Kindness – 4

We have done everything we can but our students cannot meet us half way, cannot do their 50%; they are just broken. It is not our fault. We are doing with stories all that is humanly possible in those orc infested nests called school buildings.

It is my opinion that the daily hell states that we experience in WL are not shared by our ESL colleagues. It is because of the cultures we serve. They can communicate with their students just fine because they have families that teach them how to communicate: not in English, but in the language of human decency.

What is happening to America that we aren’t teaching our children kindness? It is not our fault. We should get medals for simply getting up in the morning and going to work. The time is critical. The kids lose when each new TPRS teacher takes a blow to the head from an orc. We have been placed in this battle.

We are at the Prancing Pony. We are in the battle in the woods which takes the life of fair Boromir, and we fight on. Ents are there to help us, and the Riders of Rohan, Judy Dubois and Robert Harrell among them, helmets gleaming, and we must continue the fight.

I know who the elves are – those silent good willed students seeing everything, going through it almost with us. I have a clone of Haldir in one of my classes. From her heart emerges almost a light. Those kids change energy. How many of us have not been buoyed by an elf during a story, wordlessly listening, sending that elven light into the classroom, helping us?

When a child has no way to access the kindness in their hearts, and we expect them to bring it to us on a platter every daythere, and we demand that they be attentive for our story that day and mark them down if they are not, and only a few kids in the room can do the behaviors we require, then what to we do? Go back to the grammar book? No, because then everybody was dead in the classroom, including us.

I know how I react to all that distance from my students. I do what I have done for 38 years and I have the worry in my face to prove it – I get up the next day and go to work and try again.

And I bring my heart with me. And I protect my heart from the Orcs – I show them good teaching, But show my heart to my kids. And we try a story again that day. Again. With hope and faith each time.

And we fail but a few stories succeed and a little more light gets in that day. And we do like that, every day, for as long as we can. In faith. Because something has to replace that tired old grammar translation model. Someone has to bring something!



12 thoughts on “Kindness – 4”

  1. My ESL students are sent to me for remedial help in reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and my job is to differentiate and meet them where they are in small groups, usually of no more than 10. So right there, I have the privilege of getting to know my kids in a very different way, and my first job is to get to know them. What are they interested in, so we can find books about it? What are their strengths so we can play them up? What are they struggling with, so I can help them with it? I get to be their advocate, and my classroom is an oasis of comprehensible input when the rest of their day ranges from a little to extremely incomprehensible. And there’s a sense of comradery amongst the kids.

    It’s an honor to be able to reach out to kids in that way, and it starts with really getting to know the kids.

    Because in ESL, it’s all out in the open. I know which of my kids has no family here, they’re just staying with a friend of a cousin. And which kid lives doubled up with 3 other families, and which kid is failing every class and feels alone.

    Just knowing someone’s pain gives you a connection. You don’t have to pretend or put on a brave face with that person. Unlike with my foreign language students, as an intervention program, I have an immediate icebreaker to get kids talking about their struggles, and then it snowballs until they share things with me that they might not share with others. ELLs’ struggles are off their chest, and they’ve trusted me with their burden.

    When you’re going through something difficult. Tragic. Life-altering and scary. When you go through that, the only thing that matters is having someone hear you, know what’s happening, and simply understand. That person knows what you’re really trying to say, and that means everything.

    When everyone else sees what you write and attacks it with a red pen, including yourself, looking for every little typo, there’s one person who reads what you write because they want to know what you have to say. Because they know you’re hurting and they just want to help make it better in some small way. Targets don’t matter to them. You are their target. They don’t read for the past tense, they read for the “you” on the page.

    1. ”That person knows what you’re really trying to say, and that means everything.”

      Ben, that person earns unswerving devotion.

  2. “…Just knowing someone’s pain gives you a connection. You don’t have to pretend or put on a brave face with that person…”

    This conflicts with the idea/advice that stories MUST be fun and ONLY fun. Sometimes things just suck, and a story about that sucky thing could be a huge bonding experience. I contend that emotion is the key, humor the goal and focus, but real communication takes precedence.

    1. That is such a good point. Maybe it’s my CBI background, but I always start off the year with some more serious issues or whatever is bothering my kids.

      1. Like the article Ben just posted about not forcing employees to remain positive at all times: (

        Employees will argue; kids will argue; kids will be sad and get all EFFed up going through puberty, etc.

        By forcing positivity (word?) like employers do, we basically shut down other real emotions kids have daily. This perspective doesn’t give us license to start asking stories about difficult/traumatic situations, but if something comes up naturally it might be best to work it out and think through as a class.

          1. Oh, yeah there is an awesome program (WIOA) for unemployed folks who need additional training to reenter the workforce given certain job markets. I showed that there are a ton of local ESL jobs, and that there were NOT a ton of Latin jobs (for which I am only certified to teach) in addition to UMass graduating 6 qualified Latin teachers each year. The area is saturated.

            Obviously I will learn how to teach English sooner than I can acquire another language to teach (Spanish is next, and French much much further away), so I’ve been approved for funding to get TESOL certification here in my town at a local language school ( as part of an intensive month long training in June. I’m going back to school!

            As I mentioned to Ben in an email, a few PLC members who know me well have already expressed concerns that I might have trouble with the kind of accountability involved in ESL that you, Claire, have been sharing with us. They might be right but I’ve been thinking that I might not be cut out for public/private school teaching at all, but that’s not the only place to teach languages. It would be very awesome for a job to open up at that local school. Who knows, I could probably convince them to add Latin to their “World Language” class list. I’m sure even just the novel idea would attract community members.

            I’ve hijacked the topic, my bad.

          2. Claire has beautifully expressed her relation with students who need a teacher who is interested in them, in their own stories, in the content they share with us, rather than in how many errors can be found in what they’ve written. It isn’t always necessary to use actual stories about “serious problems” to reach them. I liked to use the “dual personality” scene from The Two Towers where Smeagol and Gollum argue. One day, after we had studied the scene and discussed it, I asked my 15 year old students to imagine a conversation between 2 sides of their own personalities. As I went around the room, one girl, whose English was extremely weak and who alternated between making a few efforts and defiant hostility, asked if she could write her dialogue in French. I started to say (rather indignantly) of course not, but fortunately I caught a glimpse of what she had started to write and I agreed. She wrote furiously for the rest of the hour. I had another class immediately afterwards and forgot about the incident, so it was almost a week before I had time to go through those papers. When I did, I learned she had been repeatedly raped by an older brother for years. When the case went to court she was taken out of her home and went to live with an older sister, who had suffered the same abuse. As Claire says, ” I have the privilege of getting to know my kids in a very different way, and my first job is to get to know them.”

          3. Wow. Yes. I am always humbled by things kids share in this way. They do often need to vent or express whatever is going on. And they don’t have enough TL yet so they write or tell us in English. That is our first job. Show up for them.

          4. Claire I just spent 38 years feeling like a total imposter to this profession. I felt so inferior to organized and capable teachers around me. I’m shocked that they didn’t find me out and that I can now retire in three weeks (for the second time) with enough of a pension to not have to go work bagging groceries at our local King Soopers here. Yea, I fooled them!

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