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.