On April 12th, author Beverly Cleary will celebrate her 100th birthday. Cleary’s characters Henry Huggins, Ribsy, Beezus and Ramona, Ellen Tebbits, Jane Purdy, and Ralph S. Mouse are so vivid and relatable, that as a child I could not read enough about them. Ribsy coated in pink powder, Ramona naming her doll Chevrolet, Susan’s “boingy” curls, Beezus’ eternal angst, Ellen Tebbits’ droopy ballet costume… the stories are timeless in that even 60 years after their initial publication they have the power to make children laugh out loud. But as unlikely as it may seem, it is Otis Spofford for whom I am most grateful.
My second year of teaching, I had a group of 30 fourth graders in a self-contained classroom. I could not have dreamed up a more diverse group of learners. I had one child reading T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, another who could only write the letters of the alphabet that were in her name, and everything in-between. It was an incredible challenge trying to give all of them what they needed, but with a little creativity and patience, we managed to get quite a bit done.
Then came the spitballs.
With a little sleuthing I fingered the culprit, had him in during recess for a chat, made a phone call home, and thought that would be the end of it. And it was… for about 2 days. When the spitballs made their reappearance, I realized that my original transgressor had at least one partner-in-crime. High-pitched squealing accompanied by exclamations of “Eww!” from the girls in the class signaled that things were about to get out of hand. I was frantic. Obviously my teacher tactics had not worked and now I had to contend with a team of spitballers. What to do?
On the ride home, as I tried to parse out how to deal with the problem without having to admit to my principal that there was a spitball revolution occurring in my room (good-bye tenure), I remembered Otis Spofford. When I got home, I grabbed my copy off the shelf and there it was: Chapter 2 - Otis vs. Mrs. Gitler. Beverly Cleary to the rescue.
The next day after recess, I told the class that I was going to read aloud to them from one of my favorite books. The children were riveted as Otis’ teacher, Mrs. Gitler, told him that he could throw as many spitballs as he wanted, in fact – she wanted him to spit all day long. Their expressions of enraptured glee turned to looks of concern as Otis lost the attention of his peers while sitting in the back of the room, aiming his spitballs at the trash can again and again. Creases of worry appeared and meaningful glances - “Would our teacher actually do that?” shot across my classroom as Otis’ mouth dried out and Mrs. Gitler would not allow him to use the water fountain. At the end of the chapter I closed the book and started my math lesson.
I never saw another spitball that year.
Happy Birthday and many thanks dear Beverly Cleary - author, centenarian, and brilliant classroom tactician.
As a teacher librarian in a 6-8 middle school, when I'm not dreaming up all sorts of tactics to get books into my students' hands, I am seeking new ways to harness technology to help them learn.
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