What the Tour Bus Would Miss….

Junia Yearwood is quickly becoming one of my favorite Boston Globe reads. The article, “If Only Visitors Could See My Students“, provides insight into an urban classroom — and warns of the dangers of believing what one reads or learns via the fifth estate.  So, here is what visitors might miss in my classroom.

The quiet girl who transferred in about 2 months ago. Homeless, her family had been living in a local hotel until recently. She is an accomplished reader and is becoming an accomplished writer; a sadness envelopes her most of the day. She write poetry and song lyrics in her native Spanish – and then translates them for all of us to enjoy when she musters the courage to open herself to sharing. In her journal she writes about her father who died suddenly in hospital. If a classmate is in trouble, she is the first to help or provide support. While her mother works the night shift, she watches over a school-age younger brother and 2 twin babies. In her eyes you can see the strain of having to be responsible beyond her chronological years.

Engaging and social, nearly always the center of things, the student sitting next cannot read. Oh he tries, but the brain connection between what he sees on paper and what he is able to do disconnects. He has no IEP, yet struggles to read at a beginning grade 1 level. The process for getting him evaluated for special education services may take an entire year of data collection. Meanwhile, he and I do the best we can to make the connections.When he is working with me, he is serious. He wants to learn to read but is terrified his friends will find out that he can’t.

The next student is a better-than-average third grade student with the potential to be brilliant. He has told me he wants to be a scholar and a scientist. He is a big boy – as wide as he is tall. Though he is often in someone’s personal body space, he cannot help himself. Oh how I hope he comes back to visit when he grows to be comfortable with himself! And how I hope he’ll hold on to that dream of becoming a scholar and a scientist even when so many temptations surround him that would take him off the path to his goal.

Another nearby student exasperates with his absent-mindedness. His brain is working all of the time, though,  and when he expresses an insight into reading, it is mind-blowing. He is convinced he is bad and talks about how his “bad” alter ego needs to take a hike. He is the only student I’ve ever taught who was convinced he was on Santa’s naughty list – and gave detailed reasons why and how he was planning to change the situation. Here is child who is used to people who expect little of him. He hoards food from our breakfast program and from the cafeteria at lunch. Is his family unable to put food on the table? My guess is yes.

So many hardworking, complicated students. It is not simply the academics in an urban classroom. As Junia Yearwood points out, a visitor would witness the will of the human spirit to overcome what life has dealt. It is the spirit of my students that inspires, that keeps all of us coming back to work another day.

The Infamous 3N8

It is my — and their — nemesis:

3.N.8 Select and use appropriate operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to solve problems, including those involving money.

My students can perform computation into the thousands. We are pretty darn good at it. But toss a word/story problem in their direction and everything falls apart.  Why can’t these kids figure out an appropriate equation and operation from the words? It is really quite a pain.

Remembering the challenge of second language learners — and the nuance of the English language — partially explains why these kids have such a tough time deciding what operation and equation makes sense. I’ve resisted the urge to teach key wording because it doesn’t always fit the situation. And the standardized testing we foist on these kids often doesn’t follow the “formula.” Besides, I want them to think and to know what they need to find a solution.

So this week, I’ve started applying a teaching strategy we used to teach in another school for visualizing. Explicitly teaching students to visualize seems to me like the only way they are ever going to figure out if the answer – the result – should grow or shrink. Which I hope will lead the students to a reasonable equation for that computation they seem to do so well. It just so happens that the students are not very strong visualizers when it comes to reading either.

What I do know is that unless I can convince the students to thoughtfully consider the action in a story problem, to visualize what the situation is, all the computational skill that they have acquired will mean next to nothing.