Sunday, July 25, 2010

Droplets of Water AND Favorite Teaching Story- Whoa

I apologize in advance for the length of this posting. Sometimes I just can't help it. And I am of the general opinion that Americans don't do enough reading. But mostly, I just can't help it.

Sometime in my childhood, I developed a crush on a boy who I thought loved the outdoors. He had a deep respect for animals and plants and nature in general. And in my child's brain, I thought that if I too became enraptured with the world outside, he would take notice and we would share secret moments together behind the school building, complete with flowers. I don't even remember who this boy was, but I do know that he rode my bus route, because it was on the bus that I perfected my Nature Girl persona. (Yes, I actually referred to myself this way.) I would stare longingly out the window, breathe meaningful sighs periodically, run my fingers through my tangled little-girl hair (please just try to picture the hilarity of this), and sneak furtive glances to see if Nature Boy was watching. He wasn't.

This behavior persisted for just a few weeks, but it was in this short span of time that I learned to observe. I certainly wouldn't say that I am typically the most observant person in any group of people- solo endeavors included. It is a long-standing joke in my family that I have the skills of a spastic squirrel when it comes to noticing my physical environment. However, I can become fixated on little details, tiny occurrences with almost insignificant consequences. And one of these is water. Specifically, water droplets.

I just like watching them form, holding my breath until the last second when they finally became too heavy and succumbed to gravity. Sometimes it seems to happen instantaneously, and other times it is a long, slow procedure. For some reason, it is the similarity of every journey that appeals to me. The fact that every single droplet of water ever formed has been through the graceful process, regardless of location or speed.

This is the part of the blog post where I become profound. Bordering on revelatory. Prepare your mind...

Teaching is like the formation of water droplets. Yeah, I said it. I made that absurd metaphorical connection. But faithful reader- stick with me on this one. Because there is an awesome story at the end.

Sometimes it is all you can do to get the words out of your mouth before a student takes them and runs away. They move with speed through the material you are teaching, and make huge leaps and giant splatters of the mind all on their own, with almost no effort on your part. These students are sharper than you thought possible, and make connections you yourself hadn't thought of. They integrate subject matter and find meaning in everything in the classroom. Pouring knowledge into them happens almost instantaneously. These kids are HARD to teach. They are always looking for more, for deeper, and for better. They are frequently bored and create all kinds of behavioral problems. They make you feel inadequate almost every day- but I wouldn't lose these feisty kids for the world.

On the other end of the classroom spectrum there are the students who seem to take forever to form that droplet. You pour everything you have- all the knowledge and the skill and the energy you have- into the brains of these students, and connections don't hold as firm. The molecules just take longer to bond, and you hold your breath, praying every moment that this moment will be the one. And my friends, when this moment arrives, and the lights flash and the heart jumps and the soul rejoices... let's just say I wouldn't lose these kids for the world either.

Okay. You have read through a lot of incoherent blabber. But I do hope that you someday have the chance to pour knowledge and watch droplets form- with whatever speed they fancy. A good amount of my work last year was with ELL students- students learning English, non-native speakers. One group in particular was exceptionally special to me, and the characters in what is perhaps my favorite teaching story up until this point.

The fifth grade students were facing the dreaded (dun dun dun...) ISAT test in the beginning of March. Similar to every other standardized test in every other state, preparation for the ISAT was accompanied by the descention of gloom over the school, it's teachers, and the students. I literally had crying nine-year old students, worried that they wouldn't pass. Shaking my invisible fist at the nitwits who designed such as system, I would carry on and dream of the day that I could actually teach again. One of the particular challenges of the fifth grade test was the inclusion of the TIMED WRITING TEST. And let me tell you, for a group of 5th grade students learning English- this was not the most promising assessment.

And so I took on this task, and taught my kids how to write. We talked about structure and how to write a good introduction. They learned about grabbing attention and finding a main point. Considerable confusion ensued when we discussed the three main points within the main point and the three details that must accompany the three main points within the main point. Pushing onward, they studied conclusions and wrote "gotcha sentences" and make good personal connections. And they wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And I read some dismal essays. I'm talking crazy, incomprehensible, barely readable work. And I assessed them the way the state would, and sometimes at night I cried, and neglected to hand back the papers the next morning for fear of crushing little spirits. But their faces shone with such anticipation and they asked for more timed practice and we barreled through the calendar towards the test.

Some of my students caught on right away, like the quick droplets of water. They honed their skills and produced work that was both readable and enjoyable. And others steadily improved- everyone steadily improved- but steadily does not mean quickly. One of my favorites is the most earnest, hardworking student I have ever encountered. And his writing was atrocious. But he carried on, always hoping, always trying. He got better and better.

One night, I was sitting in my living room assessing essays. Again. And I got to this kid, this amazing, wonderful, hardworking kid... and I read his essay waiting for the bottom to drop out. And I read it again with tears welling up and a growing sense of pride. And I read it again crying and smiling and laughing. And I put the elusive number 5 at the top, the top score, the "Exceptional" marking.

The next day, I put the essay face down on his desk as I was passing back papers, and continued to move around the room. I didn't say anything because I wanted to gauge his true reaction- and so I was terribly surprised when he began to cry. He came up to me with streaming tears and held the essay out and said "Thank you, Ms. Sablich. For weeks I feel myself to become a better writer. But never I think it would happen. Thank you, Ms. Sablich. For now I know I am to becoming a better writer." (Please repeat the following sentences aloud while speaking with the accent of the cutest little Mexican kid you have ever met.)

We cried together that day. He was a slow droplet- but the beautiful process was the same.

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