Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 05 2011

When is a sentence like a present?

A lot of my snapshots of kids are venting frustration at their behavior, or their past educational experience, or their required testing. Let’s not do that today, shall we?

One of my kids–let’s call her Snoopy, after another famously communicative nonverbal character–doesn’t talk, as a general rule. She scored in the 0.5 percentile in oral language ability on the ELL test (ACCESS/WIDA, for those in the know). Their family doesn’t talk–it took me 3 conversations with Mom to get past “yes,” “no,” and “okay.” There’s just not a lot of language ability in this family, and it shows in Snoopy’s struggles in school. She was left back in 2nd grade, scraping by since then. She came into this year not knowing all her vowel sounds and reading at 22 words per minute (that’s mid-first grade level). She didn’t speak at all for about a week. Her writing was random words strung together.

But here’s the thing: Snoopy is not a dumb kid. I’m pretty sure she’s actually really smart. First of all, she’s mostly nonverbal, but she’s by no means uncommunicative. She’s playful, she’s attentive, she’s participatory, it’s just all done with body language. She has a running joke in after-school where she’ll hide directly behind me until I freak out that I lost a kid, and then she’ll pop out, grinning. She is one of my most attentive kids, looking and listening in class. She does great in math; almost all her math difficulties stem from the fact that she can’t read. But she does extra homework every night for math and has her addition and subtraction facts down cold (which is a big deal in a class where 2/3 of us still use our fingers to subtract things like 9-5).

Even in reading, this kid is WORKING. She and my other struggling readers spend a little more than an hour every day doing phonics, prefixes and suffixes, and nonsense syllables. This is BORING. It is REPETITIVE.  I probably wouldn’t pay attention for that long. But she does it, enthusiastically, every day (and extra on Tuesdays during after-school), and you can tell in her reading. Not only is she reading more words correctly, she also takes our weekly tests, which are easily 2 or 3 grade levels above her reading ability, and through sheer willpower manages to pass about half of them. I’ve been checking, because there was suspicion of cheating, and as far as I can tell, she reads the question for about 5 minutes. Once she’s mostly figured out what words it says, she goes back to the text. She searches for the same words in the text. Then she spends about 10 minutes matching the possible answers to what it says around that area of the text, and decides which one actually matches. ALL OF THIS WITHOUT BEING ABLE TO READ HALF THE WORDS. See why I think she’s secretly brilliant? How many 11 year olds, or anyone, really, would have the intelligence to figure out a way around the reading part of the reading test, and then the patience to do this painstaking matching game for 45 minutes straight? AND be successful at it?

But here’s why my heart melts for this child: I know how hard all this is for her. Language is so hard. It does not make instinctive sense to her, and a lot of time those words that are grammatically correct look to her like her random words do to us. So when she does speak in full sentences, it’s like she’s given you this amazing gift. At first, they were only sentences of great necessity, and only after she’d worked her nerve up: “Can I use the restroom?” “Ms. EMinNM, you forgot the points.” (They get prizes for class points.)

Today, I got the best two presents ever. Present number one: an off-topic, low-importance question. Snoopy asked me what was in the box under my desk, not because she needed something or because it was of vital importance, but just because SHE WANTED TO KNOW. That is ENORMOUS! It means she wanted to communicate, wanted to know something, and both felt like I was a good person to approach and trusted me enough to ask, with words. AWESOME. Present number 2: full sentences. Written down. In a (somewhat) logical sequence. It was supposed to be a story about a time you were pleased, and Snoopy’s was more like a list of animals she saw making noise at the zoo, but it was FULL SENTENCES! And when she wrote “The tiger was growl” and I asked if it should be growl or if we needed an “ing,” she knew! And she both said it out loud and fixed it! Hallelujah!

I’m realizing that these accomplishments are totally lame if you don’t know the kid, and I feel like I’ve done a bad job making it come alive, so let me sum up. Language is incredibly difficult for this kid, and usually when she uses it someone tells her she’s doing it wrong. She does not have much success in reading, writing, or talking, ever, and probably never has. For that matter, she hasn’t had much success in school, either. She gets by with fewer than 300 spoken or written words, I would estimate, per day. So how magical is it that she chose to give me that effort, give me those words today? That’s when sentences turn into presents.

One Response

  1. CJK

    You are making a change in her brain. Language IS happening. Bit by bit is how it comes. Think of Helen Keller…Never underestimate what a difference you are making my building step by step

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In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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