One of the students I had the pleasure of teaching in AP physics in the Bronx started with quite a reputation. As a student that spoke Chinese and little English in the 9th grade, he was placed in the entry level math class. It took only a short time for his teacher to notice that, given his background and obvious mathematical skills, this probably wasn’t the right place for him. He was quickly moved up the sequence of courses until he ended up in a Math B course that included trigonometry as I recall.
This was not just a case of this student having memorized mathematical concepts from his time in China, though he had seen a lot of math by the time he arrived at Lehman. In his junior and senior years, the quality of his insights and ability to predict, comprehend, and connect ideas in both math and physics were truly impressive and indicative of a strong talent. As his teacher in physics, the greatest challenge I had was not in teaching him how to solve a physics problem, but to write down his line of reasoning that scattered together with frightening speed in his head. My favorite teaching moments with him came on the rare occasion when he had an actual misunderstanding and I witnessed the exact moment of his realization of what he did not get; the physical change in his face was unforgettable.
I was brought back to a story I heard a while back from colleagues about his early times in the classroom. He had a tendency to mutter to himself during class. On an occasion when a student made a comment that was an oversimplification of a concept, this student started saying at a noticeable volume something that sounded like ‘bull-shit’.
The teacher, clearly shocked by this, reacted softly with a word after class. Given the student’s limited English ability, the message had little chance of making it across. The outburst happened again under more unlucky circumstances when the assistant principal and principal were both in the room observing the teacher – this time, the consequences were a bit more serious. The fact was that, given his personality and the directness associated with translation into a second language, it didn’t seem completely out of character for him to call out a teacher on glossing over a math concept. He saw past the simplification for the sake of his classmates. Calling a teacher out publicly like that, though clearly inappropriate to all of us, might have just been a side effect of being in a new place with new people.
If math was the only language he understood well, and he witnessed math being communicated in an way that was not fully clear to him, of course those moments would attract such a reaction. Over time, we learned to react constructively to these reactions and counsel him into more appropriate ways to ask questions or address his usually correct abstractions of the ideas presented in class.
Fast forward eight yearsto when I was with my ninth graders on our class trip to Shandong province a week ago. As a reward for a hike up thousands of stairs the day before, we spent the final night of the trip visiting a hot springs pool. While the students were splashing around, our tour guide was having a conversation with one of the other tourists in the pool. I was relaxing my eyes staring out at the rocks around the pool when I heard something strangely familiar in their conversation.
“Bu shi…Bu shi…”
I knew both of these words now with my limited experience, but had never thought of them together before. The character bu (不) negates whatever comes after it, and shi (是)is essentially the verb ‘to be’. Putting it together in my head while getting prune fingers at the time, I realized that the phrase bu shi must then mean ‘isn’t’. I confirmed my reasoning with the guide: she was saying that something the tourist was saying wasn’t true.
There I was, seven thousand miles away, realizing long after the fact that this student we all came to admire was probably not cursing at us. He was just saying he thought something he was being taught wasn’t entirely true. It’s the sort of thing we hope our students are thinking about during lessons, questioning their understanding of the content of a lesson. I’ve had students do this in English and never felt threatened by it.
There are many different lessons to take from this. I have been cursed at as a teacher, and I knew it was happening when it was happening because, well, it’s pretty hard to ignore it when it’s happening to you. The fact that this student was having a fairly normal reaction when something wasn’t making sense to him was overshadowed by our misunderstanding of what HE was saying. We assumed he was being out of line. He was innocently saying what was on his mind.
How often do we assume we know what our students are saying without really listening? I’m guilty of wanting to hear an answer that moves a lesson along, but it’s not right, especially when the understanding isn’t there. My students in the Chinese student’s physics class would say an answer they thought was right, and I would on occasion fill in the gaps and go on as if I had heard the correct answer I wanted to hear, even though what the students actually said wasn’t even close to what I wanted. Over the years since they called me out on that, I’ve worked to make that not happen.
In an international school like the one at which I am now teaching, there are languages on top of ideas on top of personalities in my classroom that mix together every day. It is incredibly important to make sure that with such a complex mix of factors, you really know what your students are saying to you and each other.