Changing a Life
August 23, 2009 at 1:15 PM
I met Kathy during a weeklong residency where I was demonstrating effective teaching of reading in a high challenge school. Like many of the students in the school, fifth-grader Kathy was a bilingual learner who was struggling as a reader. While her teachers told me she was reading on a second-grade level, a one-on-one conference with her quickly revealed her to be a non-reader with very poor decoding skills but adequate comprehension. In spite of being able to read a limited number of words, she managed to get the gist of the story. Later I found out she had been placed in special education and was only participating in the full language activities of the classroom because I had insisted all students be present for my demonstration teaching. Kathy was a failing and dispirited student who disliked school. Unable to get recognition for being smart, she was now seeking attention in inappropriate social ways with her peers.
Today Kathy is transformed. At the age of 16, she is a smart, articulate, courageous, and inspiring young woman. Kathy managed to wrest herself free of her special education placement through years of advocacy. Determined to succeed in school, she sought out the resources she needed, worked relentlessly to become a proficient reader and writer, and will be graduating high school in June 2010, a full year ahead of schedule. She will be attending college and intends to realize her dream of becoming a lawyer to help other students like herself. I spoke by phone with Kathy a few weeks ago. She wanted to be sure I put the date on my calendar to attend her high school graduation.
Kathy's life was changed by one reading conference when I told her she had a "smart brain," was a nonreader through no fault of her own, and that she would receive the reading help she so desperately needed. I tell her story in Teaching Essentials (Heinemann 2008) and you can see and hear Kathy's story in her own words here, on the Heinemann.com website, and in Transforming Our Teaching Through Reading to Understand (Heinemann 2009). While Kathy's story is unique, in my experience, it is not uncommon for a child's life to be changed inside and outside of the classroom through one honest, affirming conference. Starting with honestly celebrating the child's strengths (they all have them!) before offering possible suggestions for improvement is often enough to jumpstart the child's lagging confidence, courage, and willingness to work hard. This is the gift we educators can choose to give to all of our students. They deserve no less from us.
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