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.