Symphony 87

Before the day began, Neil cautioned his students again, “I was serious about taking a grade for your group no matter who reads. So it is your job to see that everyone in your group is good enough to read for your grade.”

The bright students thought Neil was being cruel to them. In fact, it was the Pedro Velasquezes and Martin Christoffersens who suffered. They had to face the impact of three other students who were determined that they learn today’s lesson perfectly, or else! Oscar Teixeira had Rita Morales in tears, but when the time to read came, Pedro had never read so well in his life.

And he had never hated reading so much.

# # #

Neil had anticipated parent resistance, but he had expected it to come from the Teixeiras, the Hagstroms, or the Kumars. Instead, he got the chance to meet Toni Boyd for the first time. She was a petite brunette who was trying to raise Lee without benefit of a husband, and that left her little time to visit the school. She had to take time off from work to come in. Neil did his best to explain to her what he was trying to do. She left, unconvinced, which was only to be expected. Neil had huge doubts himself.

The next day, he took his case to the kids.

“Today,” he began, “we are going to set cooperative learning aside for once. I want to hear from each of you individually. Yesterday you got a grade for what your group did. I want you to take five minutes to think of how that made you feel, and then we’ll talk about it.”

They didn’t need five minutes. They already knew how they felt. They hadn’t liked it a bit. The top students didn’t like their grades riding on what their weaker companions could do, and the low performers did not like being singled out and made to carry the burden. They told him so vehemently and in great detail.

“It wasn’t fair!” That summed up their feelings.

“Why wasn’t it fair?”  Neil asked.

For most of them, the unfairness was self-evident. It could not be explained. It was Rafael who put it into words. “We didn’t get a grade for what we did. We got a grade for what somebody else did.”

“Actually, you got a grade for how well you had prepared somebody else. So you were getting a grade for what you did.”

“Yeah,” Oscar said, “but some of the ones who read were smart and some of them were stu–; some of them weren’t as smart.”

“Thank you, Oscar, for not finishing that word,” Neil said dryly. “What you say is true, not everyone can read equally well. Is that fair?”

“That’s just the way it is,” Oscar replied.

Neil thought, Remember you said that. Then he went on, “Well, we should have no problem today. I have a bunch of copies of a very simple story. In fact, it is from a first grade book.”

Half of the class groaned and the other half laughed.

As Neil stood up to distribute the photocopies, he said, “Remember, I am going to pick someone from your group and everyone in the group will get a grade from how that person reads.”

He dropped copies as he went, and spread a rising tide of disbelief behind him. 


“I can’t read this!”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Mr. McCrae . . . !”

The children’s story encompassed only two hundred words. Transcribed from the picture book that Carmen had loaned him, it only took up two pages.

It was in Spanish. more Monday


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