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.