Bev and her husband had hosted an inner city teen for a few of weeks during the past summer. She gushed about what a fulfilling experience it had been, then she paused, reflected for a moment, and confessed, “It was eye-opening, though. I wasn’t prepared for how different our worlds are.” It had been over a year since my friend Bev and I had talked at any length, and intrigued to hear more, I urged her to tell me about it. She shared her story.

I was driving out of my comfort zone to pick up a complete stranger. You can imagine. I was both excited and nervous. Going through my mind were all of the icebreakers and questions I could conjure up while focusing on the road. It was what my heart wanted, I knew deep down that it was all going to be worth it; we’d give it our best shot, and things would work out for the best. One thing that I wasn’t prepared for, though, was that first car ride home.

I figured that the drive would give us a nice opportunity to open up and get more familiar with each other. Before much was said though, Freddie grabbed his earbuds (headphones to me) out of his pocket and plugged in his iPod. I was left alone with my thoughts, “How can you have a conversation when the headphones are in? How do you hear what is going on?”

Communicating Effectively is key to understanding - Susan FitzellI have to confess, as Bev told her story, my mind wandered, comparing a typical ride in the car with my two children. When they were little, we didn’t have iPods, but they weren’t allowed to listen to their personal CD players in the car. I felt it was important that we agreed on music in the car. We shared different people’s music. Maybe it was Dad’s turn to choose a CD, then my daughter’s turn to pick one, and so on. Then with the music in the background, we had conversations.

Even today, my kids don’t get in the car and put on their headphones. They listen to the music playing in the car. Why? Because we still often have conversations while we ride. I can get the Internet on my phone with the latest news, and sometimes I will pipe up about something interesting when I’m in the passenger seat. That is just one way we start a discussion.

Tuning back in, I heard Bev continue with her story…

When we arrived at home Chuck was in the backyard busy grilling dinner. I took Freddie out back and introduced the two of them, but still, Freddie didn’t take out his headphones. As we sat down for dinner, I finally asked, “Freddie, I’d like you to unplug yourself while we eat.” Once I had access to his ears I said, “I do not advocate headphones at the table. Dinner is a great time to talk and get to know each other a little.”
He looked at me baffled and asked, “What does ‘advocate’ mean?”

I was surprised. Isn’t that a common word, something a teen should know? But I explained what it meant, and I said, “Thank you for asking about the meaning of that word because we don’t want to use language that you don’t understand. If there is any word we ever use that you don’t know, just ask, and we will tell you.”

Eventually our conversation moved to our plans for the coming weeks. Chuck and I soon realized we had very different opinions about our plans and time commitments. But we discussed our ideas, considered the alternatives, asked Freddie for his opinion, and came to a compromise. Freddie ate but didn’t say much else until dinner was over. As we were leaving the table, Freddie asked, “Do you two always do that?”

“Do what?” I asked.

“You know, talk like that.”

“Like what?”

“Well, in my house everything that gets brought up turns into an argument. People get mad, they throw things, I put my music in and try to block it all out. You guys just talked, talked a lot, and then you agreed, even though you both had different ideas, even though you both thought your idea was better.”

I had to tell him, “That’s the way adults make decisions. And, yes, sometimes we have to compromise.”

Listening to Bev’s astonishment at Freddie’s response, I could appreciate her surprise; my husband and I also talk out our disagreements rather than argue. It brought me to thoughts of my classroom, “Freddie’s the type of kid I have in class. I wonder how many of my students also never see two adults work out a problem in a respectful way.”
This is one of those tidbits that might appear to be a bit of fluff, but it’s not. Research has shown that when students feel safe, comfortable, and positive in their environment and can participate in discussions, achievement goes up.

In another way, for me, this is one of the silver linings because it’s the kind of thing that feeds our souls. When two teachers work together in front of our students, we’re role models of adults working well together, collaborating, and respecting each other. That is something our students might not see otherwise. And that’s powerful.

As a parent, I believe in family dinner or family breakfast. We were often busy at dinner, so breakfast became our family meal. Even though my children didn’t have to be at school until 8:30 a.m., they got up at six in the morning for our family breakfast because I had to be at school by 7:15 a.m. We had breakfast together right up through their high school years until I changed careers, and even then, I usually got up to spend time talking with them before they left for school.

Why is this important? Because I had a paradigm, I had a vision of the world, and the way my children were to be raised. I thought I was the average parent doing the average thing.

I also couldn’t help but relate Bev’s conversation about Freddie not understanding the meaning of “advocate” to my classroom. How often in a high school classroom might we use the word advocate in social studies, literature, or every day conversation? To me, too, that is a common word in high school.

I have taught students with special needs my entire career. I had children in my classroom with lower ability to read. I had gone to Ruby Payne’s workshop on poverty. I read the statistics and heard the speakers say, “Children of poverty come to us with 50 percent less vocabulary than children of the middle class.”

I thought I understood. I really did! When I stood in front of my class and I taught my students, I tried to bring language to their level, enough so that they could understand but still keep up. I thought they understood what I was saying. The story taught me that probably a good amount of the vocabulary I used, my students didn’t know, and they would never raise their hand and say, “Mrs. Fitzell, what does that word mean?”

How many times was I speaking a foreign language? I had read the books! I had the experience! I used the strategies; yet I had no clue.

Bev’s story hit home, and I have become passionate about vocabulary and its importance in our children’s lives. Not to mention its importance in our world. Every research study done that measures a person’s vocabulary against their success in life shows that the better your vocabulary, the more successful you are in life, in your careers, and in every way.

So, it is important that we as teachers, especially those of us who work with kids with special needs or learning disabilities, don’t assume anything about what they know. Assuming that students understand our words is a path for failure with our students. Their home lives and experiences are often very different from ours, and we need to be mindful of that if we are to give them the best possible learning experience in our classrooms.

This article was first published on Gazette

RTI Strategies for Secondary TeachersFor more information on differentiation and Response to Intervention, see Susan Fitzell’s book, RTI Strategies for Secondary Teachers.

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