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."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

My Students, My Heroes

Who are your heroes?  Are they movie stars, professional sports players, writers, presidents, someone you admire from afar?

Mine are closer to home.  My heroes are sitting in front of me every day in the classroom.  They are the 11, 12, 13, and 14 year old students who show up at school every day ready to learn and have a new life in America.  They are the middle school refugees and immigrants that I am lucky enough to teach every day.

Do you remember middle school?  Do you remember it as the best time in your life?  I doubt it.  I love teaching middle school- kids this age are full of energy and big ideas.  They're figuring out who they are and they're ridiculously funny.  But, they're also self-conscious, awkward, and their brains are still developing, so there's a lot they don't  have a handle on yet.

Now, imagine all of those things PLUS being new to a country and culture and language.  My students are not only navigating the difficulty and stress of adolescence but they are adjusting to a new way of doing things in almost every aspect of their lives. It's shocking and it's not easy. Sometimes new students in my class don't talk for a long time- it's normal.  Sometimes they cry, because what they are tyring to do here is so very hard.  Sometimes they're sad, because they miss their friends, the weather in their country, the food....and everything here seems so strange and empty.

And, their parents.  Heroes, too.  Many of them were professionals in their country- doctors, teachers, lawyers.  They come here and they have to start over.  Imagine being a doctor or a teacher in your country- respected in your field, a professional, and then you come here and you need to get a much different job because you don't know the language, you don't have the U.S. license in your field.  It's tough.  It's really tough.

Yet these people do it.  And, they are my heroes.  They flee wars, oppressive governments, genocide to come here and start over.  They finally get out of refugee camps and come.  They come because they can't make a living in their country and just like all of us, they want to provide for their children. They come because maybe they can save their sick child's life through medical care here that they can't get in their own country.   Yes, these are my heroes.

I have a reflection that Garrison Keillor wrote years ago about refugees and immigrants hanging by my desk at school.  He also regards these humans as heroes and his words are so beautiful, I want to share them here at the close of this post:

"Heroes, all of them- at least they're my heroes, especially the new immigrants, especially the refugees.  Everyone makes fun of New York cabdrivers who can't speak English; they're heroes.  To give up your country is the hardest thing a person can do: to leave the old familiar places and ship out over the edge of the world to America and learn everything over again, different that you learned as a child, learn the new language that you will never be so smart or so funny in as in your true language.  It takes years to feel semi-normal.  And yet people still come- from Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, Ethiopia, Iran, Haiti, Korea, Cuba, Chile, and they come on behalf of their children, and they come for freedom.  They are heroes who make an adventure on our behalf, showing by their struggle how precious beyond words freedom is, and if we knew their stories, we could not keep back the tears."