Monday, March 11, 2013

Battling The Middle School Fog of War

Jihad would not stop farting. For ten consecutive minutes at the start of Mrs. Stewart’s 6th grade language arts class, Jihad unleashed a torrent of gas that left the students around him gasping and laughing. Natasha O'Byrne discreetly walked to the back of the room where Jihad sat. “Dude, you need to go to the bathroom.” He erupted with laughter, flashing a sly, knowing smile. Natasha wondered what she’d bargained for. “This age group just might not be for me,” she thought. 

Her job seemed simple enough. One-on-one reading with six students a day over two class periods. One little problem. They don’t want to read and aren’t shy to show it. 

Thrown books. Evolved excuses. Constant bathroom breaks. Stomped feet. Paper tossed about. Broken pens hurled at each other’s heads. Rampant insubordination. On average, two kids a class are thrown out and awarded detention. 

“I couldn’t believe these were 11-year-olds, this was some high school type of behavior from little ones,” Natasha said. “I was afraid this job is just being a babysitter. The kids need more attention from everyone in their lives.” 

She’d come to Seattle Middle School Academy needing 40 hours of in-classroom observation in order to apply for education graduate school. The requirement for the University of Washington, her preference, required the observation take place at a high-needs school. A high-needs school is defined as 40% of enrolled students participate in the free or reduced lunch program. Nestled in the Rainer Valley of South Seattle, Aki Kurose fit the bill. 

No problem, Natasha thought. She’d volunteered with kids before in Chicago, reading at a homeless shelter. She was prepared. 

Oh boy. 

Tatiana slammed her book down on the bench and refused to acknowledge Natasha’s presence. Zhenaya’s gaze drifted off into space, never glancing at her helper. Jermaine screamed at every kid that wandered down the hall. “They shined me on completely like I wasn’t there.” One-on-one sessions morphed into one-on-zero sessions. 

Then there was Nagassa. He’d throw things, picked fights with other students, yelled at Mrs. Stewart throughout class. He was kicked out repeatedly. The school threatened to remove him from the class. “I was scared to work with him,” Natasha said. 

When they finally had their session, Natasha was stunned. Nagassa was a voracious reader. The pages turned like hummingbird’s wings. Getting him out of the classroom environment and showered with personal attention was the key. “Sometimes the most disruptive kids need the most attention,” she said. 

She settled in. The kids warmed up.  

“Some of the tougher kids have asked to work with me, like Tatiana, and that felt really good. You can’t reach all the kids. But 90% of it I loved,” she said. 

This is her last week at the school. Helping the class make a video pitch for the “Change My School” contest – a $1000 prize - is her final project. If they win, Mrs. Stewart promises the class a fleet of Kindles. “Some of the kids get embarrassed by their reading level. They might read more if the other kids can’t see what level book they have. It’ll help a lot,” Natasha said. 

“Oh my god, I’m getting attached, aren’t I?” 

Even with the farts.  

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