Wednesday, December 16, 2009

little triumph

Last Monday, as Luis walked into my classroom, I could tell something was wrong. When something's wrong with Luis, I can read it all over him: a scowl on his face, heavy, deliberate steps, throwing all his weight into his desk chair, slumping down low in his seat. His eyes are the color of hot, black coffee when he's having a good day; on this day they looked like dark brown charcoal.

"Hi Luis. What's wrong?"

"Awwww, Miss," Luis began, his cranky tone easily making its way through his thick Puerto Rican English dialect. "I got dropped."

"Well, actually, I heard. So now what?"

"So now I can't graduate nex' Monday. I been good here for 7 months, never got in trouble once, and now they drop me down to C level and I can't graduate? Man, that got me so..."

"Angry?" I offered.

"Yeah," Luis replied.



"Do you think it wasn't fair? Tell me what happened that led to your getting dropped."

Luis and I took the next ten minutes or so to talk about what led to his loss of level. Getting "dropped" means that a resident is moved from a higher disciplinary level with more privileges, which he earns by displaying good behavior, to a lower level with fewer privileges, usually as a result of bad behavior or some other sort of transgression.

Luis told me that on that Monday, he went to his first period class and "didn't feel well." From what I know of Luis, Monday morning is not his friend. He, like many teenage boys, is often sleep deprived on Monday mornings, his circadian rhythms thrown off by a weekend of late nights and later mornings. He was tired. He felt frustrated in an early morning academic setting. And, in his frustration, he began to speak to another resident in Spanish. Now, granted, this is a Hispanic group home, but the kids have to speak, read, write and listen in English during the academic day. The teacher whose class Luis was in had gotten a little tired of his act, and she deducted points from his total, thereby dropping Luis' level. Thereby preventing him from graduating. All because of one incident on one morning involving a tired kid who got frustrated and spoke Spanish, his primary language, instead of English.

"So, I'm heated. I wan' write a letter to Mr. G. I wan' appeal this. I asked the other teachers and they say they can't help me right now." There was no way Luis was going to be able to write a sentence, much less a letter, on his own. In the three months that Luis and I had worked together, his reading level had risen, but he still tested at no more than an early first grade level in fluency and decoding. He would need significant help with this letter. If he didn't graduate, it could lead to further, more serious setbacks with far-reaching consequences.

I glanced at my lesson plan for Luis for the day. "Let's go then. Let's write that letter."

Together, for the next 45 minutes, we composed a letter of appeal, addressed to the director of the program, asking for reinstatement of Luis' level, apologizing for disrespectful actions, and describing how important it was to Luis to be able to leave this program on a positive note. We used proper grammar, accurate spelling, and complete sentences. Luis read it - slowly - out loud.

"This is good. Thank you, Miss."

Flash forward one week to today, Monday, December 21. We just had Luis' graduation luncheon. He received a scholarship award for academic success and a framed diploma. The smile he couldn't seem to wipe off his face was priceless.

I know how it feels to visit a foreign country where you don't speak the language, yet I can only imagine how it feels to be Luis, whose language skills in both English and Spanish are so very weak. People tell him to try hard in school, but it really isn't that simple. Luis is challenged by not only his ELL status, but by a home environment that doesn't support or value literacy, a learning disability, and, I suspect, lead poisoning. He's a great hands-on worker, however, as evidenced by his efforts in the local school-to-work initiative and the DYS horticulture program. I believe that Luis, in spite of his challenges, can create his own brand of success out there in the world. I'm still holding out hope that he follows through on his promise to get a library card.

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