Changing the Standards When Your Students Are Light-Years Below Grade Level

My kids are not going to be operating at grade level in time for standardized testing, and nobody is allowed to admit it. What do I do now?

Okay. Can I tell you about my third period class for a few minutes? There are only nineteen seventh-grade students in that class, which is great. But all of them are ESOL, and ten of them have IEPs. Ten. Three of the remaining nine don’t have an IEP, but desperately need one.

I have a kid with basically zero working memory. You teach him what a noun is today, and tomorrow he doesn’t even recognize the term. I have two kids are who unable to focus for more than 45 seconds at a time. They don’t disrupt class; they just wander. Forget asking them to restate what you just said; they can’t tell you what class they’re in! There are four kids whose reading level is between second and third grade, and one with severe dyslexia who is completely illiterate. Cannot read a word besides his name. Sometimes can’t spell that.

A couple of the kids have IEPs for behavior issues. They’re the most fun, obviously, but they don’t exactly make the class easier. In addition to those two, I have multiple girls who are actually planning to get pregnant and drop out of high school. This is their goal. They will have no trouble achieving this goal, so I guess that’s…good?

Add to all this the usual issues—the fact that every single kid in that class is living in appalling poverty, the fact that a disproportionate number of them have been or are being abused, the fact that not a single parent of those students graduated high school or speaks virtually any English, the fact that many of them have to work to help out with family finances. We’re having a tough year so far.

I’ve taught kids who struggled before, but I’ve never had a class like this. I’ve been sheltered, because there are classes like this and students like this everywhere, a fact that might shock educational policymakers if they spent a day in the classroom. I’ve just never had such a concentrated group that is so…helpless.

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I’m writing this like I’ve figured out the solution. I haven’t. But I am learning more from this class than from any group I’ve had since my first year teaching. First of all, I can’t teach the standards with this class. I just can’t. Don’t tell my boss, because I know this isn’t something we’re supposed to admit, but there’s no chance that I’m going to have these kids analyzing complex texts and responding to them in writing by the end of the year. I can’t get them reading at grade level, let alone writing like middle schoolers. These kids are not going to pass our standardized test.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. I’m used to a 97-99% pass rate for my students, and that won’t happen with this bunch. And it makes it more difficult that it’s hugely taboo to say these things, because it means I’m giving up on students. It means I’m openly admitting that I am incapable of doing my job. I’m having a hard time with that.

I can’t get these kids to pass the test. So here’s what I’m going instead. My sweet, illiterate, dyslexic kid? We’re talking all the time about people with learning disabilities who went on to phenomenal success, and we’re figuring out a speech-to-text program for him. He won’t be able to use it during testing, but he will be able to communicate in writing for the first time. (I’m also trying to break him of the bad habit of drawing penises on everything, but that’s neither here nor there.)

My low readers? Every book we read in class, I read out loud. Is it helping their decoding? Nope. Are we doing any phonics? Nope. Sue me. By God, these kids will enjoy at least one book this year. And it will be the first time for most of them. The majority of my third period students have never had a positive experience with literature. They’ve never lost themselves inside a story and been heartbroken when it ended. I don’t have a clue how to teach them to read, but I can fix that.

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My ADHD wanderers? I’m still figuring out what to do about these kids. I’m trying to figure out their interests and build on that, but it’s slow going. We play a lot of games and take a lot of breaks during class for these kids. I don’t know if it’s working, but it won’t hurt.

And my underachieving Teen Mom hopefuls. I can work with their goals. We can read about healthy relationships. We can talk about real-life issues and budgeting. The fact that I’m pregnant at the moment gives me plenty of opportunities to talk about health and parenting and the challenges of having and raising a kid. Maybe they’ll still get pregnant in the ninth grade. But hopefully they’ll have at least some idea what to expect, and some of the skills necessary for building a family.

I am failing these students in many ways, just like all their previous teachers have. I do not know how to raise them up to where the government says they need to be. But learning is happening every day, at least for most of the kids in the room. And it’s definitely happening for me. So when you see me at the front of the room doing an entire circus act as I try to explain how to add an ’s’ to make things plural to a bunch of adult-sized students, don’t judge. We’re doing the best we can.

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Captain Awesome

Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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