The Martian Sagas
This turned out to be a much longer post than I’d intended; if you want to get to tonight’s mini-drama, you can skip down to the line “Tonight, her family came to conferences.”
One of my students is a Martian.
We call them Martians because we don’t know what else to call them. You surely know the kids. They’re not from here. Their minds are just… somewhere else.
Tina (as I’ll call her) isn’t one of those weird bright kids who defies the mold - far from it. She’s not unmotivated. She’s not ELL, and despite my repeated efforts to have someone investigate it, she’s not SpEd. She’s cheerful and sweet and and Lord save me if I can’t imagine any life for her that doesn’t involve ankle-length skirts and milking cows.
Tina walked into my tenth grade universe toting in fourth-grade level books (all horses and doggies and hoop skirts) expecting to have them approved for our independent reading projects, and when I gently steered her toward more age-appropriate offerings, it became clear that her comprehension was poor. Then I had her write, and that’s when I realized what a Martian she truly was. This girl might walk and talk in our English-speaking world, but there was something dreadfully wrong going on upstairs with the language-processing bits.
At the beginning of the year, I contacted the SpEd English teacher and Tina’s counselor, asking them to please test her to see if she could get some help or tutoring. I don’t know why, exactly, but they stonewalled me. Tina had received good grades in the past – effort and smiles will get you pretty far, I guess – and so she didn’t qualify without going through an intensive RTI process. I was adviced to change her seat in the hopes that this would magically improve her literacy. You can imagine my satisfaction with that response.
After our first writing assignment, I sent the following email to our SpEd English teacher and the appropriate counselor:
Thanks for your reply and for the clarification referring RTI….I’m not certain how changing her seat, etc., will help her become more literate, but I am already making accommodations where possible regarding personal book selection (she is picking books at a 4th or 5th grade reading level, and says she struggles with them).
I knew that she was below grade level in reading/writing, but it was this most recent assignment that really drew my attention. We read – as a class, with LOTS of discussion/explanation – the play Antigone. It’s not a tough piece. Then I gave each student a quotation from the play, asked them to interpret/translate that quote into modern English, and explain the context of that quote in the play. Next, they needed to evaluate whether the quotation was still relevant (which I explained to them) in modern society, and provide examples. This was written into a one-paragraph, formulaic essay – basically they just needed to follow my step-by-step instructions and fill in the blanks with their own thoughts.
Here is the complete text of Tina’s essay:
On page 207, line 581 – 582 of Antigone, Haemon says man’s wisdom is a gift of heaven, the greatest gift of all. What this quote means is to have wisdom in the way of a gift. It has to deal with Antigone by her getting a greatest gift given to her. There was no truth in this statement because she didn’t like but hanging herself. There was also no advice to it. I would have to say that it may be relevant today but not sure how it would be relevant. Why I think it’s a yes would be because wisdom is a gift, and but then no because wisdom was not a gift for Antigone.
To shorten a longer story, they didn’t care – her grades were okay, so Tina was okay -actual concerned teacher intervention be damned.
Little did I know that this woefully inadequate bit of writing would prove one of Tina’s better examples of literacy. Let’s just say it’s been a long year for her. She struggled valiantly through To Kill a Mockingbird and Ender’s Game, failing miserably on all assessments, doing decent projects, doing literary responses that proved that she’d looked at the pretty pictures on the covers and tried her best to glean meaning from in-class discussions.
She tries real hard and is a joy to have in class. Tina never fails to turn in an assignment, but they might as well be in Martian-ese for all the more they approximate what a tenth grade student ought to be capable of doing. (To be perfectly clear, her written work and reading comprehension is below the level of that I’m getting from my very most challenged ELL students.)
Tonight, her family came to conferences. Mom, older brother, and two younger sisters, all as peculiarly elfin as Tina – and then Dad, who is likely related to Paul Bunyan. The siblings fanned out through the room, Dad crushed my hand in a handshake, and Mom took a seat across from me with a suspicious twist to her mouth.
I went through the usual rigamarole, explaining Tina’s Q3 grade (a C, which is what you get when your teacher doesn’t give credit for nice personalities but grades you as if you had serious accommodations, which is what I do since the school won’t do it for her) and mapping out the rest of the year. I talked about our testing “boot camp” that we’ll do after spring break, and about Tina’s current test scores (not passing, of course).
That’s about the time that Mom launched into me.
This is getting lengthy, so I’ll spare the play-by-play, but apparently she felt that as a parent she needed to notify me that I was demanding far too much of my students and that it was out of line. I could not expect a student to read an in-class book and an independent novel. If I was going to do so, I absolutely should never ask them to do any of the in-class reading at home. And – worst of all – I was making her child read books she didn’t like to read!
Although she didn’t say the words, “how dare you,” they were very clearly insinuated.
I pulled on my professional hat, thanked her for her feedback, and did my best to explain that A) I tried to expose students to many different types of books so that it would broaden their horizons; B) students had plenty of in-class time to read, and that I really couldn’t offer any more – in fact, with the last book, I deliberately made sure they didn’t have any out-of-class independent reading to do; C) at the sophomore level, you really needed to be able to handle multiple texts at the same time, and D) the idea that I forced any books on my students, other than TKAM and EG, is so far from reality that it’s almost insulting. I tried to draw Tina in, to hold her accountable for whatever goofy interpretation of my class she’d presented to her parents, but she just blushed and ducked her head.
On the inside, though, I was seething. It wasn’t that I was angry at the mom; her baby duck was being threatened with her first real “bump in the road” and she was just trying to protect her. And I can certainly deal with criticism.
It’s just that it was so unfair. My class isn’t too hard. It’s completely appropriate, completely on-par with the others. The problem doesn’t lie with my class; it lies with Tina - and I just wanted to tell her this, tell her that the reason Tina was struggling was that Tina was not smart enough somehow to deal with sophomore content, that Tina had functional literacy issues that I couldn’t begin to know how to address, and that the school was refusing to consider services.
But I couldn’t find the words to tell angry elf mama and Paul Bunyan that their perfect daughter needed special education services, and so I tried to convey my point, they blustered, I told them their daughter was a joy to have in class, and they left.
Amusing visual for the evening: Tina – who might weigh seventy pounds soaking wet and who is almost certainly under five feet tall – has given up running for track/field and is instead doing discus and shot put.