Joyce Davidson

A high school English teacher is not making much progress with a
remedial English class and is particularly concerned about an
extremely shy student.

Joyce Davidson gazed unhappily at the folder of papers on the table in front
of her and then raised her head to scan the study hall she was monitoring.
Students were whispering quietly or working. Joyce knew that she should
concentrate on grading the papers she had brought, but the next period
was her ninth-period remedial English class, and she often used this study
hall just to regroup mentally and try to find the reserves of energy she would
need to manage the class. “This just wasn’t such a problem last year,” Joyce
thought ruefully. “Maybe Beth’s lack of participation is getting to me.”

This was Joyce’s second year teaching in the English department at
Littleton High School. Joyce enjoyed her job partly because it was demanding,
but dealing with this particular English class for ninth-and tenth-
graders was a special challenge. The class was loud and boisterous and tough
to control, except for one quiet little girl. Beth Martin had been in the
same class with Joyce last year, as had six others of her thirteen students,
but this year the child seemed increasingly withdrawn and indifferent. Joyce
herself was an outgoing, gregarious person, and a withdrawn child caused
her concern.

“Well, for one thing,” Joyce thought, “last year I had this class first
period. Ninth period is the worst time of day for everyone.” It wasn’t so
much that Beth was tired or difficult at the end of the day; it was that the
rest of the class was so much louder and intimidating. “At 7:45 in the
morning they’ve hardly woken up,” Joyce thought with a smile.

Beth was a short blond girl of 16. She had a slow gait and a timid
manner; she entered the classroom every afternoon with her books held
tight to her chest as if it were the first day of class. All the students in Joyce’s
class were reading well below grade level, but Beth seemed to have the most
difficulty. Most of the rest of the class exhibited more behavior problems
than academic ones. Beth’s file reported a slight speech delay, which Joyce
thought was a considerable understatement, since Beth almost never spoke
in Joyce’s class. Beth was not an independent thinker and worked best on
worksheets or with rote material. Her reading grade level was about 4.5,
and her written work matched her reading level.

Joyce thought that Beth was immature in her outside activities as well
and that this contributed to her isolation. Beth seemed to be overprotected
by her parents. Joyce’s mental image of Beth being picked up at the bus
stop by her mother, going home, having a snack, and watching cartoons
crystalized for her the challenge of getting this 16-year-old girl to interact
with a class full of loud and rambunctious teenagers in order to learn.

Last year, Joyce had wondered whether assignment to a special education
class might serve Beth better than the remedial track she was now in. She
had inquired about Beth’s placement and learned that Beth had been
evaluated in middle school and that the test results indicated that she was
not eligible for special services. Joyce agreed in principle with the concept
of regular classroom instruction whenever possible, and she had vowed to
make Beth’s time in her class productive.

There were four levels of classes in most academic subjects at Littleton
High, which the administration tried not to refer to as “tracks.” Joyce’s
ninth-period English class was a remedial class. Most of the students in it
were in remedial classes all day except for art, music, and gym, which were
not grouped by ability. Joyce’s class this year was also larger than the one
in which Beth had been placed last year: Last year Joyce had had only ten
students in the sophomore remedial English class. She knew that had been
a real luxury; in fact, she was lucky to have only thirteen students this year.
The class was made up of eleven boys and two girls; the other girl was as
flamboyant and aggressive as Beth was reserved. Angela was Peruvian and,
at 17, was one of the oldest students in the class. She had confided to Joyce
that when she first arrived in the United States four years ago, she had been
as quiet and shy as Beth, a claim Joyce thought preposterous. Angela was
Beth’s antithesis.

Littleton High School
Class: Tenth-Grade English
Teacher: Joyce Davidson

End of Ninth Grade Total Reading Test Scores

MAT scores*
Antiero, Angela
Ayagari, Mahon-Rao
Booth, David
Bowen, Harold
Diaz, Ernesto
Espitia, Luis
Fernandez, Carlos
Lawson, Jesse
Martin, Beth
Maxwell, Leon
Sanchez, Pedro
Washington, Tyrone
Wilson, Anton










* Metropolitan Achievement Test scores, reported in percentiles.
† Stanine scores; 1 4 low, 5 4 average, 9 4 high.
‡ Grade-equivalent scores; 6.7 means seventh month of sixth grade.

The boys in the class were an engaging mixture of personalities: enthusi-
astic, friendly, loud, and occasionally hyperactive. There was one other shy
student in the class, but his reserve was very different from Beth’s. Rao, who
was West Indian, was intellectually alert and conscientious; his assignment
to Joyce’s class was the result of difficulty with English as a second language.
Rao’s withdrawal was probably due to fear of being drawn into misbehavior
by his peers; Beth’s isolation seemed to be the result of indifference.

The boys in Joyce’s class were black or Hispanic. All were sophisticated
and worldly; their poor reading skills had not prevented them from becoming
social creatures who participated actively in life outside the school. This
participation was not all positive: Pedro, for example, was fond of flashing
wads of bills.

Joyce worked hard to ensure that her students were comfortable in her
class so that they could participate freely. While the price of this atmosphere
was an occasional behavior problem, Joyce felt that it was crucial to establish
a positive, risk-free climate if her students were to learn.

Joyce actually jumped when the bell rang signaling the end of the eighth
period, and she thought once again what an irritating sound it was. She sighed
as she stuffed her unopened folders into her book bag and headed toward
ninth-period English. “Still all questions and no answers,” she thought.

Joyce opened the solid, heavy door to the small classroom and immediately
saw Beth sitting at a desk. Beth was always the first to arrive. “Hi, Beth,”
Joyce said with a smile. “How was your weekend?”

Beth did not answer, at least not audibly, and Joyce quickly began setting
out materials for the day’s lesson. Not having a room permanently assigned
made teaching much more difficult. Joyce could not decorate, post students’
work, or otherwise personalize the classroom. The L-shaped room was longer
than it was wide, making seating difficult, and it seemed crowded even
though furnished with only fifteen desks. By ninth period, the desks were
awry, the wastebaskets were full, and the air was thick with the smell of
lunch recently served in the cafeteria next door.

For weeks, Joyce’s class had been working on nouns and adjectives:
What are they? How are they identified? How are they used? Joyce was
permitted some latitude in course content, and she tried to choose reading
and writing activities over grammar whenever she could. But at least two-
thirds of the sophomore curriculum was mandated, and parts of speech
were unavoidable. Joyce was having trouble getting her students to focus
on these lessons, and she found it difficult to make the material interesting
and meaningful.

Today, Joyce planned to review the subject again and then group the
students for an exercise designed to give them practice in what they had
been learning. As usual, she had tried to design a lesson that would hold
her students’ attention in spite of their distractibility and boisterousness.

“OK, settle down and listen up,” Joyce said loudly enough to be heard
as soon as the bell rang and the last student let the door slam behind him.
“I know everyone had a good weekend, but it’s time to get to work!”

“Yo, Miss D, what are those magazines for?” called a tall boy who lounged
comfortably at a desk by the window.

“They’re for you, Tyrone, and your teammate, after you come up here
to the board and help me out,” replied Joyce with a big smile. General
laughter greeted Joyce’s invitation to Tyrone, as he groaned and affected
great reluctance. In fact, it was no easy matter for him to pull his long,
powerful legs from beneath the desk to come to the board.

When Tyrone was beside her, Joyce handed him the dry erase marker and said,
“Write an example of a noun, Tyrone.”

Tyrone took the dry erase marker and turned to look at Joyce. “I can’t think of no

“Sure you can, nouns are everywhere.” Joyce gestured widely with her

Tyrone’s eyes followed Joyce’s gesture, and then they lit up as an idea
occurred to him. Joyce just loved seeing that look on her students’ faces.
Tyrone turned to the board and wrote the word air with a flourish. Looking
pleased with himself, he pivoted to return to his seat. “Wait, Tyrone. That’s
fine,” said Joyce, and she put out a hand to keep him with her. He rolled
his eyes good-naturedly. Joyce knew he loved the spotlight. She turned her
attention to the class. “Air—that’s a noun, right? Luis, tell Tyrone a sentence
to write using this noun.”

Luis’s desk was at the back of the classroom, and he was leaning back
in his chair, pulling at a cord on the wall near the window.
He pulled it and let it snap back a few times as he thought. “Tyrone is a
air head,” he finally said solemnly. The class erupted in laughter, and Tyrone
threw the marker in Luis’s direction as he, too, laughed.

Joyce was smiling even as she tried not to laugh. She mentally rehearsed
the sentence in her head and contemplated a response. She realized that
Luis had stumbled upon one of the few possible usages of the word air as
an adjective, and she could not resist the urge to use his contribution
positively. Joyce knew she risked fanning the fire with these students, since
insults were the “stuff” of their constant confrontations, but she couldn’t
let the opportunity pass.

“Write it,” she said to Tyrone, gesturing toward the board and handing
him a new marker.

“No way,” Tyrone laughed, and he refused the marker. Joyce was laughing
with her students as she went to the board herself and wrote “Mr. X is an”
and “head” around the word air, which Tyrone had already supplied. As
Joyce turned to the class, the students were still laughing. Joyce held up
her hand and waited, indicating to Tyrone with her eyes that he could
return to his seat. In a minute the class quieted down enough for her to
be heard.

“Air in this sentence is not a noun, Luis,” Joyce said matter of factly.
“What is it?”

Luis looked at Joyce blankly. Joyce persisted. “Luis, how is the word air
used in your sentence?”

Luis looked around, as if trying to find the answer on the walls or the
ceiling, and Joyce waited. Slowing herself down had been one of her biggest
challenges in this job, but she had learned. Only when Luis reached for
the cord again did Joyce help him out. “Luis, look at the board.”
When he was looking up, she continued. “Everyone look at the board. Is
air what the sentence is talking about? Luis, what is the sentence talking

“Mr. X,” Luis replied slowly. He and the other students were following
Joyce now. Joyce saw that Beth was looking in her direction also, and Joyce
thought about calling on her. But it was unlikely that Beth would respond,
and these moments came too rarely with this class to break her momentum

“Right!” Joyce exclaimed. “Mr. X is one noun in the sentence. We know
it’s a noun because it’s the name of someone.” Joyce underlined Mr. X and
continued. “What else is the sentence talking about? What other word is a
noun? Angela?”

“Head!” Angela shouted. The class laughed at Angela’s style as much
as at her answer, and Joyce waited again.

“OK,” Joyce said when she could be heard. “You are right. Head is a
noun because it is the name of something. Now, listen, here it comes. What
kind of head? David. What kind of head?”

“Air head!” David answered.
“Right. Luis, what is the word air in this sentence? It tells us what kind
of head we are talking about. How is the word air used in the sentence?”
Luis was really concentrating as he looked at the sentence. “It’s an
adjective!” he said. The class was looking at the board with him.

“Right!” Joyce smiled. She sat on the corner of the teacher’s desk and
let her shoulders drop a little. Her relaxation seemed to touch the class.
As the students sat back in their chairs, she repeated Luis’s words. “Air is
an adjective in this sentence, not a noun. We are not talking about air in
this sentence. Air tells us about the word after it. Air describes the next
word; it modifies the next word. Air is an adjective here. Usually, in most
sentences, air is a noun, but in the sentence Luis made up, air is an adjective.”

Joyce got up and went to the board. She erased the sentence and wrote
“Beth flies through the air.” “Beth, where is a noun in this sentence? Beth?”

Beth was looking at Joyce, and Joyce made eye contact, but she was not
sure the girl had heard her. Tyrone called out from the rear, “Beth is a

“I want to hear from Beth,” Joyce said. “Let’s give each other time to
answer. Beth, Tyrone was right. The word Beth in this sentence is a noun—
a proper noun because it is a person’s name. What is another noun in this
sentence?” Joyce leaned a little toward Beth as she held her left hand under
the sentence on the board. This time the class waited, although as the
seconds passed, the inevitable whispering, shuffling, and laughing began.
Finally Beth softly said, “I can’t fly.”

As her class broke into new peals of laughter, Joyce glanced at the clock.
By now she was running short on time. The class’s earlier laughter had
been for a good cause, but it was time-consuming. Joyce knew that Beth
was not trying to be obtuse, but she was slowing the class down.

“Quiet down,” Joyce admonished. She took a deep breath. “Beth, pretend
you can fly. Think about the sentence here on the board. Your name,
the word Beth [Joyce underlined the word Beth as she spoke], is one noun
in this sentence. What other word in the sentence is a noun?”

Beth looked a long time at the board. Noises from outside the room
filtered in. (The school dismissed some students early to catch buses, and
the bus stop was right outside the classroom windows.) Joyce prayed she
wouldn’t have to wait so long that the rest of the class would start throwing
things at the kids outside.

Finally Beth spoke, so softly that Joyce had to read her lips to hear her.

“Louder, Beth. Say it so that the class can hear you.”

“Air?” Beth repeated, still hesitatingly.

“Right! Air! Air is a noun in this sentence. It was an adjective in the
sentence before.” Joyce scanned the class to look for expressions of
comprehension or confusion. “Do you all understand?”

Sure enough, the delay in waiting for Beth to answer had broken the
other students’ train of thought. Joyce saw a few quizzical looks and a few
expressions of understanding, but the rest of her class had forgotten the
topic. Joyce felt frustrated: Learning had been happening a moment before,
but now she had lost the students. Joyce seldom proceeded without ensuring
complete understanding, but she had to move on if she was to get her next
activity done.

“Now we are going to pair off. I want each of you to work with one
other person. We have a project to do about nouns and adjectives.” Joyce
began to pair students sitting next to one another. “Angela, you work with
Pedro. Beth, you work with Tyrone. Luis . . .”

“I don’ wanna work with her,” Tyrone interrupted.

Joyce used grouping often in her class, and she usually allowed students
to work with whomever they chose, especially when they were working in
pairs. Most of the time the students were fairly tolerant of Beth, seeming
to recognize her differences, but they did not socialize with her and seldom
wanted to work with her. Joyce did not tolerate rudeness, but Beth was often
so blank and indifferent that Joyce thought simple remarks like Tyrone’s
went right over her head. In any event, Joyce elected not to challenge
Tyrone. “You may work with whomever you want.” Tyrone happily rose and
walked over to Luis. Their earlier exchange had apparently made them fast

“Miss Bartino, will you please work with Beth?” Joyce indicated Tyrone’s
vacant seat for her assistant, who had been watching quietly from the back
of the room. Joyce often used Anita Bartino to work individually with Beth,
anyway. When they were working in pairs, Joyce needed Anita to round out
the number, and Beth certainly needed the extra attention.

Joyce got all the students teamed and explained their assignment. They
were to search for examples of nouns or adjectives in the magazines she
had brought and were to cut them out and paste them onto construction
paper in an appropriate arrangement or design. Joyce gave the students
some examples, showing them how they could choose just nouns, just adjectives,
or nouns and adjectives all on a certain theme (all about fashion, for
instance). She told them that supplies—scissors, glue, markers, crayons—
were available at the center of the room on a supply table. Joyce usually
orchestrated projects in this way so that the entire class was required to
cooperate in order for individual teams to obtain materials.

The students were more or less occupied with their task as Joyce walked
from pair to pair. She worked for a time with Tyrone and Luis, and then
she turned and saw Beth sitting alone, looking quietly at the magazine on
her desk. Anita had partially turned her chair away from Beth and was
answering a question for another group.

Joyce approached the girl and spoke softly. “Beth, do you need something?”
Beth looked at Joyce without much expression. “Scissors,” she answered
“You know we have to share materials in this class, Beth,” Joyce said.
Beth did not reply. “How do you get supplies that you need?”

“Ask?” Beth asked quietly.

“That’s right, Beth,” Joyce replied. “Ask the other kids for what you
need. We have to share.”
Beth looked doubtfully at Joyce and then spoke in the general direction
of the rest of the class. “Can I have the scissors, please?”

“Louder, Beth” persisted Joyce. “You have to speak up to get what you
want in this class.” Anita turned away from the other group and began to
move her chair toward Beth, but Joyce stopped her with a glance. Beth
remained mute.

“Beth, this is a loud, noisy class. You have to talk loud enough for the
others to hear you and ask them for what you need. Just ask again so that
they can hear you.”

Finally Beth repeated the phrase. “Can I have the scissors?” Her voice
was still soft, but Pedro, her nearest neighbor, heard her. He handed a pair
of scissors back to Beth without turning around.

“There! See!” Joyce spoke brightly, verbalizing her pleasure with Beth’s
accomplishment. “You just have to ask!” Joyce nodded toward Anita, who
then moved her chair around to work with Beth.

Joyce walked back to the front of the room to collect the students’ work
and dismiss the class. She was really worried about Beth. Joyce thought her
approach and personal style were beginning to work for the rest of the
students, and she did not want to jeopardize their progress. But after a year
and a quarter she still had not found the combination that would unlock
Beth’s mind and bring her into the group.