Don’t finish the book if you hate it. Find something you like. Pencils are on my desk. If you’re tired, rest your eyes. Yes, you can eat food here. All phrases I never thought I would say in my classroom. This is an English class; of course they have to finish every book they start. Of course they have to read the classics. They cannot sleep in my class. No, they cannot eat food near the books and their laptops. But after seeing students literally refuse to pick up a book, seeing them struggle to stay awake, and hearing their stomachs grumble all the way across the room, I learned that meeting students where they are will help them get so much farther than if I expect them to meet me where I am. 

The pandemic changed a lot of things. Any semblance of normalcy was wrought away. It changed how we work, communicate, and teach. It’s been an exhausting process getting students back to grade level for their content, but it’s been near-unbearable getting students to socialize and communicate with each other without the safety of a screen. Many students have had relationships crumble around them, whether in the form of financial stressors, death, divorce, or hunger. Effects of these traumas present themselves throughout our hallways—constant questioning of authority, physical aggression, poor impulse control behaviors (i.e., stealing items from classrooms, other students, or lockers). I say that I see these in the hallways because this is the most unstructured time in the day. All students are in the hallway at the same time, and some students know that there are not enough teachers in the hallways to catch everything. 

I had a critical learning moment in the first couple weeks of school. A student, let’s call him Trevor, was shouting obscenities down the hallway to a group of students. I called him over before I knew his name, and tried to play the “you’re lucky it’s me who caught you and not the other teachers” game. It didn’t work. I was an adult in authority; he was in trouble, and he knew it. Trevor immediately started cursing at me, calling me terrible names that I was not prepared for. I took it personally. This child acted like he ran the school, and it infuriated me.  But what I didn’t know about Trevor is that his dad had died from an overdose three weeks prior to school starting, and his mother pushed him into the foster system because she still continued to cook meth. Does his background excuse his behaviors in the hallways or how he treats adults? No. But when learning this information and seeing him in the halls afterwards, I started to understand the desperate need for students to have structure and healthy relationships.

As a first-year teacher in a school district that is in the bottom 5% of the state for graduation rates, I knew this year was going to be difficult. There’s constant pressure from the top to drill content into students’ heads so they can be ready for state testing in the spring. (Though they’re careful not to ask us to teach the test.) However, I didn’t touch the curriculum in the first weeks of the school year.  I spent the first month or so of school solely building relationships with them. Through stations, games, individual conferences, and letters, I made one-on-one connections with every single student. 

I love using learning stations in class. It gets the students moving, communicating, and uses more inquiry-based techniques for learning. I use them in the first weeks of the school year to get students talking to each other. The stations I used this year include writing short stories together (each person writes for one minute, then switch, and continue writing the next story); creating a book cover for your life (these are great to include student work on your walls!); looking through my classroom library to see anything that sparks your interest; and reflecting on yourself, such as on study habits and what you do in your free time. For games, first, I had a Kahoot for the students to see what they could guess about me as a teacher and person.

Then, my personal favorite, I broke students into random groups to get them to see how much they had in common with each other. The object of this game was to build the tallest tower using index cards, but they could only use an index card once it had a similarity listed on it for the whole group. Examples of similarities students came up with: we hate reading; we like Dunkin over Caribou; we live with only one parent; we despise sports; we play an instrument; and so many more. This game helped with the first couple weeks of awkwardness when I was struggling to put a name to a face. Instead, I could remember that Sara and her group loved to get their nails done, or that Bryce and his group were on Battle of the Books last year. These relationship-building exercises were the stepping stones toward meeting students where they were and helping them be as successful as possible. 

It was in that first month that I let students help me make the rules in the classroom.  What’s the consequence for sticking gum under the desk? What should we do if we can’t be silent during silent reading? I could see immediately that students were confused, and of course, there were the students who would shout “expel them!” for every single offense. We all laughed at this, but overall, students took this seriously. I explained that these would go into the syllabus. They had the power. This is where I truly started to meet them halfway: by helping the students form logical consequences and put the rules into place, they had ownership in the room. 

Another element in my classroom that is non-negotiable is that students need to have ownership over what they’re learning. To start this in the school year, I have students make goals for reading and writing. Now, 12 and 13-year-olds are not the best at making goals. They’ve never really had to do it before. So, I made goals with them (I Do, We Do, You Do—thank you, Kylene Beers!), and then we brainstormed what some realistic goals might be. I made it clear that my goals would be different from theirs. I wanted to read 20 books this year. It’s a realistic goal for someone who can plow through a novel in a day. Is it realistic for my wonderful 7th grader who struggles to decode multisyllabic words? No. My students wrote potential goals on the board. I remember a couple of students told me, in typical 12-year-old defiant fashion, “I will read only one book this year.” This was before I fully developed relationships with them, so I smiled and said, “If that’s appropriate for you, I think that’s a great goal.” 

I remember this girl in my last hour; she has a tough exterior. She’s smart, both street- and book-, but she doesn’t let anybody see that she cares about school. Let’s call her Emilia. Emilia—from the first day of school—was one who had her phone out and would outright disrespect any adult she talked to through eye rolling, yelling, or walking away. This day, she particularly liked to be watching TikTok loudly while I was explaining how to make goals. I asked her what her goal was going to be for the year. Emilia replied, “None. I won’t read.” 

Instead of showing my frustration with her, I said, “Okay, let’s touch base later,” and then moved on to answer another question. I could tell she was annoyed, so she brought the attention back to her: “No, I’m not going to read this year.” She smiled smugly, thinking that would do it. Inside, I started to panic. I could feel the different parts of me playing tug of war. I felt I had two options: let her disrespect my class, and me, in front of my students, or let her make a decision and deal with the natural consequences. Hoping to save face in a room full of 7th graders, I walked to the front of the room, “These goals are for you. What is realistic to you? If it’s one book, fine. That seems like it will be a good option. I’m here to support you and help you succeed. If you choose not to read this year, that’s a decision you can make, but it will be hard to succeed in this class.” Lots of eye rolls from middle schoolers, but I think this was a central part of my class. 

Telling students “yes, you can make a decision. I will support you. I want you to succeed” can really make a difference. I was not under any illusions that students would magically walk in and love reading. Reading is a learned process that we often forget is very difficult. Students are often threatened by books over a hundred pages, with small print and no pictures.  This is why I often start the conversation about books with movies and TV shows. I had some backlash from other teachers with this. Some English teachers are adamant that movies are the bane of books’ existence. I believe that books are completely separate from movies. They’re different adaptations, completely different stories. However, they are a powerful motivator to get students to try new stories that they would never have tried beforehand. When I was in middle school, I became obsessed with the  Percy Jackson series because the movie was coming out soon. (But never talk to me about that awful excuse for a movie).  Students love movies. Ever do a movie day in class? Quietest I’ve ever seen middle schoolers be in a room together. 

When I come across students who hate reading, I ask, “What do you watch on Netflix?” They can tell me. Outerbanks—I can point to One of Us Is Lying by Kate McManus. The Witcher—I can point to The Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan or Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. It doesn’t always work, but even the failures tell me what doesn’t work for that student.  Through questioning their likes and dislikes, students see that I am listening to them. That’s where I saw some breakthroughs in terms of getting them to want to do well in my class.

A contradictory method of success I’ve found is to allow students to not finish every book they start reading. It’s a dangerous game to play with the students who are trying so much harder at doing nothing than actually just doing the work. They can see it as an escape to never read a book again. But other students feel better about trying a new type of book. There’s no pressure about picking up a book that may be beyond them; at least they tried. All students are required to finish the short stories we read in class, or the books they pick for book clubs and literature circles. But for their independent reading time, I try to imitate what reading will be like outside of the classroom as much as possible. Newspapers? Fantasy? Classics? Sports magazines? They have access to them all because once we’re out of school, no one dictates that we have to read anything. They should get as much control as possible now. That way, when they’re out of school, they will continue to read. 

I had a lot of preconceived notions about teaching while I was in college. I knew that all students weren’t going to love to read or write. But I did think I would bond far more easily with the students who did love it. Instead, I’m constantly surrounded by the students who refused to pick up a book, write a sentence, or participate in class. After months of sitting with these students, developing relationships, and setting firm expectations about my class, I got most of these students to try. Emilia, the one who said she would never read, finished her first book club book almost on time. Trevor devours graphic novels faster than I can supply them in my room. I have students who say they’re “garbage” at ELA, but when we talk about themes and what we can learn from books, they’re the first ones to take a guess because they feel safe enough to do so. That’s what matters most to me when I’m in a classroom of students who told me in the beginning of the year that they would never read a book. They know to come into the classroom, grab a book, and sit for silent reading. And they do it. 

My classroom is far from perfect, especially as a first-year teacher. It’s messy with books scattered everywhere, papers not in order, abandoned projects, and candy wrappers littered on the floor. That’s not where I’ve put my effort so far this year. Instead, I’ve worked on building relationships with my students so they know that, in my classroom, they have choice and ownership over their work. It’s from this focus that my students will know what they do, and what they accomplish, means more than a letter or a number in a gradebook. There will always be a never ending amount to learn about teaching, and how to do it “correctly.” This year presented challenge after challenge, like a loop that would never end. However, my students have taught me that safety and comfort in positive, working relationships provide us with ample opportunities to prove ourselves. That’s the bittersweet thing about teaching: just like the students we teach, we just have to try.

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