It was my first semester of teaching at an alternative school. I had little reference to draw upon, having been hired directly out of University and having been trained for junior intermediate classes, but a job was a job, and I took this one at a secondary school for kids who could not attend regular schools for a variety of reasons. Many of which I was to discover as the year went on.
This day, I was excited to continue a reading lesson I had assigned as homework to my grade 11 College English students. I was blessed with a small class – one of the perks of alternative school, but even so, I had to divide the students into groups based on their progress. That morning, I was shocked to find that 75% of the class had not even started the reading they had been given over a week ago.
Once those few who had completed the reading were working on their questions on the computers, I asked the rest of the students to sit with me in a circle. My plan was to read with them, which would support and help identify any issues that might have prevented them from reading on their own.
I was puzzled to discover the students were hesitant to come to the chairs I was cheerfully arranging in a circle. I encouraged them, calling each by name, but still no one moved.
One of the students, typing at the computer, stilled his hands on the keys while he waited to see what would happen.
Instead of standing and waiting for them, I casually sat in one of the chairs, crossed my legs, and opened at the reading. My more confident student tossed her black hair out of her eyes and made her way over. She clicked her tongue piercing against her teeth, sat down and opened her book, exactly as I had expected her to do.
I knew some of my students were nervous. But their regular fidgeting and eye sliding reached new heights and soon the air was so thick with tension, my heart was starting to pound. I pretended to be absorbed by the pages in front of me, while an imaginary clocked ticked in my mind. I was very aware of the limited time the alternative schedule gave me to work with my students.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if they refused to sit down.
I put my finger on the page as if I were tracking words, pretending to be unaware and uninterested in their hesitation. I was making myself “small”. The silence was broken by the sounds of shuffling and squeaky sneakers on waxed floors. I didn’t let myself sigh with relief.
My student who never took his coat or backpack off, turned his chair around so that the back was facing the inside of the circle. He perched on the edge of the seat and dropped his gaze to his book. A blonde girl, who had just started that day, silently lifted her chair and moved it three feet out of the circle, and then took her seat. My boy who never spoke, had walked to the door, but then had turned and was standing there looking at the floor. Three more students sat down. Two turned their chairs and sat with their backs to the circle, and one sprawled out, all arms and legs to take up as much room as possible.
I raised my head and took a look at the abnormal seating arrangement in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to do. No one had talked about this scenario in my University classes. But one grey-haired professor had tossed out tips on a random basis, and it was this mishmash of advice, I drew upon.
I checked my assumptions and turned them positive. I released myself of the need to control. And I reminded myself of the purpose of my plan: to provide my students with access to the reading and to assess their skills.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter how or where they were seated. It didn’t matter if I could see their eyes or faces. And it didn’t matter that the circle wasn’t a perfect shape.
I smiled and thanked them for joining me. My student standing by the door was literally vibrating and a sheen of sweat was reflecting back the florescent light on his upper lip. I encouraged him to open his book.
His relief, as he realized I wouldn’t be forcing him into the circle, was evident as his shoulders dropped and the pinched white around his lips filled with colour.
I reminded myself that these were my kids for the entire semester. I had time.
“I will read, today,” I said, and then I softly drew my students’ imaginations into a story about courage and risk-taking in places far, far away from the classroom.