December 12, 2013
I do some of my best teaching in some of the worst situations. I work well with the hard to reach students, the discipline problems, and the troubled kids on meds. I also work well with delinquents, gang-bangers, cutters, kids who are locked-up, and kids behind bars, adjudicated youth, aka prisoners, and so on. These students all have something in common, they have not been very successful in school, so much so, that when I cross their paths, between 7th and 9th grade, they have a both a distaste for and a distrust of the public school system.
I cannot list for you the steps that I take to reach these particular students. I also cannot point out to you the pedagogies, the methodologies and/or the strategies I use to help these students experience success in the classroom. I can only tell you that it’s what I do, it’s who I am.
Each student is different, of course, and each student requires something different in my approach to them. I am never quite sure what will work on any given student. That is why most of my time is spent observing my non-traditional students, and trying to determine how each learns best. Then, and only then, can I begin to see what modifications and accommodations will best suit the learner.
I’m not saying that I have always been successful. Quite the contrary. I lose more than I inspire. But when I am successful in determining how best to serve the student, and the student is successful in learning how best to serve himself, it is a thing of beauty. Although there is no typical way I engage my most difficult students, I can share with you an example of how I do what I do.
Ray, not his real name, is a new student in one of my more difficult classes. Ray, a Special Ed. student, had been in another teacher’s class and had been doing well, academically, until recently. During his most recent Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting, his former teacher, the Special Ed. teacher, and the vice-principal decided that it was in Ray’s best interest to switch over to my class. Perhaps a change in scenery would help. So far, it hasn’t, until today.
Ray was his typical, disruptive self during class this afternoon. We were in the library today and Ray could not sit in his seat for more than three minutes, tops. I had observed this behavior since his coming to my class. The first minute he can almost sit still, by the second minute, he begins standing to “stretch my legs”, and by minute three, Ray is pacing with a purpose in the back of the room. Ray’s m.o. is fine, as long as he stays away from the other students. Ray cannot stay away from the other students.
I have observed that not only does Ray have a limited physical attention span, he also has a limited mental attention span, both of which cause him to have short-term memory loss. Ray’s attention span is so limited that he will forget both my question and his answer in the time it takes for me to finish my question. Ray’s hand will shoot in the air to answer my question, and I can see by the look on his face, that he does know the answer. However, I can also see the look of confusion come across his face as the answer slips from his conscious memory.
I have observed that Ray is adept at knowing which student’s help he can enlist to double-team the teacher, me. Ray needs a sidekick to divert attention to. Ray can’t sit still, but he can sit quiet. Ray, silently, provokes his sidekick into disrupting the class; attention diverted, Ray is free to “release” his pent-up energy with little chance that he will also be a target for the teacher’s admonishment.
Ray’s sleight of hand, if you will, works only as long as he is allowed into the general population. When he is in time-out (I don’t really call it that, but that is what it is.), he has only his self-control to keep his energy from getting him in trouble. Today, in the library, Ray let his energy get the better of him and he was sent to a table alone.
When it was time to do the group work, I formed a group with Ray, Ray’s earlier sidekick, and myself. We sat as a group while the librarian read the class a story. The story took approximately 8-9 minutes to read, and I was looking forward to, once again, observing and hopefully, determining how to best harness Ray’s energy. Oddly enough, Ray figured out the solution himself, it just took me to point it out.
During the first minute or two of the story, Ray began using his pencil to shade a rectangle on his paper. I noticed that he was deeply engrossed in his drawing. He appeared to be concentrating so hard on his art. However, he was the only one in the class listening, actually listening to the story. Ray laughed, shook his head, smiled and nodded in all of the appropriate places in the story. He was not only listening to the story, he was focused on the story, I had never seen this side of Ray. Ray was learning.
Ray managed to focus his attention, control his energy, and open himself up to learning, for a full 9 minutes. I was quite proud of him. Ray, however, was not so much proud as he was surprised. He was unaware what had kept his energy at bay and his focus on the story. When I pointed to his drawing, Ray seemed genuinely surprised that he had been drawing a picture. He was unsure of what had just happened. At this point, I explained to him that I didn’t quite understand it myself, but drawing allows some people to calm their energy and focus on what is being taught. I told Ray that he appeared to be one of those learners.
“I’m sorry, Miss, I was just drawing, I don’t know what I was doing.”
“Ray, it’s ok. How long have you been drawing to control your energy and focus on learning?”
“Huh?” was Ray’s response.
I explained to Ray that while he was drawing, he was able to learn. I didn’t know why it worked, I just knew that it worked. I hadn’t realized that Ray was unaware of his learning process, or what was the best way for him to learn. He was discovering something about himself and the smile on his face told me that he thought it was pretty cool.
Ray had one of those A-ha! moments we often hear about. I’m hoping that it was a significant enough moment to encourage Ray, the student, to want to keep learning. I know it was a significant enough moment for me, the educator, to want to keep teaching. Sometimes, a significant moment is all I get, dear Readers. And most days, dear Readers, a significant moment is all I need. Peace, ~v.