Sunday, December 20, 2015

Seek first to understand

A couple of years ago I was in a meeting and we were discussing how different students were doing with a reading program.  They were identifying who they saw as "emergency students."  These were students who were significantly behind where they should be with their reading level.

So, one of my English learner students gets identified as an emergency.  I gasped.  Aloud.  Loudly.  People looked at me.

"Well, the word I would use to describe her is not 'emergency'.  Rather the word for me that comes to mind is 'superstar'."

I went on to explain how this student had only been in the country for a short period of time and had zero English when she arrived. She had just been exited from the newcomer program a few months ago.   We also didn't know a lot about her previous schooling in her home country.

So, I went on to explain: according to what we know about research on how long it takes to acquire a second language, she is actually OVER-achieving.   I explained all of this and I think I succeeded in getting her off the "emergency" list- maybe not the data sheet, but at least in people's minds.

As educators and as a society, we are very used to identifying problems.  We judge quickly. We are bothered by the square peg that doesn't fit into the round hole.  And, sometimes this leads to children being incorrectly suspected of having learning disabilities, or low intelligence, being lazy and apathetic, or difficult and oppositional.

Sometimes these things might turn out to be true.  But, often, oh so often, we are missing the real story.  And, we need to slow down and Seek First to Understand.    Here are 4 ways to approach this issue.


1.  Get the back story. Be a top-notch investigator.

 You really have very little business citing problems until you know the whole story.

 I'm guilty of this too and there are many times when I've had to check my own assumptions and slow down.  Times when I've unearthed new information that drew me up short in how I was seeing a kid.

This takes time.  Build a relationship with the child.  Build trust.  Ask questions.  Build a relationship with the family.  Build trust with them.  Ask questions.  Ask how you can help.  To use an over-used and tired phrase, "Think outside the box."  Figure out what might help.

A lot of  things can look like a learning or behavior problem in the classroom, when it is really something else in disguise. Trauma.  Experiencing or witnessing violence.  Divorce or any kind of serious problem in a family system.  Learning a new language.  Learning a new culture. Poverty. Gaps in education because of being a refugee or having a chaotic life.

Any of these things can and should give you pause, lead you to offer other kinds of help, and work with the child in a new and more compassionate and intelligent way.

2.  Don't compare apples to oranges.

Sometimes when a student is struggling, all we can see is how Unlike the other students they are.  How behind. How different.  Well, you may be comparing apples to oranges.  And, it's not fair or helpful.

Here's a quick case study. Let's compare my own daughter with a student I'll call Isaac.  They are about the same age and grade.  Isaac was in our newcomer program last year and is now in a regular middle school, still receiving English Learner services, but taking many other mainstream classes.

We were recently contacted by the staff there who is concerned about his academic achievement and thinking he should be tested for special education services.  Here's the back story.

Daughter was born in the USA and English is her first language.
Isaac lived in several different countries before he came here 2 years ago.  He had at least 2 other languages as a child, but was not fully proficient and literate in either of them.  

Daughter attended pre-school from ages 3-5, the same elementary school for 6 years, and now the same middle school for the past 2 years.  She has had excellent and caring teachers the entire time.
Isaac had very little formal education before he arrived here. The one school he told me about had a teacher who beat them.  

Daughter has lived her entire life in an intact family with plenty of emotional and financial resources.  Not only from her immediate family but from her extended family and many friends of the family.
Isaac had the most chaotic childhood you can imagine- constantly moving, witnessing and experiencing violence, poverty, going hungry, homelessness.  He is in a much better situation now but the scars are there.  

My colleague and I shared all of this with the counselor and she listened intently and said that obviously he has a lot of issues and would need a different kind of support.  We recommended making sure the teacher in each of his classes was using a model of best practices for English learners.  We also said he would benefit from small group work whenever possible and extra help after school.  And, that in some form or manner, he needs emotional support- counseling or mentorship or something.  She agreed that they should try a lot of things before special education testing.

 3.  What are YOU doing wrong, Teacher?

This was the other working tittle for this blog post, but I decided it was too negative and confrontational.  But, I do think that as teachers we need to think about our practice and if we are truly doing everything we can to meet a child's needs.

I am not pointing fingers at other teachers.  I am asking myself this question and admitting that I have been guilty more times than I care to admit of prematurely judging a child's motivation, attitude, personality or intelligence.

What are we doing to make the situation better for the child?  I asked the counselor above what the teachers were already doing to try to help him.  I asked:

  • Are they using best practices for English learners in their instruction?  This would include building background on a topic and explicitly teaching vocabulary.  
  • Does he ever get individual or small group help?  Extra help after school?
  • Has anyone attempted to make a connection with him?  Build a relationship?  
This is tough stuff and sometimes as teachers we get defensive because our jobs are already SO hard and we have so many students and so little time.  But THIS is the job and these are lives we are dealing with.  So, this is our work.  

4.  Look for strengths and find ways to capitalize on them.

Lately, the numbers at our center have reduced to a healthy ratio and it is making such a difference in the work we are able to do with our students.  We are able to do better instruction, but we are also able to  do everything I am talking about in this blog post.  Most importantly, we have more time to connect with them, to know them, and to watch them closely and really SEE them. It is the greatest gift.

When we see problems, we also owe it to the student to identify their strengths. Let's return to Isaac for a moment.  I listed his hardships and the difficult circumstances of his life but here are the other facts about this child:

In spite of everything he has gone through, he has one of the best and most caring hearts you could imagine.   He would give the coat off his back to a friend.  He has a great sense of humor.  His oral English is really good and he made a ton of progress with us in reading and writing.  He is athletic and strong.  He's a natural singer and dancer.  He is resilient.  He is the very definition of resilience.

So, this is a lot of good raw material to work with, right?  There's a lot of amazingness in place with this kid.  Actually, given all that he's been through, isn't it kind of incredible that he is doing as well as he is?

What does Isaac really need?  A lot of things.  But more than anything, love, consistency, attention.

 Last year, his first teacher in our community sent him a letter of encouragement.  She told him all the great things about him in the letter and how much she had valued having him as a student.  She passed it on to him through me.  I helped him read it once.  Then he continued to read it and re-read it.  He was supposed to be doing math but I pretended I didn't notice what he was doing.  I saw him fold it up and put it in his pocket, then take it out and read it again.  His smile grew larger every time he read it.  It was as if he could not believe that someone actually believed these things about him.  It was so moving to witness.

Find the strengths. Find the strengths.  Find the strengths.
Name them.  Grow them.  Help the child push off from there.  The strengths and the beauty is there to be found and it is our responsibility to discover it and nurture it.


I know I will read this blog post again when I am frustrated with a child.  I hope it will remind me to slow down and make the connections that are necessary.  You teach what you need to learn and I am still working on each and every one of my own recommendations.  Sometimes I do really well and sometimes, to be honest, I fail miserably.  But, I keep at it.  And, you should too.  

As humans, we all want to be seen.  We all long to be understood.  We all crave connection.   Our students feel the same way.  

So, there is no greater privilege than being able to see, to understand, and to connect with our students.

It will make all the difference.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Embracing the Other

"Miss, I loooove Christmas!  Lights.  Pretty."  This from one of our Muslim students the other day.

This comment really touched something in me.  How incredible if we could all view the unknown, the different, the new- through eyes like hers.  Not only to appreciate the Other, but to embrace it.

Many of us move away from what is unfamiliar and from places and situations where we don't feel we fit in.  This is understandable; it's human nature, and we all have a desire to belong.

 However, stretching ourselves and leaning into the new and unfamiliar can be life-changing.  Especially when doing this with other human beings who are different than us.  It can be uncomfortable, awkward, painful even.  But, when we move toward the Other and open ourselves up, we  find that we grow and evolve in unexpected ways.

 You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable to grow.  You have to open your heart in the biggest way in order to learn.  But the results are that you understand more about other cultures, other lives, other human beings.  More understanding, less judgement.  More love, less fear.

Here are a few experiences I have had in my life in which I felt like the Other, sometimes acutely and painfully so.  How I stayed with it and came out the other end better and stronger.

Gringa in Costa Rica

When I was a senior in college, I spent a semester in Costa Rica.  I lived with a host family in San Jose that only spoke Spanish and I studied Spanish all day.

 I stood out all the time, with my blonde hair and blue yes.  I got used to cat calls and being stared at.  This wasn't the most difficult thing, though.

For a while, I was really kind of terrified about making my way and interacting with others.  I could understand a lot but my spoken Spanish was not strong, so every little interaction- taking a bus, ordering at a restaurant, asking for directions- felt like Mount Everest.

 I want to be clear that I am not even remotely comparing this experience to that of a refugee or new immigrant.  I was a privileged college student with enough money to study abroad just to enrich my education and it was temporary.  Still, those feelings of being the Other did give me a small insight into how ridiculously challenging a new country, culture, and language can be.

Close to the time I was ready to leave, I had gotten much more comfortable.  I was bolder with my Spanish-taking risks with the language and it was paying off.  I was getting better, much better.
I even did a 2 week rural stay on my own with a family and worked in a 1 room school house. My language skills improved a ton, but more importantly:  My confidence and inner strength grew.

Hmong funeral

I taught night ESL classes for a while, and the majority of my students were  working all day and then coming to four hours of class four nights a week and then going home to take care of their families.  I was in awe of their stamina, their desire to learn this language, and their motivation to improve their lot in this country.

They were a lively group and we had a lot of fun and they learned quickly.  One woman in particular was so bubbly, gregarious, energetic, and outgoing.  She was that person who just lit up the room when she walked in every night.  She made us laugh.  Everybody loved her.  She was doing so well, I was getting ready to move her to a higher level class.

Which is why, it was particularly devastating when we learned she had committed suicide.  I felt sick for my students, for myself, and especially bewildered that I had seen absolutely zero signs of distress.  Telling my class what happened was one of the most difficult and painful conversations I have had.

I wanted to go to her funeral but I was unsure of the protocol and the appropriateness of me doing so. So I asked around and was told that I would be welcomed there.  I didn't really know what to expect but a few other teachers and I decided to go.

Everybody looked at us when we walked in.  It was a traditional Hmong funeral.  There was drumming and chanting.  Her family was gathered by the entrance greeting people as they walked in. I felt awkward.  I felt conspicuous.  I wasn't sure exactly what to do, where to go, what to say.

So, I just thought of my student and I focused on her family in front of me- parents, a husband, small children.  I told them simply how much she meant to me, how much I enjoyed having her in class, how smart she was, how well she was doing, how she made us all laugh.  I said I was sorry for their loss.

Then I sat down with all the others and listened to the drumming and chanting.  I didn't feel separate. I didn't feel like an outsider.  I felt like part of a community that loved someone.  I felt connected.

How do I eat this?

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties,  I volunteered in a program that paired people with new refugees.  It was just a simple program of befriending someone new to the country.  The idea was to spend time with them, maybe help them with English a little, and be available to explain things that were confusing in this culture.

I was friends with a lovely woman from Ethiopia.  We took long walks.  I helped her with her English.  We went out for coffee.  We talked a lot but some days she was just so sad.  I didn't know specifics, but I knew she had been through a lot of trauma.  So, at times there was a heaviness and an unbearable sadness about her that I could not begin to reach.

One day she invited me and my husband over to her apartment for dinner.  I knew she didn't have much and it was really an honor to be asked. There were quite a few family members and other friends there- all Ethiopian.   It was uplifting to see her in her own home, her comfort zone, her element.    She was lighter and moved with more confidence.  I could tell that she enjoyed taking care of me for once.

That was the first time I had eaten Ethiopian food.  So, she served us this injera, which looks like a big spongy pancake.  It's a sourdough risen flatbread.  On top of the injera was a stew of meat and vegetables with lots of spices.  There wasn't  a table, so I sat down in a chair balancing the plate on my lap and wondering how exactly I was supposed to eat this.  I had not been given any silverware.  I'm sure I looked a bit confused.

My friend caught my eye, nodded at me, and without any words  demonstrated how to tear off a little bit of the injera and scoop up the stew and eat it.  Others in the room caught on to what she was doing and smiled and laughed.  And, then I was able to laugh at myself and clumsily started to eat.

It was so good-delicious food- but made so much richer by the experience.  How nice it must have been for my friend to be my teacher and the culturally competent one for a change.


Yesterday, I was wearing some sparkly snowflake earrings.  When the same student from the beginning of my story saw me in the morning, she exclaimed to me, "Miss!  Christmas earrings!  Beautiful!"

What a joyful and refreshing perspective she has.  She is a Muslim girl experiencing her first Christmas in America.  And her eyes are wide-open in the best possible way.  She is seeing it all with wonder, awe, and appreciation.

We can all learn something from her when we deal with the Other or when we feel like the Other. We can learn to move towards the new, the different, and unfamiliar.

Even go a step further and Embrace the Other.

Maybe, just maybe, you will experience joy and beauty like my precious student.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Magic of Laughter and Uno

We play chess every day in the Newcomer Center and I'm going to write a longer post about that sometime.  Today, however, I want to talk about another really serious game:  the game of UNO.  :)

Uno is a great game to teach the Newcomers.  Anyone can play it and learn it quickly.  It only involves vocabulary for a few numbers and colors.  So even if you have zero English, you can figure it out pretty quickly.

There is something beautiful and magical about watching a table of kids from Mexico, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan, Somalia,  and Ethiopia play this game together.

And, of course, every experience in the Newcomer Center is also an opportunity to teach language so you will hear a lot of things like this.

"Me turn!!!."   Teacher- Try: "My turn."

"You no say Uno!"   Teacher:  Try: "You didn't say Uno!"

"Me win!"  Teacher:  Try "I win."  And, also try to be more gracious.  :)

Sometimes they get so into it, it's almost as loud, raucous, and competitive as a soccer game.  I mean, you have to SUPERVISE these Uno games or they can get out of hand.

On Friday, we played Uno in the afternoon and for several kids it was their first time.  I played with a group of 5 boys.  One of them arrived a few months ago and is very quiet and shy.  He looked so terrified and overwhelmed for a while, but gradually he has become more comfortable.  He can't say much and I often think and wonder about all the worry and emotions tied up inside of him.

I like to be kind of dramatic and tease when we play Uno, so if one of them gives me a "Draw 4" or skips me, I make my eyes get really big and I act supremely offended.  Sometimes I mention that this may result in an F for the day.  (They know I'm kidding).

Well, this boy I'm talking about really got a kick out of this and the whole experience of the game.  I saw him really laugh hard for the first time.  His eyes lit up; the worry was erased.  His whole face crinkled into a huge smile and his face looked so bright, alive, and happy.  He smiled and laughed. And it was MAGIC. PURE MAGIC.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

6 Things I Have to Say about Refugees, Including Why I Missed George W. Bush this Week

My friend Holly posted a quote by Alex Franzen this week that really struck me.

"There is a unique flavor of suffering you were put on the earth to alleviate."

Alex says that all of us have something that we are "compassionately angry" about.  I love this.

 I get scattered sometimes because I'm worried about a lot of things going on in our world.  But, I have discovered as I get older that I can maximize the difference I make if I focus my energy and attention.  We can all find that one thing and focus on how we can uniquely help in that cause.

For me, my cause is all about my refugee and immigrant students and families.  I'm used to defending them and explaining why they're here and why we should help them. I've done it many times in many different settings, including  family reunions  :)

One of the reasons I write this blog is so people can read the stories of refugees and immigrants and see how very much alike we all are. To diminish the idea of "the other." To see that we all struggle, and we all have hopes and dreams.  At the end of the day, we all want to live in safety and peace and make sure our children are cared for and happy.

I believe I can probably best show this human connection through the stories I tell here.  But, with all the events of the past weeks, I feel a pull to do a post in its entirety about refugees.  So, today I am going to post more explicitly on these topics-what I have learned from all the reading and study I have done over the years. All my experiences.   And, even more importantly, what I have learned from many, many conversations with refugees and their families- real-live people who have shared their stories with me and taught me so much.

Here is what I have to say:

1.  You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.

A certain person who enjoys national attention says that we need to keep Syrian refugees out because they are a danger to our national security.  To support this, he makes the claim that thousands of Arabs were cheering after 911 in Jersey City.  The mayor, the police and the governors of New York and New Jersey say it never happened. There are no documented reports that this happened.

This guy is the one who is dangerous and reckless, because right now he has a national/world platform for his hateful messages and he lies.  Call a spade a spade and a liar a liar.  He just admitted in an interview that he doesn't check his facts because he doesn't have time.  Enough said.

2.  Why does the discussion have to be so vile? and Why I missed George W. Bush this week

There is so much hatred and vileness being spewed on the issue of refugees and whether they should be allowed to come to our country.  I am astounded at the level of hostility and fear in things people are saying and writing.

The issue of refugees is the current topic that my son is debating with his high school debate team.  Last week I watched and judged four 1-hour debates on this topic.  They were reasonable.  They were professional.  They were courteous.  Nobody dehumanized a refugee. If 14-18 year-olds can talk about differences on this topic respectfully, can't we do a little better?

When the Paris attacks happened, I cringed for many reasons.  I cringed because of all the people who lost their lives and the fear and uncertainty inflicted on us all by terrorism.  I also cringed because events like this invariably lead to prejudice and retaliation against Muslims.

I am going to now post a video of George W. Bush giving a speech called "Islam is Peace." He made this speech shortly after 9/11 when anti-Muslim sentiment was running high.  Full disclosure:  I never voted for him.    I protested against the war in Iraq.  I disagreed with him on so many, many things. I think he had many disastrous policies that still reverberate today.   But this was a fine moment for him.  I love this speech,   and I wish we had more people of his party speaking out like this today.  I never expected to compliment George W. Bush on this blog, but for this 4 minutes and 17 seconds of his presidency, he got something very, very right.

Islam is Peace by George W. Bush

3.  Be consistent.

I was raised Catholic.  Although I no longer practice this religion, I have deep respect for what I consider the best and holiest parts of this faith:  love, compassion, forgiveness, service, and social justice.

However, I see a lot of inconsistency in what some Christian politicians, leaders, and others are saying.  I don't understand going to church on Sundays and professing love for God and Jesus Christ and then taking a stand against refugees on Monday at the office.    Religion should not be theoretical; it should be put into loving and bold action.

I am not a biblical scholar but my friend Cathy knows a little something about the Bible.  She says that "there are over 100 passages that mandate we welcome the stranger into our midst.  And, close to 2000 passages that encourage us to care for the widows, orphans, and poor."

Also, here is a quote from Hubert Humphrey. It's a message that I would like to give to the governors that want to deny entry to refugees and to the legislators who passed the House bill restricting them:

"It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

4.  Love will conquer fear.

Yes, I love quotes.  Because often others have said exactly what I want to say and it can not be improved upon.  From Marianne Williamson:

“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us.”

I am so impressed with the open letter that some of Minnesota's legislators wrote to Syrian refugees, welcoming them.  Those who had courage during these times and acted out of love instead of fear will be remembered.  

5.  Listen to a refugee's story.

It's easy to think of people as "other" until you are face to face with them and you listen to their story.  I think the best advice I have for anyone struggling to understand the refugee experience is to spend some time with a refugee listening to their story.

These are some of the stories I have listened to over the years:

"We had an upper class lifestyle in our country. We had friends, a community, a life.  We went to restaurants. But, things changed.  And, finally, we had to come here to give our family a better life.  We don't have much here.  We've lived in shelters. We don't know anyone. It's hard to get used to."  (from a mother)

"My father was killed in our country."  (from a 13 year old)

"There were bombs falling all  the time.  Our family left our house and  country with nothing- not even a backpack." (from a 12 year old)

How can you not be stirred by these stories?

6.  Life is arbitrary and unpredictable.

In a grand and cosmic sense, I'm not sure why I was born in the United States to a family who had the resources and love to raise me and give me a great life.  I feel lucky.  I have so many choices, so many freedoms.  But, you never really know what life holds for you.  Or what you might need to do to go on.

The eloquent poet, Warsan Shire, reminds us:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

If something happens here one day and I need to leave or flee this country, I hope that another land and another people might open their door to me and say....

I'm so sorry you had to endure that.  Come in.  

You'll need some extra help for a while.  Come in.

We see you with compassion.  Come in.  

You are part of our human family.  Come in.  

Come in.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Holding Space

Recently, I've seen the phrase holding space a lot. It resonates.

Heather Plett says this, "What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control."

Ahhhh, I see. I don't need to fix everyone's problems? I can sit with them. I can cry with them. I can hold their hand.

Last night we had parent-teacher conferences. The last conference of the night took an unexpected turn when our student began to pour his heart out about all the hurt he had inside. It was like a dam of emotion and pain had been released. He admitted that he was putting on a happy face and acting like things were okay. They are SO not okay.

"You think I don't know, but I know everything." The mom had been valiantly trying to shield her son from some of the awful, but in the end, it doesn't work very well. Kids know.

Some of it will likely get better with time, but a big part of it won't. His mom said, "I give him permission to be this sad and this angry because what has happened is something that no child should have to go through. But what can I do?"

All you can do sometimes is be there for people. Walk alongside them. Tell them you're sorry they're hurting. Listen. Cry with them.

That is what my colleague did with this family for well over an hour last night. We held space. We told the mom and her son that we would be there for them, that we would do whatever we could that might help. But in the end, I know that just being a loving presence will be the greatest help.

There was one point of much-needed levity during this difficult conversation. The younger brother was there but he was immersed in a game on his Ipad. Suddenly he looked up to see his mom, brother, both teachers, and the interpreter all crying, very somber.

"What is this? What has happened to everyone?" he said looking around at all the tear-streaked faces, completely bewildered. We all laughed- It was pretty funny that it took him so long to notice something was going on. Laughter through tears.

I went to bed thinking about this family I woke up thinking about this family. Oh, how I wish I could fix all their problems.

More advice from Heather Plett: "Create a space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others."

In the end, I believe it was such a good and healthy thing for our student to get all of this out. I can take some solace that we have created the environment in our center that would lead to him feeling safe enough to break open like he did. I give my colleague, who spends the majority of time with this student, enormous credit for creating this atmosphere. It's one of the things she does best and most beautifully.

So, for now, holding space will have to be enough. And, it's a lot. It really is.

How to Hold Space for Others by Heather Plett

How to Hold Space for Yourself First by Heather Plett

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How Perspective Changes Everything

I went to a professional conference last Friday.  It was so great.  I came back inspired, enlightened, refreshed, fired-up and re-committed to the English Learner field, teaching, and my students.

 Then I looked at the note from my sub.

This was a very hard day.  I tried.  

This is the only note my sub left me.  Yikes. According to our para, she also had some disparaging things to say about my students (whom she spent 1 day with) and me (whom she has never met) at the end of the day.

 I don't like to have subs and I try not to be gone because it's a unique teaching position and a lot of people don't "get" this group.  I asked our para, our bilingual specialist, and one of our volunteers who were there on Friday how the students were, and they all said they were actually pretty good.

It got me to thinking how perspective changes everything.  Our para, bilingual, and volunteer know and appreciate the kids.  They understand them and where they're coming from.  I don't doubt that some of them were super challenging for the sub and it was not an easy day, but life really can come down to whether you're a glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of person.

So, I'll stick with my glass half-full perspective.  Here are the 10 reasons my students are AMAZING!  True stories from just this school year.

1.  "It's OUR bathroom."

One day last week, another teacher came into our classroom and said that a bunch of our boys had just made a mess in the bathroom with paper towels.  He didn't know which ones.  I asked whoever was responsible to do the right thing and go clean it up.  Naturally no one moved a muscle.  Then one of our kids (who definitely had no part in this) said to his buddy, "Let's go clean it up."  His friend (also no part) said, "No! Why?  We didn't do it!"  Spectacular Student replied, "Well, it's OUR bathroom."  He got up to go clean it up, whereupon a few kids (the likely suspects) told him to forget it and that they would do it.  I believe they did this because this kid is so nice to everyone, such a friend to everyone,  that the guilt got the better of them.  If you know middle school boys,  a moment like this is akin to angels coming down and singing in your classroom.

2.  A Hug  Every Day

One of our refugee students who started with us a month ago looked more terrified and overwhelmed on his first day than anyone I can remember.  I could tell I would need to go really slowly with him and give him lots of time and space to warm up.

In the morning, I generally stand in the hallway and greet kids- sometimes with handshakes, sometimes a fist bump or a high five.   I give hugs if kids initiate them.  Usually it's the girls.  Often other kids notice kids getting hugs and start to want one too.  About two weeks ago, this kid approached me for a hug.  After I hugged him, he smiled hugely.  His hug style is  kind of a side-hug, and he lays his head on my shoulder for a moment and beams his great smile at me.

Now, when I see him in the hallway every morning, he makes a beeline for me and my hug.

3.  They appreciate my dancing and singing.  

We have music in our school over the intercom between passing time to signal there is 1 minute left before the next class (brilliant idea, by the way).  I can't sing and I can't dance but I frequently sing and dance during this music to make my students laugh and because it's FUN.

The time this year when they laughed the hardest was when I did a sing and dance along to "Baby" by Justin Bieber.  I agree- I really outdid myself on that one.

4.  Watching them do presentations on their countries

We teach the Newcomers a lot of things about American culture but we also place a high value on learning from them.  We weave in questions about their countries and their culture into the teaching we do.  And, the first project we have them do is a PowerPoint presentation about the country they come from.

These brave kids who have limited English skills stand in front of the class and show pictures and facts about their country. They're proud and it leads to greater understanding among the students.  Frequently, they play the national anthem from their country and sign along.

 I almost know the Kuwait national anthem by heart, almost.

5.  Being witness to kids with very different backgrounds building friendships

You will see the most unlikely friendships form in the Newcomer Center, and that is one of the most beautiful and amazing parts of this place.  It confirms my belief that if people just got to know each other a little better, there would be much more peace and harmony in this world.

I've seen best friendships grow between students from Turkey and South Korea, Rwanda and Iraq, China and Syria.  Every morning I see a girl from Mexico and a girl from Ethiopia hug and kiss each other on both cheeks, and it is so lovely, I can hardly stand it.

6.  Over 40 kids playing chess every afternoon

Without a doubt, one of the coolest things at our center is that chess is part of the curriculum.  Our para is a chess expert and one of our volunteers also helps teach the kids chess.  Every kid learns and then they are matched up and play each other every afternoon for 20 minutes.

Chess teaches math and logic, patience, calmness, how to be a gracious winner, and how to be a good loser.  When you are new to a country and learning a language as complicated as English, you don't always feel very smart.  Knowing how to play chess makes you feel smart; it can spark a confidence that is much needed as you struggle with the language.

I looked out at the group of 40 playing chess the other afternoon and felt my own wave of confidence that we were doing something special here with these kids and the game of chess.

7.  "Can I take this book home?"

We have students who are sort of oblivious to rules and never ask permission to do anything.  They sharpen their pencils when you're trying to teach a lesson.  They wander out of the classroom to go to their locker in the middle of class. They want to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water right after their 4 minute break is over.

 Then there are those students who do almost everything right.  They're always prepared; they quietly do their work;  They follow directions.  They ask permission to leave the room and only if they really need to.

Last week, one of our do-everything-right and very soft-spoken girls came up to us at the end of the day, and said quietly, "Miss, can I take this book home?"  She had taken a book off our reading shelf.  She said it so sweetly, so earnestly that it just melted your heart.

"Of course you can take the book home.  You don't even have to ask.  Take it. Read it.  Bring it back and get another.  Oh really, you're just so adorable, take all of them....."

8.  Rock-Climbing Heroes

We took the whole class rock climbing at a local park in October.  Every single one of them tried it.  Some had to be coaxed into it, but in the end, all of them faced whatever fears they had and did it. And, they encouraged each other.  And, they felt that sense of pride you get when you try something new and face your fears and actually survive.

9.  "If you have a question; if you need something, just ask E."

Last spring this boy came into our center and into my life and into my heart.  I think it's fair to say that he did not speak one word of English when he started.  But, we manged to connect; we managed to communicate.  Through gestures and pointing and smiles and laughing.  This kid was something special and had a personality that came through even without words.

He stayed close to me physically a lot. He was always right there.  During math, when we worked in small groups and I sat down with them, he actually leaned on me when I was showing him something new or correcting his paper.  I could tell he needed the comfort, the support.

Slowly, he began to learn English.  He began to blossom.  His cool and sparkly personality emerged even more. He got really good at chess.    Everyone loved him.  When he started back with us in the fall, it was shocking how good his English was.  He set about helping the new kids adjust- showing them how to use their lockers, how to navigate the cafeteria, how to play chess.  He started to have a signature saying, "If you have a  question; if you need something, just ask E...(his name here)".

When he told me about a month ago that his family was going to move to another state, my heart dropped.  Everyone cried the day he left and said beautiful things to him and hugged him.  I held him close at the end of the day and I looked in his eyes and I said, "You're going to be just fine-wherever you go.  You're an amazing kid. You're special."

He smiled his enormous smile at me and walked away.

10.  Oh, my God- you're LEARNING!  YOU'RE REALLY LEARNING!!!!

This year's students were really beginners.  I have had to keep adjusting my teaching and my lessons, going slower, reviewing more.  I've been worried because they didn't seem to be making a lot of progress.  So, I kept adjusting, kept tweaking, kept stepping back and analyzing my teaching,  kept trying different things to engage them.

Last week during class I started to realize that they were understanding phonics better.  Then they were answering all my vocabulary questions.  Then they were working on an art-related activity connected to the story we had been reading with real zeal and focus.  They were also starting to raise their hands and fight to show how much they know.

And, my head and heart started to explode a little.  I saw that they were LEARNING!  I could tell we had turned a corner and what a glorious and welcome corner it was.

You really do have to hang in there long enough to see the miracle happen.


At the end of the day, we can all do one of two things.  You can write down the 10 worst things that happened to you that day and focus on those things. And, you'll feel like hell.  And, that will be your reality, but it's just one perspective.

 Or you can write down the 10 best things that happened to you and you can zero in on that.And THIS will be your perspective, your reality.

I don't know about you, but I'll choose the latter every single time I am able to summon the courage and wisdom to do so.

  Try it.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Women's Lib in the Classroom

I have to give you some back story first before I get to the classroom part.  I have to show you how precious this issue is to me.

I'm definitely a feminist.  I was probably a feminist for a long time but I claimed the word in college when my friend Tracy and I put on a Women's Week- a week of events at our college focused on women's issues.

I got to know Mr. Husband during this week when he volunteered to help out.  I know you cynics are raising an eyebrow and thinking, "Oh sure, he wanted to "help out" with Women's Week."  You're thinking he volunteered because he wanted to get close to me. I stand by the truth that he was and is a solid feminist himself.

However, I just asked him about this.

Did you want to help with the week because you believed in the cause or you wanted to kiss me?

I don't remember, he said,  probably both.  Ah, well.....good enough.

One more family story- A few months ago I was driving with my 16 year old son.  I'm not sure what we were talking about, but somehow the topic of feminism came up and he casually referred to himself as a feminist.

I had to grip the steering wheel, because in that moment it was like the heavens parted and the angels started to sing.  I had raised a boy, a 16 year old, who called himself a feminist.  I could die now with that achievement.

In fact, I told this story a few weeks later to my dear friends, Amy, Cathy, and Wendy at dinner and they were so excited and proud that they toasted me!

Okay, you get the point- so feminism, equal rights- very important to me- a core value in my life.  

Fast forward to my classroom now- full of kids from all over the world, many from places in the Middle East that have very different notions of a woman's place in the world.

Usually, I think about this more with the girls from the Middle East. The majority are here temporarily.   They come here and they wear skinny jeans and they don't cover their heads and they have classes with boys and it all kind of blows my mind.  I wonder how hard it might be for them to return to their countries and resume their roles there.  Some have talked about it.  Some have said they prefer life here and the way women are treated.

Kind of surprisingly, the Middle Eastern boys normally adapt pretty well.   I think they know ahead of time that they're going to be in school with girls, have female teachers, that things are very different here.  I know they have different thoughts on the whole issue but for the most part, they go with the flow.

Enter Student N. this past winter.  Yea, not so much for going with the flow.  He had very little English and so I was going slow with him anyway.

During Math, we work in small groups and I asked him to come sit by me so I could assess where he was and work with him.  I used simple language and pointed at him and the chair next to me and waved him over.  He shook his head.

I tried again, this time with a big smile.  Head shake.

Okay, maybe he's not getting it.  I asked a student to go explain to him in Arabic what I wanted.  I watched the interaction out of the corner of my eye.

I saw a 3rd head shake.

I asked my student interpreter what Student N. said.  My interpreter looked really uncomfortable.  He didn't want to say.  I told him to just give it to me straight.

"Umm, well, uh, Miss, well he said that, um, he can't sit by you or work with you because you're a woman."

A little part of my head exploded but I keep it under control and I said to my student interpreter,  "Well, okay, I'm sure this school is very different for him and I can understand that.  But, I am his teacher now so we'll have to find a way to work it out. Can you tell him I said that?"

Student interpreter delivered the message to student N.  Who did, Guess what?  SHOOK HIS HEAD.  His favorite thing, I think.

I let it go in that moment, because, baby steps, right?  And, besides, I was really busy with other needy students who were practically sitting on top of me, begging for help and attention.

Later that week, my colleague had a similar interaction with Student N., but she went all in.  All in with her gentle way. Dealt with it head on.   She told him she knew that this set-up was new, different, and strange.  She talked about her own experiences being a newcomer in both Germany and the U.S.  She reached out, she commiserated, but she also held the line...  She is his teacher now.  I am his teacher now.  We deserve respect.

He didn't shake his head this time.  He looked pretty skeptical, but he didn't shake his head.  I think he even smiled a bit and he had a nice smile.

Student N. didn't stay long in our program.  He was difficult.  He was challenging.  He came around a little, but not a lot.  We tried hard with him.

I wonder sometimes if we made a dent in his opinions about men and women.  I wonder if anything we said or did had an impact.  I thought about our conversations and interactions with him and wonder what I could have done better or differently.  I wondered what was most effective.

Then, I actually remembered one thing I saw that seemed to work with him one day.  We play chess every day in our program.  One day his partner was a girl.  He didn't want to play a girl.  He did the head shake thing.  His opponent, (sweet girl from Central America)  looked like she wanted to punch him.  We were tyring different things to convince him to play her.  We were going soft, then we were being firm.

I know you're not supposed to get in power struggles with students, but I was ready to go down in flames to win this one.  On this particular day, I had enough of this particular issue, and he was going to play chess with this particular girl.

Finally, one of his buddies went up to him and said a bunch of stuff in Arabic and then he clapped him loudly on the back and said, "You in America now, man!!!!"    Now, why didn't I think of that????

Then Student N. smiled and played chess with the girl.  And lost.  Ouch.

Baby steps.

Oh, and for the record, I did kiss Mr. Husband at the end of Women's Week......

Friday, June 12, 2015

How to say goodbye?

“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” 
― Kahlil Gibran

This year saying goodbye to students was, well, rather gut-wrenching.  I'm still trying to process it all.

In our program, we get so close to the students.  They are with us all day.  They are so needy and often fragile at first.  We're not just teaching English- we're teaching them about how to live in this new world called America.  We're helping kids from different parts of the world get along and forge friendships.  Many have been through some pretty horrific things and they may not talk directly about this trauma, but we're helping them put their hearts back together and feel the safety that every human should know.

So, saying goodbye at the end of the school year turns out to be a complicated, messy, heartbreaking experience.....But one week ago today, I faced it and said goodbye.  I said goodbye to kids who have completed the requirements for our program and are spreading out to 4 different high schools in town  and 2 other middle schools.  I said goodbye to kids who were just here temporarily and are now going back to their home countries.  I said goodbye with the biggest lump in my throat I have ever known on closing day....

I laughed. I cried.  I hugged.  I tried to say just the right thing.
So. Very. Difficult.
How does one say goodbye to these precious kids?   How does one let go?

How do you say goodbye to the stunningly beautiful girl who wasn't at school much because she was getting treated for cancer?  Yet, when she came, she worked so hard and with such a zeal, it amazed you.  Everyone loved her because she was gorgeous inside and out.  She finally finished her treatment and was around the last few weeks.  And, on the last day she asked if she could say something to the whole class.  And, she stood and pulled out a page she had written and thanked everyone for their support and said how much she loved being here and how she would never forget us.

How do you say goodbye to the sweet-faced boy from one of the scariest places in the world who went from seeming afraid and jumpy to being a kid who skipped into school with an enormous smile on his face every day?

How do you say goodbye to the girl returning to her country who says plainly that she doesn't want to go back, that she likes it here so much?  The same girl who was so quiet and so reserved, but slowly came out of her shell.  The same girl who asked if she could play her violin for the whole class and they were silent while she played- the kind of silent when you get to watch someone be in their moment and do something they love- and then the whole class broke  out in raucous applause when she finished.  And, she grinned from ear to ear....

How do you say goodbye to the boy with the gentlest soul and spirit who wrote you a letter about how important teachers are and how they must be respected? The letter you still have hanging by your desk.

How do you say goodbye to the girl who was so closed and guarded but slowly, slowly started to let you and others in?  You sat with her one day this spring and helped her with her autobiography and it was only then that you realized what she had lost and you looked at her and told her in Spanish so no one else understood, "I'm so sorry.  I didn't know.  You've been through so much."  And, she cried quietly and she lets you take her hand.....

How do you say goodbye to the 15 year old, 6 foot tall young man whom you and your colleague call the peacemaker?  This student speaks the two most common languages in our program and so helped us resolve conflicts between countless kids.  It wasn't just the fact that he knew these languages. It was the leadership, humor, and warm spirit he brought to these interactions that made the difference.  The moment this boy hugged me tight, started crying,  and whispered, "Thank you for everything, miss. I'll never forget you." is the moment I lost it and just began weeping openly.  Then he pulled this beautiful camel out and pressed it into my hands and said it came from his country and it was for me.

How. To. Say. Goodbye?

I knew it was going to be hard.  I kind of tried to prepare myself.  I even thought about being stoic and trying to keep myself removed from the emotion of it all.  But, that is SO not me and who I am.

So, as the title says, I said goodbye with an open heart.  With hugs. With tears.  With laughter.  With heartfelt words.  With words of encouragement, love, and support.  I did my best.  I offered my open heart to the beauty that is these students.

And, I looked around that room and I saw 40 kids hugging each other, enjoying each other, exchanging numbers and addresses,  many crying, some sobbing.  And, I saw again that these kids from such different cultures and countries were joined together and had created these amazing friendships. And, it was SO beautiful.  It was so lovely.  And, I knew I had a part in that.  I knew I had at least a small part in the creation of this little happy piece of the word where differences melt away and kids from very different worlds learn to be friends.

And, I realized that if it wasn't so special and precious, it wouldn't hurt so much.   And, thinking about it that way, well.... that actually made it hurt a little less.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Welcoming new refugees, How to say good morning to your colleagues, and Kissing at the end of the day

I just got back from church (a.k.a. running in nature with my dog).  While I was running, I mulled over 2 blog topics for today.  In the first one I was going to write about standardized testing and it was going to be strong and pointed and I was going to use research and data.  I started running slower just thinking about it- it just felt so heavy and negative.

So, this is the other post and I am going to show you how the topics in the title all connect.

On Friday, I got to do one of my favorite things at work and that is welcoming a new student to our center and her family to our community.  We got a student from a new refugee group to our city. They have been through a lot.  Their caseworker brought mom, dad, student, and her little sister to meet us.

I love to be the welcoming committee.  I look at them and smile my biggest smile and tell them how glad we are that they're here.  Welcome to the United States and welcome to the community.  This is a great place.  We'll help you.  I tell them I  can only imagine how hard life has been in the past few years, and I know everything must be very overwhelming right now, but we're here to help.  I tell them I'll take care of their daughter.  The parents started to smile; their shoulders relaxed a little; and they seemed more at ease...  There are many things I'm not good at, but welcoming new students, I can do.

This got me to thinking about how we all just want to be "seen".  How do we acknowledge people in our lives every day?  How do we stop and say, just for a moment, "I see you.  I'm glad you're here.  You're valuable. I want to know your story.  I want to know you."  As with many things, this starts in the smallest way, in the most personal way, and then extends out to the rest of your life.

So, I welcome new refugees to our community.  How do I greet my students every day?  How do I interact with my colleagues?  How do I connect with my own family when I get home?

My colleague says her favorite part of the school day is greeting our students in the morning.  I so agree.  Our kids are happy to be there. We get hugs, hand shakes, high fives, lots of smiles.  I'm willing to concede that not all middle-schoolers act this way and that's why I love this job and I'm stickin' with it.

Don't forget to say hello to your students.  It's SO basic, but it doesn't always happen in classrooms.  Let them know that you're glad to see them.  If you're having a bad day, fake it.  It's not their fault.  I also teach my students how to say hello to each other during our morning meeting and I like to think they'll carry this skill with them for the rest of their lives.

On to your colleagues who you spend more time with than your family some days, so let's enjoy each other.  We're at a new school this year so I'm still meeting people.  One of my colleagues officially introduced himself to me about a month ago, and he said he knew that I was one of the teachers in the center but he just hadn't had a chance to say hello.  He said that he had noticed me because "I walked around with a big smile on my face and always said hello."  I really cracked up at this.  I know it's true, and it's not fake.  I'm just a BIG believer in saying hello and good morning And, the smile is genuine and natural.  You get back what you put out.  And, besides, I think my smile is one of my better features.  I have dimples from my mom who got them from my grandpa, And, you gotta use what you got, right?

I once worked at a job and when I was new, I started to notice that not everybody said hello, EVEN if you said hello first.  The first few times this happened to me, I got paranoid and rushed to look into a mirror to see if I had something disgusting hanging from my nose.  Nope.  I continued to say hello anyway.

I have a friend who is a retired teacher and a runner and probably the most positive person I have ever met in my life.  He did an experiment once.  He collected data while running about how many people said hello to him.  His statistical analysis revealed that people almost always say hello back if you say it first.  His conclusion- put out what you want to get back.

Okay, so now you're tired and you've been positive and connected with colleagues and students all day.  You just want to go home and have some peace and quiet.  But, now you're going to be with the most important people of all- your family and they need you, too.  And, you need them.

"Does your face light up when your children walk into the room?"  asks brilliant author Toni Morrison. If it does, that's good, because then your face shows your children what you feel in your heart.  The first thing I do when I get home is to kiss and hug my children, now 12 and 16, and it's an essential part of our day.

Mr. Husband is a specialist in reconnecting at the end of the day.  He has helped me get better at this and focus on what's really important.  He'll always greet us all as soon as he gets home.  If I try to brush him off or give him a quick, fake kiss, he always calls me on it. He says something like,  "Come on, just slow down for a minute.  Don't be lame!  Give me the real deal!."  Then I do, with the kids groaning in the background.

Something so small, yet with the ability to have such a huge impact- how we say hello, how we smile at people,  and how we welcome them.  Small gestures that can mean so much.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

What are you reading now?

I am always reading something, always.  Right now there are no fewer than 20 books on my nightstand waiting to be read.  There are at least 5 books loaded on my Nook that I haven't gotten to. I know that's a little ridiculous.  What happens is that I hear an interview on NPR or I read a review of a new book or a friend or colleague tells me of a great read, and I just HAVE to get it immediately.  Some women buy shoes and make-up, I have a book problem.

I always make time to read, even when I am crazy busy.  Reading is like breathing to me.  I must do it every day or I don't feel right.  I don't really get it when people say they don't have time to read.  I mean, just don't dust as often, right?  :)   Reading gives me so much comfort and joy.  It has helped me so many times in my life.  Reading is a faithful and loyal companion.

Usually I have two books going at once- one fiction and one non-fiction.  Often the non-fiction is about teaching, refugees, a certain country or part of the world.  For the past few months, I have been slowly and steadily moving through The Courage to Teach  by Parker Palmer.  It is not an easy read but it is a profound read.  It's challenging and I only read a few pages in a sitting and often I have to re-read passages to make sure I understand them, but I love it.

This book was referenced at my state English Learner conference in the fall.  When I got back from the conference I found the book at a bookstore and I read the back cover:

I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy...But at  other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused- and I am so powerless to do anything about it---that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham...If you are a teachers who never has bad days, or who has them but does not care, this book is not for you.  This book is for teachers who have good days and bad, and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves.  It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life.  

Was Parker Palmer speaking directly to me?  Well, that's how I felt.  This book is about the inner landscape of a teacher's life.  It is about learning how to teach in what is sometimes a toxic environment but never losing the passion and fire for your students and their learning.  It is not about specific techniques in teaching.  Rather it is about the necessity of being true and honest in the classroom and connecting with the human beings, your students, that you are in front of.  It is really a beautiful book and it is helping me so much.

There are many other books that have influenced my teaching, but I'd like to hear from you.  Will you do me a favor and reply on my blog with your favorite books about teaching?  I would love to hear about the books on teachers and teaching that have meant something to you.

Anyone can reply by hitting the "Comments" button on the bottom of the post and posting under "Anonymous".  You can leave your name if you want, but you don't need to.

Happy reading.  It's spring break and I have 3 books going right now.  :)


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Happy Birthday, Mr. Rogers.

Friday was Fred Roger's birthday.  He really exemplifies the kind of teacher and human being I want to be- calm, loving, full of spirit, open-hearted, open-minded.

I re-read my post from last week and winced a bit.  It's honest but kind of angry.  A week later, I can see that underneath that anger is pain and sadness.  And, probably fear.  I feel so strongly about my students and helping them and when it seems like they're not valued, I sometimes find myself so distraught I don't know what to do......

Fred Rogers was one of the fiercest advocates ever for children.  He spoke gently and calmly and people listened to him. He was so genuine and warm that he just pulled you in.

This weekend I am filled with hope again.  A couple of great things happened at work this week which I'll write about in more detail some other time.  Basically, others came forward and said these kids do matter and they're amazing and we honor you for the work you're doing.  I'm not embarrassed to say that it felt good- we all need support, encouragement, and validation.

So, the quote above resonates with me this week.  Last week I felt so gloomy about teaching.  But, I learned this week that if you keep your heart open and you look around for your friends and allies, they are there, and things will get better.

Take a few minutes and connect to this article about the life lessons Mr. Rogers taught us.
There are 2 amazing video clips in there that you just have to see.

One is him testifying to Congress to get more funding for his programing.  He completely disarms the politicians with his warmth and sincerity.  The judge on the panel says,  "I'm supposed to be a pretty tough guy, but his is the first time I've had goosebumps in two days."

The other clip is Mr. Rogers accepting a life-time achievements award at the Emmy's.  There he is accepting this award in Hollywood with all these fancy people and he continues to be exactly who he is..... and he is loved for it.

So, happy birthday, Fred Rogers.
 "Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me".

Life lessons from Mr. Rogers

Sunday, March 15, 2015


I wasn't going to post at all this weekend because I don't think I have anything uplifting to say.  But, then I thought that writing might help me, and I started this blog to be authentic. Authentic is not always cheerful, so here goes....

 It was a tough week- the kind of week I wonder how much longer I can sustain this job as a teacher.  I would really like to be a teacher for another 15-20 years but I'm often wondering these days if that's going to be possible.

 I talked with two teaching colleagues after work on Friday.  We were trying to figure out how to best address a problem and I felt frustrated because I usually have some solutions and ideas but I didn't have much to offer. The systems we work in just seem so complicated and it seems like no one wants to listen.  I left feeling pretty negative and sad.  And I think they felt the same way- kind of defeated.  And, that made me feel like crying because I know these two are amazing, committed, passionate teachers and too many wonderful teachers are feeling this way these days.....

"America is demanding too much from its teachers without giving them the proper support to educate students effectively. Commitment, caring, pushing for results, and putting in a full work's day no longer seem to be enough...Often, I felt like a soldier dropped behind enemy lines with nothing more than orders. No weapon. No helmet. No hope of reinforcements."  wrote John Owens, in Confessions of a Bad Teacher.  

50%  of teachers are leaving the profession within the first five years according to recent reports.  The reports say that they're leaving because of lack of support and help. They find the job and the problems the kids bring just too overwhelming and they don't get the help they need to help the kids. These teachers don't leave because they don't care. They don't quit because they don't love their students and want to help them. They leave because it's too hard and no one is listening. This statistic should absolutely shock- it should compel a call for reform so loud it can't be ignored.

Teaching is an interesting profession. Everybody has an opinion.  Everybody thinks they're an expert on teaching and freely feel they can give advice.  Why is this?  Because we all went to school once? 

 A couple of years ago I was on a committee that included community members and I was absolutely astounded at the lack of willingness from some people to listen to what the educators had to say about our field.  They were sure they knew better than all of us. It was as if my master's degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and my 20 years of experience in the classroom had no value.  They didn't even want to know about the established research that informed my teaching practice.  They knew better.  The audacity and arrogance floored me.  

And, it made me want to drop by the closest seminar for surgeons and stand up and share all my expertise and the way to do surgery since I had once had my gall bladder removed.  

 I'll just go all the way here as long as I'm venting and say that when you work with English Learners, immigrants and refugees, you get even more advice and criticism.  Ours is a complicated teaching field because it gets all mixed up with people's politics, fear, prejudices, and assumptions about immigrants.  

So many people in our country and our own community and even some teachers in our very own school buildings, look at these children as a drain and a deficit.  They pull down scores.  They need extra help.  They don't speak English for God's sake.  

When I look at these English Learners, these resilient and brave immigrants and refugees, do you know what I see?  I see the future of our country.  I see kids who once they master English, and THEY WILL, (provided they are given the appropriate teaching, time and support, ) will be members of our community who speak 2, 3, 4 languages, who are able to navigate seamlessly between cultures.  I SEE VALUE!!!! I SEE ASSETS!!!  I know when you type in capital letters, it's like you're yelling, and yeah, I guess I am yelling.  I want to be listened to.  

So, back to the original question of how much longer can I possibly do this crazy job?  I'm really not sure today.  

I have a wonderful aunt who was an early childhood special education teacher for many years and she just always simply advises me to do it for as long as I can.  That for however long I can hang in there and teach, it will be a benefit for the kids I work with and for public education.  

I actually feel less discouraged right now after writing this post.  I feel more like fighting and advocating, because when I think about giving up, I see my students' faces, and they so badly need fighters and advocates who love them and believe in them.  

I'll take a deep breath.  I'll smile. I'll focus on the positive and try to make change where I can, even if it's in the smallest way.   I'll continue to put my heart on the school table. 

 I'm a teacher, after all, and that is something.  That is really something........right?????

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Kids don't learn from people they don't like."

What are the conditions that I create in a classroom so kids will learn?  What is the energy, the atmosphere,  the climate in my classroom?  Does it lift children up or tear them down?

"Kids don't learn from people they don't like", said the late Rita Pierson, in one of the most beautiful and inspiring TED talks on education I have ever watched.  I link to it at the end of this post.

And, I'd like to add:  Kids don't learn much from teachers who don't seem to like them.  And, they are so sharp that they can spot a teacher who doesn't like them or is annoyed by them a mile away.

Can you think of a teacher who really supported you and lifted you up- who seemed genuinely happy to see you when you walked into the classroom every day?  I've had many of these and I learned a lot from them.  I felt comfortable taking risks in their classroom.  I felt I could make mistakes and I learned.

Now can you think of teacher you had that seemed almost irritated when the class showed up, who seemed to hate his job, who taught with contempt and  ridicule?  How well did you learn?  What are your feelings  when you summon that experience in your mind and heart?

I had a Spanish professor in college who once actually made fun of the way some of us were speaking Spanish. Can you even imagine?! He mocked our pronunciation in front of the whole class.  At the time, I felt deep shame and embarrassment and I almost let his arrogance take something away from me that I love- learning Spanish.   I knew what he was doing was wrong and my friend and I complained bitterly about him to each other and gave him the worst possible evaluation when it came time to do it, but he remained on the faculty.

Even my 20 year old self knew that he was a bad teacher and he was doing all the wrong things.  Now that I've become a language teacher myself, I'm absolutely appalled about how he was allowed to remain a professor there and continue to terrorize in his classroom.  I didn't learn from him either- in fact, I grew more self-conscious about my speaking abilities in Spanish and it took some really hard work and courage on my part to break through that.

I have a student right now who arrived just two months ago.  He doesn't say much yet but he has this enormous, beautiful smile that he regularly flashes at me.

When we do math, we work in small groups at tables and I sit with the kids and help them.  When he first started, he seemed so unsure of everything, kind of fragile and lost.  I had him sit right next to me in math and I noticed that when I explained something to him, he often physically leaned on me.  I'm not sure what was going on- maybe he just needed some human warmth, maybe his culture doesn't have the hang-ups about personal space that we have, maybe he needed someone to hold him up for a while. I just let him lean away. It seemed to help him.This child is sharp; he gets things very quickly and he works so hard- He has firmly implanted himself in my heart. Oh, he has such a long way to go, but I know he's going to make it.

This past week he got the lowest score on a unit test I gave my class.  He was the one I complimented the most.  Considering where he started the fact that he got 10/20 was a huge accomplishment, a victory.  He glanced around and I know he realized that his score was low compared to the others.

 He still doesn't understand a lot, so I used a lot of gestures and slowly I said to him, "Today you got 10/20.  Next time you'll get 12/20, the time after that 14/20, and you'll keep going up, up, up. I'm so proud of you.  You're making me happy."  I put my hand on my heart, pointed at him, and  smiled as big as I could.  Then I proceeded to give him every non-verbal sign of approval I could- a high-five, a fist bump, a thumbs up, and a side hug.  I just wanted to be ABSOLUTELY sure he got the message.  He got it......He actually started looking sort of embarrassed about all the fuss I was making :)

So, you can't just be an expert in your subject matter to teach.  You've got to genuinely like your students. You have to be interested in them.  You have to want to know about them.  You've got to see their strengths and abilities.   You have to be their champion.  YOU are the one on their side.

I think my students are fascinating.  They are 11, 12, 13, and 14 year olds, yet they have already lived so much in their young lives.  We just started having them  write their autobiographies.  We've been doing a  lot of small group work on this.  As they write, we have a lot of conversations as we try to coax more details into their stories.

One of my students was talking  about this project to me and reflecting on school in his former country.  He said that the great thing about school in America is that the teachers are really interested in you; they ask a lot of questions about your life. He said that really surprised him about school here but he liked it.    He went on, "Miss, in my country, you come into the classroom, and the teacher says, 'Shut up, Sit down, and I'll tell you what you need to know.' Here the teachers want to know you."

Don't we all learn better from someone who genuinely seems interested in us?  Who seems to like us?  Who is not only on our side but is cheering us on?  Who makes the time and effort to make a connection with us, build a relationship with us?

Now, please take 7 minutes and 48 seconds and watch this talk from Rita Pierson.  It makes me want to stand up and cheer:

Rita Pierson- "Every Kid Needs a Champion."