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.