What were you even learning all those years? By Madeline Richer

It’s a question we high school teachers regularly find ourselves wanting to ask students.  A kid walks into their high school English class not able to identify nouns and verbs in a sentence, unable to identify the seven continents on a world map, or not knowing how to read a number line, and we’re left wondering what happened the last seven years of their education and how we’re supposed to remediate and simultaneously hold them accountable for grade-level standards.  More than once I’ve had the urge to call up a student’s elementary school teacher and ask, “What were you teaching them in 3rd grade, if not punctuation and the names of the four oceans?” It’s a good thing I don’t have Jared’s elementary school teachers’ contact information.

jathons work
Student work

Jared recently moved to New York City from Chicago.  He showed up to my Global History and 9th grade English classes about a month into the school year, with pudgy cheeks and a grin from ear to ear.  It’s now March and I have yet to see Jared without some sort of snack in his hand: sunflower seeds, apples, Cheetos, lollipops, anything he can get his hands on.  When Jared arrived, he immediately jumped into class discussions, whether or not he really understood what the class was talking about.  Jared doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He’ll speak with confidence about a reading, but the content of his verbal response reveals little to no comprehension of the text.  His memory is also poor; I regularly have to help him reset his g-mail password because he forgets it soon after re-creating it.  Just this morning he showed up to my classroom an entire class period early, stating that he couldn’t remember what class he usually has first period.  Jared lives with mom and a younger sibling in a shelter, the experience of which has taken a toll on his emotional health.  Despite all his struggles, Jared is able to laugh at himself, which has helped him socially.


As I got to know Jared and observe his work over an extended period of time, I came to realize Jared’s disability is much more profound than I’d initially recognized.  Jared’s writing reads like that of a 1st grader, both in terms of penmanship and sentence structure.  He spells frequently-used words exactly how they sound to him, rather than remembering how words are spelled.  For example, on a recent assignment for English class, he spelled “anything” as “eneything.” He also leaves out letters and misspells words, even if the word is spelled out right in front of him. Last week, the question “What is the difference between internal and external conflict?” was written on a sheet of paper.  His response, written directly under the question, began, “The diffrenc Between internal and exturnial is…” His work is riddled with capitalization and punctuation errors.  Now, it is not uncommon for my students to forget to capitalize a proper noun or misuse a comma, but Jared’s deficiencies  are more extreme than any of my other students.


On my first attempt to remediate these basic skills in a 1:1 setting, I discovered his mistakes in writing conventions were symptoms of a much deeper problem: Jared does not understand what sentences fundamentally are.  I’ll briefly describe how I discovered this: I gave Jared a few short, simple sentences with capitalization and punctuation errors for him to correct.  When he was unable to capitalize what needed to be capitalized and place periods where they were missing, I asked him where he thought each sentence was supposed to start and end.  He pointed to capital letters of proper nouns in the middle of the passage such as “California” and told me that had to be the beginning of the sentence simply because the word was capitalized.  I asked him to reread the passage out loud and pause where he felt the sentences should end, but he continued to rely on the capitalization and punctuation that was written rather than where discreet thoughts logically started and ended.  In other words, he could not isolate the complete, coherent thoughts that made up each sentence.  To him, a sentence was an arbitrary formula framed with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end; it was not a tool for receiving or expressing ideas coherently through reading and writing.  How did he make it to high school without grasping the meaning or purpose of basic sentence structure? Even more revealing was when I asked him to capitalize a lower case “c” and, while looking at the lower case “c,” he wrote a capital letter “K.” I would have thought it an accident, but he made the same mistake at least three times in that one session.


Because he only recently moved to New York, Jared did not have a New York Individualized Education Plan (IEP) until February.  Every student in special education has an IEP– a legally binding document synthesizing assessment results and teacher observations of the student, and prescribing various supports ranging from testing accommodations on standardized testing to recommendations to classroom teachers about how to support the student on a daily basis.  IEP formats and protocols range from school district to school district, which means when Jared moved to New York he had to undergo evaluations by the school psychologist as part of the “initial” IEP process (even though he had an IEP in Chicago).  Jared’s IEP from Chicago describes a kid who is very behind in both reading and math.  The IEP classifies him as having a “specific learning disability,” which maddeningly tells me nothing specific at all.  It doesn’t tell me why Jared can’t correctly recreate the spelling of words displayed right on front of him or how he made it to ninth grade not knowing what a sentence is.  There’s nothing in this document to signal that Jared’s struggles are any different than the average learning-disabled high school student.


In assessing Jared for an initial New York IEP, the school psychologist saw that Jared struggles to pay attention in class, conversations, and when attempting to perform  various tasks.  Jared’s mother confirmed that a doctor had at one point diagnosed Jared with ADHD.  Because his distractibility obviously affects Jared’s academics, it was decided Jared would be classified under “Other Health Impairment,” an umbrella classification that includes ADHD and is used to classify students who don’t have any disability other than ADHD.  I pushed against this decision at his IEP meeting, arguing that while distractibility is certainly a factor in Jared’s academic struggles, it does not explain the degree to which Jared struggles, particularly in writing.  It seemed obvious to me that Jared had some other neurological barrier preventing him from retaining the writing processes that are typically second nature by the time a student reaches the ninth grade.  However, I was told that we didn’t have the necessary documentation to claim Jared had any specific disability, such as dysgraphia (a learning disorder that primarily affects a person’s writing).  I was told that if we wanted to give him any of the dysgraphia-specific accommodations, such as a scribe for standardized tests and major class assignments, we’d need approval from a doctor, despite the fact that  his written work revealed an inability to properly capitalize and punctuate basic sentences directly after reviewing capitalization and punctuation rules.  Without further documentation from a doctor, the IEP process would continue to treat Jared like a kid affected by only  ADHD.  The school is now tasked with connecting Jared’s pregnant, homeless, single mother with a doctor that could diagnose Jared’s disability more accurately a feat that it is difficult to imagine happening.


The truth is the classification and specific testing accommodations in Jared’s IEP might not matter that much in the immediate future.  As his teacher, I can choose to give Jared a laptop to complete writing assignments.  I know that he needs more support than most of my students with ADHD, and I don’t need a doctor to tell me that.  But what happens if Jared’s family moves again, leaving Jared to start all over at yet another new school, perhaps in a new state? Jared’s new teachers would spend weeks or even months just learning what Jared’s difficulties are before figuring out how to sufficiently support his learning.  Jared doesn’t have that kind of time to lose; he’s already too far behind grade level and too close to adulthood to slip any further through the cracks of our broken education system.


I can’t even begin to visualize what Jared’s adult life might look like, given his inability to remember his own g-mail password.  Furthermore, Jared lacks understanding of his own barriers, which makes him unable to advocate for himself.  Yet, he somehow managed to make his way through elementary and middle school without proper diagnosis or documentation of his disability with a smile on his face, munching on sunflower seeds while writing sentences not even knowing what a sentence is.  Maybe Jared’s 3rd grade teacher was the best teacher Jared’s ever had, but her expertise got ignored.


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