Education Opinion

Paving the Way

By Donalyn Miller — April 26, 2010 2 min read
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“I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” ~Winston Churchill

I don’t think Davis knew who Winston Churchill was, but he was the living embodiment of Churchill’s words. With pouting lips and a permanent sneer, he strutted into my classroom and chose his own desk, ignoring my seating chart on the board. It was a bad sign that the other kids knew him and didn’t seem happy that he was in the class. That first day, Davis pulled over an entire bookcase in my room, because he held onto it while pitched back on two legs of his chair. For weeks I battled with him about everything, how mean he was to other kids, how disrespectful he was to me, how little work he turned in.

Through books, we called a truce. I would slip books onto his desk almost daily--books he read under his desk while ignoring the rest of my instruction. When he needed more books, he asked me for them. I was surprised to learn from his mother that Davis hadn’t enjoyed reading before--he seemed hungry for books. I recognized that Davis was brilliant, and found school so boring that his behavior was often his only way to show his frustration with the endless days he spent not learning anything new. By reading, Davis continued to learn on his own terms.

We still met in the hallway at least once a week to discuss his attitude. That was our entire relationship--hallway discussions and silent book exchanges. Disruptive in class, I moved Davis to the back of the classroom. I still remember the day I discovered he was spelling out messages to me with the poetry magnets on my file cabinet. By spring, he participated in class on occasion and I got fewer complaints from the other kids. There was no miraculous change of heart, mind you--he still made me work for it. We had as many bad days as good ones all the way to the end. The last day of school, he hugged me--it shocked me--I thought he hated me. Thinking about it later, I realized that I would miss him, too. Davis was a tough kid to love, but I loved him all the same.

“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” ~Willa Cather

Davis trusted my book suggestions and knew that I understood and appreciated him well enough to recommend books he would enjoy. Our reader-to-reader relationship positively influenced our student-teacher relationship. Davis saw himself as an outsider, smarter than his peers or teachers, so I suggested books with characters who felt that way, too. Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters series, which features a team of brilliant, but misunderstood, teens with supernatural powers, was one of Davis’ favorites.

Books paved the way for Davis and me. This happens with a lot of my difficult students. When we struggle to communicate, books speak for us.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.