In my double period ninth-grade English class this morning, two boys who sit in the second-to-the-back-row were clearly very sleepy. During our “practice reading” time (the first twenty minutes of class when students read a book of their choice), they kept on putting their head down.

I went over to speak with them, and told them that I could understand sitting in a school desk and wanting to fall asleep. In fact, I said, just last week I fell asleep at an English Department meeting. My close friend and colleague (and co-author with me of an upcoming book on teaching writing to English Language Learners) was running the meeting and woke me up. I then went out, got a drink of water, and came back refreshed. But, I continued, I should have done that before I fell asleep — sometimes we just have to “suck it up” and take responsibility. I told the students that if they were sleepy, they could ask for a hall pass to get a drink of water, stand in the back of the room and read, or they could sit on the desk right behind them as long as they were just reading — having to sit up should keep them awake. I also said that I was very open to hearing other ideas from them about what they could do to stay awake, and how I could possibly help.

Their ears perked up at the idea of sitting on the desk and reading, so the two of them did it and were soon engrossed in their books. A few minutes later, three other boys in that same row came up to me and said they were sleepy, too, and asked if they could sit on the desks behind them. I told them that would be okay, as long as they were just reading and not trying to show-off. Soon, five teenage boys were sitting silently on desks in the back of the room, all clearly focused on reading their books. It would have made quite a picture — one I wished I had taken with my brand new iPhone if I had thought of it.

Who knows if they will want to continue the practice, but I think there is a useful lesson for me in this experience, and perhaps for others.

We need to keep “our eyes on the prize.” The prize, in my eyes, is three-fold:

* Students are enjoying reading, and are doing so in a way that is not disruptive to anyone else.

* Students are learning that if they are having a problem, they need to take responsibility for fixing it (and this will be a way to connect to the lesson on the importance of sleep that we’ll be doing next week).

* My relationship with these students is now stronger because of my openness, which will only help me be a more effective teacher for them, and help them to want to learn more.

Of course, I could have decided that the “prize” was compliance, and just kept on going back to them and told them to keep their head up, or told them to go outside. Or punished them in some other way.

Obviously, there are times when it is easier to be flexible than in others. I just wonder how many times all of us, including me, keep our eyes on the wrong prize….