to erase any doubt that I was using fake crickets. Next, I opened a Tupperware container showing ten chocolate covered "crickets" we had concocted the night before.

On the count of ten, wide-eyed with wonderment, my students watched as I popped one of the "crickets" into my mouth. Wrinkled noses and exclamations of "snap!" and "awesome!" erupted from my class. "What's it taste like, Mrs. Dollar?"

With all the sincerity I could muster, I answered, "It tastes just like chocolate...with a crunch!"

If I could have captured that moment, it could've been a chapter out of Diary of a Wimpy Kid! Using the good ol' bait and switch, I had fooled my students, my team, and yes, even you. I know that it was deceptive, even after you had admired my lesson plans on cultural diversity and even created Edmodo polls on what kind of insect might taste the best. That's why I've kept this secret until now.

What came out of that experience is well worth this confession. During the next days and weeks my kids kept writing and reading without the reward of seeing their teacher eat something disgusting . It was about learning they had a voice when they wrote and that I listened...and responded. I was also willing to put myself in their shoes and do something that was difficult (and disgusting) for reading and writing was for them. It was about building relationships with each student and celebrating every success.

I didn't make the newspaper, and I wasn't nominated for teacher of the year, but I was able to learn the art of capturing my student's hearts. Maybe next year I'll go for the real thing. (Well, that is, if you approve).

Confession Reflection:
  • What are the benefits to encouraging teachers to take risks in the classroom? How does this impact student learning?
  • How did this experience build trust with my students? How did it effect student learning outcomes?
  • Do at-risk students learn differently?