Advocating for Students
February 28, 2008 at 2:30 PM
It is late fall in a first-grade classroom where I am teaching students to tell, write, and publish important stories from their lives. I am having a public writing conference with Marco. He has written some random letters on his paper, and his teachers believe that is the best he can do. We soon learn that he is capable of much more. With lots of back-and-forth conversation and encouragement, Marco tells a story about falling off the monkey bars on the playground and hurting his back. Sitting side by side and gently questioning ("How did that happen?" "Were you badly hurt?" "Then what did you do?") I guide him to write on his own and apply what he knows about letters and sounds. His classroom teacher immediately publishes his story by hand. She writes it on four pages with one line per page. Marcos illustrates it and, with great pride, reads his very first book to his peers.
I later learn that Marco has an Individual Education Plan for reading, math, and speech and is "pulled out" of the classroom three times daily to receive support from three different specialists. When his conscientious classroom teacher asks the specialists what she can do to help him learn, she is advised to "have him copy words from a book." Sadly, it is all too common for students like Marco, many of whom come from poverty and are English language learners, to have kind, well-intentioned teachers who expect little from them.
When the classroom teacher and I speak a couple of months later, she reports that test results indicate that Marco has made no demonstrable progress. That is, despite five months of daily support, nothing of significance has changed for this child. I advise her to advocate for him and take more responsibility for teaching him. Rather than fidelity to the program or specialist, we teachers need to have fidelity to the child and to restore common sense to any support plan. We need to ask ourselves: What do my experiences with the child tell me? What would I want to happen if this were my child? What does this child most need, and what is the best way to provide it? How can all available support services in a school be reconfigured so that more children benefit?
I am constantly stunned and saddened at how often we teachers unwittingly put the child last. Exhausted by having to implement yet another new program and to deal with testing demands and mandates, teachers become victims of learned helplessness. I am sympathetic to my fellow teachers, but I am heartbroken for the child. Who will advocate for our children if we do not?
Marco is fortunate. His caring classroom teacher has begun to take action by meeting with the principal and specialists to craft a plan to accelerate his learning. Her advocacy gives him a chance to become a learner; his learning gives him a chance to share in the American dream.
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