Great Moments in Teaching: When It Had to Be You

Teachers who work with a large population of Asian students occasionally describe a student as “not getting the memo”.  High achieving or just hard working, the bulk of eastern and southern Asians all got the word: school is important.

Taio, who has been in my ELD class for a year or so, is a tall, plump fifteen year old who spent all of last year on his phone. I’d take it away, and he’d just sit impassively. Miko mentioned last year that the kid had said I talked too fast, which amused us both, but when I mentioned to Taio that I’d try to talk more slowly, he was shocked and got out his phone for Google Translate. “I like your class very much,” the text said. Huh.

Taio would do work sheets, and occasionally write a sentence or two. But he hated to talk and would sit, sullenly staring at me, as I gave out sentence starters again and again.

Another conversation with Miko, asking if we needed a parent conference. “His dad is the only one here, and he works three jobs.”

I sighed. “How are these basically indigent people getting here from China? And why come here, with rents what they are?”

Miko shrugged.

Taio improved  with the new school year. The class was motivated, I had some curriculum, and last year’s experiences gave the returning students a bond that build more camaraderie.  He was still on his phone every chance I gave him, but he participated more, would occasionally speak unprompted, and even wrote brief paragraphs. But he still hadn’t had any kind of breakthrough, and while he wasn’t at all unintelligent, I couldn’t get a sense of his abilities.

I assess all my ELL students in their math abilities. You would weep at how commonly they are placed above their skill level. Just today, a new student from Pakistan arrived. Because he’s a freshman and it’s second semester, he was placed in Algebra I. But he has no idea how to use negative numbers, and no understanding of fractions.

Now, I’m not faulting the registrar–I have no idea how these decisions are made. It’s just that ELL students spend close to half their school day having no idea what’s going on in their classes. Teachers often have no idea how to adjust their curriculum to meet ELL needs, and still grade the students using the same standards. We put them in “sheltered” history and English classes but we only have one each of those a year. We finally started a sheltered science class, which is very popular. Other than that, ELL students take electives: art, PE, photography, cooking. We don’t yet have a sheltered math class. Most ELL kids with any math ability are put in mainstream classes. The problem arises with those who don’t.

I’d assessed Taio last year and earlier in the fall. He knew algebra basics, and was taking our non-freshman algebra course. His teacher, new to the school, told me in October that Taio was doing very badly in his class, but Taio told me he was doing great. He had a B, which isn’t that spectacular for a deliberately easy course (taught by a teacher who was having a horrible time managing his class). But it was a passing grade, which was better than two of his other classes, so I quit wondering.

Then Taio made a big mistake. We were playing Wheel of Fortune: I form them up into teams, come up with a puzzle, they spin an online wheel for points, and guess. The teams are grouped so that weaker students can watch stronger students mull over their choices. I wish I could remember what the phrase was, but they were down to just the tricky consonants. Taio was on a team with two strong English speakers who were moved to ELL 2 just a week later.He rarely participated in these games, but I noticed he was watching closely, and suddenly I saw him say, softly, “K”.

As it happened, “K” was a missing letter from the puzzle–which I can’t remember, but I do recall there were only two letters left, both of them difficult.  The other two didn’t hear him and were discussing other options.

I looked at Taio and said, softly, “Louder.” He smiled, and shook his head.

“Hey, guys! Check with Taio.”

Taio’s teammates looked at him. “K”. They shrugged. “K”.

“Yep.” I put in “K”, and Taio, unprompted, guessed the puzzle.

Why, the little weasel. He’d been holding out on me.

I started watching him closely and realized that Taio simply didn’t like to speak English. He understood far more than he let on. I discussed with this with Miko, who agreed but said he could not figure out how to motivate him to work harder. He’d passed Algebra with a C, but was failing Miko’s class for not working, and his art class as well.

A few days later, after the semester had ended, I saw Taio’s algebra teacher, an Indian gentleman new to American schools, in the copy room, and asked again how he’d done.

“Oh, terrible. He’s in my Discovering Geometry class now, too. Never does anything, zeros every day.”

“That’s so weird. Taio’s not a liar, normally, and he tells me his tests are all A.”

“Oh, they are. He does well on the tests, but no classwork. On his phone all day, doing nothing.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said–literally–“Wait. What?”

“Yes, he’s fine on the tests, but no homework, no classwork, phone all day. Same thing now. He got an A on the test, but no homework all week. He has a D.”

“So….he has an A average on the tests, but because he does no homework or classwork he gets a C.”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

In less than a day, I’d contacted Taio’s counselor, had him moved from Discovery Geometry to freshman Geometry. This is  much harder than our 10-12 Geometry class and it was taught by Chuck, which gave me pause. So I emailed Chuck, hoping he’d reassure me. Instead, Chuck wrote:

As you know, Geometry is requires vocabulary and syntax (if/then). My experience is that Geometry does not appeal to most EL students because it requires language skills. Geometry provides students the opportunity to practice, but most students who are not motivated and/or not confident typically won’t put themselves out there when verbalizing logic is required.

I crossed my fingers and hoped this wouldn’t make things worse. Miko thought it was a great idea, even better since the change meant Taio was in the sheltered science class instead of PE, which he hated.

Unfortunately, he still failed Science. However, he’s passing Chuck’s extremely rigorous  Geometry class with a B. He’s talking more in my class. Taking lead in class discussions.  Passing Miko’s class, which he wasn’t before. He’s even talking to Giancarlo, a Guatemalan, teaching him Chinese and learning a little Spanish. He asks me for help with math homework. So now I have to go talk to his science teacher and see how to get him moving.

Usually my “Great Moments” series are about exciting classroom action. This is just a story about a Chinese kid who doesn’t want to be in America and hates school. He ‘s a loner who doesn’t even use school hours for socializing.

But Taio understands what I was doing when I put him in that geometry class. He knows I put myself on the line to make school something both interesting and challenging–but doable. I’m not sure he’s working and trying for his own sake. He just doesn’t want to let me down. Good enough. It’s a start.

The thing is, it had to be me–more precisely, it had to be an ELL teacher with the math knowledge to instantly realize that a new math teacher didn’t understand he had a student who was bored silly.  It had to be an ELL teacher with the knowledge of the math sequence who could make a recommendation to a counselor and have the standing to back it up.

I love having all my credentials, but it’s usually for the flexibility and variety they give me. Every so often, however, they provide insights that move me millions of miles further down a problem path.

As an aside: you ever notice that ELL discussions by outsiders always focus around immersion vs bilingual education?  Neither method is going to get high school ELL students anywhere past pijin. It’s irrelevant.

 

Food for thought.

 

About educationrealist


2 responses to “Great Moments in Teaching: When It Had to Be You

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know if I buy that last comment. It was a wonderful story (kudos, serious) and had nothing to do with immersion, agreed. But if we actually discuss the topic, I think your hesitancy is because you are looking at situations in school

    I’ve had true immersion (no family, friends even) and I effing learned the foreign language…toot sweet. And this was 100% outside of a school environment.

  • educationrealist

    SInce it was outside the school environment, your experience doesn’t have any relevance to this discussion. And no, even immersion won’t get you past pijin. If you were suddenly fluent, it’s because you have a facility for languages.

    And I have no idea what you mean by “hesitancy”. I’m not in favor of bilingual, since what I’m doing is as close to immersion as a public school can get.

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