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Roger Barbee: Back to school we go

By Roger Barbee

For the past few years, I have been a substitute teacher in the Shenandoah County Schools and supervised the Apex program at Central High School. All of this was fine, but now I have a class of 14 ninth graders who are taking part in a new reading program. This year is different from my past experiences because I teach the same group of students each day, in the same classroom, at the same time. It is "my class."

Often, when I tell someone what I am doing, he or she will make a comment such as, "Wow, I don't see how you can teach to today's kids." I italicize those words because the speaker utters it in such a way as if to suggest that, in some way, youngsters today are worse than in any time in history. That sentiment is not my experience.

Each morning at about 8 a.m., my weekday begins with a few of my students coming into the classroom to put a book bag on a desk. Each student always greets me with some pronouncement of some type, such as, "I'm tired," "Good morning," or "It's already a rough day, Mr. Barbee."

Before the second bell, each student is in his or her desk waiting for the Pledge of Allegiance, the moment of silence, and the morning announcements. A few will eat "breakfast" while announcements are made. All will have his or her work folder on his or her desk, ready for the day's work.

Each class revolves around a warm-up activity of some type of writing and then sharing of what was written, vocabulary work on at least two words from the week's vocabulary list, some silent reading of a chosen and approved book, and what is referred to as "shared reading" where the students follow along as I read from a novel. As we read, we will discuss unknown words and identify them or debate what is going on in the narrative. The 90-minute class zips by because the students are diligent, inquisitive, fun, and interested. All of these qualities make the class a joy for me.

I wish I could describe each for you, but that would not be wise. Yet, let me assure you that the group is full of 14-year-old characters who are as good as any adult could want. They are slowly coming out of their shells and question me on occasion, which is what a thinking student does.

This week one boy gently corrected me when I gave the wrong date, and another intelligently questioned my pronouncement of a particular vocabulary word. They offer help to each other without doing the work for a classmate. They are polite to each other, the teacher whose room we are using, and to me. When they are dismissed after 90 minutes of work, they tell me and the other teacher, if she is present, "Bye," or "See you tomorrow."

I understand that if a reader went to any of the three Shenandoah County High Schools, he or she might see a student or small number of students acting out in some manner. Of the roughly 800 students at Central High School, two dozen may be acting out in some fashion at any given time, and those need to be dealt with and are. However, the reverse view of this is that 775 are doing exactly what needs to be done at any given time.

The small class that I teach is, I think, a segment of our larger student population. They come in each morning ready to do what I ask and willing to give a good effort. They are interested in what we are doing, eager to learn and to have a bit of fun. Are they perfect? No, but neither am I. We are even.

The next time you are tempted to pass judgment on some youngster, think back (honestly) to your years of being young and uninformed. Be a bit gracious to youngsters. If your youth was one of perfection, then forgive the transgressions you see and help that kid be better.

Max Steele, in his fine short story, "The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers," gives us an example of a fine teacher, Miss Effie. She teaches her young charges how to read at an early age, properly sweep a room, clean its windows, and other fine arts of good living by being firm and honest. We all should be like Miss Effie.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.


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