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What I See in You

by Laurie Wasserman, special education teacher, The Madeleine Dugger Andrews Middle School, Medford, Massachusetts

Voice of ExperienceWhat I See in You. Five simple words that have the power to change students' feelings about themselves and each other!

Last year, Brenda Dyck, a middle-school teacher from Canada, shared an idea for filling in a meaningful way the spare 10-minute periods she faced at the end of a homeroom class. During that time Dyck publicly addresses her student's individual positive character qualities, special abilities, and acts of kindness in an event that has come to be known as What I See in You.

Read Dyck's explanation of the What I See in You activity in her Education World article, Power Words: Using Positive Words to Energize Your Students.

As I read about Brenda's wonderful, spontaneous idea, I thought, "What better way to validate and inspire my learning disabled students?" My students come to me in their first year in middle school as worried, frightened, and often emotionally and academically defeated sixth-graders. Frequently, they tell me how dumb they feel. That's why I always make it my priority to strengthen their self-esteem by acknowledging their strengths.

My first goal of the school year is not about teaching parts of speech or names of polygons. Instead, it is about teaching them to understand why they have the learning difficulties they have and, more important, how they can learn to compensate for them. My focus all year -- but especially during that crucial first month of school -- is on teaching my students to understand that there is a reason why schoolwork has been difficult in the past, empowering them to take control of their learning, and validating their frustrations and victories along the way.

So, you see, when I first learned about What I See in You, I jumped at this opportunity to say something positive and public to my students. I took Brenda's idea a step farther by writing the comments I share with them on a dated index card, which I read aloud to the class. I call the student to the front of the room, shake his or her hand, and lead the entire class a round of loud applause. Then the student hangs up the index card on our What I See in You bulletin board.

What kinds of things are recognized during What I See in You time? Those things cover a wide range of skills and actions.

One day I observed Nancy struggling with her math homework and Kara patiently helping her to understand it. I presented Kara with a card for the What I See in You board. The card read simply Kara patiently explained the math homework to Nancy so she would understand it.

When Joaquin's mainstream world history teacher excitedly shared with me that he had read aloud for the first time in class, I wrote a card for him that said Joaquin read aloud in World History class today! (Joaquin has a decoding disability. He had no idea that I knew he'd read aloud, but his teacher had shared his moment of triumph with me. Being acknowledged with a What I See in You card was a total surprise -- a magical moment -- for him.)

The looks on my students' faces as they proudly accept their public accolades have been among the most meaningful, poignant, and effective moments of my middle school teaching experience. As one student said to me upon receiving public recognition, "This is the first time I've ever felt smart."

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