Sunday, December 20, 2015

Seek first to understand

A couple of years ago I was in a meeting and we were discussing how different students were doing with a reading program.  They were identifying who they saw as "emergency students."  These were students who were significantly behind where they should be with their reading level.

So, one of my English learner students gets identified as an emergency.  I gasped.  Aloud.  Loudly.  People looked at me.

"Well, the word I would use to describe her is not 'emergency'.  Rather the word for me that comes to mind is 'superstar'."

I went on to explain how this student had only been in the country for a short period of time and had zero English when she arrived. She had just been exited from the newcomer program a few months ago.   We also didn't know a lot about her previous schooling in her home country.

So, I went on to explain: according to what we know about research on how long it takes to acquire a second language, she is actually OVER-achieving.   I explained all of this and I think I succeeded in getting her off the "emergency" list- maybe not the data sheet, but at least in people's minds.

As educators and as a society, we are very used to identifying problems.  We judge quickly. We are bothered by the square peg that doesn't fit into the round hole.  And, sometimes this leads to children being incorrectly suspected of having learning disabilities, or low intelligence, being lazy and apathetic, or difficult and oppositional.

Sometimes these things might turn out to be true.  But, often, oh so often, we are missing the real story.  And, we need to slow down and Seek First to Understand.    Here are 4 ways to approach this issue.


1.  Get the back story. Be a top-notch investigator.

 You really have very little business citing problems until you know the whole story.

 I'm guilty of this too and there are many times when I've had to check my own assumptions and slow down.  Times when I've unearthed new information that drew me up short in how I was seeing a kid.

This takes time.  Build a relationship with the child.  Build trust.  Ask questions.  Build a relationship with the family.  Build trust with them.  Ask questions.  Ask how you can help.  To use an over-used and tired phrase, "Think outside the box."  Figure out what might help.

A lot of  things can look like a learning or behavior problem in the classroom, when it is really something else in disguise. Trauma.  Experiencing or witnessing violence.  Divorce or any kind of serious problem in a family system.  Learning a new language.  Learning a new culture. Poverty. Gaps in education because of being a refugee or having a chaotic life.

Any of these things can and should give you pause, lead you to offer other kinds of help, and work with the child in a new and more compassionate and intelligent way.

2.  Don't compare apples to oranges.

Sometimes when a student is struggling, all we can see is how Unlike the other students they are.  How behind. How different.  Well, you may be comparing apples to oranges.  And, it's not fair or helpful.

Here's a quick case study. Let's compare my own daughter with a student I'll call Isaac.  They are about the same age and grade.  Isaac was in our newcomer program last year and is now in a regular middle school, still receiving English Learner services, but taking many other mainstream classes.

We were recently contacted by the staff there who is concerned about his academic achievement and thinking he should be tested for special education services.  Here's the back story.

Daughter was born in the USA and English is her first language.
Isaac lived in several different countries before he came here 2 years ago.  He had at least 2 other languages as a child, but was not fully proficient and literate in either of them.  

Daughter attended pre-school from ages 3-5, the same elementary school for 6 years, and now the same middle school for the past 2 years.  She has had excellent and caring teachers the entire time.
Isaac had very little formal education before he arrived here. The one school he told me about had a teacher who beat them.  

Daughter has lived her entire life in an intact family with plenty of emotional and financial resources.  Not only from her immediate family but from her extended family and many friends of the family.
Isaac had the most chaotic childhood you can imagine- constantly moving, witnessing and experiencing violence, poverty, going hungry, homelessness.  He is in a much better situation now but the scars are there.  

My colleague and I shared all of this with the counselor and she listened intently and said that obviously he has a lot of issues and would need a different kind of support.  We recommended making sure the teacher in each of his classes was using a model of best practices for English learners.  We also said he would benefit from small group work whenever possible and extra help after school.  And, that in some form or manner, he needs emotional support- counseling or mentorship or something.  She agreed that they should try a lot of things before special education testing.

 3.  What are YOU doing wrong, Teacher?

This was the other working tittle for this blog post, but I decided it was too negative and confrontational.  But, I do think that as teachers we need to think about our practice and if we are truly doing everything we can to meet a child's needs.

I am not pointing fingers at other teachers.  I am asking myself this question and admitting that I have been guilty more times than I care to admit of prematurely judging a child's motivation, attitude, personality or intelligence.

What are we doing to make the situation better for the child?  I asked the counselor above what the teachers were already doing to try to help him.  I asked:

  • Are they using best practices for English learners in their instruction?  This would include building background on a topic and explicitly teaching vocabulary.  
  • Does he ever get individual or small group help?  Extra help after school?
  • Has anyone attempted to make a connection with him?  Build a relationship?  
This is tough stuff and sometimes as teachers we get defensive because our jobs are already SO hard and we have so many students and so little time.  But THIS is the job and these are lives we are dealing with.  So, this is our work.  

4.  Look for strengths and find ways to capitalize on them.

Lately, the numbers at our center have reduced to a healthy ratio and it is making such a difference in the work we are able to do with our students.  We are able to do better instruction, but we are also able to  do everything I am talking about in this blog post.  Most importantly, we have more time to connect with them, to know them, and to watch them closely and really SEE them. It is the greatest gift.

When we see problems, we also owe it to the student to identify their strengths. Let's return to Isaac for a moment.  I listed his hardships and the difficult circumstances of his life but here are the other facts about this child:

In spite of everything he has gone through, he has one of the best and most caring hearts you could imagine.   He would give the coat off his back to a friend.  He has a great sense of humor.  His oral English is really good and he made a ton of progress with us in reading and writing.  He is athletic and strong.  He's a natural singer and dancer.  He is resilient.  He is the very definition of resilience.

So, this is a lot of good raw material to work with, right?  There's a lot of amazingness in place with this kid.  Actually, given all that he's been through, isn't it kind of incredible that he is doing as well as he is?

What does Isaac really need?  A lot of things.  But more than anything, love, consistency, attention.

 Last year, his first teacher in our community sent him a letter of encouragement.  She told him all the great things about him in the letter and how much she had valued having him as a student.  She passed it on to him through me.  I helped him read it once.  Then he continued to read it and re-read it.  He was supposed to be doing math but I pretended I didn't notice what he was doing.  I saw him fold it up and put it in his pocket, then take it out and read it again.  His smile grew larger every time he read it.  It was as if he could not believe that someone actually believed these things about him.  It was so moving to witness.

Find the strengths. Find the strengths.  Find the strengths.
Name them.  Grow them.  Help the child push off from there.  The strengths and the beauty is there to be found and it is our responsibility to discover it and nurture it.


I know I will read this blog post again when I am frustrated with a child.  I hope it will remind me to slow down and make the connections that are necessary.  You teach what you need to learn and I am still working on each and every one of my own recommendations.  Sometimes I do really well and sometimes, to be honest, I fail miserably.  But, I keep at it.  And, you should too.  

As humans, we all want to be seen.  We all long to be understood.  We all crave connection.   Our students feel the same way.  

So, there is no greater privilege than being able to see, to understand, and to connect with our students.

It will make all the difference.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Embracing the Other

"Miss, I loooove Christmas!  Lights.  Pretty."  This from one of our Muslim students the other day.

This comment really touched something in me.  How incredible if we could all view the unknown, the different, the new- through eyes like hers.  Not only to appreciate the Other, but to embrace it.

Many of us move away from what is unfamiliar and from places and situations where we don't feel we fit in.  This is understandable; it's human nature, and we all have a desire to belong.

 However, stretching ourselves and leaning into the new and unfamiliar can be life-changing.  Especially when doing this with other human beings who are different than us.  It can be uncomfortable, awkward, painful even.  But, when we move toward the Other and open ourselves up, we  find that we grow and evolve in unexpected ways.

 You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable to grow.  You have to open your heart in the biggest way in order to learn.  But the results are that you understand more about other cultures, other lives, other human beings.  More understanding, less judgement.  More love, less fear.

Here are a few experiences I have had in my life in which I felt like the Other, sometimes acutely and painfully so.  How I stayed with it and came out the other end better and stronger.

Gringa in Costa Rica

When I was a senior in college, I spent a semester in Costa Rica.  I lived with a host family in San Jose that only spoke Spanish and I studied Spanish all day.

 I stood out all the time, with my blonde hair and blue yes.  I got used to cat calls and being stared at.  This wasn't the most difficult thing, though.

For a while, I was really kind of terrified about making my way and interacting with others.  I could understand a lot but my spoken Spanish was not strong, so every little interaction- taking a bus, ordering at a restaurant, asking for directions- felt like Mount Everest.

 I want to be clear that I am not even remotely comparing this experience to that of a refugee or new immigrant.  I was a privileged college student with enough money to study abroad just to enrich my education and it was temporary.  Still, those feelings of being the Other did give me a small insight into how ridiculously challenging a new country, culture, and language can be.

Close to the time I was ready to leave, I had gotten much more comfortable.  I was bolder with my Spanish-taking risks with the language and it was paying off.  I was getting better, much better.
I even did a 2 week rural stay on my own with a family and worked in a 1 room school house. My language skills improved a ton, but more importantly:  My confidence and inner strength grew.

Hmong funeral

I taught night ESL classes for a while, and the majority of my students were  working all day and then coming to four hours of class four nights a week and then going home to take care of their families.  I was in awe of their stamina, their desire to learn this language, and their motivation to improve their lot in this country.

They were a lively group and we had a lot of fun and they learned quickly.  One woman in particular was so bubbly, gregarious, energetic, and outgoing.  She was that person who just lit up the room when she walked in every night.  She made us laugh.  Everybody loved her.  She was doing so well, I was getting ready to move her to a higher level class.

Which is why, it was particularly devastating when we learned she had committed suicide.  I felt sick for my students, for myself, and especially bewildered that I had seen absolutely zero signs of distress.  Telling my class what happened was one of the most difficult and painful conversations I have had.

I wanted to go to her funeral but I was unsure of the protocol and the appropriateness of me doing so. So I asked around and was told that I would be welcomed there.  I didn't really know what to expect but a few other teachers and I decided to go.

Everybody looked at us when we walked in.  It was a traditional Hmong funeral.  There was drumming and chanting.  Her family was gathered by the entrance greeting people as they walked in. I felt awkward.  I felt conspicuous.  I wasn't sure exactly what to do, where to go, what to say.

So, I just thought of my student and I focused on her family in front of me- parents, a husband, small children.  I told them simply how much she meant to me, how much I enjoyed having her in class, how smart she was, how well she was doing, how she made us all laugh.  I said I was sorry for their loss.

Then I sat down with all the others and listened to the drumming and chanting.  I didn't feel separate. I didn't feel like an outsider.  I felt like part of a community that loved someone.  I felt connected.

How do I eat this?

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties,  I volunteered in a program that paired people with new refugees.  It was just a simple program of befriending someone new to the country.  The idea was to spend time with them, maybe help them with English a little, and be available to explain things that were confusing in this culture.

I was friends with a lovely woman from Ethiopia.  We took long walks.  I helped her with her English.  We went out for coffee.  We talked a lot but some days she was just so sad.  I didn't know specifics, but I knew she had been through a lot of trauma.  So, at times there was a heaviness and an unbearable sadness about her that I could not begin to reach.

One day she invited me and my husband over to her apartment for dinner.  I knew she didn't have much and it was really an honor to be asked. There were quite a few family members and other friends there- all Ethiopian.   It was uplifting to see her in her own home, her comfort zone, her element.    She was lighter and moved with more confidence.  I could tell that she enjoyed taking care of me for once.

That was the first time I had eaten Ethiopian food.  So, she served us this injera, which looks like a big spongy pancake.  It's a sourdough risen flatbread.  On top of the injera was a stew of meat and vegetables with lots of spices.  There wasn't  a table, so I sat down in a chair balancing the plate on my lap and wondering how exactly I was supposed to eat this.  I had not been given any silverware.  I'm sure I looked a bit confused.

My friend caught my eye, nodded at me, and without any words  demonstrated how to tear off a little bit of the injera and scoop up the stew and eat it.  Others in the room caught on to what she was doing and smiled and laughed.  And, then I was able to laugh at myself and clumsily started to eat.

It was so good-delicious food- but made so much richer by the experience.  How nice it must have been for my friend to be my teacher and the culturally competent one for a change.


Yesterday, I was wearing some sparkly snowflake earrings.  When the same student from the beginning of my story saw me in the morning, she exclaimed to me, "Miss!  Christmas earrings!  Beautiful!"

What a joyful and refreshing perspective she has.  She is a Muslim girl experiencing her first Christmas in America.  And her eyes are wide-open in the best possible way.  She is seeing it all with wonder, awe, and appreciation.

We can all learn something from her when we deal with the Other or when we feel like the Other. We can learn to move towards the new, the different, and unfamiliar.

Even go a step further and Embrace the Other.

Maybe, just maybe, you will experience joy and beauty like my precious student.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Magic of Laughter and Uno

We play chess every day in the Newcomer Center and I'm going to write a longer post about that sometime.  Today, however, I want to talk about another really serious game:  the game of UNO.  :)

Uno is a great game to teach the Newcomers.  Anyone can play it and learn it quickly.  It only involves vocabulary for a few numbers and colors.  So even if you have zero English, you can figure it out pretty quickly.

There is something beautiful and magical about watching a table of kids from Mexico, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan, Somalia,  and Ethiopia play this game together.

And, of course, every experience in the Newcomer Center is also an opportunity to teach language so you will hear a lot of things like this.

"Me turn!!!."   Teacher- Try: "My turn."

"You no say Uno!"   Teacher:  Try: "You didn't say Uno!"

"Me win!"  Teacher:  Try "I win."  And, also try to be more gracious.  :)

Sometimes they get so into it, it's almost as loud, raucous, and competitive as a soccer game.  I mean, you have to SUPERVISE these Uno games or they can get out of hand.

On Friday, we played Uno in the afternoon and for several kids it was their first time.  I played with a group of 5 boys.  One of them arrived a few months ago and is very quiet and shy.  He looked so terrified and overwhelmed for a while, but gradually he has become more comfortable.  He can't say much and I often think and wonder about all the worry and emotions tied up inside of him.

I like to be kind of dramatic and tease when we play Uno, so if one of them gives me a "Draw 4" or skips me, I make my eyes get really big and I act supremely offended.  Sometimes I mention that this may result in an F for the day.  (They know I'm kidding).

Well, this boy I'm talking about really got a kick out of this and the whole experience of the game.  I saw him really laugh hard for the first time.  His eyes lit up; the worry was erased.  His whole face crinkled into a huge smile and his face looked so bright, alive, and happy.  He smiled and laughed. And it was MAGIC. PURE MAGIC.