Friday, July 29, 2011

Seeing Things from the Other Side, Part II: On Being a Linguistic Minority

Waterfall at El Parque Nacionál in Uruapan

I have loved the Spanish language, and the culture and people of Latin America, almost since the very first day I walked into Ms. Britton's Spanish classroom on the first day of ninth grade. As little by little I grew in my ability to communicate in Spanish, I marveled at the idea that an entire world--hundreds of millions of paths of communication--were being opened to me. Until that time, there had existed an invisible and seemingly impermeable barrier between myself and the majority of the human race: now, it seemed I had the opportunity to chip away at a slight sliver in that barrier.

I listened carefully; I spoke with native speakers whenever possible; I practiced the language to the point that I'm sure I drove friends and family to the point of exasperation. I learned to place the tip of my tongue ever so slightly between my teeth when pronouncing "t" and "d"; I learned to ever-so-gently bounce the tip of my tongue off the roof of my mouth in pronouncing the single "r", and struggled (as I still do, sometimes,) to properly pronounce the double "r". I studied the grammar, I looked up vocabulary words, I began reading books in Spanish, and listening to Spanish-language radio stations. But I went even further: I learned to love the food of Mexico that was so readily available in my Southern California hometown, built friendships with and learned to love the culture of classmates and fellow Church-members of Latino and Chicano heritage, and I took great joy in the multitude of human connections I saw opening before me.

So it was that when, several years later, I began teaching, I had a special place in my heart for "English language learners," those students for whom English is not their first language--and especially for those students whose native language was Spanish. I did what I felt I could to connect with them, to support them, to help ease the cultural and linguistic transition. I thought that my knowledge of Spanish, and my experience in learning a second language, would help me to relate to them in some small way.

Now, after spending nearly a month in Uruapan, Mexico, I am starting to realize how little I understood (and how little I still understand) the emotional, psychological, and social experience of being a linguistic minority, especially in an academic setting.

The realization first hit me as I was attending a professional development workshop taught by my host on using collaborative games in the classroom. Even though my Spanish comprehension is decent, and I understood most of the main ideas of the workshop, there were still lapses in communication and moments in which I felt isolated because of my language. And, I had a new sympathy for those students who consistently shy away from participating in class when the instructor called on me (without warning) to comment on the activity we had just participated in. I understood what he was saying, I knew what I wanted to say, and I was even relatively sure I could find most of the words I needed to say it in Spanish. Somehow, though, in this room full of people for whom Spanish is not just a means of communication, but an integral part of their cultural and interpersonal identity, I felt like an interloper--somehow unqualified to try to express my thoughts in their language. This was different from speaking to a group of native Spanish speakers in California, or even casual one-on-one conversation with my host or my students; it was a formal, institutional setting in which Spanish was the accepted, expected form of communication. I did the best I could to express myself anyway, and I think I was successful, but I came away with a new understanding of the anxiety that comes with using a language other than one's own in such a setting.

I have also learned how easy it is to make unfounded assumptions about the intelligence of those who speak another language. I've always tried to remember, when working with students who are just learning English, that it isn't necessarily understanding they lack, but the vocabulary to express that understanding in a way I am able to understand. I think of myself as an intelligent, well-educated person, and I am working with some very intelligent, well-educated people here in Mexico--my host, for example, has two Master's Degrees, as well as a Medical Doctorate. While all of the people I have met have been incredibly kind, and have welcomed me with open arms, it is interesting how sometimes certain people seem to assume I lack much understanding of anything other than English--the subject I am teaching while I'm here. Of course it's not surprising--when I ask what must seem to them like an obvious question, I'm sure it is difficult to remember that I understand the underlying concept, it's the linguistic or cultural clothing the concept wears that needs explaining.

For example--recently, I took note, with some puzzlement, that many people here in Uruapan refer to this region as being a part of Central America. Now, while it's true that schools in the United States could probably do better in teaching geography, I definitely remember learning my continents. As I was taught, Canada, The United States, and Mexico comprised the North American Continental Plate, the nations of Central America (from Guatemala to Panama) sit on the Caribbean Plate, and the nations of South America (from Colombia and Venezuela Southward) sit on the South American Continental Plate. Thus, Mexico is the southern-most part of North America, as shown here. When I asked someone why they called this Central America, and what they defined as Central America, I had explained to me the existence of the equator, of latitude and longitude lines, and of the particular latitude lines that constitute the boundaries of the tropics. When I mentioned that we define the boundaries of North, Central, and South America a bit differently, I was told that "you North Americans are wrong, because you don't study geography." Rather than recognizing a linguistic and cultural difference, he assumed that my problem was simply a lack of knowledge or understanding--even attributing that lack of knowledge to an entire nation.

It may sound like a small issue, and it was, but I think it illustrates the larger barrier that still seems to exist as I try to understand and too be understood. The experience gave me pause--made me wonder how often I have unwittingly done the same thing to educated, intelligent individuals who happen to clothe their thoughts and understandings in a language other than my own.

It is frustrating, sometimes, as we struggle to understand each other, and as we wonder if we are really being understood--if the words into which we translate our thoughts really convey the sentiments we want to express. Even between to people who ostensibly speak the same language, such difficulties exist--how much more between those whose native languages separate them from one another. Language is indeed a fascinating phenomenon--so integral to our identities, yet so elusive to our understanding; both a bridge and a barrier; the journey I started in ninth grade continues, as I seek a more authentic connection with a wider portion of humanity.

Also, to be fair, only a few of my interactions here have been of the nature of the above described interchange; rather, for the most part I have been amazed and enthralled at the opportunities I have had, through the medium of the Spanish language, to connect with and understand facets of the human experience otherwise unavailable to me--hearing from a local perspective the struggles of the P'urhépecha--the people indigenous to Michoacán, or the first-hand account of an older gentleman who remembers the eruption of the Volcano of Paricutín in 1943 that destroyed two villages but somehow avoided the crucifix in the local church, not to mention the rich friendships I have already begun to build across linguistic and cultural boundaries. I am continually amazed at the doors language opens, and yet still I long for the time when I will see as I am seen, and know as I am known.

The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart 

by Jack Gilbert

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

Banana Trees in Patuán, 

My Teaching Space for the Summer

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Seeing Things from the Other Side

As a history teacher, naturally I'm always intrigued by an opportunity to view social interactions from multiple angles and various points of view. As a teacher in a primarily Chicano and Latino community, the idea of teaching in Mexico has also long held significant attraction for me. So it should come as no surprise that I now find myself in Uruapan, Michoacán, Mexico for the summer, teaching an English Course from primary and secondary English teachers here, as a volunteer with the program "Sueños Compartidos."

I have been in Mexico for nearly two weeks now, and in Uruapan for about a week and a half. Aside from the breathtaking central Mexican countryside, the unparalleled gustatory opportunities, and the plethora of Colonial-Era historic sites (all of which have been remarkable), I have found the experience so far not only rewarding but surprisingly eye-opening. The program with which I volunteer partners with PROBEM (Programa Binacional de Educación Migrante) here in Michoacán--a division of the Department of Education tasked with meeting the needs of students who have returned to Michoacán after living in the United States for an extended period of time. Thus, the needs of these students as they make an sometimes difficult--and often unexpected--cultural transition, has provided a rich topic of discussion in my English class.

I never really imagined, as I worked to make my lessons accessible to English language learners and to make sure my classroom was a welcoming, inclusive environment for students of all cultural backgrounds, that teachers down here in Michoacán, on the other side of what has become a sort of migratory loop, were dealing with many of the same issues in reverse--supporting students who, upon returning from the United States, have limited academic skills in Spanish even though they may have done well in school in the United States--supporting the development of academic language, helping them integrate into what is, to them, a foreign school system, instilling in them a new set of social and cultural expectations, and so forth--not to mention the administrative obstacles that come with trying to transfer school records from one nation's school system to that of another.

Coming to understand this reality has not only created a sense of common bond with my counterparts here in Mexico, but has also caused me to re-evaluate the philosophy which underlies my support of migrant students in my own classroom. I have always tried to honor the diverse contributions my students bring to the classroom with them, whatever their background; I work especially hard to help students who do not see themselves as "American" to see that they can indeed become a part of the American mosaic without having to let go of their own cultural identity. However, as I reflect on the discussions I have had with teachers here, I realize that perhaps my task is a bit broader.than that. Generally, when a student from Mexico returns there, I have little or no warning; it doesn't occur with great frequency, but it does occur. I see now that, beyond helping students to find their place in the American mosaic, there is much I can do to help foster skills in dealing with novel situations, variety of culture, and differing expectations, that will help them to be more successful wherever they may find themselves.

I didn't realize until now that any kind of movement or effort existed to facilitate any kind of transnational collaboration in an effort to support these students in their transitions--and I get to sense that there is more happening on the Mexican side than on the United States side--but I want to be a part of it. My priority is that these students learn, and that they be prepared for a successful future. That is something I have in common with these teachers, and I feel like there is a lot more we can do to support each other in supporting the kids.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Building Blocks of Historical Thinking

My most fundamental goals as an 8th grade United States history teacher do not include that my students should memorize the names and parties of all the presidents of the United States, or that they be able to rattle of the dates and locations of all the major Civil War battles, or any other such laundry-list of information. Not that I'm opposed to students accumulating historical date; indeed, they will doubtless find such data quite useful a few short months from now as they take the California Standards Test in History/Social Science.

Rather, my primary goal as a history teacher is to cultivate within my students a certain mode of thinking--historical thinking. In other words, thinking about history, and, on a larger scale, all the information they consume, in the thoughtful and critical way historians do--to understand that all historical narratives are created within a social, cultural, and political context, for some overt or tacit purpose; to comprehend that the way we perceive the world in 2011 is not how the world was perceived in 1911, 1811, or 1711; to see that the set of narratives we call "history" is not something passively transmitted to us by the past, but rather actively constructed in the present.

All this toward the dual ends of being more responsible consumers of information and more compassionate participants in the diverse world in which they live. As Sam Wineburg articulates in his article "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts" (Phi Delta Kappan December 2010/January 2011 92 (4): 81-94):

"Mature historical knowing teaches us to .... go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we've been born. History educates ("leads outward" in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it does the best in teaching us those virtues once reserved for theology -- the virtue of humility in the face of limits to our knowledge and the virtue of awe in the face of the expanse of human history."
(For a more thorough, and quite eye-opening, discussion of the nature of historical thinking, I recommend Dr. Wineburg's book of the same title as the above-cited article, available here).

Such lofty aspirations inspired me as I left my credential program--and they still do--but as I embarked on my first teaching assignment, teaching Ancient Civilizations to sixth graders in a district where test scores have historically been lower than the State of California would like, and in which English is, for most students, a second language, I realized just how lofty these aspirations were.

My students, in general, were so unaccustomed to being asked to think in this way about history--especially about historical topics as removed from their lives in time, culture, and geography as Ancient Egypt and Classical Rome. They entered my classroom expecting a "fill-in-the-blank" sort of social studies class. Even the following year, as I began teaching U.S. history to eighth graders, I found so many of them simply wanting to know "the right answer" so they could write it down and be done with it. Sam Wineburg was absolutely right, it turned out, when he described historical thinking as an "unnatural act." My students were so unaccustomed to being asked to think about identifying and evaluating sources, contextualizing historical information, and constructing their own historical narratives, that most of my efforts that first year seemed to yield little more than confusion and frustration--for both me and the students. For a time, I even all but abandoned my efforts to teach historical thinking, and resigned myself to the tedious textbook-and-workbook curriculum provided by the district. And I was miserable.

It wasn't until the summer after my second year, as I worked for the National History Education Clearinghouse searching out curricula that would foster historical thinking skills in students of all ages, that I realized my mistake: I was focusing too much on where I wanted my students to be, and paying too little attention to where they were. I needed to break this complex and often counterintuitive process of historical thinking into its elemental building blocks, and then introduce those building blocks one or two at a time, rather than all at once. 

This week, I had perhaps my most successful experience yet in teaching what I believe is one of the most fundamental building blocks of historical (and higher-level) thinking--the ability to acknowledge more than one point of view as reasonable and potentially valid. We've been studying the westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century, and this week we discussed the Mexican War--a hot button issue among my students, the majority of whom are of Mexican heritage. After reading the textbook's description of the war, a section of James K. Polk's speech asking Congress to declare war, and a statement by a group of Mexican leaders published in 1850 condemning the actions of the United States, I was overjoyed to witness a series of  lively, thoughtful discussions among my students over who exactly was to blame for the commencement of hostilities between the two nations in 1846. 

I concluded the week by having my students write (heavily scaffolded) essays in which they articulated the two opposing points of view from the historical sources we read, and then stated their own opinions. As part of the scaffolding for the assignment, I provided topic sentences for both body paragraphs--one supporting each point of view--and required students to select pieces of evidence from the textbook and the primary sources that would support each topic sentence. Below is an example of the resulting essays, probably one of the finest:

As I graded these essays, I felt I was seeing clear evidence of budding historical thinking, but perhaps even more exciting to me was the engagement with which my students approached the entire process. I feel I've seldom seen such engagement in my classroom since I started teaching, and it feels good. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On Second Chances

Someone in my credentialing program, I don't remember who, once told me that kids were like puppies--remarkably resilient and forgiving. During my first year of teaching, I often thought about how untrue this claim appeared to be, based on my then-limited experience in the classroom. I remember being so frustrated with how unforgiving students seemed to be--no matter how hard I thought I was working to serve them, to help them, to uplift them, they always seemed to focus on (and remember) the most minute of injustices. When I recognized my mistakes and tried to change the classroom culture, my students seemed awfully slow to follow.

Thus, I was understandably apprehensive when I moved from 6th to 8th grade, realizing that I would once again have many of those same students with whom I started my career, and fearing that they would remember in painful detail all of my mistakes and weaknesses. The expectations we bring with us into a situation will often shape that situation more than we realize, and I feared I would return to being the sort of teacher my once-and-former-students expected me to be.

Fortunately, I had learned one vital lesson during the intervening year--how to love my students. Certainly it helps that my students matured between sixth and eighth grade, and that I learned quite a bit about effective classroom management; it also helps that time tempers even unpleasant memories, and familiarity breeds fondness in adolescents. But I still believe that love was and is the key. Last year around March, I came to the realization that I loved nearly all of my students. This year, by the grace of God, I've been given the gift to love all of my students. Even the most obnoxious students I find myself seeing with eyes of compassion, and genuine desire for their success. I no longer secretly wish that just one or two of my students will move, or suddenly be discovered to live just outside the school's attendance boundaries.

That love, a miracle in itself, has brought on a chain-reaction of other little miracles, as I build relationships with students that allow them to trust me, to open up to me. I'm still not convinced they are learning all the historical thinking skills I want them to learn, but I am convinced that because they know I care for them, and because they trust me, they will some how be better people for having been my students. And it feels good to know that. It feels good to have them come to my classroom at lunch or after school, just to visit, or to seek advice. It feels good when J., who said to me at the end of 6th grade "Mr. Douglas, you can barely handle 6th graders--how will you handle 8th graders?" now says to me "You know Mr. Douglas, I think you're doing a pretty good job."

It feels good to be given a second chance, and it only happened because I was willing to give my students a second (third, fourth, fifth...) chance.

My students did this on my birthday a few weeks ago. One of the best gifts I could have received, and something that certainly would not have happened with the same kids two years ago.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Still Here, and Thankful to Have Survived This Long

Ten months have elapsed since my last post, but I am still here--now over a quarter of the way through year three in the classroom. Already, last year seems such a distant memory--a memory that sweetens as it ferments in my mind, and in the minds of my students.

One sweet experience I have enjoyed on several occasion since the beginning of the school year is the visits from last year's eighth graders, now ninth graders looking back fondly on what must seem to them now a much simpler time. One particular visit from the first week of the school year still stands out in my mind:

Juliana was a "tough girl" when she was in my class last year. Heavy eye-shadow and a variety of piercings accompanied a general disdain for authority and a vocabulary that might embarrass a sailor. Fortunately, I had a decent relationship with her, so we rarely went head-to-head (not true for our administrators), but she also rarely took my class very seriously. We parted in June on good terms, but I had grave concerns about her academic future.

Then, one morning in late August, as I was putting some finishing touches on my syllabus, Juliana* appeared in my doorway. She rushed over to my desk, gave me a great big hug, and proceeded to tell me all about her new experiences as a ninth grader at the neighboring high school, where classes had started about two weeks previously.

"You wouldn't believe how much I've changed, Mr. Douglas," she said, "I actually care about school now! If only I could go back and tell my younger self to shape up, I would have had a much better time in middle school." She told me about the classes she loved, and the one teacher she couldn't stand, but was trying very hard to get along with. I was pleased to see some signs of academic and social maturity, and I told her so. Then came a moment I didn't think I'd have this early in my career:

"You know Mr. Douglas," she commented thoughtfully, "you came into my head the other day--I was sitting in math class, having a really bad day--it was 97 degrees outside, my hair was a mess, I didn't have make-up on, and I was bored out of my mind. I took out my cell phone to start texting a friend. As I looked at the phone, I thought 'man, Mr. Douglas should be standing behind me right now.' I put the phone away, and made myself pay attention for the rest of the period." [Last year, we had quite a game of her trying to hide her cell phone while texting, and me catching her on it. Sometimes she won, but usually I did.] That story, the idea of my voice, my memory, keeping a student on the path to success well after she was out of my gradebook, made all of last year's headaches worth it.

Perhaps it sounds trite to those who aren't teachers, and perhaps even to some who are. Those who campaign for better compensation for teachers may not appreciate the unintended consequences of stories like this, and rightly so--warm fuzzy feelings may keep me in the profession, but they won't pay the rent or the gas bill. Regardless of how trite or naive it may seem, I feel good about that experience. Perhaps the greatest part of the reward is the surprise--of all the students I might have expected to come back to, in essence, tell me thank you, this girl would not have been on my short list. But there she was, and I hope she still occasionally hears my voice telling her to put away her phone and pay attention in math class.

*Obviously not her real name.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Crossing Borders

"He doesn't respect us, why should we respect him?"

At least, that's what the school counselor told me the student said. Of course she didn't tell me which student, but I had a pretty good guess; I could hear in my head just the way he might have said it. Coming from this particular student, I knew I had to take this analysis of my teaching with a grain of salt, but still I was surprised--and disappointed--to hear it.

Almost from day one, my sixth period class tested my classroom management skills, my nerves, and my resolve to be more calm and patient in the classroom than I was last year. Once I had an administrator come in and team-teach a lesson with me. For that one day, the class went smoothly, students were on task, and I felt like a lot of learning happened. When the administrator left just before the end of the period, I commented to the class "Ladies and gentlemen, this is excellent! This is just what our class should be like every day." I heard one female student mutter under her breath, "Then you'll have to bring Ms .... in here every day." Not long after the administrator left, the class had degenerated into its usual lack of productivity.

Now, I'm not sure if this student meant the comment as an attack on my classroom management, or as a critique of her peers' inability to respond to anything gentler then the threat of the unpleasant punishments often doled out by this particular administrator. Either way, however, team teaching with an administrator was simply not an option, and neither was allowing the class to continue in its current course. For the sake of my students' academic progress (almost completely stalled) and my own mental health, something had to change. By early December it was abundantly clear taht little, if any, learning was occurring in that class, and I was on the verge of losing my sanity.

So, when we returned to school in January, I solicited the assistance of our school counselor and an "at-risk" counselor we share with a neighboring middle school. We decided to join forces one day a week, divide the class into three small discussion groups, and hold little "group therapy" sessions, in order to tap into what is going on in students' minds, to give them an appropriate forum to make their voices heard, and (hopefully) to start to reshape the culture of the class. We started by giving the students a set of ground rules for appropriate discussion, along with some sentence stems to guide them, and asked them to share their feelings about the class. (Note: if you're a new teacher and are considering trying this, make sure you have very thick skin first). From this first session came the comment that opened this post. For some reason, it stuck with me throughout the following week more than any of the feedback I received from my students that day.

Respect. What did he mean by it? How did he not see that I had it for him and for his classmates--that it is a combination of respect and love that impels me to hold them to such high standards? How could I show respect in a way that he--that they all--would recognize it? We discussed the issue of respect the following week. To my surprise, the same student who made the aforementioned comment about respect had great trouble defining it, or describing how an adult might show it to a young person. They all had trouble defining it--one student, her own words failing her, could do little more than belt out some Arethra Franklin at the top of her lungs when asked to respond to the prompt "What does respect mean to you?" Sure, a few students were able to repeat back what they thought the adults wanted to hear as a definition for respect, but I could tell that, for the most part, we simply weren't speaking the same language.

In a course on adolescent development I took in graduate school, we read a paper describing the social, cultural, and linguistic "borders" students must cross in passing from the world of home and family life to the world of academic life (Davidson, Anne Locke & Patricia Phelan, "Students' Multiple Worlds: An anthropologic approach to understanding students' engagement with school," Advances in Motivation and Achievement, vol. 11, 233-273). The authors discussed how such transitions are difficult, and often resisted, when "the knowledge, skills, and behaviors in one world are more highly valued and rewarded than those in another." As I reflected on this experience with my 6th period students, I thought of the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are necessary for survival in the complicated world from which they come. So many of them exist in the confluence of a variety of challenging circumstances: immigrants navigating an unfamiliar country and culture, poverty, drugs, violence--what do I know about the giving and receiving of respect in such a world? Moreover, Davidson & Phelan were writing about high school students, who tend to be much further along in establishing a stable sense of identity within the context of the world around them. My students, just entering adolescence, are still trying to understand themselves and the parameters of the multiple worlds through which they must navigate each day. I cannot speak for all of my students, but I know that many of them have not had stable influences in their lives to model respect, responsibility, or compassion. Perhaps my classroom is the first time anyone has asked them to think seriously about these ideas.

I do not know just where these Tuesday afternoon sessions will lead. I can hope that my students will somehow learn to reflect on their own behavior, to see through the eyes of their teacher and of their classmates, to understand the link between their choices and the consequences they recieve. The fulfillment of that hope would be a miracle, and with each passing day I realize just how much both my students and I will need to experience miracles in order to navigate the borders that separate us and finally see one another face to face.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
-1 Corinthians 13:11-12

Friday, September 25, 2009

Paradigm Shifts

Learning is, essentially, the process of shifting, reshaping, and sometimes utterly revolutionizing our paradigm in order to reconcile our perceptions and experiences with the lens through which we view reality. Admittedly, that is a rough definition of learning, and some may wish to dispute it. That debate can wait for another post; for now, I am more interested in exploring the value of openness to a shifting paradigm in the process of teaching.

Perhaps this is even more true when speaking of a paradigm shift in its more technically accurate sense--certainly a genuine openness to a transformation of one's worldview would facilitate an honest inquiry after knowledge characteristic of such model teachers as Socrates. However, at the moment I am most interested in the smaller paradigm shifts--not really changes in paradigm at all, but changes in the way in which we view individuals and circumstances we encounter, changes that allow us to show greater mercy, greater compassion, to those we serve and those with whom we work.

I feel like I experience this every day in the classroom--or nearly everyday--as I learn more about the lives of my students. I had the experience just this evening, as I was taking some student autobiographies off the wall to make room for other samples of student work. As I looked at the "Snapshot Autobiographies" my students had written in the opening days of the school year, which had been proudly displayed on my wall for some time now, I realized that my initial cursory reading three weeks ago had not been at all sufficient. Or perhaps now that I knew something about my students, I was more prepared to receive information about their pasts. At any rate, I discovered things that had been before my eyes that I had never guessed about my students. I felt, among other things, a new respect for them. Tonight wasn't the first time, either. It seems that in the last three to four weeks, hardly a day has gone by in which I have not learned some story of hardship or suffering in the private life of one of my students--everything from divorce, domestic strife, and legal problems to gang involvement, drugs, and homelessness.

The more I learn about my students as individuals whose lives are so often filled with suffering, the easier it is for me to see myself as a servant rather than as a taskmaster--and that is a paradigm shift that is a key to effective teaching, I believe. This is not to say that I lower my expectations for my students out of pity--far from it; but I am more mindful of how my demands on them must appear, and of which demands are realistic, and which are simply asking too much of that particular student at this particular moment.

I have one student, though, who has seemed to defy this compassion-inducing paradigm shift. A chip on his shoulder from the first day of school, he was sarcastic, disrespectful, filled with negativity, dismissive of school work, cruel to other students--especially those who look, talk, behave, or believe differently from him--and generally unresponsive to my preferred methods of discipline. I wanted to have one of those paradigm shifts in relation to this student; I wanted to understand him better: I went to his other teachers, but found little more than the fact that they had similar problems with him (even teachers from previous years). I checked his permanent record, but learned little from it, other than that he was no stranger to suspension and other forms of school discipline. Finally, another teacher and I met with his parents--and saw him being just as rude and disrespectful to his parents as he was to us. I left the conference disappointed, unsure if we would ever be able to reach this student. Usually, (in my limited experience, anyway) even the most obnoxious students are meek and penitent when suddenly the authority of parents and teachers converge at some point in time and space. Not so with this child, apparently.

Yet in the few days since the conference, I have sensed the slightest hint of change; a suggestion of the early stages of thawing the icy barricade he has built between himself and authority. I want to see him differently--I want to recognize him for who he really is. Perhaps if I wait quietly enough--if I hold very still like one in the woods, watching a doe take those first timid steps into the clearing--he will give me that chance...

...In the meantime, I can comfort myself with these tokens of appreciation from two of my sixth grade students, passed forward to me during zero period this morning:

It's nice to know that some students feel this way about my class, even if the sentiments aren't exactly universal. These students make it that much easier to be patient with those who require the paradigm shifts I spoke of.