The boy sat hunched over his desk, watching with wide eyes as his teacher worked with a pair of students a few desks up from his own. His eyes slid to the other side of the classroom where groups of students chatted loudly with one another as they tackled the worksheet assigned to them, matching pictures of different types of bird beaks to their written definition. His fingers fidgeted with the pencil he held in his hand. In a cacophony of sounds, he was an island of solitude. He appeared lost.
As part of a graduate class on immigration and settlement issues, several of us had chosen to volunteer our time in a local English Language Learners’ (ELL) classroom composed of junior high students. Many of the students were refugees and had left countries characterized by strife. We had been informed on one of our previous visits that this boy was newly arrived at the school. Shy and unassuming, he was easy to miss in the loud, chattering crowd of kids who dominated the class. The bell rang and two of us lagged behind. Sonia* expressed her shock that the boy was “not learning” despite being placed in this special class. Ill at ease, wanting to support my fellow teacher and simultaneously disturbed by the idea that a student was perhaps being left behind, I struggled to formulate a response. Sadly, what emerged from my lips – a weak platitude – left us both dissatisfied.
The following week, my eyes landed once more on the new student. Sandwiched between an empty desk and a tall, lanky boy, I saw that yet again he appeared rudderless. I looked up without really seeing as the teacher provided directions for a language arts activity. My mind was busily sorting out ways in which help could be offered to this student. He could use an iPad. He could use the picture cards sitting on a shelf at the side of the classroom. He could have a scribe…
Instructions given, the teacher smiled at her class and jokingly urged them to get to work. My thoughts drifted and suddenly I was thinking about a young girl I had taught in my Grade 5 class the previous year. She had recently arrived from India and her English had been limited. Then, too, I had been worried about the type of learning which was occurring. I had not wanted her to fall even more behind. Making arrangements with her parents for her to stay after school, I spent time with her each day, trying to get her up to speed in Math and Language Arts. One day she came to me crying, saying that the other girls in the class didn’t want to include her in their play at recess. This was truly devastating for me to hear. I wanted all my students to feel they had a space of belonging in their classroom. While I had been concerned with the young girl’s skills in the different subject areas, I had not been attendingenough to how the students were engaging with one another. I had not been attending enough to how relationships were being shaped in our classroom. That year, I was reminded that while the mandated curriculum is important, a curriculum which speaks to children’s actual lives is equally if not more important.
The scraping of chairs against the floor brought me back to the present, and I allowed myself a moment to eavesdrop as the teacher moved from group to group. She was voicing words of encouragement and the rapport between her and the students was obvious. The boy was smiling shyly as his partner flipped the page of a textbook. The tension I carried in my shoulders eased. He and his classmates would face many challenges, but they were being supported in their learning in meaningful and tangible ways. Through the creation of caring relationships with their teachers and amongst themselves, they were learning a most valuable curriculum – one that puts citizenship and humanity first.
* Name changed