The Weight That Comes of Age Branding

While in the library the other day, I witnessed a student at the bookcase where the Reading Counts titles are displayed. I noted that she was actually using her index finger to trace the library stickers at the bottom of the bindings. Curious, I asked the student what she was looking for in a book to read. Her response? “It has to be at a certain reading level.” Honoring the pedogagy and approach of another teacher, I quietly walked away from the student while watching her pass up a number of titles in the Reading Counts program that would have been of great interest to her (but since they were not of the reading level required, these titles might would have to wait). Wait. It brings me back to a quote shared by friend and super teacher, Donalyn Miller who asked with the voice of Calkins, “Why should students have to wait until the end of the day for their lives to begin?” It is this waiting that I would like to discuss today, but at the risk of being off-topic, I want to talk about a homonym of the word wait, a word with which I have some experience: weight.

It reminds me of the interchange between John Proctor and Reverend Hale in Act I of The Crucible. Proctor, aiding Hale in the carrying of his tomes, remarks, “Heavy books.” Hale’s reply: “Why they must be; they are weighted with authority.” What weight are we putting upon the titles we ask our students to carry when we limit their choice (which we know-yes?-is so important to the encouragement of independent reading), literally creating boundaries for reading that will keep the student penned-in as long as those requirements are in place. Look folks-branding is branding whether it appears on the chest, the rear, or the feet, but when we brand the mind to acknowledge some titles while rejecting others is not only branding, but the worst kind of all. It’s not encouragement-it’s flat out elitism. Perhaps we have been age-branding titles in the name of sound instruction for so long, that we have forgotten the lessons we learned on the beach from the Sneetches-it doesn’t matter if that star appears on the board, in the gradebook, or upon the belly of the student who walks through the machine of the age-appropriate book. Ah, but I digress.

We were supposed to be talking about weight.

In 2007, I went to my neighbor, Ron, a former football coach for the local football team. “Coach,” as he was respectfully and lovingly called,  is no longer with us, having lost his battle with cancer just last year. He is the subject of a poem of mine called, “Push-Pull” that can be found on the web and has been adopted into classroom across the country. I went to Coach because I had this idea that  I wanted to push 335 pound in a bench press. Now, for those who have never weight-trained before, the bench press is performed on one’s back with the arms extending raising and lowering the bar. Our plan was to get those 335 pound up at least one time, maybe two if I survived the first push. Coach was honest and patient. Though I had been lifting through my days in the Navy and off-and-on into my civilian/husband/father/teacher/writer days, Coach told me right away that my shoulders would not be able to help in the pushing of that kind of weight. The end of the conversation. No way. Later that day, Coach had a plan for how this could happen. What’s more, in his plan I could conceivably do it in less than six months. You see, Coach knew that there are two places wherein a student/athlete can find themselves in the area of mental or physical assessment: now and next. Coach saw where I was, and he had a vision for where I could be. Through a variety of strategies that he had picked up in his experience as a weightlifter and coach, he guided me from May to mid-December when I did push that 335 pounds-not once, not twice, but three times. Now, please don’t ask me to do this on-demand (the subject for another blog), but this taste of success is one to which I always point when thinking about how to move a reader from reluctance to resilience when offering titles to read. But first, pause to consider: does anyone miss that the worst thing Coach could have done on that first morning was to put me on the bench with three plates (45 pounds a piece + the bar weighing 45 pounds by standard) asking me to push? Not only would I have failed miserably, I could have hurt myself badly destroying any chance I might have again to push that kind of weight. Here are just some of the strategies Coach used to get us to that 335 pound push.

1). Chains (Industrial Sized Chains). I mean these were the kind of chains they would have used to bind Samson. Coach hung the chains on each side of the bar with some smaller plates on each side. I had to chuckle at first. Surely this would be easy. At the time, I could easily press 225 pounds. Coach instructed me to get on the bench, reminded me to breath as I push, and that is when the chains kicked in. They weren’t heavy coming off the rack, but when they were fully hanging in the air, I got what Coach was trying to do. Move me from now to next. To recognize when the weight would kick in, recognize the shift, and then push through it. I will never forget those chains, and as I do think about them today, I think about Teri Lesense’s Reading Ladders and how ladders are sometimes made of chains for climbing. Those chains remind me to think about what I am hanging on the bar with the titles I select so that my readers have a sense of when they are being stretched just a little bit to get ready for the big push through a more difficult push.

2). The bounce pad. Coach had this big foam pad that would wrap around the bar that would actually serve a bounce for my push when the weights got heavier. Instead of taking the bar all the way down to my chest, I could bounce it off quickly. Coach’s intent was to show how weight-lifting is more than a big push, it is a rhythmic action for which a little bounce is required. With the bounce pad, I could feel my legs, back, and shoulders involved in the exercise in a way that I had never have while lifting by myself. I loved the successful feeling I was getting from bouncing into the push and then lowering the bar into the next bounce. Can we do this while age-branding the books our students are reading? Are we there for the bounce as they take the difficult text home? Can the reader sense how it is more than the eyes, the head, and the arms of this act called reading? What’s more, can we invite the student to bounce out of their reading experience to generate ideas and responses. I might tell you, too, that Coach was there behind me the whole time, hands near the bar, ready to assist. Bounce pressing can build a sense of false confidence when done with large weights. Is this true of our students who can decode words from the page of  large tome and yet fail to see the themes they are reading in the interest finishing the assigned reading?

3). The “Hell-evator.” Coach had created, though never patented, a machine of his own design wherein the squat is done in reverse. I have a weak back and even weaker legs (though as I say this, I can sit press over 1500 pounds with my legs). Coach was able to assess where I was weak and rather than avoid certain exercises that were necessary to our ultimate goal, he put me on a contraption that wouldn’t ask me to push the weight up, but rather push the weight down. Industrial springs would press the weight back up. All I had to do was anticipate when the weight was at the bottom and prepare myself mentally and physically for the push down. When our readers are having difficulty with a text, do we have the creativity and resources available to allow them to downshift, connect, and then prepare for the return? Or is our traditional approach to reading all push and no return?

4). Sharing. Each session ended with Coach sharing some part of his experience as a weightlifter. The Coach I knew was already retired, but there in his homemade gym, in his garage, were pictures of a young, vibrant man for whom weightlifting had been a way of life. I had no doubt, whatsoever, that Coach could help me to reach my goal because he shared his experiences on the bench. The good, the bad, and the total misses (one time a bar got away from Coach in a power press over the head). Sometimes the stories were a little grotesque, as Coach shared the many inventive means in which he and his teammates would get extra protein from sources that require butchers and buckets (again, maybe another post). His interest in weightlifting, coupled with his interest in me, made me want to come back, week after week, for workouts that had me wobbling back up the hill to my own house. 5). Celebration. On the night that I was to push the 335 pounds, I arrived at Coach’s garage with my gloves already on. But Coach had a surprise for me. He had not only invited his son, but a couple of other people he had been training to witness the push. I might have been nervous if not for the preparation for the task that Coach had encouraged and provided. A high stakes test? Yes, but I had been vested in this since the first day I had approached Coach with the idea of lifting 335 pounds. We warmed up a bit, talked about how the push might feel, took some time to reflect on where we had been in the past six months. There was no workout that night except for to do the push. And I did it, to the applause of the other people in the garage, with high-fives all around.

It wasn’t just my push, it was a celebration of something I had worked for with an excellent instructor. Coach knew to go big, one must start small. To push high, sometimes we have to get low. I never understood why I had to do the bit with the rope curling the 35 pound plate with my forearms, but when I felt the burn in my forearms that Sunday evening of the big push, those lessons were appreciated. Coach knew that it takes some time to move from now to next, and with smaller goals you can reach the larger ones. He also knew that demand the push is for the pusher, no, encouragement is what the Coach does, not demand the push for which he has no arms in the process at this point. That reader who just graduated summer school, to little or no fanfare from the instructor, may not be ready for that large tome we have just placed in his hand. What’s more, I know few people who have ever pushed 335 pounds, but I have lot of fun working out with people who have learned that lighter weights are just what you need to build the heart and lean muscle tissue. I don’t lift 335 pounds anymore. No, I am more of  a swimmer/runner now (the later being better for my joints). When I tell people that I have pressed 335 pounds, some will want a reproduction on the spot as they cannot believe it. It is these persons that I hope are not pre-service teachers who ask their students to prove their mettle based upon what some test has demonstrated by way of ability. We can show our readers the chains that can be used for climbing as well as binding, that bouncing ideas off of one another can only happen when we share texts and experiences vs isolated attempts at doing something we have done, that pushing is just as important as pulling (especially when dealing with heavy weights and difficult texts), and that the mark, or brand, that comes of a grade at the end of a unit is not a celebration, it’s a certification at best. My readers are not beef for the sale, but beings with souls that can be touched with the right encouragement and the right titles at the right time for the right student.

Does age-branding titles make sense? How many students will remember the titles they have read under this approach? How many will point to the exhilaration of “that book” they read when they were young? I don’t know how to get this idea across to my colleagues who demand grade level reading. Perhaps at the next training session I am asked to lead, I will have a bench loaded with 335 pounds and invite everybody to come and push.

Good Reading and Writing!

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