He Can’t Read
My Teach For America experience started with induction at Birmingham Southern College. I met so many enthusiastic BamaCorps staff and corps members. Towards the end of induction in Birmingham, someone posed the following question to me: “Why TFA? Especially considering you are already certified.” My answer was pretty simple: “Well, I’ve always wanted to teach. If you asked me in elementary school what I wanted to do, it was always teach. I love and admire tremendously the focus and aim of the program and I don’t think a teacher can ever get too much professional development. Lastly, I think I need improvement in developing more reading strategies to use when I meet a child who is in the tenth grade, for example, and can’t read.”
Fast-forward a few weeks later, I’m in the Mississippi Delta. Just as a reminder, I’m teaching entering 9th grade English Language Arts at the Greene/McNair site. Some students in the lower grades started on Friday of week one, but all upper grades wouldn’t start until the following Monday. So before I actually met my kids I had the opportunity to observe and assist a sixth grade classroom. This was my first Friday at Institute, so two Fridays ago. I’m thinking this is so cool. We are doing many different activities in the class including group activities, introduction activities, and reading activities. I’m ecstatic just thinking about being able to do all this in my own classroom.
All is going well, until I look over to a table participating in guided reading. There is a young entering sixth grader who looks completely and utterly flustered. His expressions lead me to believe that he is angry and frustrated. I walk over and pull him from the table of six and ask him if he’d like to join me in reading simply because I have no one else to read with. He instantly smiles and decides to join me without a hint of reservation. We move to an empty space in the classroom. I ask him his name and a few things about himself. He tells me he like basketball, video games, and a few other things. He also expresses a love for reading, but openly admits that he struggles with it. I immediately reassure him that I’d help him. We open the book to where we left off in the group. We begin to read together. I quickly notice I’m having to feed him many, many words, including the most simplistic sight words.
Emotionally, I couldn’t really get my thoughts together quickly enough. I wanted to cry. I realized he couldn’t read. I didn’t know what to do. My mind filled with hundreds of questions, the main question being: How could he be eleven years old and entering the sixth grade and not know how to read? So I quickly reassured myself that he could read and he was simply nervous that a complete stranger had pulled him away from his peers to read with her. All a while, I’m thinking about the question that was posed to me at induction and my response to it. Thinking on my feet, I made him a list of twenty sight words; words that I could remember going over with Dallas, my six year old son, every night since he’s been out of school. This eleven year old, entering sixth grader could only identify three of those words: I, on, and off.
This was worse than I thought. I immediately fought back more tears, as this young fellow reminded me so much of my own son and Dallas’ peers too. So I started teaching him the words on the list: And, so, was. STOP! We were sounding out the word “was;” it was then that I realized he didn’t know all of the phonetic sounds. I quickly made a list of the letters of the alphabet. We went over each one together. I had him identify the letter and the sound. He knew twenty-one letters and fourteen sounds (missing five letters and twelve sounds). Again, I was fighting tears. How dare someone not see this? How dare someone not help this child? I’m shocked, angry, upset, frustrated, and smiling. The latter because I’m hiding so many emotions from this child. I took his number and told him if his parents said it was okay we’d read together on the weekends. He lit up with joy. And then we continued with the daily routine, lunch was next.
He has since become my summer reading buddy. It’s hard because I don’t teach entering 6th grade, so I don’t get to see him everyday, not to mention I’m leaving in a very short three weeks. The hour distance and bus rides are another issue, but that’s what weekends are for right?
I am now able to put a face to all the kids who can’t read and to this fight in general. This fight is real. It’s personal. He deserves to know how to read, as does the thousands, maybe even millions of others kids all over the nation who are in the same predicament as he is. I swear to never let a child pass through my classroom not knowing how to read. Sorry for the long post, but look out for updates on the kid I shall rename Johnny.
They don’t call me Ms. Beck just because.