The Trust Factor

You’ve found in life, both in your own experience and by observing others, that before you can learn from someone, you have to believe what they say. In other words you have to trust that what they are telling you is true. It works out in many ways for anyone who teaches and anyone who learns whether in a classroom for typical students or in a classroom for students with special needs. Or at home. Or in the workplace. Or, like many kids, on the road.

Samantha was in foster care. Then back at home. Then in foster care again. Then her mother was released from prison. You don’t know what for and don’t ask. Samantha’s back with her mother now and started with you last week. She’s 14 and in 7th grade. The period where she is scheduled has eight other students ranging in age from eleven to 16. Their reading and writing skills range from emergent, which you know to be a virtual non-reader, up to grade level. Samantha refuses to write in her journal, your major vehicle for daily spontaneous writing and the backbone of your language arts program. This is necessary because you have no books that cover your students’ range of skills and their regular education class assignments are rarely at an appropriate reading or writing level. The daily journal focuses on interest-based writing that is self generated. It can be a topic, a diary writing, or anything a student wants it to be as long as it gets words and sentences on the page.

Samantha, like your other students, can also choose from a menu of topics you provide daily:

Write seven sentences about the funniest thing your grandmother ever did (your mother, your father, your brother or sister, your teacher.

Write seven sentences about your favorite movie.

Write about your favorite childhood toy.

Write about your pet

Write about your favorite color

And on

It’s not that simple, of course. You know you’ll have to tease out the details and prompt with starter sentences and give her a model or two of what others have done well but everybody likes to write about themselves, right?


Because for many of the students you work with, telling even one more secret about their lives, if it’s only their favorite color, can be used against them to prove something bad about them or trick them or make them do something they don’t want to do. Or that’s what they seem to think. And you understand. Personal information is all they have.

But still you need Samantha to write, to feel the language, to learn to use it to express herself and communicate so you entice any way you can: stickers, small candies, being first in line to leave at the bell, free time to use the computer or a personal device… These don’t work either.

After Samantha is with you for a few weeks, you ask her point blank why she won’t write, imagining she won’t even answer. But she surprises you and her answer almost, but not quite, surprises you just as much.

“I don’t want you to read it.”


Come back next week to Is This Your Kid right here on my website blog to find out how I handled it and weigh in on what you think of my solution to the trust dilemma. Love it? Hate it? Have a better solution? Remember, every voice counts.




Spitball Solution

Spitball Solution

The spitball dilemma is not an esoteric, abstraction. It’s a right here, right now problem and thoroughly in your court. You have a second or two, three at the most, to come up with a solution. Quick you check your food bar supply. The minute the bus comes to a stop, you leap up, nearly knocking the kid on your left off her seat. With a wet wipe, you pick up the nearest spitball. With your other hand, you tap Brent on the shoulder. “Come to my office, please,” you say in the sweetest tone you can muster. “Come to my office” is the line you’ve used with kids for months to discuss anything from “Do you need lunch money today?” to “I heard you smacked Samantha in the lunch line so now we need to fix the damage” The “office” is anywhere you can move away from the other kids—outside the classroom door, to the side of the recess field, to a corner of the cafeteria… You get the idea. The kids know by now you will not embarrass them in front of the class and that often these little trips to the office are for an extra treat or “I caught you being good” slip they can take to parents to exchange for privileges like extra computer time at home.

You wave your hand to signal to that you need a conference before everyone storms the bus exit door, careful to make meaningful eye-contact with the team leader. She gets it. “Slight delay,” you shout.

Brent grins his loopy grin, hand half out for the treat. You lead him to the front of the bus. Zelda can hear every sigh, every breath, every word.

You address the bus riders, “Brent has a very quick problem up here. We need a private minute.”

Kids understand what “private moment” means, usually a bathroom emergency they want no part of. They stall at their seats, grumbling and peering over each other’s shoulders. The other teachers rolls their eyes. The chaperones crane to hear.

“Brent, we have a serious problem.”

Brent is all sympathy and nonchalance.

You hold out the wet wipe with the spitball.

“This is the finest specimen of a spitball in the United States. If I had a medal, I would award it to you right his minute.”

Zelda huffs in disgust.

Brent’s smile grows more loopy.

“What we all need, is to preserve these spitballs for posterity.”

You hold out the plastic bag and a fresh wet wipe.

“Before we leave the bus, every Brentball needs to be in this bag.”

You let it sink in. Slowly, slowly recognition dawns. Brent is very smart. His behavior is what lands him in special education not his learning ability. That and his little drug problem that nobody talks about because his parents donate heavily to school projects and go to the same church as the guidance counselor and principal.

“We need to keep them safe till the championship spitball contest next Friday.”

You’ve made this up on the spot.

Brent perks up, takes the wet wipe and deposits it into the plastic bag.

Waving maniacally, you address everyone else.

“There’s a food bar for the first ten volunteers to help Brent preserve his spitballs for the contest next Friday. You know the one we planned for math. They nod. It always works. Immediately fifteen hands shoot up. You select the ten nearest and pass out wet wipes.

You hold out the bag for everyone to see. “Every single one in this bag and we can leave the bus.”

It’s amazing how fast kids can work when the sounds of the fairgrounds are beckoning through the windows.

The kids unload from the bus and form into groups with their teacher or chaperone. The team leader looks at you like you’ve definitely overstepped your authority. You peek back inside the bus. Zelda scans the floor, looks at you and grunts. It’s the closest to a smile you’ll ever get.

As soon as you can get Brent aside, you say as casually as you can manage, “When we’re back on the bus, I’ll remind you of our agreement that there will be no more spitballs on the way home. Or no championship contest on Friday.”

He doesn’t bat an eye, doesn’t mention you never talked about an agreement, just grins that loopy grin.


Would this work for your kid?

What might you do differently?

How about another problem and how you solved it or just write about a problem you need help with.