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.