Sunday, May 20, 2012

You've Got Mail

With eight weeks left in the school year, I sat down to write letters to my students.

I wanted the letters to demonstrate to my students how much I respected them.  I wanted the letters to remind my students of times during the year where they had thrived, taken a risk, acted mature.  I wanted the letters to galvanize my students to try especially hard in the final two months of school.

The process was more difficult than I had originally calculated. 

Over my weeklong, spring break holiday, I thought back over seven months of stories.  The time when we discussed Joseph Kony for an entire class period, or when my students had a pencil-tapping competition in the cafeteria, or when we “mummified” students during a Halloween-themed game day, or when we discussed the secrets of Pascal’s Triangle.   

A few of the letters came quickly.  There were my star students, whose letters consisted of a list of praises – how well they worked with others, how they were always on task, how they were always looking for ways to help. 

But then there were the letters to my more challenging students.

It can be easy to type-cast difficult students – the troublemaker, the checked-out child, the girl with too much attitude.   Their disruptive behavior is loud and attention-getting – both in the classroom and in my memory.

But, thinking back over the year, I began to tease out for those students their moments of real maturity.
The time when Michael, who usually can’t sit without talking for more than five minutes, silently wrote a thoughtful two-page response to a story we read.

The time when Robert, usually checked out in math, sat up straight, raised his hand, answered questions, and smiled when he got long-division problems right.

The time when Alisha, after being sent out of the classroom four days in a row for disruptive behavior, came up to me at snack and told me she wanted to change, wanted to be superb in class, and then was.

The time when Daniel, who has a tendency to bully other students when he gets bored, worked with me to turn around his behavior by agreeing to work on extra math packets in the back of the classroom rather than distract other students.

In my letters, I recorded these and other moments of grace.

When class convened after spring break, I distributed these letters to the class. 

I passed out markers, envelopes and lined paper and asked them to write me letters in return.  The following thirty minutes were the most silent and most focused I have ever seen my students. 

There were no funny noises, no pencil-tapping, no absurd half-dance moves, no humming, no turning in seats to talk to friends. Sixteen heads bent over paper, and sixteen hands writing, pausing, and writing again. I pulled out my phone and filmed, attempting to capture the palpable concentration.  Not a single student noticed.

Late that same night I read each of their reply letters.  I admit that I did not remain dry-eyed.  My students wrote about times where they struggled in class, with a particular concept, with a friendship.  They wrote about times where they had tried harder and succeeded.

For me, the most poignant letters were from my most difficult students.  They might not be star students all the time, or even most of the time, but in reading their letters I was reminded of how much they want to succeed.

Emily's letter to me was bright with pink hearts and purple stars.  In a corner of a page, written in blue ballpoint pen and wreathed in smiley faces, I found the following: “Next thing you’ll know I’m in 7th grade all mature!” 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Through Fuchsia-Rimmed Glasses

“Everyday Anna comes home and wants to tell me all of the things she can see now!”  I heard this from the mother of one of my 6th grade students, the week her daughter finally got her first pair of glasses.

I had first noticed Anna squinting to see the whiteboard in September.  I pulled her aside and ran an impromptu eye test, pointing at classroom posters at varying distances.  I decided to call home.

In April Anna proudly showed me her brand new fuchsia-rimmed glasses.

It took seven whole months of Anna's mother doing everything she could within the system to get her daughter glasses.  Anna's mother is one of the most pro-active of my students’ parents.  But she is also a young single mother with three children, who works multiple jobs and long hours to support her family.   Over the months following my initial suggestion, I learned of the catalogue of challenges: the complications of reaching an eye-specialist, of scheduling an appointment, of negotiating time off to meet the appointment, of determining what glasses insurance would cover.

I am now campaigning to get glasses for two additional girls.  I spotted one when I found the girl borrowing a boy’s glasses to read a class assignment.  The other girl approached me herself – asking if I would speak with her mom.  I have yet to succeed in either case. 

My medical consultations with parents go far beyond glasses.  For the headaches of one boy I worked out a strategy with his mom, where he carries kid’s Motrin in his bag at all times. In another case I started a conversation in October with one mother about investigating ADHD medication for her son.   Her son is one of my most rambunctious students; he is incredibly bright yet maintains miserable grades because of his inability to focus and his disruptive classroom behavior.  It is now early May and we are still exchanging calls about necessary doctors forms and teacher evaluations.

I am not naturally inclined towards medicating students.  I have read and cringed at reports documenting increases in ADHD proscriptions for middle school boys.  In most cases I believe there are better ways to focus the energy of middle school boys.

For some of my boys I have invented tracker systems – sheets that stay on a student’s desk and help them learn to regulate their behavior themselves. “Make a tick mark here every time you get out of your chair without asking, make a tick mark there each time you say something nice to another student.”  Each boy’s tracker is specialized.   I create incentive systems: for one bored Patrick, great behavior and participation earns him a starburst; for another boy, Daniel, I call home every week and report his behavior - both good and disruptive - to his mother.

Sometimes I layer strategies upon strategies. The systems work with varying success.

Daniel carefully tallies his behavior and asks for my comments and suggestions.  Michael originally ignored the tracker I placed daily next to his folder, but in recent weeks has claimed a corner of the whiteboard for a tracker system of his own devising (one orange mark for every time he taps, one purple for calling out.  Five marks gets him sent out of the room.) Joseph bought into the system for a week.  Now I find his tracker under his desk or knocked to the floor.  I pick it up and place it back on the corner of his desk. 

We are not just math teachers and English teachers.

Our students require more to succeed than help on a social studies assignment or an English report. 
Identifying the extra support our students need requires time to talk with them and calls home to talk with their parents.   It requires small classes – significantly smaller than those typical in a public school – so that teachers can ensure that not a single student slips through.  And, if a student does begin to slip, the teacher needs the time and the resources to investigate, to follow up, and to provide the necessary support.  It requires patience. 

But the reward can be immense. For when we succeed, sometimes after months, there is a student who can, for the first time, truly see.