forward failure and the threshold of improvement: a reflection

Context: I’ve recently gotten involved in a “homework club” for elementary school students. The club is organized for students whose first language isn’t English, or their parents’ first language isn’t English, and most of the students’ parents are students at CSU. The club is an hour long, and I’m the only tutor on Tuesdays (despite having almost no teaching experience with that specific age group or with English language learners.)

Last week was my first week and it was really fun and pretty easy. There were about six or seven students, and they all were pretty independent when it came to their homework. I mostly just checked math problems and helped a first grade student with tricky words.
This week, however, was much more challenging. A worked with a student with very very limited English. He is in the third grade, and his homework for the night was to complete a crossword puzzle on homophones. I pretty much worked with him (and his dad for part of it) having him sound out words and trying to explain the difference between certain homophones. I noticed that the student had a really hard time sounding out words with multiple syllables, and words that aren’t phonetical. He also had a hard time with recognizing the meaning of words. It helped some when his dad would translate the homophones into Arabic, but for the most part, he struggled making sense of the sentences. I spent most of the hour working with him doing the same routine of us sounding out the sentence and then us trying to find the right homophone that fit the sentence. I ended up giving a lot of the answers after he would try/guess a few times.

As I reflect on the night, I’m conflicted, confused, and feel/felt utterly unhelpful. At no point did I feel frustrated or impatient with the student, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I was doing wasn’t helping. I felt stuck trying to communicate concepts that I hardly had words for — floundering while trying to explain the difference between “its” and “it’s” to a student who is already struggling with the language I’m trying to explain it in. Nevertheless, I want to mention that the student expressed an admiral degree of grit throughout the entire assignment; he seemed eager to do the assignment, and do it well.
On the walk back home, I thought about how everything went, and I came to a couple conclusions for myself.

First, this was an excellent example of failure. This was an experience that I can reflect on and learn from — to fail forward from. This is an opportunity to learn and grow, and that’s what I need to work towards.
Secondly, I need to try my best. Not because it is enough at the time (it wasn’t), but because it’s the only way to get better. There is a threshold for improving, and it exists right at the point where you are lost. It’s where you don’t have any ideas left, or where you fall short. It’s where you feel helpless. It’s where you fail. Once you reach that point, that threshold, you open (crash through, stumble into, etc) space where you can grow.


On being an ally all around…

I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to talk with Antero about ELL learners because I think it applied to being an ally all around.
As I researched the issues faced by undocumented students in this country, I though more and more about the kind of environment I could create in a classroom that would best support them and include them. The idea of including students’ culture, interests, and realities into the classroom can speak leagues to showing support for students. It reminds me of a quote from José Luis Vilson’s book, “This is Not a Test” that states “don’t try to change them, try to know them.” I think this quote is important when trying to connect and support students that might have a very different culture from you, and have a very different background. Growing up with that kind of stress can’t possibly easy, and the least we can do as teachers is be open minded to what students have to say and are interested in.

Resources: Being an Ally for Undocumented Students

Here is a brief list of resources that I found that would help a teacher support students that may or may not be undocumented.
Top 10 Ways to Support Undocumented Students
9 Things Every Undocumented Youth Should Know
Educators For Fair Consideration Website
Deportation and Removal Process in U.S. Immigration Court
College Guide for Undocumented Students

I learned a TON from these resources! One of the biggest takeaways for me was that every undocumented student has the right to public education in the United States. I think this is a super important right for undocumented students to have because it then prepares them to attend college later.
That was another takeaway that undocumented students can attend college and can access many different forms of financial aid as well. I think this is a super important aspect of being an ally for these students, because a college education helps students become citizens/documented residents later in life. Under the new DREAM Act, students that are pursuing a higher education degree have a better chance of changing their immigrant status.
I also learned about a ton of the risks involved with being an undocumented students. Prior to the DREAM Act, it was super impractical to pursue legal citizenship as an undocumented resident because the rest for deportation for you and your family was so high. This is an unbelievable amount of stress for a family to have, and as teachers we need to be allies in this issue.
That being said, another takeaway from these resources was that public schools aren’t legally allowed to require information from families about legal status, or require a social security number. This protects families from disclosing that kind of information to the public school. So we as teachers won’t be aware of students’ legal status (which is good) but we still should make information and resources available to students that may or may not need it. A good example of a resource that I think is important to share is the “9 Things Every Undocumented Youth Should Know.” Knowing your rights is super important, and as an ally, we as teachers can provide that resource.


Thoughts for Teacher as Ally

As I’m continuing my work on the Teacher as Ally badge, I’ve made some decisions about what I want to focus on as the badge unfolds. I thought at first that I would focus on ELL students and how to be an ally for those kids, but much of my Teacher as Researcher was focused on that, so I figured I might broaden my scope for the sake of the assignment.
I think that I’m going to look more at the issues that undocumented students face in this country, and research how best I can be an ally for those students.

Favorite Teacher

I absolutely loved asking people about their favorite and most influential teachers. One thing I noticed was that all of the people that I asked described teachers that were strict, or that had super hard classes. As I reflect, I feel the same way as well. As many good teachers as I’ve had, the most impactful and the ones that come to mind are the ones with very rigorous curriculums.
Just as importantly, they talked about the personal relationship that they had with the teacher. As I learn more and more about being an ally and a good teacher in general, personal relationships are super important. I think it’s a vital part of what makes a difficult class worthwhile as well. Super challenging classes that you struggle with all on your own were never classes that I felt affected me positively. At least for me, I’m very motivated by the approval and respect of my mentors, and when I love the teacher, I feel more invested in the class and in the content.
I’m wondering if this is the same way with others. It would definitely be an interesting topic to discuss and explore, because I would love to teach IB or AP or something down the road, and learning how to teach it effectively would be super important to me. The challenging classes that I took in high school were backed by unwavering teacher support, and I think that was a huge part of me not only enjoying and getting a lot from the class, but eventually falling in love with learning.
I wrote a letter to one of those teachers for me, (blog post titled Dear Mr. Strehl) and even in a subject I didn’t consider myself good at, I learned to absolutely love the subject (Chemistry) and learning in general. I asked a ton of questions in that class, and studied outside of class more than I had for anything in my life. It was a great experience for me, and I think a huge part of that was my teacher’s involvement in our learning, and dedication to us as students. He kept his room open almost all the time, and was available for help all the time. He also made an effort to get to know students on a personal level, which I think is an important part of his success as a teacher.

Additional Marginalized Group: Level Up

The additional marginalized group that I chose to explore was LGBTQ+ students. Of all the resources I discovered, the most informative and helpful was a link to a PDF that described how to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ students in the classroom. I think as teachers, the first step to take in supporting these students is creating a safe and supportive classroom environment. Students have to come to you first for these types of issues, so our job is to create a space they feel comfortable opening up and being vulnerable if they so choose. Creating a safe space includes everything from not allowing slurs and certain language in the classroom at all, and supporting the students that come to you.
One very tricky aspect that I came across while researching this issue was parent involvement and what that can entail. If parents are extremely conservative and don’t share the same values as you do in the classroom, supporting a student with issues of gender and sexuality is tricky. I personally don’t think its my business or right as a teacher to out a student to their parents, but on the same note, I feel obligated to inform councilors and parents about issues like bullying. Though I wouldn’t out a student, I’d hate to put them in an uncomfortable position with their parents where they feel like they would have to lie, or lie more. It’s definitely a tricky issue.

Meet the Expert: Antero Garcia

I’ll start this by saying Antero Garcia is such an interesting person, and it was an absolute pleasure to hear what he had to say!
We didn’t have a ton of time, but the question I asked Antero was about how he accommodated ELL students in his classroom, and what his experience with that issue has been in general. His response was really intriguing! He said that he doesn’t speak Spanish (the primary language of most of his ELL students in LA) and said that he was still about to connect with them on a personal level in order to better teach them. He also talked a lot about incorporating the culture that students identify with into the classroom. I quoted him in my notes with saying something like: have the classroom environment/decoration be a mirror for the students, rather than a cage of only what the teacher identifies with. This was something that I hadn’t thought about at all, but I agree that it’s a super important aspect for connecting with your students. My mentor teacher for 350 talks a lot about making it “our” classroom, as opposed to my classroom. I want the classroom that my students are learning in a comfortable environment, and I think incorporating them and their culture into it is a vital step.