The Common Good

Love Bug: Kids Flourish When We Focus on Their Strengths

Close up look at the common dragonfly.

Bralyan loves bugs.

I met him during the first week of school as I conducted the standard assessment of how many words he could read per minute from a second-grade story. After the assessment, I gave him the customary caterpillar sticker to put on his shirt to show everyone that he was going to emerge as a great reader during his second-grade year.

You would have thought that I had given him a piece of gold.

"Oooh, I love bugs," he marveled as I handed him the sticker. "I have seen caterpillars around the trees at my apartment. They spin a chrysalis and turn into butterflies.

“Have you seen a roly poly bug?,” he continued. “They're my favorites!"

And so a friendship began around the pyrrharctia isabella, the armadillidum vulgar and other bugs that make up the most diverse group of animals on the planet.

This interaction told me some crucial things about Bralyan. It told me he is a smart kid, and it also told me that keeping him engaged in school would likely include bugs.

I later learned that Bralyan and his family moved here from Mexico when he was a baby. His mom and dad speak only Spanish at home. He speaks English at school.

While his speech was at grade level, two academic assessments told me that Bralyan's reading in English was severely deficient. He needed help. He is a now daily participant in the English as a Second Language program at our school, and he has become one of the students in my reading intervention program.

But to help Bralyan become the best student he can be, I can’t do it alone. My school social worker and my ESL teacher friend are part of the family of nurturers — as are Bralyan's parents.

As I look at Bralyan through my teacher eyes, I see more than his academic deficiencies. I see the brilliant corner in his mind, the corner that holds an amazing amount of knowledge about caterpillars and roly poly bugs.

After my first meeting with Bralyan, I visited our ESL teacher. We decided to give him a book, The Icky Bug Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta. This would be our starting point on the road to helping Bralyan become a reader.

Next, I visited our school social worker. We decided to help Bralyan's dad and mom get involved in our school’s parent-involvement program. They realized that they could help brainstorm ways to educate their children, even help their children find the motivation to do homework.

Bralyan's homeroom teacher and I looked at ways to accommodate his reading and writing deficiencies by shortening his homework assignments and linking them to his love for bugs as best we could. He loved choosing five spelling words and linking them to the insect world by writing five related sentences about it.

Finally, Bralyan became a student in my Response To Intervention class, where I work with him every day on phonemic awareness, phonics skills, high-frequency word knowledge and comprehension skills.

Bralyan can sit down with me now and read 50 word stories without missing a word. His fluency is improving, too. He is on the way to becoming a great reader. And it all began with bugs.

At the end of class one day, I walked beside him on the way back to his homeroom. I asked if he had ever heard of an entomologist. He shook his head no. I explained that an entomologist is a scientist who studies bugs.

“I think you could become a great bug scientist,” I said.

The expression on his face reminded me of that first day we met when I gave him the caterpillar sticker. You'd have thought I'd given him another piece of gold. And, you know, I think I did.

It is amazing what kids can do when we focus on their strengths.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Photo credit: Joseph Scott Photography/Shutterstock.

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