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Friday, April 8, 2016

To My Principal...I Must Confess

Yes, I lied to my students. The dreaded state writing assessment loomed over my head like a dark cloud. You see, an initial writing inventory of at-risk students left the department feeling discouraged.

There was no denying it, this was possibly the worst group of seventh grade writers in the school's history (and I do not use superlatives lightly). As a first year principal you would undoubtedly notice. 

As a first year literacy coach, I did all that I knew to do. I approached writing lessons with the rigor of a sprinter at the start of a race. Who is someone you admire, and why? "Name and describe an invention that has changed your life."

Each prompt was met with grumblings and excuses like "I have a blister on my finger and it hurts to write" or "I can't focus because I have ADD and my mom forgot to have me take my pill today." I felt a permanent twitch forming in my left eye. 

And then an idea came to me.

My cousin, Melissa, became somewhat of a pop icon in her community when she promised to swallow a live worm if 90% of her 5th grade students passed the reading state assessment. You'll never believe what happened. They did it!

2016 photo with my Super T cousin, Melissa!
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.  A year later at a family reunion, I asked her point-blank why?

I'll never forget her words, It's about relationship. Students need to know that we are willing to put ourselves in their shoes. 

You know, as well as I do, that cutesy doesn't cut it for middle schoolers. Boys, especially, like anything with the word "X-TREME" in front of it. And so we came together as a community and made a sort of blood pact. If my students put all of their effort into getting better at something they hated, I would reciprocate and do something that totally grossed me out. Yes, I would eat a bug.

If you remember, I stopped by your office and presented the idea of eating a bug as collateral damage if our at-risk students passed the state writing assessment. "As long as no PETA laws are broken," you cautioned. "I'll support you." 

My students voted and it was decided that I'd eat a chocolate covered baby cricket IF they all passed the test. The rest is history. 

My neighbor worked at the local Petco and routinely brought home baby crickets to feed to her son's pet iguana. I took one look at the miniature sized crickets jumping around in the air-filled plastic baggy. I gagged. I envisioned myself popping a bug into my mouth, choking, and spewing tiny legs into the air. 

I didn't have the stomach or the will power to do it. My cousin's words haunted me: It's about relationship. Students need to know that we are willing to put ourselves in their shoes.

And so my lie was born.

In the secrecy of my kitchen, my husband, Michael, and I conspired to create a fake chocolate cricket. We microwaved a clump of Nestle chocolate morsels and with the finesse of a master chef, meticulously doubled-dipped Nestle Raisinetes candy into the gooey chocolate. We purposefully added swirls to resemble a toothpick thin leg or a bulging cricket head. 

To cover our deception, I took the air-filled bag filled with live crickets to school to erase any doubt that I was using fake crickets. Next, I opened a Tupperware container showing the "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 "Oh, snap!" and "Awesome!" erupted from my class. "What's it taste like, Mrs. Dollar?" 

To their delight I answered, "It tastes like chocolate...with a crunch!"

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). 


Tamra Dollar

Post Script: To My Principal...I Must Confess is a true story. (As are all of my blogs). This lie ate at me for years. I felt guilty and so I waited until I felt certain all students involved had graduated from high school and my Principal had moved to another campus. Writing this confession was cathartic. While I wouldn't recommend using an incentive like this (there are other ways to engage students) but at the time, it was the best I knew to do. Oh, and my principal forgave me. :)

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