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Finding Courage and Resilience in Our Students

by JoAnne Duncan
March 13, 2014
re·sil·ience
noun \ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\
: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens


I have been thinking a lot about what courage and resilience have to do with being an effective literacy teacher. Our educational systems and society as a whole not only need teachers who are courageous, but teachers who are resilient in the face of adversity. It is the resiliency that I see in many of my first grade students that inspires me and helps me tap into my own courage and resilience to learn, research, and find the most effective practices to make a lasting, meaningful impact on my students.

Finding Courage and Resilience in Our Students We all have students who, despite all the odds against them and/or a lack of family support, are resilient or have the potential to be resilient. These students have opened my eyes and created a sense of urgency that it is my job to consider ways to build their resiliency with opportunities to become strong, successful readers, writers, and communicators. In turn, this builds their self-esteem and can guide them in becoming strong, healthy, successful children.

This understanding of resiliency is what gives me the courage to slow down and reflect on what some of my most at risk students need to help scaffold them to the next level. I have experienced first-hand that when I have the courage to provide my most at risk learners with what they truly need, it helps move them forward while building their resilience and my own.

All students need to learn their letters, sounds, and sight words. They need to learn how to blend CVC words, comprehend text, and utilize the skills and strategies it takes to be successful readers and writers. But for my most at risk students, before they get to the skills and strategies, they need someone to care about them and make them see themselves as smart, capable readers and writers. In some cases they need someone to sit beside them and read to them because they have never had that experience.  

Last year I had a First Grade Friend that came to me at a pre-A level. She knew a few letters and sounds, could scribble some lines, and was able to write the first letter of her name. Most mornings she came to school in the same clothes she had on the previous two days. She was disheveled, often exhausted, and rarely ready to learn. Her coping mechanism was to crawl under the tables and hiss like a mean cat. One of the first things she said to me was, “I hate reading and writing. I can’t do it because I’m stupid.” Her first intervention would be working on a “Can do Attitude.”

I had to find out what she was interested in and what she could do. She really loved kitties. I found some kitten coloring pages and our brief one on one time was spent coloring and talking. I would share with her how I really liked the colors she chose for her kitty. I would say, “See? You can do it! ” I would have her repeat that a few times—I can do it! I can do it! I can do it! We slowly moved to playing letter recognition games and used tactile activities to practice writing letters. Each baby step forward was something she found she could be successful at and gave us reason to celebrate!

This student also received extra attention every morning from a volunteer who would take the student to our small conference room near the office. I went to the dollar store and bought combs, brushes, pony tail holders, etc. The volunteer would fix the girl’s very unkempt hair into a pony tail, or whatever style she wanted. The student would come back beaming with pride.

During our reading workshop, one of this student’s interventions was to meet with a paraprofessional educator, find a cozy spot in the classroom, sit side by side, and enjoy having someone read to her. She discovered she loved Clifford books. As the year went on she was in a small skill/guided reading group in addition to the one on one read aloud time.

She enjoyed making Clifford books and was successful drawing, coloring, and labeling her Clifford pictures and finally began writing about Clifford. I also enlisted the help and support of our principal and school secretary. They were happy to take a few minutes to celebrate with this student when she had successfully read from one of her Danny books, or was able to write about something important to her, like her kitty.

Each small success seemed to lead to less time under the tables meowing and hissing like an angry, wild kitty. By the end of the year this student loved school and was seeing herself as a successful reader and writer. She had made more than a year’s worth of growth, but more importantly she now saw herself as a reader and writer. She was confident and hopeful. Her courage and resilience continues to inspire me to be a courageous and resilient teacher by stepping outside of the box and the pacing guide to try and meet the needs of all my students.

JoAnne Duncan on Reading Today OnlineJoAnne Duncan received her Master’s degree in Elementary Reading and Literacy from Walden University. She teaches first grade at Mt. Stuart Elementary School in Ellensburg, WA. She is an advocate of best literacy practice for students and teachers which includes using a Workshop Model to help Differentiate Instruction.
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