Working with Yasmin is always, on one hand, an absolute delight, and on the other hand, an utter frustration. She is one of the most diligent students I’ve ever known, eager to learn and willing to stretch herself, approaching me politely to ask for extra work. “I’m not sure I understand this,” she will tell me: “Can you give me more?” The frustration comes from seeing all the times that her efforts don’t pay off; retention is difficult for Yasmin, and on Wednesday, many times, the things that flowed seamlessly on Monday don’t work. “I kind of forgot”, she will say sheepishly, when we revisit a thing that she previously learned. “Can you teach me?” Over time, Yasmin shows a net growth in her skill set; the challenge is that those around her grow, too. It can be hard, sometimes, to not worry about all the time that passes, while she learns a thing and forgets a thing, while she diligently demonstrates the gaps in her understanding, her effort far outstripping, at times, her ability.
Ever since I’ve known her, Yasmin has always been committed to doing the best that she can with what she’s able to use. In second grade, a math assessment required students to “draw place value blocks to show 251.” Most students neatly knocked out the correct answer: two big rectangles to represent 2 hundreds, five upright rods representing ten each, one little cube for the ones place of the number. I stopped her as she drew her eighty-seventh square, whispering, “You don’t have to keep doing this. You can write, ‘It’s too hard’.” Carefully, she finished her answer: one more square and a handful of letters. tis to hard. “Nicely done, my friend. You can go on to the next one.”
It took a long time for Yazmin to understand multiplication in word problems, but when she did, it delighted her. I first showed her that, yes, it was mathematically correct to add the same number to itself, again and again, and told her each time, “But there’s also a faster way.” That was two years ago, and she still beams when she says it–she still says exactly my script to describe multiplication.
Now, we are writing 5-paragraph essays, to develop a central thesis statement through reasons and evidence. The grade level writing curriculum involves a “boxes and bullets” graphic organizer: you write your thesis statement in the box, and use three bullet points to introduce three reasons that support it. Each bullet, for this exercise, becomes its own paragraph, with multiple pieces of evidence to support each reason, and with the three reasons coming together to support the ultimate thesis. If this assignment were a place value drawing, there would be many more than 251 blocks.
The classroom teacher is brilliant, thoughtful and high-reaching in her lesson design: she makes the assignment open-ended enough that students who are ready to do so can advance any thesis they are able to support, but first has the group flesh out an outline together that struggling writers are invited to adopt as their own. “The journey to the New World was difficult, because…” She co-creates an anchor chart from a giant sheet of paper: “Let’s Write An Essay!”, it cheerfully exhorts.
Yasmin is a hard worker, and a motivated learner, and it kills me, sometimes, to see how much effort she puts in things that don’t work out for her. “She gets stuck, sometimes”, the ELL coach says, “but when she gets stuck, she doesn’t stop. She just writes or says the same thing, over and over.” I look at the draft of her essay, where she did not understand the prompts I attached to her bulleted outline–where she simply recopied all the fragments again. I think of how the outline itself was a duplicate, because before I wrote the prompts to guide her into structuring the essay, she’d already written the outline two times–with slight changes the second time, but no real movement past the fragments. I break things down further, giving her explicit verbal direction this time, and eagerly, she does everything I suggest for her. She puts in a paragraph symbol to remind her to indent, adds the words to her paper that she says out loud to make some of the written sentences more grammatically acceptable, thinks for the five thousandth time about starting with a capital and ending with an end mark. We progress to the paragraph about colonist food.
And I can’t help her massage what she’s got; it’s too jumbled, the fragments are out of order, and none of it gives the reader complete information. “People were greedy”. “Some food spoiled”. “Stuck at sea for six months”. A fragment about the ‘gentlemen’ who belong in the next paragraph, where the teacher has made clear statements about their unwillingness to work.
I don’t want to make her erase it. I know how slowly she works, and how much effort she puts into things; I know that writing those fragments for the second excessive time took precious learning minutes that we can’t give her back. I know that it will take her awhile to erase all those lines, because she is sometimes disorganized even in her motor skills, and the paper may tear as she rubs too hard on part of it. “My friend, this needs to go, because you have something better to say here. May I?” She nods. As I quickly pass the little pencil tip over the paper, I am glancing quickly at her face to see if it is crestfallen. To my surprise, she’s smiling at me. “There’s a faster way.”
Carefully, she unzips her supply pouch and retrieves a pink rubber square–a larger eraser. And I realize that Yasmin has a lot to teach me, about persistence and optimism and accepting a process for exactly what it is. There is, I am realizing, no faster way to do this, and I simply have to trust that we’ll muddle through in time. The smile on Yasmin’s face, as she recognizes that she’s making her essay better, reminds me of what matters. Reminds me that, at the end of the day, Yasmin will always be able to draw on strengths that I didn’t put there but that I can still support–her sense of herself as learning and growing, her willingness to try again as often as it takes.
We erase it all together and we get back to work.