Sounds of Success

I know that it takes time to discover each child's river, but it can be done even when there are more than six in a room at once. Teachers need to put down lesson plans and pick up their ears, instead.
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Rae sings. She sings every morning in English class, before we begin. It is the ritual, and we have all come to depend on it, for assorted reasons, inspirations.

One day during the winter, Rae mentioned that she would be auditioning for the school talent show that afternoon. She hadn't yet sung in class. We wished her luck. The next day, we asked her how it went.

"I didn't do it," she said.

"What happened?" I asked.

"I got nervous."


"Yes, me."

I was really quite surprised, since Rae seems to be a confident and dramatic kid. She accessorizes her white and black school uniform with headbands, ribbons, necklaces and footwear -- all at once -- in a different color each day. Pink, orange, green, silver, one shade at a time. An eye, she has.

"Sing now," I told her.



She stood up in front of her five other classmates. We have a tiny class. The students made requests. She picked one, and after some pacing, some starts and stops, some giggles, she sang.

"Okay, here I go."

Rae sang beautifully, and passionately. We clapped, and she sang another. The next morning, the students asked her to perform again, before I could. This time, she sang a song that she wrote, a piece celebrating individuality, and affording little tolerance for those who don't appreciate it. Another morning, she sang about colors, what they represent, who they are. Soon, Rae came into class and didn't even sit down. Now, she walks straight to her spot in front of the desks. Sometimes, she brings her journal of lyrics. I always leave the door open, for lucky passers-by. There is a world beyond English class.

I think that you can teach English to kids' brains, but it is better to teach English to all of them. You can't ignore the parts that make them who they are, particularly at age 13, particularly when life at home is hard. You have to use the parts to teach the English, the Science, the Math, like little rivers, like little personal rivers into which you pour the information, without their ever knowing.

I know that it takes time to discover each child's river, but it can be done, I believe, even when there are more than six in a room at once. Teachers need to put down lesson plans and pick up their ears, instead. They shouldn't worry, they will get to the curriculum just fine, on an adjusted schedule, and the information might even stick a little better after they do.

Coming to this profession as an outsider, after 25 years of reporting, I couldn't imagine approaching a group of people any other way. I will ask anybody anything. And people tell me what they never thought they would. Teachers could be more like reporters. Everyone has a story. And the story is the key. It is how you reach people.

During statewide testing toward the end of the year, I monitored a class for 15 minutes so that the other teacher could turn in the completed exams. Rae happened to be in the room, along with 24 other kids. I asked her if she wanted to sing. Without hesitation, she stood up, and I introduced her to the group. After one song, another girl asked to join her for a duet. The class had just sat for nearly four hours of testing, but they were riveted.

A few weeks later, one of the Social Studies teachers assigned a project, asking the kids to research a career of their choice and determine an academic path to take to get there. Rae came to me to ask for help. Her topic: How To Become a Professional Singer.

Seventh graders in Texas take three standardized tests, including a Writing test, requiring the completion of an original essay and 48 sentence correction questions. Though I believe inappropriate attention is often devoted to the methods of taking these tests, rather than the learning of the material, the tests can be a helpful barometer for low-performing kids, I think. My 29 Limited English students were assigned to take my class for the express purpose of passing the standardized Writing test, having failed the Reading portion in previous years.

Rae was one of the 26 who passed, and one of six who earned a "3" out of a possible "4" on the essay. She assured me that she would audition for the talent show in the fall.

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