Monday, November 2, 2009

It's a Boy!

Last week my little bilingual class got a special treat, a fifth grade newcomer from Mexico! I was told two days ahead of time by the office that a new student would be arriving and I proceeded to mentally rehearse my Spanish and verbally prepare my students. Before all that, I was sitting at my desk when the students walked in on the morning I found out, creating name tags for my newcomer's desk and locker. I was greeted to a chorus of, "We have a new student? Who is it? Is it is boy or a girl?"

When I informed my darlings of his gender there were mixed reactions, some thrilled, some disappointed (mostly the girls who wanted another friend to gossip with), but one very entertained 5th grade girl giggled and exclaimed, "It sounds like we're having a BABY...It's a boy! CONGRATULATIONS!" For the rest of the day whenever we talked about the new students we made plans for our "new baby" discussing how we could take take of him, what we could do to support his language skills and how we could make his transition comfortable. My students shared great ideas, often from their own experiences about how their English acquisition.

My students have great hearts and the best of intentions. When the new baby showed up, they treated him wonderfully. What they didn't account for, was how much would change when he would get there. As much as I talked to them about him and tried to prepare them, two days wasn't enough. I spent the past two months building a classroom community built on trust, structure and continuity. Now we're using two languages, accommodating for another person, and they're getting a lot less individual attention.

On the first day with the "new baby" as soon as he went to the bathroom my classroom erupted. It was like my students had been waiting to jam every single ounce of English conversation and normalcy they could think of into the 2 minutes they had of freedom before he came back and they had to be on their "best behavior" again. My theory is that is comes from spending so much time creating classroom community. My class is comfortable and safe together. Change has come to their little tight knit community and they don't know what to do with it. I made sure to explain to them that they needed to wait to have those conversations when EVERYONE that was a part of their class was present. They'll accept that in time as they've accepted each other...but babies, like all new family members take time to get used to. The thing that impresses me the most is that while they have to grow into each other, they also decided to love him and care for him before they even knew him...just as if they were actually parents caring for a new baby. Maybe there really is something about being bilingual in a new and scary place that binds you unlike anything else...or maybe its just the magic of the unyielding acceptance of a child.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Strange Noises

When I moved in to my new place a week ago, my friend Jeremy asked me if there were any weird noises that I had to adjust to. I went to bed on that first night feeling pretty good and pretty lucky because things were blissfully silent. In fact, our walls and floors are cement so I have yet to have a problem with pipes, neighbors, miscellaneous squeaks, etc. That is, until tonight. Tonight I am typing as I sit awake at my computer table counting the minutes and listening to the most earth shattering shriek I have ever heard. For tonight, my dear friends, is the the night of the first storm in my new apartment. I live in a back corner apartment in our building complex and apparently the combination of the direction of the wind and the location of our little corner creates a perfect little wind tunnel. Wind finds its way in and upon trying to escape takes on the otherworldly sounds of a strangled horse-like creature.

In any case, I'm wide awake. And the question of acclimating oneself to strange noises got me thinking.

As many of you know, I'm starting a new job this year. I have three weeks before training and four full weeks before my first full day with students. If you are saying that it is WAY TO EARLY to start worrying about teaching then you are awesome and I want to be like you. Unfortunately for myself, I'm a thinker and a planner. And I haven't even been given my teaching manuals yet (and I'm teaching two grades simultaneously) so I'm really starting to panic!

As I think about weird noises, however, it reminds me that every new school year is kind of like my new apartment. You come in, work as hard as you can to put together a nice place for yourself. You adorn the walls and arrange the furniture for aesthetics as well as practicality. But eventually, your students (the strange noises) show up. That's when you have to start to adapt. There are some noises that will startle you and make you jump almost every time you get surprised by them for the rest of the year. There is the idle hum of the refrigerator that will barely receive much notice after a couple days of routine and habit. In any case, you start to make a comfortable place together and adapt to each others quirks, and if you work hard enough, you start to appreciate those noises because they are familiar and they mean that you are in a good place, a safe place, that you are home.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Let Them Fall

This post was inspired by my mother and the post Helping Students Navigating the Torrents of Change at Cool Cat Teacher.

The other day while we were driving in the car, my mom made the statement that she wouldn't have wanted to protect her children from all of the hard things they have gone through in life. Not that she would ever wish any pain on us, but that she knew the importance of letting us make our own mistakes, deal with our own challenges, and find our own way when the situation called for it. The truth is, if you spend every moment holding your child's hand and protecting them from "danger", they will never learn to fend for themselves, never learn any coping mechanisms, and never understand how to deal when they find themselves confronted with the real world.

The same thing works for school and the classroom. In fact, in a society where the role of teacher is an ever blurring line which takes on the function on parent more and more, many of the same attributes apply. I find it very tempting to hold my students hands when times get tough. I also find it almost impossible not to make exceptions for good kids who have a bad day.

I have found, however, that there is something to be said for consistency. Students who know the rules and what is expected of them will learn to accept responsibility for consequences and will rarely have that bad day again. Failing is a part of life. Making mistakes is a part of life. Not allowing our students to do either of those things is crippling them and giving them false expectation for their future. We need to instead be teaching them strong lessons and equipping them with the tools in their arsenals to rise again after failure, mistakes, or simple life unfairness have dealt them a low blow.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A System That Works

I sat down to dinner with a fellow bilingual teacher last night and we started to share some of the successes that we have had with classroom management over the past year. As we talked I realized that I was nervous about being a part of a school that doesn't have a school wide behavior managment program (though they are starting something this year and I'm excited to be a part of that.) It is one of the things that I think worked wonders in my former school (coupled with No Excuses University which I personally think everyone should get on board with.) As we talked I began to try to rework my personal classroom system because I am always trying to get better/more efficient. Born from my coworker whose room I have shared for the past two years, my system involves individual sticker charts (grids of about 25 squares) that students must fill before they can visit the prize box. Stickers are given every morning at the beginning of the day for homework and then sporatically throughout the day for awesome deeds and participation. While students are getting ready for lunch I open the prize box for less than five minutes for students whose charts are full. This system works way better than anything I've done before and so, with everything else that is changing this year i've decided that it is the one thing that will remain constant. Just let me tell you why...

1. It is interactive. There is something to be said for interactive teaching and I'm a fan of anything that gets you moving around the room and connecting face to face with students even during whole group instruction.
2. It is not obtrusive. Students leave their charts on the desk and you can come over and reward them without even stopping your lecture.
3. It teaches responsibility. Students are required to keep track if their own charts and must start over again at zero if they lose theirs.
4. It minimizes classroom crime. Students have names at the top of their chart and stickers take some effort to peel off so students are forced into an honest situation.
5. Students recieve immediate reinforcement. Instead of waiting until the end of the day or the end of a lesson, students are reinforced for positive behavior as it occurs.
6. It is a good motivator. If I am having a rough class with students who are slow to volunteer I have only to pick up a sheet of stickers and their eyes and ears and hands perk right up.
7. It is low maintenance. Sometimes I even allow other students to be in charge of stickers if it is going to be cumbersome for me. The prizes are quick to distribute and it is not something that needs time slotted for it even daily (charts take a while to fill).

This year I noticed that the system turned a little but stale toward the end if the year. One week we put away charts, took out some ziploc bags, wrote their names on them and did the exact same system using flat marbles. The marbles had a monetary value and at the end of the week I pulled some of the prizes from the box and we had an auction. It was really fun and even reinforced the value of money. So what I'm saying is...

8. It is versatile: easy to adapt and make new again.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pointless Rules

I suppose this post could be called "choosing your battles" as well...but I'm not kidding about the pointlessness.

I think that today's teacher's pointless rules are developed from out very own school experiences. We remember teachers who were deathly opposed to gum chewing or using red pen to do math homework and we decide, "Hey, if those rules were good enough for them..."

I remember with fondness one particular rule from high school French class. All work that was peer edited (on a daily basis) needed to be corrected in GREEN PEN. Now this managed to create all kinds of unforeseen difficulties. 1st, in the course of a year, you find yourself needing at least 2 of these pens because one always seems to get lost, dried up, eaten by the dog, etc. However, green pens (and maybe this has changed since my childhood days) only come in packs with about a billion other multicolored pens. Unfortunately, students in my high school were not allowed to use any of the other beautifully colored pens for their other assignments in any other class. I imagine that if someone had started to manufacture boxes of green pens during that time period, a French student could have made a fortune peddling their wares. And the silly thing is, parents didn't get up in arms about the situation, they just followed the rules year after year wasting their money trying to get their students what they "needed" in order to be productive members of their classroom.

This leads us to the point...

The importance of rules:
1. Establish classroom authority.
2. Enhance the efficiency of the class.
3. Create safety and respect.

Simply put, if your classroom rules are nitpicking things that are not helping the classroom run smoothly, you will waste time trying to enforce them. Students need rules and discipline, but if there is no clear and direct purpose (except for the sake of having rules) students will not understand or respect them.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


We can't expect students to know about things they've never been exposed to. Maybe that doesn't sounds like an amazing revelation, but it is indeed the root of the one problem that I've heard teachers define as being the least fixable: motivation.

When I was younger, my brother and my dad watched sports on TV on occasion. I used to go to professional baseball games as a rare treat, but even then I was mostly just in it for the snacks. ;) As I was getting older, I didn't have the right body attributes necessary to make me very skilled in P.E. based sports nor was I befriended by those who shared any interest. In fact, it wasn't until I was 24 years old that I began to associate with people who actually took a vested interest in the sports world. I started to play a baseball simulation game and engage in conversations with coworkers only to find that I actually LOVE learning about sports. I like the numbers and the talent and the fan sociology behind it all. I find myself making the occasional sports analogy and all of a sudden I'm using a vocabulary that was once very much foreign to me.

Some people are intrinsically motivated. That is a lucky character trait that I feel blessed to have. Regardless, I'm pretty sure that, throughout life, I learned the things that I was supposed to be motivated in the way most people do: I was exposed to them. I watched "proper" ambitions modeled and followed suit. How was I supposed to know that I should like sports when my physical attributes did not suggest an aptitude and there was no clear model in my life who felt the need to sit down and explain to me their significance?

This is the exact same barrier that faces our students. There will always be those who, regardless of their situation, will seek out information for themselves. As for the rest of them, there needs to be guidance...lots and lots of guidance. If our students are not exposed to technology, how can we raise up those few students who will become instrumental in it's advancement? If students are only exposed to academics, who will become masters of their craft in arts and athletics? There are so many things that I am good at that I didn't even know existed when I was younger (especially around the time in life when I was asked to choose a career path). It is our responsibility as educators to pull from every single resource that we can get our hands on, so that students can reach their real potential and attain the motivation necessary (because they were inspired by something) to invest themselves in something that they are passionate about.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Monetary Value

The complaint that teachers are not paid enough can be heard far and wide on any given day. I tend not to engage in the discussion because 1) I put very little value in money and the need to gain more of it and 2) the worth of my job has always exceeded it's monetary value.

At some point though, you have to be practical. Without divulging too much of my own financial situation, let's just say that on a teacher's salary it is actually IMPOSSIBLE for a single young teacher with 4 years of undergraduate loans to pay rent/mortgage on their own in the Chicago suburbs and still be able to eat at the end of the day. I have run the numbers a million times and I can not grow something out of nothing. It is for this reason alone that I am adopting roommates this summer.

Roommates are fine, pinching pennies is fine...but what about everything else? What if there is an emergency? A hospital bill or a car breakdown? I'm pretty sure that I need my health to teach and a car to get to school every day. And even more than than, what about living life? Experiencing new things, going new places, and (inevitably) paying for them?

My friend and I have been trying to plan a trip this summer. We don't ask for much, but it is important to both of us to go to a Spanish speaking country to further our Spanish skills (which is a direct benefit to our students and parents upon the return of a new school year). We have a limited window of time in which to go (because financial constraints dictate my need to teach summer school) and limited funds on which to travel. We even looked into service projects in other countries where you can stay with a host family and found their costs to be almost twice as much as a regular vacation.

The point is, my story is not different from any one else's. In fact, I'm sure others have incurred unfortunate expenses that I couldn't even dream of. But money is not important to me. If someone else needs it and I have it, I don't bat an eyelash in offering it. I just want to be able to live life...and the monetary value applied to teachers doesn't cut it.

The problem:

1. Good teachers will feel devalued and believe less in the importance of what they do.
2. Good teachers will not be able to further their education (whether it be through travel or graduate level courses) which directly impacts the students they teach.
3. Good teachers will burn themselves out taking on second jobs or working all summer.
4. Good teachers will walk away.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Literacy Centers Have Made All the Difference

I have a group of 3rd graders who have just been close to impossible to handle this year. Luckily, my 4th graders have been magically delightful so it has definitely cushioned the blow. However, I got to this point where I would literally dread the hour and fifty minutes devoted to 3rd grade literacy after lunch time.

The solution? Literacy Centers.

Those of you who are wise and fabulous are going to tell me that you already knew how amazing literacy centers could be and that the following information is way too basic, but for those of us who are young and new and could use a push in the right direction, here are some simple guidelines for success:

1) Read with EVERY child. Some literacy center models have the teachers work with only the lower groups (or spend more time with them). I split my time into 3 twenty minute sessions. I see every student every day for "Read with the Teacher" time. It gives the students a chance for individual attention and instruction catered to their level. I have students who never participate during whole group instruction who are the shining stars of their small groups.

2) Group students wisely. I know there are a lot of philosophies about grouping students. What has worked for me has been a combination of grouping based on skill level and personality. This takes a good understanding of each of your individual students but it is worth taking the time to figure out. Students who work well together are more productive when asked to accomplish independent and small group tasks.

3) Always have a Creation Station. One of the literacy centers should be an extension of the story which asks the students to push the boundaries and create something new. The story from this week, for example, was a folktale from China. The students were asked to do internet research and create a map of China and research facts and the language in order to create their own presentation about the country and culture. During the mythology unit we read the story of "Arachne the Weaver" and the students learned how to weave with yarn and handmade "looms". These creations apply a real life aspect to stories that the students might not otherwise connect with.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Changing the Grade

Yesterday, my dear friend, Grammatically Delicious Designs in North Dakota wrote the post, "I Hate Grades." I had so much to say about this, that I decided to respond via post. So GDD this one's for you!

Grades (of the A, B, C variety) have long been these arbitrary letters assigned to a student based on their ability to match a certain set criteria, some of which the students have never actually been presented with. The deficiency lies in the fact that these grades do not assess students on the most important factors: effort, progress, and comprehension.

There are several things to consider when discussing how grade implementation should change. I'm going to talk from the point of view where we will not be able to eliminate them any time soon and instead, focus on creating meaning for grades.

One of the biggest problems is that the students (and parents) don't understand the grades, their purpose, and how they effect them. Grades have never been explained in a way that they can really put any value to. In my classroom, however, we use grades as a way of measuring progress in the subjects in which it is easy to do that. Math, for example, is fairly cut and dry (and even still, my students are given points for demonstrating comprehension of the process even when the answer is incorrect). When students receive grades, they chart them on a simple bar graph. We talk (several times over the course of the year) about what it means to show progress. This becomes very important in determining a final grade for them.

I also have the luxury of working with the WIDA standards which are the guidelines for assessing bilingual students in the state of Illinois. Those standards specifically state that I am allowed to measure students based on what can be expected of their own personal ability. That means I am not measuring a student against their classmates or against the state's version of the perfect 4th grader. Instead, I am monitoring progress and effort and making decisions as I see fit. I can refer back to the standards at any point if someone were to contend my grades and I would be willing to bet that other teachers in other states could use their own standards to back up their grading system as well.

Finally, I use goal setting as a major tool in instruction/assessment. Not only does it give students something to aim for, but it makes it clear to them whether or not they are progressing. This takes a bit of work and time to conference with each individual student. However, the results are the my students understand what is expected of them and what they need to achieve for themselves (not compared to everyone else).

Monday, March 23, 2009

Keep Trying

"Sometimes the beauty is in the attempt."

We have all tried something and failed. When I say "tried" in this instance, I mean put everything we had, our entire hearts and souls, into something that we cared about. This happens in the classroom and probably even more often in life, but the message holds true for both: Sometimes the beauty is in the attempt.

When I went away to college, I went to a small private school in a big city. It was probably the most emotionally heart wrenching year of my life. Thinking about the way that I survived that year actually makes me feel grateful for the trials of late, because I'd never wish to be back in that place again. Regardless, when I really think about it, I learned more about myself and my strengths that year than I ever had before. I even made positive experiences for myself that I look back on and smile. I challenged myself in ways that I never had before, and when it came to the end of the year I had the courage to know that it was time to walk away.

As far as being able to stick it out and stay at that school, I failed. But I learned about myself, had some memories that I will always cherish, and ended up in a better place because of it.

Sometimes we are so hard on ourselves when we fail ourselves or our students. But failing always yields something. Take comfort in the fact that, when you've truly given your all and it doesn't work out, it's not your fault. If you choose to accept failure and learn from it, the attempt can be more powerful than it's outcome.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tiempo Libre

As a teacher, there is no end of work to be done. You could take work home every evening and weekend for the rest of your career and still find things that to be planned and graded, better ways of presenting what you already have, and new information that needs to be incorporated. So, in the small amount of free time that you have, there are only two reasons to pick your extra curricular activities based on:

1) Am I passionate about it?
2) Will it encourage personal growth?

Being a teacher can be very draining. At the end of the day, there is very little time to replenish your energy. Unfortunately, you still have to live life. What I would encourage, is picking activities in your life that will be a boon. Most of the time, those activities do require energy, but they are also rejuvenating.

A while back I chose to join a Spanish Language Meetup. It is a group of people of varying ages, ethnic backgrounds, and social status who get together once a month to speak in Spanish over dinner. Last night, on a Friday night after a full week of school, I was exhausted. What I know, however, is that this meetup incorporates many of the things that I am passionate about including, communicating, meeting new people, the Spanish language, and experiencing culture. I went despite my yearning for a quiet night of television, and it was such a blessing. My conversational Spanish is getting so much better. I talked to several native speakers during the evening and even joined a couple of them at a bar for pool afterwards. Talking and laughing in Spanish was the most natural thing in the world to me. In remembering how hard I worked to get to this skill level (for the sake of my students and their parents) it is something that I am very proud of.

If you're feeling argumentative today, you may say "No teach, sometimes you have to do things that you don't want to do and it is just a waste of time and energy." I will argue back and say that I don't really believe that. For example, if you don't want to go to your mother-in-law's house for Sunday brunch but you do anyway, it is because you are passionate about family. If you don't want to go to the grocery store but do anyway, it is because you value life. If you don't want to go to the gym, but do anyway, it is because health is important to you.

If you find yourself doing something and really wondering what the point is, cut it out, it's not making you a better person. If you find yourself missing something that made your life better, or that could, get it back. There are two reasons to use that precious little extra time we have in the day: because you are doing something you are passionate about, or because it is encouraging personal growth (and very often, it is doing both).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Call It A Game

I have had some requests in the past for advice about unmotivated students. I will tell you truthfully, I have very few pointers on the matter. I have encountered more than one student whose self worth has been beaten down by their environment, their parents, even other teachers. These are the students who really believe that they'll never amount to anything so it is not even worth trying. In order to reach those students, first and foremost, I try to make all of my learning relevant to them and their lives. If they can see a real world purpose, I've often succeeded in motivating them to learn it.

Sometimes though, you just have to lie. Did I say that? I meant...stretch the truth. ;) I have conned my students into learning a million times by doing something so very simple: Calling it a game!

Students who have not succeeded in school because they simply don't care need an extra push. The second you put them on the spot and give them a team that is relying on them, their attitude changes.

Now, I didn't tell you to let them play games all day (because I'm pretty sure that would at least make you their favorite teacher, but might not be the motivational tool you're looking for). Instead, make them learn and call it a game. As always, I'll provide examples!

1) Vocabulary Silent Ball: The students were very tired of standardized testing the other day but they really needed to review their vocabulary for the next day's test. Instead of "studying" I let them all sit on top of their desks and throw a ball around. The second I called "Stop" the person holding the ball had to define a word. If the couldn't, they had to sit back in their seats and play continued until the last person on their desk became the "winner". They practiced vocabulary intently for 25 minutes in this way.
2) Animal Adjectives: My third graders are learning about adjectives but they hate anything that looks like I might make them write. Today, I gave them each a secret card with a picture of an animal on it. They had to write ten sentences describing the animals which they would present to the class. The student who could guess the animal first (without seeing the card) using the clue won a sticker. (And guess what? They all wrote complete sentences using adjectives and did their best jobs because they had to read them in front of an audience.)
3) Group Math Quiz: I asked my students to complete a word problem worksheet on Valentine's Day. Instead of having them work quietly at their desks, I let them work in groups. Usually this leads to some students working and some students sitting there doing nothing. To solve this, I made it a competition, each child would be graded by an opposing team member so each was responsible for having the correct answers thereby forcing each group member to participate in the process.
4) Show me your work: Every day in math class, the students learn a concept and practice several examples of the same concept. If I can tell they are getting tired of the repetition, I will give them individual dry erase boards. They have to solve their problems on their own and then when I yell "show me your work!" they hold the boards up. I split the class in half and award each of the two teams points based on how many people in their group answered the problem correctly.

Every one of these games sounds pretty boring to me. The kids are just doing the same work that they always would only there are points involved. Let me tell you though, they come to class begging for the "games" and they sure do learn a lot.

Monday, February 16, 2009


There's only two types of people in the world
The one's the entertain and the ones that observe
Well, I'm a put-on-a-show kind of girl
-Britney Spears

I'm pretty sure quoting Britney Spears actually takes me back a few cool points, but I heard these first few line of the song this morning and it completely reminded me of the way that I run my classroom.

Listening (and hearing) occurs in only a few ways. People listen most closely to things that they actually want to hear. If you are giving your students information that they don't want to hear, you have to present it in a way that they want to hear it.

Even if you are not a gregarious and outgoing person by nature, you need to find ways of engaging your students. There are always visual presentations and media that can be incorporated, but I find that creating a bright and vibrant presence is always most effective. When you are running classroom, you are running a circus. There are different acts and you are most definitely the ringleader.

I wrote a while back about how I wanted the students to remember to incorporate details in their expository writing. I stood up in front of the class and acted out all of their detailed instructions on how to make a PBJ sandwich exactly as they said them and looked ridiculous as I tried to balance a million different fake utensils and ingredients (because they never told me to put anything down). It was hilarious and silly but every single time they show me their work and I ask them about the peanut butter and jelly my students know to go back and add details!

I probably could have entitled this post "visual learners" and omitted the Britney altogether, but you get the idea.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

No More Hand Holding

I find that the hardest lesson I've learned in my first few years of teaching is how to let the baby birds fly solo. As a teacher, we are so invested in having our students succeed, that it can be scary to let them try things on their own (because they might fail!).

The one place where I am beginning to feel more successful in this area is with the creation of literacy centers. Independent stations where students are responsible for their own rotation and completion of tasks (which they will be assessed on) gives them not only a sense of ownership, but a chance to really demonstrate their individual skills. As with the implementation of anything successful, there are helpful guidelines.

1) Set up and practice the system early. Do not wait until halfway through the year to start the centers. Students need to get into routine and expectations as early as possible. You could even practice 5 second/10 second transitions during the first day of school introductory activities.
2) Integrate information. If the literacy centers tie in to other subject matters, students will become proficient at making connections and understand the greater importance of what they are learning.
3) Get passively involved. One of the literacy centers that I often use is called "Read with the teacher." The students will see you as a part of their regular literacy time but they will still remain responsible for the work. They are required to read aloud to the teacher and generate questions that they think the teacher might use if she were to test them on the material.
4) Use interactive listening centers. When I first started using listening centers I noticed that the students were sitting passively and not attending to the information they were hearing. I think that listening centers are important for building fluency but the students need something to stimulate thinking. Now, I copy the portion of the text that they are listening to and write numbers on each page. The numbers correlate to a question that they must pause the tape and answer. This keeps them engaged and gives them a purpose for reading.
5) Culture and crafts stations! While I understand that these centers can be harder to justify educationally if they are not well executed, they can be the most meaningful learning tools out of all of them. Examples of this are: a) We read the story of Arachne and the Weaver and the students learned how to weave using "looms" and yarn. b) We read a story that took place in Vietnam and the students had to follow a recipe to create a traditional dish and use chopsticks (learned from an instructional guide) to consume it.

If you are having trouble letting go and giving students the chance to pave their own way, this solution works well and can be modified to fit any subject. The beauty of it is that students will figure things out for themselves because they'll have can't be at every station at once! ;)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Know Your Limits

It is very natural to get in over your head. As I learned as a first year teacher, there is no shortage of activities, clubs, and events to get involved in. If you are not careful, being involved quickly becomes too much. I am probably the worst offender of all when it comes to this idea: Know Your Limitations. In fact, I just recently received these words in an e-mail from my best friend in Minnesota:

I know that you tend to take on everyone else's problems in addition to your own. Be sure that you do the things that you enjoy and take sometime to be selfish and take care of yourself first.

Now, you all know how I feel about being selfish. However, I do believe that limits are necessary in order to be the most effective part of whatever you do. In short, if you spread yourself too thin, you end up doing every halfway. If you understand your limits, you can devote everything you've got to each of the things you have carefully selected to do.

1. Know when to say no. It is important to be a vital part of your work team and school environment, but you can't do it all. People will just have to understand that your job isn't your entire life/identity.
2. Ask for help. Surround yourself with good people who understand your tendency to take on too much and let them take care of you/ease some of the burden.
3. Decide what is important (prioritize). Recognize that if you decide to make your job the only thing that matters, that is all you'll have. Choose the most important things in your life to attend to.
4. Diversify your interests. Make sure that you set aside time to do not just what you know is important, but what you truly enjoy doing. Giving yourself lots of different options will make you more well rounded and ready to take on everything that you do.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Be Human

I went to the doctor last night for an issue that has been a part of my entire life. I am fine, but it is something that will continue to frustrate and eventually negatively affect me if I can not find a way to prevent it. Needless to say, it has been a long and difficult process.

In any case, my first impression of the doctor was that he was fairly cold and distant. Because I am familiar with the whole process, I am also able to distance myself and speak with medical clarity. However, at one point, my defenses broke and I showed how emotional the whole process has been for me. In that second, everything about his demeanor changed. He put his hand on my elbow and stated simply and affectionately:

"Everyone has their 'thing' that they have to deal with. You have been blessed in many other ways, but this is just your 'thing'."

He revealed to me his human side, the side responsible for feeling and compassion, and was clearly a better doctor for it. That is the side that it is imperative to reveal sometimes, even in the professional setting, in order to build trust.

In the classroom, for example, students can see right through a teacher who is too "perfect". I talk all the time about the things that I struggle with. They need to know that they are not alone, that math was hard for me too when I was growing up. They need to know that some things are funny, and that normal people who are amused usually laugh (and when it is appropriate to do so). They need to know that I have had struggles and successes and that, if they wanted to, they could grow up to be the kind of person I am and have the kind of things that I have. I'm not special, my life is attainable, and because I care about them, I'm accessible.

My favorite thing that I tell my students is, "My Spanish isn't perfect and your English isn't perfect. That just means we'll have to learn together."

There should always be limits, but sometimes I even act just like my students. Today we were reading a story that mixes up all of the old fairy tales and nursery rhymes. It was in the form of a play and was very silly. At one point, Little Miss Muffet ends up with the handsome prince instead of being scared by the spider as per usual. My 4th grade student who was playing The Prince was supposed to read the line (to Miss Muffet), "Would you like to go back to my palace?" Of course, being a bilingual student (while simultaneously using his most impressive swagger) he instead boldly questioned, "Would you like to go back to my place?" I was laughing so hard I couldn't catch my breath to read my next narration line. And the kids were right there with me. They would look at me and laugh even harder. It was hilarious.

Eventually I got back control of myself and my students. It wasn't a perfect teaching moment, but it sure was fun for a second there to break character and get to be the real version of myself. The one thing that I've learned about all of it is, if you can't be yourself (be human) in front of your students, they'll never understand you and respect you for the super human they believe you to be.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Teach to YOUR Students

As a student teacher a couple of years back, I was a dynamo at producing lesson plans. Unfortunately, my university prepared me so well to make lesson plans with exactly the right components, that I didn't know how not to follow them to the letter. If I didn't hit every single aspect, I wasn't doing it right so the lesson was going to be deficient, right?

Well, let me tell you: My cooperating teacher always used to say, "A teacher's middle name has to be flexibility." If you are not, odds are, you will end up failing your students, because you are too busy being perfect to pay attention.

I recognized the contrast yesterday morning. I had been out of math the day before and the students had taken their test with the sub. I came into school and got out all of the information for the next lesson and even made up a little sheet that would help them organize their work in the multi-step fraction problems we were embarking on. In short, I was prepared!

When my students walked in, however, they looked bedraggled. The test had been too hard for them and they weren't ready. In a full hour the day before some of them hadn't even finished. In that moment I simply scrapped the entire thing. Something that has taken me a long time to learn is simply this; There is always Monday. That lesson isn't going anywhere, but for now, my students needed some support. We spent the first half of class retracing our steps, doing example problems together and getting them back into the routine. When I could tell they were getting confident I gave ALL of the students their tests back (even those who had finished) and they spent the rest of the time finishing or reworking problems so that they could be confident in that final product.

When you look around, and see a classroom full of blank or (worse) frustrated faces, it is not time to move on and get them in over their heads. Assess the climate of your classroom, and teach YOUR students. It doesn't matter if the rest of the classes are already starting geometry, it doesn't matter if you had a schedule to follow, if they are not getting it there is no point. Your job is to teach them, not to be the best ever schedule follower.

Here is my advice:
1) Look around the room and ask questions often. If your face is lost in the pages of a lesson plan, you are not seeing what is actually going on.
2) If you are experienced enough, scrap the lesson plan altogether. You might need a little outline to help you remember, and I understand that, but there are some occasions where it is perfectly ok to start teaching and paying attention and finding out where the students want to take you. If they are engaged, their questions and ideas will start to form the lesson for you.
3) Be flexible. Don't rush to get in information as if you are on a deadline. How will it help your students to have a partial understanding on a lot of different things. Let them really grasp a concept and feel good about it, so that they're excited about the next thing they learn, not discouraged.
4) Have a great attitude. When I come into my class and tease my students about how we are going to learn something REALLY hard but I know they are all super awesome brilliant students who are going to prove to me that it is actually really easy, they take it as a challenge. Their eyes are bright and they are ready to learn. There is nothing wrong with being silly or making it fun.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Writing Time

Sometimes a teacher just needs practical solutions to solve a problem. Answers that are direct and easy to implement are always a bonus.

As I talked to a friend and colleague today, I learned that some of the things that I have implemented this year (and changed from how I did them last year) fall into that category. My friend was looking for help turning her students into successful independent writers. Some of the things that I shared with her seemed simple enough, but they were definitely learned and not inherent processes.

1) Independent writing means just that...independent. Students will never get better if you hold their hands every second. Give them time to write alone every day and don't worry about reading everything they produce. Practice is practice.
2) Develop mini-lessons. During a 45 minute writing lesson, the teacher should speak no longer than 15 minutes. That is enough time to introduce one skill and model it/read an example of it. After that time, students will stop listening. So stop talking and let them start writing!
3) Give students daily writing feedback. Find a way to conference with students and edit together with them so you can model what that self checking process looks like. During this time I suggest that you choose a stationary location and let students come to you. You will actually have time to see more students that way.
4) Pick a core group of students to to sit near you. You have already identified the students who have the ability to work independently without causing trouble and needing one-on-one assistance. Those students can stay at their desks during writing time. The teacher station should consist of a table that fits at least 5 students comfortably. The students who need to be monitored should sit there for easy access to both discipline and guidance. The seat next to the teacher should be left open and the independent workers can rotate in for their individual conferences. This way, you are able to check the progress and comprehension of each student almost every day.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Professional Development

If you are dedicated to your art, you will learn to push yourself.

On the advice of a friend, I joined a Spanish Language Meet-up ( and went to one of their events for the first time last night. Now first, I will say that I had an excellent time at my first meet-up and could see how they could become addicting. However, if you try this and have a terrible experience, I strongly suggest you put yourself out there again with a different group. It could make all of the difference.

Second, I think that the success of your meet-up is largely based on attitude. I came into the meet-up with no expectations at all. My goal was to meet new people while practicing the language I love. I found a group where, you may go and speak as little or as much Spanish as you'd like. That's where dedication comes in. If I wasn't going to be committed, what was the point? Throughout the night I met some pretty interesting people (and definitely not people that I would choose to associate with if I was picking out of a line-up) and was complimented several times for my Spanish skills. Whether or not my Spanish was legitimately amazing, I was so proud of myself for sticking with it and getting the most out of the experience.

By the end of the night, and probably due to my teaching nature, I was actually translating for others! In fact, our native Spanish speaking waiter and I became quick friends and I learned much of his life story as well. I was excited to learn that he was so impressed to see a group of people who were working hard to better themselves in some apparent way.

Truthfully, I have a lot of respect for that as well. So, as a call to action, I suggest that the teachers out there who have gotten "comfortable" where they're at, break out of the mold. You might find that you enjoy it...and you will definitely learn from it.