Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Promise Made, A Promise Kept

It was January 2012 when I was first introduced to Diego and Cesar, two unique individuals who had recently arrived in the United States from Mexico. It was my first day in the role of student teacher and as part of my dual certification in ESL and Broadfield Social Sciences, it was a requirement for me to work with second language learners. I remember the moment a few months earlier when my cooperating principal smiled as he made the statement "I have the perfect situation for you in my school"....and then handed me over to these two level one English learners. Since the high school had no formalized ELL program in place, I was presented with a one-of-a-kind opportunity which cemented my commitment to teaching....and learning.

Diego and Cesar knew how to smile and nod their head in agreement, and the first thing I found myself doing was reciprocating in return. In a simplistic way, I assured them that I was there to help. It was more than me teaching them English words in an attempt to help them coexist in this new world, but exchanging both culture and language. I began with the basics....counting numbers, telling time, learning colors and members of the family. They laughed when I mangled their language, and I smiled with them when they attempted to construct new sounds from vowels and consonants which they interpreted differently. The 45-minutes of class time during 1st hour went by quickly and they always came to class prepared with completed assignments and questions about specific words.

As they became more comfortable with Mr. D, they arrived before as well as stayed after school with questions about algebra and science. It's one thing to assist regular students with finding solutions to square roots and transcendent addition sets, and another to work your way through translation of terms while still keeping it simple to understand. It also afforded me the opportunity to revisit my personal frustration of algebraic equations and polynomials I had shrugged off many years ago. Nonetheless we worked through it together and I often reflect that their witnessing my weakness served as a model of determination on their part. Our eighteen weeks together created a friendship and respect for one another, and when I left their school in June I made a promise to return for their day of graduation.

As Linda and I sat in the high school gymnasium that Friday evening, I thought back to those days and how much I learned from Diego and Cesar. Much of what they taught me went well beyond the realm of classroom knowledge, focusing instead on the human spirit and what it means to be a second language learner in a foreign land. In many ways it resembled a time back in 1996 when we opened our home to Vicente Castro, an exchange student from Los Cabos. As the Weyauwega band played the entrance music, I watched with pride as Diego and Cesar came forward with their peers. When their names were called to come forth to accept their diploma, I felt a part of me being pulled to the stage. But best of all was their exit from the gym that night....and finding them in the hallway of the school....looking for me.

We hugged in celebration of their realization of a high school diploma, recalling that their journey was the result of much work on their part. While the exchange of words was more fluent and easier understood (on both parts) from that day in January 2012, the bond of friendship will always remain strong. When I returned to my classroom for the final two days of classes at Beaver Dam High School, I shared both my picture and story with my freshman students...not for the role which I may have played in their education, but for the successful accomplishments of these two young men. I will always be grateful for the lessons they taught Mr. D!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Keep an Eye on the Class of 2017

My school year lasted two extra days this year due to extra-curricular activities with the freshman class. As their Class Adviser I have an opportunity to follow this group to their graduation day in June 2017, something I look forward to with great anticipation. This is an interesting group of characters, and they possess skill sets which could set them apart from other groups of students who journeyed through the halls of BDHS. While the administration has given them and myself the freedom to conduct projects for the purpose of building a class treasury, they are slowly coming of age with confidence and maturity. In April they sponsored "Friendship Week" with a week-long flower sale, then during May they designed and sold an official class t-shirt to members of their class. Last week they held a outdoor Summer Dance which marked the end of the school year with a strong turnout of students. At the end of June they are organizing a Brat Fry which will culminate their first year of activity in high school. These four projects will create the cornerstone of what should be almost $1,000 for what will eventually become their Senior Project. No doubt the upper classes of students are envious for what these students have accomplished in their first year, knowing full-well that the sophomore and junior class has $0 in their accounts.

As a teacher I feel a sense of accomplishment with this group and they've been put on alert that I will continue to challenge them over the next three years. While the "fun aspect" is an easy-sell to these students, I want them to understand the benefit of reaching out to all members of their class. I want them to realize that it's more than just having 3-4 classmates organize all their social activities. By involving more students in the decision-making process, they can actually enjoy more activities in the long run. More people lends to the development of creative thinking and a better buy-in from throughout their class.

Why should any second-year teacher tackle challenges such as these? It enhances the buy-in factor by students in so many ways both in and outside of the classroom. In teaching U.S. History to this year's freshman class, I was able to interact with only about 20% of their classmates. The rest knew who I was and always offered up a greeting when passing through the hall. That 20% spread the word that someone believed in their class, in academics, athletics, and other extra-curricular activities. While I'm not here to be a best-friend to these young people, they do have a sense that they have a trusting adult who will work with them to achieve common goals.

In the final days of school there was more than one occasion when a freshman would make the statement "Mr. D, we want you to know that we want you to continue being our class adviser next year!" I assured them they were stuck with me and I was staying right with them until the day they graduated, eliminating any doubts from their mind. This journey has been enjoyable and most rewarding, knowing that adults can make a difference in the life of a young person. But they've also taught me that students learn best when they are in control of their learning. Teachers cannot talk and talk and talk while students listen. Teachers have to engage their students in meaningful activities, pushing them to the deep end of the swimming pool where the real learning takes place. This has been a GREAT year!