Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I was helping an eighth grade student today as he was preparing for a test over a selection the class had been reading.  It was one of my favorite pieces in the literature books we use, one I had taught many time in my previous position as an eighth grade Language Arts teacher.

The selection was a condensed version of Flowers for Algernon  by Daniel Keye.  The students read journal entries of Charlie Gordon, who has experimental brain surgery that changes him from a developmentally disabled young man to a genius.  The surgery works for a time, but eventually he regresses back to the low cognitive state he began with.  Even very low performing students recognize the changes in Charlie’s writing abilities and his observations and understanding of those around him.  The selection generates great discussions about work ethic and motivation which students of all abilities can understand. 

            When teachers really enjoy a particular selection, they display a passion for the work that is not always immediately embraced by their students.  It is not easy to maintain a patient, enthusiastic demeanor when the kids moan and groan in the face of your enchantment.   On one particular day when I was teaching this selection, I kept pushing the phrase “pearls before swine” from my head as I was introducing the new reading passage.  I loved Flowers for Algernon.  I was pretty sure my students would love it after they got into it.  But it was hard getting them started.

            “What’s an Algernon?” Josh asked, mispronouncing the name with a hard “g” sound.

            “Is this about gardening?” David chimed in.  “I don’t like girly books.”

            Michael just slumped in the back, looking like he was having stomach cramps.

            “There’s a weird picture on page 297,” Jacob offered.  By now two of the girls were giggling.  It’s important for eighth grade girls to let the guys know how cool they think they are.  Giggling accomplishes this quite effectively.

            “Algernon,” I began, appropriately modeling the correct pronunciation of Algernon with a soft “g,” “Is the name of a laboratory mouse in the story.”

            “So it’s about Science?” Josh whined.  “Shouldn’t we be reading this in Science class?”

            “Mrs. Olsen would really love making us bring our lit book to Science,” David offered.  The kids were on notice about forgetting their textbooks in classes.  The teachers had implemented a three strikes rule for offenders.  I was pretty sure David had two strikes already.

            “No, this is not something you would read in Science,” I corrected.  “The setting involves a laboratory where a lot of the action takes place.”  “Setting” was on the state reading test, and I mentally congratulated myself for seamlessly fitting it into the conversation. 

“If you had the opportunity to become a genius,” I continued, “What would you like to accomplish?”  This was the standard “set the stage” question for this selection.

            “I’d get all A’s in my classes without doing any work,” Josh immediately offered.  I found Josh’s comment interesting.  Josh was probably the brightest student I had ever worked with.  He was also one of the laziest.  The first week of school he asked me if the district made a distinction between an A+, A, or A- when calculating the GPA for middle school.  I knew the school used a “4” for everything from 89.5 to 100, so I had told him no, there was no difference between a high and low “A” when calculating student GPA’s in middle school.   It was uncanny how he sat at a comfortable B most of the quarter and managed to move it to a “barely made it” A at the last minute.  Becoming a genius wouldn’t change Josh one bit.

            “I’d get A’s and sell my answers to the other kids and get rich,” Cory declared.

            “Way to go Cory.”

            “We’re with you man.”

            “I’d buy,” several kids called out.

            These were pretty typical eighth grade responses.  Every year I hoped for one student who’d take the moral high ground and declare he wanted to cure cancer or AIDS, or solve world hunger.  No saints this year.  But I did enjoy playing devil’s advocate.

            “Couldn’t you do those things without being a genius?” I asked.  “Most any of you can get A’s with hard work.” I couldn’t always say that about every class, but it was true for this particular group of kids.

            “We don’t want to work,” Josh insisted.  “What’s the point of being a genius if you have to work?”

            Pretty shallow pool this year, I thought.  “Well, maybe this selection will help you re-think your ideas of being a genius,” I offered.  “The main character learns some things he had no idea were out there.  Maybe having all the brains in the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I continued.  I was met with the “nooooo’s” and “brains are best” reaction I suspected would come.  But it was always fun to watch their thinking change as they read.

            I always read the first several “progris riports” in the selection out loud.  The story begins with Charlie Gordon having an IQ of 68.  His spelling is horrible and the punctuation is non-existent.  It’s very difficult for many kids to read.  I’m pretty good at “decoding” this kind of writing because – well, I do it for a living. 

The kids enjoy seeing the poor writing.  It makes them feel smart.  It’s like seeing something you wrote in second grade and realizing how much you’ve improved.  For some reason, however, I wasn’t getting the same responses this year.  I don’t know whether it was the advent of texting, the dynamics of this particular group, or how the stars were aligning.  I just wasn’t getting the chuckles to the very primitive writing in the beginning passages that I usually got.

            ???, the goofy part of my brain thought, Does anyone here see anything wrong with this?

            “What do you think of what Charlie has written so far?” I asked after the first two progress reports.

            “The dude can’t write,” Jacob said.

            Finally, I thought.  And it was so good coming from Jacob.   I knew Jacob struggled academically, but he was also the cutest guy in the class and the girls flocked to him.  Eighth grade girls haven’t quite focused in on high academic skills yet.  It’s all about how hot the guy is.  I suspected Jacob just might be able to get girls to do most of his homework through high school.

 The third progress report described several cognitive tests that were given to Charlie Gordon to establish a baseline.  One of the tests referred to was the Rorschach test.  I pulled up some inkblot examples I have gotten off the internet, put them on the overhead, and explained to the kids that different people saw different things in the designs.  This had never failed to pull in even the most disinterested student. 

            “This is something like Charlie Gordon might have been shown.  What does this inkblot look like to you?” I asked.  Past classes had described this particular inkblot as looking like everything from a weird butterfly to two dogs looking away from each other.

            “It looks like someone spilled ink,” moaned Michael.

            “What does it remind you of?” I probed.  “Think of it like looking for pictures in the clouds.”
            “It reminds me of a pen breaking and spilling ink,” Michael deadpanned.

            “How about this one?” I continued, putting up another picture.  Kids usually said this one looked like the monster from the movie Alien.

            “How does this test measure intelligence?” Josh asked.

            Good question, I thought.  “I’m not sure,” I said.  “Maybe it’s looking at your ability to imagine things.”  I had a vague memory of criminals seeing weird things in the pictures, but I wasn’t going there.  “I’ll continue reading,” I announced.  Things just weren’t picking up like they usually did.  Maybe we just needed to get more into the story.

            I read the next two progress reports and tried a different tack.  In the fourth report Charlie is writing down things he heard the doctors saying about him, but he didn’t understand most of what they said.  Many of the words were only partially written down.

            “OK guys,” I said, “See if you can figure out some of the words Charlie wasn’t able to get written down completely.  Dr. Nemur said Charlie was not what they had in mind as the first of their new breed of ‘intelek’.  What do you think he meant with ‘intelek’?”  I was waiting for someone to say “intellectual.”

            Sleepy, bored faces looked back at me.

            “Intelek guys!” I insisted.  “What word were they saying when Charlie wrote down ‘intelek’?”

            Now they weren’t even looking back at me.  Several were looking at the edge of their desk or at the clock.

            “Intellectual,” I belted out.  “Charlie Gordon was going to be the first in their new breed of intellectuals.”  I was beginning to lose patience with the lack of responses I was getting.  This was a great story and the kids didn’t seem to be giving it a chance.

            “How about the next sentences,” I continued.  “Most people of his low ment are host and uncoop they are usually dull apath and hard to reach.”

            No responses again.

            “Low ment.  What do you think low ment means?”  I wasn’t letting them off.

            Again, no responses.

            I abandoned even trying anymore.  “Low ment means low mentality.  Most people of his low mentality are hostile and uncooperative.  They are usually dull apathetic and hard to reach.  That’s what Charlie heard but couldn’t get written down.”

            I had raised my voice and delivered the last several sentences in a loud staccato.  Most of the kids had stopped gazing around and were at least looking back at me now.  “What do you think about that statement,” I asked.  “Is that a fair description of people with low mentality?  Do you think they are hostile, uncooperative, apathetic, or hard to reach?”

            The kids could tell I was losing patience and I saw a few furtive glances at the clock.  There would be no help there.  We still had 20 minutes of class left. 

            After a long, long pause, David asked, “What does apathetic mean?”

            “Why don’t you look it up in the dictionary,” I snapped back.  Why does this all have to be so hard? I thought.

            Now everyone had something else to do besides listen to me, so they all watched David get up and lumber over to the shelf where the dictionaries were kept.

            “How is it spelled?” he inquired.

            “A-pa-the-tic,” I replied exaggerating the syllables.  “It’s spelled just like it sounds.”

            David hunched over the dictionary mouthing “a-pa-the-tic” as he flipped through the pages.  He found it and began reading silently.

            “Read it out loud,” I instructed.

            “Apathetic,” David began.  “Having or showing little or no feeling or emotion.  Having little or no interest or concern.”   David finished and looked up at me, his lower jaw slack.  I stared back at him.  He stared dully back at me.  I held my stare back at him.  David dropped his head back down at the dictionary and read the definition again to himself.  Suddenly his head snapped up. 

            “Apathetic!” he suddenly announced.  “That’s us!  We’re apathetic!”  David closed the dictionary, replaced it on the shelf, and walked back to his desk, continuing to mouth “Apathetic.  We’re apathetic.”

            OK, I thought.  Maybe I didn’t get them thinking along the lines I usually took students down, but I had a sneaky suspicion David would never forget what “apathetic” meant for the rest of his life.

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