I’d had students like Diego before, who pulled a hoodie tight over their head and went to sleep. I’d ask if they were alright. They’d tell me they were sleepy. I’d say I understood (understood what exactly?), but that they had work to do. They’d apologize and work for a bit but fall back asleep moments later. Same conversation, four to five times a class. Eventually they stop apologizing and go non-responsive. I might call home and ask if everything is okay, and they might hate me for it.
In previous schools, where exit tickets were mandated at the end of every class and teachers had a quota for grades per week, Diego would have been a problem. I would have felt anxious about zeros piling up. I would have likely pushed him past ignoring me and into resenting me. I can imagine him responding rudely and me feeling forced to respond with consequences. And then the battle of wills—my will to admonish something I didn’t understand and his to take redirection without further escalating.
In this version of my classroom, a self-paced class with on-demand, mastery-based assessments and unlimited retakes until the end of the unit, I had another way. My classwork readings were sequenced for the month-long unit, printed out and available at any pace with comprehension quizzes as students finished readings. Skill based lessons were available through text or in class pullouts (which became mandatory for students lagging behind). The end of unit essay and rubric were available from day one for anyone to attempt when they felt ready. I kept a tracking board up with pins that students could move from assignment to assignment as they progressed.
So when Diego put his head down, our conversation was different “You have work to do” became “It seems like something is getting in your way.” Diego might want to talk, might not. I don’t have to hold any authority over him, don’t have to sell him on an education and don’t have to pressure him. I have time to start a non-related, non-threatening conversation with him about his life.
With Diego, graphic novels were my in. I’d seen him reading manga, so I asked him about it, why he liked it, what he wanted to read next, etc. I asked for a list of books we should have in our library, and I bought one of them and slid it to him the next time I saw his head down. He popped up and started reading. Off task? Yes. Less miserable? Also yes.
Next thing, he was eating lunch in my room, at first under a desk against the wall in silence, eventually next to me talking. I learned about his struggles. They are not mine to share, and I’m no diagnostician, but he clearly had issues with depression and anxiety. We developed a rating system on a post-it so he could privately tell me how he was feeling during class.
And then one day, after almost two weeks of being unproductive, he walked in and said “Mr. Davidson, I want to work today.” The unit was almost over, and he was behind, but, in this system, there was a path forward sans shame. I went through the unit materials and picked out those most central to the essay prompt. He read them. And asked questions. And passed comprehension quizzes. He joined one of my small group mandatory writing mini-lessons, and got started on his essay. And before the unit wrapped up, he turned in a complete essay.
Let me address some common questions: Yes, Diego’s essay sucked, but any essay is better than no essay, and with that relationship built, I leaned on him for higher quality work moving forward. Yes, Diego did fewer assignments than other students, but treating different people the same way is not equity. He needed that time and attention to nudge him into a student persona, and I’m glad I was able to give it. And yes, it was a ton of prep work, but at the end, I didn’t have materials to make for the rest of the unit, and I was able to give our SPED teachers full access to the unit for pull outs and differentiation. Yes, there is a mad dash in the final days of the unit, and yes, some kids finished early—a few even crushed my extension project for early finishers. I asked them to help other students and found odd jobs for them. I’m okay with that.
What I’ll never be okay with is an arbitrary 50 minute cage around the learning in my room. I watch students develop habits around time management. I have conversations about students’ plans for success and debriefs about those plans gone awry. And I watch students who always seem uneasy, who want to be anywhere but in a school, enter my room if not smiling, at least neutrally. They know the rules. They know the timeline, and it doesn’t feel oppressive. They get to breathe. For Diego, that’s all it took.