Saturday, January 9, 2010


I got to know G. last April. when our school piloted a literacy intervention program for first and second graders. I told the second grade teacher that I needed three of her lowest readers for half an hour each day. G's name was the first one out of her mouth. "He cant' read at all," she said. "And he's very shy. It's really hard to know what he knows, because he doesn't talk. And he is really resistant to working with anyone. I don't even know if we will get him to go with you. " In the first few weeks that we worked together, all of those things were true. G scowled when I walked into the room each day and protested coming across the hall to our group. He read only the very simplest kindergarten level books. His writing was almost unreadable. He talked only when spoken to, and even then his voice was so, so, so quiet I often had trouble hearing him.

Eight weeks later, when school ended, G was starting to make a little progress. I had to take my sons to football conditioning three afternoons a week, so I asked his mom if I could continue working with him. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, I drove to his apartment, waded through the 15 or 20 students shouting my name and begging to ride in my car, knocked on G's apartment door, and took him to the tiny public library a few blocks east of his home.

I had anticipated that G and I would spend most of our time in the easy reader section of the library. There were lots of great easy reads- Dr. Seuss and crew, David Shannon, Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggy series, Jon Scieszka's Trucktown series, etc. G had other ideas, however, "Do they got any books about lowriders?" he asked that first day. We made our way to an area I came to call "Car Corner" and G paged through car book after car book after car book. He couldn't read most of the the words, but he picked out the important ones- Chevy Impalas, hydraulics, chrome, classics, and custom interiors. When we had exhausted our branch library's supply, we got on the computer and borrowed thirty lowrider books from other libraries. We read cars and talked cars and drew cars (OK, G drew cars and I mostly admired the cars he drew). G wrote his own lowrider book and illustrated the book with pencil and crayon sketches, supplemented with color photographs we printed off the internet.

Although cars, and specifically lowriders, were definitely his topic of choice, G also had other interests. He loved books about the Transformers, and drew on extensive background knowledge, probably gained from hours spent in front of the television, to read words like Optimus Prime and Decepticon. He loved pop up books and returned to them again and again, carefully examining how they were put together, and fussing if anyone had mistreated them. He liked reading about jaguars and sharks and snakes.

G grew and grew and grew over the summer. I wasn't sure, however, how much of his growth would translate to the classroom. Would he talk at all? Would he even try reading? Thankfully, he has an amazing third grade teacher. That very first day, Mrs. D made sure that the book tub on G's table was full of easy books about cars, and Transformers, and sharks. She made a special time, even in that craziness of learning names, meeting parents, and sorting school supplies, to pull G aside and read his Lowrider book. She seated G next to his best friend and encouraged them to work together and help each other. I continued to support G with a daily 30 minute intervention group. When it came time for our school-wide special interest classes, G and I taught a class on lowriders. We read his book to the kids the first day of class. He taught them how to draw lowriders. He was in charge of the display at our lowrider celebration in December. And somewhere along the way, his reading took off.

Shortly before Christmas, I began hearing rumors that the family was going to leave. G's stepfather didn't have the right papers and needed to return to Mexico. It would probably be permanent. When G was at school the day after winter break, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Yesterday, however, G told me that he and his family- his mom and stepdad and four younger siblings had their bus tickets and would be leaving for Mexico this weekend. I was heartbroken. I packed a bag of books, gave him a hug, and went back to my office and cried. I will miss that little guy.

Teaching G to read (or maybe it would be more accurate to say accompanying him as he taught himself to read), has brought me back to some of my most important truths, the ones that are so easy to forget in our test-crazy, measurement-crazy world. First, G reminded me that it's so, so, so important to take time to listen to kids, to learn about their passions and their interests and to use those as a doorway into literacy. Before I started working with him, I had little or no interest in learning about low riders. I would never have thought of using lowriders as a tool to teach a child to read. And yet lowriders are the topic that has brought G into reading and writing.

Second, G reminded me that we have to be willing to enter kids' worlds, not just ask them to enter ours. I have never been a teacher who bought books about Transformers or Hannah Montana or other pop culture icons. G reminded me, however, that learners start where they are, with what they know best. Fortunately or unfortunately, for most of the kids I teach, that is stuff from the world of television and pop culture. It's ok to have that be a starting place for their journey into literacy.…

Finally, G reminded me that teaching is always, always, always about believing in kids, caring about them, establishing relationships with them. These truthsseem so basic, and so stupid, but sometimes I get so wrapped up in finding mentor texts and figuring out minilessons and monitoring progress and assembling bodies of evidence that I forget to take time to notice new tennis shoes or hair cuts, inquire about sick grandparents, or acknowledge things kids are doing well. When I forget to do those things, kids forget to learn.

Never underestimate the power of a low rider…


Sarah Rettger said...

Oh, my. I would have ended up in tears too.

Karen said...

Carol, thank you for sharing this very moving post. Because I read it, I will continue to focus on the students in my room who need to be "low riders" as well.

Mary Lee said...

It's the tough ones that make it all worth while. We lost one over Christmas break, too. We don't miss all the energy he took, but we hate not knowing if the folks in his new school would work as hard as we did to make sure he found some success...