Making Real Progress
Not long ago, in our daily online discussion group at the Teacher Leaders Network, a middle school teacher made this comment during some dialogue about student and teacher assessments: "Success is not the same for every student. Have they moved forward socially, emotionally, and academically? Are they pushing past their comfort zone? It's not the level they reach, it's the progress."
Boy, did that commentary take me back to the year 2000—the year I call "The Year of Ranjbar."
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Ranjbar and his one-on-one teacher entered my honors English and history 6th grade class with no prior warning given to me. As he ventured clumsily across the classroom, it was obvious to every single student that Ranjbar was way different. In fact, he had Asperger’s Syndrome, and with it an insatiable appetite for memorizing whatever interested him at the moment and virtually no socialization skills. Although he had an extremely short fuse, he was put in a regular classroom setting because his parents wanted him to learn social skills in order to have a chance at leading a productive adult life someday. I felt very inadequate in his presence, but I vowed to do the best I could for him.
Over the course of the year, my wonderful honors students took Ranjbar under their wings and coped with his differences remarkably well. And because I was determined to meet his challenges head-on, I took advantage of Ranjbar's obsessions. Once I learned about his fascination with Pokemon, a sticker a day almost always kept him calm and content to do his classroom work, albeit mostly alone. I even brought Ranjbar into my husband's world. When we were visiting a nearby town one weekend, my husband noticed that a toy store we were passing was having a big sale. He looked at me and said, "Ranjbar?" We had a delightful time picking up a bunch of Pokemon stuff on sale.
I struggled to find a variety of ways to support Ranjbar's social growth. The first time I was explaining a collaborative group project, Ranjbar's special education coordinator was visiting the class. He told me Ranjbar loved to draw, so Ranjbar joined as group artist. The project was to design a poster for a lost pet or pets for sale in which students were to demonstrate their understanding of the different kinds of sentences that had to be incorporated into the wording on the posters. Ranjbar immediately set to work on his drawing—a very weird-looking elephant, apparently from the Pokemon series! The rest of his group looked up at me with grave concern in their eyes to ask, "Is that all right, Mrs. Marshall?" Of course it was.
Ranjbar became our go-to artist when we did cooperative projects. Then, on student-led conference day, Ranjbar ripped his group's poster off the wall and began feverishly writing about all types of snakes on the back of the poster. His embarrassed father said to me, "I don't know what's gotten into him. All he wants to do now is go on the Internet to research snakes." He had memorized every single word he read! "My fault," I said. We had recently read a story called "A Shipment of Mute Fate" about a snake that gets loose on a ship, and I knew that must have triggered his newest obsession.
Did Ranjbar have a successful year? Yes! The proof: During the finals of our year-end spelling bee, the girl next to him managed to spell correctly a word that three previous students had missed. Ranjbar turned to her with a big grin and high-fived her! It was one of my proudest moments ever in my 30-plus years as a teacher.
Was I a successful teacher that year? You bet. Ranjbar may not have progressed as much as my honors students academically, but he did make reasonable progress. And his serenity in my room was a huge step forward. (Meanwhile, he was bounced among more than seven science and math teachers who eagerly used his meltdowns to get him transferred out of their classrooms.)
Is Ranjbar’s progress measured by our state's academic performance index or NCLB's adequate yearly progress regime? Of course not. However, his parents and I know that the Year of Ranjbar was, each day, a celebration of his success.