When I was their age…

You won’t do too many dictionary presentations before you realize an important part of the program involves dealing with expectations. Those expectations come in many forms from many people. I remember my first time presenting dictionaries. I expected the kids to be bored and uninterested. Boy, did I get an education! They were so excited and appreciative I got hooked on the program and on working with kids.

Over the years as the Valley Grange Project developed, we learned a lot about expectations. Expanding into new schools provided us with opportunities to anticipate and therefore manage the process. Some of our experience may be helpful to others who are starting or continuing their programs.

Very early on, a school administrator advised me that “teachers like predictability.” As I’ve become more involved with the schools I’ve come to appreciate that—it’s really more about the kids than it is the teachers. The kids need structure, routines, and disciplines. In the absence of that structure, the balance between “student” and “kid” can shift very quickly. It’s important to remember that a dictionary presentation is a departure from their routines.

The teachers do, however, have their expectations as well. They expect their students to be “a good audience.” In fact, many of our teachers will work with their classes before presentations on “good audience behaviors.” Teachers understand how quickly their disciplined students will turn into “wild kids” when they get excited. A dictionary presentation (even if it’s at the school) creates a different environment in which the kids are not going to act the same as they do in class. The kids are going to get “wound up.”

Speaking of visitors, they have expectations too. Take a few of your group’s members with you and somebody is going to say, “I wasn’t allowed to act like that when I was their age.”

I usually reply, “Gee, that’s too bad. You mean you weren’t allowed to get excited?”

I’ve also had the opposite problem. I remember one presentation at an unnamed school where the kids were like little statues and seemed almost uninterested. Later in the hall I commented to a television reporter that there was an unusual lack of enthusiasm that I couldn’t seem to break through. Since he’d been in the room setting up before me, he explained that the teachers had “really read the kids the riot act and issued serious threats of serious punishments if they weren’t good.”

In this case, they weren’t allowed to get excited and I learned that it’s important to manage expectations all participants: teachers, guests, kids, and myself. There is a delicate balance in all this.

I recently had a parent rush up to me on the street and apologize for her child’s “rude behavior” during a presentation. I honestly didn’t know what she meant and admitted so. (I know both the child and the parent personally.) She explained that the teacher had reported the child’s behavior and required her to write a note of apology to her mother.

My instincts were, of course, to defend the child. I know her as a really good kid. But in our position working with schools, teachers, and children we do need to maintain the balance and, in this case, not undermine the teacher and her credibility with the parent and the child. (I also do not know what happened on the bus or back at school.) I accepted the mom’s apology, asked her to assure her daughter that I was not upset with her. We will, I’m sure, all live happily ever after.

We tend to overuse the word “communication,” but that’s what we need to rely on when dealing with expectations. Ultimately, we all want the same things: kids with dictionaries and an enthusiasm for using them.


Walter Boomsma is the project coordinator for Valley Grange’s "Words for Thirds" Program which covers five schools in the Guilford, Maine, area. Two of these schools make field trips to the Grange Hall to receive their dictionaries. This year Valley Grange presented their 1,000th dictionary. Since starting their program eight years ago, the Grange has expanded their work with the schools to include projects focusing on literacy, art, and agriculture.