This morning I read Green Eggs and Ham to a group of my sixth graders while standing in an empty classroom. They sat on the floor or leaned against the wall. There were no desks.
To be clear, we usually have desks. At the beginning of every “typical” school day, I walk in and my students stand as I wind my way through the sea of bodies squished behind desks to the blackboard. I greet them, they sit, and I begin writing the lesson on the board. They copy what I write into their notebooks. This routine is familiar to me by now; I’ve been teaching in these classrooms since October.
My students typically sit cramped in rows of four to a desk, although the class has been growing increasingly spacious since January. Some students run out of money and can’t come back. Others, bored with the system, hot and uncomfortable and tired of trying to squeeze into an overheated cement block, just stop coming. Part of me doesn’t blame them. The classrooms are hot and crowded and noisy. Students talk over each other, and because they aren’t scared of me, they don’t often stop talking when I ask them to. Other times, I’ve come to school only to find that the person who has the key isn’t here, so we’re not learning today, or there’s a meeting, so we’re not learning today, or the other teachers aren’t all here, so some of us are not learning today. There are some weeks where I don’t teach at all. If I had to walk miles to and from school every day like most of my students, I would probably give up too.
Still, yesterday I was filled with motivation to deliver a compelling lesson. We didn’t learn last week; my school hosted a local sports competition. Students and teachers and school directors from all over had some, camped out in classrooms and competed in soccer, track, and field. Most of the mess had been cleaned up the day before. However, as I got to school and saw all the students in their crisp Monday uniforms sitting idly outside, I knew something was up. It appeared that someone had forgotten to return the desks to the classrooms, so there were no places to site and copy inside.
Well I have spent enough time learning in stairwells and outdoor auditoriums and on floors and beanbag chairs to know that desks are not necessary. Sometimes they’re even inhibiting. “We are still having class, damn it,” I thought to myself. I didn’t want to go home. I’m tired of giving up and going home.
But without the desks, my students felt uncomfortable. They couldn’t copy down a lesson, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want them to copy today. I just wanted them to listen. I pulled out a book, Green Eggs and Ham, and wrote the first few pages on the board.
I wasn’t sure how the reading would go. After all, green eggs and ham aren’t even a real thing. But there I was, standing in the middle of that cement block with a Dr. Seuss book in my hand and forty pairs of eyes on me and suddenly I felt scared, exposed. What if they laugh at me? What if they make fun of what I’m trying to do?
I read slowly and loudly, animating my voice and gesticulating wildly to hammer home the meanings of certain words. I did “the librarian thing,” that thing I have watched countless adults growing up do, where you read a page and then parade the open book around the room so everyone can see what you’re talking about.
I realized that Green Eggs and Ham is awesome for pronunciation practice. Halfway through, my students started repeating: “not, not, not.” I’m not sure if it was intentional or not.
“I do not like them,” I repeated again and again and again.
“Zaho tsy tia” I heard them whisper to each other. They were translating.
I finished the story and asked if it was clear. They nodded. Then I asked if someone could explain it to me in Malagasy. Eyes darted awkwardly around the room. “Ok, should I read it again, then?” They smiled and nodded.