Tennyson Street School: laboratory

Laboratory: (n) a room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, or teaching

“Congratulations! You’ve been chosen to come to Literacy Lab!”

“WE get to?”
“I’ve never gotten to come to Lab before!”

“Well, now you do! Would you like to see it?”

Room by room, over and over, I stopped in to introduce myself to my new students. If only I’d carried an oversized check and balloons, my huckstering would have been complete.

Hypothesis: I’d decided that coming to the Literacy Lab for support was like winning the lottery for any kid who struggled with reading and writing. If I did my job, observing their struggles and attending to their needs, the program was designed to marginally improve their test scores. What I was actually watching for, however, were initial signs of all those other social improvements – game-changers like higher graduation rates, decreased teen pregnancy and gang affiliation. Especially for kids of color, the school-to-prison pipeline was real; I was hoping to disrupt that flow, sabotage that pipeline. Rogue science.

“When we come to the Lab, it’s different than regular class. We have special rules. Why would we have special rules?”

Little hands shot up in the air above excited faces as we walked down the hall together, groups of three or four students with me at a time.

Raise your hands will be an easy rule, I thought. “Violet, why would we have special rules?”

“Because it’s a lab,” Violet answered proudly. Her short, straight blond hair bobbed at her chin for emphasis as she nodded with the word “lab.”

Ah, circular reasoning begins so young, I smiled to myself. “And so – what IS a lab? Alejandro?”

“It’s, like…a place where you do experiments,” he answered calmly.

Javier belonged to this group, but was busy tossing a plastic bowl from his snack and ignoring Violet and Alejandro.

“Exactly right,” I commended Alejandro. “Bowl,” I said to Javier, who reluctantly handed it over. “So when we come to Lab, we are going to think about reading and writing differently. Like we are doing experiments, to see what happens, if we get better at it, if your test scores get better.”

“Cool,” said Alejandro.

“Come on, I’ll show,” Javier said, trying to push past me.

“Ah, but wait – this is where the Lab rules kick in, right here at the door. We line up at this yellow star; it reminds you to be a scientist, use your science brain. What does it say?”

“Ready to Learn.”

“Ready to Learn. We will enter the Lab in silence each day, so we can…” and here I put my hands around my eyes, simulating goggles, or peering down into something.



“Fo-o-o-” I started the word for them.

“Focus!” said Violet.

“So we can focus,” I nodded. “The science says, if we focus, your reading and writing will improve. So – line up.” They jostled into more or less a line along the wall. “Yellow star?”

“Ready to Learn!”

“We will enter the Lab silently. You can look around the space. When I wave my hand like this – “ and I made a beckoning motion – “it will be time to leave. On ‘GO’ – Ready? Set, GO.”

They filed in silently, wandering around the tiny table, looking at the map, the compass rose, the pictures and postcards from around the world. When I beckoned with my hand, they made a line again, bumping into each other from behind, then silently trooped out.

“Why is there a map?”
“What are the directions for?”
“Did you go all those places?”

“So many good questions,” I smiled. “You are excellent scientists.”

Just then, we walked past a very small child on her way to the office. Javier got an enthusiastic hug from her. “That’s my little cousin,” he explained. Pleased by the hug, he pulled a package of M&Ms from the pocket of his hoodie. “Want some?” he asked Alejandro, shaking some into Alejandro’s open palm. “Want some?” he asked Violet, who had held back while he shared with Alejandro. Javier shook M&Ms into her hand, as well. “Want some?” he asked me.

“You guys have those,” I declined. “But thank you so much.”

I was reminded of the Jewish tradition when a child begins study of the Torah. They are given honey with the first letters they read, so that they will associate learning and study with joy and sweetness in life.

M&Ms: scientifically formulated sweets designed to attract children. I needed to put some in my prize box, used for rewarding good behavior, like consistently staying on task. Research it – there’s a whole “Science of M&Ms.” It’s mostly about how quickly color dissolves.