My teaching partner and I were completing checklists on our students, reviewing their writing samples, and filling in test scores. All part of the finishing-up process at the end of the school year.
I felt a tightness in my chest and an anxiety in my stomach, and I said to her, “You know, this information we’re passing on to their next teachers is not remotely adequate. It tells only a small, small part of their story and who they are as a student and, more importantly, a human being.”
We then discussed how some of the best “data” we ever received on students was from S.C., a teacher who would transfer her 5th grade Newcomer students to us for middle school if they still needed more time in our setting. She sent all the required data but then at the top of each file, there was a 1-2 page narrative on each child. She told us their back story and detailed their strengths and struggles. I read each and every one. They were golden, and since I remember stories better than numbers or levels, this is the data that stayed with me and I kept in the back of my head when I met the student face to face.
I want to find a way to replicate this data sharing, because it’s so important. I think about my students moving on to mainstream classes next year, and I worry.
I worry, because I know how far they’ve come, yet they are still below grade level academically.
I worry that teachers won’t use best practices for teaching English learners, strategies like building background, pre-teaching vocabulary, adapting text, and scaffolding.
I worry that they’ll be lost, but unnoticed, because they’re quiet, good, and eager to please.
I worry that they’ll be lost, but noticed, because they’re acting out and being disruptive, which is their coping mechanism when they don’t understand the material.
But, I can’t hold on to them forever and there are many excellent teachers who are more than capable of teaching them, so I let them go.
If I wrote a story about every student, here are some examples of what I’d share.
What you see...
An aggressive, impulsive boy who still uses his fists when he gets angry and has a hard time with focus and being still.
What I want you to know…
He spent nearly his whole life in a refugee camp, where you need to be tough and physical in order to survive. Where you get water and food by pushing to the front of the line. Where you had no real school.
I met with his dad and talked about what a great kid he is but about how important it is that he continue to learn about the school culture and rules here. His dad gave a speech to his son during that conference that was interpreted to me.
He said, “Son, there are two houses on the path. One is very, very dark and one is full of light. You can walk down the path and go into whichever house you want. The dark one will bring you nothing but trouble. The house of light is where your teacher lives. Open that door and live in that house.”
My throat constricted and my eyes watered as I shook this father’s hand and told him that I believed in his son, and I would continue to work hard to help him.
What you can do for this student...
Hold him accountable, but keep this understanding of his background at the front of your mind. Give him specific alternatives for what to do when he gets mad. Make your lessons engaging and active, and allow for lots of movement. Let him stand up and fidget while he does his work as long as he’s not bugging anyone. Remind him that he can do this and remind him that he wants to live in the light-filled house.
What you hear...
If you ask S. about her family, she will tell you she lives with her mom and two brothers and that her dad is dead.
What I want you to know…
When I first had this conversation with S., she used the words, “My dad was lost in the war in Iraq”, which I interpreted as he lost his life. Later I discovered what she really meant.
She wrote in her life story, “My dad went to Baghdad one day and never came back. We looked for him, but we did not find him. Some people told us to leave, and if we did not leave, something bad will happen, so we went to Jordan.”
My teaching partner started to cry when she read this. She was working on the life story with S. S. comforted her, got her a tissue, and gave her a hug. She tried to reassure her that she was really okay now.
Words don’t lie, though, and I find it interesting and heartbreaking that every few paragraphs in her life story, she circles back to her father.
“The worst thing in my life was when my mom got sick and my dad was gone. This made me really sad.”
“Four years ago, my father was lost in the war. My father was like my best friend. He was always telling me stories and funny stories. He played with me with dolls and toys. I miss him a lot.”
“The best thing for me is to meet my father again, but that is impossible. I have no hope of meeting with my dad, because it is almost five years.”
In spite of all this heaviness, S. is one of the most vibrant, sweet, joyful, and hopeful kids I have ever known. She wants to be a movie star and an engineer. She plans to work a lot so she has a lot of money, so she can take her mom to beautiful places like Hawaii.
What you can do…
Remember that not everyone has intact families and some kids have experienced great trauma around family. Give her a chance to share all this on her own terms, in her own way, and in pieces.
Writing is a great outlet for S., and many other kids. Listen closely to what she says and what she doesn’t say. Build her up, give her affection, and be ready to talk when she wants to.
What you might see….
A girl who gets upset, frustrated, even angry when she doesn’t understand something, especially with math. She’s deeply insecure but it might come out as anger at you.
What I want you to know….
R. is so much better than she used to be. When she was first in our center, I spent a lot of time with her in the hall, trying to talk her down. She yelled; she raged. She was sarcastic and incredibly difficult.
Then, she grew. She changed. She learned and matured. Watching R’s transformation has made me confident of the fact that change and learning is possible. She’s softer now, more mature, slower to freaking out, but it still happens occasionally.
On the last day, she gave me a thank you letter, and several times in the note, she thanked me for teaching her how to calm down and handle her feelings.
When she hugged me on the last day, she had tears in her eyes, and she said, “I’m nervous about high school. I just don’t know if I can do it.” I reminded her of her resilience, all the things she’s survived, how much she’s learned and grown. I told her in a steady voice that I knew she could do it. She has endured so much already in her young life.
From her story:
“When there was a war in my country, I was very afraid. Then we moved to Jordan, but we did not travel by airplane. Some of the time we walked, but that was so hard and I was so tired. There were a lot of thorns that hurt my feet, but when we were close to Jordan, we rode a bus. We slept for one day on the bus, and the weather was so cold, and there were not enough blankets. My dad gave me his jacket and said that his body was stronger than mine. After that, I was finally able to sleep.”
What you can do…
See beyond her frustration when she’s lashing out and saying she can’t do something. Demand respect but also hang in there with her. Learn about trauma and how it manifests in teenagers. Acknowledge her resilience and remind her to be patient with herself and not give up. Her motivation and ability to work hard is incredible and she is going to grace the world with her gifts. I have glimpsed something great and special in her and if it’s nurtured, it will bloom and amaze. She dreams of being a writer.
I could write one of these entries about each student I have. One of the privileges of my job is that I get to spend all day with the students, so I really get to know them well.
I am witness to a miraculous unfolding. I get to see them at the very beginning when they’re scared and can’t speak a word of English. I get to see them as they struggle, grapple with a new culture, language. I see the highs, and I see the lows. And, I see transformation. I see not only English emerge, but confidence. I get to see their personalities shine, their uniqueness emerge.
It’s so terribly difficult to watch them move on. I’m so proud of how much they’ve accomplished, yet I know only too well, how far they still have to go. Part of me wants to protect them and shelter them, but I would never do that.
So, I watch them move on… to other teachers, to other schools, to other challenges. And, I wonder, “Did I do enough for her/him?”
And, I conclude that I just have to trust that I have done the important things. I’ve let them know that they matter, that they’re worthy, and that they are capable of great things.
At the end of the day, that is the greatest gift I can offer my students. May it be enough.