Holly Ashley has taught elementary grade children for seventeen years in Massachusetts. She has a master’s degree in reading and has recently completed an internship for her administrative license as supervisor/director with the Curriculum Director for her district.
Even in the best of times, sixth grade can be a minefield, particularly for students with learning challenges or other disabilities. As a sixth grade teacher, I see these struggles on a daily basis, but I continue to believe that, when we face adversity, we come out stronger, braver and more self-assured.
In my second year of teaching, I gave my students an assignment: pick a topic, become ‘an expert’ on it, and prepare an oral presentation for the class. We discussed how the topic they chose needed to mean something to them so that they would be spurred to learn more about it.
One student, however, looked physically ill at the prospect of presenting a research report to his peers.
Paul was a handsome, bright, sweet young man who had some learning difficulties. And he stuttered. He always worked hard but was frustrated by the limitations that his speech created for him. Socially, he faced challenges and more than his fair share of teasing from his peers. I discussed the oral requirement with Paul and his mother. Paul was willing to try as long as I would allow a video presentation.
The other educators on the team insisted that I couldn’t hold Paul to the same expectations as his peers. He couldn’t possibly present this report. Each time, my response was simply, “Paul can do this.” I was briefly concerned that Paul’s peers would not be supportive of him, but I held onto my faith that they, like Paul, would rise to my expectations.
As the moment for Paul’s presentation approached, you could have heard a pin drop while he set things up. Paul and his mother had worked for a month, editing together interviews, home videos and snippets of information that were narrated by Paul. The topic was “Stuttering and how it has affected my life.” Paul informed his class how stuttering is diagnosed and treated. He included technical information and quotes from leaders in the field of speech pathology. He also shared what happens to him personally when he attempts to communicate.
When the presentation was over, Paul quietly turned to the white board and wrote “thank you for not laughing at me”. The entire class stood to applaud. The adults who worked with Paul had slipped into the back of the room to watch. At the end, we were smiling through our tears. None of us were dry-eyed, but all of us were smiling.
Ten years later, that struggling sixth grader graduated Summa Cum Laude from a local university. He now works as Assistant Wellness Director, running Boot Camp classes and providing personal fitness training that helps others overcome their challenges and meet their goals. He recently wrote an article for a local publication encouraging other students with special needs to work hard and set high expectations for themselves. He wrote about that presentation in sixth grade, calling it a “turning point” in his life. He had been told, “You can,” and so he did.
Why do I teach? I teach so that I can be part of something larger than today’s lesson plan. I teach because it might be my voice whispering those words of encouragement that change a life.