I watched Gonsalo pull away in a huff and sit down at the desk with his elbows crossed and his jaw line set. I had noticed this behavior in Gonsalo before, and had experienced a similar response from his younger brother who had been a student of mine this past year. I made the assumption Gonsalo was ticked off about something and was refusing to participate in the class writing project. The activity was to create and write a fairy tale. Gonsalo had been working with a partner but the two boys had begun to goof off more than they were working so my colleague asked them to separate and work on their own for awhile. I knew Gonsalo was a bit dependent on Freddy for interpreting his ideas into English and into writing and besides being mad about being separated, he was probably discouraged because he wasn’t sure how to proceed on his own.
I sat down next to him and asked if I could read what the two of them had written on their planning page. He pushed the paper towards me but remained stony faced and looked straight ahead. I mentioned to Gonsalo that I was used to his brother, Isaac, acting the same way when he got mad or felt misunderstood and that this behavior really got in the way of Isaac’s learning. This got Gonsalo to look at me because he really is eager to learn and prove himself. Deciding to try a strategy that sometimes worked with Isaac, I suggested this was a great opportunity to write a unique story instead of the one he and Freddy were doing together. I thought Gonsalo might respond to a little competition. He pulled his paper back in front of himself and began to tell me his ideas.
I met Gonsalo two summers ago when he was a newcomer from Mexico. We were doing some timed math the first few days to get an idea of skill levels and he did not understand the task or why we wouldn’t let him finish. I pulled him out to a little table and with my very broken Spanish explained the math and asked him to show me what he knew. He still didn’t understand the timing but at least I was able to find out more about his math skills and establish myself as an ally.
Gonsalo has made great progress in these past few years but there are still huge gaps in his understanding. Another misunderstanding happened the week after the fairy tale incident. I told the students on Monday we’d be making ice cream in a bag on Thursday. All that day the students were asking about how we were going to accomplish this. Finally it was time. I wrote the steps down on the whiteboard and demonstrated each one as the students read them to me:
1) Pour 1/2 milk into small zip lock bag (actually a double bagged set)
2) Add 1 eyedropper of vanilla and 1 ts of sugar, squeeze out the air and zip the bags closed
3) Put small bag into large zip lock bag, add rock salt and ice to the big bag
4) Squeeze out air again and zip shut
5)Shake for a long time (15-20 minutes)
6) Discard large bag, open small one. Add berries and eat with spoon or straw (depending on consistency)
I asked the group if there were any questions about the process and when no one raised their hands, I sent them to two assembly lines to begin putting their bags together with the ingredients. Everyone eagerly began the process except Gonsalo. He went to the wall and sat down. Because of my previous experiences with Gonsalo, I assumed some altercation with a teacher or student had put him in a bad mood and he was refusing to participate. When everyone had their bags, we moved outside to finish the process of shaking the milk. Gonsalo moved with us but still wasn’t engaging in the process.
I was going from student to student checking on the progress of the ice cream and offering spoons and straws as the students finished and were ready to eat their product. At some point I realized Gonsalo had a bag in hand and had joined the experiment. He was with a teacher and some of his friends so I went to find out how this change of mind had come about. The teacher turned to me and said, “He thought we were putting rocks into the milk and there was no way he was going to eat rocks.”
Poor Gonsalo – not only does his misunderstanding of English get in the way of his learning but his withdrawal from the process as well. I am glad the intimacy of summer school is a setting conducive to bringing out more of the best than the worst in him.