This series shares lessons I learned during a summer session with middle school students labeled “reluctant” to learn English. Follow the links for Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

Lesson #3: Teaching requires much less effort when you first focus on the strengths students possess.

Discovering the assets each student brought to the learning environment created a natural domino effect in the process of getting to know them. An inevitable part of people sharing their stories, beliefs, and experiences is the exposure of their strength of character and thinking patterns. It became easy to see who fell into the Type A category and who absolutely did not. Students who approach problem solving analytically or through analysis of emotions reveal themselves in their speech.

My students taught me that they would go the extra mile when they felt heard, noticed, and when the talents and interests they possessed were valued by their teacher. I discovered that collectively this group had much more experience with adult-like responsibilities than their non-Hispanic peers. The students’ pride in their culture, language, and food gave me a launching pad for comparing the views of characters we read about in class to their own personal viewpoints.

My co-teacher and I exhibited faith in their abilities and favorable responses to their unique personalities, which gave the students the desire to risk, fail, succeed, and risk again. They loved singing, so when I wanted them to listen to a slight variance in the pronunciation of two words, we sang the word slowly. We also sang short and long vowel sounds at a snail’s pace not only to hear the difference but also to feel the difference in the shape of the mouth. Successful moments like this were fun for all of us!

On the other hand, because of their experiences with various academic and social failures, their dignity was vastly more fragile than their grades. Therefore the classroom environment had to be vastly more supportive and accommodating of their specific needs.

Noticing students’ specific strengths and teaching them to market themselves based on those strengths is an all too often overlooked accommodation.

When students in our classroom said something profound, we spotlighted their insights. If a student had a special talent or interest that was exhibited elsewhere, we asked for pictures or a video of an event. We also asked for photos of other significant moments in their lives. When students demonstrated curiosity, we encouraged their inquisitive nature.

The strength that was exhibited on the first day of class was their graciousness when each spoke their story. It was acknowledged and reinforced throughout the course. They continued to value what the teacher valued. When they were the subjects being valued, they too valued themselves.

Click here to read the fourth and final post of this series.