Friday, January 21, 2011

Brilliant Corners

Brilliant Corners


B loves bugs. I met him during the first week of school as I assessed how many words he could read per minute from a second grade story. After the assessment, I gave him a caterpillar sticker to put on his shirt to show everyone that he was going to emerge as a great reader during his second grade year. You'd have thought that I'd had given him a piece of gold. "Oooh, I love bugs," he marveled as I handed him the sticker. "I have seen caterpillars around the trees at my apartment. They spin a chrysalis and turn into butterflies. Do you love bugs? Have you ever seen a roly poly bug?" And so a friendship began around the pyrrharctia isabella, the armadillidum vulgar, and other bugs that make up the most diverse group of animals on the planet.

B is a first generation immigrant student from Mexico, a student like the ones Carola Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, and Irina Todorova have so authoritatively and eloquently written about in their book "Learning A New Land: Immigrant students in American Society," a book that won the 2007 Virginia and Warren Stone Prize that is awarded annually by Harvard University Press for an outstanding book on education and society. According to two academic assessments, his reading is deficient and he needs help. On his Measure of Academic Progress test for reading that he took in the fall, he scored almost 30 points below our school district's average of 175 for second graders. On his AIMSweb assessment of words read correctly per minute from a second grade story, he read 4 words. The target for second graders in the fall is 49. So he became one of the students in my reading intervention program and is a daily participant in the excellent English as a second language class at our school.

One day during class, our school social worker walked into my room with B's Mom. B had been hiding his homeroom teacher's assignments and telling his parents that he didn't have any homework. I shared this small moment with one of his ESL teachers and she explained that if his Mom says, "Do your homework so you'll become a better student," he answers, "No," and does what he wants to do.

The state motto of North Carolina is engraved on the side of my college ring. "Esse Quam Viderii," it says, "To be is more important than to appear." It appears that B is on a path to become what the demagogues in my state predict he will become - another Mexican immigrant who is a drain on the tax payers of South Carolina. But I am thankful to have the heart, mind, and hands of a teacher who is trained to see beyond appearances to the essence of my students. And I see the essence of B, of all things, in his love for bugs.

Paul Wellstone wrote an insightful section about high stakes standardized testing in his book "The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda." He reminds us that we cannot blame students and parents on low test scores if the student hasn't had the chance to master the information on the tests. If we blame the student, then we fail to live up to our responsibility to help every child become all that he or she can become. My school social worker and my ESL teacher friend remind us that a student is a part of a family - a family that needs nurturing so the child can grow to feel, think, and find meaningful work. As I look at B through my teacher eyes, I see the brilliant corners in B's mind, the corner that holds an amazing amount of knowledge about caterpillars and roly poly bugs.

At the end of class one day, I walked beside B on the way back to his homeroom. "B," I said, "Have you ever heard of an entomologist?" He shook his head no. "Well, an entomologist is a scientist who studies bugs. I think you could become a great bug scientist." The expression on his face reminded me of the expression he showed on that first day we met when I gave him the caterpillar sticker. You'd have thought I'd given him a piece of gold. And, you know, I think I did. B, I see your brilliant corner and I promise to do everything in my power to help you become a great reader and the Albert Einstein of bugs.