Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Teacher Fails

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) Working Sketch of the Mastodon

Sam was a skateboard aficionado in my seventh grade literature class.  He wore his blue uniform shorts without a belt, and did not ditch his blue Vans even when they had holes and had seen better days.  Sandy brown hair and blue eyes capped him off.  He was the stereotypical San Fernando Valley teenager, but he was not apathetic nor a daydreamer.  He had a brain and was not afraid to use it.

During class, Sam kept his head down, drawing furiously in a notebook.  From my position in the room, he sat front and center.  I could see figures, cartoons, speech bubbles, and ray guns.  Meanwhile, I took the class through Night and Tom Sawyer and a host of other novels.

When I called on him, Sam always had a ready and correct answer.  His work was thoughtful and full of insights.  All the while, he kept drawing in his notebook.  When I thought he was lost in his art, I’d call on him again.  Same result:  a good answer.  When I asked him to read a passage aloud, he would push the notebook aside and do the job in a clear, articulate voice.  His tests were all Bs and As.

What was this kid doing?  Why wasn’t he taking notes?  And how was he pulling off the good work?

I let it go for a while because he was paying attention.  It was obvious in his work and in his answers when I called on him.  However, as a seventh grade English teacher, it was also incumbent upon me to make sure students knew how to take notes, and practiced the skill daily, so I was forced to take a closer look at what Sam was doing during every class period.

One day, as the  class filed out of the room, I asked Sam to stay.  He looked at me with curiosity.  I’d never made such a request of him before.

“Sam, I need to see your notes for English,” I said.  I thought I saw a hint of a blush, possibly of embarrassment as he unzipped his backpack and withdrew three large spiral notebooks.  “Just for English,” I said.

“These are my notes for English.”

“All three of those notebooks are for English?”

“Yeah.”  He opened the first one and handed it to me.  “This is from September.”

It was February.  “You keep your notes from September with you?” I asked, shocked.

“Oh yeah.  Just in case I want to add to them.”

Across the page sprawled the most amazing set of drawings and sketches and interconnected swirls and arrows and crisscrossing lines.  Speech bubbles floated above pictorial representations of characters filled with lines from the stories and novels we had read.  Every inch of every page was covered in minute detail.  Here before me was a graphic history of everything we had covered in class, including literary devices and vocabulary.  I had never seen anything like it.  I paged through the other notebooks and found the same remarkable sketches and drawings.  Many times, students take great notes at the start of semester but trail off into a disorganized mess as the days progress until nothing is coherent or legible.  Not Sam.  His drawings caught every nuance and stayed true to the end.

“I’m sorry my notes aren’t, you know, notes,” Sam offered.

“You are quite an artist,” I replied.

“It’s the way I understand things.  I have to see them.  Otherwise, I can’t remember.”

I closed the notebook, stacked it on top of the others and handed him the pile.  “Keep up the good work,” I said.

Sam smiled and bounded out of the room.  The next day, and every day thereafter, I let him draw as we marched through adolescent literature.

About a month later, I came to the faculty room during break and heard loud voices, the loudest of which belonged to a teacher named Reynolds.  Mr. Reynolds started teaching the year I entered kindergarten.  He was an institution, the longest serving teacher the school had known.  His tenure made him bold and outspoken, and he was really the only teacher who would challenge the administration.  I respected his longevity, but he was definitely old school in a moribund and staid tradition.  He could be exciting and dynamic in his delivery, but if a kid did not respond to lecture or the “sage on the stage” style of teaching, he or she was out of luck in Mr. Reynolds’ class.

“I’d had enough,” Reynolds said.  Several other teachers were gathered around him as he gesticulated.  “I told him that he needed to take notes and get the information down.”

I felt a sick tightening in my stomach.  “What happened, Mr. Reynolds?” I asked.

“That kid Sam is always drawing in my class and I was tired of it.  He wasn’t paying attention and he wasn’t taking notes.  So I grabbed his art book and tore it up.”  The triumph was clear in his voice.  “Now his mommy is up there bitching to the administration.”

“He was taking notes,” I said.  It was difficult to control my voice.  “He takes notes by drawing.”

“What?!  He’s messing around.  You believed that?”

“I saw it with my own eyes.  I asked to see his notes when I saw him drawing in class.  He draws diagrams, cartoons, story panels, and visual representations of concepts and vocabulary.  He covers the whole range, and he does it in pictures.  That’s how he learns.  He is what is known as a visual learner.”

“Yeah, yeah.  He’s got you snowed.”

“You tore up his notebook.”

“Yeah, and if I see another one tomorrow, I’ll do it again.”

“You destroyed his notes going back months.  I don’t know if he can reproduce all that work.”

“I don’t care.”  Reynolds grabbed his chipped mug of coffee and marched out of the faculty room.  We were left with an uncomfortable silence.

The next day, Sam approached my desk after class.  “Did you hear what happened?” he asked.

“I did, Sam, and I’m sorry.  Some teachers aren’t used to students doing things different.”

He looked at me with his clear blue eyes.  “How is what I do different?  It is the way I learn.”

“It is unconventional, outside the box.”  He hung his head.  “What are you going to do?”

“My parents say I only have one more year, so they don’t want to pull me out of here, but I don’t want to be in his class anymore.”

“Look, Sam, you need to learn the way that’s best for you.  Maybe in Mr. Reynolds’ class you can take notes the way he wants and convert them to pictures when you get home.”

“It doesn’t work that way.  I do it best as I’m hearing it in class.”

“Sometimes we must do things we don’t want to do, but to survive, that’s the way it goes.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “All that work destroyed.  I had some good notes there, even though I don’t like his class.”

I had an idea.  “Can you show me your notes for my class again?”  His eyes lit up and he pulled his notebooks from his backpack.

“Where do you want to start?”

“Start from the beginning.”

“Okay, when we were reading Tom Sawyer, I was trying to imagine what Injun Joe looked like, because he would have to be really scary for Tom to be so afraid of him…”

Sam took me through his notes on Twain’s novel, and periodically for the remainder of the year, I’d have him show the class how to take visual notes on the overhead projector.  In Mr. Reynolds’ class, he kept a tidy notebook of words and sentences copied directly from the horse’s mouth, or possibly from the other end of the animal.  In Sam’s mind, it was all the same.


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