For the last several Fridays, I have volunteered in several language arts classrooms at a local high school, as part of my application process for a Masters of Arts in Teaching for high school Language Arts.
Last Friday, I volunteered in the classroom of a wonderful first year teacher, Bethany Rowland. Students in her first two classes are high school freshmen who read on a level of pre-school-4th grade. Their curriculum includes learning very basic reading and writing skills, one very simple exercise at a time, repeated over and over. ?Even with the very accommodating pace of the lessons, I could see within just a short time, as I walked by desks answering students? questions and checking on their progress, that many struggled to grasp even the most elemental exercises.
After completing some reading exercises at the beginning of the class, Bethany moved on to a sentence-building exercise. The subject was whale songs and the students were asked to write seven or eight 5-6 word sentences about whale songs. The students? abilities varied greatly as they wrote their sentences. For several, the exercise came easily. ?It was clear they comprehended the assignment and their writing came easily and fluidly.
Others sat and stared at the blank sheet of notebook paper in front of them, some playing with their pencils, doodling or tearing little corners from the paper and wadding them into balls. I stopped at the desk of a boy named Jackson, who was tearing his notebook paper into tiny pieces. Jackson, though just a freshman, was the tallest boy in the class and had a beard. With his shoulders hunched over and dressed in a heavy black coat and black jeans, he seemed unapproachable. Nevertheless, I asked him if he was going to work on his sentences. Without looking up, he snapped a harsh ?yes? at me and continued his paper tearing.
As I was about to walk on to the next student?s desk, not sure how to respond to Jackson because of my inexperience, Bethany stopped by. She asked if ?I would pull up a desk next to Jackson and help him, one on one, with his sentences. During the next twenty-five minutes helping Jackson, I learned a world about him, and about myself.
In truth it only took a brief moment, after I sat beside this abrupt and withdrawn student, to realize how difficult this incredibly simple exercise was for him. It was over his head and he didn?t, nor would he have, admitted this to anyone. However, as I began to ask him basic questions about writing the first sentence, it was very obvious to me that putting a five-word sentence together was an incredible struggle for this frustrated young man.
So, slowly over the rest of the class period, we worked together, as a team, to build the simple sentences. I could see, quite quickly, that with more one-on-one tutoring,Jacksonwould learn much faster. Unfortunately, this isn?t available to him or to many of the other students in that class ? not from their parents or from the school at this time.
As we moved from sentence to sentence, I asked questions to help Jackson make sense of what he was writing and offered prompts to help him go successfully forward. With small strides and some success, I could see his confidence grow. ?Honestly, within this short time, he was sitting up straighter and feeling better about himself and his abilities to complete the exercise. When we landed at the last sentence, Jackson was on a roll. With just a little encouragement from me, he had moved from shaky baby steps to taking the walk on his own. Enthusiastically, I assured him he had done great job.
When his teacher walked by and asked how he was doing, Jackson replied, ?Miss Hunter said I did great. ?I even did the last sentence all by myself, without any help from her!?
?It?s true!? I said, ?I didn?t say one word. ?Jackson got it all by himself.?
Bethany smiled and winked at me, as she headed back to the front of the classroom. In just a few minutes, I had an insight about why I want to become a teacher and why teachers are so important, despite the great challenges of the profession.
(Fictional names were used in this story.)