We’re working on reading comprehension when my student Alex says that he likes chickens. It’s not completely out of the blue since I did just ask him to tell me what he wanted to read about, but it feels like the blue because it’s been extremely hard to get Alex to talk to me since I’ve known him, which has been about three weeks.
In the first week, I tried my best “would you rather” questions with him. Yes, I now know that he’d rather have three noses than one eye, but I couldn’t get a reason out of him. I also know that he’d prefer wings in place of arms to roller skates in place of feet because they’d be more practical. (Incidentally, every kid I asked this of said the same thing. I don’t understand it, but apparently kids today are frighteningly practical, and largely don’t care about flying.)
In the second week, I attempted to ask him about his interests, but my knowledge of Minecraft dried up pretty quickly. I did try, but he responded suspiciously, “How did you know I liked Minecraft?” He had, of course, told me during our first session.
My polite inquiry, “Oh, what kind of piano music do you play?” was met with an angry, “He just started!” from his mother off-screen.
So I’ve discarded any attempts to get to know him in the third week, and I’m trying to just focus on the social studies and science work at hand. But it’s difficult when he often doesn’t respond to simple questions like “What are you doing right now?” or even “Are you still there?” To compound the problem, he usually keeps his camera off. My husband has told me that it’s clear what student I’m tutoring when he hears me shouting “Alex? Are you there? Alex!” despairingly into the void.
This is why it’s so thrilling when Alex tells me that he likes chickens. “Live chickens,” he clarifies helpfully.
I laugh. “So you don’t want any chicken recipes then?” I say. “Got it.” I find a reading selection that mentions chickens in passing, but I’m not getting any indication of interest from him. “Do you have any chickens?” it occurs to me to ask. Lots of people in this town do, because there are a lot of hipsters, but I can’t see Alex’s businesslike mother raising them.
“Yes!” he answers. I don’t really believe him, but I’ll go with it. “I have 5000!” he continues.
I suddenly realize that this isn’t the time to demand accuracy or truth. This is the time to take dictation.
“We need to get this story down!” I say excitedly. This may not be a school assignment, but it is important. Quickly, I open up a new Google doc and share my screen with Alex. Amazingly, I hardly have to prod him at all. The kid who took ten minutes to answer the question about what was interesting about his week is suddenly on fire. With very little prompting, Alex dictates a fascinating story about 5000 chickens and 5000 cats and how he makes them battle. When I refer to his amazing fiction-writing skills, he corrects me and says that his story is true. I’m not going to argue. We’re both laughing a little and the words are flowing out of him. He even agrees to give it a title and, after I type his byline, I share the document with him.
There is actually research that supports the strategy of using dictation, especially for students with learning disabilities (in “Learning Disabled Students’ Composing Under Three Methods of Text Production: Handwriting, Word Processing, and Dictation,” MacArthur and Graham found that dictated stories “were significantly longer, were of higher quality, and had fewer grammatical errors than handwritten or word processed stories”). As a teacher, I’ve found that letting students dictate their ideas – even when they differ from the lesson at hand – can be an awesome way of getting to know the student AND getting them excited about telling a story. I saw a mischievous, creative side of Alex that I wouldn’t have had access to if I hadn’t been willing to go with his idea and I hadn’t been able to pull up a Google doc. The best part? I got an email from his teacher later in the week asking me to share the story with her – Alex had pasted a link to it in a chat with her. He hadn’t explained what it was, but he clearly wanted her to see it. For a kid who has trouble expressing himself in words, this is huge.
So maybe it’s okay that kids today want roller skates instead of wings. I feel differently, but I’m still totally there for them when they want to tell me about their chicken battles. I don’t have to completely understand their stories – I just have to be ready to write them down.
Amy Elisabeth Bokser is a writer, teacher, and tutor with an MA in English: Creative Writing from San Francisco State. She grew up in New York City, lived in Mexico for 18 years, and has lived in Michigan for the past year, a fact which she finds confusing. Her most recent publication is a short story for kids in Cricket Magazine. You can contact her to write you a poem, sing 80s songs together, or tutor your child at email@example.com.