My new students file in, not sure of why they’re in my class. It’s not English: it’s an “elective,” but they’re not allowed to drop it. Most of them found me on their schedule without any explanation from anyone (Yay for unpleasant surprises!). They might have heard that my class is for people who can’t read. They might have heard that my class is easy. In any case, there’s confusion and, often, there is anger masking embarrassment. For high schoolers, being in a reading class can be a badge of shame: their eyes dart around the room, looking for a way out.
One of the things they will see as they desperately try to figure out what they’re doing here is an 8×11.5 bright yellow page that says, simply, “Don’t Panic.”
Douglas Adams, brilliant author of Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, may not have been the first to say this, but that’s where it comes from for me:
“It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”
In my teaching practice, DON’T PANIC has become my mantra. My first two weeks as a high school reading specialist, I found myself repeating this over and over again as my students expressed anxiety with being in my class, with having to (gasp) choose and read a book, with having to write daily, and, most of all, with passing the Virginia SOL end of course exams, which they must pass in order to graduate. In fact, many students end up in my class because of low SOL Writing and Reading scores. They have this conception that the test determines their future and, in some ways, it can. I realized that my first challenge will always be to relieve my students’ anxiety.
DON’T PANIC has become synonymous with, “Trust Me.” It doesn’t take long for my students to realize that they things they’re learning in my class are more than “test prep” (I could never teach one of those everyday-we-do-worksheets classes). They’re becoming readers. They’re developing reading preferences. They’re becoming writers. They know they’re safe in my hands because I take them as they are, and I have confidence in them.
DON’T PANIC has become synonymous with, “You’ve Got This.” “I’m not a reader.” “I’m not a writer.” My response: “False.” It’s impossible to not be a reader and a writer in today’s tech-savvy world. The sad truth is that the only teens who say these sorts of heartbreaking things are students who have been told they aren’t readers or writers. Maybe they’re in families or communities that don’t value literacy. Maybe they’ve received negative feedback from teachers. Maybe they’re told that people who read and write are boring. (I often hear from students on the first day, “Miss, don’t you have a life?” –I like to say I have many lives.) What my students really need is for someone to have faith in them, someone to tell them “You are already a reader. You are already a writer.” I don’t say those things to “calm them down.” I say them because they are true.
The DON’T PANIC Philosophy is that students are growing. No one is a proficient reader or writer by birth. It’s not magic that creates literacy: it’s a process. My students are given the space to make mistakes. They are given permission to dislike a book or a writing assignment, but they’re not allowed to write off all reading or writing based on a limited view.
The DON’T PANIC Philosophy also applies to teachers. As a reading specialist, I work with teachers a lot, and I find that a lot of my colleagues have the same “panic” potential when something is new and unfamiliar. Many of my colleagues panic about test scores, BYOT, the dreaded CLOUD STORAGE, and other stressful, new or unfamiliar pedagogical challenges.
DON’T PANIC! Make a plan, be willing to learn, and have self-confidence. Mistakes will be made, but trust that there’s also the potential for great personal growth and achievement.
To sum up, I will paraphrase Adams himself: “It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally discouraging) inaccuracies, 21st century learning has the potential to support student literacy if teachers take the initiative to post the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters both in their classrooms and in their actions.”