ELL Teacher Diary #2: Nagib Moves On

By Ámbar de Mejía, ELL Outlook™ Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, somebody said to Nagib, “You’re stupid. You had to repeat fifth grade! You don’t know anything!” When I heard about this, I did a slow burn. My adrenaline went up and down and up again. Touch one of my babies, will you? I fumed. We’ll see about that! Then I began to calm down and realized that part of the problem is that the kids in Nagib’s class think that he gets too much help from me. I’ve heard them complain, “He gets help on his tests.” They don’t understand his difficulties, nor do they realize that although his tests are modified and read aloud, we only read the tests but offer no additional help. I found an Arabic-English workbook with simple exercises. Hmmmm!

“Nagib, I heard about what happened yesterday,” I told him. “Look at this.”

I showed him the worksheet. “I’m going to give this to your teacher. I’m going to ask her to let your friends complete this sheet.”

“When are you going to get that to her?” he asked.

“Tomorrow, ” I answered.

“No!” he pleaded. “Today!”

The next afternoon, I went by Nagib’s classroom and saw him giving out the worksheets.

Mrs. J. said, in a voice that a kindergarten teacher might use to soothe ruffled feelings, “But this is so easy! All you have to do is match the picture with the word! It can’t be that hard, right, Nagib?”

Of course, they struggled! Before I left, I heard voices saying, “I can’t do this! I don’t understand!”

“Yes, you can. All you have to do is draw a line from the word to the picture, right, Nagib?”

“Yes!” he answered.

Somebody asked Nagib for help, and then another student. And, then, another. All of sudden,everybody needed Nagib. Now, he was the one who was giving help all over the classroom. “Nagib! Nagib!”

Then I heard the voice of a Certain Boy Who Has a Big Mouth say, “It’s too hard! Can Nagib help me?”

Ahhh! I smiled all the way down the hall…

A few days later, I went in to pick up Nagib and some readers. Mrs. J. was having a hard day, so I offered to take any “bugs” she wanted to get rid of. I went to my room with the materials and waited for the kids to come and, lo and behold, Nagib was at my doorway, arguing with an unseen student who was hiding behind a bookcase. (My classroom is in a room behind the media center.)

“I don’t wanna go! She’s mean!”

“No, she’s not!” Nagib was trying to convince Josh to come in. Well, I’ll be roped and tied! It’s that boy!

“Oh, yes, I am mean! Come in now!”

Of all the students in the room, she sent the one boy who had called Nagib “stupid.”

He came in, all right—I had used my “I mean business” voice.

“Sit down at the other table, Josh. I don’t want to distract you when I read the test to Nagib. If I’m too loud, let me know.” He couldn’t believe the kind but firm voice I was using. I could see it in his eyes.

I began to read the test to Nagib, pausing for him to answer. I could feel Josh’s eyes on my face as I read. We finished the test and reached for the trade book. I began the picture walk with Nagib, pointing out relevant details for him. As I began to ask Nagib what he knew about slavery and went on to briefly explain the history of slavery, Josh couldn’t keep his eyes on his book. He was fascinated by our lesson, listening carefully as I provided background information for Nagib and helped him to remember and understand the Civil Rights movement. Josh continued to watch Nagib and to listen carefully to his answers. Then he joined the conversation, saying, “I think Nagib is correct because I finished reading the story and it says that man is a hero.”

Nagib smiled.

The next day, I glanced through the door of the in-school-suspension room. There was Josh, sitting beside the teacher’s assistant in charge. I asked for permission to speak to him.

“Josh, I don’t know if you’re coming back to my room today, but if you do, please make sure that Nagib brings his book and his papers. He tends to forget his things, OK?”

Josh nodded, his expression, defensive when I began to speak, turning eager.

“Yes, ma’am, I will.” And he did. And it is true-Nagib forgets everything except his head, and that only because it’s attached to his neck. And Josh was true to his word. He made sure Nagib had everything he needed and, instead of sitting at the other table, he sat with us and participated the whole period.

Not long afterwards, I was in Nagib’s classroom. I had to send a student back to his seat and I heard him say, “She’s mean!”

Josh came to my defense: “No, she’s not. She’s nice!”

I looked at Josh right in the eye and said, “Don’t tell him that! I’m a mean teacher. I mean what I say.”

He grinned!

I didn’t think Chris could do it, but I was wrong.

You see, Chris is my only newcomer in the entire third through fifth grade. Naturally, I pull him out to teach him. I walked into his classroom and watched him, unbeknownst to him. Although he had his book open, he was staring out the window. I signaled to him to come, and he picked up his book and his papers and left with me.

Chris’s class has been writing about pirates, so after reading and using a book called Tough Boris, we have been drawing, labeling, and writing a story about a boy named Chris who carries out a daring rescue from thieving pirates in the dead of night while the moon is shining. He single-handedly whips all the pirates and saves his football.

Chris looked at his paper and said, “Mire esto. Todo esto. No sabía nada de inglés y ahora mire.”Look at this, I didn’t know any English, and now look!

We finished his story, but I couldn’t forget the look I saw in his eyes when he was in his classroom.

I glanced at the book he had tossed on the table. It was On My Honor, a story about two boys who decide to bike all the way to a park, go to the river instead, and get in trouble, which leads to the death of one of the boys.

“You are not understanding much, are you?” Understatement. He needs pictures to help him understand, but there were no pictures.

“No, ellos están leyendo y escribiendo.” No, they are reading and writing.

“What about you?” He shrugged. His teacher does try to get him involved as much as possible and takes time to help him individually, but Chris needed more help, more scaffolding help.

“This is the story about two boys,” I began. His eyes gleamed.

A few days later, after many sketches and with the help of a pictionary (a picture dictionary I made from clip art), we finally reached the chapter in which Tony drowns. I was wondering if Chris was following the internal conflict of the main character, Joel. He had the basic sequence of events under control. I decided to question him.

“What did Joel promise his father?”

“Park,” he answered.

“Did he go to the park?”

“No, river.”

The test: “Was that good or bad?”

“Not good,” he said.

So, he doesn’t know “bad,” I thought. “Exactly! Why shouldn’t they swim in the river?”

“Tony not swim good. River contaminated.”

Used a cognate!

I tried again. “Joel reached the island and looked back. He didn’t see Tony. Where is Tony? He yelled for Tony. Tony! Tony!!!” We hadn’t read the part about the drowning.

Chris struggled for words. “He ahogarse”—Spanglish for “he drowned.”

“You’re right!”

Later on, I drew a picture of the bridge. On one side, I wrote the word police and on the other sidepark. I asked Chris, “What do you think Joel will do? He promised that he would tell the police and Tony’s mother and father that Tony drowned.” I held up my hand to show that Joel had promised. “Do you think he will tell the police?”

“No. He go to park.”

He was partly right. Joel didn’t tell the police; neither did he go to the park.

I had thought that Chris wasn’t following the dynamics of Joel’s struggles. I was wrong. It’s nice to be wrong sometimes!

Tuesday afternoon, I raced into my first-grade inclusion class for our afternoon reading class. This group is my lowest group overall this year. In December, they were still reading at a kindergarten level! We sat at the half-moon table, reading short, decodable books. As always, I was conscious of the time. They have to eat their snack soon, pack their bags before their special classes, and I was thinking to myself, “We have just got to finish this book today!” We flew through the first three books-review for them (or maybe I flew through them)-and were struggling with the fourth book. I almost missed the lesson. Dan was pointing at the wrong page of the book I was holding up, and then he got out of his chair and said, “They the same but not the same.” Dan is my lowest of the lowest in both reading and oral skills, and usually has no idea of what is going on.

“Yes, Dan, now let’s finish reading.” But something clicked in my brain. Stop! Listen to the kid.

“What did you say, Dan?”

“This one has a-apple and this one has u-umbrella. They not the same.”

Yes, Dan! They’re different. How are they the same?”

He pointed.

So the lesson changed direction for few minutes. The children kept on pointing to “same” and “different.” They had finally learned the lesson. And what about me? I learned to keep quiet and listen to them.

Them yung’uns done learned me a lesson!

He didn’t even say “good morning” or “hello.”

The first thing Nagib said to me was, “I’m moving. I’m going to another school.”

“What?” He repeated his statement.

“Nagib, you can’t leave me! We’ve worked together too long! You can’t leave now!”

That sounded selfish to my own ears. It was. I should have been thinking about him instead of myself. I felt that I hadn’t finished my work with him, that I hadn’t seen the fruit of my labor.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.” He tried to say the name of the place, but I couldn’t decipher it.

“Maybe you won’t go so far. You might still come to our school.”

“No,” he shook his head. “My father said that I am going to another school.”

He walked down the hall to his classroom.

Memories of his first day in school filled my mind, when his father brought him into the office and left him there before going off to work. I hadn’t even met Nagib when I got the call from the office saying, “You speak Arabic? We have a student who can’t speak English. His father just left him here.”

“I’ll be right there!” Not that I could do much, but I would try. I had learned a little bit of Arabic when I was a child.

I walked through the door and saw a very small boy with glasses and the saddest eyes you’d ever seen.

“Kifel hal?” I asked him. How are things going?

“Al-hamdu li-lah.” Fine, thank God. He shrugged his shoulders, but from then on, for the first few months, Nagib would only listen to me, even if I could not speak his language. I taught him using pictures, repetition, and gestures, being very careful about the gestures in case they should be offensive in his culture.

For the first few days, he hardly ate any lunch. His teacher approached me with the problem.

“He won’t eat any lunch! I don’t know what to do!”

“He doesn’t eat pork. I’ll take care of it.” I ran, well, no, I rushed to my room (ladies don’t run down halls-just in case Mother is reading this) and got pictures off the Internet, rushed back to the lunch room, and found him.

“Come.” He followed me to the serving line.

I showed him the picture of the chicken and pointed to the food in the pan. Then the picture of the cow as I pointed to the other pan.

“Tamam.” Good. “You can eat this.” I nodded to him. He ate, all right.

Nagib was rough and tough with everyone else and wouldn’t mind his teacher, but one serious or disappointed look from me and his eyes would water. He was constantly playing around in line and hitting the boys. “La, Nagib.” No, Nagib. Eventually he learned that the playground was the place for playing and teasing.

I walked down the hall. It’s so easy to love them. I’m going to miss the little fellow. It’s been almost four years. I’m going to really miss my boy.