Wednesday, December 31, 2014


While sitting around trying to shake off the cold that has been plaguing me for two weeks, I came across a post about Arne Duncan's #whatif Twitter campaign.  Whether it is a PR farce or a genuine interest in what life is truly like in America's classrooms, Secretary Duncan wants to hear from you.  I contributed my two cents.  End 2014 by making your voice heard.  Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Writing a Resume

As mentioned in a previous blog post, my current unit explores acts of courage.  My students read a text selection about Harriett Tubman.  In an effort to spice up the usual writing assignments, I had my students create a resume.  After showing the students my own resume (they were not impressed), I had them work in groups to outline Tubman's address (county and state), major skills and accomplishments as well as jobs that she held using a template as a guide.  Not only does this assignment help make the students "college and career ready" (I'm still trying to figure out what teachers were preparing students for prior to Arne Duncan's policy change), it also forced them to go back to the text and work as a team to pull out specific information.  The students had a blast completing this assignment and worked together to make some great inferences in order to complete the skills section.  Since the students found this assignment so engaging, I will most likely keep it in my toolbox for a bit longer than usual.  After all, if my students will eagerly complete this assignment so close to winter break, maybe they will do the same right before spring break.

Friday, December 12, 2014

How To Enforce the School's Electronics Policy

Like most schools, mine has a pretty strict policy on the use of electronics during class. This can be a non-stop battle as earbuds are so uniform throughout the school that when dressed up for games or other events, the students resemble Secret Service agents. Rather than spend my days sounding like a broken record and stifle my students' love of music, I bring in my personal experience.  If caught listening to music during class, I ask the guilty party to pick a number one through ten.  Each number corresponds to a track on my playlist and I indulge the class with a song that I enjoyed when I was their age.  Of course, to my students these songs sound well, as awful to them as my mother's hits from the 60's and 70's sounded to me when I was in middle school. They quickly get the point, but sometimes relapse.  With break coming up, one student relapsed today.  Here is today's hit from the 90's.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Making Connections Across Centuries

I recently started a new unit with my class.  The theme of this unit is courage.  I try to integrate other content areas into my lessons whenever possible and since there have been many great examples of courageous individuals throughout history, this unit heavily focuses on social studies.

I opened the unit by having the class read an account of Captain Roger Locher, a pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War.  Against incredible odds, Captain Locher survived twenty three days in deep enemy territory.  Not only were the students fascinated by the story, they caught me off guard by comparing it to Unbroken, which is due to be released Christmas Day.

Since the students have studied the Middle Passage and are due to learn about the Civil War in a few months, the plan is to spend the next several days reading accounts about runaway slaves.  We read about Tice Davids, who is given credit for coining the phrase Underground Railroad.  We started a story about Harriett Tubman and when I attempted to stop for the day despite having a few minutes of class time left, the students protested and insisted that we read until the bell.  While my students may not identify with being a slave, many of them were able to compare the journey of runaway slaves to their own journeys of coming to the United States.  The slaves feared being caught by bounty hunters and being sent back to a life of brutality and hard labor.  My students feared being caught by la migra and being sent back to a life of poverty and in some cases, violence.  They also compared conductors of the Underground Railroad to coyotes and friends to church groups that help migrants along the route to the United States.  In both cases, a successful journey equaled better opportunities for them and their families.

So far, this topic has proven to be a winner.  I can only hope that the students stay engaged and continue to initiate deep discussions.  Even though it doesn't quite feel like it, winter break is a mere few days away.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Paying It Forward

While I often come across as a confident seasoned teacher, the dark truth is that this persona took many years to create.  I willingly admit that my first few years teaching were rough.  Not only did I move to a new area of the country, away from my friends and family, I took on a job in an urban district that was the polar opposite of what I experienced growing up.  Luckily for me, I had a principal, vice-principal and a few experienced colleagues who admired my passion as well as my willingness to move for the sake of job security and took me under their wings.  To this day, I am not sure if I would have stayed in teaching or at least in my current district, had I not had the benefit of excellent mentors.

As I became a seasoned teacher, I realized that my experiences with excellent mentors is unfortunately an exception rather than the rule in the teaching profession.  In fact, I have witnessed many cases where colleagues do not even introduce themselves to new colleagues, never mind offer helpful advice.  In an effort to pay it forward, I make it a priority to connect with at least one newer teacher each year.  I believe that if every other teacher did the same thing, the retention rate within the profession would skyrocket.  Here are some tips for making it happen:

  • Decide Who You Can Help The Most: Despite my best efforts, I realize that my personality and teaching expertise do not resonate with every colleague.  When deciding who I am going to offer my expertise to, I often gravitate towards those who teach ESOL students.  In the case of this year, I am working with two teachers who not only teach ESOL students, they happen to be from the Northeast so we are able to relate on a cultural level.  
  • Be A Good Visitor: Since I have a reduced course load this year, I have spent a significant amount of time in my mentees' classrooms.  Visiting your mentee's classroom while she is teaching is a good way to identify additional ways that you can help.  However, this must be approached with caution as this can make your mentee nervous about being "observed", even if that is not your intent.  When I first started visiting my mentees, I went sans computer or notebook, only with a willingness to roll up my sleeves and help.  As the year progressed and my mentees asked for specific feedback, I showed them a checklist that I created and offered to bring it to my future visits.  Since my previous visits were like Vegas (what happened there, stayed there), they have no reason to fear anything that I record during the lesson and eagerly welcome my feedback and suggestions.
  • Be Accessible, Yet Flexible: Being a mentor does not have to take up a lot of extra time.  Like many schools, my school has collaborative planning built into the school day.  I have worked it out so that I can use this time to help my mentees plan lessons at least once a week.  I do liberally give out my phone number and since I have a forty minute commute home, my mentees take advantage of their captive audience to bounce ideas off of me, while I respond using the hands-free Bluetooth device that is attached to my radio.  I also reply to e-mails and text messages.
  • Remember That You Can't Save Them All: As much as it saddens me to see a colleague leave the profession (sometimes before the year is over), the truth is that not everyone is cut out for the job.  Remember that while you can be helpful and friendly, you can only do so much.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Making Learning Come Alive

When I first began teaching at my current school, I was amazed to find out that many of my students had never visited the cultural heart of their local city.  All of the students' parents work at least one job, often with hectic hours, leaving little time for family trips. For various reasons, their elementary schools either did not schedule field trips or my students were unable to participate.  Despite the cumbersome process of getting a field trip approved (the paperwork amounts to between 25 and 30 pages), I make it my goal to plan at least two field trips a year.

My students come from very dire economic situations, so when I plan my trips I try to keep the price under $10.  In the case of this week's trip to a local history museum, the trip itself was free.  I learned long ago that my school district has money for transportation funding and I have no problem e-mailing the right people and asking for it.  Admission to the museum was free (as are many museums for school groups.  Always read the fine print on the website and don't be afraid to call and negotiate if there is a cost).  In the case of this field trip, I gave the students the option of either bringing a lunch or eating at a local McDonald's.  I'm sure you can imagine which option middle school students chose, which required the students to foot a small additional cost.

Over 100 students participated in the field trip and the reviews were mainly positive.  The students eagerly pointed out connections between the exhibits at the museum and the topics being covered in their social studies class.  Quite a few students took photos to use for their upcoming social studies project.  As usual, I returned from the trip enthusiastic about planning the next trip, which will take place in the spring due upcoming WIDA ACCESS and PARCC testing.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Playing the Field

A few weeks ago, the ESOL department at my school learned that one of our colleagues decided to leave the teaching field early in his career.  We were lucky enough to find an experienced long-term sub (a retired teacher) to take his place while we have been seeking a replacement.  As many of you know, ESOL is considered a shortage area in most of the country and finding a qualified teacher in general can be tough.  Finding one after the school year has already started can be nearly impossible.

While I was in New England last week, my principal interviewed a candidate who will finish his degree this month.  Rather than immediately accept a position based on a conversation with the principal, he requested the opportunity to shadow teachers before he makes his final decision.  I think that the idea is absolutely brilliant.  As much as we desperately need a teacher, we need more than just an individual with an active pulse. We need someone who feels comfortable teaching our students and interacting with the staff.

Upon meeting the candidate and being debriefed on the situation, I arranged for him to shadow three different classes.  I periodically checked in with him and left him my contact information.  At the end of the day, I learned from one of my department members that the candidate spent the morning at another middle school and that we are in a Hunger Games type competition.  The victor will get a certified, bi-lingual ESOL teacher.  May the odds be ever in our favor.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Honoring a Legacy

My grandfather passed away last week.  He spent his last few days in a hospice and while I was awaiting the inevitable on Friday morning, I spent some time telling the health care aide a little about my grandfather.  As an immigrant from Jamaica, she was fascinated to learn that my grandfather was one of the first members of my family that was born in the United States.  As a first generation American, my grandfather grew up straddled between two worlds: the opportunities and promise of America and the Jewish traditions of Europe.  He was an all-American boy with blond hair who read Hardy Boys books and played basketball.  He also spoke Yiddish, attended religious school five days a week and ate kosher food.

I was fortunate to know my grandfather for as long as I did.  As a child, he was a magical person who could do no wrong and always managed to spoil his grandchildren as most grandparents do.  As an adult, I learned to appreciate the fact that he was able to successfully navigate the two worlds that he grew up in and become an American success story.  In addition to being a husband and father to three college educated sons, he was a U.S. Army veteran and a small-business owner.

Every day as I drive to work, I pass by traditional Mexican bakeries, Hispanic churches and signs in Spanish.  While I appreciate this unique cultural neighborhood, many of my students have expressed a desire to move to a more "American" neighborhood. However as life goes on and the awkwardness of middle school passes, I hope they realize how privileged they are to grow up both bi-cultural and bi-lingual.  If my students are anything like my grandfather, they are among the last in their family to be able to say that they have lived in two cultures before losing out to assimilation.  They have the opportunity to get an education and make their dreams a reality as well as the skills needed to reach across cultural divides.  While they may not see it now, they are trailblazing a path for future generations of their family in America.  It is my hope that they embrace this awesome opportunity and give their children and grandchildren something to admire, and maybe even one day blog about.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The No Judgment Zone

Space is really tight at my school this year.  Several classrooms are out of commission due to maintenance issues and the building itself is so old that it was legally segregated when it opened.  We have been told that if we try to hook one more temporary classroom up to the power grid, we risk regular blackouts.  Therefore, it was declared at the beginning of the year that all teachers will be sharing classrooms.  In fact, I just got my third roommate.

I don't mind sharing a room.  I have a reduced course load and it would be downright impractical to leave a room empty the majority of the day.  I am not especially territorial over space as I have enough sense to realize that my classroom isn't really mine as it belongs to the district.  The administration has the right to ask me move classrooms at any time and this is actually my third one in five years.  In reality, the only thing about sharing a room that gives me pause is the fact that I now have other individuals in my room while I teach.

I know that this shouldn't be a big deal.  After all, when colleagues and administrators ask if they can make last-minute visits to my classroom, my standard response is "Absolutely.  Quality instruction occurs in my classroom everyday and today is no exception."  However, those requests occur on a limited basis.  One can't help but be a tad paranoid about entering the judgment zone on a daily basis.

My class is considered large for an ESOL class (I have 30 students) and we have built a unique culture over the past two years.  My students often poke fun at my accent (it never gets old), but dare not laugh at a classmate's accent or mispronunciation of a word. Students are allowed and encouraged to seek help from classmates, even if it means that they speak a language that isn't English while doing so.  They take turns making the classroom run smoothly by distributing and collecting materials as well as doing little things like answering the phone if I am on the opposite side of the room, even if I don't give them direct permission to do so.  I have recently noticed that the majority of my students have dropped the title from my name and address me simply as Ninja.  On the flip side, the terms "please" and "thank you" can be heard in my classroom on a daily basis.

While this way of running a classroom may not work for every teacher or even me with every set of students, it works this year.  Yes, my classroom may be a bit loud at times, but based on what I have observed over the past thirteen years, a quiet classroom does not always mean that students are learning.  As far as what my roommates really think of fifth period, only time will tell.  In the meantime, I will get used to my corner of the room and vow not to judge my roommates' classroom cultures just as I don't want them to judge mine.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Writing Sub Plans

I received a call this morning informing me that my presence is needed back in New England due to a family emergency.  Of course, the timing coincides with the upcoming Thanksgiving break when I was already planning on making the day-long drive to my parents' house.  Since the only logical thing to do in this situation is to go and stay up there through Thanksgiving, I wrote several days worth of sub plans.  Here is what I learned about writing sub plans over the years:
  • Stick to the Regular Plan As Much As Possible: In an attempt to convince myself that I'm not a workaholic, I often leave my work computer at work. However, I back up all of my files to Google Drive and I was glad to have them accessible in this situation.  I looked at the unit plan and wrote substitute teacher-friendly lesson plans as much as I could.  This will ensure that my class is not too far behind when we return from Thanksgiving break.
  • Keep an Extra Set of Textbooks At Home: While I may not have my work computer at home, I do have an extra set of textbooks sitting in my den. They definitely come in handy when it comes to writing last-minute sub plans.
  • Only Leave Out One Plan: I learned this one the hard way.  I was out for a multi-day conference a few years ago and left three days worth of sub plans on my desk.  Upon my return, I found out that I had three different substitute teachers in my room and that the first teacher gave the students all three assignments.  Luckily, the other two subs asked early on about the missing sub plans and my colleagues were able to find something for the students to do.  Now when I know that I am going to be out for more than one day, I give a trusted colleague a folder for each sub plan and ask her to hand one to either the office or the sub one at a time.
  • Make Sure The Students Know the Expectations: In the situation above, the substitute teachers knew to ask about a plan.  However, I once had a situation when for whatever reason the wires got crossed and the substitute never received a lesson plan, nor did he ask.  In an attempt to be proactive, the class reported that the substitute actually picked up Hooters menus during his lunch break and handed those out for the class to read (no, I'm not making this up and I did indeed find menus on my desk upon my return). Luckily the kids got together and brainstormed my reaction to them spending their class period doing this, took out their textbooks, found an interesting story to read, answered the comprehension questions and then made sure to leave it on my desk for me to correct.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Finding Oldies, But Goodies

Several blogs ago, I wrote about creating office hours for content teachers to come and seek help with modifying their lesson plans for their English language learners.  I am happy to report that they have been consistently well-attended by a set of social studies and science teachers.  We are taking baby steps and have moved from including explicit vocabulary instruction to differentiating reading assignments.  The teachers I am working with are fairly new to teaching (and new to the building).  They were skeptical about being "allowed" to use materials other than the assigned textbook.  However, they also think that my status as department chair carries weight, so they were relieved when I granted them "permission" to do so.  Since our session took up the majority of their planning period, I offered to explore their book room and bring them any treasures I was able to scrounge up.

Luckily for me, the science and social studies departments happen to share a book room.  I was given a key, but warned that while I would probably find what I was looking for, many of the materials are old, some from the 1980's.  I pointed out that the social studies teacher is currently teaching about the American Revolution and the science teacher is teaching about acids and bases.  Unless pH levels or the events of the Boston Tea Party have changed in the past thirty years (doubtful), I didn't see a problem.

After dusting off the bookshelves, I found several American history textbooks that appeared to be easier to read than the Common Core aligned textbooks that the ESOL students are currently struggling with.  I also found a set of DVDs as well as a binder full of graphic organizers.  On the science end, I found a set of adapted readers, a set of modified tests and a DVD series created by the publisher that for some reason never made it to the teacher's room.

The teachers were thrilled with the materials that I gave them.  I promised to continue to keep my eyes peeled for more materials as you never know what is going to turn up in a building that is over sixty years old.  In the meantime, these oldies but goodies will help make these classes more meaningful to to the ESOL students (and most likely, many general education students as well).  While these materials may be older than the teachers actually teaching the classes and do not include fancy web codes or suggestions for web-based activities, the truth is that learning is timeless.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Policy From the Top, Reality in the Trenches

According to a Washington Post article, the Obama administration's latest foray into the education arena involves enforcing a six year old law that mandates states to create plans to ensure that "excellent" teachers are being equally distributed to poor and under-served schools.  Now, I have spent my entire career teaching in an inner-city environment.  My current school is a Title 1 school located in the heart of "Little Mexico".  While I will not pretend that I have never worked with a bad teacher, I resent the government's assumption that the majority of the teachers working in some of America's most needy schools are anything other than excellent.

Over the years I have witnessed countless colleagues buy students clothes, ensure that they had food to take home at night and over the weekend and drive students home rather than leave them to walk home through a rough neighborhood in the dark.  Since the county school system to does not directly provide wrap-around services, our staff has worked with a local food bank to coordinate monthly events as well as a mobile dentist and a mobile hospital clinic to provide check-ups.  Just in my class alone, I have students that have witnessed the sudden death of a parent, a sibling's downward spiral with drugs and alcohol, have recently experienced homelessness and have been spent time in the foster care system.  Despite the trauma that these students have faced, the vast majority of them have shown an amazing amount of improvement, despite coming to me several years below grade level.  Many teachers at my school have similar tales. In fact, if Hollywood spent a week at my school, they would walk away with dozens of scripts for movies about people overcoming the odds.  However, according to the government, the school is a failure as the test scores do not measure up to wealthier districts.

I recently challenged my local union president to come to my school to teach our neediest students and then explain why on earth he agreed to sign off on Race to the Top.  I challenge officials from the U.S. Department of Education to come down to my school and spend a few days shadowing my colleagues before declaring that we are anything less than excellent.  Like my offer to the union president, I expect this one to be declined as well.  However, while others sit on their perch and judge, I will continue to teach, collaborate and inspire down deep inside the trenches.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Just When I Thought My Spanish Was Improving...

I have been learning Spanish on and off for the past few years.  Between having to rely on the kindness of others in Guatemala this past summer and hopelessly trying to make close to forty unaccompanied minors feel welcome this school year, I vowed to take my Spanish studies more seriously.  I signed up for and have dedicated myself to watching Destinos. Feeling a bit over confident, I decided to ignore common sense and translate a field trip permission slip without checking every word over with someone who speaks the language fluently.

Needless to say, relying on Google Translate and my ever-expanding vocabulary was a terrible idea.

The permission slip that I attempted to translate explained to the parents that we are taking a field trip to a museum.  I attempted to use the verb tomando for taking. Unfortunately, I forgot to add the n and wrote tomado, which according to my Latin American students means to get drunk.  As the students read the permission slip, they began to cheer and get really excited.  Luckily, the students let me in on the excitement and agreed to help me correct the permission slip.   They were even good sports about handing back the permission slips as I can only imagine the problems I would have faced should a parent have read it and caught my error (they claimed that their parents already know that my language skills are a work in progress and probably would have laughed).

After I have an adult who is fluent in Spanish look over the new and improved permission slip, I will distribute it once again.  I'll also make sure to dedicate part of my weekend to my Spanish studies and chalk this one up as a memorable lesson learned.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Things to Consider When Teaching ESOL Students

We have now completed 25% of the school year and some of my colleagues are still wondering the best ways to go about reaching their ESOL students.  In order to make things more cut and dry, I've created a checklist of items for them to consider.  I also created a resource website for my colleagues to use when planning lessons that align to this checklist (PM me if you want the link).

Area 1: Building Students' Background Knowledge
  • Did you clearly introduce the topic?  
  • Did you informally pre-assess the students for sufficient background knowledge and fill in gaps where needed?
  • Did you explicitly pre-teach important vocabulary?
  • Did you allow the students to interact with the vocabulary?

Area 2: Making Connections
  • Did you link the vocabulary to a reading/video selection so that the students can see it in context?
  • Is the reading/video selection appropriate for the students' level of English proficiency?
  • Did you consider the WIDA Can Do's when creating an assessment task?
  • Did you provide necessary academic supports (graphic organizers, cooperative groups, etc.)?

Area 3: Applying Knowledge
  • Did you link the reading/video and vocabulary to a writing (or creation) task?
  • Is this task appropriate for the students' level of English proficiency?
  • Did you consider the WIDA Can Do's when creating this task?
  • Did you provide necessary academic supports?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Powtoon-For Free!

I'm always on the hunt for new ideas and will try most things for free.  A case of mild insomnia had me scrolling through Twitter during the wee hours of the morning when I came across a deal for a free year of Powtoon.  For those of you that don't know, Powtoon is a website that allows individuals to create animated presentations.  Normally a $96 product, this company is giving the first 50,000 teachers to sign up a free teacher account as well as sixty student accounts.  Check out for more information.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Positive Outlook On Bus Duty

Since I do not have a homeroom this year, I have officially joined the ranks of teachers that have been assigned to AM and PM duty.  Many of you loyal blog readers have been managing some sort of extra duty, whether it be cafeteria, bus or hall duty for years.  My hat is off to you.  While I have managed to avoid cafeteria duty, you can find me standing out in the parking lot in the heat, rain (and soon, the cold) most mornings and afternoons.

Truth be told, when I first received my assignment, I was less than ecstatic.  I imagined having to deal with irate bus drivers and quelling some of the more undesirable behaviors that middle school students can engage in when left with a group of their peers and idle time before and after school.  My fears have largely been alleviated as bus duty has provided me with an opportunity to get to know the school population as a whole and not just the students that are enrolled in ESOL classes.

Since my classroom is hidden behind the cafeteria and I teach only a segment of the student population, I assumed that I was anonymous to the rest of the school.  Much to my surprise, I have discovered that this is not the case and most of the students greet me by name when they get off the bus.  The majority of the school's population is made up of former ESOL students and remember it as a positive experience, so it turns out that they have made the effort to learn all of the ESOL teachers' names, despite the fact that they no longer participate in the program.  I am flattered by this and make the effort to engage dozens of students in short conversations on a daily basis.  Now when I go in to help out with content classes, the ESOL students are no longer singled out as the other students are often the ones shouting out my name and waving at me to come over and look at their assignment.  This allows me to gain a view of the entire school and see where the ESOL population fits in.  It means that I can be a better advocate as I bring this new insight to the administration when pleading my case.

It's amazing how something so dreaded as bus duty can turn out to be a blessing in disguise.  Of course, I may not be saying this come the first cold snap, so do stay tuned.  Oh yeah, as far as those irate bus drivers?  They really do exist, but since they know that I do not have the power to suspend a student's bus privileges, they bypass me and head straight to the office.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Think Globally, Shop Locally

One of the duties of the ESOL department chair is to assist the parent liaison with our parent outreach.  We co-hosted our first parent meeting this week (topic: how to access the online grading portal) and agreed that rather than hold it during the evening, we would see what kind of turnout we could get for a morning event.  The parent event was advertised as a coffee hour.

All was well until the parent liaison asked me where I planned to get the coffee and refreshments for the event.  In a panic, I got a quote from Dunkin Donuts and immediately realized that I was looking at a $35-50 tab that I may or may not get reimbursed for. Thinking back to the wonderful bakery that was smack dab in the middle of the Guatemalan town I visited over the summer, it dawned on me that the goods at the local Mexican establishment would not only taste much better than Dunkin Donuts (I know that I'm betraying my New England roots here), it would also most likely be much cheaper. Armed with my mission, I signed out of the building and drove around the neighborhood to price compare and sample.

The local bakery turned out to be a better option as despite a language barrier, I got a quote for $20 and a connection with the manager who happens to have a child that attends the school.  Since I never leave the building during the day, I decided to venture out to the edge of the school's boundary and try the taqueria that I've heard about for the past five years.  It turned out to be worth the wait and again, I introduced myself to the employees and made connections.  When I reported the events of my day to my students, they were excited that I visited their neighborhood and tried their favorite places. The promise of goods from the local bakery also encouraged some of the more reluctant students to remind their parents of the meeting, which got a better than expected turnout.

Since I have some flexibility in my schedule, I will continue to venture out to the local establishments.   I even plan to bring some fliers with me next time advertising the upcoming parent-teacher conference night.  While I try to reach out to parents, the truth is that my school does have a bit of a PR problem when it comes to the perception that our teachers are able to relate to the community.  I figure that this approach is worth a shot.  If nothing else, I can ask my tax advisor if my carne asada tacos and horchata are considered a business expense if I'm at these establishments representing the school :)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Please Tell Me How You Really Feel...

In the true spirit of better late than never, my school has spent the past few weeks filling vacancies that have existed since the beginning of the year.  My new principal is absolutely charmed by my brutal honesty, landing me on the candidate selection committee once again.  Unlike spring candidates who are just trying to make the cut, fall candidates seem to realize that the ball is a little more in their court and make some bolder statements.  Here are the responses that got my vote:

  • "Even though you didn't directly ask me, I just want to let you know that I am a very passionate educator.  In fact, I think that teachers who only come to school for the paycheck should have stepped aside last spring so that I would not still be looking for a job."
  • "How will I find time to do everything?  Easy.  The reading specialist should be the second person in the building every morning, right behind the principal."
  • "Why am I qualified?  I have a proven track record in three different states of raising student achievement.  I also have a dozen references who will attest to that.  Go ahead and call them."
  • "I've previously worked in this district.  I know what it takes to work here and I'm back for more."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What's Your Reward?

I had the opportunity to catch last week's middle school Twitter chat.  The topic was increasing student motivation.  As many middle school teachers will tell you, motivating eleven to fourteen year old students on a daily basis can be a tough nut to crack.   Many teachers will appeal to students to become more intrinsically motivated,  yet others will gladly turn to extrinsic reward systems to encourage positive behavior, class participation and homework completion.

While relying on students' intrinsic motivation can be time consuming and at times frustrating, I do not believe in external reward systems.  You will not find a sticker chart anywhere in my classroom.  I believe that the keys to motivating students to reach academic goals are outstanding teaching and relationship building.  If the class material is made accessible to all students, their confidence to master it will increase, leading to a feeling of success.  If students struggle with the material, the relationship between the students and teacher has to be there for the students to seek clarity.  The teacher has to be able to check for understanding whether it is through students' reactions to the presentation, the formative assessment or students flat out telling her that they need additional assistance.  Even my toughest classes have recognized my willingness to go back and re-teach material as they have sat in far too many classes where the teacher put the blame for lack of understanding solely on them.  These efforts have led to students putting more effort into my class.  I can happily say that in twelve years of teaching, I have only issued failing grades to one student (who refused to come to school despite a court order to do so).

As far as motivating students to display outstanding behavior, again you will not find a sticker chart or even the use of Class Dojo anywhere near my room.  I have read The Essential 55 by Ron Clark and while I do not have fifty-plus rules, I did take away one thing from him: students will do what is expected if you are explicit and consistent.  I am crystal clear about my expectations from the beginning and am relentless about modeling and enforcing them.  Doing what they are asked to do by a person with authority (without arguing), treating others with respect and using polite language such as "yes" (as opposed to "yeah"),"please" and "thank you" may be my classroom expectations today, but they will lead to far more rewards in life than any piece of candy that I could possibly provide.  In fact, most of my students have already experienced those life rewards while still in middle school and have happily reported that their use of polite and respectful language has resulted in favorable treatment.

Of course, my students are recognized on a daily basis through praise, smiles, pats on the back and positive reports home.  I even bring in rewards such as candy to recognize my students for doing something particularly outstanding.  However, this is extra and is not expected from the students as a condition for contributing to a positive classroom culture.  Of course, this sometimes encourages enterprising students to figure this out and go above and beyond on purpose.  After all, deep down I really am easily impressed and the Takis trick-or-treat bags are available at my local bodega this time of year.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ninja Sighting

Today was the second time in the past month that I have been spotted minutes away from my hometown.  The only problem is that I have not been anywhere near New England since July.  I have a twin sister and the people in question automatically assumed that I was her.  The Ninja spotters had no clue who she was, so I can't assume that it's a twin thing.  The people in question happened to be educators.  According to my sister, this happens quite often.

The fact that this happens at all somewhat baffles me.  I was a quiet kid throughout school and did not learn how to make myself stand out until I went to college.  I never spoke up and while I was a member of two athletic teams, I was one of a few hundred students at my school that fit this profile.  On the other hand, my sister has always been the more outgoing one.

Now that I am a teacher, I try to bring the students (like myself) who prefer to blend in out into the open.  I explicitly tell them what makes them unique and encourage them to use their God given talents to do good in the world.  I make the effort to do this because my teachers (while excellent educators) did not take the time to tell me how my uniqueness would make them remember me fifteen years into the future. At an age where I was constantly questioning my self-worth, it would have been encouraging to know this information.

In order to satisfy my curiosity, I have asked my sister (who is a big fan of this blog) to do some investigative work next time there is a Ninja sighting.  Perhaps if I know what my teachers saw in me, it will change my perception of the past.  As teachers, we always try to ensure that our students' school experience is somewhat an improvement over our own.  This information may be the key to making sure that continues to happen in my classroom.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The War on Teachers

As an avid newspaper reader, it can sometimes be demoralizing to read what some of the public has to say about our public schools, especially our urban ones.  While there are obviously ways that we can continue to improve the public school system, the tactic of bullying teachers and undermining the public's right to neighborhood schools while reducing the necessary funding is not the way to get there.  Whenever I read or hear news of the public pushing back and publicly supporting teachers, it gives me a reason to believe that we do indeed make a difference and it is recognized by society.  I recently came across this video of Philadelphia students protesting the fact that their district has been cash-starved for years and their teachers' contracts were recently literally torn up in the middle of the night.  The best part is, this protest occurred during a public screening of Won't Back Down, a film that has been lauded for exaggerating the worst of our public school system and putting it out to the masses as business as usual in every school in America.  Check it out:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Teaching Poetry

Every teacher has at least one topic that she has to fake her way through tolerating for the sake of her students.  For me, that topic is poetry.  As a student, I do not recall my teachers over-emphasizing poetry.  I consider myself lucky as I always found the task of trying to analyze a poem's meaning to be rather tedious.  Nonetheless, I have spent the past two weeks teaching poetry.

Poetry is a difficult concept for English language learners to grasp as it is full of figurative language.  My general strategy to teaching poetry is to engage in "close reads" and work with the students to break down the poems stanza-by-stanza.  Rather than teach poetry as a separate unit (as advocated by the school district), I tie it into larger thematic units in order to give the students some context to work from.  Our current unit revolves around identity.

When I announced that we were going to begin our identity unit by reading poetry, the sound of the students' groans was deafening.  Fearful that my lack of enthusiasm had an impact on the students' attitude, I immediately readjusted my mindset and carefully showed my students how to break down a poem stanza-by-stanza and unwrap metaphors.  Between my enthusiasm and the engaging topic, the students were soon beating me to the punch when it came to summarizing each stanza and explaining each piece of figurative language.  It was truly a joy to see my students navigating their way through The Lesson of the Moth, Identity  and a poetry collection by Sara Holbrook.  The students wrapped up this section of the unit by writing biographical poems.

As promised, the students will continue to read poetry throughout the year.  While I am not sure this will ever become my favorite topic to teach, I am definitely encouraged by the amount of progress that my students have made over the past two weeks.  They proved that they have the grit to tackle a difficult topic and come out on top.  While this victory may soon be forgotten by the students, I will be quick to remind them of it as we are bound to hit some rough patches every now and again.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Clean-Up in Room 122...

One of the perks of being department chair is having full access to the online grading system.  In previous years, I had to either resort to contacting each of my students' teachers to find out their grades at progress report and report card time or standing like a sentry by my classroom door on release day and declaring that the day's price of admission was allowing me to see their progress report or report card.  Imagine my delight when I realized that my new access privileges allow me to view all of  the students' grades the morning after they are posted while sitting down and enjoying my (fourth) cup of coffee.

The previous principal's announcement last spring  that he was leaving triggered a mass exodus, leaving the school with a new staff.  The new staff is definitely enthusiastic about teaching and tackling the school's challenges.  However, most have not had prior experience teaching ESOL students  As I looked through the students' grades, it was clear that many are struggling in their core content classes.  From what I know, the administration has not looked at the ESOL students' grades as closely as I have and as the head of the ESOL department, this puts me in a tough place.  I need to help the students, yet earn and keep the teachers' trust at the same time.

While it is easy to simply schedule time a block of time to be in teachers' classrooms and try to assist, I have made it my mission to make that my last line of defense.  In the past, I have found that if I am in the classroom, teachers have little incentive to actually modify their lesson plan.  They just wait for it to fail.  Then, they expect me to rush into clean-up mode and re-teach the lesson to the students who did not understand it.

Therefore, I have created office hours.  I will dedicate time each week to helping teachers modify their lesson plans to meet the needs of their ESOL students.  This proactive measure before they teach the lesson will allow teachers to maximize their class period to benefit all students.  After a few sessions, it is my hope that teachers will feel comfortable modifying on their own as well as locating appropriate learning materials.  Of course, if it is determined during planning that teachers need me to model the lesson or co-teach with them, I will be more than happy to do so.

I informed the staff of this new initiative yesterday via e-mail.  I have already had several teachers complete the Google interest form.  One teacher even texted me early this morning to ask me to look over a test that he plans to administer before the first office hours session begins.  Things are looking good right now and hopefully this new initiative will help jump-start a new era of thinking about instruction.  Do stay tuned.

Monday, October 6, 2014

How to Win Friends and Influence People

One of the more difficult aspects of an ESOL ninja's job is convincing mainstream teachers to modify their teaching strategies in order to make their content more comprehensible to ESOL students.  While some teachers are overly eager to implement new strategies, we've all met those teachers that are reluctant to change their old habits.  They often justify their mindset by making comments such as "They need to learn English" and "They all have to take the end-of-year assessment".   Over the years, I have learned how to engage with these types of individuals.  While I can't claim to have converted everyone's mindset, I have had quite a few victories in the battle over hearts and minds.  Here are some of my tips:
  • Never Take It Personally: Several years ago, I encountered a teacher who truly believed that being nasty to anything ESOL related would result in those students disappearing from his roster.  By the time I got to him, one of the paraprofessionals assigned to him had already resigned and he tried his behavior out on me.  Apparently he missed the memo on my New England and New York credentials.  I kept my cool and let him know that nothing that he was going to tell me was going to hurt my feelings and that my only motive was to help the students.  Deep down, he also wanted to help the students to succeed and was willing to level with me as well as step outside his comfort zone.  When the students took the end-of-year state assessment, the percentage of ESOL students that scored proficient or above tripled over the previous year.
  • Slow and Steady Wins the Race:  Most of the reluctance I've encountered was actually rooted in fear.  Before asking a teacher to change, it's important to acknowledge all of the positive things that happen in their classroom.  Then ask them to make small changes one at a time and allow them to experience success.  As my sister says, "success breeds success" and once they experience it, they'll be motivated to keep going.
  • Open Up Your Classroom: My newcomer and beginner students speak English.  My intermediate and advanced students often read text selections out of books that are used in the mainstream language arts classes.  While this is common sense to me, to outsiders this site is more exotic than the baby pandas at the National Zoo.  Over the years, my classroom has become an endless parade for folks from the national, state and local level.  Since I don't mind the attention, I've opened my classroom to my colleagues.  Whether they are looking for strategies, need to fulfill an observation requirement for a graduate school course, desire an opportunity to talk to their ESOL students in a more intimate setting or simply need a cool place to relax (I have a new air-conditioner), my door is always open and this policy has made people more willing to collaborate with me.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Trying to Work Smarter, Not Harder

Do you ever come home from work exhausted, yet feel like you've accomplished nothing?  This has been my feeling on a regular basis over the past few weeks.  I go to work intending to really focus on the ESOL staff, some selected content teachers and of course, my students.  I have been able to keep my vow to my students about keeping them in the forefront, but otherwise feel like I'm drowning.

My school is wrapping up the end of our crunch period as first quarter progress report grades were due earlier this week and student learning objectives have to be uploaded into the online portal by this weekend.  I am not the registrar nor the professional development chair at my school.  I do not see myself as a computer expert.  This has not stopped a good percentage of the staff from requesting my help via e-mail or tracking me down on my cell phone.  I even had people who roll into work twenty to thirty minutes late on a regular basis request an appointment to see me (really?) an hour before our report time to seek advice and feedback.  On one hand I'm flattered that so many people view me as a valuable resource.  On the other hand, I'm exhausted.  

I am sure that once this crunch period is over, things will slow down a bit.  In the meantime, I should see this as a great opportunity to build connections with my colleagues, many who are new to the building.  I can only hope that the teachers who are eager to seek my feedback on their student learning objectives remain open when it comes time to discuss ways to continue meeting the needs of their ESOL students.  On the same note, I hope that some of these teachers continue to ask questions, especially about their ESOL students even if I do have to  continue to respond to a dozen e-mails and text messages by 6:00 AM (I keep my work e-mail on my phone.  Yes, I know it's a bad idea.).  I know that eventually this too shall pass and for now I will continue to keep up with the fast pace and look forward to the day when I can master the art of working smarter, not harder.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Key and Peele's Substitute Teacher: The Movie?

Lack of cable television has not prevented me from catching Key and Peele's substitute teacher skits.  Now there are talks of expanding these skits centering around a substitute teacher who faces cultural challenges in his new assignment into a full-fledged movie.  I'm not sure how they're going to stretch these hilarious, yet short skits into a 90-120 minute movie, but I'll most likely be in line for a ticket should that day ever come.  Read all about it right here.



Saturday, September 27, 2014

Going Through the Motions

The past few weeks have been on the stressful side.  Part of being a teacher-leader is attending meetings and I have been attending a lot lately.  While in general, I don't mind meetings, these were the types of meetings where I was forced to defend my program.

On quite a few occasions these meetings have cut into my class period, leaving me to scramble to find coverage.  By the time I got to class, I was late, frazzled and already annoyed.  I was happy to see the kids, but felt that I was merely going through the motions of teaching as my mind was elsewhere.  The kids began to feel it too and I could begin to see my class unravel before my eyes before the leaves have fallen off the trees.

The other day I was forced to do something that some teachers refuse to do: I confessed to my class that I have been distracted lately (without going into details) and apologized for not giving them my all.  I told them my plan for moving forward and they readily got on board.  The past few days have been the perfect picture of teaching and learning.  Word of my struggle has spread throughout the school kingdom and some administrators and teacher-leaders have become my allies, so the politics have decreased significantly.  One bright side of all this was that I was able to use my situation as an opportunity to try to angle funding for the upcoming WIDA Conference in Atlanta.  The funding may indeed come through.  Do stay tuned.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Teaching Grammar

As a new teacher, bringing work home every weekend was a fact of life.  Now that I have a dozen years of teaching experience under my belt, I try to limit my weekend work sessions to once or twice a month.  This weekend was one declared a working weekend.

One of the major tasks on my to do list was updating my daily warm-up PowerPoint.  A few years ago I switched textbooks.  One of the major drawbacks of the new textbook is that it does not include an appropriate grammar program.  While grammar is covered, the layout of the program is not linear and assumes that the students come to me with a firmer foundation than they actually do.  Determined to make grammar instruction deliberate and not reactionary, I began my search two years ago for a program that I could implement everyday, preferably as a warm-up.  Since grammar can become a dry subject very quickly, I wanted the content to be appealing to middle school students.

I found my answer in Caught'ya!  Grammar with a Giggle for Middle School: Giggles in the Middle (Kiester, 2006).  For the mere price of $20, I have access to three years worth of daily grammar warm-ups.  Each warm-up is a portion of a serial story.  As soon as my students walk into my classroom, they read the sentence or sentences about the adventures at Horribly Hard Middle School and re-write them with correct capitalization, punctuation and spelling.  They also study the challenge vocabulary that can be found in each warm-up and practice using context clues to unlock their meaning.
The program takes up about ten minutes of class time per day to implement and has made a tremendous difference in my students' writing.  It has made them more conscientious and less dependent on me to edit their paper for small errors. This means that I spend more time helping students bring their writing to the next level and less time correcting lower-case i's.  That alone is worth $20.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Breaking Bad News Gently

One of the most important aspects of being a teacher leader is being an actual teacher.  At my school, department chairs have been pulled from regular classroom assignments and placed in support roles.  I am the exception as a hole in the schedule allowed me to win my way back into a classroom for at least part of the day.  

Earlier this week I was in a leadership meeting when it was decided that all teachers would have to submit daily lesson plans on a multi-page, district-created template.  I was the lone voice of dissent at the table because a) I knew that this decision would create more work for me since I would have to follow this mandate, b) I knew that teachers who have been using self-created templates for years would balk at this requirement and potentially see this as an us vs. them issue and c) I feared that this requirement could be violating the contract as it only states that teachers have to show evidence of planning.  This is vague and technically speaking it means that I could write my lesson plan with a magic marker on my Dunkin Donuts cup every morning and meet this requirement.  I guess that we'll have to wait and see on this issue.

I met with my department today and told them about this new requirement.  As expected, some were unhappy.  However, they did not hold a long and angry debate about this issue.  They could clearly see that I was stressed out about having to burden them with yet another requirement and knew that I was sincere when I reminded them that as a classroom teacher I was beholden to this mandate as well.  They quickly got over it and we were able to spend the rest of the meeting being productive.  I was grateful to be let off the hook so easily and will continue to work to gain their trust and respect for the remainder of the year.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Connecting with Families

One of the many advantages of looping with students is gaining the opportunity to connect with parents and other family members.  My school held their annual Back to School Night on Thursday and I had a great time catching up with my students' families as well as reminding everyone of our shared goal to create first-generation American college graduates.  Overall, my school had a pretty good parent turnout (at least judging from the parking lot).  However, despite the turnout, I know that certain colleagues will lament about the lack of parental involvement for the remainder of the school year.

I am not naive to the challenges that my colleagues face.  I have also experienced frustration over getting parents to show up to meetings or implore their child to take school a bit more seriously.  However, by and large, I have been able to connect with families and would rank parent involvement towards the bottom of my list of challenges as an educator.  Here are a few of my secrets:
  • Be Explicit: One of the reasons why so many of my students' families show up to events such as Back to School Night is because I explicitly say, "I want to meet/see your family."  Their responses are usually along the lines of "Am I in trouble?" or "They can come even if they don't speak English?"  Once I reassure the students that they are not in trouble (at least in 95% of the cases) and that I will figure out a way to communicate, they are usually on board.  In fact, most are proud that their teacher would take a such an interest in their family.
  • Be Respectful: In my opinion, one of the main reasons why teachers have such a difficult time connecting with ESOL families beyond Back to School Night is due to the fact that the families feel uncomfortable.  Just like American parents, ESOL parents want to be acknowledged and welcomed.   When teachers gear their presentations and attention towards English-speaking parents while ignoring the parents of ESOL students, the community does take note.  If you can, learn a few words in your students' primary language.  If you are unable to do that, a handshake and a smile are universal signs of friendliness and respect.
  • Be Flexible: Many schools have a set time during the school day for parent conferences.  While some of my students' parents are able to attend meetings at 10:30 in the morning, many of them have uncompromising work schedules.  Rather than take the "if they really cared about their child, they would take off or just quit their job" attitude, I have met with families as early at 6:30 A.M.  I have also held phone conferences and arranged for sub coverage to meet with parents if the only time they could meet was when I had a class.  The families appreciate the effort and are usually willing to partner with me.
  • Be Memorable: Juan is one of my current eighth grade students.  I have been teaching him since he was in sixth grade and when I first met his father, he was wearing a New York Yankees hat.  With the help of a translator, I explained that the Yankees are the despised rival of my Boston Red Sox.  He laughed and has made sure to wear that hat every time he comes to the school.  If I'm not in the office, he makes the effort to come to my classroom, point to his hat and smile.  There may be a language barrier, but we have kept up the inside joke for over two years and the one time that Juan was unwilling to cooperate in class, Sr. Martinez came right up to the school to back me up.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Creating an Interactive Word Wall

One of my most dreaded beginning of the year tasks is decorating my classroom.  While I understand the benefits of creating a warm and inviting atmosphere, the truth is that I never did master the art of properly posting paper on a bulletin board or aligning letters in a straight line.  This year some of my colleagues decided to take pity on me and lend me a hand in decorating all eight of my bulletin boards.  My bulletin boards are now neat, bright and outlined in tasteful borders.  My students noticed an immediate difference.

I am so impressed by my classroom that I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to create the ultimate interactive word wall (an idea shamelessly stolen from Confessions of a Crafty Middle School Teacher).  I created word cards for the first round of this year's academic vocabulary words and attached a QR code to each one.  Now students can not only see the spelling and definition of targeted vocabulary, they can scan a QR code and watch a video/PowerPoint explanation or complete an interactive activity.  While students at my school have iPads, this could be the perfect opportunity to allow students to make the connection between the electronic device in their pocket and learning new concepts.

This project did take a bit longer than expected, but seeing the look on my students' faces when they discovered the word wall was worth it.  The fact that my vice-principal was pleased that I fulfilled the administration's mandate to create a student-friendly word wall can only help me in the near and immediate future.  If you are interested in getting your very own copy of my word cards, click here.  Please note that there is a conflict between the QR codes and the AT&T scanner app.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Rethinking Professional Development

By this point in the school year, most teachers have engaged in ten or more hours of professional development.  Whether this occurred over the summer, during back to school week or at an after-school workshop, a few of these sessions may have resonated with you, while other sessions, well, at least you can say that you showed up.  One of my favorite education columnists, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post recently published an article titled The huge problem with professional development for teachers.   You can read the article by clicking here.

The main idea of the article is what many teachers have known for years, professional development sessions are often heavy on lectures and short on actually showing participants how the presented ideas play out in a classroom.  Despite best intentions and a yearly price tag that runs into the billions, the attempts to professionally develop educators are not effective as scores of teachers around the country are frustrated and thousands leave the profession each year.  Clearly there is much that can be done to make professional development more engaging, relevant and cost effective.   Here are some of my suggestions for improvement from deep within the trenches:
  • Limit the Initiatives: One of the reasons why many professional development initiatives never live up to their full potential is because there are too many initiatives.  Even teachers that fully buy into a concept never have time to see it in action as they are pressured to move on to the next great idea.  Please note that I'm putting my money where my mouth is on this idea.  One of my colleagues is putting together a New Teachers' Academy.  She asked me which topics she should include and I gave her this same advice.  Since my school is implementing SIOP, I suggested that the majority of the sessions should focus on this topic.  She readily agreed and then signed me up to be the facilitator.  
  • Grow Your Own PD Talent: I have attended many excellent professional development sessions facilitated by outside speakers, while in other cases it was clear that the presenter did not get click past the district website's homepage.  There can sometimes be a need for a district or school to bring in someone from the outside, but it should be the exception rather than the rule as it takes up a large chunk of the professional development budget.   Between the fee and travel expenses, a district can easily spend $5,000 to $20,000 just to have its educators listen to an idea for three hours.  More often than not, the speakers are not around to coach and mentor teachers as they attempt to implement whichever strategy was presented.  For a fraction of the cost, school districts could have its own educators conduct professional development sessions and then offer release time to allow them to help their colleagues implement the strategy.  If they want to go the extra mile, they could pay teachers a fee to agree to be videotaped implementing whichever strategy was introduced and post it on the district website for other educators in the district to view and learn from.  This would not only save the district money, it would allow educators to step into leadership roles while remaining in the classroom.
  • Allow Teachers to Chart Their Own Path: Many teachers spend their own money on educational books, magazines and conferences.  Why not give teachers a yearly budget to purchase these items rather than rely on them to reach into their wallet for the sake of improving their craft?  Not only would this encourage teachers to pursue their professional development needs without worrying about the cost, it could be a part of the district's teacher recruitment and retention strategy.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Week One Round-Up

It's taken me all of Labor Day weekend to recuperate from the first week of school.  It was a busy and challenging week.  Here's a recap of the week's events:

  • Schedule Changes, Lots of Schedule Changes: My department was the last one to be entered into the computer system.  I knew that we had schedules based on the number of e-mails I received on a Friday night.  I spent the Saturday before school started at school helping the master scheduler make some schedule changes.  Throughout the week , I was a constant presence in the guidance office asking the guidance counselors to make additional changes as teachers brought them to my attention.  I'm still on the guidance counselors' good side.  I think.
  • Reaching All of Our Students: The teachers at my school are still inspired by their new-found knowledge of SIOP strategies and requested not only a list of ESOL students in their classes, but their WIDA ACCESS scores so that they can begin to differentiate instruction.  I've also been invited into several classrooms to help teachers plan lessons and tailor their instruction for their English language learners.  This also encourages me as while I have worked at this school for a few years, it is my first year in an official leadership role and I wasn't sure how my colleagues would perceive me.
  • They're Coming to America: My area of the country received thousands of new students from Central America over the summer.  The Newcomer program at my school already has twenty-five students and we are just about ready to open a second section.  I am working with the the teachers, administration, parent outreach specialist and school social worker to make sure that these students have everything they need to be successful.  I also submitted a request for grant funds to purchase reading material in the students' native language.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

National Board Field Tests

My district has been encouraging teachers to become National Board certified teachers for the past few years.  Despite targeted encouragement from some of my colleagues that have successfully completed the National Board process, I have yet to take the plunge.  This is partly because I have been pursuing other professional certifications such as administration and partly because I am intimidated by the entire process.

I recently learned that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is in the process of revamping the certification process and in need of people to field test the exams.  They are specifically targeting the busy and intimidated individuals that want to take the process for a test drive (free of charge).  I filled out a short questionnaire about my teaching experience and was notified a day later that I have been accepted into the program.  My last obstacle is finding a time and date to take the field test as of course, the only available slots are on weekdays during school hours.  If you are interested in applying to take the field test, here is the link.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The First Day

Today was the first day of school.  I spent the day attending to parking lot duty,  locating students, preventing students from getting (too) lost, changing schedules and eventually, teaching.  The official school day begins at 9:00.  By 10:55 my FitBt buzzed, signaling that I had walked 10,000 steps.

It was exciting to see the students and I enjoyed hearing about their summer.  Since I taught them all last year (and some the year before as well), I decided to take a different approach to the usual PowerPoint presentation outlining my classroom expectations.  My desks are arranged in groups, so I handed each group a scenario such as a student walking into class late and causing a disruption.  Each group has been charged with discussing the scenario and deciding the impacts that the student's actions in each scenario has on instruction as well as what the student could have done differently.  The students started the assignment today and will finish and present it tomorrow.  The goal of the assignment is to have the students decide the rationale for each classroom expectation on their own and learn how to take responsibility for their learning environment.

Like many of you, I am usually exhausted after the first day of school and this year is no exception.  I plan on taking it easy tonight and recharging for day two.  Here's to hoping that tomorrow will be just as joyful as today, yet significantly less chaotic.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Back to School: Teacher Week

I am in the middle of my first official week back at school.  Here's a rundown of my week so far:

  • I have been appointed department chair.  Since my school has one of the largest middle school ESOL programs in the state (it's close to 350 students at this point), the job description has been changed.  I will spend first period with an assigned class (I requested and received eighth grade since I love looping with students) and will spend the remainder of the day managing paperwork and working with other teachers.  I am currently reading Student Centered Coaching: A Guide for K-8 Coaches and Principals (Sweeney, 2010) to prepare for this new responsibility.
  • I admit that I am a bit nervous about working so closely with adults.  It can be difficult to ask adults to evaluate and consider changing their practices, even if it does propel student achievement.  However, I was encouraged today when I reminded my department about our meeting over the PA system (we're scattered around the building) and teachers who are not members of the ESOL department showed up just to hear what I had to say.  
  • I worked a monster day yesterday and managed to get my entire room set up.  The building was thoroughly cleaned over the summer and the bag of pre-cut material I use for the bulletin boards was mistaken for trash and discarded (FYI: New England Patriots fabric is not trash).  The ever-expanding ESOL department came to the rescue and helped me find enough paper and border to cover all eight of my bulletin boards.  I have to say that my room has never looked better.
  • My school has a new principal.  He is a former ESOL student and very supportive of the program.  I am extremely optimistic about this year.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Website Updates

Two days after the staff at my school concluded SIOP training, I received fan mail from one of my colleagues.  She enjoyed the training and wanted to learn more about language objectives so that she can begin meeting the needs of her English language learners on day one.  That's the type of thing that makes every ESOL ninja's heart flutter.

While I did spend my weekend relaxing, I also answered her questions by creating a language support resource website that the teachers at my school can reference when planning lessons.  I included links to the WIDA ELD standards, tutorials on writing language objectives, graphic organizers and even education-related Spanish vocabulary lists to enhance parent communication.  I sent her the link and will unveil the site to the rest of the staff at some point next week.

While I was logged into blogger, I decided to upgrade this site.  As loyal followers can see, I changed over the template and slightly tweaked the layout.  I also added a link-up for all of you fellow bloggers.  Feel free to add your blog to my site.

Friday, August 15, 2014

It's That Time of Year Again

As I write this blog, my summer vacation is quickly coming to an end.  According to the calendar, I am due to report back to work on Monday, with the students returning the following week.  While I was making friends and gaining new experiences in Guatemala, my school went through a major transition.  When I walk in the door on Monday, I will be greeted by new administrators and a good number of new colleagues as well as introduced to new programs.

I attended SIOP training earlier this week (one of the new programs), but the only information that was shared about the upcoming school year was that there will be new administrators, new teachers and new programs (such as SIOP).  The teachers are still anxiously waiting for their teaching and room assignments.

I usually strive to be as organized and prepared to begin the year as possible.  In fact, by this time of summer, I am usually at a point where my year is mapped out and the materials for my first unit are copied and ready to be passed out.  I am hesitant to do much in this situation as there are close to a dozen class options that could be assigned to me.  Luckily, I have been teaching for a while and have ideas in the back of my head.  I also have a hard drive full of materials dating back to pre-9/11 that I can draw from if needed.

Given the situation, I will dedicate this weekend to relaxing.  Time will only tell what next week will bring, so I better unwind while I still can.  Stay tuned for further updates straight from the trenches.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Leveled Reading

One of things that I miss most about my one year of teaching elementary school is the easy access to leveled readers.  Modifying lessons for my second graders was a cinch thanks to a closet full of "little books".  I admit that modifying lessons at the middle school level can be difficult as low-level, high-interest texts can be difficult to come by and expensive to purchase on my own.  I recently discovered, a website that provides leveled texts for the ideal price of $0.  Registration is easy and I noticed that the site recently added novel units for popular books such as The Westing Game.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Reddit Gifts

I am still waiting for the official word on which classes I'm teaching this year, so I'm hesitant to buy too many school supplies.  However, I came across Redditgifts this afternoon while perusing Reddit's teacher board.  I completed the registration form and requested binder paper, pencils and an electric pencil sharpener.  I will be entered into a lottery and if I am selected, I will receive a care package from a generous donor.  Registration ends on August 18th.  Here's the link:

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lessons from Guatemala

My epic Central American adventure has come to an end.  The teachers and students at Escuela El Suyate gave me a heartfelt sendoff and some trinkets from Guatemala to take back to the United States.  Most important, my experience gave me several things to ponder as I begin to plan for the upcoming school year:
  • Be grateful for what you have: The air conditioner in my classroom broke right before the beginning of this past school year.  Since one of the reasons I agreed to move to the South was because of the pictures of the shiny air conditioners in the district's recruitment literature, I immediately made it my mission to have this problem corrected as soon as possible.  As word spread, I received over a dozen visits from colleagues who not only dropped off fans, but reassured me that our working conditions are "terrible".  Of course, I just got back from teaching in a school that lacked air conditioning, an indoor restroom and in some cases overhead lighting.  I was able to persevere under these conditions and this experience will definitely make me think twice next time I hear or want to complain about how inadequate my school building is.
  • It is possible to teach without technology: As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, many of the classrooms at the school lacked electricity, never mind computers and wi-fi.  Despite the lack of technological resources, students were still taught math and reading skills along with some English.  While the Guatemalan education system is still light years behind the United States, teaching and learning is going on in fun and creative ways.  In fact, planning lessons without relying on technology became somewhat of a relief.  Lessons were never put on hold due to the network being down and I didn't have to worry about equipment malfunctioning,  While I will continue to incorporate technology into my lessons, I will also begin to rely more heavily on teaching methods that do not require anything beyond some basic materials and my own creativity.
  • Embrace and support new colleagues: From the second I entered Escuela El Suyate, I was immediately embraced by the other teachers.  I was pulled into the staff's family atmosphere and they insisted that I accept their offers for assistance in areas ranging from navigating language barriers to transportation.  This made me think about how we support new colleagues in the United States.  More often than not, we may introduce ourselves and point out our classrooms, but do little more.  I am going to remember the feeling that I had when others so selflessly rearranged their professional and personal responsibilities to help me and pay it forward this coming school year. 
  • Step out of my comfort zone: Much to the annoyance of my friends and family, I am a homebody.  My idea of a long vacation is four days.  This trip lasted over two weeks.  I was away from home for almost a month as I wrapped in visits to New England on both ends of the trip (partly to drop my dog off with my parents).  While I was originally hesitant to take this trip at all, it turned out to be an absolutely fabulous experience and I am even strongly considering going back next year (you can too, if you're interested send me a message).  As I go into the school year, I am bound to find myself in other situations that are outside my comfort zone.  Rather than run from these challenges, I will tackle them head on.