Saturday, February 16, 2008

A late sharing of a Valentine

"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


Anonymous said...

All I can say is THANK YOU.

Thank you for the work that you do day in and day out and for not giving up on students like A_____.

Thank you for sharing these experiences with us and inspiring us to be the best we can each day.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Ann Hagman Cardinal said...

What a wonderful, inspirational piece, Rudy. You made me cry on this sunny Saturday morning, but in a good way.

I'm just grateful someone like A_____ has a caring teacher such as you to have faith in her.

As a college admissions director I know for a fact that experiences like this change a child's life, and their educational paths are put back on course, often due to just one caring educator. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

This was really something else. It made me feel in a way that only the best of movies can do. I hope the parents understand how important you are.

Anonymous said...

Will your administration have a chance to read this blog and see how much you give your students and how much you care? They need to. You've made a huge difference for this child and many others. Never stop.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Gracias, gracias, gracias, for seeing that A and the others need the words, need the education that is liberation, and for having faith their learning hearts and minds need.


jayni breaux said...

Hi Rudy,
I'm teaching college-level ESL writing now. I know the joy of seeing words on paper and reading an occasional perfect sentence. Bless our students for not giving up despite the pressure to produce "an introductory thematic sentence and closing statement."

As always, thanks for sharing your wonderful writing and experiences with me.

Anonymous said...

i bet sometimes you shake your head in shock and awe that school rules and administrators can be such as they are.

then along come a series of victories with kidlets like A____ and clarity hits you right between the ventricles.

dfisher said...

Not only the teacher succumbed. That's lovely and inspiring. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

You've found it. Your calling, you have forever made a difference in not only your students lives, but ours as well.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing - In my eyes you ARE a master teacher. It is moments and situations like this that touch our hearts, and remind us why we became teachers.


Chris Bauer said...

I had to work hard to post this comment. Post #12 nearly derailed me but I persisted.

I got a few sentences into your post, knew this one was gonna do it for me. Eyes are still a little moist.

My wife is a social worker. Has done wonderful things working on crisis intervention with families on the brink. Now works with foster care teens about to be reach majority age and needing guidance on how to be productive and self-sufficient adults.

You as a teacher, my wife as a social worker, others who take the path of helping shape people's lives: you guys make a profound difference. Memories of you will be lasting, held dearly by A___ and every other student whose life you touch.

Thanks for sharing.

Chris Bauer

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Powerful and beautiful, Rudy. Mil gracias for writing this.

Anonymous said...

Great story Rudy. It's so important that we shre these moments with one another.

Thank you,

Rene Colato Lainez said...

Great piece.

Bravo! For all the A_____ students who are struggling and persevering in our classrooms.

Gracias Rudy



Anonymous said...


That's an amazing story. As a fellow teacher and classmate, I would agree that those are truly the merits our students should be rewarded by, not by one test or a rubric created by some teacher in a middle/upper class community. I'm so proud of you as a teacher!


Anonymous said...

I am not only proud of you and her but refreshed and rejuvenated. How lucky are we to have the ability to touch, love and actually change little lives that matter. I love you and cherish therse special moments because they make a difference in those little one's lives and in us "big one's " too. Love ya and you made me cry too.
A. Olivas

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for capturing the struggles and the miracles that we witness everyday in our classrooms. Sometimes, as teachers, we think it is about us redeeming our students, when it is really about how we redeem each other.