Friday, May 30, 2014

Two Weeks and Counting

There are two weeks of school left.  Surprisingly enough, this past week actually went by kind of fast. Of course, at this time of year, I try to keep the schedule jam-packed in order to keep up the momentum.  Here's how my students and I spent the week:

  • All of my classes are reading folktales.  This is always a fun end of year activity as this is an amusing, yet thought provoking genre.  In order to keep things equitable, I generally choose folktales from around the globe.
  • The eighth grade students visited State University today.  This is an annual trip sponsored by the county ESOL office and as usual was a big hit.  My school is located only about ten minutes from State University, yet is a world away.  The students returned to school excited about going to college after high school.  The university's shuttle bus picked us up this year and brought us to campus, which was a new, yet pleasant addition to this year's trip.
  • It turned out that some of the county's high school graduations were taking place on the campus of State University today.  Since the superintendent had time in between graduations, he stopped by and paid us a visit during our tour.  The students (and I) were impressed that such an important person would take the time to seek us out.  The superintendent encouraged the students to continue to embrace being bi-lingual and then consider working for the school district after they finish their education.  Hopefully, the students will remember and take heed to his message.
  • My students will continue to read folktales next week. To wrap up, they will create and present their own folktales.  Since it was recently decreed that the laptop cart will be housed in my classroom for the remainder of the school year, the students will be creating their folktales using Google Drive.  This will give them one last time to practice using this program before they depart for the summer.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Making It Until the End of the Year

In most districts, the countdown to summer vacation has begun.  This is the time of year when student misbehavior tends to peak as they anticipate less severe consequences due to your fatigue.  Here are some tips to maintain student momentum during this time of year.
  • Begin Experimenting: Remember those cool ideas that you saw on someone's blog or learned about at a PD session, but were reluctant to try due to competing instructional priorities?  Now is the perfect time to try those things.  This time of year is less stressful and changing things up a bit will keep the students on their toes.
  • Consider Trying Projects: Project-based learning is a new and upcoming education term. Having students work on engaging projects has several benefits, one of the most important being that they do most of the work.  I've engaged my students in several project-based learning activities during this time of year.  They were so busy learning that they forgot to complain about having to learn in late May and early June.  Here's some more information:  
  • Read Something Fun: Regardless of which subject you teach, you can further engage your students through fun and interesting text selections.  It can be a play, folktale or news story about a gross scientific discovery.  
  • Write Something Fun: If you're not able to find fun and interesting text selections, perhaps you can have your students create some.  Why not send the students home with a class-produced newspaper that highlights all of this year's activities?  Maybe the students can write and perform a play about a historical or scientific event.    
  • Keep Teaching: My students know that instruction will take place in my room regardless of which date the calendar claims it is.  Avoid the temptation to be that teacher that shows movies all day (out of an academic context) just because it's the end of the year.  
  • Check Your Expectations: Students adjust their behavior to our expectations.  Beginning a class by stating, "Hey, I know you don't want to be here, I don't either, but...." sends the clear message that you do not expect the class to go well.  In return, the students will not give you their best effort or any effort at all. Make sure that you maintain your expectations during this trying time, even if deep down, you're really not feeling it.

                                                 Don't let this be your classroom

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Teaching What Pearson Can't Test

I validated a state testing roster today, which means that the results should be available within the next few weeks. Regardless of what the test results indicate (because the test was not aligned to Common Core anyway), I was reminded today that my students have taken in the lessons that can't be tested via a multiple choice assessment: kindness and empathy.

One of my goals every year is to create a family-like classroom environment.  I stress kindness to others and forbid students from making one another feel threatened or uncomfortable.  Today, a few students approached me and indicated that they noticed that one of their classmates (in their other content classes) is in need of a new pair of shoes.  The student is in the country on refugee status and has been wearing the same pair of worn-out shoes for several years.  They are planning to take up a collection and surprise him with a new pair of shoes (they discreetly checked the size during PE class) after the long weekend.  I was so touched to hear of this plan that I opened my wallet and made the first donation.

Like most teachers, I am curious about the standardized test results. However, I will not get too emotional over them because as far as I'm concerned, these students are advanced in my book.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Providing Work for Absent Students

Yesterday I received an e-mail requesting a week's worth of assignments for a student that is slated to be absent.  I teach over a hundred students and often receive requests to provide several days worth of assignments due to illness, family vacations or disciplinary consequences.  These requests often come at the last minute and as much as I dislike assigning busywork, the truth is that many assignments make little sense if the student is not present in class.

A few months ago, a colleague tipped me off to  This site provides hundreds of video lessons and practice items that are correlated to the Common Core math and English/language arts standards.  Now when I receive requests for assignments, I sign the student up for an account and assign lessons that relate to what we're learning in class.  The onus is on the student to find Internet access through a personal computer, borrowed computer, the public library or a smart phone (there is an app available through iTunes, Google Play and Edmodo).  The site is free and has saved me hours of precious time that I of course devoted to tracking data, writing (and then re-writing) student learning objectives, accumulating evidence of differentiating and meeting with my principal to discuss all of this.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

'Tis the Season: Job Hunting Tips for Teachers

The school year is wrapping up, which means that schools are beginning to assess their personnel needs for the 2014-2015 academic year.  One of the perks of being a brutally honest individual is that I have been tapped to serve on candidate screening committees.  This experience has taught me a lot about teacher candidates and I will dedicate this blog post to passing some of that wisdom on to you.  Please note that I am an ESOL ninja and not a human resources professional.
  • Dress the Part: Part of preparing for an interview is getting dressed.  I once sat in on an interview with a candidate that wore shorts and a pair of sandals.  Despite his credentials we had to ask ourselves, If this is how he dressed for an interview, how is he going to present himself in front of the students and parents?  We moved on to the next candidate.
  • Know the Lingo: Common Core, inclusion, data driven instruction and differentiation are more than terms that may have appeared on your Education 101 final, they are crucial to the daily work of an educator.  Be prepared to explain your experience with these items in a classroom setting.  As far as what else could possibly come up, here are some potential questions.
  • Use Your Portfolio Correctly: You've spent a lot of time putting together a portfolio for your Education 101 class.  Be familiar with it and use it during your interview.  If you have an artifact that pertains to an answer to a question, be sure to highlight it.  Many interviewers will acknowledge your portfolio, but will not take the time to go through and analyze it.
  • It's Not What the School Can Do For You, It's What You Can Do For the School: You'd be surprised by how many teacher candidates think that having a college degree or being creative (with no elaboration) makes them the ideal hire.  Research the school community and be prepared to explain at least one personal characteristic that makes you the best fit for the community. 
  • Be Open-Minded: Many teacher candidates pin their hearts on one particular school, district or area of the country.  Expand your horizons, you'll be surprised what you'll find.  For example, I work at a Title 1 middle school in an urban district several hundred miles from where I grew up.  On paper, it's the place that many people would shy away from, but is really a hidden gem with a supportive principal, polite students and very little staff turnover.  
  • It's a Two-Way Street: A job interview is not only a time for the interviewing committee to evaluate your potential, it's your opportunity to find out if a school is the right fit for you.  Don't be afraid to ask questions or even ask for a tour of the school building.  


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ninja's Recommended Summer Reading List for Teachers

It's hard to believe that there is only one more month of school left.  The summer season for teachers is a time to kick back and relax a bit as well as reflect and plan for the next school year.  If you're like me and planning to pack a few education-related books in your suitcase this summer, here are some recommendations.  Many of these are oldies, but goodies:

  • Zero Prep (Pollard, 1997):  This book offers ideas for language activities that involve, you guessed it, zero (or very little) prep on your part.  This book is geared towards those that teach intermediate and advanced ESOL students.  There is also a beginner version available.
  • There Are No Shortcuts (Esquith, 2004): I teach in an urban school system and it doesn't get any more real than inner-city Los Angeles. In our current test-obsessed culture, award-winning teacher Esquith shares tips for keeping the passion in a challenging environment.
  • The Essential 55 (Clark, 2004): If you're like me, you're probably not going to have 55 rules in your classroom next year.  However, this book does remind us that teaching students to sweat some of the small things such as being a gracious loser and using polite language can go a long way towards making your classroom a pleasant and positive environment.
  • Teaching Outside the Box: How to Grab Your Students By Their Brains (Johnson, 2011): Lou Anne Johnson of Dangerous Minds fame offers tips on motivating students as well as a section called Shakespeare for Reluctant Readers.  Fans that feel that the movie left them hanging will be happy to find that Johnson provides updates on the Dangerous Minds characters towards the back of the book.
  • Common Core for the Not So Common Learner (Honingsfeld & Dove, 2013): The name pretty much says it all.  This book offers tips on tackling the Common Core with your academically and linguistically challenged students.
  • Common Core Curriculum Maps (Jossey-Bass, 2011): If you still have questions about what a Common Core unit looks like, this is the book for you.  This book explains the standards and includes suggested thematic units and literature/informational text titles.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why I Teach

In honor of Mother's Day, I took my puggle to the dog park.  While making small-talk with other fur-parents, I met a retired teacher and another woman who retired from private industry and now works as a substitute teacher.  Both women were amazed by my enthusiasm and asked how I stay so optimistic despite working in an urban area and being affected by the political climate surrounding education.  My answer: I keep my focus on the things I can control.

Now, I am not about to write a blog post pretending that the latest round of education reform doesn't at least scare me a little.  I too get annoyed by paperwork, mandates, endless meetings, mandatory PD sessions and those one or two students that are determined to ruin my lesson for the entire class. Despite the fact that these things frustrate me, I have very little control over most of them.  Don't like the current education reform laws?  Just wait a few years.  You show me a career educator and she can show you dozens of political mandates that have fallen by the wayside.  My principal may dictate that I have to attend a meeting, fill out paperwork, or participate in a PD session, but I know that all that is coming from higher up.  I just smile and cooperate.  Those one or two students that just don't want to learn? Under state law they are entitled to an education and teachers have been dealing with that issue for centuries.  Rather than focus on them, I focus on the students that do want to learn.  I create lessons that make them think and I help mold character.  I rejoice when students become so interested in a topic that they independently seek out opportunities to learn more and listen when they tell me that I should re-consider teaching a certain topic again.  I encourage students to become the first in their family to attend college and then smile when I run into them later on in life and learn about their success.  I feel privileged to have an impact on young lives and know that while the public may think higher of me if I pursue private industry, only education offers the opportunity to truly make a difference.

Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Forming a PLC on Twitter

When I decided to launch the ESOL Ninja, one of the first things that I did was set up a Twitter account.  I almost immediately engaged in the process of following and being followed by fellow educators and began swapping links and insights.  A few weeks later, I attended an Edcamp session on Twitter and learned that there are education related chats almost every night of the week.  I have been an active participant in the past few ELL and middle school chats and have enjoyed learning from educators from around the world.  So far, I have learned about the curriculum in New Zealand, exchanged project based learning ideas with a start-up founder on the west coast and even had an audience with ELL guru Judie Haynes.  I will continue to participate in these chats as they inspire me to become a better educator and provide valuable professional insight beyond my school's walls.  I invite you to join me.  Here is the Twitter chat schedule.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Creating Engaging Assessments

All of my classes are currently reading novels.  When it comes to reading novels, it turns out that this year's students actually enjoy hearing the sound of my voice, so I've ditched my literature circles and agreed to conduct whole-group sessions. In order to hold students accountable, I've developed assessments. My students just finished taking most of their mandated assessments for the year (they are taking the district benchmark exam next week) and I have to be careful about how I continue to assess as they have already declared that they "are sick of tests".  Luckily, I've found ways to assess the students without them knowing it.  In fact, they love completing these assessments.  Here are some examples that I've either tried or plan to try by the end of the unit:
  • In chapters 1-6, we learned that Francisco's parents brought him to the United States without papers and then they sent him to California to live with his brother while they stayed in Mexico. When he graduated the eighth grade, they did not attend the ceremony,  Ms. Ninja's conclusion is that Francisco's parents did not love him.  Is Ms. Ninja's conclusion accurate?  Remember to cite evidence from the text.  FYI: This conclusion is totally wrong.  When the students heard me read the question, they couldn't race to their iPads fast enough to explain why I was wrong.  They even suggested that I should do things such as go back and re-read before responding next time.  No one tried to sneak onto Youtube that day :)
  • Imagine that Gary Soto continued the story.  Script out the interaction between the two characters in drama format.  Write at least 15 lines.
  • Review these models of high school graduation speeches.  Imagine that Francisco Jimenez was asked to give a speech at his high school graduation.  Write the speech that he could have given to his classmates.
  • Re-read two of  Gary Soto's short stories.  Which of the main characters do you find it easier to relate to?  Why?
  • Imagine that Hollywood decided to make the novel you just read into a movie.  What would the trailer look like?  Remember, movie trailers usually highlight the main message of the story.  Work with your group to write a trailer script, act out and record your trailer on your iPad.  We will hold a film festival next week.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Increasing Student Engagement

The topic of this past week's middle school Twitter chat was student engagement.  Like many teachers, I encounter a lack of student engagement on a daily basis.  The extra layer that I deal with is the fact that many of my disengaged students are used to earning good grades due to their ESOL status.  When they enter my classroom, they quickly learn that this status does not make them unique and that since all instruction is tailored to their proficiency level, I expect them to actually complete assignments. I spend quite a bit of time (some would claim too much time), working with these students.  While I cannot claim to have totally turned around every single disengaged student, the majority of them demonstrate adequate measurable growth by the end of the year.  I can also claim to have never failed a student who attended school on a regular basis.  Here are some of my secrets:
  • Communicate and Care: I strive to have a personal conversation with each student every day. The conversation can be as complex as helping a student deal with a personal problem or something as simple as "Hey, nice goal in yesterday's game."  Students have my e-mail address and if they took the time to write it down, my phone number.  I often arrive at work an hour and a half early and have an open door policy.  I welcome the opportunity to assist students and although most of my disengaged students do not make early morning visits or communicate with me outside of school, they know that I am on their side.  The fact that I care makes them care just a little bit and they are more willing to complete assignments.  While I've yet to award an A to a disengaged student, at this point in the year, I'm proud to say that many of them have lifted their D's to C's and B's.
  • Preferential Seating: In cases where communicating and caring are not enough, disengaged students are awarded a seat next to my desk.  This ensures that these students do not slip under the radar and is my visual reminder to pay extra attention to this group.  If nothing else, the promise of a new seat in exchange for an increase in output motivates these students to give just a little more.
  • Everyone Likes Something: One way to encourage engagement is to make learning relevant. While it's not realistic to tailor lesson plans to students' interests on a daily basis, one area where many of us have latitude is with novel selections.  One of my seventh grade classes contains a number of disengaged students.  One assignment that resonated with these students was reading The Outsiders.  The main character Ponyboy, struggles to find a sense of identity. During this struggle, he is involved in a murder, smokes, fights, and runs away from his brother who was awarded custody after their parents' death.  This novel was a big hit and many of my most disengaged students became my biggest allies by imploring their classmates to quiet down so that Ms. Ninja will let them read the book.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Trying Out SIOP

When I first arrived at my school four years ago, the ESOL population was just under 200 students.  We are now at over 300 ESOL students and increasing by the day.  In response to this growing population, I suggested that we group about 150 of our highest need students onto an interdisciplinary team and use the Sheltered Immersion Observation Protocol (SIOP) teaching approach.  Generally speaking, using the SIOP approach means that general content teachers that are not certified to teach ESOL are trained in ESOL-friendly teaching strategies.

This is the first year of what I hope will be a multi-year instructional program.  The students that are in the program have given positive feedback and the teachers that agreed to pilot this "school within a school" confessed that they finally feel empowered to fully concentrate on the needs of their ESOL students.  The preliminary data has also supported this approach.  For those of you currently using or considering using SIOP, I want to share this recently discovered resource: