Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Hierarchy of Lesson Plans

Lesson Plans

Ugh. Just typing those words make me cringe. I have written before about my distaste for lesson plans...but it's getting worse as the years go by.

This weekend I made a choice. I got a new student last week right before Thanksgiving break. He comes from Guatemala and doesn't speak a word of English. I have one day this weekend that isn't full of family-holiday-filled-fun. That would be today. In this time I am supposed to create all of the very specific materials that will be necessary in teaching my new child English while continuing the education and progress of my much more English-proficient students (aka the rest of them). For the first time in my life, I chucked the lesson plans and have spent the day getting materials ready. Let me tell you, I've never felt more prepared.

The lesson plans still have to get done because, in my district, we are required to turn them in at the end of the year (gross, right?) And that's where the burn-out comes in. I'll figure out how to combat that another day. For now, I choose classroom readiness ANY DAY.

Odds are, if you're a good teacher you will be following state standards in any lesson that you teach. If a teacher actually needs to waste (er...spend?) their time writing out step-by-step processes for each and every part of the day, then teaching does not come naturally to them and may not even be the best choice of career for them. All I know is that lesson plans make me feel like a robot, and I'm one of the most organized, planner-type, structure-loving people I know.

My personal hierarchy when it comes to the most important things in preparing for teaching:

1. materials and resources for the students
2. writing about teaching and receiving feedback for professional growth
3. Formal Lesson Plans *shudder*

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Choices That We Make...

"The choices that you make affect you!"

This phrase can be heard coming out of my mouth in my classroom more than once a day every day. It is usually in response to a gripe about negative consequences. It can also be my answer to a student who complains that a friend no longer likes them or that someone send something mean back to them. Something that my children are severely confused about is the fact that the things they do and choices they make affect others and therefore will come back to directly affect them.

Something that I'd like to focus on in the coming weeks is "The choices we make affect us, EVEN and especially the GOOD choices."

I wrote a while back that I have taken on the task of learning Italian. It was a choice that I made based on a series of choices I made before it (such as the choice to stay in a relationship with someone who is in the Navy and stationed in Italy for three whole years). Yesterday I fired up the Rosetta Stone and got to work after a two month hiatus. As I struggled through grammar points and new vocabulary I started to formulate connections between what I know of French and Spanish. Even with those connections, learning a language it hard and there were several times when I would have rather just turned off the computer and fired up the television (it is Thanksgiving break after all)! Instead I made another choice: to stick with it.

I was confronted with a few important points during my language learning adventure. First, the choice that I made to learn languages in middle school and high school shaped the direction that my life took in college and beyond. Then, the choice to continue to learn about languages and cultures has made me a more valuable commodity in our society, especially in regards to the job market. Finally, the choice to learn languages beyond the comfortable and safe language that helps me survive in our country every day, teaches me a tiny little bit of the frustration that my students feel on a daily basis when they arrive in this country and subsequently my classroom. Having that understanding makes me decidedly better at what I do.

A New Direction

It's possible that some of my teacher friends will be turned off by my writing taking a slightly different direction (or at least adding to my current direction), but I've started to realize that most of my passion for teaching comes from a greater passion for human rights, languages, and immigration. I think part of what truly connects me with my bilingual students and their parents is a certain level of empathy for being thrown into an entirely new and scary situation and not just surviving, but finding ways to thrive.

So as to not scare or offend, I will not be writing about immigration issues that involve who should be allowed into what country. I frankly don't have enough political knowledge (though I am always eager to learn more!) to speak from a place of great confidence. What I do know is that the immigrant families I work with every day work hard, put their children/families first, and deserve every opportunity that our monolingual students receive. I'm blessed and honored to see the world from their perspective and I learn something new from their struggles and successes every day!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Some days you are lucky enough not even to have words to express the pride you feel in being a teacher and everything that entails. Today was one of those days.

I lobbied pretty hard this year to get my bilingual students integrated with a monolingual class this year. Luckily one of the teachers on my team who is far more wise and experienced than I amazingly and graciously opened her arms to our classroom and has been collaborating with me to make these kids feel included ever since.

We chose the subject area of social studies because we felt that it would leave lots of opportunities for collaborative projects and give the students with more background knowledge a chance to impart what they know. For the past month my children have been joining with their buddies to research and create a PowerPoint based on one of the original thirteen colonies. Throughout these meetings I have had the brief opportunity here and there to look around and see just how amazingly accepting this particular group of fifth graders have really been. Everywhere you looked you could find small people huddled together over a book or computer asking and sharing and TRULY working together.

Today was the culminating activity where my fantastic co-teacher popped popcorn, I brought the 100% juice, and our kids sat back to watch the final presentations. It takes all of my students (and all students in general) a certain amount of courage to stand up in front of a room of 40 people. But when I lost it (and I mean really lost it with tears and everything) was after my newcomer stood up after having lived only 3 months in the United States and delivered a presentation IN English under the encouragement of his partner. We clapped for the group but then I called out my students name and the students clapped again wildly while cheering their support at the amazingly brave accomplishment. Another of my students followed a few presentations later. He was new at the end of last year and has been in the United States for only 8 months. Even more, he spent his entire young life in an abusive family situation and has spent months in my class learning basic appropriate responses and classroom behavior. He stood up in front of everyone, struggled through every single word in English, and did not give up or get defeated once. My entire class stood up after his presentation in support of the difficulty that we had all just watched him face.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Have You Filled A Bucket Today?

I'm not sure how I manage to be the only teacher I know whose teaching experience gets MORE stressful year after year, but it may have something to do with never having had the same job description twice.

That said, it may also have something to do with the insane behavior problems that my current group of miscreants display on a regular basis. This week I received an e-mail from my assistant principal asking to meet after school about some of the "disturbing interactions" that have been occurring between my 5th graders and the 2nd graders during recess.

I will not defend my children this year (though why they are placed in the same place at the same time and given the opportunity to influence 2nd graders, I'll never understand). As a whole, they can act mean to the point of malicious, snotty, and spoiled. Every day is an exercise in trying out parenting the way that I hope to do it someday. It is about character development around the clock in our classroom and it is and uphill battle.

So, I'm not going to defend my students...but I do feel like they are in a crap situation. Because of our bilingual reading schedule my 5th graders eat lunch with 2nd and 4th graders. Their classroom is in the 3rd grade hallway. There is not a single second of the day when they are not the oldest students around (and therefor responsible for being a positive influence ALL the time.) Our classroom motto this year: "Be the example."

My students have demonstrated to me time and time again that that is a task that is far to daunting for them. So, thanks to a great suggestion from one of our 1st grade teachers, I decided to break it down for them. Every week we have a classroom C.A.R.E. meeting. I always open it up as a time for students to share their concerns and celebrate their successes. This week, however, after the amount of time I wasted meeting about their behavior and worrying about it int he evenings while they were happily oblivious at home with their families, I decided it was my turn to talk and let them know exactly how things are going to be from now on.

I read the book "Have You Filled A Bucket Today?" to my students. It is a VERY primary book about how each person carries an invisible bucket that is filled by positive comments and good feelings and emptied when someone tears you down and tries to take away your self esteem. It is a VERY good book, but I purposefully made my students feel less-than-cool about the fact that I had to read it to them because they've basically been acting like kindergartners and I was making a point by bringing things down to their level.

I then went about stripping them of their current behavior plan. Rewards in my class will no longer be earned by how smart you are or how much you try academically or how quiet you are in the halls. The only thing that matters is the kind of person you are and how you make other people feel. So I told my children that THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR FILLING THE BUCKET. The choice is theirs. If I hear that they are building people up at recess and being generally good citizens, it will make me feel happy and proud...and we'll put some marbles in the bucket. If they go the extra mile and help teach someone else, translate for a newcomer, or share something...I'll notice and the bucket will get fuller. When they've filled the entire bucket, only then will they have something to celebrate.

But the book warns about "bucket dippers" as well. Those are the people who try to tear someone else down to make themselves feel better. Their buckets are empty and so too with our classroom bucket be. It's time for my students to step up and take responsibility for their actions. There are two signs up on the walls, one as the students enter the classroom each day and the other sitting above the bucket. They say simply "Have you filled a bucket today?"

We'll see how this goes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Future is NOW

I think a lot about the future. I wonder about and hope for the things that will happen, the things that I haven't yet done or acquired, the direction I really want my life to go in. I think lately that train of though has actually been interfering with the way in which I live out the present, the here and now.

I've talked a lot about how teachers aren't really allowed the luxury of having bad days because we are standing up there in front of those kids day after day. But that's not really true. We DO have bad days. There are times when we walk into that classroom halfheartedly and don't give it our very best effort. It's nobody's fault and I'm not saying it's wrong. We're people and we have emotions and that's just life.

I think the problem comes when we start to look so far into the future that we're not giving our attention to what happens in front of our faces every day as we wait for the future to arrive. There is an entire group of little people for whom you have a very finite amount of time to positively affect. You get one year, that's it. Not even a full year...what? 9 1/2 months? That's almost scary to think about because there is SO much that I want to offer these kids both academically and emotionally. But if I am wasting some of that time brooding and hoping and basically keeping my head so far out of the game that I'm not helping anyone, I have only myself to blame.

My job is to be a teacher. I don't get a second chance next year. Why? Because all kids are not the same. You can't just swap them out and get a re-do. You mess us this time, that's a whole year that those students don't get back. Basically, the whole point of this post is re-commitment. I'm not quite sure what it will take, but I have a great belief that the future and my hopes for it will be realized. It's what I do in the meantime that counts. I have an opportunity every day and I can't imagine anything more precious than that (different yes, but not better).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Uh Oh...I Think Your Personality is Showing

I have made mention several times (to friends and family) over the past 5 weeks that I believe I'm destined to only last two years in any given school district before I stop being polite and start getting real. (yes, I stole that line)

You see, on your first year in any new place you are worried about looking nice and friendly, being cooperative, and generally just giving everyone a reason for why they hired you. Especially as a new teacher you take on any project offered up and just really overextend yourself in the name of looking good. I have found that on the second year, everything that bugged you about the first years starts to slip out in dozens of tiny ways. You start to have a little bit more ownership of your classroom and your place within the school, you know people better and are therefor more careless in casual conversation, and sometimes you are just plain tired of some of the rules and procedures that you just can't determine who they're benefiting.

Even I realize that this is starting to make me sound like a nonconformist jerk. Who knows, maybe I am. Truthfully though, I don't dislike my school or my district. In fact, I have nothing but respectful things to say when it comes to trying to make you feel included and supported, and the resources going directly to benefit the children EVERY time just blows my socks off. There is a lot that other districts (waves at my old friends) can learn from this one. So rest assured that this is not all doom and gloom.

But to be a realistic teacher is to know that any system could use improvements and that motivation should constantly be reevaluated. Just as teachers need workshops and inservice days to continually learn and grow, our intentions must grown and change to meet the needs of our students. Because I can't tell you how many times I would have loved to scrap a high-energy, material-rich, content infused lesson for a day of coloring pictures for your grandmother (because that would be SO much easier, and I was tired!)

So, coming back to my point, I've started to say things. And you know, they always come out in the worst possible way when you've been holding them in for far too long.

I guess what I've realized and what I need to work to become a part of, is that no matter where you are and what district you're in, new teachers have valuable insight and so much to offer. That's why they were hired in such a competitive market. So what I would ask for is an environment where teachers felt comfortable sharing in a professional way from the beginning. For me at least, it might have alleviated 4 years of foot-in-mouth moments when I didn't feel like I could or should stir the waters until it was too late and too frustrating to not have ineloquent frustrations explode from my lips.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"We're Going to the Institute."

Institute Day was on Monday. The powers-at-be decided to go the route of "entertain" instead of "bore and annoy." For this I was grateful. They hired a comedian who can be seen on a local news show in our area. She was not only funny, but poignant. She talked about laughter as the best medicine, learning to laugh at yourself, and killing them with kindness. As someone who was way-too-stressed about starting a new school year for reasons-still-to-be-determined, they were lessons that I heartily needed.

Many bad things happened on our institute day. According to the comedian, how could they not, we call it an "INSTITUTE day." She made an unflattering voice meant to indicate that there was something wrong with us (probably not too far off) and said, "Bye honey! I going off to the INSTITUTE." A fair point.

Some good things happened on the institute day too, but they were all done by my own will and hard work, and only to counteract all of the bad that kept creeping up. In fact, I took a page from the comedian's book and spent the afternoon proactively killing them with kindness.

I came to school knowing that I was unprepared and that my heart wasn't in it this year. I also came to school with my game face on and I don't think anyone around me pays close enough attention to think that I was anything other than positive about the impending doom (I I can't pinpoint for you why I'm not ready to be Suzy-Sunshine this year. I had a whole summer to figure it out and I'm still sitting her stewing about how I'd rather that things turn out and where I'd rather be. But enough of the that.

The point is that I walked into school and disaster after disaster started to strike. Heck, things that could have been prevented if anyone was LISTENING at the end of last year were all of a sudden major issues again. Instead of just sitting in my room and crying, I kept walking out and communicating with people. Even the people who shut me down got some extra visits and some positive problem solving. It was the biggest success of the day that something in me motivated me to keep walking into coworkers room and trying to rectify situations.

The one thing that I kept saying in order to present a positive front was the word "get" instead of the word "have." I asked when I GET to start my reading groups and when we GET to see our revised student lists and whether I would GET to teach my student again who was supposed to be moving at the end of last year. The difference? "When do I HAVE to start up my reading groups? When do I HAVE to look at that awful list full of extra students I didn't plan for? When do I HAVE to find out that I'm teaching that kid again instead of sending him packing and knowing that my workload will be one person lighter?" Even if you're faking it (and I seriously do ADORE that student that came back to me) you start to sound better, and then I think you start to feel better. It's a crazy thing but our mind is very malleable that way.

I guess it comes down to attitude. The bad things that seem to continuously throw us off our game? They're gonna happen! It's how you choose to deal with them that sets the pace for how your year is going to shape up to be.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tenure...dun dun duhhhh

When thinking about going back to school, I have a horrible time NOT making negative predictions about how things might go. Obviously some of my projections for the future are rooted in past experience, i.e. how it always goes. But some of the crazy stuff that my mind concocts both in dreams and waking hours is just pure nerve-inspired BS.

Or is it?

I was having the dreaded "tenure" conversation with a friend/coworker the other day. The teachers I know personally are all in various stages of the tenure game. Some have been tenured forever and have started to take liberties whenever it moves them. Another of my friends is spending her first year in tenure after successfully completing her first day of the new school year. Another is halfway there. And then there's me. Starting at the bottom. Again.

I tend to be kind of nonchalant about the fact that the illusive concept of tenure won't be gracing my doorstep anytime soon. I mean if I do my job and work hard, what will it matter if I'm not tenured? Right?


That's just it, the very reason the conversation of tenure is dreaded. The truth is, the climate amongst your peers and administration can be almost suffocating when you are a non-tenured teacher. (I always assumed that some of the tension might ease up once you're not being observed so constantly and your job is not in continual peril, but maybe those of you teachers who are tenured can correct me.) You walk around feeling genuine feelings and carrying genuine opinions and you are TOLD on a consistent basis to shut you mouth, smile pretty, and fly under the radar. And it happens all of the time.

But oh my gosh who is holding the radar gun and why is it so low to the ground that it is almost impossible to fly under?!?! The idea that teachers would be hired to be professionals, the experts in their field, and then told to keep their mouths closed for 4 years (while their great fresh-from-college techniques fly straight out the window and their naive love/excitement for the children slowly burns out) is just insane to me!

Going back to my intro, part of my delusional fear for the upcoming year has to do with that eerie feeling of being watched and judged rather than admired and congratulated. Now I'm not saying I want a parade for every success (ok I secretly do, but I don't expect them or anything). I just want to feel like I can do something unique without peoples' hearts palpitating with worry about innovative/independent ideas that many seem so threatened by. I want to feel like I can fail with an authority figure IN THE ROOM and they'll write it off to a bad day because everyone has them. I know and am fulling accepting of the fact that someone needs to keep me accountable because what I do is vitally important. But after knowing me, watching me, understanding that I live out that comprehension through word and deed, it shouldn't be something that I'm afraid is constantly in question.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Light the Fire

In the summer everything is just one long, "I can do it tomorrow, right?" Well friends, my school is starting a week early this year to match out schedule more closely to local colleges (don't ask me why) which cuts our summer down week.

In the grand scheme of things, this won' t matter. To a girl who is realizing that she was going to map out ALL of the 5th grade curriculum PLUS learn and create dynamic lessons (many of which must include technology) for an entirely new social studied curriculum, I could use every last day. (Apparently I'm starting to feel the pressure because there were a lot of capital words in that rather long last sentence.)

I suppose the last sentence isn't even really fair because, well, I haven't been using my days well at all. I actually started the summer strong (leftover momentum from the school year?) creating the outline and table for the year-long picture of how things would ideally shake out for us this year. But now, a month and a half in, there it sits: a simple shell asking to have it's colorful squares filled in with more specific details. And the manuals I brought home to learn the new curriculum so I could actually know something AHEAD of the students this year (instead of learning it with them like I often do), ummm...I believe those actually got rained on at one point when the window was open.

I suppose this isn't actually a very inspired post but, GOOD NEWS #1: I'm writing, which is always a good sign of motivation and GOOD NEWS #2: If you haven't gotten anything done this summer, you're not alone!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Learning Language

I am a huge proponent of putting yourself in your student's shoes on a semi-regular basis so that you can reach them at their level. I have been given just such an experience (on a much less urgent level) this summer.

My lovely and talented significant other serves as a Navy medic and has recently been stationed in Italy for the next three years. Now nobody can predict the future, least of all me (I tried that once...didn't work out), but I got to thinking that three years is a long time. And hey, you never know when you might find yourself in Italy. I made a promise to myself that, while I had some extra time this summer, I would go about the long and strenuous task of learning another language (Italian this time).

Learning a language "for fun" is very different from learning it for necessity (though one could argue that it might become necessary at some point). I know this because I was thrown into a living situation in Mexico after having only studied Spanish for 2 1/2 years at that point and forced to speak in order to survive. That was indeed the sink or swim method and I had the "luxury" of having at least SOME background in the language prior to being immersed in it.

But the way in which my learning Italian challenges me to think like my kids has less to do with survival (and the totally alienating feeling of being in a place where nobody understands you) and much more to do with the way in which language is learned. For me, everything that I've been doing has been an experiment in how language is learned best and how I can take that and translate it into what I do in the classroom with my own bilingual students (in fact, this would be pertinent for any teacher who teaches English, writing, or reading as well).

What I've found will be hard to replicate. The most perfect way of learning language involves repetition, pictures, building up from smaller concepts, and (as I always suspected) using knowledge from your first language. That's right! If people still want to have the same tired English-only argument, I'm in a position now to argue even harder for even longer.

It has always been that the newcomer students I have had who came to the country with a solid education in their native language have BLOWN ME AWAY by the amount of English that they learn in a year's time (with Spanish support, yeah that's right). It is when students have no/little foundation in language at all that the battle is truly uphill. In that case, you might as well through them in head first because they're starting at a pre-school level anyway (but even that is not true, because they still have verbal Spanish and have spent their lives exposed to Spanish text).

As committed as I am to the idea of bilingual education (and I better be, it's my job) I am learning that there are better ways to include the primary language in the classroom that actually stretch a student to use what they know to infer meaning. I'm glad that, even if I never see Italy, my commitment to language will never be in vain when it comes to what I can learn and apply for my students.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We're Learning Too

Sometimes something happens in life that is so big that you can never fully get back the person you were before it happened. In short, the event changes you. If the event is epic enough it can hit you like a tidal wave even from three or four degrees of separation (instead of the ripple you might feel after an event of a smaller magnitude.) It has been said that teachers have to be more flexible and adaptable than most. I don't know if that's true. On my worst days I can be downright rigid and unmovable in my demands (I know, *gasp*) It is probably more apt to say that GOOD teachers are adaptive and flexible when it counts.

Out of so much respect for someone near and dear to me, I won't divulge the epic catastrophe that lead to this post after such a lengthy summer slumber. I will however say that in teaching, just like in life, we are faced with obstacles. Some are insurmountable, whether it be because of an unyielding administrator, a student's home life that we can not control, or a need for resources beyond our grasp. Sometimes the challenge is great and we are so very small. In those times we are in dark days, persevering by rote if nothing else. It is in the days after when we wash back up on shore and are given a chance to rebuild that really count.

The question to ask yourself: What did I learn from it? (or) How can I change? (or) What will I take with me to make myself/the situation better (or the outcome different) in the future?

In short, all of those college professors who annoyed us with their continued demands for "self reflection" were not wrong. But that is only half of the component. Sometimes I am SO in my head about things after they occur and I get a million ideas about "woulda coulda shoulda." But then I sulk in my afterthough and call it a day. The impetous is the call to make a change. Because something inside of you has already changed. You realized that things were not good/right/fair/awesome and that if you had the chance, you would invoke a "do-over." Well friends, after you realize that, you gotta put your chips back on the table and DO OVER. Jump into life again with your new knowledge and wisdom and show everyone you actually learned something.

In summary: Process it however you like. Blog it, tweet it, text it, journal it, verbally rehash it, whatever. Just reflect AND THEN MAKE A CHANGE. Because if you don't learn from it, then all of the pain and heartache that you experienced in your moment of trial was for nothing. And some things are just too big to have occurred in vain.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Teachin' Teach

Teaching is teaching. That's what this summer has taught me above all else.

The dynamics between teaching adults and children are different for sure (have I mentioned that they actually LISTEN and do things the first time you tell them to?) but the major themes/concepts remain the same.

The volunteer program that we've been given to work with this summer is interesting. There are definitely aspects that I will steal to use with my own bilingual students (mostly newcomers) during the regular school year (most of which involve acting things out and having students interview each other to practice new sentence structures). There are other aspects, however, that just make me want to shake my head at the university professor who developed the program.

To summarize, so as not to belabor the unimportant, the first several lessons introduce vocabulary and verbs in the form of commands. The words and actions correspond with picture stories that will not actually be seen by my students until 10 lessons from now. That's right, all of the work and effort that we're putting into learning and teaching this information is completely without context. Now I don't know if anyone is tired of me and my soap box when it comes to this point, but here I go again: LEARNING TAKES PLACE WHEN DIRECTLY RELATED TO REAL-LIFE SITUATIONS THAT STUDENTS HAVE A VESTED INTEREST IN. In short, if something has no meaning, it will not be retained.

Something about teaching students who have very pressing real-life issues (like adults tend to) with jobs and children and finances (to say the least) who are willing to still take time out of their schedules to learn something new and difficult REALLY drives the point home. The words "star, coins, fish, gift, and book" do not mean a damn thing without meaningful context with which to use them.

This time, in order to in some way remedy the situation, I took the coins out and extended the lesson, having the students learn and practice the individual names of each coin and their respective denominations. Not only did the students enjoy practicing asking for and handing out money in English, but they talked about how it would make their interactions both personally and at retail establishments so much more comprehensible. And thank heavens, because that was the goal!

The problem comes along when I am inevitably given information the I can't think of how to logically connect to anything substantial. OR, when other volunteers who are extremely well-intentioned but have no teaching background do not think to improvise. I hate the idea of wasting peoples' time when everything in my training tells me that there's a better way to get things done. Crazy teacher mind.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How to Use Your Summer

A lot of teachers are addicted to the stress, the hustle and bustle of a full school year in motion. After a few weeks of summer, I think I'll guiltily raise my hand and join that group. Some of you are awesome at just chilling. Now I'm not judging those of you who can go through an entire season of "How I Met Your Mother" in a single summer day (in fact, I might join you) but I think that there are indeed ways to maximize your time in the summer and there are most definitely ways to continue the burnout (if that is what you so choose...or all you know and understand.)

Summer DO's

1. Me Time
This is exactly what it sounds like. I have taken time this summer to start these relaxing breathing exercises. I can actually feel myself calming down and hope to make it common practice during the school year as well. I have also been exercising a ton more. Teaching is such a service profession and we are always in the presence of others. I find that it's important (and very difficult for me to remember to do) to take some time out of caring for everyone else and care for myself!

2. To Do List
This is where all of those "How I Met Your Mother" DVDs come in. There is a whole long list of things that we don't do during the regular school year because of time constrictions. Now some of these things include cleaning and errands, but some of them are a lot more fun than that. Reconnecting with old friends, writing letters to family members who are far away, shopping for fun, outdoor cookouts and park days, reading for pleasure, taking short name it. This are things that we tend to neglect but are the kinds of things that can be really fulfilling and, better yet, rejuvenating.

Summer DON'Ts

1. Transference
Have you committed yourself to something ELSE besides teaching (or some other version of teaching) that takes JUST AS MUCH effort, time, and dedication as your regular school year? Burnout is a REAL thing and transferring your crazy work ethic to something else will not only make you even more exhausted, but it will actually make you less effective at the beginning of our next long school year ahead.

2. Full Speed Ahead
This is when you don't actually realize that you've been given a break at all. You spend your days writing lesson plans, creating/tweaking activities that didn't go well this year, and buying pretty things to enhance your classroom/students (and not yourself). We only get a couple of months. For this I suggest scheduling and moderation. Absolutely we should self reflect and continue to grow as professionals, but we can't continue to grow if we're driving ourselves into the ground. Teaching is a part of life, life is not teaching. (I know, I forget too.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Something New and Yet the Same

I am volunteering to teach adult ESL this summer. I believe I mentioned that before? In any case, Thursday was my first day. I had three students (two of my students accidentally went to the other beginners class) of the most insanely varying ability levels that I feel like I'm back in the classroom with some fancy twists.

First, you can't talk to adults like you talk to kids (though I do believe in talking UP to kids instead of down to them) without being patronizing and lacking dignity. When doing "get-to-know-you" activities, it is really hard not to be cheesy and ask questions like, "What is your favorite color?" Instead, you really have to remind yourself that these are big people with big people responsibilities/problems like children and jobs and that, unlike your day-to-day students, this class is not their biggest priority.

Second, teaching adults you have to really open your heart to the specifics of what they really want and need to learn. The biggest purpose is to improve the quality of life regardless of your planned lessons and agenda. Once again, this is a lesson that is not so unfamiliar to me in that students of all ages attend to what truly relates to their lives in useful and pertinent ways.

Third, I have begun to realize that some people have managed to get through life in a way that I couldn't even imagine. I met a woman who has 6 children, all living out of the country, has been working in the United States for 7 years, and does not know how to read or write in either her native language or English. Talk about differentiation! I have all levels of beginners, but never in my life have I taught a person (adult or child) with no literacy background what-so-ever.

And finally, adults actually do what you say...the first time. That means that no matter how well you think you've planned an hour and a half lesson, you don't have enough. Things that would take half a day with my children, adults complete, practice, and retain by sheer will power in a matter of minutes. I guess it just goes to show that you really can never OVER plan.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Dead Poet's Society

I watched the movie, "Dead Poet's Society" with my teacher friend who had never seen it before. That alone gave me fresh perspective but that, combined with summer and some distance from work-related situations, really helped me to internalize some of the most unique aspects of this particular film. If you haven't seen the film, I highly recommend it (and this post will mean very little to you without some background in it).

1. There always needs to be a scapegoat.

The film is an amazingly poignant portrayal of peoples' penchant for avoiding personal responsibility. After Neal takes his own life it is only the students who have the presence of mind to look towards the pressures of his parents and the school administration as motivating factors. It is those two groups of people, however, who are so busy deflecting and denying that they are willing to target an innocent man and the students he inspired.

In my personal experience as a teacher almost forced out of her old school district due to the fear and close-mindedness of a group of "professionals" I can attest to the mentality fostered in schools to not only cover your own ass but to deflect so that any possible blame is directed as far away from you as possible. This is a cynical view, yes, but a learned one nonetheless.

2. People are not always rewarded for stepping outside of the box.

The teacher in Dead Poet's Society (portrayed by Robin Williams) is dynamic, engaging, and ultra creative with his teaching methods. He does everything that research says is "best practice" including removing the students from the classroom and providing real world experiences. In the end, none of that mattered. Instead of touting his ingenuity, he questioned the status quo and was thrown out because of it.

3. You can't reach everyone.

At the end of film several of the students from Mr. Keating's class stand on their desks in a show of solidarity for the teacher that inspired them. As the music plays and more students break free from the crowd I noticed (possibly for the first time) that probably half of the students remained quietly in their seats. I think that is perhaps the most realistic part of the movie right there. There will be students in our class who are reached immeasurably by our love and support. There will also be other students, students whose harsh exteriors we can't penetrate for one reason or another, students who are better suited to the teaching styles/personality of someone else. There is nothing wrong with that, but the movie definitely reinforces the truth: you can't reach them all.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Adult ESL

I'm three days into my official summer vacation. Once again, I'm not teaching summer school due to life never quite being plan-able ahead of time. Instead, I'm volunteering to teach adult ESL to migrant families at the nearby racetrack. I'm SUPER excited about it.

As a part of my job, I've always been involved in many aspects of the community. For me, though, I have a strong affinity for working with motivated parents who are committed to joining in on the education of their children. We have been given a program that involved TPR (total physical response) and it seems like it will be effective enough to make me envious of not learning in a similar way back when I was busting my butt trying to learn Spanish for my career.

The problem is, I have so much training in bilingual education that some of the training has directly conflicted with some of my VERY strong procedural beliefs. For example, we were asked to do a True/False quiz to gauge our understanding of the situation we were entering into (to be fair, most volunteers have no background in ESL at all).

8. The best way to teach a language is by using the students' native language. (T/F)

Now obviously, they want you to answer false here (a VERY English-only mentality). Now this just reminds me of how controversial my job really is, but I believe strongly in the ability to use one's native language in order to understand the structure of language in general and build/enhance comprehension.

10. The teacher should restate in correct English what a student says if said incorrectly. (T/F)

This one rankled me too. Apparently the correct answer is "True." But I completely and fundamentally disagree. People (all people) get SO discouraged when they are repeatedly corrected for minor language infractions. Students at any age learn through modeling. So believe me when I say I often answer a person by modeling the correct English using my own perspective. But if you correct someone every time something incorrect comes out of their mouths, they will be soooo much less likely to speak out. Who wants to put themselves out there for public failure? Nobody I know!

To be totally fair, the other 8 true/false questions were spot on and great tips for people new to teaching ESL. No matter what, I'm grateful for the fantastic and well intentioned people who are giving of their time to enhance the lives of others.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Dear 5th Graders,

At the end of the year I have my students write a letter to the incoming 5th graders. I ask them to talk about the experiences and opportunities that they will have, as well as to offer advice on how to be successful (aka Warnings). My students sealed off their letters and left our school forever today. As soon as they left, I sat down to read what they had written. Some of it made me laugh, other things brought me close to tears, but mostly it was a great culminating activity for the year.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. "Taker of Ms. Teach and bring her presents."

2. "Hey make sure you bring presents to her oright! (When did presents become such a big thing...I mean...not that I mind.) ;)

3. "You also haf to be quit and straight if you want to get a party." (I'm assuming he's talking about walking in a line in the hallway.)

4. "Watch out because when you do something that you not supposed to do she can make the scary face like other mean teachers."

5. "You need to watch Ms. Teach because she is not like the other teachers. She's the best but she get angry too when someone is not paying attention." (How is that not like other teachers?)

6. "This is my favorite shool year because Ms. Teach is the nice teacher ever but you have to not talk because you would get in trouble." (No wonder my room was so silent this year.) ;)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Books and Covers...

I met the coolest person today.

The setting: Teacher's cafeteria. Two young teachers sit alone at school while the rest of the staff goes out to lunch one last time together. (In our area, 45 minutes is not enough time for a relaxed restaurant dining experience! I don't care if that makes me antisocial.)

Enter: Two custodians. The one is our regular. He stops to sit down and chat, leaving the other (new guy who is training/helping out) to sit at the far end of the table eating alone.

Exit: Custodian #1 (without introducing anyone to Custodian #2, mind you)

The scene: Two young teachers sit alone at at the opposite end of the table from their new silent companion. Feeling awkward and trying to be friendly, one of them finally speaks up and asks questions (that would be me...surprise, surprise).

It ended up being the best conversation I've had in a long time. The guy had a tattoo sleeve on one arm, but as soon as he started talking, he didn't fit the "image" at all. He started to share about his life, his love of music, and his obvious affinity for working with children (he'll have one of his own in two months!). He was friendly and outgoing, describing his past work experience and how he came to be at our school in the past months of transition during his life. We smiled and laughed as he talked about the kids whispering about how he must be a "badass" and "scary dude" and how they shouldn't try to "mess with him." He looked at us helplessly as he expressed what he wished he could say to them, "No really, I'm a nice man! I just like ink." :) He was seriously adorable in his wish for acceptance.

I'm not sure what kind of strange fate puts a person like him (former engineer) in a place like ours, and still enables him to be passionate about aspects of the new work at hand (some of it obviously stems from the gratitude of having work at all with a pregnant wife at home). His attitude and outlook was so cool and refreshing and it made me really grateful that I have a big mouth and a penchant for taking awkward situations head on!

(and seriously, it's a lesson you'd think I would know by not judge a book by it's cover. It's certainly something I work hard at teaching my students. But every once in a while it's nice to have a real life example to refer back to as to why the lesson has continued merit.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

YOU'RE leaving ME

I love my students. I find myself in this unique position while other people are complaining about their students of keeping my mouth shut (and attempting to keep my ears plugged and negative thoughts out) because I actually LIKE spending time with them. In fact, I choose to.

Today we took our 5th graders to go visit the middle school. As usual I had a good mix ranging from sweet/nervous to just plain overconfident. The confidence dissipated once we got into the halls full of 6/7th graders at the end of their school year eager to scream thing like "Oh look, they're SOOOOooooo CUTE and TINY" as they pointed and laughed. But that's not really the point.

The point is that I got to be there for my students during one of the most important transitional moments that they've had thus far, and by the end of the trip the students were beaming, full of plans for which sports, clubs, and activities that they plan to join. I got to take a very small group of students because I have a split and we had to "leave the 4th graders home" as we like to call our school, or home base. Sometimes "home" is their individual desks within the classroom when I get annoyed at my students for wandering around aimlessly at which point I will bark, "Go to your home!"

The idea of home and family is something that my students respond to very positively. If you know anything about the culture of bilingual students (specifically my bilingual students, many of whom are also rooted in the culture of poverty) you know that building relationships is very high up on the value system. Reaching them on that level has been a goal of mine since the beginning of the year.

My students are in a unique position as well because, at the middle school, they will have a home base (only mainstreaming for subjects in which they are highly capable of performing in English). As we toured the long and winding hallways, I continuously quizzed them about the whereabouts of their "home" and, as always, they took to the phrasing and kept themselves oriented.

It wasn't until I dropped them off for lunch that I realized that they weren't ready to leave their current home quite yet. As their new bilingual teacher promised that I'd be back to pick them up in 45 minutes, I stood behind her jokingly shaking my head and mouthing, "I'm leaving you here forever." My students started a chorus of dramatic, "noooooo's" and made desperate grabs for me as I walked away. I decided then and there that I would savor our last moments together.

When we got back to school the PTA had a special presentation prepared for the graduating 5th graders. I pulled up a chair and laughed along with them as the other 5th grade teachers sat in the back and chatted amongst themselves. Then we took the kids outside and, while my colleagues again chose to allow the students their freedom and fun time without them, I grabbed a basketball and joined my class. Every once in a while my students would stop playing, pull me in for a hug and say something like, "Don't LEAVE me Ms. Teach!" (I told you, they're very dramatic.) I tried to explain that they were actually going to be leaving me and that I really wasn't going anywhere, but it was fruitless. Anyway, I figure that in two days they'll be free of me for good. Until then, I'm going to take advantage of the fact that they're still holding on and willing to enjoy the time that we have left together.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


I have had more self-imposed breaks from writing since I came back than ever before. I have this rule for myself that if something particularly controversial comes along, I will take a mental break before I write about it. This protects everyone involved from rash words which have a tendency to come out in haste during the most explosive moments in life.

On Thursday something happened with one of my students that made me question my entire approach all year long. There's no other way to explain it (trust me, I've spent the last several days trying) than to say that one of my students absolutely and completely freaked out.

What you need to know:
Personality - sweet, quiet, insecure (she is a little bit bigger than my other girls, hates gym, and always wears a large baggy sweater), always respectful, always does what she is told, slightly lazy (does the bare minimum to get by).
Back story - On the very first day day of school I asked my students to work oh an all-about-me type of book to get them started with writing. One of the requirements was to write about their future goals in regards to occupation. As I watched my student stare blankly at the paper I came to sit next to her and we started to talk and brainstorm things that she liked and how those things could translate into different careers. As I poked and prodded I found that her goals simply did not exist. She was not trying to be obstinate, she just simply didn't care about anything except sleep and TV. It worried me (as did several of the things that I noticed throughout the first week, like reports of her penchant for missing school...alllll the time) so I referred her to social work. A week later she was seen, but she didn't claim to have any real life worries, so she was not picked up on the case load.

*While never becoming more motivated, my student stopped missing school this year. She also opened up to me on numerous occasions, talking to me about her family, her birthday party, and even bringing me pozole (my favorite) after week had a conversation about it one day. She did not, however, ever become more open or confident in herself and so on Tuesday, May 25 when we were asked to make social work recommendations for the middle school, I again put her name on the list.*

Thursday, May 27 (one week before the end of the school year)
I get a call in the office 2 minutes after the students enter that my girl student is in the office with her mother and she refuses to come to class. The assistant principal came to my class to cover for me as I went to the office to translate/sort things out. I walked my student (sobbing) and her mom into the principal's office and we began to talk. Her mom spouted some story about how my student was upset with her sister from an argument that they had the night before and my student wasn't saying a thing. I didn't buy that as the issue because the sisters never really get along. I told my student, "___________, your mom did the right thing by bringing you to school...and now, she is going to leave." Mom stood up (still crying about her daughter's anguish) and with the principal's help, was shoved out the door while daughter tried frantically to follow. Then, to make a long story short, my child became a different person. Between hysterical sobs she adopted a hideous speech pattern (one that I have never heard from her and could never believe he capable of) accusing my principal of "talking smack" and explaining that she hated school, has always hated school, found nothing redeeming in it EVER, and would not be coming back. Then, she demanded that we call her mother so that she could go home. Her responses to my principal, while totally illogical and said in the heat of passion, were little windows into a secret side of my student. She said to my principal at one point that she didn't need an education, that she didn't care who she was hurting by acting this way, that she's rather be in juvy than at school, and that nobody knew about her or her life and that we didn't care about her. It was at that point that tears starting streaming down my face and I had to walk out.

I had to go pick up my students from Gym and when she refused to follow me, I left her there, walking away from someone who I didn't know...who I haven't known for an entire year. It took THREE truancy officers to get her to class 3 hours later and I felt sick to my stomach as they stood outside my room watching to see if she would bolt. But she didn't...

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is that, upon seconds of returning, she was back to her "normal" self. She was smiling with friends, answering questions in class, even talking to me as if nothing had happened. She showed up on Friday the exact same way, choosing to work one on one with me during her math test. I rolled along with it, because I wasn't sure what to do. In the back of my mind though, I couldn't help but think of the secret person lurking inside my girl, and it scares me that I don't know how to free her.

The one positive thing to come out of possibly the most stressful situation of my teaching career thus far, is that I've changed my ideas for my end-of-the-year student gift. I'm going to dial it back down to mean something more for us. I know each of my students on a personal level and I have a good idea of the struggles that each of them will face as they go to middle school. This weekend, I've chosen to write a letter to each of my students, extolling their strengths and providing the advice that I believe will make them the most successful once they leave my doors, and therefor my guidance, this Friday.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sahara Special

Sometimes something profound comes along at the exact moment that you need it to touch your heart. For me, it was kind of a mix of things. First, my life and the lives of my students were irreversibly altered when I took a chance on a then unknown book to me, "Sahara Special" by Esme Raji Codell. This is, incidentally, the author of the beloved book, "Educating Esme: Diary of a First Year Teacher" but this time she's writing for young adults.

As a culmination to the year, and a kind of graduation of sorts, I presented my students with three chapter books, one of which they would select to read for the last month of school and perform literature circle tasks with. The students have taken a great liking to the idea that they are responsible for discussing their books, and that each of them has a very special role to fulfill within the group. They have also blossomed under the notion that they are to take the role of teacher, ensuring all group members' understanding and explaining past tasks to their new owner.

As every teacher hopes to do, I chose books that were relevant and completely dynamic. I described them each in turn, read some excerpts aloud, and challenged my students to make a choice for themselves. They were to pick the book that THEY wanted to read (they weren't even allowed to be seen talking to a peer while filling out their secret ballot. I also did not sugar coat things, explaining that "Sahara Special" was indeed the longest and most challenging of the selections and asking students to step up if they felt they were ready. "Sahara Special" is, in fact, my biggest literature circle group.

Yesterday one of my girls was clutching her book to her chest as I talked about how each of our books have different personalities. She just kept professing her love over and over again. Another of my much more shy students came up to me privately yesterday and confessed that she wasn't really interested in reading until she started reading her story, "Tales of the 4th Grade Nothing" and now she is surprised how much she really loves reading. (Don't I wish I had done this earlier in the year!?)

"Good try," said Miss Pointy, "but I don't know if that's a lesson that is always so. What else can we come up with?"

"Wishes are powerful," said Dominique.

"Good," said Miss Pointy.

"Things change. They don't always stay the same," said Cordelia. "Like, you don't have to stay a kid."

"That's a good one, too. Anyone else?"

"School is a powerful place where things change and wishes come true," Paris said slowly. "It's a place where you can grow up, if you let yourself."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Out There Looking

Previously, I kind of thought my duty as an educator was to help screen candidates in order to find the best person to work with/understand our student population with a willingness to collaborate and work cooperatively on an ever growing and changing team.

I learned today that that is simply not true. It is so much worse than that.

Today I met three fantastic candidates. They are each beautiful and fantastic individuals who are all trying to make it in the worst job market my lifetime has ever seen. As I sit from my cushy side of the conference table, I just feel my heart breaking for all of the candidates that will be seen who are more than passionate and qualified, but who will be left out in the cold when our time here is done.

This decision sucks and I feel like a bad person.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Interview Questions

Calling all teachers: I am going to be sitting in on interviews for an open 5th grade teaching position this week. I was asked by The Powers to have a list of interview questions ready. Now obviously I can make some up and fare pretty well...but I just realized that I have a wealth of talent and brilliance out there and I would love to tap into it. So what do you, my fellow educators, consider to be the most important factors in hiring a candidate?

What would you ask?

Friday, May 21, 2010


Sometimes I am amazed by the maturity with which my students handle disappointment.

Sometimes I wonder where their strength and poise comes from...and it makes me sad to think that they might have been trained through years of suffering disappointments the likes of which I was blessed not to face until adulthood.

Sometimes my students amaze me. Sometimes they act like 3 years olds and annoy the you-know-what out of me. But today, they were phenomenal. We were scheduled to have field day, a pirate theme, and some of them were so into it that they came in costume (something I totally encourage). We got to wear normal clothes instead of our stuffy uniforms (yes, that's right, my teacher clothes bind me and hinder my ability to be as bubbly and vivacious as I would be if I felt like myself, so I feel their pain). We had the most fantastic activities planned.

But then, mother nature happened. It rained, and rained, and continued to rain some more. Some evil and omenous weather person even predicted thunder storms as if it were just another day in the hood...not the most important day ever...the day that we stretched our wings, shed the shackles of the classroom, and displayed the awesome amount of team spirit that has been instilled in us over the year. (Epic, right?)

When my students walked in to school, one of them looked up at me and said dejectedly, "Field Day is canceled." It wasn't a question. I nodded, though it was a highly unnecessary action. Then, the students set about unpacking their backpacks, checking in the homework, and getting ready for the day. I thought, "Hmmm...I probably shouldn't let this go. Maybe I should say something about it." But nobody really looked like they needed anything said. I waited and let them learn about the rescheduled date on the announcements. One of them asked me what day of the week that would be. I hyped it up by adding that they would now get to wear regular clothes TWICE and that our last week of school would include a day off, a half day, a one hour day, AND field day. How lucky they were! They looked at me encouraged and with TOTAL trust that it would happen eventually, and that they could bide their time until then.

I didn't even offer consolation prizes (movies instead of "real work", indoor games and activities, etc.). They didn't ask. I just took them to Art class with a new sense of pride and admiration. These are not the whiny babies of years past, not even the less than mature students who I started the year with. These are the big kids, the kings and queens of our school. It is their last chance to be at the top for a while and they are wearing their crowns with grace and elegance today.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The End Times

It's true what they say, you never really realize what you have until it's gone (or almost gone). My students seem to be experiencing this mentality in droves (possibly for the first time in their lives).

Every day my 5th graders do something new and interesting to surprise me. I don't know why, after all these years, that it actually surprises me...but hey, maybe I'm a slow learner. In any case, they are starting to get this sense of The End Times and losing everything that they are comfortable and safe with as we heartlessly kick them out of the nest and send them out into the cruel cruel world (aka Middle School).

The evidence started small. I have this one kid (who actually isn't even a 5th grader, he's just moving over the summer), we'll call him Bob (no seriously, we do. even in class. It's a long story.) He has always been very wary of any physical contact from anyone. He doesn't appreciate a friendly pat on the shoulder and when his friends try to grab him for an enthusiastic hug he complains loudly and tries to get them off. We've all established that you just don't touch Bob because he doesn't like it. Throughout the year, my students have learned to respect that. Anyway, about two weeks ago, Bob started to randomly pat me on the arm as he passed me. The other day (completely out of nowhere and in the middle of a spelling lesson) he declared in sing-song voice, "Ms. Teach in the best teacher in the wooooorld." Yesterday when he put his hand up to answer a question I gave him five (because I'm goofy like that) and he grabbed my hand and held on.

Then, yesterday I was in the middle of a math lesson and it was just not going well. The students were frustrated, and I don't think I showed that I was, but they must have picked up on it. I gave up on the lesson half-way through, explained that we needed a break, and that we would pick it up again tomorrow. One of my students asked, "Well what are we going to do now?" to which my (secret) Favorite Pumpkin (the one with ADHD who has revolutionized my entire teaching process this year) responded promptly, "Hug Ms. Teach!!!" Then, all of a sudden, I had a swarm of small people all around me. May I remind you that these are FIFTH graders?! In my world, for the majority of the time, 5th graders are a little too cool for hugging their teacher.

My students are safe with me. This makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but I think it makes their transition process even harder. If they were looking forward to leaving me, maybe things would be different. I'm trying to guide them through this just as I've guided them through everything else this year, but as I try to gradually let go, they are clinging to me for dear life.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Help Me Help You

My roommate and I (who conveniently teach in exactly the same school in exactly the same hallway and have exactly the same lunch period) were discussing our day yesterday and, as the year comes to an end, we were boiling down to the same theme in both of our classes.

The end of the year is home to all the good stuff: parties, Field Day, recognition ceremonies, etc. The fun is endless. For most (all) teachers this also provides a fair amount of leverage. And for most children, it works. But then, you have the student who needs to go outside and run around during field day more than anyone else, and yet they can't seem to make the right choices that will get them there.

And you play the loving teacher card: "I really WANT everyone to get to go to Field Day and have a great time. I don't want you to have to sit inside in the office and do work while everyone else is enjoying such a glorious day. But friend, how many chances can I give you?"

They inevitably stare up at you blankly with the beginning of a tear forming in their eyes because they know they've pushed you too far this time. But then you give them hope, that maybe if they turn things around in the next 3 days, you'll reconsider.

The next morning rolls around and the same kid who you really thought you had gotten through to yesterday is missing the same darn thing that they've been missing every day, the same thing that got them into this mess in the first place.

I guess the truth is that they've made their bed. Why then, do I have such a hard time letting them lie in it?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Teacher Fog

When I first started teaching and I realized how much work teaching truly can be, and how it's a choice how much of life that we commit to it, I realized that this would not be an easy balance to create. I find that this is a struggle that never really goes away; it just takes different shapes and forms depending on the point in life that you find yourself in.

Today, for example, I realized that I have, once again, confused my job/students with actual life. It was an easy downward spiral. My boyfriend got stationed in Italy, I started to have some family issues (that were more easily avoided if I didn't show up to deal with them), and my most immediate friends were busy for several weekends in a row. That said, I just kind of slipped into my teacher pants and never really took them off.

As I've said before, the job of a teacher never ends. There is always another project to create, assessments to finagle, papers to grade, students to counsel, after school activities to participate in, etc, etc, etc. Often times I measure my success as a teacher by how many of these things I am actively engaged in.

The problem is: burnout is not a myth! In order to be the most productive and successful teacher, we need to take a break...for ourselves, and for our students. This, if nothing else, keeps us from getting resentful of the ever-present amount of work that goes into this crazy profession.

Today I went to the mall for a couple of hours. I talked to random sales people and smiled at random passersby and just generally felt like I was part of the human race for a little while. Sometimes a cute shared story among strangers is enough to make us realize that we need to expand our horizons and become a more complete person. Sometimes it would do us well to give ourselves experiences such as this on a regular basis just to wake us up out of our teacher fog.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gradual Release of Responsibility

Well, I took a break a couple of days ago because I had a really big and anger-inducing event to write about and I didn't want to spout off anything that I would later regret. Unfortunately, my one-day self imposed break turned into a mini-writing vacation due to some late nights at school events and now I really just need to stop making excuses. ;) The good news is that I was actually apologized to by one of the offenders (the cause of the aforementioned angst) and I will always respect someone who is willing to step up and admit fault and ask forgiveness instead of leaving me to sit feeling bad and uncomfortable with a situation that I did not create, nor am I responsible for fixing.

Anyway, I feel like the kids and I finally got our life back this week. Our schedule has been interrupted so much since Spring Break that my students have kind of mentally extended their vacation. This week was a full week of lessons without interruption and man have they been craving the structure. We are back in action and working hard.

Best part of the week: Literature Circles

There are educators (especially at the middle school level) who are comfortable jumping into the year with this kind of reading strategy. For me and mine, we had to work up to it. After a long year of learning independent reading strategies, practicing with short text, and tying it all together with the Read 180 program, I feel that it is time for the baby birdies to grow wings and read chapter books for class. Now, this is not part of the curriculum (also part of why I did not start it until the last month of school) but I can't imagine better results.

Now that I trust my students to follow routine and put out their best effort, I've started to try to teach them to trust themselves. As I've stepped back and allowed students to choose the book that they want to read, I could see their faces light up with excitement at being given the responsibility to choose their fate. As I watch students gradually stop looking to me in the small group setting, but refer to their discussion director instead, it is like watching them allow themselves to dip their toes in the pool for the first time. They have not jumped in head first, but they feel good about themselves that they can be trusted to handle and direct their own learning.

As they sat around the table with their role sheets, sharing their portion of the work and asking for feedback to add to it, one of my girls turned to me (while shuffling her papers importantly) and said, "Ms. Teach, I feel like we're in a meeting! Everyone has paperwork and takes turns asking for ideas and sharing what they've done." And that was the coolest thing ever, because that's how they should feel. It means that they're taking it seriously and that they legitimately believe that what they have to say is important.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Conflict Resolution

Conflict Resolution Rules

1. ______ If it is not about you, don't report it.

2. ______ If you didn't hear/see it happen, let it go.

3. ______ Talk directly to the person.

4. ______ Give each other time to cool down. (At least 24 hours/one FULL day)

5. ______ Check back in with the person. (24 hours later!)

6. ______ Think about if the person is really your friend. (and if not, choose to keep yourself away from them)

7. ______ Write your complaint.

The rule is that, unless a student has met physical harm, students must attempt to resolve the conflict on their own first. If they have tried all of the steps and the person they are dealing with persists in causing conflicts or being unreasonable, they are then allowed to write their concerns. The goal is that this will weed out small pet peeves, but it may bring about some of the more real and major issues that students might even have trouble articulating. I already have one over-eager student who is excited for the chance to write and rat someone out. I fear that he might be my new friend Mr. Example. Because, in order to discourage unnecessary meanness and ridiculousness, there are now strict consequences for complaining without following the steps or fabricating checklist completion.

I'll let you know how it goes!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Indulging the Madness

So, with one month left, my students have managed to annoy people who don't even have a lot of direct contact with them during the regular school day. The social worker came to me last Friday and told me that she was tired of all of the "he-said she-she said blame game" that my kids seem to enjoy playing off each other. Basically, my children have a huge issue taking personal responsibility for any wrong doing and it has been a huge focus of our C.A.R.E. meetings this ENTIRE year.

Unfortunately (and this is a big UNFORTUNATELY) I would say that the C.A.R.E. program is responsible for breeding that kind of behavior. Students are required based on Rule #2 to tell an adult at home and/or an adult in school when they feel that they are being bullied. My students decided to take this rule a little liberally, coming to me every day after recess to ensure that they have told an adult about any minor qualm that they could think about. It got to a point where they were basically pushing and shoving trying to get to me first in order to head off what the other would tell me about the negative things are being done to them (without owning up to any part of the process). Basically, it has taught them to be poor innocent little victims.

In 5th grade, nothing makes me more disgusted than tattle tales. We created a room full of them and then the social worker came in and yelled at them for not dealing with their issues themselves. Well friends, I'm going to own up to my responsibility in this mess right now. I have had bad experience with NOT listening to a student who needed to come to me with a serious issue. Ever since then, I have always heard my students out before judging how to handle a situation. This does, however, take an extremely large amount of instructional time when you have a group of students who take advantage of your sympathetic ear.

So, I agree that something needed to be done. And it still makes me intensely uncomfortable to tell students that they simply must deal with things on their own, especially when they feel safe confiding in me. I feel that our social worker came up with a fairly good solution. Tomorrow we are implementing a checklist. Students must complete every step (things like talking to the other person first, giving it a day, writing about it instead of complaining verbally, etc.) before actually bringing their issue to me. I feel like the writing alone will deter some of the lamer complaints from distracting from class time.

If anyone has the same issue and could use the checklist as a jumping off point, just comment and I'll type it up when I'm at school and have it accessible.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I was in the bathroom at a store yesterday and I noticed something on the bottom of the door. It was a little metal piece sticking out of the bottom right corner that you could hook your foot/shoe into in order to open the door without using your hands and actually touching the door handle. Now, at the risk of stepping on some toes here, I just got to thinking that enough is enough.

In a world where we give hand sanitizer (my bilingual students call is "hanitizer" and it makes me giggle and endears them to me every time) to small children and teach people that we can't touch door handles (for fear of other peoples' icky germs) sometimes I feel like we are one step away from putting people (especially children) in a bubble for fear that they might get a bump or bruise on occasion!

When I was little I vividly remember trying my hand at eating a dirt sandwich. Not my finest hour, but I survived. My older brother used to squish ants (yeah, the little crawly bugs!) between his thumb and index finger and then EAT THEM. He's still alive and well (and getting married next apparently bug-eating didn't even limit his long term appeal). Now medical science is coming out and saying that hand sanitizer actually has the ability to kill good bacteria (GOOD) that we actually need on our bodies.

Now, I'm not a doctor or any form of medical professional, but I do know that exposure to germs and bacteria in small amounts can actually STRENGTHEN the immune system. I don't know a single mother/teacher/mentor/etc. that wouldn't want their children to be strong. So, in the spirit of Mother's Day, I ask that we all let the kids go outside, make Mom a nice mud pie, and let them test out the first piece.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

You Inspire Me, so I appreciate you!

Sometimes...OK, a lot of the time...OK, often I'm cynical. I didn't used to have so little faith in humanity. Unfortunately, it's a learned thing. The good news, I've learned, is that all is not lost! On this most standard and average Teacher Appreciation Week (ok, there I go again being cynical, but really, what's changed?), I've found several reasons to be inspired.

1) First and foremost, if you read this blog, you INSPIRE me. The posts that I read every day keep me going, motivate me to be better, make me feel better conspiratorially, and just honestly make my life stronger. It is such a boost to know that there are other educators who, at the end of a long crazy day (in addition to all of the home and personal obligations), take time to sit and think critically about their jobs and the fact that the students that we teach every day are so much more than just a job.

2) Today I had to take a sick day due to a nasty sinus infection and something on TV actually inspired me. (I know, I was shocked too.) Jessica Simpson's "The Price of Beauty" is a show on VH1 that I was immediately intrigued and skeptical of all at once when I first heard of it. Basically, Simpson and her two friends travel to different countries in order to find what defines beauty in a variety of different cultures. The amount of respect and genuine seriousness with which the three travelers approached the people that they met along the way was actually awe-inspiring. Today was the finale where Simpson chose to celebrate the different types of beauty and really the confidence and self-love that she had found within herself. As I sat watching, sniffling and thinking, I realized how badly I want to empower my own girls in the same way. Heck, I want to inspire my own self in the same way. It is a goal that I am going to work vigilantly in order to implement in the next 4 weeks before my students move on to the middle school.

3) My students find ways to amaze (and annoy) me every day. I have a little one with untreated ADHD this year who has filled my life with more challenges and tests of patience than I have had in a long while. In truth, I love this student fiercely and the way that we work together to understand each other has really inspired me this year. Even in conferences, when his parents asked how I thought he would do next year at the middle school level, I answered honestly that he was kind of like my baby and that I was a little bit worried to send him on to people who might not understand him and have the tactics I have developed to support and ensure his success. But even in that I have found some inspiration because I stopped to realize that I had no idea what I was doing with this pumpkin when I first had him handed to me, but I managed to figure it out. The educators that he moves on to will learn just as I had to (and if they have any prior experience, they'll probably be way better apt to handle his needs than I). And that kind of brings the list full circle because it is other educators (like you) that inspire me to continue to grow and learn from them for the next group of students whose lives I'm blessed to affect!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Good Friends

Today I was not allowed to stream the videos that I wanted my students to use for our C.A.R.E. meetings because apparently it interferes with the testing that our students do on the computer 3 times a year. Instead, at the last minute, I decided to put up two pieces of chart paper to assess where we are now that there are only 4 full weeks of school left and many of my students will be moving on to greener pastures (aka the middle school) next year.

The chart paper said, "I Learned" and "I Want."

Students were first asked to make a list of everything that they'd learned about bullying, respect, etc. over the year. They were slow to start (1st thing on a Tuesday morning sometimes I'm lucky to get them awake enough to speak at all) but by the end we were cramming things into the margins of the page. Then we got to truth time..."I want." I have asked my students to really look at themselves this year and come up with goals (several times in fact) in order to become better people.

As in many grade levels, my students are still often of the persuasion that you only don't do bad things because you'll get in trouble, and that you only do good things because you'll get rewarded in some way (even if the reward is *sigh* not getting into trouble). I've started a revolution of personal responsibility and being a good person because it matters. Some of them have taken well to it, others are stuck in a Tuesday morning mentality. Either way, I feel like it's important so I persevere.

A couple of my more deep and introspective kids were able to express some of the things that they want to do better in the future (especially after being given copious examples, including one from my own life.) Most of them wanted to do the one thing that infuriates me more than anything, ask what happens when other people do bad things to you.

At one point I practically screamed "personal responsibility!" before I realized that the same was coming up over and over again. "Miss Teach, what do I do if I ask someone nicely to stop what they're doing but then they get mad at me?" "Miss Teach, what happens when someone that you are friends with always tells you what to do even if it's something you don't want to do?" "Miss Teach, what if someone tells you they aren't going to be your friend anymore unless you do what they say?"

Are you noticing the same theme? I added two goal to the "I Want" paper.
1) I want to communicate more clearly with my friends.
2) I want to make and keep GREAT friends.

I found myself coming up with the same answer every time. Instead of pushing your friend or yelling at them, ask them nicely to change their ways. If they respond poorly to kind wording and friendly reasoning, FIND YOURSELF SOME NEW FRIENDS. Leave, walk away from the situation, hang out with people that you actually like!

Now, I had the same problem as a 5th grade girl. I remember them well. This is really nothing new and all part of the socialization process. But my students need to understand something. Sometimes I don't want to tell my friends something because I know they won't like hearing it, but I have NEVER been afraid of telling them things because they are going to leave me. Furthermore, some of those very friends that I'm referring to are friends that I've had since 5th grade. So, with good training, I have to believe that for them this stage too shall pass.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Amazing Distracters

Distracters are actually known in the education world as the multiple choice answers that are meant to distract a test taker from the correct answer, thereby forcing them to really know their stuff. In this case, however, the distracters are the students (more specifically, MY students).

I have written before that one of the most difficult plight of a teacher is that, even when the world around you is crumbling, you need to paste on a happy (or at least tolerant) face and go be in charge of a whole group of little people who are all looking at you expectantly to lead them. In short, you don't really have the luxury of having a bad day.

That said, it kind of works both ways. Some of the times that I have been absolutely miserable have been the exact times when I needed my students the most. I will get to school worried about something serious and the next thing I know I am caught up in the whirlwind as my students rush through the door and begin to regale me with stories and rely on me and my undivided attention. All of a sudden it will be 3:30 and time to say goodbye and it is only then that I realize I hadn't though about my own concerns once all day.

It was this way last year as I prepared to leave my school after a year that had been truly awful for me personally and emotionally. It is this way now as I begin to experience trials once again. Even when you are mired in your own issues, the students pick up on things like that. Then, if you have a good relationship with them, they'll do something small to make sure you're ok. For example, even if I have a moment of dry throat, one of my students will invariably run to my desk and grab my water bottle for me. Or they'll notice something that they picked up long long ago that you're sure that they never would actually remember. Like when I told them at the beginning of the year that I'd had knee surgery. Then, several months and a lot of therapy later, I knelt down to write something on the bottom of the board and one of my students exclaimed with glee, "Ms. Teach, you can KNEEL!!!"

Sometimes the best blessing we receive is the smiling faces, ridiculous jokes, sweet troubles, and kind words of the people who really do fill our hearts and minds for all of the time that they are in our presence. And sometimes, especially when they try so hard to take care of me, I feel very lucky for the distraction.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Pool Party!

My students have the fortune of getting to go to the middle school for two weeks every year for swimming lessons. The program is really great and, while it takes up a LOT of instructional time (I know, I'm a nerd), it gives the students a valuable life skill and an extra outlet for their energy. It also teaches some of my less sports-inclined students that there are other options for physical activity and motivates them to get moving.

Here's the catch: Swimming time forces you to practice what you preach. That is, if you feel like it's important to do so.

On Fridays the students are granted Free Swim. It is on these two days that the teacher is invited to come swim with the students. Last week I was not feeling well for a variety of reasons that impeded my ability to swim comfortably so I opted out. Today, however, it was put up or shut up time. My students were practically begging me to join them, so of course I used it to my benefit and offered it up as incentive but the real reason I jumped in that pool today?...

Swimming is scary for 5th graders, especially 5th grade girls. You have to take off all of your clothes in a locker room with a group of people who are invariably judging you in order to feel better about themselves or judging themselves against you. Then, you have walk out of the locker rooms wearing barely anything only to meet your classmates of the opposite sex and become painfully aware that you have very different parts and that nobody has any interest in demonstrating that so obviously.

Well heck, I'm 26 years old and I have no interest in displaying my body. Not only do I not want to do this in front of people my own age, but I definitely don't want to do it in front of a group of students who certainly might have something unflattering to say about it. But there are two things that I have tried to make apparent to my students over the course of our time together. 1) I feel like it is really important to be healthy. (We have had many conversations about this, including when we had our picnic lunch and I brought fruit and vegetables and they brought giant bags of chips and didn't understand when I did not partake.) and 2) I LOVE to swim! Based on those two very fundamental concepts, there is no reason in the world that I shouldn't have been in that pool having fun with some of my favorite people.

You see, I was a little bit nervous to be so far out of my comfort zone. But if I don't push myself and act darn confident about it, I'm teaching my students that there's something to be ashamed of and that confidence is not warranted in this situation. Most importantly, I don't want my students to ever look around and realize that they are holding themselves back from life because they are afraid or uncomfortable. I have a feeling that they would miss out on a lot of great opportunities if I taught them that it is ok to let something/someone get in the way.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

4 Simple Strategies

I realized that, for a while now, I've shared some anecdotes and I've demonstrated my passion for education and my students, but I haven't really offered up anything of substance. One of my personal goals for writing is to grow professionally and help others grow if it is at all possible to learn from me and my experiences. I haven't done that for a while, so here goes...

4 Simple Strategies that work for ALL learners:

I've found that often times we go to workshops and find exceptional strategies that we just couldn't possibly implement without moving heaven and earth, changing our systems completely, and putting in a ton of work in advance of said implementation. These are STILL great strategies, and important to consider during breaks or while planning for next year. But sometimes there are small things that we are missing, things that would give us a spruce and a little bit of an edge when trying to conquer some of the concepts that we are teaching right now.

1. Use Color
No matter what grade you teach and what subject matter you're introducing, students respond well to color as a distinguishing feature in separating ideas and chunking information. A poignant example of this would be the map in the back of my room that has the United States broken down into regions by color. When we were studying Westward Expansion, one of my students raised his hand and explained that the people in the yellow states were beginning to explore a way to get to the purple states. In any case, he got the concept. Color can be used in math as well, especially when organizing complex problems into steps. I also have my students take notes in color as a study strategy. Each color represents something different (such as: important people, key events, vocabulary to know, etc). Integrating color can be fairly simple and it plays an important role in giving students immediate feedback about the role of a piece of information and its function.

2. Implement Routines:
Now ideally these would be established at the beginning of the year, but as this is a list about what you can do right now, do not despair; it is not too late! Start small. Pick something like spelling for example. Day 1: Pretest. Day 2: Pronunciation and Definitions. Days 3: Pictures to represent the meaning of each word. Day 4: flashcards and study with a friend. Day 5 : Spelling Test. Students will get into a pattern where they are comfortable with what is about to take place and can spend more time focusing on the meaning of the new content than on what's going to happen next. This is not to stifle creativity or ask that you never change things up. It is to give students some stability and responsibility for their own learning. Not only will this help with classroom management (my students walk in every day after lunch, get out their word dictionaries, and get to work) but this also allows students to forget about the "how" of things and focus much more importantly on the "what."

3. Have Students Show What They Know
I work with bilingual students, so sometimes (especially for my newcomers) language output can be a barrier. But I have found a quick way of getting information from students that allows me to assess for comprehension. Basically, before a unit to demonstrate background knowledge, during to check on what students have understood so far, or at the end to assess overall grasp of the material presented, I have my students create a web. This can be done in a number of different ways but the most important thing to do is allow for creativity (some of our learners are very linear sequential, but not all of them!). I give them a blank piece of paper and a topic, and students are allowed to organize information in any way that makes sense to them. The best part is, they get to DRAW the information (but writing can always be added if you feel that it is pertinent to the task at hand). Yesterday I had students web everything that they have learned about mummies in our Read 180 unit. Some of the students started at the beginning of the mummification process and drew each step sequentially until it was complete. Some of my students simply drew a mummy in the middle and connected lines around it of facts that they had learned. Either way, students were able to show me what they had learned and I was able to assess the areas that we clearly had not covered well enough.

4. Have Students Present What They Know
This is the brother of number 3. Once a student creates something like a web of information, the most efficient way of cementing the knowledge in their brains is to be able to present or teach it to someone else. I go about this a number of different ways. If I feel that it is important for my students to work on presentation skills, I have them present to the whole class. Sometimes I just have them share with a partner or get into a small group. No matter how it's done, it gives students an opportunity to learn from each other and gain pieces of information that they may have been missing in their own work.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Boosting Confidence

Today in our C.A.R.E. meeting I chose the topic, "How do I know if I'm being a bully?" This has, of course, spiraled off of my own students' actions lately and my belief in the need for them to take responsibility for themselves and the changes that need to be made. Instead of just starting in with all the doom and gloom and making my students feel bad about themselves (though I always stand up and admit the bullying tendencies that I too have exhibited in life when applicable so they're not totally out there alone) I decided to start positive and asked my students to take a minute and think about one thing that they REALLY LIKE about themselves.

Now, I walk around my classroom with an insanely over exaggerated sense of swagger now and again. My students would probably have to dig deep to find insecurities that I think are as glaringly obvious as the sun. Regardless, I'm often full of flash, show, and more than a little hot air. It helps me compete with the best of them frankly. I've got one little boy who doesn't know when NOT to talk about himself and his belief that his looks are God's gift to women. It fact, when I was teaching angles in math a couple months back I couldn't say the word "acute" without him loudly and proudly pronouncing, "Like me!"

But for all that bluster, as I went around the room today asking students what they most liked about themselves, most of them shut down. They couldn't think of a single think of worth or value. I had to have other students come up with a litany of reasons for many of my normally bold and outrageous students. After hearing them all, they were hesitant to pick one that they actually identified with.

So I guess we all like to put up a front now and then to hide any failings we might feel burdened to carry. Now I'm wondering if my next meeting should be about finding value in ourselves...because it doesn't really matter how many nice things we have to say about each other at the end of the day if, in our hearts of hearts, we don't really believe it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I Celebrate You!

I absolutely love when teachers celebrate each other. Sometimes I feel that we are so mired in what we've done wrong or what is going wrong (in the classroom, at home, and in life) that we don't stop to appreciate the amount of awesome that we work hard to put out and that we're lucky enough to be surrounded with. One of my favorite bloggers overs at Confessions of an Untenured Teacher decided to celebrate me in a much appreciated community gold-star-giving activity and I would be delighted to pass on the tribute!

I was so happy and honored to read that my little re-up blog was awarded so soon after I came back to it! And, in keeping with the stipulations of the originator of this online accolade, I must share some random get-to-know-you information about myself to keep you all engaged and coming back for more. Here goes:

1. I can be found playing (and looking forward to) an online baseball simulation every Monday night with some of my favorite people in the world that I've never met before.
2. I traveled to Spain for 3 weeks last summer (my first overseas trip) and spent almost the entire time in my various hotel rooms with a debilitating ear infection.
3. I found out last year that I am actually allergic to the sun (after having spent my entire youth being the lucky one who always tanned easily) and get ugly itchy red splotched when outside for too long.
4. I have always secretly wanted a tattoo (probably because it is completely out of character for me to want or have one).
5. I spent my entire childhood watching the WB (now the CW) and now secretly still watch One Tree Hill because, back when it started I was at a socially acceptable age to watch it.
6. I want to write a book (and have one started) but I fear I might never have the time or motivation to finish it.
7. My boyfriend is stationed in Italy for three years with the US Navy.
8. My heart is in Mexico and someday I want to have the confidence to live and work there.
9. I speak French and Spanish and every day I hone my Spanish skills as a bilingual teacher I worry about how much French I'm losing (even though I never have cause to use it).
10. When I'm upset, sometimes the only thing that calms me down is putting on some of my favorite music and singing/screaming along as loudly, ridiculously, and irrationally as possible.

Moving on to the important part of this award ceremony... I'm happy to direct you to some of the most dedicated, clever, and fantastic professionals out there. Enjoy!

Look At My Happy Rainbow : This is a new add to my list but I love everything that Mr. Halpern puts outs there and I'm always so surprised about how much correlation there is between lessons learned in kindergarten and my own lessons learned with fifth graders.

The Cornerstone : If you haven't been reading this blog all along (and I can't imagine why you wouldn't have been) then you'll learn that Angela Watson is now out of the classroom and doing awesome work to help teachers in professional development. Her candor is always genuine and it is exciting to get a new perspective at her journey out of the classroom continues.

I'm a Dreamer
: This blog, written by an 8th grade English teacher, is also one of my favorite must-reads. It is obvious that this blog is written by someone who is incredibly passionate about reaching the students that she worked with and dedicated to things so far beyond "job requirements." Make sure to check it out!