To say that I had a challenging and dynamic class of 5th graders when I arrived back into the world of education last year is an understatement. Their complexity was Hall of Fame worthy.
One student in particular, Bishal*, was as unique as any personality as I’d experienced. He and his family were refugees from Nepal. He arrived to our school in second grade, speaking no English, and with little personal belongings. To hear him tell his story, he did not attend school in Nepal, but was raised in a rural village, wandering the hillside without shoes, or supervision, from the time he was a toddler, until moving to America.
A husky build, with a slight lean, at times he appeared to waddle like a penguin. He wore the same black and red sweatshirt everyday. His head, round with thick black hair, already sprinkled with gray, was perhaps an indication of the determination he put forth each day just to function.
As you might expect, his transition was challenging. He struggled to learn English. Naturally, curse words came first. He would call our previous principal “King Kontos” and proclaim, “King Kontos I’m not doing dis shit.”
Ms. Kontos would firmly reply, “That’s right Bishal. I am the King, and you need to get to work.”
Fast forward to 2016. Bishal is multiple grade levels behind in math and reading. He has numerous gaps to fill in his reading comprehension and mathematical fluency. His eyesight is terrible, but he doesn’t like his glasses and “forgets” them, often. This leads to sitting with his face mere inches from his work, or only a few feet from the screen on which we share and showcase student work and instruction. Bishal, moody and sarcastic, lacked confidence in his ability to learn and solve problems. He confused failing with failure.
Bishal wasn’t always a fan of my incredible lesson design and activities. How did I know? Because he would tell me. As we would discuss an assignment or activity, he would exclaim, “I’m not gonna do dis shit!” with a slight Nepalese twang.
I would reply, “You are going to try to do this work. And watch your mouth.”
And he would reply, “I don’t like you.”
And I would say, “That’s ok. I like you.”
And he would say, “Okay.” And he would try.
As the days passed, Bishal began talking to me more and more, circling the room to seek me out. He would tease me with a dry sense of humor that only a few students understood. He would ask about my own children and what we did together, before telling me, with a sideways smile, that I’m a “horrible dad,” as he laughed to himself and walked away. He began asking to stay in at recess to play computers and chat with me.
He would attempt work. He would get frustrated. He would murmur and cuss, at times, under his breath. On his darkest days, whether I was up front instructing, or working with a small group of students, he would stand up from his seat, walk to the carpet in the middle of the classroom, and lay down, with his eyes closed, as if it were nap time at the local preschool.
As you can imagine, I was taken aback the first time this happened, dumbstruck even. “Bishal, what are you doing?”
“You can’t lay down in class.”
“You have work to do. You have information to learn. Laying down in the middle of class during instruction or work time is not one of our class expectations.”
“I don’t care. I’m going to lay down. My teacher last year let me.”
With that information in mind I sought his 4th grade teacher to get a bit of a scouting report on this unique puzzle of a student. I learned that she let him lay down, as a sort of reset for him. She’d designated a safe space for him to do this in their classroom. These moments of leisure appeared to help him channel his frustration and fuel a productivity, of sorts, in her class.
I appreciated her creativity in facilitating a safe and functional environment for Bishal, however, my job was to help bridge the space from “little boy” to “young man” and to prepare him, to the best of my abilities, for sixth grade, which was quickly coming. My goal became to ween him off laying down, which was a bit of an exaggerated reset.
You may ask, or be thinking, “Draw a hard line. Tell him he can’t. Write him up. It’s your classroom.” or “No harm, no foul. Let him continue. He needs the reset.”
Truthfully, I fell somewhere in the middle. Of interest to me was his motivation to lay down. Did he need a reset? Was he tired? If he was tired, we needed to set goals to get sleep. Was the work difficult? If so, we needed to look at which work was causing the behavior and develop interventions. Was he acting out because of a number of traumatic life circumstances? Probably and those aren’t going away anytime soon.
I would continue to push Bishal. I saw the potential in him. We would continue to develop our relationship upon common ground. He began drawing wacky comics and reading them to me. He began calling me “Mr. Baldy,” which cracked him up.
He began asking more and more questions about topics and concepts that demonstrated an awareness and understanding of his intelligence. His output, on daily work, assessments and standardized tests did not always reflect this intelligence.
By June, Bishal was no longer lying down in class. He made slight progress in math and reading. He began to show glimpses that he cared about himself and his education. He impressed many of us with his effort during our standardized tests, which were a massive strain on him. By mid June, I learned that he and his family were moving to Kentucky, of all places, because there was a large enclave of Nepalese families there. His parents wanted to be closer to family. I’d intently to recognize his effort and positive behaviors throughout the year and was disappointed at losing the opportunity to continue supporting his development in sixth grade. He was the last student I said goodbye to on the final day of school last year and tears filled my eyes as his bus drove away.
I wonder what happened to that kid.
Well, I didn’t have to wonder long. Two weeks into this school year, Bishal and his family arrived back from Kentucky. Something didn’t work out. I, for one, was elated to see Bishal and gave him a big handshake and hug when I did.
His adjustment back to life at Meadow Ridge was not easy. I did my best to give a scouting report to his sixth grade teacher and soon, his sixth grade teacher began coming to me for ideas and strategies of how to get Bishal to care…to try…to not disrupt.
Our classes had the same lunch period and I made it my mission to say hello and give him a high five and handshake everyday. I’d slip in as many positive affirmations as possible in 30-60 second span in an effort to counter his own negative self concept and help re-ignite his potential.
While behaving during our interactions in the lunchroom, I caught wind that he was acting up in the classroom. No longer laying down, Bishal was taking to leaving class and wandering school grounds. His teacher, at a loss, was growing wary and frustrated with this stick of dynamite, tossed into his already explosive class.
But then, a miracle. After walking out of his Walk to Read class, he asked to go back the next day. He wanted to go back. He began working hard. First in Walk to Read, and then in his homeroom class. He began making positive comments about his teachers and peers. (And maybe, soon, himself)
Finally, last week, he took a computerized assessment, increasing by nearly two grade levels. While the growth is impressive, his desire to care and give effort is the compelling component of the situation. Bishal, sixth grader, took ownership of his education.
News of his effort spread like lightening throughout the school, electrifying the staff, because Bishal is a student that every staff member knows. The following Monday, his effort and progress was highlighted and recognized during morning announcements.
Then there was today. At 3:30pm, Bishal arrived in my classroom to translate for the mother of one of my Nepalese students. She spoke almost no English. He did an excellent job communicating the successes and challenges of her son, one of Bishal’s closest friends. I was dazzled by this young man, who was confidently emerging before me.
We invest vast quantities of time, effort, creativity and emotion in our students. We plan for and expect them to succeed, just as any coach or engineer wants of their team or creation, and if we’re lucky, we get to observe the successes in real time.
Bishal’s road ahead will be curvy and bumpy. He will have failures. He will grow frustrated and wary. He will want to escape through the door and lay on the floor. He will not want to do “this shit.” But he will. He will try. He will work. And I know that, with a little bit of support, effort, dark humor and muttered swear words, he will succeed.
*Bishal is pseudonym used to protect the identify of this student.