Language, Limits, and Literacy: Student Learning and Student Lives - National Council of Teachers of English
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Language, Limits, and Literacy: Student Learning and Student Lives

The following excerpt is from an essay by Kim Irvine, another of the wonderful submissions to the NCTE Arts of Language Collection:



A picture of a book with a plant growing out of it.“Language, Limits, and Literacy: Student Learning and Student Lives”

I cried in my silent classroom when her picture came up on my role. Her sparkling eyes, clear and full of promise, stared out at me from a darling, dimpled smile ringed by shining blonde curls. In her sixth grade year, this angelic-looking student was in a car accident–caused by a drunk driver. She was badly hurt with her face and head taking most of the damage. I sat numbly listening as they explained my new student’s situation. The accident was horrific. She had been thrown from the car through the back window. She lost an ear. We were told that the school was suspending the dress code so she could wear her hat that she tucked down low on that side. She is also blind. They explained that in a few months, she will be facing several reconstructive surgeries, but she really wanted to come back to school before that began. Oh, the pressure! And here it was again, the second time in a week where I was truly worried about how to approach a new student. I was quite shocked to find that I was struggling so hard- grasping for a context, again, so soon. Especially since I pride myself that I am able to connect with any student. Now, I was beginning to worry.

I reflected back on a similar worry I had when meeting a new student of mine over a decade ago. I was still a very nascent teacher and teaching in a different school district. He sauntered in with florescent blue tipped hair screaming shrilly from the Mohawk crowning his semi-bald head. Two colossal safety pins dangled in his ears. He kind of glanced at me to see if I was getting the full effect of his flamboyant couture. Inside, I was dazzled by the spectacle, however, outside, I didn’t even blink. I acted the way I do with all of my students. Apparently, I passed the “test” of his appearance, and slowly, he let down his defenses and became one of my favorites. I quickly learned he was clever and quick witted. He especially loved the vocabulary lessons. I thrilled when he exclaimed in front of the class one day, “Vocabulary is sweet, because you can insult adults, and they don’t even know it.” What perspective and clear insight. Much to my chagrin, he demonstrated his prowess with vocabulary in a game we play in my classroom, $10,000 Pyramid, based loosely on the old game show. At the end of each year my students may elect to forgo the written vocabulary test and opt for a go at $10,000 pyramid. Of course, the day that this particular student was competing, unbeknownst to me, my principal decided to bring the superintendent to observe my class. She opened the door and led him in just as my student was shouting out his definition of the word, “titillation.” (My students get to choose some of the vocabulary we target each year). Although his definition was astute, it shocked both of my administrators, and I found myself out in the hall explaining how the definition, “Titillation: the way you feel in a strip club,” could possibly fit into the core. Frankly, his definition was correct, and I truly appreciated his astute accuracy, which I heartily defended in the hall. Honestly, I don’t think that either administrator personally knew the definition of the word, “titillation” and perhaps assumed that it was more onomatopoetic than it truly is. Not even that situation rattled me. Usually, I am pretty unflappable.

This year, watching this tiny new student, patiently counting her way down the halls in spite of all of the challenges she faced, I realized I was scared. This beautiful child, who valued her experiences at school highly enough to come back, if only briefly, despite what it could cost her, confounded me. My mind reeled as I considered the scope of the endeavor from her perspective. Junior high school is fraught with unimaginable cruelty and dangers without all of the troubles on the shoulders of this brave, frail one. …

Then she smiled at me, and I could see the girl from the picture, before her accident, gazing back at me through lovely, clear eyes. I am not talking about the physical beauty of the child before the accident; I recognized the beautiful light in her eyes and smile there in the school hallway, just like in the picture. I marveled at her quiet strength and sweet grace. As the conversation became momentarily awkward, her smile faded, although her eyes never left my face. Her face took on an expression of fierce determination laced with fear and the slightest nuance of pleading. I had seen that look before. Suddenly, I knew exactly what she wanted and needed. She simply wanted to be recognized as just a student, not any of the cruel, new labels dictating her current existence. She just wanted the comfort and the challenge of the familiar environment of school. She wanted to engage in the dance of learning unfettered by the bewildering world surrounding her. Her eyes reached from her darkness for my gaze, still pleading.

My brain suddenly came out of vapor lock. I knew what to do. We chatted about the last book she had read, and she promised to bring her new Braille Kindle to school to show me how cool it was. I was both relieved and ashamed. I was relieved because now I had the context that I had craved to begin with. …

I have come to learn that I cannot comprehend the insurmountable difficulties many of my students overcome each day. I cannot cure all of that pain, but I can give them what they so desperately desire–an environment that is safe so learning can occur. This may be the only safe place in those children’s lives. Creating that sanctuary every day is the most important thing we teachers do. Every day we hold in our hands the brains of many students, but not only that, I believe we hold their hearts also.

One of my favorite quotes is from Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I believe this is the best argument for why English teachers shoulder such a large portion of the academic burden. None of the other curricula can exist without us, the English teachers. If Wittgenstein is right, and only their language limits our students’ worlds, I am struck with the enormity of the responsibility.

The language we teach our students will shape the future: may it include joy and wonder and depth and wisdom. We are graced with the opportunity to be present in the lives of our students at some of the most critical, pivotal moments. As the data wars rage, and the mandates pile up, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Still, as we continue on amid the lunacy surrounding current educational policy, and see our precious learning time sacrificed on the altar of data, it is vital that we never lose the idea that at any moment, we may do or say or cause the one thing that makes the difference in the lives of our students. This is not only how we make a difference, this is how we change the world.