Classmates From The South

Rosalia showed up in my third period class a few weeks ago. She came from Colima. She speaks no English. (I’m woefully weak on my codings – is she an L1 or an L5?) As a school, our diversity is primarily economic, not racial, leaving very little second-language support for your humble narrator, suddenly pressed into the service of bilingual education.

This hasn’t been a nightmare. This has, in fact, been one of the best parts of teaching for a coupla reasons:

  1. I speak Spanish. And thank god for that. Not well, mind you. I mean, you’ve met me. Linguistically speaking, I’m the rugby player who was built like an oak table in college but who went to seed after graduation. My Spanish is flabby but my fluency crosses a very particular threshold where she can easily teach me words I don’t know.
  2. The other students love our new multiculturalism. And I’m so glad that worked out. It blows their mind somehow that I speak Spanish, as if they’d discovered some secret double life I’d been living without them.

    For example, they were still chattering and didn’t notice when Rosalia came in, but two words into my instructions (“Cada día en esta clase, empecemos con la opener alla,“) and you could hear the ocean breaking on rocks twelve miles away.

    I’ve never had to hassle anyone into being her partner whenever the work has required partners. Other students love learning new words in Spanish, which is kind of an easy stance to take when you’re in the linguistic majority but damn if Rosalia isn’t adventurous also, building her English vocabulary whenever possible.

  3. Modifications I make for Rosalia make my teaching better for the entire class. I speak slower. I gesture more. I use more pictures. I enunciate better. Etc. Etc.

Her sister sat in on class last week and today swapped in from her old math class (taught by a fella who speaks English and English). Both have started calling out answers during lecture, which is just a cool state of affairs.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Your mention:

    #3: Modifications I make for Rosalia make my teaching better for the entire class. I speak slower. I gesture more. I use more pictures. I enunciate better. Etc. Etc.

    makes me realize I think I am doing the same in my math class. I have a student who is DHH (Deaf/hard of hearing), and I noticed on the first day of school that, for some reason, I speak much clearer, with more succinct vocabulary, and at a more regulated pace when he is there. He’s got an interpreter (sign language) who is awesome. There have been a few days when she wasn’t there to sign – I noticed I stepped up a few more notches as far as clarity and volume of speech when she was there – as well as the gesturing and making sure I face the class when I speak.

    So, while my situation is a bit different (since I have an interpreter daily), I’m glad to have run into your post today – helped me to recognize some of the positives that student’s presence brings out in me as a teacher.

  2. No sabia que hables español! Que chévere! Manda saludos a Rosalía y dale un gran bienvenidos de parte de una clase aprendiendo español acá en Carolina del Sur.


    Chris Craft

  3. I teach at a school that is extremely diverse. Our most commonly spoken language is Spanish, English is about as common as Korean or Vietnamese, closely followed by Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

    It’s great to hear your thoughts about how this has improved your teaching. It’s a great point. No wonder there are so many fantastic teachers at my school. They’ve been pushed to excellency by their students.

    And I love how your students have adapted. That speaks volumes about the community you have fostered in your classroom.

  4. Dan — Years (and years) ago, long before I earned the title “teacher” on any front, I was just a 14 year old kid who was volunteered by his family to be a counselor-in-training at a camp for handicapped campers sponsored by United Cerebral Palsy on a lake in central Maine. The irony of being a counselor for ‘kids’ that were often 3-5 years older than me still makes me marvel…

    …but what comes to mind today (and often when I think about those 3 early summers of foundation for a soon-to-be educator) were the kids who were ‘at risk’/fearful in one environment and 100% free to explore/grow in others. In other words, if we counselors kept every kid in one environment or in one type of situation, we would undoubtedly miss their best (and most liberated) selves. Same with ESL kids (and all students, for that matter), I imagine.

    One kid — in particular — was named Uriah.

    Before he died a few years later in his teens due to his disability and medical conditions not being ‘in concert’ with gravity and the real world and medical question marks, he was my #1 camper for 3 straight summers. He truly defined my days, good and bad.

    Without remembering the exact name his doctors used, I simply want you to imagine a wild-eyed, red-haired, fearless “drunken sailor” with leg braces and oddly shaped crutches that forced him to bend over whenever he run-limped his way at mach-speed on the concrete paths, wooden decks, and semi-rocky ‘grass’ areas that were called ball fields. He was constantly falling, constantly bleeding, and constantly picking himself up. Never complaining, but always on the verge of destruction. And all of us would cringe — like watching X-Games crash highlights — everytime Uriah would seem on the verge of yet another collapse.

    But here’s what stunned me most of all…and continues to come to mind (even through a seemingly unrelated anecdote about an ESL kid being woven into a math classroom in Cali). Take Uriah’s braces and crutches away, set him up on the edge of the beach/lake, and sit back to watch what came next…and you’d find your breath literally taken away. Literally.

    You see, in the water, Uriah suddenly transformed from a wild “drunken sailor” of a kid on the verge of perpetual runs to the hospital into an elegant dolphin that radiated laughter, speed, and grace. Every. Single. Time. In other words, his body and spirit was free to move in any direction for any reason in ways that were literally transformative for a kid that gravity held prisoner. Sort of like language. Sort of like an educational practice that may not be an ideal fit for a particular learning style. So to speak.

    While I’d like to think that ‘camp’ in general gave this kid something priceless that far outweighed the life of economic poverty and seemingly insurmountable physical challenges he faced the rest of the year at school and at home, the truth was that even with our best of intentions and ‘program design’…we often held him back from the best parts of him because our own program could ONLY be water-based when the schedule allowed. We knew our camping program worked for the majority of kids who fit the majority of descriptions. And we hoped that kids like Uriah would somehow fit inside our comfort zones and not demand that we re-think the very premise of our logistics, mechanisms, activities, and space designs.

    And I’ve never stopped thinking about what a camp that was designed to help a kid like Uriah be remarkable would have looked like…and how we would have ran it. Especially if it would have extended his young life even a single summer. Even a single week. In spite of the challenges that the rest of the world brought his way day in and day out.

    Especially if we had been truly brave/forward-thinking.

    Had we been truly remarkable, had we been truly visionary, had we been truly gifted, we would have figured out a way to let that kid swim like a dolphin 90% of the time…and let his laughter guide us. Our ‘system’ and program would not have been at risk, nor the profound ‘historical precident’ of summer camping foundations/history/logic.

    Sadly, he died a few years later when his body gave out…on land. Not even close to a dolphin that was but a few crawling steps away from the edge of that one summer beach.

    Dan, you often contemplate/talk about the conflict between (for a lack of better language, my friend) ‘traditional’ educators and the ‘school 2.0’ minions. While semantics invites friction by its very nature of being a rhetorical device, I think that you have written as strong a unifying statement as I’ve read in a long, long time, my friend (if you care to find common ground, rather than to find one ultimate “future of learning” fighting champion when the dust settles). As you wrote about Rosalia, your class, and what you realized:

    “I speak slower. I gesture more. I use more pictures. I enunciate better. Etc. Etc.”

    Without arguing over lectures vs. wikis, I think you hit the ball out of the park (by intention, accident, divine intervention, serendipity, or simply because I elect to force the simile). It ain’t about one vs. the other. It’s about all and all and all and all…by any means necessary.

    Whether it’s a red-haired wonder at a Maine summer camp in the early 80’s or a ESL transfer in a 2007 California math classroom, whether its about a dyed-in-the-wool educator fighting for professional respect or a wild-eyed provocateur ranting about new tech/pedagogy, at the end of the day it always comes down to what YOU did NATURALLY for Rosalia…and because of what Rosalia did NATURALLY for you.

    Politics or semantics aside, the key learning/teaching battle ain’t really about what we think or argue in the faculty lounge or across blog lines. Its ultimately ONLY about one teacher doing whatever it takes for one student and one class, day in and day out..and pushing the classic boundaries by any means necessary, without apology or fear.

    Call yourself a traditional pugilist or a closeted 2.0 guy, a pugilist, Dan, but the point always comes down to whether you honor the possibilities of what can happen when nobody is watching/listening ‘cept you and those marvelous young minds surrounding you.

    All the best to Rosalia, her sister, the rest of their classmates, and you (my friend). Enjoy the adventure shifting the plates between two language continents. And thanks for letting us have a nearby seat to watch the show.

    Cheers from Tejas – Christian

  5. Thank you for the privilege of watching two masters at work. Christian and Dan, I am humbled by your insight, intellect and ability to effectively articulate the best that is the craft of teaching.

  6. Heh. Weird. Thought I had this blog-thing configured to bounce any comments with a word count greater than the original post.

    Glad you made it through anyway, Christian. To the extent that your metaphor concerns differentiated instruction – meeting kids wherever they need to be met – I agree wholeheartedly. We can both be grateful for students (and campers) who permanently expand our palettes.

    I should point out here that the common thread throughout all my School 2.0 shinkicking hasn’t been a rejection of 21st-century pedagogy (wikis, blogs, podcasts, etc.), rather an advocacy of 20th-century pedagogy.

    Though we’ve turned a new century, I still witness the efficacy of a good lecture. When teachers take a sanctimonious tone and dismiss it (and by association, me) while simultaneously preaching differentiation from the other side of their mouths, I admit, it’s hard not to start lacing up my shin-kicking shoes.

    To the extent that your metaphor concerns student-led selection of curriculum – like, why can’t John Q. Student study graphic design 90% of his day and all the boring stuff like reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic the other 10% – I can only raise skeptical eyebrows.

    Your metaphor is extremely poignant but less accurate than that of a kid at a buffet line, plate in hand, a kid whose parents allow him to pick out 90% of his meal while reserving 10% for grains, leafy greens, fruits, etc.

    I mean, how will the food pyramid represent itself on his plate.

    How many students, if we gave ’em the choice, would study subjects which didn’t immediately gratify them? Fractions don’t pay off for a long time. Analyzing stories for theme? Would they study punctuation or just regress permanently to a generation of text-messengers?

    I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

    Everyone else, thanks in advance for answering these questions for me.

    Chris, I never mention that I took a few classes back in the day ’cause then people try to engage me in una conversación and I get all panicky.

  7. Dan — Man, I handed you a (legit) compliment and you still Clockwork Orange swung at it. Oh, and added a rarely charged “food pyramid” second punch just to see if the ketchup would be considered an honest educational vegetable in the blog lunchroom line.

    Why do I think you’re just about ready to string up the Maslow self-actualization pinata soon for added good measure (and graph)?

    Taking a second look at the draft score card, the judges have re-added the coordinating grid coordinates. Turns out you win. Heck, it turns after a bit of reconsideration to ONLY be about semantics, politics, and winner-take-all’s, after all. Mea culpe.

    In the meantime, I still think you’re good people with a soft side that would make both Achilles and the Staypuff Marshmallow Man envious. And the original compliment? Yeah, that was sincerely well earned, Dan,…even if the metaphor has infinitely shifty soil beneath its feet at the Bonanza buffet counter.

    Cheers from the Swiss border.

    P.S. I have an upcoming lecture planned on the Romantic Period in advance of my 10th grade kiddos opening Shelley’s “Frankenstein” before T’giving Break. Probably going to ask them to take notes, too. Probably be an one-way expert for a stretch, without asking their opinion or if they want to “differently” construct an individualized learning project in either analog or digital terms. Might even concoct a quiz, add an in-class essay, or put forward the basic framework for a culminating test. All fair game, to be truthful. Not even going to ask if the kids “want” to learn about the Kubla or Chaka Kahn in “Ozymandius” time; thinking about just asking them to read it ‘just in case’ it comes up in a future A.P. test or in an imaginary college lecture hall. And the kicker? Not going to feel one intellectual ounce of guilt about it either. Might even tap my red pen the entire time.

    And smirk at the irony of it all.

    Wouldn’t it be funny if the straw man really were made of straw? Or at least a bit of Oz-like metaphor?

    P.P.S. Again, the original compliment — with regards to your take-away’s with Rosilia — was offered legitimately. No hidden sarcasm or challenge on any front. Perhaps the hair-trigger needs a safety. On occasion. Just for S’s-n-G’s.

    P.P.P.S. The food pyramid, BTW, has been facing a bit of scrutiny as of late. As a metaphor it holds up; in reality, however, it may need a few historical props to remain ever-ready to make a point. I’ll take “poignant” over “accurate” anytime. Storytelling never needed accuracy. Just a camp fire, decent eye contact, a bit of imagination, and a willingness to go somewhere new.

    Kind of like a decent film or TV script, n’est-ce pas?

  8. Man … gonna take me all night to parse through all those postscripts. Between you and Sr. Jakes, Texas is representing tonight.

  9. In New York, we call children who don’t speak English as a primary language English Language Learners or English as a Second Language students. As someone who teaches both (and can speak fluent Spanish) it’s great to hear just how much effort you’ve put into Rosalia. That’s very encouraging, and it’s something that so many teachers won’t do, even in diverse populations. I’m excited for the possibilities in your classroom.

    Also, it’s good to see that the rest of your kids were more accepting of the diversity in the classroom, where they might not have gotten it before either in their neighborhoods or their schools. It’s just as big a culture shock for Rosalia as it is for your students. Keep up the good work, dan.

  10. I’ll echo a previous comment w/r/t to how effective ELL and SpEd instructional practices are simply good teaching. All this stuff ought to be built into a lesson, not as something that fills that “how I differentiate” box on the lesson plan template, but rather as a fundamental approach to teaching anything.

    You and I are living on opposite ends of ELL world, Dan. This year I’m teaching three (3) students whose first and primary langauge is English. That’s the most native English speakers I’ve ever had at one time.

  11. You’re in a different ELL universe from me, man. And from the sounds of it your Spanish fluency consists entirely of whatever you could pick up on the job.

    Scary stuff.

  12. Four years of high school Spanish.

    Eight years of South Florida residency.

    One summer in Peru.

    But yeah, *I’m* the one who is undergoing language immersion.

  13. Heh, uh, well, I can’t point out to any particular post on your blog but it looks like you’ve underrepresented your fluency just a touch.

  14. I think it is so wonderful that your students are so accepting of this new student but I have to commend you for setting up this environment. Students follow the lead of their teacher and your acceptance and willingness to accommodate her made it clear to your class that it was expected of them also. Kudos to you for obviously being a great teacher!