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Rigor and mastery, told to the tune of Sam


To_gallup_7August 29, 2005 It took me about 35 minutes to get him to sit down and read the first question on his homework assignment, but after an hour of tutoring my most uncontrollable student in the dormitories tonight, we high-fived when he got his 2's multiplication tables. Then he broke my heart. "Maybe, you think, if I memorize my multiplication, the girls in class, and the boys, maybe they'll like me, as a friend?"

So it's one thing to teach kids. It's a whole other thing to make sure what we're teaching is of high quality and that it's being taught well. This is an issue we are engaging in-depth with our teachers in Teach For America, and no doubt a key issue all teachers grapple with across the country.

As I help facilitate sessions to first- and second-year teachers on rigor and mastery in student learning, I find myself telling stories from my own teaching. These are stories that are inspiring and these are stories that are heartbreaking. When I think about rigor and mastery, I find myself telling stories about "Sam".

His reputation preceded him. A week before he even arrived at school, the teachers were eagerly sharing all the horror stories they knew about the 12-year-old. It was a mix of rumor and truth. They told me about his alcohol problem. They told me about how he doused his cousin with gasoline and lit her on fire. They told me I would be lucky to get him to sit down and not hurt anyone.

But I was idealistic and I was optimistic and I was eager to make miracles. I was going to work so hard on this student, he was going to love me. But, as with all things, it wasn't quite so easy. Sam had been through heartbreaking abuse and trauma. He wouldn't sit down, he wouldn't stop hurting other students, and he wouldn't be quiet. Soon, no one in my class was listening, let alone learning. And so, without even realizing it, sitting down and being quiet became my big goal for Sam.

But I persevered. I set up a behavior plan that worked for Sam. I gave him inspiring talks and visited him at the dorm. Some days, he would even sit quietly in the classroom and fill out an entire math worksheet. Sam was working. The other students were working. I felt like a great teacher.

The "nice and quiet" lasted for about a week and a half. Then my conscience kicked in. I had to ask myself one of the hardest questions of being a teacher: To what extent was Sam learning?

The truth is, Sam was filling out a worksheet on addition and subtraction-- skills he had learned 6 years ago. I was so terrified of disrupting the peace, I didn't dare teach him something more challenging, lest he feel confused and frustrated (and disruptive and violent...) But it didn't matter that it was a first grader's worksheet-- he wasn't even filling in most of the answers correctly. I was so thrilled by the quiet, I avoided confronting him with corrections.

I was failing Sam. (Sam was actually quite intelligent and was clearly capable of doing far more challenging work. He had never been corrected or taught the lower level skills because of his behavior.)

It took a lot more time on my part, but it was my responsibility to figure out how to properly instruct Sam on basic math skills so that he could strengthen his math foundation. I also had to teach him more appropriately rigorous material that he should have learned long before, such as multiplication and word problem solving skills.

This didn't happen over night, but it did include investing him in a Big Goal designed just for him, explaining and making sure he understood why he needed to really solidify adding and subtracting, and how that was going to help him in the future. It also involved pulling him out to the hallway to show him how to correct and check his answers, and going to the dormitory at night to work with him.

Sam ended up getting expelled from the school. The day he was led out with handcuffs, I was heartbroken. In a mere 3 months, he had made great gains. He could do multi-digit addition and subtraction on his own and he could memorize his 2's, 3's, 4's, 5's and 10's multiplication tables. He could read and draw graphs. He could write a five-sentence paragraph. I had done my job. He had learned. And that's something no one can expel from him.


I think all of us have a "Sam" in our lives. I have 20. No one has ever told my kids "no." And before now, no one has expected them to behave, be polite to one another, much less put their minds to work.

I worry every day that one of mine will be led off school grounds in handcuffs, or worse... Friday one of my girls was arrested for assaulting another girl after school. I never saw it coming. Never dreamed that these things are considered "normal" in today's educational setting..

Those things impact their learning. While I taught science and helped kids focus their microscopes so that they could observe properties of newsprint, my little one was plotting quietly...and fuming. And I didn't notice. I didn't find out until this morning what she'd done. Am I a horrible teacher because I wasn't observant enough to see it? Or was I so oblivious to the real lives of my kids that I didn't realize what has impacted their learning up until this point?

Probably a bit of both. I never thought these things happened, and so didn't know what to look for to help prevent it... My big goal for my kids is to help them see education and learning as a way out of this circle of violence that they're so used to...

Jessica, You cannot just leave me hanging like that...or Sam. What happened to him? You have my attention, my interest in this young boy. He is crying out. Who is hearing him and helping him? He is in dire need of a support spirit. What can I do to help? Gail

Special Educators have challenges that regular teachers never dream of. Teachers placed in special ed. without having the degrees and training specific to our field have been thrown into the deep end of the pool.

1. Recognize that the first year in the classroom is hellacious for everyone. It takes at least three years to learn your job well.

2. Kids like Sam are special. It sounds like he has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and nowadays kids like him often get stuck in inclusive placements whether it is in their best interest or not. As a special educator if you find you have a child who is inappropriately placed you can call for an MRE (More Restricted Environment) and get him a small group placement or a child specific paraprofessional (one who works only with him) If the IEP team decides on a particular accommodation for a student it is the law. Jessica was right to give easier work than he was capable of. It built his self confidence. With a special needs child you need to start with what they have mastered and then slip new material in gradually. A form of this method is called "increasing distractors". With special neds kids you teach one concept at a time and build on it. You do not throw in variations until the child is confident and you support those variations and limit them. For example if a child can add 4 + 2 you can make your next step 2 + 2 + 2 introducing columnar addition but showing him that it is still 4 + 2. Also, do not vary format unless the child is comfortable. Don't give vertical colums on the worksheet and switch to horizontal for the test.

2. Since there is so much placement of students in inclusion whether or not it is in the child's best interest---his LRE--- it is vital that the teacher go on the internet and into the Special Ed. file of the child and learn the characteristics of the disability if the child has a syndrome. Some teachers say they would rather not know. This is irresponsible. Wouldn't you want to know if your child was visually impaired or had a heart condition or a peanut allergy? So why not the nature of the disability?

Here are a couple good ones you are lilkely to see among the mildly disabled

FAS and its less severe cousin FAE: Impulsive behavior, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, poor judgment, difficulty understanding the effect of his or her behavior on others, tendency to substance abuse. There are also certain physical manifestations that you can look up.

Williams Syndrome: Auditory learner (teach reading with phonics) Problems with spatial relations (trouble writing, self care skills, tying shoes) high levels of anxiety, extreme attraction to music--often sing and may play instruments, sometimes professionally, High verbal skills (Look up the physical. These are recognizable and extremely interesting people.)

Spina Bifida--lack bladder control, (work with the nurse, parent and PT) high verbal and very social and may appear to be much brighter than they are. Often have difficulty learning to read, but may be of normal or gifted intelligence or down into the moderately retarded range.

Down Syndrome--usually friendly and easygoing but very resistant to doing anything they don't want to do. Like routine. They tend to become "mellow" and easy to work with by high school but the primaries can be very difficult.
Tendency to problems with math and almost always need speech therapy. Check with parent about physical issues that preclude contact sports or tumbling. Will probably need Adapted PE. Many have a neck weakness. Most common of genetically based disabilities. Parents tend to be activistic. Support groups are extremely well organized. Many of these children are much brighter than they appear to be and are steady and dependable workers at their level.

Aspergers---Often very bright but lacking in social skills. Become obsessed with certain topics. Tend to be anxious and need reassurance repeatedly. Worry alot. Often have trouble prioritizing. (Aspergers is the top end of the autism spectrum.)

Theresa, violence is not normal. 90% of the violence is caused by 1% of the students. Some of the others condone it because it is a fact of life. Also, their mothers, who are often not much older than the kids teach them that fighting is how you solve your problems and set that example.

You cannot anticipate all violence. However you can set expectations for your class that allow only for peace and cooperation and hope that it carries over.

For Theresa on her fight. There is something I thought about. Girl fights are often unplanned. They can be brought on by boyfriend issues, PMS, pregnancy or problems totally unrelated to the actual altercation. Girl fights can be especially dangerous, however. Girls have built in weapons---long nails and hair ornaments. Watch your girl if she takes out her earrings. She is also likely to remove her weave if it detaches. A girl fight is likely to cause bruises and scarring, but not serious injury. Girls are generally out of control when they fight. It is dangerous to get in the middle of a girl fight. I have seen it take 4 grown men to stop a girl fight.

Boy fights are more likely to be planned and involve disrespect---especially of his mother. She could be a prostitute and a drug addict that he has to pick up off the corner, but that is still mama. They are often the result of an extended period, sometimes weeks, of difficulty and the boy may have tried other ways to disarm the issue. Sometimes the parents have already tried to transfer the boy to another school. Boy fights are more likely to use formal weapons than girl fights, but most of them don't. Boy fights are quick and controlled and are usually planned. As long as they are not based in bullying or other people jump in they are often a few whacks and over. (gang fights would be the exception to the few whacks rule) They are often broken up by the peer group. A few years ago I had a physically disabled class where two boys of similar physical ability got in a fight. The teachers could not break it up. However, when the other students became concerned there would be injuries and they were tearing off one another's clothes, one of the boy's girlfriend rolled over his pants leg with her heavy electric wheelchair while a boy with whom she had a brother/sister relationship grabbed the other from behind and put him in a bearhug (both were fighting on their knees).

Boy/Girl fights: Unless this is a case of abuse, which is domestic violence of the same kind as occurs with adult couples and is handled the same way, can be quite violent for the boy.

The boy is almost always the victim in this type of fight which involves some form of jealousy or infidelity. They can be dangerous but the girl is usually not totally out of control. It is a matter of the girl wanting to control the boy and using violence to get it. Most boys won't hit the girl back and so he gets beat up. I was once at a school where a girl had just found out she was pregnant and she cut a boy with a box cutter who was harrassing her.

Teachers cannot always prevent fights, but they can defuse them and help the students develop values that do not involve violence.

Poor Sam. I have utter respect for all of the folks on the frontline of the issues that netted Sam. I don't pretend to imagine what I would have or could have done in that situation.

I was troubled by the irony I felt when I read the posting about Sam and his school successes: Sam is being led out of the school in handcuffs and the teacher finds some consolation in the fact that the arrested boy knows more of his times tables.

Without claiming to know the particulars, it's obvious to me that the boy is dealing with some very serious and urgent problems. If the school is not going to help him with his vital issues, or if it can not, then isn't it wasting his time? Doesn't the urgency of the problem imply a different curriculum and teaching are necessary? This issue reminds me of the criticism Booker T. Washington made of the curriculum for newly freed slaves in the South. Why, he asked, are they conning Latin verbs in unstable buildings with leaky roofs? The moral I take from this is that curricula must be meaningful; it must ameliorate students' lives. Otherwise, it is a mockery of education.

What do you think?

I agree with Mark that education should be meaningful to the student. I also think that the school Sam was attending was not giving him (maybe not able to give him) the help that he needed. I do feel for Theresa and other teachers who have students like Sam in their classrooms. All too often I see teachers who are given a responsibility to a student that they are not equiped to fulfill. Most teachers are not counselors, doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, or police officers; but they are expected to deal with students who have behavior or mental issues that take professionals to handle properly. The student needs a lot of professional help. I do believe teachers can make an impact on the lives of students like Sam, however, more times than not this impact is not enough to "cure" the student of their problems. Sometimes teachers do not know exactly how to handle students like this that they have and they do the best that they know how. I think that this is what Theresa did. She did all that she knew to do and helped him in the best way that she could. I admire her for her efforts with him. We have to keep in mind that teachers like Theresa have other students that they owe an education to also and these students deserve an atmosphere where they can feel safe and can learn. Students like Sam can keep other students from learning just by their behavior and outbursts. Is this a waste of their time also? I think that this is an issue that needs to be addressed by higher athorities. All students deserve a good education and can learn, but I do not feel that they all can learn in the same environment. What Sam needed was not in the environment that he was in obviously.

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Recent Comments

  • Lindsay Del Bosque: I agree with Mark that education should be meaningful to read more
  • Mark: Poor Sam. I have utter respect for all of the read more
  • Rhonda: For Theresa on her fight. There is something I thought read more
  • Rhonda: Theresa, violence is not normal. 90% of the violence is read more
  • Anonymous: Special Educators have challenges that regular teachers never dream of. read more




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