Young Scientist: Determination

He moved here from Pakistan just before school started. His English is impressive, but it’s not yet advanced enough to do justice to his intellect. For now, he is right where he needs to be–in small, supported classes with ESOL professionals.

In my inclusion science class, I work with ESOL students alongside special education students. Someone somewhere thinks that this is a good arrangement. Sometimes it is; I read aloud to them and we stop every other sentence to highlight vocabulary and break apart sentences. Everyone needs it. Other times, the frustration of my academically adept ESOL students is nearly palpable when I’m slowing our intro-level content to a crawl. It’s my job to differentiate, and I do what I can, but my brain is already pretty tapped out with three lessons a day and three preps of grading and a dozen ESOL ed plans and two dozen IEPs to accommodate. Enrichment, scaffolded for my ESOL students, gets thrown under the bus more often than not, alongside adapting primary literature for gifted and creating accessible case studies for on-level. I can only do what I can.

I’m not surprised he’s earning a high A. I’m pleasantly surprised he continues to participate as enthusiastically as he does, and I encourage him. When his mother comes in for parent teacher conferences, I can’t praise him enough. She asks about next year.

“Biology,” I answer. “Maybe biology honors if his independent reading improves.”

“He’s going to medical school,” she informs me. “He is going to be a doctor.”

“You want to be a doctor?” I ask.

“I do not know, I do not have any plans.” He doesn’t make eye contact with me.

“Well, do you think you might want to try biology honors next year?”

“I want to go into gifted.”

Gifted is my baby, the highest level of intro biology we offer. I’m the only teacher and I’m proud of the class’s rigor and structure. “I teach gifted. I don’t know. You’re certainly capable of the content, but I’m worried about the writing and reading. We’ll have to see where you are later in the year.”

“Do you think he could do it?” asks his mom.

“If his English reading and writing improve, yes. And, well, there’s a certain level of background knowledge expected of gifted. If you come by after school, I can give you some materials, we can work on getting your chemistry up to speed.”

The next school day he shows up after school. And the next. And the next. It’s been a month now and he has not yet missed a day. About three times a week I give him something new; other days, I review what he’s done and point out areas for revision. Sometimes I sit with him for 15 minutes or so and do a mini-lecture: experimental design, atomic structure, chemical bonding. He can incorporate specific evidence into his writing now, and he’s good at pulling context clues from a short technical passage if I highlight key words in advance. He’s mastered that rare art of actually crafting accurate definitions himself from reading a term in context.

It’s not really fair. I have students currently in my gifted classes who are just warming chairs–they’re there because they spent last year in the district and they were born speaking English. They did not have to prove themselves through voluntary extra homework. On the other hand, I don’t want to set him up for failure, and I know what he needs to succeed in the class I’ve built. If I could prepare all students individually in advance like this I would.

He may or may not want to be a doctor, but he is intensely determined to remind us all that experience with the English language should never be conflated with intellectual capability or motivation.

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About AnythingBrighter

I teach inclusion ecology to 9th graders, gifted biology to 9th graders, and on level biology to 10th graders. My school is an impressively diverse public, suburban high school in Maryland. I teach students whose parents make 6 figures and students with no permanent address. I teach immigrant students, first generation Americans, students who are still learning English, students whose parents are scientists, students with learning disabilities, and students with great stores of talent and curiosity. My career is just beginning.

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