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What's the Matter with Maria?
A Sample Dialogue for Early Interventions, Prereferral and Collaborative Problem-Solving

The following sample dialogue was written by Robert Bruce Scott to illustrate the first steps in an elaborate problem-solving process, as explained in Knackendoffel, E.A., Robinson, S.M., Deshler, D.D., & Schumacker, J.B. (1992). Collaborative problem solving: A step-by-step guide for creating educational solutions. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises. A related article is at, titled "Achieving Better Outcomes -- Maintaining Rights: An Approach to Identifying and Serving Students With Specific Learning Disabilities," by the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities "Finding Common Ground" Roundtable, in the NASP Communique, Vol. 31, #1, National Association of School Psychologists.

An abbreviated version of the collaborative problem-solving process is as follows:

-Identify problem
-Get the facts
-Numerate options
-Imagine consequences
-Take best option
-Elaborate plan

This generates a nice acronym: IGNITE, for rapid problem solving. This acronym was coined by the present author, Robert Bruce Scott.

Early one morning, when nearly no one else has arrived for the school day yet, three teachers find themselves standing together in front of the juice machine. One is the 8th grade social studies teacher (SOST); another is a floating ESOL teacher (ESOL); and the third is a special education teacher (SPED) who works with about 75 different students at this middle school somewhere in Kansas.

ESOL: It sure looks like itís going to be another wonderful day, doesnít it?

SPED: I like your enthusiasm, and I hope it does turn out to be a good day today. I know that it makes a difference for the students if we keep a positive attitude.

SOST: Iím sorry I canít share your optimism. Iím just so worried about one of my students that itís making me sick. I only slept about two hours last night, worrying about her.

SPED: Whatís the matter? Who is the student?

SOST: Do you remember Maria Fuentes? Her family moved here from California in the middle of the year last year.

ESOL: Oh, yeah. I remember Maria. How is she? She was one of our brightest students last spring in the ESOL resource room.

SPED: So, what is happening with Maria? Is she having difficulty with English?

SOST: If I had a log sheet for Collaborative Problem Solving, hereís what I would write in the box labeled ďProblem.Ē Itís the fourth week of school and Maria is already way behind.

The three teachers are walking down the hall and come first to the social studies teacherís classroom. They stop in the doorway to continue their conversation.

SPED: If you have a few minutes, Iíd like to hear more about this problem. Maybe we can put our three heads together and come up with an idea to help.

ESOL: I have time, too. So, what are you noticing about Mariaís work?

SOST: O.K., first, she refuses to speak when I call on her in class. Iím getting really frustrated. For four weeks now Iíve been smiling at her, very patient, giving her all the time she needs, but nothing. She just sits there like a bump on a log.

SPED: Have you tried to find out what is wrong?

SOST: Yes, I have. We do journals, and Maria is always switching back and forth from English to Spanish in her journal writing. So, I got another Spanish-speaker to translate the part I couldnít read.

ESOL: You wanted to understand what Maria was writing in Spanish, so you showed her journal to another student.

SOST: O.K., Iíll admit that was kind of an invasion of her privacy, but you wouldnít believe what she had been writing! Apparently, there was this big party at her house last weekend and the music didnít stop until 5:00 a.m. Can you believe it? No wonder these kids canít concentrate on their homework.

SPED: So, she isnít completing her homework?

SOST: Well, she was at least doing that until two days ago. But now she just leaves her books closed and glares at me. Iím her homeroom teacher, too, and sheís always listening to Spanish music on her headphones and drawing pictures instead of studying.

The three teachers enter the social studies classroom and sit down, pulling three desks together into a tight circle.

ESOL: Now Iím remembering Maria. She got the highest score in the whole 7th grade last spring on the state reading assessment. I wonder if it was a mistake to put her in ESOL classes right away when she arrived here. We do our best to follow the regular curriculum, but it must have been hard on her that those three periods of ESOL she was missing communication arts, social studies, and science.

SPED: Has she taken any assessments this month in social studies?

SOST: We have had one major test, true-false, covering a review of everything from 7th grade social studies. Maria got the lowest score in the class. Iím really beginning to think she has a learning disability. Either that or itís her attitude.

SPED: You are feeling very frustrated with this situation.

SOST: Darn right I am. What about the other 30 kids in my room? Who does this prima donna think she is? Iím thinking about taking that CD player away from her and she can have it back when I get a note from her mother or father.

ESOL: Is there anything else you can tell us about Mariaís schoolwork or her behavior in class?

SOST: Well, her writing in English is just about perfect. I gave the class an essay test last week and she wrote beautifully. She got the best score in the class.

SPED: That must have made you feel good.

SOST: Yes, it was one real highlight in what has been a very tough first month.

SPED: Well, we have a lot of useful information now, and I would like to suggest that we take another 5 minutes to complete several more steps in the collaborative problem solving process that the principal is always encouraging us to use. I know that this process has worked wonders for me in figuring out how to help several students with very special needs.

SOST: Iím not sure I believe in this kind of stuff. Why canít these kids be more like we were when we went to school? Sit up straight. Pay attention. Do your homework. Speak when youíre spoken to. Is that too much to ask?

ESOL: I know what you mean. And weíre all dedicated to what we do. Letís try to work together on this problem a little more here today. I know we can come up with some ideas to help Maria.

SPED: O.K., the process goes like this. Weíve finished the first two steps alreadyó define the problem and gather information about the problem. Next, we need to identify alternative solutions, through brainstorming techniques. And then we can summarize the possible solutions. That might be as far as we get today, but we can schedule another meeting, where we will analyze possible consequences of the various options, rate each solution, and agree on which one we believe is going to be the best. After that, weíll need to work together on a plan of action, and a monitoring system so that we can evaluate the success of our plan.

SOST: That sounds like a lot of talking, just to deal with one student. But Iím happy to have you two helping me to think this through. Thank you for taking time out of your early morning planning period.

SPED: Alright, then. Letís try the brainstorming technique we learned in that inservice last week. Remember? I think it was called ďlateral thinking.Ē What we need to do is look at the problem in a different way, not from our normal perspectives as teachers.

ESOL: Hey, Iíve got it. Letís look at this as if we the teachers are the problem, and Maria is asking us as consultants to help her, the consultee, with a problem clientóus.

SOST: Donít you mean ďmeĒ? Iíll have you know thatÖ.

SPED: Whoa, there. The problem is definitely the school, not Maria. I think we can all agree with that. Whatever solution we come up with will help all her teachers, not only this year, but next year, too.

SOST: O.K., let me try some lateral thinking. Maria likes Spanish music, so we should bring Spanish music into the curriculum. Maybe the P.E. teacher can use music.

ESOL: Yeah, and maybe the communication arts teacher can let Maria write in English about what she likes and what she sees in the Spanish music she listens to.

SPED: Great. And how about going another step further in our efforts to fix what is wrong with our school? Letís find ways that students can participate in class without speaking if they are not yet confident enough in English.

SOST: This lateral thinking is making my head hurt.

ESOL: No, really. Itís a great idea. I have lots of materials to help teachers conduct their classes and manage discussions without demanding that our English language learners speak before they are ready and comfortable to do so.

SPED: O.K., now how about an idea for the problem with the journal.

SOST: How about a three-way journal? Maria can write in Spanish to her mother and father. Then they can write back to her in Spanish. Then she can write to me in English, and I can write back to her in English.

SPED: And nobody has to translate anything! Great!

ESOL: Itís almost 7:45. Kids are going to be beating down the doors pretty soon. Do you think we have enough alternative solutions up on the board here?

SPED: O.K., in the interest of time, let me write these lateral ideas down and send an e-mail to both of you by early this afternoon. I will include in my e-mail a statement summarizing all the solutions weíve generated, and you can add more ideas, too.

SOST: This has been more fun than I would have imagined. I may even start moving on some of these ideas before we meet again.

SPED: I donít think thatís a problem at all. We do have to teach in the moment. But letís do make sure we follow through and continue our problem solving process. Can the two of you meet again tomorrow morning before school? I think we can finish if we start at 7:15 and use our time together efficiently.

ESOL: Have a good day.

SOST: Yes, and thanks to both of you.

SPED: This is good for all of us. Thank you two for taking the time to talk.

Article by Robb Scott

2005 ESL MiniConference Online