At the beginning of this year I had a particular class that was difficult to manage, the kind of junior high school class here in Japan that has issues with noise, participation, and even, at times, things thrown across the classroom. As a teacher I feel a sense of defeat when I see a classroom in such a chaotic state, where objects are being thrown and jeopardizing the safety of others. However, as the year gradually progressed, students started becoming more cooperative and I saw an increase in willingness to participate in English lessons; I realized, however, that there was one student in particular who was facing challenges. She was Japanese, but I will call her Mary.
Mary was a student from the special education class who had chosen to attend a mainstream English lesson in addition to her special education English lesson. She was wonderful, kind, and tried her best with English. As delightful a student as she was, the reality was that her English abilities were nowhere near the level of other students. As I used group work and tried maximizing conversations, this made it difficult for other students to work with her to complete tasks. Students working with Mary would often give up because of the lack of a response, leaving a look of disappointment on both their faces as they sat quietly.
This presented a challenge: how could I facilitate group work if there is such a great difference in language abilities? I didn’t have any specialized knowledge about special education students and there were no extra supporters for Mary in the classroom. It didn’t seem practical to me that Mary was in an English class that wasn’t at her level and without support; it felt like she was being set up for failure which would ultimately slow down the progress of other students as well. Mary’s presence in the classroom was a problem. Whether it was practical or not, this was the reality I had to face and so I reached out to other teachers for advice.
As I reached out, I distinctly remember the advice I received from a fellow teacher, which changed my entire perspective. I should look at this as an opportunity and work towards making Mary feel included in class. This entire time I was looking at Mary as a problem, a hurdle that I needed to get over in order to work towards other students’ English fluency. Why wasn’t I considering Mary’s needs along with the rest of my students? Were her needs not as important as the other students’ despite neurological conditions beyond her control? Mary was one of my learners too. And, as I said, it was her choice to join our class.
Before my next class, I conducted a pre-instruction meeting with the homeroom teacher and invited the students who would be paired with Mary. I asked these students if they were all right to work with Mary and told them about the lesson plan and activity. As I gave students printouts for the activity, the homeroom teacher described the activity and highlighted where Mary would need support. I asked them at the end if they would assist with making Mary’s experience in the classroom more useful to her and they agreed. When it was time for class, the students worked with Mary the way we had discussed earlier and supported her throughout the duration of the activity.
Then I noticed that something amazing was happening. Some of the students helping Mary originally had behavioral problems of their own, problems with socializing and participating. But, in helping her, these problems started to disappear. In fact, research has shown that when at-risk youths are provided with training in social-cognitive skills, it can reduce problem behavior and improve students’ achievement and social effectiveness (Kochhar, West, & Taymans, 2000). By providing these students with prior instruction about the lesson and asking them to be empathetic about Mary’s needs, I believe that they were able to build on their own social-cognitive abilities. Mary was their way to grow.
I was able to observe firsthand an increase in both the students’ responsible behavior and in Mary’s inclusion throughout the English activity. When class finished, I remember one comment that Mary made out loud that rewarded me for my effort and change in perspective: “That was fun!” The rest of the semester presented many opportunities, but I felt reassured that I had responsible students to help me make the classroom environment inclusive for everyone…yes, every single one of them, no matter what difficulties they came in with.
Roger Blievernicht is an assistant language teacher for the Himeji Board of Education. He has previous experience teaching ELLs at the Arizona Language Center and Vista College Preparatory. Roger is currently studying at American College of Education for his M.Ed. in English as a Second Language and Bilingual Education.