Digging through my clothes last week, I found a T-shirt that was given to me by a former student to thank me for having written him a recommendation in support of his college application. The front of the heather grey shirt is covered with the red seal of the college where this student was accepted, and it makes me smile every time I see it, and every time I wear it (the latter mostly because I’m just glad it still fits, but I digress…).

I started to think about Anthony, the T-shirt giver…

I like to provide students with choices. For example, if there is reason to assess vocabulary, I allow students to choose a certain number to define; if I give a writing assessment, I provide options for prompts; and if there is a test or quiz, I allow the option to use a word bank - for everyone. My thought is this: if the accommodation helps the student who needs it the most, why shouldn’t everyone have access? Again (and I’ve said this before), it’s just language. And if lessening their stress will lessen mine...

So, it doesn’t surprise me that my favorite “choice” story involves the student mentioned above. Anthony was in one of my third-year Spanish classes, but not level 3 as the students in that class (including Anthony) had learning challenges, like the IEP and/or 504 kind. But unlike the other students in the class who had been my charges for the previous two years, Anthony began his Spanish career at another school and, come to find out, was socially promoted from Spanish 2 to my class, so he was already out of the loop when he stepped foot in the classroom.

It was apparent almost immediately that Anthony was uncomfortable in the class. Not only was he an outsider to the group (two years with the same students allows for a familiarity that cannot be underestimated), it became clear that Anthony was in way over his head with the course material. Not surprisingly, Anthony then began acting out in class. He wasn’t horribly behaved, but he did begin to show frustration by having a sassy, and thisside of disrespectful edge. In short, he was short, and sometimes a little nasty.

After class one day, I invited Anthony to have a chat with me at the tables in the corridor. The conversation went like this (I’ll never forget it):

Me: So, Anthony, what’s up with you in class?

Anthony: I suck at Spanish.

Me: Ha!, besides the obvious!

Anthony laughed. I laughed. The elephant in the hallway had been named. It was time to solve the problem.

Me: It seems to me like you have two choices: 1. You can go to see your counselor and drop the course, or 2. You can stick it out and we’ll figure out the best way tol help you get to where you need to be.

Now, mind you, at the time, Anthony could not put two words together in Spanish, if he knew two words, so I had a big task ahead of me.

Anthony: I don’t want to drop the class. I like it.

Admittedly, my classes are a GOOD TIME, so who could blame the kid? Where else would he be laughing so much while struggling?? 🤣

Me: Okay. If you want to stay, I’ll help you out. From now on, have all of the handouts on your desk - whatever you need to feel comfortable - and whenever you know the answer, let me know and I will call on you first.

By encouraging him to pay attention so he could participate when HE wanted to, I kept him on task, engaged and less frustrated, but more importantly, I allowed HIM to decide that he had the ability to be successful. I don’t really know how, but it worked. Anthony was given some breathing room and he used it - at first just to calm down. And don’t you know, by the end of the year, he WAS putting words together - in the past tense even. (Note: they were challenging to read at times with all of the errors, but they were comprehensible!)

Anthony credits me for his being in college because the simple opportunity I provided in Spanish class allowed him to realize that he CAN do hard things. In fact, the very day last week when I wore that T-shirt, I saw Anthony in town for the first time since he graduated.

“You know I wouldn’t be graduating from college next year if you didn’t help me realize that I could be a student,” he said, as I smiled.

I talk about extending grace a lot - to one’s students and oneself. I continue to provide choices and to meet students where they are. While that might be interpreted as lax or wishy-washy, to me it makes sense somatically, and that’s where I want to be as a teacher at this stage in my career.

I’m still smiling. For Anthony. And for me, too.

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