Friday, June 25, 2010


I taught a 10th grader this year who we'll call Elliot. At the beginning of the school year I gave the class a reading assessment test and Elliot scored the lowest at a third grade reading level. Third grade.

He's American. His parents speak Spanish, but he's lived here his whole life so it's not like there's a language barrier. He said he never read at home and his parents never read at home and he didn't learn to read until Kindergarten. But when I told him his reading level, he decided he did not want to be the class idiot.

He read. While the rest of the class was finding ways to avoid doing any work, Elliot was pouring over pages from All Quiet on the Western Front, calling me over to ask if he understood the pages correctly. He was always the first to volunteer to read aloud, and I swear to you I could hear his pronunciation improve with every paragraph. I promise you he's no longer a third grade reader.

The best moment, though, was the short stories. Each kid had to write a short story based on the elements we covered in class. I read the story then conferenced with each student so I could explain all my notes in detail. Then they were to turn in a revised version of the story as their final exam.

Elliot's story was short, about a kid who wanted to deal cards at a casino in Vegas. His quotes were not formatted properly and his story had almost no conflict. I told him so.

He nodded and smiled and went off to work on it. While his friends were drawing circles on paper instead of working on their final, Elliot completely revised his story.

I have never seen anyone take notes so well. He fixed his quotes, but the real kicker was what he did to the story. I think I threw a suggestion out when I was giving him the notes - something about one character preventing the protagonist from getting his goal - and he just ran with it. This went from being a boring story about a guy who wants something and then gets it, to a story about a guy who wants something but can't get it until he escapes from his kidnappers.

I am so freaking proud of this kid. I lavished praise all over him when I handed back his story, and he just grinned from ear to ear. I handed his friends their fails.

The lesson here is that it does not matter where you come from or how much education you have, if you're willing to listen and work and use your imagination, you'll be just fine.


  1. Thank you Emily, for shutting up all those assholes who claim you CANNOT learn the craft.

    And for teaching that kid that hard work CAN get you ahead in life.

  2. Thanks. I like to think I helped a little.

  3. "His parents speak Spanish, but he's lived here his whole life so it's not like there's a language barrier."

    Hi Emily,

    I loved the story, the commitment your student showed, and the phenomenal job you did with him. But the fact that he's lived his whole life here doesn't mean there isn't a huge language barrier (or else he wouldn't be reading at a third grade level :-).

    For the past two years, I've been intimately involved in our neighborhood elementary school that has an enrollment of 80% reduced income, Latino kids, whose parents only speak Spanish, and the only English education they receive is in school -- many of these kids were born and raised in America. Language, and language education, is a huge issue, including for those born in the U.S. Of course the obstacles go far beyond language, but language is definitely a major issue.

    What's particularly heart warming about your student's success is that many, far too many, Latino kids give up on education by the time they get to high school and it's really a waste because they have so much to offer, but our society seems bent on draining it out of them.

  4. I can appreciate that. It's great that you work in the community. Elementary school is where it all begins and it's vital that they start their good habits there. Often, by the time they reach us, it's too late to make changes.

    But these kids consider themselves American, and I refuse to let them ride on the fact that their parents are immigrants. They can learn, just like anybody else. Elliot's classmates read and write English just fine and they are from the same kind of homes. This is high school, so their expectations must be higher.

    That said, you're totally right that they tend to give up because they don't have a lot of encouragement.

  5. I'm involved because my son is in school. It's been a totally eye opening experience -- especially as his school is a "poor performer" as measured by standardized tests and there's been a lot of controversy around the school as it's smack dab in the middle of a very affluent neighborhood. His school is bilingual, so the Spanish speaking kids actually score really well in their native language. Many do well transitioning to English in later grades (for the tests), but there are also many that didn't begin in Kindergarten (coming into the school at later grades) and their scores in English get all the press. Very depressing, especially since many of these kids are very bright and eager learners.

    I think it's great that you challenge the kids. Knowing their background can aide in understanding, and even help devise specific strategies for improving the education they receive, etc., but students don't benefit from having lower expectations placed on them. That probably feeds into the downward spiral.

  6. Oh most definitely. They come in with low expectations, so the teachers tend to have lower expectations, and the cycle just keeps going.

    Good luck with your son. Parent involvement is the number one determiner of success, so you're already doing him right.

  7. how incredibly rewarding that must have been for the both of you!

    great story, emily - thanks for sharing!


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