In 2006 I had a student who baffled me. I simply could not get him to engage. He would walk in to the class with his hoodie up over his head, put his head down on the desk and not participate at all. Loving attention, phone call home and disciplinary measures did nothing. I tried to get background information, but got nothing. (I would find out at the end of the year that he had been language-exempt until that year, but had then not only been declassified, but was also not working with a 504 nor any support staff. His reading level was about 4th grade.) It was very frustrating.
One day I was greeting students outside my door and caught a glimpse of “Justin” coming down the hall. The problem was, I didn’t recognize him. I thought that I was seeing a new student. He was standing tall, wore no hood, was laughing and smiling and talking with other students. I wondered for a moment who this new student was. Then, as he approached my room, he began to slouch. He stopped smiling. He pulled the hoodie up over his head, shoved his hands in his pockets and I realized that the young man that I hadn’t recognized, was my student “Justin.”
This was a horrifying moment. I saw him transform on his way to my class, BECAUSE HE WAS COMING TO MY CLASS. It really, really bothered me.
In January, after midterms I often show the movie Selena in English to my 9th graders. For the first time, “Justin” paid attention. When, after we watched a 20 minute segment each day, we did interactive activities in Spanish about the movie, the head would go back down. But, for 20 minutes a day, he was actually a member of the class. One of his friends pulled me aside and told me that “Justin” had actually downloaded some of Selena’s music. So I knew, at the very least, that a tiny crack existed in the armor he had put around himself.
When the movie was done, and we had finished all of our discussions and readings and drawings etc.. I gave students a blank sheet of paper and asked the students to do a “free write.” “Write, in Spanish, ANYTHING that you can think of about this movie and the real Selena”, I told them. And the pens went flying across the paper, except, of course, for “Justin”, whose head stayed firmly on the desk. Then, after a minute, I realized that he actually was writing something on his paper. Unbelievable.
When I collected the papers and the kids had left the room, I scrambled to find his paper. After 5 months of NOTHING, I was dying to find out what he had given me. It was 5 very simple sentences in SPANISH about Selena. I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned. Then, as I was going through the other papers, I saw another student’s paper that was nearly identical and my heart just sunk. “He copied.” I thought. Then I was actually encouraged by that. At least he had copied IN SPANISH!!!! Then, as I continued to go through the papers, I saw several others that were nearly the same. I realized that these students had not been sitting near each other. It had also been an UNANNOUNCED quiz. They couldn’t have prepared a “cheat sheet.” Finally it dawned on me. If I truly believed in acquisition I had evidence of it right in front of me. These four students were in the same place. THIS IS WHAT THEY HAD ACQUIRED AND SO THEIR PAPERS WERE SIMILAR.
In order to celebrate “Justin’s” entry into language, I took his paper and typed his five sentences (errors corrected) in a word document. Then I copied and pasted the paragraph a second time and INSERTED words, phrases or sentences from other students papers to make it more detailed. But ‘Justin’s” paragraph remained the core of the reading. I wanted him to know, without making a public spectacle of it, that I was honoring him. That next paragraph was pretty interesting so I just kept going. Copy, Paste, INSERT neat things that other students had written. I could honor everyone. I had done similar things before, but not exactly in this way.
The next day I passed out the papers face down and told the students that on the count of three they should turn them over, read the paragraph, and then make silent eye contact with me when they had finished, and understood, the paragraph. If they hadn’t understood, then they should stay silent, but not make eye contact with me. One, two, three!! Everyone started reading. Except for “Justin”, whose head remained down on the desk. Then I saw him pick up his head and glance at the desk of the student next to him. He sat right up and looked at the paper of the student on the other side. He flipped over the paper, took one look at it, looked straight at me and silently mouthed the words, “THIS IS MINE!!” in great surprised. I nodded and he gave me a smile.
When the rest of the class had read and made eye contact, I asked them to do the same with the second page, the longer piece. They did, including “Justin”, who made eye contact and smiled, again. When the students turned to the third page I watched “Justin” carefully follow the text. He looked up at me, pointed to the reading and mouthed the words, “ I can do this! I CAN DO THIS!” with that same smile.
And that is how it started. It was so successful, not only with “Justin”, but with all of my students, that I just kept playing with it. I truly believe that it is not something that I created, but a gift that I was given to connect with a young man who didn’t believe in his own abilities. For that reason, I am sharing it with all of you. You all have “Justins”. This not only helps the “Justins” that you are trying to reach, but offers every student a way to be successful and interested in reading. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
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