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Keeping Her Joy


A few years ago, I had a student, who I'll call Autumn, and she was probably the most joyful student, maybe even child, that I've ever met. Autumn was kind and polite. She loved unicorns and cats and glitter (and life!) and would greet me warmly every time we met, which is saying something because we met at 7am. It was the only time we could find with our differing time zones and crazy schedules. Through yawns and bedhead, she'd ask me how my guinea pigs were doing and cackle as I shared their latest antics. She'd show me her drawings of unicorns and cats and cat unicorns, and I'd marvel at the colors she'd used to depict them.


The reason Autumn stands out to me so much is because Autumn was untouched by her diagnosis. She was unfazed by her limitations. Sometimes it took her two or three times as long to do assignments that other kids in her class finished easily. It took all of her attention and a great deal of effort to be able to write a few labored sentences when I first met her. But Autumn wasn't angry. She didn't get online five minutes late and sulk and roll her eyes when I greeted her. She didn't sigh when I asked her to write a little more about the cat café she was going to own one day. Honestly, I wouldn't have blamed her if she did, and I don't blame the kiddos I work with who do. But she didn't. And her attitude and demeanor have stuck with me, and I often come back to her in my mind. 


Think about your late-elementary/middle school students with learning diagnoses, sometimes multiple. Think about how rare it is to meet one of them who isn't discouraged, who hasn't undergone multiple testing situations, been through various types of therapy to come to the conclusion that they just can't learn. That they're broken. That they're unteachable. At least for me, this seems to be much more the rule these days than the exception.


Autumn didn't seem to feel that way. She'd tell me in a sing-song voice that her hard work was fine; some things were just harder for some people more than they were for others. Like, she was good at drawing, and a lot of people weren't.


After my first meeting with her, I knew that Autumn could be an amazing writer. Her creativity was off the charts. She was a natural problem-solver and could get herself out of writer's block. I was up to the challenge of getting her handwriting and syntax to where she wanted them to be in order for her to be able to put her creativity on paper. But more than just teaching her to write, I knew the important part of our sessions together would be about keeping her joy. I had to give her the grammar and techniques of writing without her feeling beaten down by a red pen (or, rather, Google Doc's red and blue squiggly lines).  I knew it was going to be hard work for both of us, and so did she. And she didn't shy away. 


Maybe it's the digital age that has done it to us, but I feel like we've become a people who need immediate results. We'd rather click by number than paint by number, maybe. Why go to a library or have a conversation with a professional when we can just ask Google and have our questions answered right away? 


The process of learning to write isn't a quick one. It's a heavy cognitive load to carry. It was especially heavy for Autumn, as I'm sure it is for some of your students.


The first thing Autumn and I did was to have an honest conversation about what she wanted from her writing. We talked through what was difficult for her and what was easy. We talked about her brain and how it worked and what tools we could use to help her learn new information. She had a few goals in mind. I remember that she wanted her handwriting to be pretty. She wanted to know when she should end a paragraph, and she wanted to learn new words and how to use them accurately in sentences. We conquered each of those goals and more. Autumn graduated from our practice a confident writer with the tools she needed to engage in word study on her own and to employ grammatical concepts she learned with me and in school. 


But what I keep coming back to is how Autumn kept her joy, how she didn't succumb to the lie that she couldn't learn or that there was fundamentally something wrong with her that kept her from her goals. Of course, I know it was more her than me, and her parents played a huge role as well. They were more concerned with her feelings around her learning than they were her grades, and this served her well. If I had to put my finger on my role, though, more than just making sure lessons were engaging and topics were geared toward her interests (namely, cats and unicorns and cat unicorns), I really tried to make the sessions about her. 


Well, of course sessions should be about students. Yes, but how often do they become about us? If I'm honest, it's so easy to fall into the trap of trying to make sure I'm doing a good job and that my students reflect the amount of work I'm putting into the sessions. We want the parents to be happy. We want them to see results, better grades, better comments from teachers on report cards. We want the schools to be impressed with the progress the students are making and see that what we're doing makes a difference. Higher standardized test scores wouldn't hurt, either. All of those things have some value, but none of those things will follow students into every facet of their educational lives quite like their attitudes toward learning. And if we're really honest, we as teachers influence those attitudes more than we wish we would. 


It's a lot of pressure. It takes a lot of uncomfortable talks about what progress really looks like and what expectations we have and how to manage them. And Autumn, admittedly, made it easy. She taught me a lot, though, about how to approach those kiddos who don't, necessarily, make it easy and how to make the session about them and not just their performance.


I fully expect to be sipping an Americano in a café some day, surrounded by main coons and calicos, taking in artwork of proud unicorns running through fields of candy canes and chocolate streams. Or maybe I'll just hear in the not-so-distant-future about a young woman walking across a stage and turning a tassel. I'll take either because I know the hard work it'll take to get either place and I know the one who dedicated herself to working hard. And she's doing it with joy.


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