Charlie was the kid I watched for every day as I waited to welcome my students into the room. It was my third year teaching and I knew that I had to keep my eye on him. Not in the, “I’m expecting you to screw up” kind of way, but in the “I really wonder what’s going on in this kid’s life” kind of way. Charlie wore all black, combed his hair to cover his face, and never did more than grunt when I spoke to him. He didn’t interact with the others in the class, often choosing a silent corner whenever possible. The other kids didn’t pick on him, they just seemed to avoid him altogether. Charlie wanted to be invisible. Which is why I intentionally watched for him every day. It became our ritual; I would say “Hi Charlie, welcome to class!”, or “Did you have a good weekend?”, or “Charlie, did you get a haircut, it looks good?”, and every day, Charlie would respond with a grunt and a head nod. We were a work in progress.
The same year that I had Charlie was the same year that I read the book, Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents, and was introduced to the concept of multi-genre research (as well as some other really incredible ideas). I introduced the concept to my kids and let them choose any topic they wanted to research. Didn’t matter what it was as long as they were interested in it. I don’t remember them all, but the topics chosen included: Walt Disney, History of Jewish Culture, and even the Olsen Twins. Charlie chose D-Day. Students had to research their topic and then present their findings using three different genres. They would also be formally presenting their project to the class and the presentation had to have an interactive component (I was trying to avoid repeated presentations that made me want to drill my eyeballs out). We set to work.
Watching these students enthusiastically dive into research was a bit shocking at first. I had heard all the horror stories about how much they “hate research”, and “won’t do it unless forced”, but that was not what I was witnessing come to life. Big teaching lesson: the more autonomy and choice I gave them in their learning, the more they enjoyed making the learning happen. And they were learning. Charlie still only spoke in caveman style grunts, still chose hidden quiet corners over being among his peers, but he worked diligently every day on this project.
Finally, judgment day came…presentations. To my surprise, Charlie was one of the first to sign up. I stood at my door waiting for him to come to class, ready for our daily ritual, but things were very different that day. That day Charlie was not in all black, he was wearing military fatigues, his hair was combed out of his face and he was carrying a WWII helmet. When I said good-morning (with a ridiculously large grin on my face that could not hide my excited surprise) Charlie looked me in the eyes and said “good- morning” in return. I was giddy with excitement to see what he had in store for us. Charlie set up a huge 3D map he had created of the beaches of Normandy, he put on his helmet, turned silently to face the class and then yelled, “All right class, fall in!” If smartphones had been invented at the time and I could have caught a snapshot of the classes face at the moment, it would have gone viral. The complete look of shock was priceless, and I tell you what, he had our attention. For the next 15 minutes, Charlie took on the persona of a military leader, debriefed us on the journey we were about to embark upon on June 6, 1944, he shared words from Winston Churchill and Eisenhower with so much pride my heart split wide open, and he never lost the classes attention once. Charlie had just come to life before all our eyes. I think Charlie came to life before his own eyes that day. He finished and the class gave him a standing ovation, and I tried with all my might not to cry too hard.
I’d love to say that from that day on Charlie didn’t choose quiet corners off to himself all the time, but he still did. But he also stood a little taller, walked a little prouder, and our daily ritual included eye contact and real words instead of grunts and nods. I would say that’s progress.
Charlie taught me so much without even realizing it. He taught me to have faith in ALL my students, not just the ones that looked the part. He taught me that allowing space, time and support for students to have autonomy in the classroom, was the only way I would ever really reach them. He taught me that even the quietest, seemingly darkest students can come to life when given the chance. In the past 19 years, I had many more “Charlies” come through my door. I have been able to reach some of them and some slipped through the cracks. Another really hard teaching lesson: We will not reach every single one. However, just as Preston Morgan said, “I am enough of a realist to understand that I can’t reach every student. But, I am more of an optimist to get up every morning and try.”
Who’s your Charlie?
Krista Gypton taught for 19 years and has received numerous awards for her teaching and student community service, including the 2008 Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. She is an emphatic believer in the power of service to others and has traveled as far as South Africa with students to give back. She has been a keynote speaker and trainer for the past 11 years, both nationally and internationally.