"Use the content-rubric to rate the students' writing from 0 to 2: zero if their response lacks an introductory thematic sentence and closing statement, 1 if they show evidence of either."
As I tried following these instructions during an after-school staff meeting, I found it impossible to determine whether my first grader A___'s writing in Spanish lacked theme and closure, or contained both, for that matter. But my confusion wasn't due to what she'd done or her lack of trying.
In her five months of struggling in room 103, A__ had regularly filled a half-sheet of paper with letters she carefully scribed while sounding out each syllable. And although her lettering was wonderful, in fact her compositions were unreadable, oftentimes even to their author. That hadn't stopped her.
Problem was, A__'s written words lacked most of the vowels, some consonants, and each of her lines normally contained only one space separating two long clusters of indecipherable prose. At the same time, such work showed improvement since she'd entered first grade almost unable to read.
"Zero if the response lacks an introductory--" I repeated to myself. How could I know if it did? She might have a strong thematic sentence and an even better closure, but I was expected to give her a zero simply because I couldn't decipher her heroic compositions. I was tempted to leave an N/A, which translated as "not observed," but then I would have had to explain my veering from the grading system.
During those five months A__ had managed to reach a 6 reading level, which put her on the path of failing to reach grade level by the end of the school year. I had worried about her in other ways, wondering if her belabored development was a sign of ADHD, dyslexia, or an even more serious learning disorder.
Teachers worry about such things, sometimes more than they should. For various reasons, every year we have kids who can't, won't or don't make it. We don't reach them. It's not just in writing; it's in every subject and can even encompass their growth as little human beings.
Anyway, A__'s prospect of going on to second grade with skills, abilities, and knowledge she'd need to survive, much less prosper, didn't seem likely. I would need to "staff" her, which would mean a meeting with a team of professionals to determine how best to meet her needs, since her teacher hadn't been able to do it.
I didn't mind the implicit idea of failure in this, since I know I'm no master teacher. It was the implicit branding of A__ that I dreaded. She and her parents would suffer the too common stress and even humiliation of a student diagnosed as failing.
Given her and my situation, I'd begun having her sit regularly with others at my table, instead of writing independently.
One morning she asked, "Cómo se escribe Hawaii?" I wrote it on a note for her, even though spelling U.S. states wasn't how I had intended to help her. When she showed me her completed sheet, I was surprised she hadn't done the usual half-page. There were only five lines. Less than thirty words. But each one was spaced. Almost no letters were missing. And I could read them. A__ had made a qualitative leap! We celebrated her achievement that day with song, dance and chants.
But A__ wasn't done.
A couple of days later she wrote seven lines. While the spelling and spacing was about the same, she had added something new. Sentences. With capitals and periods. Even the lone sentence that wasn't grammatically perfect was close to.
A__ who was at level 6 in reading had made a syntactic leap that those at level 16 had only begun to tackle, in some cases not as successfully. We celebrated again, only harder. A__ had become not just the class model for persistence, but also our model for something higher--writing excellence.
The composing of a few five-word sentences may not sound like major achievement, but in this case it was sufficient to affect a heart that often gets hardened by the job of teaching in U.S. classrooms. I felt good.
But she wasn't done.
For our Valentine's party, we worked like Santa and his elves do on the 24th, in our case, getting the kids' cards for their parents ready. I'd sent blank cards home for parents to make one for their kid, and my plan was to have each parent and child share theirs in front of the class.
As they took turns reading aloud, I realized I didn't know what the kids had written, even though I'd helped them with revisions. I'd been too much editor and not enough listener. Some of the more advanced ones had created some great, even beautifully poetic pieces, which I wish I could share, but can't since you're not a part of room 103.
When A__ finished reading to her father, I realized again that I hadn't heard what she'd read. All I'd heard was her loud, proud voice smoothly and unhesitatingly enunciate every word, from beginning to end. To me, the content, though intelligible, wasn't the most important thing.
When I looked at the faces of the parents who didn't know of A__'s past, I so much wanted them to know what she had struggled through, what her achievement amounted to.
I began explaining the significance of the words that she had very fluidly read to them, how wonderful it was that she could even read her own words, and how proud they should feel for her. I was only able to mutter out half of this as I made my way to where we'd posted a display of A__'s recent gains. I did manage to point to it. That's the most I'm capable of while crying.
One by one the parents approached to examine her work, nodding and talking amongst themselves. I couldn't make out what they said because I was all choked up with my own heartfelt pride in her.
Unintentionally, A__ had accomplished one more thing. I'd challenged the class to write something so excellent it would make their parents cry, promising a prize to whoever succeeded. But all the parents had succeeded in holding their emotions back. Only the teacher had succumbed. By default, A__ had won the prize.
I lay claim to A__'s reading as my best Valentine, which makes it worth a lot higher than a 2 on a content rubric. Teacher's prerogative. That's all I wanted to share.
But then again, A__ may not be done yet.
© Rudy Ch. Garcia 2008