Results are In
I feel like I'm at a turning point in my career again. Constant change is my only consistency and I need to change this. I am finding this out in my years serving as the Reading Interventionist on a high-need campus.
Working with students performing two or more grade levels below grade level expectations, watching them fail mandated district and state tests, and continuing to motivate them to not give up is often exhausting. Giving everything I have to my students and getting failing test results back crushes me to my core. Hearing my principal tell me to look at the growth column, “All of your students received a 1 or a 2 in growth,” meaning they either met their expected growth or exceeded it by our state’s standard is supposed to make me feel better. I frantically go through the list of 116 fifth grade students and highlight all of my Tier 2 and Tier 3 students, physically and mentally falling lower and lower with every “No” I read.
And just when I feel crushed to the point of tears, I see a “Yes.” A “Yes” next to Dashanae’s name. That “Yes.” Dashanae passed her STAAR test. A part of me despises that test. Another part protests the excessive amount of standardized testing our public schools endure. How can a four-hour test determine your achievement? Your success? Your future?
For my fifth graders of poverty, taking a test may be the last thing they care about on that day. They face so many battles outside of school. I have no idea how they cope.
I mean, I can talk to my parents. I am not on medications one day and off the next. I know that I will eat dinner. I know I will sleep in my bed, in my home.
I have worked with Dashanae for two years. She was in fourth grade reading on second grade level. According to the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark reading assessments I gave her, she was at a Level L, which correlates to just below a third grade reading level. She struggled with writing conventions, spelling, and grammar. She didn’t like reading. Or teachers. She certainly didn’t trust teachers. She was constantly disrupting the classroom, no big infractions, but silly distractions that annoyed all. She was assigned to my Response to Intervention reading group. Her teachers were relieved to have a break from her for that 45 minutes each day.
I instantly liked her. It’s easy to like students in a small group setting. I find that often, they really just need someone to talk to or a minute, someone to listen to them. I took an interest in her life, in her person, and worked to get her back on the reading track. I’m not sure which happened first, her silliness prevented her from learning, or her struggles increased the silliness. We had our work cut out for us.
As teachers, we read article after article on better teaching practices, classroom management, student engagement. My key is building a relationship with Dashanae, of caring and support. She learned to trust me, the teacher who grew up in a different neighborhood with different circumstances and different experiences. I shared stories with her about growing up. I actively listened to her stories, and problems, and concerns. What I discovered was Dashanae was an amazing young lady, full of creativity and brilliant ideas. She was very artistic and her peers recognized her abilities and humor.
When she read with me, she naturally made connections to her life (a TEK that many students struggle with). She needed to share her thoughts as they came to her head. I watched Dashanae make gains in comprehension and fluency. She began to love discovering new words. She took great pride in her ongoing list of vocabulary acquisitions she measured on an anchor chart in my classroom. Although she was making these gains, and learning to love reading and learning, she was still at third grade level at the end of fourth grade.
When fifth grade began, I brought her to my room in September to assess her, and all of those gains we had made seemed to have vanished. She was still just as creative, but her fluency drop greatly impacted her reading comprehension. She hadn’t read a book over the summer. This “Summer Slide,” was devastating to her progress -- and for me.
Two positions to take: Why bother? or Let’s get to work.
We started reading. I pulled out my childhood favorite Boxcar Children. She started out reading the words very choppy, but we began a new vocabulary chart. She related to the characters -- begging me to stay longer to read another chapter. We moved onto another book. She could not put Sideways Stories from Wayside School down. Thank you Louis Sachar! This book accelerated Dashanae’s growth spurt -- from learning to read to reading to learn. The entire reading group began talking about the book so much that other fifth graders were asking me for it. We laughed -- not just chuckled, but belly-laughed with tears -- and couldn’t wait to meet the next character in the book.
I looked forward to working with her group. We began to feel like a real family. They asked if they could come read with me during lunch, we formed “The Lunch Bunch”, eating and reading every Friday. It was one of those books that none of us wanted to end. When we finished, Dashanae proposed writing our own version starring each of us as characters. They had just as much fun writing their chapter as reading Sachar’s. Struggling fifth grade students loving reading and writing. It was amazing. We went on to Shiloh and Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus. They were unstoppable.
Relationships Above All Else
It made me realize that it wasn’t the reading strategies I taught or the mini-lessons I delivered. It was the relationship I built with Dashanae. Dashanae was often the scapegoat in her classes. It seemed as if even when other students were also talking, her classroom teachers singled her out. They grew tired of writing her up and began sending her to me. She liked coming, so her behavior continued. A female Holden Caulfield at age 10. It’s difficult to find a connection with every student, but that is what an effective teacher must do. Think in terms of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. It wasn’t a miracle worker,, it was a dedicated teacher, with the same affliction, giving Keller tools to pull herself out of her blindness.
If classroom teachers would have made the time to really get to know Dashanae, and accept her humor, they could capitalize on it within their classrooms, like our reading group did. We would listen to her crazy connections to her life, which evolved to connections to other books we had read, and eventually to world events and theme. Her thinking helped her entire group grow as readers and thinkers. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?
As teachers begin the new school year, building relationships with students must be their biggest priority. Not just the students that are easy to connect with, every student. There is a Dashanae sitting in every classroom, waiting for a teacher to take a genuine interest in her, to awaken the brilliance within. The classroom is the only constant in many of their lives. Make it genuine, caring, and fun.
New Perspective, New Job
Dashanae’s success motivated me to create a summer program, STARR Austin, to combat the Summer Slide. She’s inspired me to do more. I’d love to help teachers grow to further their growth in students exponentially.
I have envisioned what a school I helped lead would look like for a long time. All of the great teaching strategies and programs and curriculum will get you nowhere without an environment of family, mutual respect, and high expectations. Genuine, positive relationships will help every child succeed, every time. It’s worth the effort and needs to be given priority over all else. Thinking of Dashanae gives me strength when I feel I am getting nowhere. I will remind myself of her when I’m in that final stretch to STAAR. I will continue to stay focused on my students and not tests. I will teach my students, not my subject matter. Students are where educators find their true successes, not scores.