a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I {Heart} Basketball

 I love basketball.  But not for the reasons you might be thinking.  You see—I love basketball because it matters enough to my toughest learners to motivate them to change. 

I had three conversations today with three different students (from my invented intervention class of disengaged learners) that I never could have had a month ago.  Thank you, basketball!

All three of these students made the team.  And their coach, who teaches at the high school, communicates with us regularly.  Thank you, basketball coach.

All three of these students were part of a group of friends that the team of teachers I work with pulled out of class one day.  We met with them to address some teasing that had been going on amongst them.  Their attitudes are always, “We’re just joking around; it doesn’t bother us; we don’t care about being teased by each other; we always do this…”  You get the picture.  The purpose of the meeting was that we wanted to give them a fair warning to prevent them from getting in trouble.  We let them know the teasing is unacceptable to all of us and that we will be writing dean’s referrals, no matter how silly they sound, from now on. 

One student is teased about having big lips and gray tufts of hair.  Another is teased for having a big nose.  The third is teased about his crooked teeth.  The teasing is sometimes subtle: a sniffling of the nose or a fake sneeze and pointed glances accompanied by not-so-well-hidden giggles.  Other times, the teasing is more disruptive: a raised hand followed by, “Is it bad for young kids to have gray hair?” or, “Why do we even have noses?  Do we really need to smell if we could just visualize it?”

Today, in one class, these questions were actually asked.   By two of the students, targeting each other.  Needless to say, the referrals were issued.  Important to note is that tonight is the first basketball game. 

At lunch, one of the students came to me and said he needed to talk.  This is the same student I have been determined not to give up on.  Here is how his conversation went:

Student:  I am getting in trouble for something I didn’t do.  Did the other teacher tell you?

Me: Yes. 

Student:  I just had a question.  It wasn’t even directed at anyone.  I really wasn’t teasing.  I just had this question.  I really wanted to know.

Me:  Did the question have anything to do with what you were talking about in class?

Student: We were done with the lesson. 

Me:  I am really sorry, but in this case I just can’t see the situation from any point of view other than the teacher’s.

Student: But I am serious.  I really wasn’t trying to say anything bad. 

Me:  You have everything to lose here.  I understand why—to take care of yourself, to protect yourself—you would convince yourself that what you are saying is actually the way happened, that you really were just asking an innocent question.  However, I have to believe that somewhere deep inside of you, you know that is not really the truth.  I believe some part of you is willing to admit that you just forgot yourself; you slipped up.  If you had come in here saying, “I made a mistake.  I don’t know how to make it right, but I want to fix it.  I know I shouldn’t have said what I did.  I am trying to do better and make better choices,” then we would be having a whole different conversation.  But until you are ready to own what you did, there is nowhere to go.

Student: I made a mistake. 

While I still had to talk to this student about how part of owning up to his mistake is taking the consequence, I was astounded that he actually did own up.  I made sure he knew how mature and important a step that was.  He even apologized to the teacher whose class it happened in!

The second of the three conversations went almost identically to the first.  The student who had asked the other question asked to talk to me during class, after lunch.  He, too, started out in denial and ended up owning his choice.  Two in one day??  The surprises did not end there, though…

The third student is one who I vividly remember at the beginning of the school year standing in the center of my classroom saying, “I don’t trust nobody,” with the fiercest scowl on his face. 

Today, in response to a book talk about Paintings from the Cave by Gary Paulsen (in response to a book talk, can you believe it?), this student raised his hand to share that his great, great grandfather also had a rough childhood.  The student went on to explain the great, great grandfather’s story.  Our conversation went like this:

Student: As a child, his family came to the United States from Ireland (pause for a reaction).  None of his family would or could care for him, so he was left to take care of himself.  He found my great, great grandma and moved in with her (lowers his voice here, like he is sharing a secret), and she was African American.  I guess they decided they liked each other, so they got together. 

Me:  How do you know all of this?

Student: When my family gets together, they all tell stories, and they told me about my great, great, grandfather.

Me:  How cool that your family shares stories like that.  I always wanted to be part of a family that shared stories that way. 

Student:  They always tell stories.

Me:  That is really incredible that his history is part of you.

Student:  Why?

Me:  Well, you come from people who are survivors, who can take care of themselves.  Those are pretty strong roots to have within you.

From this point, the class was bursting with raised hands and family stories ready to be shared.  With Ruth’s story-telling post in mind from yesterday (Have you ever noticed that once you notice something, it is everywhere you look?), I pounced on the story-telling opportunity that had presented itself.  I asked who else could think of a family story to tell.  I described the idea of story-telling and said I hadn’t thought of family stories, but this student’s story inspired me.  I suggested maybe we each work on a story to tell and that maybe we could share them eventually with a class from the elementary school that is attached to our 6th-8th grade building.  The class erupted into urgent cries of, “Can we?  Can we?”

I think maybe that student is beginning to trust some people after all (but because I teach middle school, I know enough not to point that out to him). 

Can basketball season last until June?


  1. Christy--what an awesome day you had. To be able to reach each of these three is fabulous. I love the last snippet about your students wanting to tell their family stories. And you are right, once you notice something, it shows up all over your life. This is a great example.

    And, you really made me miss middle school!

  2. What a wonderful story you just told, although I'm not sure you can tell the students just yet. I believe that you are gaining the trust or the young man wouldn't have told you some of his story already. And for the other ones to listen to you and own up to their behavior is huge. I've been there with my students; it's a giant step in their lives. This idea of yours, a different kind of class, seems to be working. I'm pleased for you!

  3. I agree with the Slicers before me Christy. What a great hook to take on an important issue with kids, teasing! Reminds me of working with my 8th graders. I used Schindler's List and the Holocaust to help them get sensitive.
    It's an issue that too many people shy away from
    Bravo that you aren't shying away and a great story for it as well,

  4. Slowly you work to make a difference with these kids. You've had such a great day, hopefully there will be many more like this. I don't think it's just basketball that's changing the behaviors of your kids. It's a person who's willing to be there for them. Keep the faith!

  5. Well done! Middle school is so hard, but we need to guide them through it in a steady, loving way...as you did.

  6. This whole post reminded me so much of Dejon, and your card from my 8th grade graduation/confirmation. I've been thinking about him, and your class, and our friendship a lot - I noticed I've been befriending random Dejon-esque kids in my spanish class.
    Thank you for this.

  7. Bethany! So good to hear from you--and especially that you are still sharing all your goodness with people who can really benefit from your perspective. I missed you at the family night, but it is always good to see your parents (and Kelly).