The latest iTDi blog has me thinking about “difficult students.” Actually, it seems like all the ELT twitter world is thinking about “difficult students”. I’m not a big fan a labels. Once I start thinking of a student as “difficult” it gets kind of Hawthornian, doesn’t it? The student suddenly has a big red “D” emblazoned on their school uniform from then on out. On the other hand, there’s no denying that certain students exhibit behaviors which seem predicated on their ability to make me want to do a crazy dance and scream at the top of my lungs.
The other day I wrote up a little post about a student who clearly couldn’t read English. Once I identified the first student, it dawned on me that perhaps the reason for another student’s lack of participation in class was a similar reading issue. Let’s call him T-Kun. T-Kun never takes out his book when the bell rings. Never writes notes in class. And seems to view his desk as some alternative form of futon. But if he couldn’t read, it would certainly explain a lot. If I had a choice between looking at a bunch of squiggles on a page for an hour or taking a nap, I certainly know which one I would chose. So I asked him if he could read, and he answered cheerfully enough, “Nope!” So he joined our remedial reading group. And he dragged along a friend who he said can’t read as well. So in the case of T-Kun, “difficult” could be seen from two points of view. Difficult could describe his behaviors, but it could also describe the class expectations which have been set for him as well. During our remedial reading lessons (3 so far), T-Kun has been a model student. He points at each letter as I read. He tries to sound out words. He smiles and participates. When sentences or phrases are repeated in the text, he happily identifies where they appeared previously in the text. It’s not that it’s all easy for him. It took him almost a full minute to sound out the sentence, “Come here and look at this.” But the content is appropriate, there is a chance of meeting my expectations, and he can succeed.
Now I’m not saying that all students act out because they can’t do the work. In fact, just before our third reading lesson, a bunch of the upper-class students were lounging around outside the classroom door. Among the gang was one student, let’s call him Mr. Y, who, I sheepishly admit, I branded “D” during the last school year. He spent a year abroad and he has an easy way with phrases which sometimes surprises me. The other day in class, he was talking up a storm during a silent reading exercise and when I asked him to get back on task he smiled and said, “You got it, captain.” I know that his lack of focus is just the opposite of T-Kun. The class content is just too easy to be engaging. So when I get the chance, I’ll find a way to make the task more difficult. During dictation exercises, I’ll ask him to add an adjective to each sentence I say, or during a reading exercises, I’ll have him do a written summary of each paragraph as he reads. But I don’t always remember him and his needs during every class. And even if I did, I often think there must be a better way to keep him engaged.
Anyway, Mr. Y was chilling out in front of the classroom door and he said, “What are you doing?” So I told him that there were some first year students who were having trouble with their reading and asked him if he wanted to help. To which he said, “You bet.” And help he did. He sat down at the table with us as I slowly sounded out words for the students. And then just to see what would happen, I asked him to teach the next page. He said to the three first year students, “I’m going to read and stop suddenly. I want you to follow along with your finger. When I stop, you stop.” And he read the sentences, “Come here and look at this. Is it a dinosaur?” Only he suddenly stopped while pronouncing the ‘h’ of here. And then he checked to make sure the three students fingers were stopped on that ‘h’. He repeatedly said the sentences, stopping at different points in the sentences. The first year students had a great time. I learned a new teaching trick. And the “D” on Mr. Y’s chest faded away. And he said he would be volunteering to help out again next Tuesday.
So here’s my hope. Mr. Y now has a reason to engage with texts which are below his level. While he’s doing the in-class readings, maybe he will think about the ways he could teach the text to the first year students. And that will help keep him interested in what’s going on in classes which, up until yesterday, might have been slightly level inappropriate. Because if a student just can’t see how what their learning is useful, talking up a storm with a friend certainly might seem like a better use of their time than participant in class. But finding that sense of worth can be pretty hard. I was lucky that Mr. Y volunteered to help out yesterday and doubly lucky that he seems to have a real knack for teaching. Still, when a student is making me want to do the crazy dance next time, I think I’ll take a moment and ask myself, “Can I honestly say that this student understand the value of this activity?” Because if a student can’t see the value of the path we’re walking on, it’s always going to be more interesting to wander off into the forest of “difficult” behavior.