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I Only Thought I Knew My Students (by Ric Murry)

Part of the series: Lessons Learned from Students

THE BACKGROUND:

2008, I returned to the 7th grade Social Studies classroom after a seven-year hiatus in Computer Applications and the Media Center.  I wanted back in the classroom where I could work with a smaller number of students and develop a long-term relationship as a teacher and mentor to those who chose to see me this way.

I didn’t realize how I would miss that role when I left my first Social Studies classroom, because I didn’t realize that I would soon become a mentor to so many of my former students. That’s why I believe longevity is a necessary component to really becoming a quality teacher in the eyes of students.

THE SETUP:

In August 2008, just a few days after school had started for a new year, several former students came to say goodbye.  They were off to college for the first time.  They were former students who were English Language Learners when I taught them 6 years earlier.  They are all special young people to me.

I knew how much they struggled.  I saw their tears when they were new to the country.  I felt their frustration as they searched for the right word in English to communicate their needs, hopes, and ideas.

BUT I MISSED SOMETHING IN THEIR STRUGGLES, that one of them would have to teach me.

Rocio was a former student who was about to become my teacher.

She worked hard. Her family moved to the United States when she was in 6th grade. She knew two words of English when I first met her; “hi” and “yes.”  One of our first conversations went something like this:

Me: Hi. You must be Rocio.
Rocio: Yes.
Me: It is good to meet you. I have a seat ready for you over here.
Rocio: Yes. Hi.

She remembers it, because she’s the one who reminded me about it.

As she came to say goodbye, as a new Gates Millennial Scholarship winner, I asked if she would speak to one of my classes for a few minutes.  I wanted them to know that a young person can come to the United States knowing no English, work hard, and graduate #4 in high school, and go to college for free…if they would just work for it.

They hear me say, but I only say it because I have seen it happen.  And it happened for Rocio.

THE CLASSROOM:

She told my students (most ELLs) all the things you and I knew she would likely say, so I’ll not bother to repeat it here.  But then, as a couple of students began to look away with a glance I thought was disrespectful, Rocio said two things that amazed me.

First she said, “I know why you are looking away. You think this can’t happen for you. You think you’re not smart enough. You think you’re not meant to go to college. You think it would be disrespectful to your parents; who did not even go to high school. I know that’s what you are thinking, because I sat in your chair just a few years ago, thinking the very same thing when teachers talked about students going to college.  But let me tell you something, Your parents would not have left their families, struggled with their children to travel here, and now work 16-18 hours everyday if they didn’t want you to get your education. So make them proud.  That’s why they came here. Not for them, but for you.”

That was awesome!  But then it was my turn to learn.

THE LESSON:

Second she said, “I’m not saying it will be easy, but I am saying it will be worth it. What we know that your teachers don’t know is that we can’t even be ourselves or show our real personality to them, or our classmates, because we don’t have a personality until we own the language the people around us use to communicate. We know that you can’t be who you really are in someone else’s language. But when you do learn the language,  and you will, you will be able to reveal the real you to them.”

I stood there for a few seconds. I had to think about that one.  And I did. I wrote it on the board…for my benefit.

YOU CAN’T BE WHO YOU REALLY ARE IN SOMEONE ELSE’S LANGUAGE.

Why was this such a big deal to me?  Why did that strike a note of hope and sadness in me?  Was it empathy for my kids? Was it something more personal?

YOU CAN’T BE WHO YOU REALLY ARE IN SOMEONE ELSE’S LANGUAGE.

I could not get over that thought.  I take pride in “knowing my students.” I keep up with them through their high school years. I go to their games, plays, and performances. My wife even stopped going because she could not enjoy the games because of the number of kids who would have to say hello and talk.  I do not want this to sound like I’m bragging, but at times there were so many kids around my wife and me that it was impossible to watch the events, because the kids wanted to talk to me.  I always thought I knew “my kids.”

YOU CAN’T BE WHO YOU REALLY ARE IN SOMEONE ELSE’S LANGUAGE.

The truth Rocio taught me that day, while she was speaking to my students was that I knew very little about my students who struggled to speak to me in English.  There was no way for them to show me their true identity.  They try, but the words (or lack of words) get in the way.

THE APPLICATION:

All true learning will lead to a change in the life of the learner.  So what has changed in me?  It may not sound like much, but here is something I find myself doing much more of in the hallways, between classes, and sometimes at the end of class.

I’ll ask my ELL students to tell me something they have done that they really enjoyed.  I ask them to tell me in English.  They usually are able to get enough of the words out that I know what they have done.  When they are done, I ask them to tell me the same story in Spanish (their native language). I listen carefully. I watch their eyes twinkle with excitement. I watch their hand gestures explain instead of search. I watch their friends join in. I listen and I watch.

Let me tell you…there are some great personalities in my hallway.  I may never have known that if it wasn’t for Rocio.

I also have former students come to my class and talk with my current students several times a year.

This year I’ve had Rocio, another former ELL student preparing to be a teacher, a former basketball player of mine spoke about his trip to South Africa, and a former student who needed a recommendation for a college grant stopped in to tell them that their teachers are the most helpful people they will ever meet.  She probably just wanted a good recommendation letter though.  I gave it to her.

I have been teaching middle school students since 1995. I have taught Social Studies, Technology, and work as a Instructional Technology Specialist through the Media Center. When I began teaching at Dalton Middle School, the Hispanic population was classified as “Other” (less than 2%). We currently have a Hispanic population of 68% do to the carpet and poultry industry in Northwest Georgia.

I was one of the first four “official” teachers in the middle school to teach ESOL students in 1997.  We did not have an organized approach at teaching our English language learners in our district, but our team of teachers attempted to learn all we could through our own research.  I have learned with ELLs for over 12 years, and have worked to make them and their parents become a valuable part of our school and community.

I have also been a basketball and track coach for over 10 years, and have used my coaching contacts to help former student-athletes earn more than $800,000 in college athletic scholarships.

My blog: http://rrmurry.posterous.com

15 Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    What a powerful message, Ric. Thanks for sharing it.

    It’s a good reminder that our experience with our students in English is limited by their skill in the language.

    Please thank Rocio for teaching us all a valuable lesson!

  2. Rocio Jacobo says:

    I’m sitting in the library, in front of this monitor and the people around me probably think that I’m crazy! I smiled when I saw the title of the blog and as I was reading, tears commenced to flood in my eyes.

    This week has been a tough week. One of those weeks that you feel like, perhaps, this is where you have to say “I’m done” or “I can’t do it anymore.” One of those moments which I always compare to a cross country race, in which you are running as hard as you can, then comes a hill. Your legs start burning and the thought of stopping is stuck in your head. But your legs don’t let you stop. Something in you says “Just keep going!” Suddenly, you realize that you are at the top of the hill and now the downhill is only a couple to steps ahead. Once downhill, you feel the relief and the determination to keep going. TO FINISH THE RACE. I needed to be reminded of that! Your words did that!!! Maybe I’m still escalating that hill and maybe not as fast as I would like to. Maybe I’m just jogging, but I’m jogging with pleasure and still want to keep running. Most importantly, the run makes your legs stronger. Your STRUGGLES make you STRONGER! Again, Thank YOU for reminding me of that.

    A lot of people often forget to enjoy what they do and I must admit that I have to constantly remind myself to do just that. It’s not about the ranking, the material gains, the “what will they think of me.” It’s about finding a MEANING to what you do. Defining yourself. It’s about GROWING!

    One of the things that will always be stuck in my head is something that Katie, one of my former classmates, told me on graduation night. She came to me and asked, “How come you weren’t valedictorian? We all thought you would be Number One? What was your rank?” My first reaction was a smile and I kind of wanted to laugh at the same time. The girls in our class who were “ranked” number one and two deserved it, without a doubt. I told her that…”They deserve it!” and then answered her second question, “I was number 3.” As I was walking to greet my family I told myself, “You are not number 3. You are Rocio. You don’t have a rank. You could be the 254th in your class, but you would still be Rocio.”

    I point this out because I often feel that as students, we feel gratified when we are in the ranked at the top and might often forget to ENJOY what we are learning. I must admit that in middle school, I was that kind of girl. The girl who wanted to get not all A’s on her report card, but all 100s!!! In seven grade, I wasn’t enjoying what I was learning. I just wanted to get a good grade. Something hit me. This something was the realization that I didn’t want to be trapped in that cycle forever. PASSIONATE TEACHERS taught me that!!!! Not through books, through lectures, or through grades but through their actions. Through their PASSION.

    Every time I go back, teachers praise me for what I have done, but they need to thank themselves. YOU MR. MURRY, need to thank yourself and thank yourself also. You see, my accomplishments are not just my accomplishments. These accomplishments are amazing experiences and blessings in my life that I feel most grateful for being able to share with my teachers and my family. These teachers are responsible for where I am right now and there are not enough words to thank them or GOD.

    Up to this point, I admire teachers tremendously because I see them as one of the professionals who are not afraid to make a difference in the world. The teachers who have inspired me the most are those who teach beyond the classroom. Those who are not afraid of “not always sticking to the textbook.” Those who treat each and every one of their students not only an academic learner but most importantly, AS A PERSON!

    I probably have wrote a lot…I can on forever, but I must class is about to start. I’ll continue with the run (literally! I have to run to class hahahah).

    Have a blessed day :)

  3. Rocio Jacobo says:

    *have written…a lot (I’m in a rush sorry)

  4. Joan Young says:

    Thank you for sharing this powerful and inspiring story. I think all teachers need to understand what Rocio shared so eloquently and so authentically. I will be sending this to my principal so that he can help our teachers increase our awareness and understanding. We need to really know our kids and we must listen to them in all the ways, (including their native languages), they show us who they are.

  5. Ozge Karaoglu says:

    Dear Ric,
    Thank you for sharing your experience with us! This is such a good and an inspring story. I really loved how Roccio expressed herself saying “You can’t be who you really are in someone else’s langauge” This is a great lesson for all of us.

  6. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by kalinagoenglish: via @barbsaka I Only Thought I Knew My Students (by Ric Murray) http://bit.ly/9cQ7Ip #beltfree…

  7. David says:

    Ric,

    Yes, even from a distance – your student’s comment hit me in the gut like a well placed punch. Important, important reminder. I enjoyed and appreciate you sharing your “story” very much. It is this that really allows us to develop professionally – more so than the normal skills and bricks and mortar things of teaching.

    I really think we have to allow students to learn through their own “eyes, ears, bodies” more. I’ve had it with the all knowing “teacher” stuff and curriculum that is designed in code. Especially with language, we need to allow students to “create the content” . I call it SCC – student created content. Everything students use to foster language learning comes from their world, the real world and incorporates their language (and a language isn’t just Spanish/English but how they read the world, their “thought” that informs action). I guess I’ll have to write the book — it is not that halfway house called, student centered learning, but something different.

    I just wish we had more opportunity to work from their end of things…..

    After I graduated teacher’s college, my mentor and former coach/geography teacher took me for a walk. He said he had one thing to tell me about teaching. He said, the worst thing about teaching was always saying good – bye. That students came and went, came and went. Dust in the wind. He said, if you are going to be a teacher – get used to that… so I hear you about wanting to work longer with one group. However, there is always an end I think and like love, a lot can happen in a flash or over a long period of time. Just depends.

    Rocio,

    Please keep running! Up and down and even around hills! I believe like you, that we are blessed as teachers and teaching is a vocation more than a pay check and job. I was listening to this MLK Jr. speech today – he says it much better…. http://www.thekingcenter.org/DrumMajor.swf

  8. Jennifer Ansbach says:

    Ric-
    What a great story. Amazing that you made your own learning transparent, that you showed that for teachers, learning must continue. If a teacher isn’t learning with the students, either that teacher isn’t paying attention or is ineffective. You are both an effective and attentive teacher–two qualities of being a great learner, too. I taught English to 11th graders in an urban district with 25% ELL. We read “When I Was Puerto Rican” by Esmeralda Santiago to discuss these issues. While it isn’t appropriate for your students, you might find the memoir confirms the ideas you are exploring.

    Rocio-
    There’s always another hill–keep going! It’s okay if you walk sometimes, catch your breath, and take in the scenery when the hill just feels too steep–just keep moving.

    You are an inspiration.

  9. Golly, I might have to come back I’m so choked up. But, Barb, I keep doing this through out your series of wonderful posts so am staying to say: Ric, what a wonderful, emotive, honest account of a real realization so many teachers, especially those who don’t learn their students’ languages never experience!

    From learning languages myself and knowing this to be true but it’s so hard to explain that, you know, “you’re not you” yet you are “completely you”… I enjoyed hearing about Rocio and thinking about how our learners touch our lives – usually posts are about how teachers touch our lives, you know – but it’s a two-way street!

    Thanks, Barb+Ric+Rocio

    Karenne

  10. […] Listen to the power of another educator who learned from really listening to his student–another great post that was twittered by […]

  11. Catherine Cabiness says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I found myself tearing up as well because all too often we are so busy trying to shove information and content into our students’ heads that we don’t realize that we are actually dealing with little humans. And that they have a voice…feelings…dreams and aspirations. I think that Rocio’s story is one of triumph and it’s a testament to you and the true teachers out there…who are willing to take the time to get to know his/her students on a different level. And this is where technology does make a difference because in a class of thirty-six 7th graders it’s darn near impossible to connect with each of them on a daily basis. But through interactions online via chats, email, twitter, blogs…it’s another platform for interaction.

    And from one middle school history teacher to another…I think we have a pretty cool job with a bunch of great kids. =)

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  13. […] a tweet directed me to a blog post that addressed the experience of an ELL (English Language Learner) in a Georgia classroom. The […]

  14. Ric Murry says:

    Wow!

    Thank you Barb for asking me to be a guest writer. For all of you who have responded, thank you so much for your support of Rocio. If her entire story was told, many keyboards would short out from the tears. She and her family are heroes of mine.

    By the way, I was wrong in one of my pieces of information: Rocio graduated 3rd in her class, not 4th. I knew that. Maybe I just hit the wrong key. :)

    I taught one of her brothers a few years ago. He is now in college.

    I have her youngest brother in class this year. He is a good young man. I cannot wait to see what he becomes.

    Rocio is planning a trip to Costa Rica in a few weeks to work in a health clinic with FIMRC – Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children. I can’t wait for her to tell my students about that trip.

    One day, I dream of being asked by Rocio to go on a medical/education trip. My wife and are already making plans. I want to learn more from the student who continues to teach me.

    Readers, thank you so much for the positive comments.

    ~Ric Murry~

  15. […] Murray usually posts here, but the excerpts above are from his piece, I Only Thought I knew My Students, which can be found at Teaching […]

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