I was stunned and frustrated when he turned in the assignment with “I dunno” in response to each question. His mother was equally exasperated when I sent her his work, but she soon learned what the problem was: H. had never read the school paper, and didn’t grasp that its stories were about his peers.
News writing also proved to be the bugaboo I had anticipated. In order to learn the basic inverted pyramid style that is the cornerstone of our class, a typical student would accept a handout of information as “fact”: the who, what, where, when, and why of a news item. But to H., those weren’t facts. Abstract thinking was not his strength. What he turned in—a single paragraph without the “facts” and with no quotes—bore no relation to the assignment that the rest of the class turned in.
Other times, H. didn’t understand the assignment well enough to get started in class, even after I’d used every trick I had, writing out the instructions in short, clear steps. He’d grow frustrated, rocking back and forth, exclaiming loudly that the assignment was “too hard.” Whatever was too hard about the assignment always remained a mystery to me. Because his mother was so active in his learning, I was able to allow H. to complete his class work at home with Mom’s support. Sometimes she was able to tease the difficulty out of him a strand at a time.
Our system crumbled during the feature writing lesson. For the assignment, students were paired to interview each other and then write a short feature story about their classmates. H. and his partner Olivia sat in a quiet corner and took turns as subject and interviewer. His mother and he had practiced together to prepare, but H. monopolized the exchange in class and took few notes about Olivia.
At the next class meeting, he was supposed to write about her in a feature story. He had his scant notes, class guidelines on feature story structure, and a few examples of stories. But when it was time to write, he started in on the familiar refrain of “it’s too hard,” rocking back and forth.
I asked what he needed that I hadn’t already given him; he couldn’t answer. He rocked harder and started to flail, signs that his frustration level was rising. In an effort to de-escalate, I sat with him and quietly put my hands on his notes, his guidelines, and his examples, showing him he had everything he needed. A classmate spoke up, trying to help; H. replied with a low growl, “Shut up or I’ll kill you.”
At that point, I played the red card—it was time for H. to go calm down in another setting. But he wouldn’t leave. A classmate went to the special education office and brought back a teacher to assist. She talked quietly with him and helped him pack up his belongings. Despite his protests, she walked with him out of the classroom. It did nothing to calm him down. I learned later that, frustrated to the point of explosion, H. became combative and had to be held back to keep him from charging a teacher in the special education classroom.