My Reading Crusade, Part 6

Upon my return from Gainesville, Florida, I began teaching world history and American history at Southeastern High School.

I was blessed to have a very kind and understanding department head, Mr. Bill Mercer. He brought me a box containing 8 world history textbooks, not all of them the same title, as the only textbooks he had available for me to use with my 5 classes of 35 students.

I asked Mr. Mercer if I could use my own materials to teach my classes. He encouraged me to do whatever I could do to help the students.

I tried several things. I used daily proverbs and quotations. I posted an outline of world history on the blackboard. I typed up history-related reading selections arranged in topical units. I put the pages in sheet protectors and put the sheet protectors in covers with a binding strip that held them together. I typed up a reading motivation unit.

It was at this time that I began typing up my programmed instruction units to help my students improve their reading comprehension skills. Now, instead of using the little steel boxes and 3 by 5 file cards, the program was typed up on normal loose-leaf-sized sheets and placed in sheet protectors and translucent covers.

The students in my own classroom generally responded well to my teaching. It was students that I did not know who constantly harassed me, calling me by a name that surely was not mine.

One day, two students who had tried to cut in front of me in the lunch line, who I politely invited to take their place behind me, came to my classroom after lunch hour and attempted to gain entrance to my first-floor ninth-grade classroom. They stormed the door repeatedly, trying to kick it in. Finally, one of my students at the back of the room unfortunately unlocked the door for them.

The two students entered my room, ordered my class out of their seats, and told my class to line up against the walls of the classroom. Then, the two students proceeded to hurl the student desks at me, striking me in the forehead. I left the classroom and went to the office to report the incident. I was taken to the hospital for treatment, with stitches for  the wound. I was off teaching for a month.

The Detroit Board of Education school attorney pressed charges against the two students. When I was in court, and confirmed my story about what happened, the judge was very supportive of me. He sent the two students to jail for a two-year sentence.

Not long after that, the principal of Southeastern High School spoke to me and said she never had a teacher like me who had so much trouble from the students. She  said she would like to speak to me in her office the following Tuesday. I said that I looked forward to any constructive suggestions she might have so that I could avoid any further problems from students that did not know me.

The meeting was cancelled and never re-scheduled. I believe the trouble was not with me, but with the inability of the school administration to maintain control over the students in the school. There were more students “hanging out in the halls” than were in their classes. It was those students who were causing the most trouble.

I was eventually given a classroom to use that did not open out onto the hallway. It was a kind of classroom within a classroom. It was a science demonstration room with tiered seats like a small theater.  I had to take off the gas jet handle to keep students from turning on the gas. This room worked out better, but I still had students who found out where I was and came into my classroom to give me trouble. Once, a girl in a very short skirt entered my room and sat up at a higher seat level, and proceeded to harass and berate me. She said that she bet that I had never had sex with a person of her race and worse things than that. I left the room to report her to the security guards on duty just down the hall at the school entrance. It took them some time to respond, and by then she had run out of the classroom and mixed in with the crowd. I filled out a report, and because she had once been in my class, I was able to look back at an old seating chart and so recall her name and counselor. To my knowledge, nothing was ever done by way of followup to my written disciplinary referral.

The athletic department discovered that I was able to help their top athletes improve their reading comprehension skills. I practically “shepherded” one student I recall, who ultimately secured a full athletic swimming scholarship to college. But one day he was missing from class. I checked with the coach, who said he could not tell me anything about what happened to the student, but I discerned from the probable nature of the case that this student, who had such great potential, was sidetracked as a result of some kind of moral issue. That motivated me to put more stress on my daily proverbs and quotations after that.

Some years passed, and I was given more eleventh-grade American history classes and fewer ninth-grade world history classes. Once again, I encountered the pattern that students were far behind grade level in their reading comprehension. I devised more reading selections of my own about American history. I also had the students work the units of my programmed instruction resource, now called The Language Enrichment Program.

Every year, the eleventh-graders were required to take the California Achievement Test. Some short while after the testing was done, Principal Isaac Wordlaw called me to his office. He showed me a page from his Principal’s Notes that indicated that Southeastern High School was the most improved secondary school of Detroit’s 22 high schools for reading comprehension. The Principal told me that they had traced the reading improvement to my American history classes.

The principal asked me to take the position of Reading Specialist at Southeastern High School. I’ll continue this story in the next installment.

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