I found out yesterday that the student I retained from my class last year (let’s call him Juan) has moved to a different city. Now, this student inspired many deep breaths in me, moments when I had to calm myself before reacting. One of the first words he spoke to me in English was “sorry” which he said, at first, softly while looking down at the floor, then with a sly smile looking me in the eye.
I really liked this kid.
He was full of energy, constantly moving his body when the class was sitting together on the rug. At the end of the year I was able to send him out for 10 minutes in the morning with the gym teacher to shoot baskets before school. He loved that and though it didn’t really calm him for his school work, it did make coming to school more fun. He looked forward to it and made sure to have his sneakers tightly laced each morning.
When he came to our school in December he spoke not a word of English. He spoke very little in Spanish as well. He had recently left the Dominican Republic to stay with his grandparents. We slowly pieced together that, though he had attended school, his education was sporadic and inadequate. He could not identify the letters of the alphabet nor count to 10 consistently (in neither English nor Spanish). He had no idea how to behave in a second grade classroom.
While we all worked hard between December and June, at my last meeting with Juan’s grandmother, she was still very concerned. I told her I would like to keep him back with me. I had waited so long to decide I thought he should stay because we don’t usually keep newcomers back a grade. We know they need time to both learn the new language and learn in the new language and we have supports in place to help them along at every grade. But Juan wasn’t just learning a new language. He had effectively missed all of the pre-literacy work typical of kindergarten – in any language – and he was just beginning to catch up. By the end of second grade he could identify the letters of the alphabet fairly consistently, recognized a handful of sight words, could produce simple sentences in English, and even could add single digit numbers. He had built up the stamina to sit independently with a book for sometimes up to 15 minutes. And when he fooled around and ran in the halls, he had the confidence to look directly at me and say “sorry.” He was making progress but I worried that third grade would just be too overwhelming. There is a huge leap in expectations in third grade and he was still testing at a kindergarten level in literacy skills.
Juan’s grandmother was relieved when I suggested keeping him in second grade one more year.
My principal was not easy to convince. Her legitimate question: “What are you going to do differently next year?” My honest answer: “That’s what I’m going to spend the summer trying to figure out.” And I have. As I have read and thought and planned this summer, Juan has always been at the front. How am I going to help him progress? How can I adapt this activity so he can benefit from it? What’s a good way to track his progress and share that data so all of the teachers that work with him can help him move forward?
And then the email from our English Language Development teacher; Juan has moved.
I’m upset, not because of the work I put in this summer – clearly that work will improve my teaching for other students – but because another teacher is going to have to start from scratch and learn what Juan needs and how to get it for him. And that means more delay in his education. And I’m upset because I was really looking forward to having him in class again. I actually wanted to see him throw a paper airplane or roll around on the carpet just so I could give him a reminder and hear him say “sorry.”