Finding my next Crew

This past week flew by! They all do, but last week was especially full. In addition to my regular teaching duties, I was tasked with testing a dozen or so freshmen to select next semester’s cohort for my AARI (Accelerated Adolescent Reading Intervention) class.

I had a spreadsheet of data including the students’ names, attendance record, scores (if available) on last year’s NWEA MAP test, PSAT/Academic Approach scores from this year, and their current grades in English Language Arts. My job was to first select about a dozen students to test, and then to complete those tests before a Friday deadline.

Now, don’t feel sorry for me. I teach all day long (literally 8:30-3:15 with 35 minutes for lunch) on Monday and Thursday, but on Tuesday and Friday, I teach only one 50 minute block. Wednesdays we have a shortened school day that ends at 1:45 with meetings or professional development following that. The large blocks of time on Tuesday and Friday are usually reserved for planning and grading, but this past week, I used almost every one of those spare minutes to assess the group of freshmen that I had identified. Of the twelve I tested, eleven qualified for the program. I can only keep 10. And really, even ten is a number that is larger than I am comfortable with.

The space in the back of my room comfortably seats 8 — the class size I started with last fall. I am going to have to reconfigure that space sometime this week. AARI says the results are consistent with groups up to 10, and my administrators want to impact as many students as possible with this program, but let me tell you, the freshmen class that we have right now, the one straight outta COVID, is a challenge to wrangle. For two years of their adolescence they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. We have been working as a team all semester to use systems and procedures to build a culture and to tame all that energy, but let me tell you, these fourteen year olds have a ton of energy. and impulsivity. and immaturity.

I beckon to their better selves, “Class, why are we here?”

Monotone chanting accompanied by eye rolling, “to become better readers.”

“That’s right! And how do we become better readers?”

“By reading…”

I turn to write on the board, a small bit of pencil eraser flies across the room. Laughter breaks out. I turn back around, meet their eyes, call them back to order, and begin again — over and over and over.

Yes. I am doing this willingly.

So, anyway, Tuesday morning I started pulling students from their regularly scheduled classes.

I knock on the door, ask a teacher for a student, the teacher calls the student’s name, the student looks at me — who they do not know — and stands, walks towards me, and looks as though to say, “What do you want me for?”

“Hi, I’m Mrs. Rathje. Have you seen me around before?”

“Yeah,”

“I teach 12th graders, but one hour a day I teach reading to a group of freshmen. How do you feel about reading?”

“It’s alright.”

“Yeah? Do you like reading?”

“Not really.”

“Well, I am getting ready to start a new class of freshmen who will meet with me everyday to improve their reading. Is that something you are interested in?”

Silence.

“Ok, well, I’d like you to come with me for a few minutes to do a couple of activities to see if you would be a good fit. OK?”

“Yeah.”

We walk to my room, I invite them to take a seat, and I instruct them to start reading lists of words that have been grouped by grade level. Once we have established their familiarity with words and their ability to sound out unfamiliar words, I ask them to read a passage. I started the passage reading for most students at second grade level since I know that most of my students last semester began with an independence level of second to third grade.

Student after student this week complied — not one refused to sit with me and read word lists and passages. In fact, I believe they all gave a good effort to show me their abilities. Of the eleven I tested, seven fell in the ‘instructional’ range at the second grade passage. Three were instructional at the third grade passage. One was instructional at the Primer level — below first grade, and one student surprised me.

Nash* had been on my list all week long, but I didn’t meet with him until mid-morning on Friday. His teachers had informed me that they weren’t sure about his reading but that in class he was “all over the place”, that he had difficulty focusing, and that his grades were abysmal. I had never met the student, so I was curious to find out if reading was the source of the problem.

I found Nash in the back row of the class he was attending. His laptop was open even though the teacher was giving directions and everyone else had their laptops closed. He was deeply engaged in what he was doing, so I walked over to him, touched him on the shoulder, and said, “Would you come with me, please?”

Once we were in the hall, I asked all the same questions. When I asked, “how would you feel about being in a reading class?” he turned to me and said, “Just reading?”

“Yes, we have a small group of students and we work on reading skills every day.”

“I would love a reading class.”

That should’ve been my first clue.

“Great,” I said, “let’s do a couple of activities together and see if you would be a good fit.”

He read every word list I had — from pre-primer to high school level. I think he mispronounced a half a dozen words that he attempted to sound out, but he didn’t see a word he wouldn’t try.

I started the reading portion by giving him a fourth grade passage because even though other students have read far into the word lists, they often haven’t demonstrated comprehension at the same levels.

He easily read the fourth grade passage and answered all the questions, same with the fifth and the sixth. When he got to the Upper Middle School passage about the life cycle of stars, he took a little longer, but he combed the text looking for answers, asked me some of his own clarifying questions, and reasoned aloud about his answer choices. He was deeply engaged with the text and with the process. He was easily “instructional” at that level, so we moved on to the high school passage about cell replication.

This passage was trickier; it was not only longer, but some of the questions referred to captions on illustrations. Nevertheless, he persevered. He kept going back to the text, talking out his reasoning, and then explaining to me why he was giving the answer that he was.

After almost an hour of testing, he was still diving back into the text to verify that his answer was correct. Finally, I said, “Nash, we are going to stop right here because we both have another class in a few minutes, but I have one more question for you. Your name was on a list of students who have difficulty reading. Can you explain to me why your name was on that list?”

He looked at me and smiled innocently.

“You don’t have any difficulty reading. In fact, I would say you are very bright — the kind of bright that not only goes on to college but that often goes to graduate school and might even get a PhD. Do you know what a PhD is?”

“No.”

“People with PhDs teach at universities. Do you want to go to college?”

“Yes.”

“Good. You need to go to college. I see only one problem with that.”

“What’s that?”

“What do your grades look like?”

“They are terrible.”

“Why’s that?”

“I have trouble focusing.”

We talked about focus for a little while — about how two of my own children also struggle with focus, about how hard it is for a fourteen year old to manage his own distractibility, about the fact that he sees a therapist, and about his huge potential despite this difficulty.

“Look, Nash, you’re not gonna be in my class, but you are going to get sick of talking to me. I am going to be checking up on you because it would be a shame if you continued getting the grades you are getting and you eliminated yourself from some great college opportunities.”

“OK.”

I returned him to his class and returned to my room to teach a class. After that, I reported for lunch room duty where I saw Nash again, in a sea of chaos, plunked down alone at a cafeteria table, scanning something on his computer as his lunch debris accumulated around him. I recognized him right away — the little genius that is navigating his way through this high school experience.

I finished up my testing later Friday afternoon and sent my results to my principal. Over the weekend she affirmed my selections and agreed that the eleventh student, the one who needs the AARI program but who said she would not be willing to work in our small group environment, should be referred to our special education team for some other sort of intervention.

Today and tomorrow, I will communicate that all out to the students I tested, and next Monday I will meet my new crew. Before then, I’ve got to finish up with my current class of seven, give them some parting instructions, and let them know, too, that Momma Rathje will be keeping tabs. When they — and Nash — are seniors, they’ll be back with me, God willing, to finish their high school years strong and launch onto what’s next.

What a pleasure it will be to watch their development between now on then.

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.

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