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.