Today I celebrate the kid who won’t. You know the kid I mean. He (in my classroom, it was almost always a he) slouches in the back row, makes wisecracks that you just miss being able to hear even though everyone else in the room hears, falls asleep just when you pass out the assignment. When the F list is published at the end of the week, his name features prominently. Sometimes it seems like he disrupts every class he’s in, all day long. And he’s never absent—except when he’s suspended.
When I think about the kids who won’t, I see Mike—or rather, I hear Mike, loud and belligerent, telling me that my innocuous getting-to-know-you-on-the-first-day-of-school survey is filled with questions that are none of your damned business. I see Lee staring me down with hard eyes as he crumples up the note of appreciation I’ve left on his desk. He doesn’t so much as glance at it before it becomes trash. He rises from his desk in one fluid motion and saunters to the trashcan where he drops the ball of paper, his eyes never leaving mine. I marvel that he can make his way through the maze of desks to the front of the room without ever looking where he’s going.
Yep, I see you. I hear you.
I love the kids who won’t. Yes, they can be frustrating. Yes, they give me headaches. Yes, they have made me cry.
But it’s the kids who won’t who taught me everything I know about good teaching. It’s the kids who won’t who changed my life, who changed me.
The kids who won’t don’t have the time or energy or inclination to play school. They see right through much of what we call learning and know it for what it is—an exercise in control, compliance. Our control. Their compliance.
In Rita Pearson’s marvelous TED Talk, she says that kids won’t learn from people they don’t like. I would add that they also won’t learn from people who don’t like them.
When my pre-service teachers ask me what to do with the kid who won’t, I tell them that getting started is simple. Find a way to like him and then keep on.
They look skeptical. It can’t be that easy. The solution to the problem of the disruptive, defiant kid can’t be so… fluffy.
But the solution begins in just that heartbreakingly simple of a way. Like him.
That is the first lesson the kids who won’t taught me. Everyone needs to feel seen, heard, valued before they can be their best selves.
The second lesson was about meaningful work. The kids who won’t weren’t interested in my worksheets, vocabulary posters, comprehension questions, the grades I could offer in exchange for compliance. They weren’t interested in my “Language Arts and Crafts,” that sequence of response options that we kid ourselves is somehow meaningful choice (“Make a CD of music this character might have listened to!”; “Dress up like a character in the story!”; “Write an alternative ending!”; “Act out a scene from the book!”)
What they were interested in was an invitation to do work that enabled them to reflect upon and make meaning from their own lives and experiences. I couldn’t understand why the kids who won’t didn’t become readers and writers in my classroom that first year. But the answer was simple: I wasn’t treating them like readers and writers. The work I assigned wasn’t authentic, and they knew it.
The kids who won’t demand that we look closely at ourselves—at who we are in the classroom and who we are in relation to other people.
The kids who won’t demand that we look closely at our curriculum, our pedagogy—at what and how we teach.
We have a cherished myth about the kids who won’t: they’re lazy, they’re unmotivated, they don’t want to learn. I have found the opposite to be true. The kids who won’t want desperately for school to be a place of meaningful learning—and that’s where the problems start. School is all too often a place of busy work and arbitrary rules rather than learning. The kids who won’t invite us—loudly, insistently—to begin to see the difference.
And so today, I celebrate the kids who won’t. You are the ones I still think about, years after I left the classroom. You are the ones I try to honor in my work with pre-service teachers. You are the brave ones who invite your teachers every day to grow and be better. May they recognize the value of your invitation and accept your challenge.