Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Little Blue Engine is Back!

luigi diamanti /

There are days when teaching feels so great. You are pumped, your kids are engaged, they get it, and everything moves like clockwork. Then there are days where you feel like you're in a boxing match. With little M, I'd been boxing just about every day for months. 

The problem was, she wouldn't do anything. It wasn't because she wasn't capable, it was just a choice. She would sit there for hours and do nothing. Maybe she'd write her name on her paper, and maybe even the date. But the rest of it? Blank. She'd play with her pencils, she'd play with her eraser, she'd use her pencil to draw on her eraser, she'd knock her cubes around and talk with her friends, use the bathroom for 10 minutes, stare at the ceiling...anything but work. 

So I tried everything I could think of, but nothing I said or did seemed to motivate her to do her assignments. I asked her if she needed help. I read and re-read and re-read her the directions. I gave her a personal copy of the book so she could look at the pictures to help her remember. I encouraged her. I cajoled her. And when none of that worked, I tried time-outs and recess periods spent doing the work she'd refused to do in class. And when that didn't work, I started giving her extra love and attention all day. Then I called her dad. Then I called the social worker. And yet, we boxed. Every. Day. 

One day, I'd asked the kids if they were a Smarty Pants (the Smarty Pants Dance is a big deal in our class...check it out on Youtube). While nearly every other student had their hand in the air, M not only refused to raise her hand, but she actually turned her back and crawled away from me when I asked the question. It finally dawned on me: low self-efficacy. My little girl didn't refuse to work because she didn't want to; it was because she actually thought she wasn't capable. Boy, did that change the game. 

Things had been getting better a little at a time, until yesterday. During our guided reading lesson, she got stuck on a word. It was a hard word, and she wasn't sure how to pronounce the second syllable. I reminded her of the sound the second letter made and told her it was similar to the one in her name. We tried saying the syllables and blending them. But by that time she was so frustrated that she gave up on the word and started to cry. 

I knew this was a crucial moment for us. I knew that if I let her give up now, she'd give up every time. So I sent the other kids to their reading stations and I told her to come around to my side of the table. I grabbed a copy of The Little Engine That Could. With my arm around her, we looked at the pictures and retold the story together, stressing the fact that the dolls, the toys and the little blue engine never gave up the fight. I told her, "You are that little blue engine. I won't let you give up on this book and this word because you are too smart to give up. I know that you can do it, but sometimes you don't know that you can do it. And I need you to know that because if you give up on everything, you won't learn anything. And learning is why we're here. Just like the little blue engine, you need to say 'Yes I can'. " So she did. We practiced saying "Yes, I can" over and over until the tears were gone. And then we went back to the hard book with the hard words, and she read the whole thing herself (except for a few that I helped her with). Then she grabbed a book called I Don't Like to Read by Nancy Carlson (one of my favorite September books) and decided to sit and read it to herself for a while, which I said was perfectly fine. 

When she was finished, she got up, handed me the book back, and said, "I'm going to go find a hard book and try to read it." 

I saved my happy dance for after she went to music class. 


  1. Thanks for commenting! It was a hard road with this one. Not too long ago I was walking my kids to the bus, and she was walking with her new class and maybe a sibling or cousin, and she pointed to me and said, "That's the teacher who taught me how to read." That was actually one of the happiest, proudest moments I've had all year.