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First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

Making It Work for JB

By Amy Issadore Bloom

“JB spoke during morning meeting!” the third grade teacher exclaimed to us.

He had been with us for four months now, and didn’t talk. Not in English, not in his native Korean. Nothing. He mumbled occasionally in a strange little high-pitched voice.

Some teachers thought it was a language issue, or that he was just shy. There is a phase of language acquisition known as the silent period.

Reina was a student who would probably fit that label—super chatty in Spanish, but not in English. Hers was more of an attitude problem though, as she clearly understood most of what was said in English. And, she was mature enough by age 11 to make the decision to favor Spanish over English.

JB had been here too long to still be in the silent period. His English writing skills surpassed most of the fifth graders. As an ESOL teacher, giving him a level was challenging since he scored so low on the oral assessments, but high in reading and writing. His level, however, was the least of our concerns.

JB struggled even at play. More disturbing, his survival communication skills were weak. Once he nearly wet his pants because he didn’t ask permission to use the bathroom—in third grade.
Selective mute, some said. Others saw signs that he was on the autism scale.

We looked through the “blue folders” containing assessments and records from his previous teachers to try to piece together his life. JB had moved at least twice each year since first grade, each time changing schools. From these records, we counted six schools, but there could have been moves out of the district we didn’t know about. With all these changes, maybe he was afraid to let his guard down. Maybe he knew he would move again, and be forced to live in yet another basement with cousins he did not know.

We tried our best to create a comfortable and encouraging atmosphere for JB. The teacher who spoke Korean tried to form a connection with him. We gave him different classroom buddies, games, books and unofficial sessions with the guidance counselor.

We were baffled when he still did not talk.

He was bright, and overall succeeding academically, which actually made it harder for us to fill out the paperwork to get him official testing and help.

The process is not a simple one, especially with these gray cases, requiring meetings and consent from parents, committees, paperwork, experts. In this situation, even a conference with his parents meant scheduling with an interpreter. After months of unsuccessful attempts, the father finally agreed to come talk with us. We were disappointed that JB’s mother was not coming. Overall, the mothers tend to share more; especially when they are not accompanied by their spouse, or the child’s father.  We’d hoped that she would shed some light on the situation—perhaps there was a specific moment in his life when he ceased to talk. Or maybe it was simpler, something a speech therapist could correct.

When we finally met with his father, it was unsettling. He was tall, imposing and stiff. He didn’t seem concerned, and tried to convince us it was just a cultural difference. Some families simply do not talk a lot, do not partake in lively conversation during family meals, he tried to explain. He claimed he had been a “late talker” too.

It’s a delicate balance - trying to help a student within the parameters and formality of a public school system, while also being respectful to parents who are in denial that their child needs help. How do you convince a parent to accept the reality of a child with special needs, especially through an interpreter? On the flip side, how do you ensure that school professionals and administrators will continue to advocate for this child, despite resistance from parents?

As educators, it’s not only our job, but our duty, to advocate for students who need help at school and at home. We often do it at risk of upsetting parents, other teachers or our principals.
We persisted, and JB made progress. It was not a great leap, but it was inspiring. We learned that he loved Legos, and was adept at building things. Who knows what it was that slowly brought him out of his shell—it could have been the kind and encouraging guidance counselor, the energetic classroom teacher, or the eccentric classmate sitting next to him.

It was likely a combination of things, and it took a great deal of collaboration among staff. The gains JB made during his time with us were difficult to quantify, and he was still, for the most part, silent. But he did start to make friends, and actually seemed to enjoy being in school. In third grade, what could be more important?

Issadore Bloom, a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at

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