Monday, December 14, 2015

Parent Communication

One of my professional goals for this year is to increase parent communication.  This goal is lofty, yet among my most difficult as it takes time and patience, especially since most of my students' parents do not speak English.  @amgonza, one of my first Twitter connections, offers excellent advice in her Education Week Teacher article Tips for Connecting With Non-English Speaking Parents.  It's a nice refresher for ESOL ninjas like myself and definitely a resource that should be shared.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Call for Volunteers-TESOL 2016

The TESOL Convention is coming to Charm City and the organizers are looking for a few good volunteers.  If you are already planning to attend the convention, this is a great way to expand your professional network.  If you are on the fence about coming, keep in mind that volunteers receive a $50 registration refund.  There are a variety of ways to volunteer.  Interested individuals are encouraged to sign up via the Google form.  For more information, please contact

Thursday, December 3, 2015

My Day at JA Finance Park

We are finally in an age when the concept of teaching literacy has expanded to financial literacy.  For the past few months, my students have been learning the ins and outs of financial literacy using materials supplied by Junior Achievement.  This organization is dedicated to "turning kids of today into entrepreneurs of tomorrow".  Throughout the financial literacy unit, students learned the difference between net and gross income, learned about different types of savings accounts, and learned how to create a budget. The capstone lesson was visit to JA Finance Park, where the students had the opportunity to use their knowledge to solve real world problems.

Upon entering Finance Park, each student was issued a tablet and a new grown-up identity.  Some students were single thirty-somethings with six figure incomes.  Others were married, while others were low paid single parents.  Each student had the task of researching his or her assigned career as well as how choices regarding education played a significant role in the assigned income.  They spent the remainder of the morning reviewing the household expenses that would eat up a good chunk of their assigned income.

After lunch came the fun part.  The students created a budget and had to wrestle with some tough decisions such as axing cable and budgeting for Netflix.  Many of the students came to the realization that kids are indeed expensive.  My absolute favorite was the one student who decided to buy a new truck, while budgeting public transportation funds for his wife (I told him to also budget funds for a divorce attorney). After the students completed their budget, they were issued debit cards and sent throughout the park to simulate paying their bills (students also had the option of "paying" some bills online via their tablet).

For all of you loyal blog readers with a JA Finance Park in your area, I highly encourage you to seek out this opportunity for your students.  My students spent the day on task and engaged.  In fact, many of my students tried to encourage me to get a tablet and play the finance game with them (I assured them that I play this game everyday, it's called reality). Check out the video below for more information.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Bringing Content to Life Through Reader's Theater

Like many beginner and intermediate English language learners, the students at my school are struggling with the grade level content textbooks.  Since funds for modified texts are limited this year, I have been working to find cheap and free materials for the content teachers at my school to use with these students.  A few weeks ago, I came across this bank of reader's theater scripts.  The scripts are written for multiple contents areas and the students love reading them (it also helps with reading fluency).  Let the show go on!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Guided Groups: A Co-Teaching Strategy

My third period class is made up of advanced English language learners and general education students.  In an effort to meet our students' diverse needs (as well as more effectively co-teach), my co-teacher and I have turned to guided groups.  In a nutshell, we conduct a whole group mini-lesson and then ask students to select the level of support they think they'll need to complete a related assignment.  One teacher works with the group that selects the most intensive level of support while the other teacher works with the remainder of the class.  We switch off roles and it gives the students a chance to get comfortable with both of us regardless of their ESOL status.  The video below will give you an idea of what this strategy looks like in action.  Enjoy!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Unsettled Journeys

The Baltimore Sun recently published an excellent multi-part series on the plight of some of the city's most recent immigrants.  Unsettled Journeys follows a diverse group of students as they attempt to start new lives at Baltimore's Patterson High School.  These students range from individuals who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to those who were forced to flee war-torn countries.  If you are like me, you will be able to connect the students featured in the articles to students currently sitting in your classroom.  In light of last spring's events in Baltimore, I am glad to see that the city provides a beacon of hope to so many individuals.

                                           Baltimore, Maryland, USA 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Disneyfying Tone

My students recently began reading poetry, which means that the annual tone lesson is upon us.  This concept can be difficult to teach.  When I reflected on last year's lesson, I realized that I had to change my strategy a bit.  I searched the Internet until I came across the Coffee Cups and Lesson Plans blog.  This fellow Dunkin Donuts fan found Disney clips that show opposite sides of a classic and recent film.  I played each clip twice.  After the first viewing, the students had to identify a word (from a list) that described the tone.  During the second viewing, they had to pull a piece of evidence that supported their word choice.  This approach worked like a charm.  Not only did the student gain a firm understanding of tone, they enjoyed learning.  Our next step is to revisit two of the poems that we read last week and analyze the tone of each poem.  With any luck, my classroom will be the happiest place on earth for the next few days.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Class Tools

My third period class has over thirty individuals and at times, it can be difficult to hear each student's voice.  My co-teacher and I figured that equity sticks could be the answer to this problem, but feared that physical objects would get mixed up with other class's materials. Therefore, I searched for an electronic version and found the Random Name Picker on the Class Tools website.

Upon further investigation of this website, I found a treasure chest of resources.  For example, the SMS template allows students to create chat conversations between two historical or literary characters.  Other electronic templates include a timeline generator, an electronic Venn Diagram and a hamburger paragraph graphic organizer.  Students can share their work by creating a custom link or embedding it on a class webpage.  

This website also allows teachers to administer quizzes in creative ways.  Students that answer questions correctly earn the right to play Pac-Man or other arcade games.  In addition, students can demonstrate their knowledge through a classification activity or by creating a BrainyBox.

This website is free, but does appear to depend heavily on Flash.  This could prove to be problematic for iPad classrooms.  In addition, this website was developed across the Pond, so students will notice that some of the terminology is a bit different (ex: bin vs trash can).  Check out the video below for more information.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Finding Free Leveled Text

Last spring I was asked to submit my "wish list" of materials.  In years past I have never been asked to do such a thing, yet randomly received a class set of Scholastic Scope about every other month or so. My students enjoyed using this resource and I found it particularly useful to include with sub plans.  I put this item on my list, which of course guaranteed that my subscription is no where to be found.  Luckily, I have my list of go-to resources, which are free.  Here they are:
  • Tween Tribune: This site is brought to you by the Smithsonian Institute.  This website offers middle school-friendly news across a variety of Lexile levels.  Teachers with a free account can assign articles to students and keep track of student progress through the online dashboard.
  • Newsela: This website offers articles across Lexile levels and content areas.  Students can keep track of their progress through free quizzes, but teachers must have a paid account in order to chart the progress of their class.
  • ReadWorks: This site offers both fiction and non-fiction articles.  My only fault with the site is that the selections at the lower Lexile levels are geared towards the elementary set, a problem for middle school teachers with a variety of student ability levels.  
  • ThinkCERCA: This is another freemium product.  Most of the text selections require a paid upgrade, but there are a limited number of audio-supported texts with suggested writing prompts.
  • Scholastic: There are a limited number of Scholastic Action articles available with included audio support.  These articles periodically change, but are Scholastic quality with a five finger discount.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


A few weeks ago, my class completed a question stations activity.  In a nutshell, this involved the students forming groups and rotating around the classroom to complete a variety of tasks.  The students were completely self-directed and engaged.  In fact, my only jobs were to answer the occasional question and yell "rotate" every few minutes. Since this lesson was such a hit, I plan to incorporate other station activities into my classroom.  While hunting for ideas, I came across Literacy Station Inspiration.  The creators of this site have uploaded a variety of station activities that are all set and ready to go.  While not all of these ideas will make it into the trenches, I appreciate the effort that these creative educators have contributed to the overall community.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Power of Being Positive

About a month ago, the technology teacher came to me and begged me to work with her second period class.  The majority of the students in that class are ESOL students and were acting like, well, seventh graders.  Many of the students in the class came over as unaccompanied minors last school year and are still having trouble adjusting.  Rather than break into Preacher Ninja mode, I decided to take a positive approach.

I grabbed the class's attention at the beginning of the period.  I told them that I was very proud of them because out of all of the technology teacher's classes, they had the potential to become her very favorite.  I asked them to brainstorm ways that they could become the favorite class and they were quick to come up with answers such as listen, follow directions and help one another.  I told them that I believed in them and would hold them to their responses.

Today around lunch time, my phone began to make noise.  The technology teacher was so impressed by this class's work ethic that she snapped pictures and sent them to me.  The students were engaged and appeared to be helping one another with the class assignment.  When I went to check in with the technology teacher, she confirmed that this class has indeed become the one that she looks forward to working with the most.  I made sure to visit this class before the end of the day and let them know to keep up the good work.

It's days like today that make me glad that I chose this path in life.  While the trenches can get messy and downright frustrating at times, remaining positive can mean making a difference.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Academic Language for ELLs-Online Course

One of the areas that I am always looking to strengthen is how to best incorporate academic vocabulary into my lessons.  I recently came across information about an online course on Twitter and decided to sign up.  Check out the Teaching Channel for more information.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Getting Students to Talk

Recent Friday afternoon traffic caused one of my colleagues to reflect to the point of calling me (I was already home).  This colleague has a few students that are recent arrivals from English-speaking countries, but did not test into the ESOL program.  He was concerned that these students are not participating enough during group work and seemed desperate to turn this situation around.  Here is some of the advice that I gave him:
  • Allow Students to Choose Their Own Seats: While I am a stickler for other minor classroom management details, I allow my students to choose their own seats (but will separate students if they cause major disruptions).  This allows students to work with those who they are comfortable with.  Students often change seats as they begin to meet their classmates or want to avoid normal middle school drama.  
  • If You Assign Seats, Be Strategic: This teacher assigns seats in order to form heterogeneous groups based on reading scores.  I suggested that as he forms relationships with his students, he reconsiders his grouping.  While a range of abilities is nice, it may be beneficial to group his quieter students with encouraging and understanding peers, regardless of their reading scores.
  • Consider Partners Instead of Groups: For some students, speaking in front of a group is intimidating, even if that group only has three or four other students.  Working with only one other familiar classmate may ease the anxiety.
  • Give Students Time to Formulate Answers Before Sharing: Some students are able to process information and immediately formulate oral answers.  Many students do not possess this gift.  Giving students time to formulate answers in writing before holding them accountable for contributing to an oral discussion may encourage more participation.
This colleague seemed eager to implement some of my suggestions, especially the last two.  As the year progresses, it is my hope that these suggestions make a difference in his classroom.  In the meantime, I will continue to lend support as needed.  While answering the phone on a Friday afternoon may not be the most pleasant thing about being a leader, it goes a long way to making the trenches a more positive environment.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


In an effort to be a good resource for my colleagues, I am always on the hunt for new websites that will aide them in explaining class material to their English language learners (and all students in general).  The other day as I was sitting in a meeting, I stumbled across, a cross-curricular website geared towards beginner and intermediate English language learners.  The site's layout is basic, but the vocabulary games and picture dictionary look especially promising, especially for beginner students.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Interactive Notebooks

I am always looking for creative and innovative ways to make class material interactive and meaningful.  As I've leaped into the teacher blogging world, I have discovered I'm Lovin' Lit, a fellow middle school teacher.  This teacher has a plethora of self-created materials on Teachers Pay Teachers.  Some of her more popular products are her interactive notebook templates.  She has claimed to have a high degree of success using interactive notebooks in her classroom, so this year I decided to take the plunge and try them in my classroom.

One of the things that scared me the most about using interactive notebooks is the fact I am not very creative in an arts and crafts type way.  Luckily, all of the templates come with detailed instructions and pictures of what the finished products should look like.  I've slowly introduced the templates as they've corresponded to our first unit (author's purpose) and use a visualizer to show the students how to properly assemble each template.  Not only do the students find this to be a much more enjoyable way to record notes, I've actually "caught" many of them flipping the pages back and forth to complete class assignments.  This is something that rarely happened when students took traditional notes.

As far as managing interactive notebooks, I have my students keep them in the classroom.  This prevents situations such as students not having them available on days when new material is introduced.  The designated notebook captains distribute and collect them at the appointed times during the class period.

As suggested on many sites dedicated to interactive notebooks, I purchased liquid school glue as opposed to glue sticks to prevent the templates from falling out of the notebooks. I lucked out and purchased bottles of glue for 50 cents each during Staples' Back to School sale.  I also purchased a set of 5-inch scissors from Amazon, also on sale. While I was not able to purchase enough materials for each of the thirty-six (yes, that's right, 3-6) students in my class, they are learning the valuable skill of sharing.  The materials captains manage all of the materials.  I have told them that with so many students they can be fired and replaced at any moment, so they have been gentle with the materials so far.

All in all, I am excited about introducing interactive notebooks into my classroom.  Not only do they help my students remember and make connections to class material, they help make the trenches a more interesting and creative place to learn.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Writing the Right Prescriptions

Back in my youth I was a star field hockey player.  During my senior year of high school there was a whooping cough outbreak among the student-athletes and as a precaution, we had to show proof that we were taking an antibiotic in order to attend school.  I remember that the pills we were prescribed were about the size of my thumb and made me absolutely sick.

I called my doctor to report that I was suffering severe side effects from the medication and asked to be prescribed another antibiotic.  He was absolutely perplexed as he had prescribed the same medication to over a dozen other student-athletes and none of them had reported similar side effects.  He told me that I was a unique case and that he would get back to me.  In the end, I was successfully prescribed a new medication.

I tell you this story because it reminds me that like doctors, teachers work with unique individuals.  Just like the whooping cough prescription, some teaching methods may work for many students, but not all.  As we begin to meet our students and learn what makes them unique, we must search for the right prescriptions.  While we hope that our students will not become violently ill from our methods, there will be "side effects" to look out for, such as frustration, confusion and loss of a joy for learning.  Of course as we get the prescriptions right, we will see the "side effects" that we happily get out of bed each morning to witness, such as success, happiness and the desire to dream big.  Good luck to you all as you begin the new school year.  May it be the best school year yet.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tier Two Vocabulary

I am officially back at work and attended my first meeting with my fellow department chairs.  One of my school's initiatives this year is cross-content literacy and we decided that we can support this initiative with an increased focus on vocabulary.  I explained the concept of tier two vocabulary, or words that are used across content areas to my colleagues.  I advocated that we concentrate our efforts with these types of words.  I used the word table to illustrate my point.

At this point, we are still undecided about how to go about rolling out this piece of the initiative.  However, we decided that the first step was obtaining a list of tier two vocabulary words.  I found this list and will share it at the next meeting.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Building a Free Classroom Library

One of the things that I love about social media is the ability to connect with educators from around the world.  I recently received a Twitter message from a new teacher seeking help building a low cost (i.e. self-funded) classroom library.  While I dream of being rich enough one day to just write someone like this a check, I was able to provide this individual with a link to an article entitled 15 Ways to Get Free Books.  The National Education Association also has a list of resources as does Reading Rockets.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Onion: Teacher Accountability

The Onion has joined in on the teacher accountability movement.  Check out New Statewide Education Standards Require Teachers To Forever Change The Lives Of 30% Of Students.  Tell me that I was not the only person initially convinced that this was indeed a real bill dreamed up and passed by politicians instead of merely an attempt at humor...

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Making Students Feel Welcome: Learn their Names

Several weeks ago I posted an article on Twitter entitled: The first thing schools often get wrong for English language learners is their names.  The article details how schools often either out of confusion or plainly making a typo inadvertently change a student's name for their entire academic career.  As a result, these students lose their connection with the the cultural significance that their name holds.

While I always make it a point to spell a student's name the way he or she writes it on assignments (regardless of how the computer system spells it), I have mispronounced some students' names over the years (and not just because I'm from New England).  In these cases, the student never corrects me and I learn the correct pronunciation by listening to the students interact with each other.  I always apologize, only to be reassured by the student that "Americans are unable to pronounce his or her name."  I also sadly learn that I am often the only teacher that bothers to learn the correct pronunciation. 

If you have not done so already, I recommend that you take a look at this article and even share it with your colleagues. Sometimes all it takes is a little extra attention to make our English language learners feel welcome.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Epic Reading

I apologize for being MIA for a few weeks.  I have been wrapping up my month long travel adventure as well as getting situated at home.  I am gearing up for in-service training next week followed by the beginning of the school year.  Where did the time go?

To prepare myself for the horror of waking up to an alarm clock, I attended an optional technology training today.  I won't bore you with the details, but I will share the Epic Reading app that I learned about.  In a nutshell, this app is the gateway to a one thousand plus book library.  Families can sign up for a paid subscription, but a classroom subscription is offered free to educators (that say that they work at an elementary school, wink wink).  The books cover a variety of interest and lexile levels.  The app is available for both iPad and Android.  Check out the video below.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Guatemalan Private School Experience

I am into my second and final week of my Guatemalan teaching experience.  This year I am teaching at a private school.  Like the public schools in this area of Guatemala, the school day is only about four hours long.  In order to maximize the school building to its fullest potential, primera or grades K-6 meet in the morning and basico, or grades 7-9 meet in the afternoon.  I was told that students beyond ninth grade take courses at career academies or go straight into the workforce.  Students that desire a military career can take an exam for entry into a military academy.

Since the school day is short, so are the class periods.  The English classes meet for approximately thirty-five minutes.  Primera students study English two days a week and basico students study English three days a week.  There is no dedicated textbook for the younger students, so I have been teaching topics such as colors and parts of the body.  The students at my assigned school use Santillana's Friends series beginning in third grade.  On some days I teach up to eight different classes.

Like private schools in the United States, students at this school are responsible for the cost of tuition, books and uniforms.  These expenses add up to about $300 per year, a bargain by our standards, but out of reach for many average Guatemalans.  This Evangelical school has partnered with several churches in the United States in order to provide scholarships to those who would not otherwise be able to attend, as the public schools only go up to the sixth grade.

All in all, I am enjoying my experience.  Since I kept in contact with teachers that I met last year and have a better feel of the town, I have had the opportunity to enjoy many social outings with my Guatemalan counterparts.  These conversations have been rich and I have thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to increase my awareness of various educational systems.  My adventure down here will continue for another week or so.  In the meantime, continue enjoying your well-deserved break.

My Schedule
A Classroom

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

My Seventeen Year Old Sidekick

One thing about teaching in a small town in Guatemala is that I stick out like a sore thumb.  I met many teachers that literally stopped me on the street last year and this experience has repeated itself once again this year.  Last year I met one teacher in particular who spends part of the year living and working approximately twenty minutes from my house.  We met up last winter and he called me right before I left with good news and bad news.  The good news was that he arranged for me to be assigned to his school.  The bad news was that he had to return to the United States for a few months and cannot join me.  He assured me that he left in classes in good hands and that his daughter agreed to take over his classes.

Well it turns out that his daughter is seventeen years old.  She lived in the United States for thirteen years and had she stayed, she would have recently graduated from high school.  I worked with young teachers last year, but that was at an elementary school.  In this case, I am witnessing a teacher be an authority figure to individuals that are only a year younger than she is.  This individual only took over the classes last week and is a little lost as to how to plan a lesson.  She does not seem to mind the age difference, nor do the students.

While I am only here for a short time, my goal is to leave her with a few solid teaching strategies to add to her tool belt.  So far, I have covered the concepts of modeling and having students work in groups.  As I learn more about the expectations and operations of this particular school, I look forward to contributing more strategies.  I also look forward to sharing more updates with you all, so do stay tuned.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Estoy Aqui

I have safely arrived in Guatemala.  I will be here for two weeks to tour, teach in a local school and practice my Spanish skills.  I will begin my official teaching assignment tomorrow.

Since my group's first weekend here was unstructured, I decided to get a head start on teaching.  When I visited this town last summer, I made some connections with the locals and acquired many new Facebook followers.  Through social media, I learned that English classes for adults were recently established and volunteered my skills there.  I met over thirty individuals who signed up for the classes, the majority of those being fellow educators.  They were a delightful group to work with and I look forward to going back next week.

This year's teaching assignment is at a private school.  I am eager to find out how it compares to the public school that I taught at last summer.  As I make these observations, I will be sure to share them with you all.  In the meantime, enjoy your summer.  In a few short weeks, it's back to the trenches.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Is Arne Duncan Losing His Star Power?

While educators may be on a well-deserved summer break, politics in our nation's capital continues as usual.  I came across this article about Arne Duncan's dwindling influence in The Washington Post. While I will not hold my breath about realistic and common sense education policy coming back in the near future, this does give me hope.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


Those of you living in one of the thirty two states (plus the District of Columbia) that are members of the WIDA Consortium may have heard that the test is moving online in 2016. WIDA recently released online sample items.  They cover all four domains and all grade bands.  It probably won't be my first day of school activity, but perusing through the questions definitely motivated me to make scheduling student practice time a priority this upcoming school year.  You can check them out on the WIDA blog.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Teacher Discounts

Take advantage of your educator status all year long with discounts from some of the country's largest retailers.  Click here to access a list of over one hundred stores that give discounts to teachers.  Happy shopping!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Advocating for English Language Learners

The National Education Association recently published All In: How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners.  As an experienced ESOL ninja, I can say that advocating for my students is probably the messiest part of my job.  I have been at my school for several years and have learned how to take the steps outlined in the guide to advocate my way to the top on behalf of my students.  This guide probably is not the best beach reading material, but is definitely something to check out before the new school year begins.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Books I Would Like to Read This Summer

I realize that my blog posts have been less frequent over the past few months.  To be honest, long days in the trenches have been burning me out.  Thankfully, my summer vacation is only a handful of days away.   I will spend the majority of my summer traveling, but want to do some professional reading so that I can return to the trenches fired up and truly inspired.  Here is what is on my Amazon wish list:

  • Teach Like a Pirate: I have heard amazing things about this book.  There is even a dedicated Twitter chat hosted by the author.  I'm curious to see what all the hype is about.
  • Real Talk for Real Teachers: Rafe Esquith is a best-selling author and inner-city teacher from Los Angeles.  He has experienced it all and I am inspired by his commitment to his school community and positive attitude.
  • The Ten-Minute Inservice: 40 Quick Training Sessions That Build Teacher Effectiveness:  I will most likely be continuing my department chair role next year and will be responsible for mentoring and training new teachers.  I'm not sure if it's really possible to do a ten minute inservice, but I'm sure that my colleagues will appreciate my effort.
  • Enrique's Journey: This book has actually been sitting on my nightstand for a few months now.  It follows Enrique, an immigrant from Central America on his journey to the United States.  This book puts a face on the current immigration debate and hits close to home as over a dozen unaccompanied minors entered my school's ESOL program this past year.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

'Tis the Season: Google Hangout Interviews

The job fair that I recently attended with my principal did not yield a sufficient number of ESOL candidates.  After some prodding, I convinced my principal to contact human resources and ask for a candidate list.  He received a Google Sheet with links to candidates' information.  Since I am a self-directed individual, I went through the list and contacted candidates.

When I contacted my highest ranked candidate, she informed me that she was unable to meet with the interviewing team for at least another two weeks due to her work schedule.  Since she is fully certified in multiple content areas, experienced, and yes, bi-lingual, I was afraid to let this candidate slip away. I noticed her Gmail account asked her if she would be willing to participate in an interview over Google Hangout.  She agreed and "met" with us this past week.

My principal was not only impressed with the candidate, he also liked my outside-the-box thinking. Since we are most likely going to have multiple vacancies to fill this summer, he wants me to show him how to use this tool so that he can keep it as an option for those who have either not relocated yet or are simply away on summer vacation.  While candidates that are cleared for hire are still going to have to come to the school to complete paperwork, this is a good way to vet those individuals.  With my luck, my principal will not only gain a firm grasp of Google Hangout, he will realize that he can contact me on this service as well since I will be spending July in Central America.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Google Classroom: Final Review

After several years of using Edmodo as my online classroom platform, I made the switch over to Google Classroom.  The students at my school have district-issued Gmail accounts and I am in the habit of creating most of my classroom documents in Google Drive, which made the decision to switch a no-brainer.  Here are my thoughts about Google Classroom:


  • Students use the same password across the Google platform and I can easily access the password from my school technology coordinator.  This was a big plus for me since my students made up their own Edmodo password, only to promptly forget it several times a year.  I could change it on my end and finally announced that I would re-set the password to ninjarocks for those students that forgot their password.
  • Creating assignments are easy.  I simply choose my Google Drive file and click on assign.  Students can complete and turn in assignments without having to download or upload files.
  • There is a Google Classroom app available, so students without a full computer can complete assignments on their mobile device.  I can also check assignments while standing in line at the grocery store.
  • Google automatically organizes each assignment into a separate Drive folder.  This make it easy to keep track of students' assignments.
  • There is no app store.  Edmodo added this feature last year and I liked the idea of giving my students access to apps and tools from within a familiar platform. 
  • There is no quiz feature.  The closest you'll get is uploading a Google Form.
  • Unlike Edmodo, there are no ways to connect with colleagues or communities from within Google Classroom.  There's always Google+, but that's a separate platform.
  • There is no parent access.  I never used this Edmodo feature, but keep in mind that at this time Google Classroom is only available to individuals with a Google Apps for Education account.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

'Tis the Season: Hiring Qualified ESOL Teachers

Hiring season is in full swing and I once again find myself busy screening potential candidates.  My principal recently attended a job fair and called me filled with glee at 9:00 at night to report about someone he met.  He thought had caught the biggest fish in the sea: a bi-lingual candidate.  I stopped my principal and inquired about the candidate's actual qualifications, beyond his language skills.

You see, my school had been burned over the summer.  I returned to school and met a teacher who had been hired while I was off in Guatemala.  I questioned his qualifications and was not surprised when he learned that his contract would not be renewed at the end of the year as he did not have the required education coursework. Upon learning of this, he immediately resigned and we were left without a teacher for several months. While the administration made excuses about why he was hired in the first place,  my answer was simple: when looking for other content area teachers we closely scrutinize coursework, experience and the completion of certification requirements.  When it comes to ESOL candidates, there seems to be a misconception that a person's ability to speak two or more languages trumps everything else.  While it can be helpful to have teachers in the building who can relate to the students on a cultural level and directly communicate with the parents, it is a disservice to hire anyone other than fully qualified individuals to work with this population.

It turned out that this particular candidate did not complete all of his certification requirements, so we elected to keep looking for candidates.  I also agreed to attend job fairs with my principal so that I can help him vet candidates early in the process.  It's still early in the hiring season and I am optimistic that we will be able to attract outstanding talent to join me in the trenches.  Do stay tuned.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Games Middle Schoolers Play

Spring is in the air, which means that my middle school students are up to their seasonal antics.  I have been dealing with middle school antics for a decade, but have to admit that this year's students may be the overall winner so far.  Here are some true tales from the trenches:
  • My school created a daily progress report form.  Often parents will request that teachers complete this form everyday, other times teachers themselves will take students under their wing and implement this type of accountability.  Blank forms are easily accessible to students and some of my better behaved students decided to forge one with a terrible report just to drive me crazy.
  • One of my students brought in her pet rabbit to school.  She carried it around in her purse all day, just like rich people carry around their chihuahuas.  She showed it to me last period of the day and to be honest, I was too tired to make a big deal out of it.  I agreed to ignore it as long as I did not see it during class.  All was fun and games until she disregarded my instructions and handed it off to her friend, who interrupted class to announce that the rabbit peed on her. Luckily, I was able to hold the class together and they did not go into their natural state and cause a ruckus while I handed the student a roll of paper towels.  
  • I walked into my classroom while another teacher was conducting a lesson in there.  One of her seventh grade students disrupted her lesson to challenge me to a push-up contest.  It was completely random, but I was in a good mood, so I accepted the challenge.  I won!
Happy Memorial Day weekend.  Remember, there are only a few weeks left :)

Monday, May 18, 2015

My Annual Book Study

Almost the entire school year has passed, which means that my vice-principal has declared that now is the perfect time for me to conduct my annual book study.  My annual book study began several years ago when I was the only ESOL teacher available at the whim of my principal who needed a name to put down for a Race to the Top grant. Apparently I received rave reviews and have been tapped on an annual basis ever since.  In reality, I do not mind conducting book studies.  In most cases, I am allowed to select the book (although this time Teach Like a Champion 2.0 was assigned to me) and I am not required to produce a massive amount of original content.  The book studies are voluntary, which helps foster a collaborative environment.  Here is what I learned about conducting book studies over the years:
  • Allow People To Talk: I rarely go through more than three PowerPoint slides without allowing participants to talk about a concept.  If I want participants to move around and find new people to talk with, I usually instruct them to find a someone wearing the same type of shoes, same color shirt, hail from the same area of the country or divide them into people who plan on cooking for their family after the event versus those who plan to hit the drive thru.  
  • Plan At Least One Group Activity: Chart paper and markers are staples when conducting book studies.  I usually have one group activity involving these items during each session.  This is either a warm-up activity or a gallery walk activity.  I often find these activities right in the book. If nothing else, the participants are amused by the way I pronounce "chart paper" and "markers" in my best New England accent.
  • Show Videos: Although I refrain from turning my book study into a film festival, I do show short video clips to illustrate concepts.  If I am a presenting a particularly dry concept, I even throw in a funny teacher cartoon or a carefully selected video of my dog.
  • Assign Homework: I encourage participants to try one of the concepts after each presentation.  I schedule time to debrief about the successes and challenges of integrating the concept into their lesson.  The participants find this to be particularly encouraging and motivating.
  • Find Out What Participants Want: As stated above, the book studies I conduct are open and voluntary for all staff members.  In order to draw a crowd, I tailor them to the needs of the participants.  Although I am not reimbursed, I also ask participants which snacks I can provide for them.  The participants appreciate this gesture and it helps me stay on schedule as participants are not constantly going back and forth to the vending machine.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Let's Research Like It's 1993

The facts that my school has banned use of the Internet due to PARCC testing and that all electronic devices are dedicated to testing made me really consider whether or not to scrap my planned research assignment.  After days of pondering, I came to a startling realization: my students could do research the way that I did research, by reading books and taking down notes.  In order to keep things simple, I changed the research topic to biographies.

Since the media center is closed down for the majority of the day due to PARCC testing, the media specialist agreed to gather biography books and check them out to me to bring back to my classroom.  I explained the assignment to my students and took in their looks of horror when they found out that Google would not be part of their research journey.  They moaned about having to read an actual book, having to write and hearing me state that I was not interested in their complaints.  As they delved into the project, they appreciated that I attempted to make it somewhat interactive by incorporating Loving Lit's templates.  I even followed the suggested project arrangement, which I am encouraging my students to keep as a model since they will have to complete research papers in high school.

As students completed their research paper at different paces, I dispatched the early finishers to help their classmates.  Since my early finishers tend to be my quieter students, this gave them an opportunity to take on a leadership role.  The students that needed a little extra attention in order to finish the assignment appreciated help from their classmates.

In the end, the students agreed on a few things: 1) technology makes it easier to find information and 2) they're glad that they didn't have to live in a world without the Internet like Ms. Ninja.  It's revelations such as these that make life an adventure deep down inside the trenches.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

In perfect timing with Teacher Appreciation Week, comedian John Oliver dedicated this past week's episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to standardized testing.  His monologue is dead-on accurate, well-rounded and of course, absolutely hilarious.  I realize that Mr. Oliver's brand of humor may not be everyone's cup of tea.  Viewer discretion is advised.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

'Tis the Season: Evaluations

As the end of the year approaches, teachers across the country will receive their evaluation ratings. Unlike previous years, the majority of us will have value-added scores calculated into an algorithim. This jibberish will be presented to us in the form of a computerized print-out with a number at the bottom.  Since many of us have no idea what this score means (and even our administrators are unable to coherently break it down for us), I channeled Jeff Foxworthy and have created a list of characteristics of highly effective educators:
  • If your students have written you a letter, poem or card thanking you for loving them this year, you might be a highly effective educator.
  • If your colleagues have recognized you for contributing to their professional development, you might be a highly effective educator.
  • If your students who barely spoke a word of English in September are now able to have a conversation with you, you might be a highly effective educator.
  • If your students who come from impoverished backgrounds now envision themselves as becoming the first in their family to attend college, you might be a highly effective educator.
  • If your students go home and explore topics that you taught in class, you might be a highly effective educator.
  • If you have reached into your own wallet to make your classroom an extra special place, you might be a highly effective educator.
  • If your students display compassion and kindness towards one another, character traits that you taught even though they are not Common Core aligned, you might be a highly effective educator.
  • If you have declined social invitations to work on lesson plans, you might be a highly effective educator.
  • If you regularly refer to your students as "my kids", you might be a highly effective educator
  • If you are reading this blog before 7AM or after 3PM because you seek out best practices outside of your contract hours, you might be a highly effective educator.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Holocaust's Final Voices

As I stated in an earlier blog post, my students recently read The Diary of Anne Frank. This activity is one that all eighth grade students at my school participated in and students explored the topic of the Holocaust in depth through print and multimedia.  While the Internet is powerful, nothing beats an eyewitness account of events.  Since I have time in my schedule this year to coordinate events, I arranged to have a Holocaust survivor visit my school and speak with a group of approximately seventy students.

In preparation for this event, the students arrived dressed to impress.  They came prepared to listen and even more important, prepared to ask insightful questions.  The students were able to use their background information to make connections to the speaker's experiences and most were able to relate when she touched on her experience of arriving in this country without being able to speak a word of English. Towards the end of the event, we held a reception and the students enjoyed using this time to view the family photos that the speaker brought.  They also took "selfies" with the speaker and told her about their own families.

Many of the students took the time to personally thank me for arranging this event.  It was not lost on them that they are most likely the last generation that has the privilege of learning about the Holocaust from an eyewitness.  As privileged as we were to listen to her, I admit that I am still grinning from ear-to-ear as she called me a little while ago to reiterate how much she enjoyed meeting the students.  We took several group photos and I plan on sending her a framed copy of the best one as a thank you gift.  I arranged this event through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Survivors Speakers Bureau.  With any luck, this event will become an annual tradition at my school.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


I have recently ramped up my Spanish studies to include Skype lessons through iTalki and self-study through the Living Language program.  I also use the Duolingo program to practice my new skills. For those of you not familiar with Duolingo, the site allows individuals to practice language skills through gamification techniques.  Individuals progress through levels, can keep up a daily log-in streak, compete for points against others and earn lingots, currency that can be used in the virtual store.  In short, it is an easy site for competitive individuals such as myself to become addicted to.

While working through my addiction, I discovered that the site offers a dashboard area for teachers to set up classes and track student progress.  My advanced students would probably work their way through the twenty-five English levels fairly quickly, but I could easily see newcomer, beginner and even lower intermediate students being challenged by the site's tasks.  Best of all, the site is free so there is little risk in trying it out.  I may even suggest that the newcomer and beginner teachers at my school consider setting up their students with accounts prior to summer break.  Check out the video below for more information.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Opt Out Movement

As Common Core aligned tests have been implemented in states around the country this year, the Opt Out Movement has gained traction.  I first became aware of the New York Opt Out Movement through college friends on Facebook.  According to the latest figures, approximately 175,000 students across New York State have opted out of this year's testing.  Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education and Merryl Tisch, New York State Education Chancellor recently met to debate the ramifications of the Opt Out Movement.  Check it out below.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Helping ELLs Write a Science Report

The wicked smart kids at MIT and Harvard have designed tools to help you reach your students through technology.  The CAST Science Writer is free and looks especially promising.  It takes students through the process of writing a science report step-by-step with animated help and examples along the way. Years ago I taught science to newcomers and this type of tool would have been instrumental when we conducted our various experiments.   I will be sure to pass this site along to my department as well as my science colleagues.  Registration for the CAST site is free as are most of the tools. Happy clicking!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Embracing Our Multicultural Classroom

My much needed spring break is finally here.  Since the school media center has been closed due to PARCC testing, I was not able to have the students check out books and complete the usual reading related assignment.  In reality, this turned out to be a blessing as after all of the testing my students have endured and will continue to endure after break, I wanted to give them a more engaging, yet relevant assignment.

The cyber bullying case that I wrote about a few weeks ago was amicably resolved and chalked up as a simple cultural misunderstanding.  However, it made me realize that while my class is quite diverse, my students still know little about one another's culture.  This is my fault.  Since my class as a whole seems to get along, it never dawned on me that the topics they discuss inside and outside of the classroom rarely involve their cultural heritage.  Therefore, my students have been assigned to research a country that another classmate hails from.  The rules are simple: this assignment must be at least one page long and students are not allowed to research a country that is on the same continent as the one that they call home.

I prepared the class for this assignment by asking each student to name the country or countries where they claim heritage.  As eleven countries across three continents were called out, the room began to buzz as students became excited about the possibilities.  Several students even asked if they could research two countries for extra credit.

I am excited to review the assignments that the students turn in and even hope to learn a few things myself.  In the meantime, I will be spending my break swapping time with middle schoolers for my two year old nephew.  I'm sure that after a few days with a toddler, teaching eighth grade will seem like a breeze.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Word Crimes

Weird Al Yankovic is back at it again.  One of his latest parodies, Word Crimes serves as a rally cry for English speakers to remember to pay attention to grammar, especially in a world of electronic communication.  This video is catchy, hilarious and educational. Check it out below.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Read and Write for Google

The staff at my school is currently undergoing SIOP training and today's session covered strategies. Part of the presentation revolved around scaffolding, or adding supports to allow students to unlock comprehension and meaning.  Staying within this theme, I showed my table mates one of my newer discoveries: Texthelp's Read and Write for Google.  This nifty add-on allows individuals to essentially use the Internet as one big textbook or handout.  A free subscription allows one to highlight text as well as activate the text to speech feature (with the choice of male and female computer voices). Upgrading to a premium subscription (gratis to teachers with a Google Apps for Education account for the first year) unlocks other neat features such as an online picture dictionary and a fact finder so that students can explore topics in detail.  Check out the video below.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cyber Bullying

As a teacher, I believe in opening up the lines of communication with students.  Most of my students do not have home support in terms of completing homework or understanding how to access basic information about the school system, so I share my phone number and e-mail address.  This year my phone and e-mail have been extra active as I have fielded questions about homework, applying to high school, parent meetings and lunch forms.  Over the weekend, I received an e-mail from one of my students who claimed to be a victim of cyber bullying by two of his classmates.

The report of cyber bullying did not surprise me.  After all, it is 2015 and schools have been dealing with this issue for years.  What did surprise me was the fact that the three students involved in this incident are my highest performing and best behaved students. The alleged victim sent me screen shots of the text messages that he received from two of his classmates.  As an English teacher, I was pleased to see that the students used the correct forms of your, you're and too in their messages (as well as correct capitalization).  As a morally intact adult, I was appalled to see the other language that was used throughout the conversation.  I cannot recall teaching many of those words in class and even had to Google some of them.

The ideas conveyed in the text messages have the potential to impact the school climate, which means that I will have to refer this to the eighth grade administrator.  I will most likely be involved in the investigation.  I have dealt with many issues when the students were issued ample warnings to cease certain behaviors.  The standard follow-up conferences with the parents were predictable.  The students involved in this incident have no known disciplinary record, so I imagine that the conversations with their parents about this are going to be awkward and difficult.  As an added bonus, this will be how I start my final full week before spring break.  Here's to hoping that this has a happy ending.  If not, let the countdown to spring break begin.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

My Teach 100 Moment

One of the most exciting things about blogging and becoming involved with social media is the fact that I have a platform to share and gain new ideas.  A few months ago I signed up to become an online mentor on Teach 100 and shared one of my classroom management tips.  This idea was included in this month's blog feature, 6 Ways to Get (and Keep) Students' Attention.  Check it out here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Google Cultural Institute

My eighth graders are getting ready to read The Diary of Anne Frank.  The topic of the Holocaust has always fascinated me and I have been blessed enough to meet dozens of survivors over the past thirty plus years.  While I teach in a major U.S. city, my district is not very diverse in terms of religion.  As a result, I am often the first Jewish person that my students encounter.  This makes the concept of religious discrimination, never mind genocide, difficult to teach.  I work hard to make this topic come to life every year and my students often enjoy learning about a new culture.  As the students begin to become engaged, they often forget about religion and begin to relate to Anne Frank on a personal level.

While searching for updated materials to include with this unit, I came across the Google Cultural Institute.  The geniuses over at Google have curated artifacts from the world's major historical events, the wonders of the world and other cultural and artistic pieces and made them available to the average person regardless of physical location.  Many of the pieces in the Stories of the Holocaust collection were provided by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial Museum), The Shoah Foundation and The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Google Cultural Institute will be a valuable learning tool throughout this unit.  It may also become a part of other units as I begin to explore the entire site beyond the surface level.  Take a tour of the Google Cultural Institute by watching the video below.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

PARCC Evictions

My classroom has been taken over by PARCC testing for the next few days.  The original testing plan called for my classroom to be used for the entire PARCC testing window, which in my state runs from early March until early May (to allow for both the PBA and EOY assessments).  When I took a survey of my fellow ESOL ninjas at my recent department chair meeting, this seemed to be the norm as they all told me that they received their PARCC eviction notices and had to look for a new space to teach, plan and complete other work related tasks in.  My colleagues were in awe when I triumphantly explained how I put my foot down to this plan and came out on top.

As stated in a previous blog post, I am not territorial about my classroom space. However, expecting me to give it up for two months was a bit over the top.  I explained to the testing coordinator, vice-principal in charge of testing and the principal that I have no problem giving up my space, but that it must be equitable.  The primary justification in moving me was that my classroom was going to be dedicated to setting up a mobile lab. I pointed out that a mobile lab is just that and can be moved from classroom to classroom as needed.  In the end, it was decided that I would give up my space to allow a sixth grade class that usually meets in a temporary classroom outside to take the test as the Internet signal in my room is more reliable.  We will simply switch classrooms for the five days that his class takes the PARCC.

I'm curious to see how other ESOL ninjas are being impacted by PARCC, Smarter Balance or other state assessments.  Feel free to comment below.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Making a Difference

In the era of education reform, it can be a bit demoralizing some days to be a teacher, especially one who focuses on high-needs students.  Here is a feel good story written by a former ELL student turned Harvard graduate about an educator at his elementary school.  Appropriately, it it titled How one teacher changed the life of one child.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Today was a rather rough day in the trenches.  The students began taking the PARCC assessment.  My school, like others across the country experienced glitches.  This early morning chaos combined with the students' sheer exhaustion from taking the assessment was the perfect recipe for a less than perfect class period.

While getting over my day with the comfort of my ever faithful dog and a glass of moscato, I came across an article about one of this year's finalists for National Teacher of the Year.  Kathy Nimmer of Indiana not only inspires students towards greatness, she has overcome a disability (blindness) to do so.  Stories like this continue to remind me that while every day may not be a perfect day in the classroom, every day is an opportunity to improve my craft and make a difference.  Kathy Nimmer, good luck in this year's competition.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Free Materials

I occasionally peruse through Reddit's teacher board and recently came across a posting advertising free Common Core aligned materials.  Since I rarely object to anything that is free, I clicked on the link to the Print Worksheets Free site.  This site offers an extensive library of materials for math, reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary.  It also offers classroom management tips as well as links to educational articles.   I appreciate people who create sites such as this as a service to the profession and have already bookmarked it for future and frequent use.