The Adventure Begins

There are usually always some shocks in the first few days of school. For example, I’ve discovered that I have two sixth-graders who can neither read nor write—and they are not English Language Learners.

Monday I asked my sixth-graders to draw a picture of a person. First, they were to write their names on one side of a clean, white sheet of paper, and then draw an oval with ears. Then they passed the paper on to the next person, who added eyes and eyebrows. After the paper was passed again, the next student added a mouth. After one more pass, hair and other finishing touches were added. (Since I forgot to mention a nose, there are at least two noseless portraits hanging on the board.) I gave the kids crayons and let them color the pictures for about five minutes. After coloring, the pictures were given back to the student whose name was written on the back.

“This is a picture of a new student to our school,” I said. “How does he or she feel today? Is he scared? Is she angry? Does he wish he hadn’t come? Is she having a great day? Give your student a name, and then write his or her first-day-of-school story.”

I gave each student a fresh sheet of lined paper and told them they had to write a half-page story—all the way to the second punch hole in the paper. After fifteen minutes, I collected the stories.

One of them began: “This is Ben he has a Big face.” The story concludes with the observation that Ben is a friendly guy: “He like to smill at any dody” [He likes to smile at anybody].

In other stories I met Bob and Tonya and Ed.

But I became concerned when, after fifteen minutes, the only thing that A-Girl had written was “Boy has a nme”—which I took to mean “The boy has a name.” That was her whole story. Except for her name and the date, there was nothing else on the page.

I became even more concerned when I read D-Boy’s story, a half-page that looked like this:

Aexle is a solne in step for arn a keoil for arn step leoilt do a tnetoh a likiy arn of lapel elikd heoithat rad and go arn is a inem eaime is the is a arn mebi somi buibli a is amil yous uobimi bulu ilkie eanky…

I have copied D-Boy’s story “word” for “word.” It looks like some arcane language. Yet even Gaelic, which I cannot read, looks more comprehensible than D-Boy’s work. Why are students moved through five or six years of school without being able to read or write? Do you see why I’m concerned?

Let me hasten to say that I am not blaming any of D-Boy’s previous teachers. I am, however, saying that there should have been some heavy-duty intervention for this child years ago. It isn’t fair that he has landed in middle school without even being able to recognize basic sight words.

Can I do anything to help D-Boy and A-Girl learn to read and write between now and the end of the school year? I don’t know—but I’m about to find out.

What an adventure this year is shaping up to be!

Posted on August 5, 2009, in first days of school, illiteracy. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. yet another victim of social promotion-what kind of self-esteem does this kid have at this point? yikes! good thing he’s got you.

  2. That’s a lot you have on your plate right now. You might want to alert your administration, and possibly the parents, in advance. It sounds a lot like other people have been assiduously ignoring this situation–not precisely the optimal approach.

  3. Oh my. How does this happen? Oh, I know. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers as you seek some answers to these two…and the other ones too.

  4. Oh my goodness! I would be concerned too.
    It’s so important for parents to start reading to their children at an early age and to take a more proactive role in their education.

    It’s frightening to see how the educational system has faltered over the years.

    I wish you the best, my friend. Your students are fortunate — they have a teacher who cares and for that I commend you!

  5. Have these kids been evaluated yet? The second one sounds to me like some serious orthographic reading and writing disability issues are going on. Could he read it to you?

    Scary. If the spelling is phonemic, you’ve at least got a fighting chance. But if it’s not, like this, then this is a tough one to remediate.

  6. I had a student who was a sophmore or junior in high school who was terribly low functioning- and she worked really hard, so I know it wasn’t due to lack of studying. I called her parents and they got really weird on me- didn’t want their child to be tested for special ed. at all. Our school psychologist finally convinced them and I think that they found her performance to be compatible with her IQ, so she wasn’t labeled as having a learning disability. (I hope I’m getting this right.) So basically, she qualified for no services- she was just left to struggle on her own.
    I hope these students of yours can get some kind of remediation. I tried to read that boy’s paragraph, and I’m usually pretty good at deciphering, but this one made my head hurt.
    Good luck! And welcome back to another school year!

  7. speedcathollydale

    Quite amazing that any student can pass through grades when they are unable to pass a test. How could this be?

  8. first of all, i LOVE that art/writing activity and i just might steal it. so thanks for sharing. 🙂

    but about those kids…man, that is just so tragic. (and tragically, i’m not that surprised. i’ve come across kids pretty low myself, none as low as D though.) i know that you will advocate for them and help them make some progress. looking forward to hearing about their updates.

  9. So sad.

    As a 9th grade teacher, I have the same problem. A lot of kids that can’t read or write. Some of it has to do with ELL issues with some of my kids. But, the rest of them? I don’t know. My team does recommend testing on the students that can’t read or write but sometimes parents and/or the higher powers that be don’t want to “waste” the money on the students. Ugh.

    Good luck! You are doing some great activities with them. Continue the good fight! :=)

  10. Bless you! You have some work cut out for you this year. What fun would it be if it were too easy, aye? Sounds like you have a few students who will need extra attention.

  11. Bless your heart. I’m so glad those kids have you in their corner. Sadly, I sometimes see kids who can barely read or write at a first grade level in my 7th grade science classroom. I had a girl last year who we finally got tested and identified – and who had been turned down for services in 4th grade for a reason none of us could determine – honestly, we went over her file numerous times and could never determine why the psychologist at that time (who is no longer with the district) rejected her for sped. The only theory we had, which sent my AP into a rage, was that the elementary principal didn’t want high sped numbers. Insane.

  12. The thing is – that story would probably make total sense to the boy – and to anyone else if he told it instead of wrote it. My son was not diagnosed with his dyslexic problem until he was 11 (although it was obvious to anyone who saw his school work books) His writing was like another language too- not quite so indecipherable as that, mind you. When he went to High Scool he received so much help from the Learning support department that he just went from strength to strength. He had a reader and scribe for most of his exams and I scribed his homework assignments to his dictation. He learned to use a dictaphone very well. Just this week he passed all his final exams and commences studying for a degree in Chemistry at his first choice university next month. I’m sure you have your big success stories too. Best wishes and I am so glad there are teachers like you.

    • magicalmysticalteacher

      Your story reminds me of the one I read somewhere a few years ago of the dyslexic young man whose mother became his scribe—all the way through college and law school. The guy is now a practicing attorney—and his mother is still his scribe!

      Unfortunately, I work for a somewhat stingy district. I lost my teaching assistant last year when she resigned and the district refused to replace her. A good teaching assistant could serve as a scribe (sometimes), but I don’t have one!

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