It all started last week when one of my students, who I’ll refer to as “D,” performed the live reading at my school. Each day after lunch, my school does what we call “live reading,” where a student from an assigned grade goes before a microphone and reads a story for the whole school to hear. For the students who read particularly well, it’s an exciting opportunity for them to broadcast their reading skills to their fellow classmates. For the students who struggle with reading, it’s an opportunity to strengthen their reading skills while encouraging their progress. Needless to say, over the course of the year, some students get to do the live reading more often than others.
D was not one of these students.
When I first assessed him back in September, he could only identify twelve letters in the alphabet. He was a third grader, already held back one year and therefore a year older than his other classmates. More often than not, he was the student that was acting out during class. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that his disruption of class was rooted in the fact that he struggled doing the work assigned to him. He was struggling with the assigned work because of the secret he kept, the secret that he couldn’t read. Consequently, he would distract his classmates and disrupt the class so that no one else would find out about his secret.
From the beginning of the year, my pull-out tutoring sessions with him were always one-on-one, unlike the others whom I have in balanced pairs. Throughout the first and second terms of the school year, my sessions with D got to be frustrating at times. He often lacked the motivation to try the activity at hand as he would rather watch what was happening outside the windows. Consequently, I often had to close the windows to force him to focus. I was never happy about doing this either, because of the stifling Caribbean heat and all. But if closing the windows got him to focus, then that’s how it was going to be. Over the course of the year, some sessions went better than others. Any session that I felt he came away with some sort of progress, I felt was some sort of victory, no matter how little it was.
Not realizing it at the time, the concept of what I’ve come to call, “Little Victories,” had begun to develop.
During our first meeting of the third term, I put before him a sentence progression sheet I had found on Pinterest. For those unfamiliar with the idea of a sentence progression, it goes a little like this:
The boy runs
The boy runs fast
The boy runs fast and
The boy runs fast and jumps
The boy runs fast and jumps high.
In these sentence progressions, the student cannot move on to the next line until successfully reading the one before it. The constant repetition, therefore, drills into the mind of the student sight words while building de-coding and fluency skills. This goes without mentioning the feeling of accomplishment a student feels when completing a full sentence independently. I have used it with all my most struggling students and each one has responded well to the exercise. Sentence progressions have easily become my favorite activity.
The day I did the first sentence progression with D was a day I’ll never forget. He struggled through most of the words, but began de-coding his CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words), relatively well. Consequently, as he read I often covered a few letters of the larger words with my thumb so he could de-code three letters at a time until the word clicked in his mind. Upon de-coding a word correctly, his eyes lit up with surprise and a wide grin spread across his face. He proudly read and re-read each of the phrases until his first sentence was complete.
“Yes, D!” I exclaimed, reaching for a high-five he excitedly returned.
Now if you recall a previous post, The One That Says “Play,” I described a tutoring session with a seventh-grade boy, “K.” You might recall from that post that I ended a positive pull-out session with K by telling him I was proud of him. He had responded particularly well to each of our sessions ever since then.
So remembering this, I told D, “Hey, you did well today. I’m proud of you.”
Whereas K had sheepishly looked at the floor when I told him, D responded to this by beaming with pride. With that response, you would have thought it was the first time he was ever told that.
But ever since that day, something about him was different. His motivation finally began to surface. During our pull-out sessions, the smiles and high-fives continued while the windows remained open (the latter of which I’ve been particularly grateful). In class, his disruptions began to subside. Instead of pestering the other students to mask his inability to read, he began calling on me for guidance. Instead of getting in fights during break time and lunch, he was found in the classroom completing the work he hadn’t finished yet.
“D, you want to go for break now? We can finish this later,” I suggested to him one day, seeing if he’d take the opportunity to leave his work and go out to play.
“No sir, let’s finish it now,” he replied.
“That’s what I like to hear D,” I said, clapping him on the back.
I couldn’t help but smile.
As the third term came along, our class had begun taking advantage of our new Grenada Schools Incorporated (GSI) library. During our designated library time, students have the opportunity to check out a book to read for the week. Discreetly, so his other classmates wouldn’t see, I would hand-select a book at a lower level for D to try and read. Now our pull-out sessions included him reading his library books to me.
Due to this near 180-degree change in him over the course of this term, I make sure to end each session with an, “I’m proud of you.”
The positivity is contagious.
A week ago Monday, our pull-out session ended on a strong note. So I pitched an idea to him:
“What do you think about doing a live reading this week?” I asked.
“Yeah!” his eyes lit up with excitement.
“All right, I’ll talk to Ms. about it,” I smiled.
I could see the mix of emotions flash in his eyes: the surprise, the excitement, the nervousness. He hadn’t done one before.
My counterpart, having also witnessed the improvements D has made this term, immediately supported the idea of having him do the live reading. So last Wednesday during lunch, I sat down with D in our classroom to prepare him for the live reading with his book from the GSI library. Repetition for him was key. The book was six or so pages long with a single sentence on each page, each one starting similarly to the last. The first page was the most challenging for him. But once he got past that one, it was smooth sailing from there. I tried not to put too much pressure on him, but my will for him to succeed was almost too hard to contain. I tried my best to seal my lips shut and allow him time to build his confidence in reading the story on his own. It was getting hard to focus, however, as lunch time is an environment of chaos, students constantly running about and screaming.
Students began running in and out of the classroom, playing, laughing, complaining.
It was all stressing me out, and I wasn’t even the one doing the live reading.
But I tried my best to keep them quiet and out of the classroom, knowing D needed to focus.
They were just kids being kids, I understand that, but they also didn’t understand the immensity of what it would mean for D to successfully do the live reading on his own.
Despite the chaos, D made a few successful runs through the book and the bell rang.
It was time for the live reading.
“You ready?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“All right, let’s go.”
We got up from our seats and turned left down the corridor, down the stairs, and across the courtyard to the staff room. Upon reaching the staff room, where the mic and sound system was set up, D took a seat. A surprised look pops across the physical education teacher’s face, who was in the room.
“D, you’re doing the live reading today?” He asked with a surprised smile.
D nods proudly.
“Go get it man,” he says to D, reaching out for a fist-bump.
I took a step back and out of the way, not wanting to disrupt the process as my counterpart got D ready for the live reading. I needed to remove myself, as it’s important for him to gain the confidence to read without me over his shoulder. My counterpart picked up the mic and introduced him to the school over the loud speakers.
It was showtime.
I stood in the back, nervous as all hell, but breathing deeply to keep my nerves cool. I held my hands together behind my back in a wide-legged stance, head down, praying he would read well.
My counterpart asked him to recite the title of the story, which he flawlessly read.
Now for that challenging first page.
He paused, hesitating. He stalled in silence, drawing a blank and not knowing what to say. The mic was out in front of him, silently beckoning him to begin.
Lifting my head, I bit my lip and anxiously waited.
When I couldn’t wait any longer, I stepped forward to whisper in his ear to help him get the ball rolling. But just as I leaned over his back shoulder, about to whisper in his ear, my counterpart murmured the first word to him.
The light bulb had clicked. He said the word to himself, repeated it into the mic, and the ball got rolling. He read the first page. Then the second. I stepped back, gratefully retreating to the back of the room and internally relieved the guidance came from my counterpart and not me. He fumbled at times through the rest of the story, but read it smoothly for the most part. But unless you had the book in front of you, you wouldn’t have known the difference. Upon finishing the story, the book was closed and my counterpart asked him a few questions about the story.
He answered them all.
“Thank you, D, for your lovely live reading,” my counterpart announced into the mic. “Now the rest of you can continue with your silent reading time.”
The mic was switched off and the few teachers and staff in the room erupted in applause. It wasn’t much of a secret to them of D’s academic ability. Just then my principal suddenly burst into the room.
“D! Well done, well done boy!” He commended, holding a notebook and some fresh pencils in his hands. “I am here to give to you the Principal’s Award for Most Improved Student! Congratulations!”
He handed the notebook and pencils to D and eagerly shook his hand. D took the items and sheepishly smiled, unsure of how to respond. Let’s just say that when the principal ever had to speak with him, it was usually not for his achievements. I stepped up, giving him a fist-bump and a pat on the shoulder as my counterpart and I began walking him back up to our second-floor classroom. He excitedly strides ahead of us, as we in our own excited, hushed voices discussed our thoughts on his big performance.
Then D turned to enter our classroom…
As he did so, his classmates erupted into a raucous applause.
Beaming with pride, he reveled in his moment; it was a moment made possible by his little victories each day over the past term.
After all, he’s the one that made the changes. He’s the one that began sacrificing his break and lunch time to finish his school work. He’s the one that asked to read his library book for me. He’s the one that instead of disrupting his classmates, began focusing on completing the assignment on his own.
All his little victories had finally translated into a major win, a win that that was his and his alone.
* * *
As a teacher, it’s not uncommon for your roles to reverse as there’s many things you learn from your students. But what happened with D was not only something that I learned from, it was something that inspired me.
After witnessing D’s little victories each day come to fruition in a major win, I have come to look for the little victories in my own life. For if D can attain all those little victories each day and translate them into a major win, then why can’t I?
So over the course of the past week, I made it my mission to take note of the little victories in my life. They came in a variety of ways, as they were a variety of victories. Therefore, I would like to now share a few of my little victories this past week with you. In the same way D inspired me, I hope his story can inspire you to do the same. So here they are:
On Saturday, it was watching an Indians-Astros baseball game on my laptop alongside a local friend in my apartment. An avid cricket fan, he had always wanted to understand the very-similar game of baseball but never had anyone to explain it to him. I was ecstatic to fill that role, having already learned cricket and wanting to return the favor. This victory was one for cross-cultural exchange.
On Sunday, it was spending an afternoon at my host family’s house. During a hearty lunch, we discussed our plans for a future Sunday lunch together when my actual parents will be visiting Grenada in August. Afterwards, we all coincidentally fell asleep on the couches and napped while The Longest Yard played on the television. The victory here is again for cross-cultural exchange, as well as for the blessing that it is for me to have a family environment here, one in which I can be comfortable enough to pass out during a movie, in my home away from home.
On Monday, it was the opportunity to experience the annual church harvest in Gouyave. Tents were set up all along the street for vendors to sell everything from toys, raffles, games, drinks, eats, and desserts. It seemed as though everyone and their mother came out to show support, a truly exciting community event. I saw my students, my teachers, my teammates from the basketball court, my host family, and other members I see frequently in the community. This fund-raising event was a victory for Gouyave and the church community that has welcomed me in.
On Tuesday, after a long day at school, it was watching a mild sunset while standing in the receding tide on the small beachhead in Gouyave. A small boat of fisherman pulled in their nets, their silhouettes set against the backdrop of a setting orange sun. One of the men on the boat waved to me and I waved back. From the distance I couldn’t tell who it was, but it didn’t matter. That gesture alone was a victory, one for social integration and the warm receptiveness of the Grenadian people.
On Wednesday, it was catching up with the other-island VACs (Volunteer Advisory Council, to which I was nominated and elected in February to represent the Grenada PCVs). During our Google Hangout meeting, we set forth a draft for a Hand-Over Notes package to be passed on from the outgoing EC88s to the incoming EC90s this summer. This was a victory for the mission of Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean, as now with the Hand-Over Notes, the progress implemented by the 88s can continue as the 90s come in to take their place.
On Thursday, it was my students eagerly waiting in line to take turns reading their library books for me during their break time. It drew a crowd, as each student was not only reading for me, but for all the other students following along over their shoulder. One even began reading (and did an impressive job I might add), the book I’ve been recently reading myself, The Broker by John Grisham. This one was a victory for my students and the joy of reading.
On Friday, it was my Creative Writing Club meeting during the chaos of extra-curricular activities. Nine of my students showed up, including one that has been skipping often as of late. Many of them excitedly responded to the prompt of the day: “What would you do if you were the last person on Earth?” They had some wild ideas, the one that had been skipping actually had one of the better responses. This victory was one for student imagination and creativity.
Then last night, I went out to The Lance (the part of Gouyave across the river), to watch the Cavs game. Upon running into some friends at a small bar there, everyone passionately discussed the game as it went on. Many argued their predictions for the rest of the NBA Playoffs, a hot topic here. During all this hoopla going on around me, I noticed a quiet man slip inside. Making eye contact, he pointed to my shirt and then to the TV, taking note that I was from Cleveland given the t-shirt I was wearing. He then pointed to his askew, purple LA Lakers hat on his head, signifying his team of choice. Just then, he pointed to his ears and shook his head. He was deaf. So I placed my hand on my chest, tapped my index and middle fingers together and spelled “S-c-o-t-t.” The man’s eyes lit up with surprise as he excitedly signed back an introduction of his own (Marko, I believe?). We laughed as I asked him to slow down and explained I only knew a little bit of sign language. He asked what I was doing here. I told him I was teaching at the RC School up the road. He apparently works in construction, spelling “B-u-i-l-d-e-r” for me. Who knew taking an ASL class my freshman year of college would pay off. This was yet another victory for cross-cultural exchange and personally, my favorite little victory of the week.
Having searched and found the little victories of each day over the course of this past week, I can look back and feel good about all that was accomplished.
Now that I’m taking note of them, my days have become that much brighter, that much more meaningful. It’s also a fun way to pass the time, honestly.
And thanks to D, I will continue to look for these little victories each and every day.
What “Major Win” all these little victories will amount to for me, personally, is still to be determined. But as long as they make the world a better place, I take comfort in the fact that they’re not only a victory for me…
They’re a victory for us all.
And to think coming here, I was supposed to be the teacher.