Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's Celebrate!

At the end of each school year, we receive our class rolls from the previous grade. Often a commentary on the students accompanies these rolls. Although I try to avoid this, I still end up with an earful. One of my students (we'll call her Cassandra), came with comments from her previous teachers that she is just so sweet and helpful, but a sad case because she can't read or write. They told me I would love having her in class because I wouldn't even know that she was there. I was offended to hear another educator describe a student this way.

Once Cassandra arrived in my classroom, I noticed how cowed down she was. When she spoke she was so quiet one couldn't even hear her. I couldn't even get her to smile.  Now granted, Cassandra is an exceptional education student and also an English Language Learner so I knew there would be challenges. She is pulled out of the classroom several times a day to receive her services as she is reading on the pre-primer level, which affects all the subject areas.

Once we started doing our writing, I was shocked to discover that Cassandra was never expected to write anything. When I conferenced with her, I discovered that she really wanted to write all of her great ideas and publish like all of her peers, but she said that no one would help her. What? Here's a child who wants to write and no one has ever expected her to write. (I did confirm this with previous teachers, much to my dismay.)

Of course, reading is an obstacle. She is always in my small group for differentiated lessons across content areas. She set personal learning goals just like all of my other students. We would revisit her goals often and celebrate her successes no matter how small they would be. Through all of the hard work, she slowly began to speak louder and with more confidence with me. One time, we were celebrating her success and I told her it really wouldn't hurt too much if she decided to smile. Her lips curled up into a small smile. Her steps were small, sometimes almost unnoticeable, but they were steps forward.

As the weeks progressed, she began to speak up with peers and in small groups as they worked. She was the second one to finish publishing her animal story because she wanted to publish her work. She asked for help when she wasn't sure how to progress; something she never did at the beginning of the year. Then much to my surprise, she volunteered and began helping other students publish their work. Listening to her conversation with her peers had me wondering what those teachers from previous years were talking about.

Her entire posture changed. Now she shares dazzling smiles regularly and in the last two weeks, Cassandra has volunteered to participate in class discussions adding some amazing thoughts and connections. Last week, we took a reading benchmark test, which we do not modify because we want to get an accurate view of how a child will do on a grade level test. She scored a B. Today, they took a reading test and she insisted that she could take it without any modifications. She confidently smiled and assured me that she could do this. I let her thinking that she could always go back and retake it later with modifications if necessary. She scored a C. To say we celebrated these two accomplishments is an understatement. I know that grades aren't the end all be all in determining a student's success, but for her, it was the first time she earned a grade she could brag on...which she did to all of her Ex. Ed teachers and her mother. The ELL teacher who has been working with her for 4 years, told me that Cassandra is a miracle child.

When I asked Cassandra what she was doing differently, she told me with a twinkle in her eye that she spends time reading now and that she knows that she can "do it right" if she practices enough. Knowing her, she is probably putting many extra hours to overcome her specific challenges. Does this learner still have obstacles? Absolutely, but it's amazing what she can accomplish when she wants to and when she has support to help her reach all of her goals.

So  today, I wanted to write about Cassandra to remind myself and others out there of the importance of reaching every child. Being consistent and patient with each and every one of them is crucial for all of our students to reach his/her full potential. It may be tedious work, but we cannot write off a child's potential because of their previous school experience, home situation, cultural background or disability.

And by the way, her mother is so overjoyed, she is bringing homemade Tres Leches for the class on Friday. Congratulations, Cassandra! You've earned a chance to celebrate.


  1. Julie,
    Thanks for your story about Cassandra. As a former Reading Recovery teacher, I learned that everyone can learn to read if we can just find the right path for them. That's sometimes the tricky part. Your post is a great reminder that thoughtful small steps in the right direction can make a big difference.