When Kids Read Because They Have Compelling Reason

Thinking about changing the course of my life as a remedial reading teacher in a Federal program, I took a six-months leave of absence. Three months into this leave, I received a panic call from the Federal administrator. Because of illness, the teacher in a Federal primary grade program in a Catholic school had to abandon his job. The administrator begged me to take the job for the rest of the year. I’d discovered that the life of leisure wasn’t for me, and I agreed–even though I knew the school was embedded in DISTAR.

I won’t go into a diatribe about what they call direct instruction except to say I could have been crowned Indirect Queen of Scholastic Endeavor. Because the teacher I was replacing had been ill, his schedule was very light, so I made a deal with the nuns. Let the kids double their contact time with me. I’d do my duties as DISTAR coach in one session and then show them what real reading was in the second. The nuns didn’t even blink when the first grader got involved using saws, hammers, and nails to build boats, and to write stories about those boats

The nuns actually invited me back for the next year, but our district had just built a new wing on a traditional school located in a working class neighborhood, claiming that it would house an innovative program. The head of this promised innovation was a 25-year 7th grade history teacher. Discovering that he was a real reader convinced me we could work together, and I applied for a job. He agreed that I should change my title from “reading teacher” to “resource teacher,” aligning myself with the schools media center, into which he was pumping a ton of money. I was able to order tons of materials from Elementary Science Study. I ordered all the ESS manuals, and the wonderful thing about them is that they contained no directions. They were filled with ideas, leaving it to teachers to figure out what to do with those ideas. They were the best teacher manuals I ever encountered. Then McGraw-Hill bought them out and ruined the manuals with directions.

Our rules were simple. Choose a research topic. Write up each experiment, and do at least three experiments before changing topics. Students read index cards containing typed instructions for completing each experiment. Often a card would include directions to go to a specific part in a book. Topics included Bridge, Bones, Sound, Optical Illusions, Sink or Swim, Water Drops, Color Chemistry, and more.

Experiments on all these topics were conducted simultaneously, to say the room was busy is to understate the case.

The “reward” for writing up observations of eight Physics of Sound experiments was being able to make a musical instrument out of a Clorox bottle, lumber, fish line, eye screws, garden hose, funnel, and whatever other “good junk” a kid could find on the shelves. The district music coordinator who spent his time at the main office heard about all this, came to look, and promptly gave me a budget at the local lumber yard because everybody wanted to make a guitar.

Structures was another popular unit. Kids had contests to determine who could built the strongest clay bridge, the highest tower of straws. To do this, they did research in the media center, watching films about bridges, reading books, looking at photographs. One of our most popular “events” was a film showing the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge because of wind resonance. A fifth grader who had been working on Sound Experiments watched the bridge collapse and said, “Isn’t that like the rice experiment?”

I still get chills when I remember this awesome moment. Jeannie had taken a Quaker Oats carton, cut a hole in the side, stretched tissue paper tightly over the top, and put rice on the paper. Then she observed that when some kids shouted into the hole, the rice jumped, but not when some others shouted. The experiment card provided some technical information about the the frequency in some children’s voices matching the natural frequency at which the air in the box “liked” to vibrate, the matching frequencies producing resonance and causing the rice to jump.

Jeannie must have had 53 kids shout in her Quaker carton, before she wrote up the experiment. Everybody began wondering whose voice would make jumping rice and whose wouldn’t. THEN Jeannie was prepared to make the intellectual leap to associate the convoluting bridge with the jumping rice. It was a crystal moment that every teacher dreams of experiencing.

A sidelight of this story is that the PTA, hearing so much about the bridge film, asked me to show it at one of their meetings.

The room operated without schedules or passes. Other than the relatively small number of kids who were on the Federal list for reading deficiency and mandated to come, I soon discovered that teachers sent both their brightest and their most troubled. And all the kids enjoyed making cottage cheese. Bruce arrived at 2:30 every afternoon to do chemistry experiments. Sometimes he had trouble reading the cards, but he always found another kid to help him. He was so careful about writing up his results that other kids began to rely on him to do their writing. Finally, I asked him his classroom teacher’s name so I could write her a note, commending his work. I was astonished to learn he was in special class. In those days and particularly in that school, special class had a heavy stigma. Those kids, because of retardation and/or emotional problems caused havoc and THEY ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BOTHER OTHER KIDS OR TEACHERS.

So what was Bruce doing in my room? He’d heard other kids talking about it at after early release at 2:30, he sneaked back into the building and came for color chemistry. I made an appointment with the Special Classes administrator, saying if an experienced teacher couldn’t pick him out as retarded or emotional, then he should be given a chance at regular education. He was given the chance and it wasn’t easy. When a kid is treated as ignorant for five years, it takes a while to convince him he can succeed in school. Bruce’s mother was so grateful and so supportive that she became a volunteer aide in my classroom.

Bruce and I had one strong characteristic in common. Following Abbie Hoffman’s injunction, “The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it,” Bruce and I were revolutionaries.