I want to share a moment from my classroom last week. Stick with me because this is important. First, let me give you some context. My Newcomer English Learners have been learning the word “characteristic” and applying it to different texts. For instance, after reviewing the meaning of the word, providing many examples, and having them talk through their own examples, we watched a Pixar short film. They identified the characteristics of the main character and then compared the characteristics to another character. We also have looked at a text about volcanoes and talked about their characteristics. Tomorrow we will read a fictional text and do the same, talking about characteristics of both a place and of a character. Next, we will watch a video from their Biology class about heredity and apply the word ‘characteristic’ in that context. Finally, we will move to a social studies text and compare the characteristics of two eras and two leaders. Using academic terminology across the curriculum and reinforcing those words is vital to success for our El population.
Today, however, I was reminded of how important it is to also think of the social-emotional well being of our students. I want to share what one student wrote as an example of her understanding of the word ‘characteristic’. This student has been with us since about October. She had previously been in a detention center. She had not ever been to school prior to attending our school, despite being fourteen years old. She cannot read or write in her native language. We have started with basics and taught her how to hold a pencil, how to cut with scissors, and how to write her first and last name. As we reviewed the word ‘characteristic’, I gave students a sentence frame to complete: “One key characteristic that I like about my house is that it…” Some kids wrote about features of their houses–small kitchens, large backyards, many trees. This is one of the first times this particular student seemed to fully grasp what we talked about in English. She asked how to translate a single word and then held her sentence up proudly. The sentence read: “One key characteristic that I like about my house is that it is safe.” I read it and let it sink in for a moment. Safe. I am not sure what her life was like prior to coming to our school. I am not sure what she endured to get here. But I do know that no matter the struggle I have faced as a teacher to get her up to speed with fundamental and foundational skills, she is exactly where she needs to be. I saw this same student last week in a ceramics class. She was engrossed in her project and smiling the entire time. Safe in her home. Safe at school.
Let’s remember that there is so much more to our students than we can see. They all have stories to tell. I am not just talking about EL students, but all students. We have an obligation as educators and school staff to have empathy and to meet our students where they are when they join us.