Friday, October 15, 2010

Who's More Considerate and Perceptive? The Teacher-Librarian or the Student who Perpetually Wanders the Hallways?

A few days ago, I saw one of the disciplinary deans at The Green School with L and her fast friend H in the hallway during a class period. This is a very common sight at TGS. The two buddies, sometimes with a couple of other friends, are often seen passing through the corridors, apparently hoping to avoid being spotted by teachers and deans. The school is small; it occupies only one floor of a junior high school building and escapees are inevitably sighted, and sent to SRC: the place where students are expected to figure out what they've done wrong, atone for it by negotiating with the teacher in question and get back into classes. The way this very reasonable, thoughtful, adult plan plays out among adolescents is inconsistent. For some, it works well and gets them back on track, while for others, it becomes part of a daily pattern. L and H are in the latter category.

As I passed by, rushing to do one of the innumerable tasks required by having taken on three jobs within three schools, the dean asked me if I could let L and H into the library for the rest of the period. I said yes, if upon arriving at the library, the dean could give me a two minute washroom break once I let L and H in. I have to make these kinds of bargains for relief because as a perceived "public" space, teachers send kids to the library at any time of day, even when I'm teaching an ESL class and have sent out a note explicitly asking them not to do so during that period, and kids themselves want to come in when they've got hold of a washroom pass or are avoiding SRC. In any case, the dean agreed, and when I got back to the library after taking care of what I needed to do in the washroom, I settled in to try to help L and H get some work done, which, according to classroom teachers, is a rare event.

One of the things I learned about L over the course of last year was that she has some severe learning issues. I remember one time during the early Spring months, she had spent so much time in SRC, the dean brought her into the library just to give her a change of scenery. I had just printed out a few sheets of bar codes and accompanying call numbers to try to make a dent in the thousands of uncatalogued books left behind by the middle school that closed and in whose former building our three schools are now housed, and L, who had previously seemed 100% apathetic as far as I could tell, offered to help affix bar codes and call numbers to the books. It came as a pleasant surprise. I briefly coached her in how to match titles to bar codes and call numbers, where to affix them, how to measure out enough clear tape to reinforce them and she went to work. For about two books.

"Mister: this is mad boring!" she said, dropping a book on the table, unreinforced. "I'm not gonna do this."

"L," I said, "you have no stamina!" I thought I'd hit on a problem we could fix. Stamina can be built. If you can do two and half books today, try three tomorrow. If you can do three the next day, try going on to do four the day after that. That's how it works, right?

"Mister, you're mean!"

"No, I'm not! I'm just saying you need to build your stamina, L! That's going to help you a lot in your school work!"

"Oh Mister," sighed L, putting her head down on the table. Clearly, she'd said enough and done enough for the day and I obviously wasn't getting it.

This was before I'd asked the special ed teachers about her IEP; perhaps even before I even knew she had an IEP. Not long after that day, I did discover that simple stamina building didn't even scratch the surface of the kind of support L needed. I then thought back on some of the I and other teachers had said to L. We often dismissively told her buck up. To get her butt into class. To crank out some work. Deans and teachers alike seemed utterly exasperated with her and I was no exception.

This year, I thought that if L came my way, I would welcome her in and see how I could support her progress. This day was my opportunity. As we sat at a table right in front of the librarian's desk, I got a text message. L eyed my phone as I took it out of my pocket. She asked me if I was using an iPhone. It's not obvious, because I have a clunky cover on it. L herself carries both a Blackberry and an iPod touch. I told her it was indeed an iPhone with an unattractive cover on it, continuing to hold it closely, so it was facing me and not, L, punching in my security code to read my text.

"Mister," said L, "I know what you need." She turned on her her iPod touch and held it horizontally, parallel to the table at approximately my eye level. "Can you see my screen?" she asked.

"No," I replied, seeing where she was going with the conversation.

"I have a privacy cover on it. I got it down on Graham at the T-Mobile store. Not the one way down by Woodhull [Hospital], the one closer to here."

"Thanks, L, I'll pick one up!"

Now, at this point, I had to ask myself: who's carefully watching whom? Who has some good advice to offer according to their observations?

I was thinking about how much I need to improve my work with students like L when, during our conversation, she brought up the news that she'd been accepted to Co-Op Tech, where she'll spend the afternoons learning cosmetology, which is the field she wants to go into after high school, after mornings in her required academic classes at The Green School.

"So when do I start?" she asked impatiently.

"I'm not sure, actually, and I'd heard you were going to go there. Let me text the guidance counselor and find out."

The text from guidance almost immediately: "Feb. No room this semester."

I relayed the good news to L, who's been trying to find another pathway for her education since I met her.

"Yeah, right," she scoffed. "Mm-hmm."

I texted guidance: "She doesn't believe us."

Guidance texted back: "LOL. Well it's true!"

L remains skeptical. She's probably right to take the 'I'll believe it when I see it' attitude, given her history with the school system. I'm looking forward to hearing about her cosmetology training next semester. I hope it's along the lines of what she's looking for.

I'm also hopeful about Co-Op Tech in general. There are a couple of other students at TGS who might make good candidates. If L's experience goes well, TGS guidance and administration will be more eager to help them get there.

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