“A lot of kids won’t tell you, this is the day that you can reach me.” I heard this at a conference I attended many years ago. Over my 33+ years as an educator I have found this to be true. There were challenges that I faced with students that required me to try all sorts of creative and different strategies to help guide them to be successful learners. Each challenge made me think about each individual that needed to be addressed to conquer their fears, to overcome their handicaps, to feel proud of their achievements.
As a collector of quotes, two more come to mind when I think of those years. “Challenges can be stepping stones or stumbling blocks. It’s just a matter of how you view them.” – author unknown and “What really matters is what you do with what you have.” – H. G. Wells.
I was successful for the most part as a teacher in guiding my students to be independent thinkers. But through all of those years I recall a handful of students that presented me with personalities, handicaps, and backgrounds that put me to the test of being an educator.
Here are some of those small victories. Note that the names of the students will be changed to maintain privacy.
When Anna entered my 4th grade class, I was warned that she had Downs syndrome, she didn’t speak well, in fact when she did it was usually to curse someone out, she worked at a pre-reading level, and had few life skills. She spent most of her time in the Learning Center, but was to be integrated as part of my class, for an hour or so a day, I was to have her do the activities that the rest of the class was doing. She did have her own personal teacher assistant that helped when she was in the room and all of the activities had to be adapted for her so she could participate. One of the activities I did was called “Magic Circle”. It was an activity where I would pose a topic to the class, such as “A day that I felt happy,” described what the topic meant and allowed students to share personal stories on the topic. Students sat in a circle and could share if they chose to but didn’t have to. Following the sharing we reviewed what people shared. Reviews took the form of repeating what someone else said and directing it back to the person who shared. For example, “Sally you shared that you felt happy the day your parents bought you a puppy.” The ultimate goal of this exercise, other than improving listening skills and fostering a closer bond in my class, was that each student would at some time get a chance to lead a Magic Circle. That meant that I would give them the topic, they would announce it, explain it, call on people, share if they chose to, and lead the review. It was a great program. Anna decided that she wanted to become a leader of Magic Circle. I told her that in order for her to be a leader, she had to first know the names of everyone in the class. It took until almost Christmas for her to learn the students’ names. When she led Circle it went perfectly. More kids shared than usual, she followed all the rules; the smile on her face and the positive feedback she received at its completion made my day and hers. I got through to her and she succeeded.
Marion suffered from selective mutism. For those of you that don’t know what selective mutism is, it means that the person has the ability to talk, but in certain circumstances cannot utter a sound. If you’ve ever watched the TV show, “The Big Bang Theory” one of it’s characters, Raj, suffers from selective mutism; he can’t speak to women. In Marion’s case she would not speak at all in school, with a class full of students or a teacher present. Now Marion was in my 5th grade class, meaning that she hadn’t spoken a word in 5 years. I should point out that I knew that there were students in the class that she would speak to and I tried to have them paired up as much as possible, much to the consternation of some of their parents. Marion had no problem speaking to me or other teachers on the phone. She would call us up at home and have some lengthy chats. She was selective about school. My goal was have her talk in class. This was a lofty goal considering the length time she had not spoken out loud. She was willing to talk to her friends, when I was out of the room. So for a couple of units, one on storytelling and another a social studies project based unit, I came up with a plan that worked for her. All of the other students in the class had to do public performances of their stories or projects in front of the whole class, I set it up so that Marion could do hers privately in front of one or more select people of her own choosing during lunch, while everyone, including myself, was out of the room. I was allowed to have the friend that she was telling to videotape her performance. With this done, I could share the video of her telling the story and doing the presentation to the whole class. She could choose to stay in the class during the video presentation if she wanted to. For the first performance she opted not to be there, but for the second one she stayed. The class was amazed at the fact that she could talk! She seemed quite pleased albeit a little uncomfortable at the response. I never got her to speak publically in front of me or the class that year or since, but what we accomplished helped both me and Marion feel successful.
There were other students that had trouble speaking in front of the class. Videotaping and the praise they received helped them overcome those handicaps. You can read more about Tracy’s achievements in my blog “Storytelling Success”: http://www.hdhstory.net/Storyblog/?p=63
Each of these small victories helped me become a better teacher. It allowed me to use the creativity that I had in me to help foster learning in others. It felt good and it was fun trying to come up with ways to solve each problem.
Hopefully next time I write you’ll hear more tactics and victories: about the student who was school phobic, 2 different Chinese students who couldn’t speak any english and another student who stuttered, how I became the confidant of an overweight sixth grader, and how piggy backing a 4th grader through the Bronx Zoo helped her become part of a trip she planned. Till next time…