Tyler was by far my favorite student in my E period English class. He understood my jokes, and reciprocated humor without ever being inappropriate. He always contributed to class discussion, demonstrated a true interest in the content and, bonus- he always had a pencil. He was the type of kid that you had to say, “NOT Tyler” to when you asked a question, because he had already answered all preceding questions and you NEEDED everyone else in the room to WAKE UP and contribute!
When the day came for our first writing assessment, Tyler uncharacteristically put his head down and showed me through all body language possible that he was NOT doing it. After the other students were well on their way working, I asked Tyler if he was ok: he said he was sick. That day I gave him a pass and let him keep his head down. I took his word that he wasn’t feeling well, though I suspected it was something else.
Fast forward to our next writing assessment–the same thing happened. Head down. “Sick” excuse. Tyler was NOT sick. He was, in fact, shutting down.
Over the years, I have had many Tylers: the students that blow you away with their verbal analysis, their recall and contribution to discussion, but are unable, without support, to express themselves through writing. As a special education teacher I know that I do not have a magic wand to erase the disabilities that cause their struggle with written expression but I do have a few tools in my tool bag that have helped over the years.
Trust Your Gut
Yes, trust your professional experience and the voice inside your head that says something isn’t right. This gut instinct may not help in the moment, BUT it will push you towards proper communication. Reach out to the child study team, ask them if the behavior you are seeing is “normal” for YOUR Tyler. Ask them what has worked in the past to motivate the student. Apply the same question to past teachers, if possible. Trusting your gut will absolutely narrow the problem and potentially open up a solution much more quickly than trying to figure it out on your own.
Lie (Sort Of)
Sounds unorthodox, but hear me out. This is the strategy that I used for the real-life Tyler. When we were about to start our third written assessment I came up with a story, something along these lines. “So today, we are going to start a new writing rotation system in class. I am going to pick one student each class, to come up and sit at my desk to work with me one-on-one. The English department is starting this initiative to give each student individualized attention. For today, I am going to start with (insert some fake scanning of the classroom) how about you, Tyler. Can you PLEASE help me out today so I don’t get in trouble for not doing what my boss requested?”
This fake story worked for two possible reasons. 1- Tyler knew he needed the one-on-one help but he did not want to look un-cool in front of his peers- I gave him a way to save face. 2- “I” need Tyler to help ME, not the reverse. He thinks he is doing me a solid. This is a win-win, I get to help casually, while assessing what skills Tyler specifically struggles with.
Before “Tyler” walks into class you are already standing at the door greeting your students. Try this: pull him aside. “Hey, can I talk to you for a second? So, we are going to start the Beowulf constructed response today.” This is where Tyler rolls his eyes and deeply sighs because he forgot and he is not about it. “So, listen, I KNOW you know this content, you are going to do really well on this. I want to help you get started, but you TOTALLY got this. Right?” This works because you gave him the confidence he needs, you know that he knows the content and you want him to prove it. Also, if he responds to your question honestly- “No, I don’t totally ‘got’ this.” You have a starter for meaningful dialogue specifically targeting what he needs from you to be successful. Keeping in mind, no one else is around so he may feel comfortable to, “come clean.”
Know Your Students
Pretty quickly- especially as a special education teacher, with smaller class sizes, you figure out what it is that your student is getting hung up on. Is it how to start the essay? Is it how to incorporate quotations, or how to analyze evidence to support the thesis?
Have a few tools ready to go.
1- Put the first sentence starter on the board- create this sentence WITH the help of your students and let them all use it. This can remove a lot of that “getting started” writing anxiety.
2- For the struggling writers in your class provide a guided outline of what they should accomplish in each paragraph- NOT including sentence stems.
3- For the lower level students in your class, that need more individualized assistance, provide sentence stems for all, or a majority of the sentences to ensure a complete product. Again this should be a tool to let them produce their best possible work. It is helping them start, but still allowing them the opportunity to make their own connections.
4- Grade your student based on both their final product AND effort. If you know your student forged ahead and did their personal best, take that into consideration. A good grade will likely give them the intrinsic confidence to tackle the next assignment which they would have previously met with trepidation.
Never forget the power that we hold as educators. We could let the student sit with their head down, we could easily give them a zero for an untouched assignment, but we can also be a hero: a hero who can take a child who has shut down, reaffirm their self-esteem, and get them back in the game.
Rebecca Stone teaches 12th grade special education English at Long Branch High School.