IT IS PARENT-TEACHER CONFERENCE WEEK. This means that all the kids get to go home at 11:30 and all the teachers get to stay late. I teach computers with one section of reading so I still have conferences with my students but I don't get to set up the schedule. Their homeroom teachers set up the schedule and then we tag-team. This year, all of my reading students have the same homeroom teacher, so I actually get to stay, pretty much in one spot.
I was sitting in one of my conferences today, and watching this fabulous ten year old girl, navigate so beautifully between English and Spanish. She patiently clarified things for her mother in Spanish and then to her teachers in English. She did this effortlessly. We provide families with translators, and there was a translator in the room, but this young lady also wanted to make sure her mother understood things perfectly. She wanted to be the one to tell her own story.
I watched was she slipped beautifully back and forth as the situation dictated, and I was stunned by how much intelligence that requires. She started kindergarten at the age of five, speaking no English, and now just six years later, she is confident and fluent in both English and Spanish. She has worked so hard, and has shown such determination. It is beyond impressive. One of the most stunning thoughts I had while listening was that she was unaware of just how impressive her abilities are. It is normal, everyday life for her.
I love reading Malcolm Gladwell's work, and his book David and Goliath talks about the tremendous advantage that students like the ones I teach have over students who don't have to learn a new language to survive school. His book talks about the fact that students who are second language learners have to find ways to understand the world around them, and so they find them. They have to figure a way through complicated problems on a daily basis, and so develop the ability to solve complicated problems. These students know how to overcome difficulties because they have been doing it since the very first day of school.
All of this is something I am aware of -- I've read books about it, but to see it in action is another thing entirely. I sometimes forget how incredible my students are -- I go through my daily work with them, as we create together (right now we are building video games), and I forget how hard they work all day and every day. I forget how much they know; how much they have already learned before they step through my door.
This 5th grade girl smiled cheerfully as her mother was informed that she hasn't quite met her grade level standards, yet. She nods in agreement, as she shows her mother the 1 on her report card - the mark that says she does not measure up. She accepts this as true. She understands that she has more to learn, and she is willing to work and learn it. She knows she isn't there yet, but she also understands that she is on her way. This is the flaw of report cards -- they don't measure how hard a student works, or how incredibly much she has learned. It can only measure that she has not yet learned how to accurately multiply fractions. It doesn't measure the distance she has travelled since her first tentative steps into that kindergarten classroom.
I love parent/teacher conferences because I have the opportunity to fill the gaps where the report card fails. I was able to tell this mom that her daughter was one of the kindest people I've ever met. She has resilience and strength that is impressive. She is unfailingly empathetic and yet can stand her ground when need-be, oh, and she also needs to practice her fractions.
My philosophy of teaching has become so much clearer over time; my job is to encourage, and encourage and encourage -- sometimes I do that by saying, "Great job!" and sometimes I do it by saying, "Let's take a second look at that one." Either way, I have to proceed with a spirit that I hope is half as kind, as some of the students I teach, who seem to have an inner reserve of empathy for those around them.
Which, of course, brings me to my good friend, Alexander Hamilton, who by all accounts lived and wrote like a man on fire. He was determined to succeed. He too, was an immigrant in a new world; a new country he helped construct with his own hands. He understood that he would have to work harder than those around him. He understood that anything he accomplished would take endless hours of hard work, and that nothing would come to him easily.
And of course, that's a lesson for all of us, isn't it? We all are here for a short amount of time, and determined to make our way, and construct a world around us. We are like the 5th grade girl struggle to make her way in a world that may or may not believe in the abilities of girl who's first language was not English. We are like the nineteen year old Alexander Hamilton stepping onto the streets of New York City determined to change his circumstances in this new land. We are all learning, and we all, every one of us, needs compassion and encouragement.
And sometimes we needed to reminded of the beauty in the struggle.