“I Fail! That’s What I Do!”

I have something like 110 sixth grade students. I have the ones whose habitual pose involves a soft snore and saliva pooling on the desk. The brilliant ones who won’t lift a finger to complete a homework assignment. The uncertain ones who have never succeeded in any class and have been passed on from one grade to the next simply because the system doesn’t know what else to do with them. I even have a kid so accustomed to failing that when I scored his participation rubric a ten out of ten, three days running, he slammed his pencil, point down, into the zero he had given himself and darkened it furiously, tracing its predictable curve until he broke through to the other side of the page.

When I squatted down, eye-level with him, and asked if he had a question, I could tell it took all his self control to choke back his rage. “I don’t understand this stuff!”

“What don’t you understand?”

“I don’t do stuff like this! This?? This is something my brother would do!”

“What would your brother do?”

“You want to give me a zero?? Give me a zero!!!”

“Well, I would like to give you a ten. You participated, you solved your differences with your partner, and you stayed in class the whole hour. I think that’s worth a ten.”

I finally got him to calm down enough to come talk to me in the hall, but once the door had closed on his peers, he started shaking and tears welled up in his eyes. He shook his paper at me. “I get D’s on stuff like this! That’s what I do! I fail!”

I fail. That’s what I do. 

This is the message I get, in one way or another, from too many students:

“Hey,” I write to one student on his daily self-evaluation. “Why so low? How’d you lose five points?” I leave my score section blank, because I didn’t notice any off-task behavior, but they are usually pretty honest with me.

“I was daydreaming the whole time,” he writes back. This kid is notoriously off-task in most classes, I’ve heard, but his writing is intense and thoughtful. I’m wondering when he found time to write it if he was really goofing off.

“Were you daydreaming or were you thinking?” I ask.

“I couldn’t figure out what to write until the bell went.”

“Thinking is never off-task behavior,” I write back. I change his five to a ten. He becomes a ten, every day.

The kid behind him, next row over:

I ask, “Can you tell me about this draft of your writing?”

“I dunno.”

“I can tell you what I know. I know from the way you wrote these few sentences that you are smart enough to write an entire paper. What else can you tell me about this trip?”

“I dunno.”

“Well. How ’bout you put your pencil down and just talk to me about it?”

We get nowhere. He really doesn’t remember anything about this trip, I can tell. I have no idea why he has stuck with this topic all week, but he insists on it. The draft was due today, and we both know he’s had plenty of time and warning, but something tells me that I don’t have the full story on what’s holding this kid back.

Finally, I put my hand over his tortured little paragraph, and I look him in the eye. “You have tried so hard on this paper. We both know that. What you might not know is that good writers do this all the time. They work and work and work on a project and it goes nowhere and eventually they have to face the fact that it’s a dead end. You can still write this paper if you want. But can we just talk about something else for a minute?”

He nods, with that sheepish, ear-to-ear, please-don’t-put-me-on-the-spot grin of his. But then we start talking, and he tells me he plays the trumpet and he likes video games and what he’d really like to do is go to Mexico to meet his great-grandmother and all his uncles.  He wonders if his grandmother would like the trumpet. Pretty soon I’m scrawling down notes on the back of his paper–what else might you do there? Who else will you meet? What are you going to bring back home?” And when we are done, we look down at that paper, and there’s enough material for pages of writing. I look up at him. “Can you bring me a full page by Monday?”

He begins to nod, but then he stops. He eyes his forlorn little paragraph uncertainly.  “It’s just that I’ve never written a whole page before.”

“Does that seem really overwhelming?”

He nods, and it suddenly makes sense. In my mind’s eye, I see all the single, forlorn, little paragraphs he has written over just the last week.

“So don’t write a whole page,” I say. I push the page full of notes across the desk. “Write one paragraph at a time.”

He’s smiling, and he assures me he can, but will he?

I don’t know.

Will the kid who has been writing furiously for five days, in tiny little print, page after page, ever let me see his work? Will he allow me to raise his grade above the single digits?

I don’t know even if it matters. They are writing. They are asking one another questions, and thinking.

They are writing introductory sentences like, “I was sitting on the side of the California freeway, with sweat dripping down my back.” and “It was one of those days where I felt like bacon.”  Funny, heartbreaking, and wonderfully ordinary things, but all of them so uniquely theirs–and they are so excited to share them. “Mrs. Lybbert! Read mine! Read mine!”  They write me notes at the end of the day, “Can we do another lesson like that one?” “I never thought about paragraphs before. I like learning this. I take it to mind.” “What mean sensory detail? Can us learns it?”

How can I not look forward to work every morning?


8 responses to ““I Fail! That’s What I Do!”

  • Mandy

    Love it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Viki Anderson

    Kimber, I am so glad someone is teaching kids to think and how to succeed! Our public school system is a disgrace, but it gives me hope to see someone like you getting through to these kids!

  • Flamingo Dancer

    How wonderful you are! Don’t you think being a little older when you become a teacher makes you a much better teacher? I think we care more, due to our life experience.

  • Ruth

    The first thing that pops into my mind after reading this is, “I hate you!” but you know I don’t – but tears well up in my eyes because I am so jealous – absolutely pea green with envy.

  • psphoenix

    Humm. Sounds like you like the intellectual stimulation better than being a Day Care provider. 🙂 Very happy for you, and the kids that get you as a teacher are very lucky indeed!

  • kimkiminy

    Bless you. Bless you for what you’re doing. In all of our lives (i hope), we remember one or two (at best) teachers who made a real impression. Who inspired us, if not in that year, if not even in that decade, but still made a mark on that student that never left, a mark that sprouted a seed of thirst for knowledge, or a thirst to create art and beauty.

  • Jane Payne

    Oh my goodness. You have a real gift as a writer, you can pull it out of others besides yourself.

    Want to be my writing teacher?

  • ginger

    you are awesome! you have a gift. I remember teaching and having those same moments over and over. I would get all the “rejects” as they filled my Theatre with kids that I loved. They were amazing and nobody but me saw it! I miss it so much. Maybe one day….

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