I've taught many students who were on specialized plans due to their behavior or infractions they'd received. In the Winter of 2015 I began a teaching residency at a school that hadn't met its adequate yearly progress goals in four years and was likely going to be gutted the next year. The fifth grade class I adopted had been abandoned, by their first teacher, who abruptly quit a month before, and then the substitute who had let them a week before. It was really two classes smooshed together and included a group of five boys who were struggling with authority and anger.
After seeing the curricula we were about to dive into, the teachers who had been there longer, including an aide that worked directly with the group of five, advised me not to include them in the program. The material was too hard, what was required of them not possible. I learned they each had come from very challenging home environments. A few them had no homes.
The teachers' insight showed me how deeply these students needed to be engaged at school. Needed to be given space to try, to learn, to face challenging and scary things and to succeed. All boys were given that space and chose to participate until the end. I hope the residency helped all students in that class feel capable, valued and empowered.
I've taught many students who speak English as a second language. One of the classes I was most impressed by was a class of 6th and 7th grade students, all of which had very recently moved to Boston from Cape Verde. Some just a few weeks prior. All of the students were nervous about speaking English and very shy. In addition to adjusting to a new country, a new education system and a new landscape, they were also just as self-conscious as any other kids in 6th and 7th grade!
I remember one young man, Xavier, who was a bit older because he wasn't quite ready to go into eighth grade, stumble as he tried to say a particularly challenging word during the performance. It was a tough word, even for a native English speaker: Alcibiades.
He froze. The class froze. The audience froze. I waited. I saw him look down to his feet and then glance up in my direction. I smiled. I knew where he was in that moment because we'd been there before. He would stumble in class, too, and sometimes would look to me anxiously afterward feeling insecure that he didn't know how to say something. In class, I would smile and tell him it's ok, try take a breath and sound it out. On stage, he smiled. He took a breath and syllable by syllable said in a soft but clear voice: "Al-ci-bi-a-des."
You could feel the tensity lift in the room. Looking around, I only saw smiling faces in the audience, silently supporting Xavier's efforts, and success. On his way back to his seat (which was on stage), he gave a few of his seated classmates low high-fives as he walked past their seats. He was beaming.
That classes performance wasn't the loudest, wasn't the biggest and wasn't the flashiest but it was the most honest. It was a thoughtful performance with intention and focus. It was brave. The courage and dedication those students had during that residency has not been matched in any classes I've taught since. It was an honor to work with them.