Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.
Renee Moore still remembers the young man who changed the way she taught. It was 1999, and Moore was teaching at the nearly all-Black Broad Street High School in the rural town of Shelby in the Mississippi Delta. The 17-year-old who walked into her 10th-grade English class excelled in math but had never been taught how to write a proper sentence. He had spent nine years in separate classrooms for students with disabilities; looking back, Moore thinks he had undiagnosed dyslexia. The young man and his mother asked Moore if he could join her class for students without special needs; he was determined to earn a diploma.
Moore agreed, and in his first few weeks the student sat quietly on the far side of the room. As she spent time with him after school, she noticed that when the subject turned to sports or his family, he became animated. When she encouraged him to write about these interests, his engagement increased, and his sentences grew longer and more complex. Moore also knew that students from special education or “remedial” classrooms often internalized a damaging self-view that they somehow lacked intellectual competence. So Moore tried a new tactic: She recorded her conversations with her student, and then asked him to transcribe his own words—without worrying about grammar or punctuation. Once the student saw evidence in the transcripts for his capacity for unique ideas and analysis, his intellectual pride grew, and Moore could leverage it to teach him grammar and composition. Two years after he walked into her classroom, he moved into 11th grade, and eventually he passed the state’s exit exam and became the first of his six siblings to graduate with a high-school diploma.