Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Blasts from the Past

Before I became an ESOL ninja, I taught eighth grade social studies.  My first few years teaching were definitely a learning experience.  I knew little about differentiation or how to fill up ninety minutes of class time.  I readily admit that my classroom management skills were not the strongest.  While I have only been teaching for thirteen years, those first few years seem like a lifetime ago.

I have randomly run into a number of former students from that period over the years.  By random I mean on public transit, at the mall, in the middle of downtown and one was even a substitute teacher at my current school.  Thanks to social media, other students from the early years of my career have resurfaced in the form of Facebook friend requests. These former students are now in their mid-twenties, some with spouses and children of their own. Since these individuals are well over the legal drinking age, I have no qualms about accepting their friend requests and get a kick out of some of their memories of middle school.

I recently received a friend request from a student I taught my rookie year.  Apparently she had a conversation with a friend about middle school and I was the first person that came to her mind, so she looked me up.  This request as well as recognition from other students over the years really touches me. While in my mind, my teaching skills were nothing to write home about, I am reminded that while I probably did make mistakes, I also made an impression.  Since I did not know much about being a teacher back then, I worked on being a compassionate individual.  That is the impression that sticks out in my former students' minds.

The students I have heard from are business owners, healthcare workers, attorneys and public service employees.  One of them is even a die-hard New England Patriots fan :) Regardless of which path they have chosen, I consider myself fortunate to have been a small part of their success.  While teaching can knock me down some days, these connections remind why it is important to get back up and continue plugging away deep inside the trenches.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Too Big to Fail

Third quarter is in full swing and I currently have two students that have failing grades and one who is simply not working up to her potential (she has a C).  Like many teachers, I find that low grades in my class can often be attributed to students not turning in work. Since I do not allow failure under my watch, I employ several tactics to get students to turn in missing work.  These tactics include stopping students as they attempt to enter the building and extract missing work from them (I have bus duty), calling parents and conducting teacher-student conferences several times a quarter.

When some of the above tactics fail, I take out my biggest weapon of all: the U.S. Postal Service.  This past week, I ran off copies of the assignments that the three students are missing.  I packed them in an envelope and tucked in a personal letter to each family.  I made sure to mail the envelopes on Thursday to ensure that the students have the entire weekend to work on their missing assignments.  The students never see it coming.  If the past is any indicator, at least one of the three parents will come to school at some point next week to deliver their child's work and thank me.  The remainder of the students will share their disbelief that I would do such a thing in front of the entire class (which serves as a deterrent to the rest of the class).

Many teachers would argue that I am a bit crazy to go to such extreme lengths to get students to turn in work.  After all, isn't failure a part of life?  Of course it is.  However, middle school students are disorganized, forgetful and constantly trying to push boundaries.  This does not make them worthy of failing and most will grow out of it.  My reminders about work as they enter the building often prompt them to remember that their assignment was in their binder or locker all along.  My willingness to call parents and even mail home a letter show them how serious I am about their success and the boundaries are re-established. While failing is part of life, my job is to help students succeed.  When we work together, we're too big to fail.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Collaborative Planning

One of the latest trends in schools is the encroachment on teachers' planning periods. This coveted block of time was once a time for teachers to plan uninterrupted and without submitting an agenda to administration twenty-four hours in advance (with follow-up minutes).  The modern teacher planning period has been turned into collaborative planning with mandatory attendance sheets.  As a teacher-leader, one of my responsibilities is to run collaborative planning for my department at least once a week.

Prior to becoming a teacher-leader, I used to dread collaborative planning day.  The department head would to dictate which lesson had to be planned, regardless of whether or not it was appropriate for the students in our classes.  Most weeks, the teachers would spend so much time battling with the department head over her agenda that no planning actually took place.  Here are some things that I implemented this year to make collaborative planning a more positive experience:
  • Let Teachers Take the Lead: The point of collaborative planning is to allow teachers to collaborate.  Since we have sheltered classes for newcomers, everyone agreed at the beginning of the year that it would be most beneficial to spend our collaborative planning time aligning instruction across the content areas.  The teachers decide how to best plan instruction to meet the needs of their students. My job is not to judge, but to offer support through gathering materials, offering feedback or telling the teachers to mark me down as a co-teacher when needed for a particular lesson.  
  • Always Walk Out With a Finished Product: Collaborative planning should not be a burden. The teachers in my department have multiple preps.  The fact that they know that they will walk out with a plan for their newcomers every week is a huge relief to them.  Teachers even go to great lengths to participate.  Since we use Google Drive to create our collaborative planning documents, department members have participated from their sick bed.
  • Collaborative Planning ≠  Meeting: In order to maximize the amount of time that is used to plan, I often send out e-mails with general announcements in order to prevent collaborative planning from turning into a meeting.  Some may argue that it is important to say things to a group as some teachers do not check their e-mail.  The teachers in my department do check their e-mail on their district issued laptop and iPad, so I don't have to go there.  Plus, I have always found that the same people that ignore my e-mails also tend to ignore the live version of me.  At least with e-mail, there's evidence of the information being transmitted.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The M Word

Another quarter has come and gone and many of the ESOL students at my school are still struggling with their core content classes.  Since the opportunity was offered, a colleague and I decided to do our part to combat this problem by starting a homework club.  We targeted eighth grade students in particular in an effort to ensure that they are fully prepared for the rigors of high school next year.

Offering a homework club means that students are going to seek help in all core content areas.  This is something that Cathy and I figured we could handle.  We rocked it a few weeks ago while explaining how a bill becomes a law and even got through science. However, this week our biggest fear was realized: students asked us to help them with their math homework.  I took the easy way out by focusing on the students who had to solve for x.  Cathy tackled slope intercepts.

As the homework club continues and builds up a following, Cathy and I are anticipating that more math questions will arise.  This may require reinforcements as to be honest, only so much math is required to be an ESOL ninja on a daily basis.  Here are some of the math weapons in my arsenal:

Khan Academy
Math Playground
Study Jams

Interactive Activities
Assorted Activities
Johnnie's Middle School Math
Middle School Math Games
Interactive Math Vocabulary

Online Manipulatives
Math Playground
National Library of Online Manipulatives

Friday, February 6, 2015

That Student

My heart skipped a beat when I saw the student's name on my WIDA ACCESS testing roster.  She was that student.  You know, the one that while not in my class, has gained school-wide notoriety for being difficult.  I actually taught her sister last year.  While her sister fell short of such a well-known reputation, she definitely had her moments.  When I went to pick up Maria to take the speaking test, she immediately rolled her eyes at me.

Once we got into the hallway, I smiled at Maria and asked, "Did you just roll your eyes at me?  Your sister must have taught you how to do that.  I taught her last year and warned her that something like this could happen.  Please tell her I say hello."

To my surprise, Maria smiled back.  She said, "I'm sorry, Ms. Ninja.  I'm actually having a pretty bad day.  Can I please come back and see you after lunch?"  I agreed, but did not plan on actually seeing her again that day.

To my surprise again, Maria did indeed come to my classroom after lunch.  We spoke for a few minutes, took the speaking test and then continued our conversation.  Contrary to her reputation, Maria was extremely well-mannered.  Her speech was peppered with "please" and even "ma'am".

During our conversation, she asked if I knew about her reputation and I admitted that I did. Apparently I also have a reputation, so she felt no reason to have to keep her guard up around me.  I gave her some pointers for dealing with some of the more difficult adults in the building and encouraged her to see me before small problems erupt into bigger ones.

My positive experience with Maria may be a little far-fetched.  I do not teach her on a regular basis, so it is difficult to assess how her behavior can affect a classroom environment.  However, I refuse to believe that a student this polite and self-aware is out of our reach.  Whenever I meet students like Maria, I am reminded of this quote by Haim Ginott and wonder if it is truly part of every teacher's philosophy:

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” 
― Haim G. GinottTeacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers

Monday, February 2, 2015

Submitting Grades

This past week marked the end of the second quarter.  My district switched over to an online grading portal several years ago.  As I enter grades, the students' averages are automatically calculated and families can check the grades at any time.  My grade submission duties are essentially whittled down to entering some comment codes and clicking the submit button.  Or I should say, that's how it usually goes.

One of the teachers in my department resigned several months ago.  A long-term sub (a retired teacher) is currently teaching the class, but as department chair I am responsible for submitting grades.  There is a glitch with one of the classes that cannot be fixed at the current moment.  Luckily that class is fairly small, so I calculated the grades by hand.  However, if this continues, I may be forced to turn to an alternate method of calculating grades.  If that is the case, I will choose among the Google Drive, Excel and online routes.