National Writing Project

Zach's Story

By: Denise Rambach
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 5
Date: November-December 2002

Summary: How one student found himself on a poster celebrating literacy after years of being a self-admitted non-reader.


It is truly amazing what a little inspiration can do. Amid the success of the JustWrite program at our school (see "JustWrite Inspires"), I broadened my focus on student achievement to include reading. This idea was prompted, in part, by my school's low reading comprehension scores on state assessments. Surely I could imagine something that would encourage students to "just read" as JustWrite had done for their writing. Out of this query came JustRead.

JustRead was funded by an enrichment grant. With the money, I bought multicultural books for my classroom. Now, on Fridays, students write in their journals and then select a book to read while listening to classical music. During the nine-week period, they are required to complete at least one book and submit a culminating project of choice on their selected title. At the end of class, students are given forms on which they are asked generic literary questions. These are kept in their reading folders along with their reading logs. While most high school students would rather have a root canal than read, this is a nonthreatening "easy" grade for most of them. They relax when they find out that there is no major test at the end of the period, and very few students wander off task, as they know I monitor their reading.

But there's always one—in this case it was fifteen-year-old Zach. Zach not only frustrated me, he unintentionally presented me with one of my greatest challenges. Initially, he had a lethargic attitude: he didn't bring materials to class and often spent much of the class with his head on his desk. In this manner, he failed Standard English II the first nine weeks. A look at his cumulative records indicated a pattern of little academic motivation, and my traditional attempts at encouraging him got no response. But for some reason, I was determined with this kid; Zach wasn't going to win this battle.

One day, in an attempt to elicit some kind of reaction from him, I made a playful remark about Zach's T-shirt, simply because it advertised the arch rival of my college alma mater. This was the beginning of a new world for Zach, and a moment of pure enlightenment for me. From that simple moment of recognition on, Zach was determined to show me that "his team" was better than "my team." He began wearing his team's colors just about every day, often commenting on how "well dressed" he was, to make sure I noticed. As I also noted, Zach was making these comments as he placed his class materials on his desk.

Having made this connection to class, Zach began participating and turning in his work. As our relationship unfolded, he also took an interest in the JustRead program, the reading enhancement approach that I developed to encourage students to read. Slowly but surely, he completed what he called his first "real" book, and together, Zach and I worked on reading strategies to move his reading skills along. Throughout the course of the year, Zach's reading improved several levels.

About this same time, the Citibank Corporation, a national financial organization, heard about JustRead through the Alliance for World Class Education, the organization that had funded my grant, and expressed interest in finding a JustRead student to represent reading throughout the county. As Citibank explained, they promoted ad campaigns focusing on education, and they were looking for a "real" story to enhance a countywide focus on reading. Specifically, they wanted to tell the story of a student who, although previously identified as a nonreader, had for some reason "turned on" to reading. As the corporation began its search for the right student, three Citibank representatives scheduled time to come to my classes and interview my students.

That particular day, the students were using a digital camera to make stationery on which they were intending to send notes to their reading buddies. Over the course of the day, I heard Zach grumble more than once that he didn't want or need "to talk to those ladies from Citibank." Amused by his protest, I took his picture and drew a devil caricature over it with the heading "the true Zach." Zach liked the picture. Laughing, he set the photo aside on my bookcase, intending to pick it up after school to show his mother.

Toward the end of the day, the Citibank representatives returned to my classroom. Disappointed, they told me their visit had not produced the type of representative for whom they'd been looking. As we talked, one of the representatives caught sight of Zach's "devilish" picture on my bookcase, and I told her what had transpired that morning.

"Can you get him?" all three representatives asked, almost at once, "We'd like to interview him."

The rest, as they say, is history. In Zach, the Citibank representatives found the student for whom they'd been looking. They selected him to represent their reading campaign: "Books Bring the Best Stories to Life." A photo shoot followed, and soon Zach's picture was splashed on billboards throughout Jacksonville and in event programs throughout the community.

From here, both JustRead and Zach prospered. JustRead has been featured on a local television station, Channel 4's Read for Life series, and was selected as second place winner in 1999 and first place winner in 2000 for the SUNSPRA Sunshine State School Public Relations Association awards in reading. Best of all, JustRead, like JustWrite, has encouraged many students, and both programs came to mean a lot to many people, including the students.

As for Zach, through all of it, he has maintained his modesty. He subsequently made the A-B honor roll and became one of the leaders of the JustRead mentor program through which student volunteers tutor elementary students in reading. In his senior year, he even began teaching beginning French to elementary students after school.

In May 2001, Zach graduated—on time. In my end-of-the-year letter to my seniors, I write a personal comment about each student, reminding each of something that was unique between us. About Zach I wrote, "He taught me so much and gave me hope for all students." Although Zach may not realize it, he's the motivation for a lifelong lesson for this teacher—JustInspire! Maybe he does know since he faxed me his final report card with a 2.87 average circled. He emailed me in July to say that he had been accepted to a local college to run track and play football. I'm still amazed that one student, given encouragement, could have such an impact on others, including his teacher.

About the Author Denise Rambach now teaches at First Coast High School in Jacksonville, Florida. She is a co-director of the Jaxwrite Writing Project.

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