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Winning the Battle

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Two really nice things happened in my junior English class last week. We were finishing up The Great Gatsby. The kids were pretty excited about it – they’d done some work in their history class about the era; many of the students, mostly girls, had seen the latest movie, the book was short; the prose not too challenging. Most of the students actually read the book and didn’t rely on Spark Notes or other internet sources for their information. So the class discussion was lively and good.

John in particular was participating in a way I had never seen before. He couldn’t stay in his seat; he interrupted others in order to make his contributions; he was smiling and excited and engaged. This is a young man who all agree is very bright and who most see as not particularly motivated. He likes good grades and is accustomed to them, but this year has proven challenging because the grades didn’t just come; he actually had to put some effort into his classes. He often falls back on “class clown” antics and criticism of others to draw attention away from the fact that he is struggling or that he doesn’t understand something. His classmates were enjoying his enthusiasm. I made it a point to tell him how wonderful I thought it was that he was so engaged. He told me he liked the book. I reminded him that he might often like something if he gave it a try and he agreed this one was worth the effort. Privately, I reminded him that he wouldn’t always love the content area in his classes or the books his professors ask him to read. But if he could remember how he felt on that day, he might be motivated to make the effort. It was one of the few times I felt he actually heard what I was saying to him instead of fighting back. It was great. He was great.

That day after school another student, Tony, came in to apologize to me for not reading the book. Things were going on, she said, and she fell behind and couldn’t quite get caught up. I thanked her for her candor and reminded her I was here to help – we all were – and encouraged her to stay focused and caught up during this last, and often most challenging, quarter. She wanted me to know she wasn’t a cheater and that’s why she didn’t even attempt her test. And then she said. “I saw how much John enjoyed the class discussion. I watched how excited he was to participate and know what he was talking about. I wanted what he had.”

And that’s why I do what I do.