Sunday, November 13, 2016

How to be Heroic

Early Wednesday morning, when the results of the election were obvious, I felt a real fear and dread wash over me.  Mr. Husband spent a long time talking me off the ledge.  He is really good in emergency situations.

Then, when I was able to breathe again, we started talking about my students.  And, he helped me find words for what I knew would be difficult conversations when I got to school a few hours later.

When I walked in the building, a mother and her daughter were coming down to meet with us before class began.  They told us that she was going to have to leave and go back to her country for several months to do some testing that is important in their educational system.

The mom told us what an amazing experience her daughter had with us for the two months she was here- how much she learned and grew.  My partner and I (easy criers, but even more so this morning with our nerves frayed) both burst into tears.  We talked about how talented, smart, kind, and beautiful her daughter is and how much we love having students from all over the world- that we treasure them.

Her mom said one more thing to us before she left, as if to offer comfort, even though we never talked about the election.  She looked at us both, "You make America bright."


Then the real brightness  arrived for the day- the girls and boys, refugees and immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Syrians, Somalis, and more.  Our students.  Our beloved students.  

There was a lot of anxiety, worry, and stress that morning.  One child even burst into tears.  We let them get it out.  We reassured them.  We explained some things to them about democracy and how decisions get made and carried out.  

My partner said, "You need to write.  You need to process this.  What is it you want to say?"

We kept talking.  The theme that kept emerging was the deep desire to be understood, for America to know them.  

And, I knew immediately that this was brilliant.  This was how to be heroic.  This was the hero and heroine's response to despair.  Knowing.  Understanding.  Friendship.  Community.  Connection.  

Father Greg Boyle says that it's hard to demonize people you know.  

I'll go a step further.  I contend that when you know these students, these beautiful refugees and immigrants, you will love them.  To know them is to love them.  

So, they wrote.  They processed.  They helped each other with language, interpreting when necessary. We listened. we recorded.  They wrote about 4 main themes:

Who are we?    Why are we here?    What are our hopes and dreams?   What is our message?

And, this is just a sample of what they said........


Who are we?

We come from 16 different countries.  We speak 9 different languages plus English.  Some of us know three or more languages.  We're excellent chess players.  We're hard workers.  We're smart. We're kind. 

Why are we here?  

For safety.  Because my country had a war.  To have a better life.  To be with my mom who I hadn't seen for 10 years.  So,my dad can get medical treatment.  To learn English while my parents work here for a year.  To have a good life and be in a place where I can go to school and get an education. To be free.

What are our hopes and dreams?

I want to be a doctor for children.  I want to be a DJ and share music with people.  I want to be a soccer player.  A teacher.  A police officer.  A singer, an artist, an engineer, a video game developer....

What is our message?

I'm  the same as you.  I want to learn and have a good life.  I'm not here just for fun; I'm here because I had to leave my country that was at war.  I've had struggles but now I'm stronger.  I'm wise because of what I've gone through. I want to be happy.  


Like so many times before, my students were heroes to me as we discussed and wrote and discussed some more.  

Being heroic means being scared or even terrified, yet writing about your hopes and dreams.  

Being heroic means feeling misunderstood and even persecuted, yet reaching out your hand in friendship.  

Being heroic means walking to another country while your home burns in the background.  And then walking into a new country with your head held high.

Being heroic means crowding out the negativity and focusing instead on joy, peace, community, and friendship.  

These kids show me how to be heroic every day and in so many ways.  


A writer I love, Cheryl Strayed, talks about the advice her mom gave her whenever she was down or distressed:

"There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and it's up to you to be choose to be there for it.  Put yourself in the way of beauty."

So, today, I choose to put myself in the way of beauty.  

I choose to take a deep breath and look at my beautiful students and get back to work.  

I choose to show up for the sunrises and sunsets.

I choose to follow their example and be as heroic as I can possibly be.  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Best 8 Things Said in Our Class and Lessons Learned

One of the reasons I started this blog was to record some of the amazing things my students say.  When kids are learning English, what comes out is often hilarious, touching, and simple yet profound.  I remember their words and I feel joy, pain, pride.  My teaching partner and I often quote things to each other that our students have said to us over the years. 

So, here are 8 of the best things heard in our classrooms and the lesson learned from each one. 

1.  Last week, one student made fun of another student’s language by mimicking it with exaggeration. I saw the student who was being made fun of and his face fell.   I grabbed on to the teachable moment and talked right then and there to them about it.  I pointed out the sad face and told the other student that maybe he thinks it’s funny, but it hurts.  I asked him to consider how he might feel if the other student made fun of his language.  I think he got it- at least somewhat- and he apologized. 

The student who had been made fun of, looked at me and declared, “Miss!!!  You are SO cute!!” 

Lesson Learned:  This students uses “cute” as a compliment for everything right now.  I interpreted it as, “Thanks for sticking up for me.  You’re so kind.”  We have to teach kids how to treat each other, and we do it by being vigilant and watching and taking advantage of those teachable moments.

2.  We have a pretty intense student this year who seems to be missing some social and emotional skills and does not have much of a filter.  He’s really bright but can also be kind of in your face. 

At the end of a day recently, he came up to me and was about 1 inch from my face and loudly said, “HOMEWORK! HOMEWORK! HOMEWORK! HOMEWORK! HOMEWORK!"

I took a deep breath and a step back and said, “Can you ask for that in a nicer way?” 

He thought for a minute, took a step back toward me (yah, personal space does not exist for him) and said in a quieter and calmer voice, “May I have homework, Madame?”

Lesson learned:  You have to teach social and emotional skills just as much as content.  And, where do they come up with these things???!!! 

3.  I remember the winter day in December when one of our Muslim students arrived in the morning and with sparkling eyes declared, “Miss!  I looooove Christmas!  Lights! Pretty!” 

Lesson learned:  Appreciate the simple things.  Notice what is going on around you.  Find beauty in the world. Discover the miracle in something that is very different from what you know.

4.  Every year we watch a short video on Halloween and describe the holiday and show pictures to our students so they understand what is happening when they see people walking around in costumes and trick or treating.  We had done that the previous day. 

Today we were watching a district video on the drug-sniffing dogs that would be coming in to the building soon and sniffing around the lockers for problems.  We didn’t want our students to be alarmed so we watched the video and tried to explain it.  We needed someone to interpret to some of the kids who didn’t understand. 

Often we rely on more proficient students to help other students.  One of our newer students raised his hand enthusiastically and asked if he could interpret.  My partner and I exchanged glances but decided to give him a try. 

When he was done explaining, one of the students who spoke the language very well started waving his hands and yelling, “Miss! All wrong!  All wrong, Miss!” 

It turns out that he had conflated the Halloween story with the dog story and said something about the dogs sniffing for candy in lockers and you getting in big trouble if you had candy in there- succeeding in terrifying and confusing all the students.

So, now, when something happens that we really don’t like or someone is totally wrong about something in our opinion, my partner and I will look at each other and say, “All wrong, Miss.  All wrong!”

Lesson learned:  Be careful who you trust as an expert. Some people will be really confident about something they know nothing about.   But, it’s really fun to pull out that phrase from time to time.

5.  A student was accused of calling another student a very bad word. Please note that English is the 2nd language.  Here’s how the conversation went:
Accused Student: Miss, I no say mutter f...r. I no know what mutter f..r means. Miss! I no call him mutter f....r!
Me: Please, please! Stop saying mutter f...r!
Lesson learned:  Swear words really don’t sound bad to your ears until you know a language well.  And, the one thing that all kids in the world have in common is the deep desire to learn swear words in as many languages as possible.  And, also, it’s not easy to keep a straight face when kids are throwing around the word mutter f…r!

6.  We get new students throughout the school year.  When they come, we have them introduce themselves and tell the class what country they are from and what language they speak. 
Then we turn to the class and say, “What can we say?”
And the whole class yells brightly, “Welcome!”
Lesson learned:  Job #1 is to help new refugee and immigrant students and their families feel welcome, safe, and supported.  And, that is where we start with each and every student. 

7.  Evolved teachers like me don’t yell at students or use demeaning words when they are driving us crazy.  Rather, we say things like, “I’m really sad that you’re not doing your work.  I’m really sad that you’re choosing to do that.” 
Last week, a student was experiencing a consequence as a result of his bad behavior. He didn’t get to play chess that afternoon.  First he had to do some cleaning and then he was doing some time in detention.   He was shooting me killer looks.  And, finally he said, “You making me so sad, Miss.”
Lesson learned:  Be prepared for kids to use your own carefully chosen words against you.  So, be careful of Every. Single. Thing. You. Ever. Say.  J

8.  The end of the school year with these kids is always rather gut-wrenching.  We get so close to them and see them come so far.  It’s so difficult to say goodbye.  This is an entry from a post I wrote a few years ago: 
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 stuffed camel out and pressed it into my hands and said it came from his country and it was for me. 
Lesson learned:  No matter how hard this job is, I will always have moments like thisNo matter if I feel burned out and stressed out, I can find comfort and solace in remembering these times.  No matter how often I feel like I can’t go on, there will always be these momentsThe relationships I build with young people as a teacher are more important than anything.  If they know that someone cared for them and believed in them and fought for them and championed them, then I have done my job.  And, that is everything.  

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Even A Small Star Shines in the Darkness"

This week I cried at work and got two chocolate treats out of it and more.

What made me cry wasn't even that big of a deal.  It was just that it was only Wednesday and it was about the 37th similar problem we'd had that week.  

And, suddenly, the tears overwhelmed me.  You know how when you start to cry, and you really don't want to cry, but the more you try to stop it, the more the tears flow?  Yep, it was that.  

Luckily, I was with two colleagues I trust, and they were so kind and compassionate to me. They listened as I held my head in my hands and said things like:

There are just too many kids.

I don't even have time to build relationships with them.  

They're showing their worst sides to the rest of the building and it looks like they're out of control. 

I'm working so hard, but I'm so overwhelmed.

Maybe I should drop by the coffee shop across the street and apply for that barista job.

Stress and frustration for me gets turned mostly inward.  I blame myself for things not going well.  I hear things in my head like, "You are not up to this.  You're not tough enough. You must not be the one for this job."   I make mountains out of molehills.

I really didn't feel like crying at that moment, and I tried to hold it in, but I felt so good after crying.  

From Psychology Today by Judith Orloff, M.D.:  

"Emotional tears have special health benefits. Biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, whereas emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying. After studying the composition of tears, Dr. Frey found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.”

So, the next time someone is about to cry in your presence and you can tell they're trying to stuff it down, encourage them to let it out.  Tell them they'll feel better.  And, then simply hold space for them.  

After I finished crying, my teaching partner walked into the room, and took one look at me and asked what was wrong.  Then, the tears started flowing all over again.  I guess I wasn't done.  

I really do believe that the Universe conspires to lift you out of your darkness when you most need it.  Here's what happened over the next 3 days:  

1.  That day we were having a half-day of staff development.  In the morning we were explaining to the Newcomers why they were going home early. We said we had to go to school and that we are always studying to be better teachers.

One of the more fluent students said, "Why would you need to go to school? You're already so good!" 

2.  That same day, one of our students was leaving to head back to her country.  She is such an exuberant girl, full of life.  In the short time we knew her, we adored her.  She gave me a tight hug and said loudly, "I love you, Miss!"

3.  Then we had our staff development meeting.  I was exhausted from all the crying. I just wanted to melt into the background, but it was the kind of meeting that required full participation.  I knuckled my way through most of it, forcing a smile. 

But, in spite of my morose mood, I started to feel better and enjoy the meeting.  It was about building a positive culture and community in your school and being there for each other- everything I believe in.  

I started to come back to myself.  And, then we did an exercise where some staff were acknowledged for the good work they do in the school and my partner and I were brought up to the front and many lovely things were said.   And, the tears came again.  

4.  And, then the chocolate.  My partner gave me a bar of dark chocolate the next morning with a note that said, "Don't worry, be happy" on it, which was the favorite saying of one of our darlings from last year.

And, the day after that, more chocolate and a card from another thoughtful colleague.  


The other week Donald Trump Jr.  referred to Syrian refugees as Skittles.  He wrote, "If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem."

A man who owns a restaurant in Lonsdale, Minnesota put up a sign that said, "Get out Muslims".

That's a lot of darkness.  That's a lot of blaming a whole group of people for the actions of a few.

But, then there are the small shining stars that come to the rescue, like the little New York boy named Alex, who wrote to President Obama after he saw the photos of a traumatized and shell-shocked 5 year old Syrian refugee in Aleppo.  He asked Obama to go get him so he could join his family.

"We will give him a family and he will be our brother," Alex wrote. "Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together."

President Obama related the story of Alex's letter in a speech, "Those are the words of a six-year-old boy — a young child who has not learned to be cynical or suspicious or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray. We should all be more like Alex. Imagine what the world would look like if we were. Imagine the suffering we could ease and the lives we could save."

And, for me, the callous Skittles comment and the hateful sign about Muslims are pushed into the back by the brightness of Alex's light.  


That same week, one of our students gave a presentation on her country of Syria.  Towards the end of her talk she showed pictures of before and after the war.  It's shocking, devastating.  If you've never looked at the photos, you should, because then you'll understand why there are so many refugees fleeing for their lives.  

One of the boys in the class raised his hand and said, "I'm so sorry for what happened in your country."

Another said, "We're all the same.  No one wants war.  We all want peace."  

So young and yet so wise.  So much light amidst so much darkness.  


We had a long conversation with one of our students recently after school.  She was really upset about some things and we were trying to comfort her and her friend was there with us too.  She was also trying hard to hold back tears and it didn't work for her either.  

At one point, her friend ran to her locker and retrieved her notebook.  She flipped to a page with many sentences and quotes she had translated and pointed excitedly to one and showed her friend.  

She had to look closely since her eyes were clouded with tears, but she smiled and laughed when she read it.  

"Even a small star shines in the darkness."

Sometimes on really dark and cloudy nights, you have to search and search for a single star, but if you are patient, you'll find at least one.  

Sometimes you have to squint through your tears to find the small shining star.  

And, that is the Universe telling you not to give up.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Don't Quit on the Bad (Hard) Days

Well, the honeymoon is over at school.

Three weeks in and challenging behaviors are emerging. Conflicts between kids are rising. Difficulties are everywhere.

In a way, it's kind of a relief.

Let's just get on with the issues, so we can work on them and find a way through.

On Thursday, we had one of our administrators come in and do a presentation on rules, rights, and regulations.  We go over rules and expectations the first week, but we mostly get the "deer in the headlights" look from the kids because they are just so overwhelmed  by everything.

So, the third week is about the right time to have an admin come in and go over it all again so it can really sink in.

The presentation went beautifully.  We had bilingual specialists there interpreting.  Kids were attentive and super engaged- answering and asking questions.  Being their lovely, charming selves.

"Just look at them", I thought to myself. "They are so adorable, so good."  I was really quite proud of them.

At the end of the presentation, we dismissed them.  We all agreed it had gone really smoothly and all the adults were thanked and congratulated on a job well done.

This was 2nd period.

I can't be sure but I'm pretty confident that they had a meeting between 2nd and 3rd period.

And, that the verdict was unanimous.  The decision?  They had been SO good 2nd period they would give us hell in every imaginable way the rest of the day.

Really, it was unbelievable how many problems we had the remaining five periods.

I heard myself saying things like:

"Did you learn NOTHING from the morning presentation???!!!!"

"Ugh, REALLY??!!  Didn't we just talk about THIS?!"

"Okay, THIS?! THIS is play fighting!  Which is NOT allowed!  REMEMBER??!!"

My teaching partner and I discussed the payback at the end of the day.  And, we laughed.With our heads in our hands.

Teaching, like life, is a series of ups and downs.  And, I've learned that over the years, that you should never draw too many conclusions or make any big decisions on really difficult days.


Don't quit on the bad days.  

I heard this advice listening to my current favorite podcast this week:
Real Talk Radio with Nicole Antoinette

Nicole just completed a 460 mile solo backpacking trip on the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

She said one piece of advice she got was to never quit on a bad day.  To not abandon your entire goal and hike because of one horrible day.

Nicole said that on one of her worst days she just sat down in the middle of the trail and started sobbing.  An older day-hiking couple came upon her and they were understandably concerned.

"Just go around me.  I'm fine.  Go around.  I'm okay," she sobbed.

Don't quit on the bad days.

Nicole didn't quit that day and she finished her hike, accomplishing an impressive goal.


I have a dear friend from college who is also a teacher.  She lives in a state with deserts.  Many years ago, we were talking about bad and good days in teaching and how challenging it all is.

She told me that there is a big saguaro on the way into her neighborhood that she would pass on the way home from work every day.

If she had a good day, she would imagine the saguaro raising both its hands in the air as if to say, "Wow! Way to Go!  Touchdown!  Goal!  You did it!"

On the other hand, if she had a bad day, she would imagine the saguaro giving her the middle finger as if to say, "You suck!  Your day sucked!  Your job sucks! Your life sucks!"

This story really sent me into hysterical laughter.

And, I like to think that some days, she gave the finger right back to that saguaro and the bad day.

I don't have any saguaros where I live, but I sometimes visualize one, and even if it's the middle finger one it makes me laugh.  Don't we all sort of feel like flashing the middle finger at a bad day every now and then?

Don't quit on the bad days. 


Years ago when I was first out of college I had a job working with homeless youth. I was part of opening a new drop-in center for them that provided food, resources, and someone to talk to, a respite from the streets.

I had an awesome boss at that job who is still a friend.  We had a lot of time to talk as we built that program.  I remember him being very philosophical about a lot of things.

One thing I remember clearly that we discussed after a really difficult day.  I was referring to it as a "bad" day.  And, he said that he had a conversation with his boss recently and she had challenged that notion of "bad."

She questioned him, "Was it necessarily a "bad" day or was it just a "hard" day?

Maybe if you can reframe a "bad" day and think of it as more of a day that was hard, difficult, and challenging, your perspective on the day will shift.

One thing I know for sure is that with some students it often takes a lot of challenging and difficult interactions with them before you get to the good days.

And, with teaching, it often takes a lot of horrible lessons and activities that bomb, before you find your groove and a class flows.

For whatever reason, I've tried to stop calling days "bad" and it makes me feel better.  If a day is bad, it sounds so negative, so final, so unworkable.

But if a day is "hard", I kind of feel a little stronger at the end of the day, even if I'm exhausted.  I didn't quit.  I persevered.  I got through something hard and difficult.

And, this is how we grow, by the way.  This is how we stretch and become better.


Nicole eventually stopped crying and got up and kept hiking the PCT.

My teacher friend keeps driving by that saguaro.

My former boss and I both eventually left our jobs at the drop-in center for homeless youth.
But not on a hard day.  And, I know we're both proud of what we did to create and build that space for kids who really needed it.

And, I'll go back on Monday.  Ready for whatever the day brings.

Don't quit on the hard days.  

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Speaking Up

Last year, one of the refugee families we work with was featured in one of our state's major newspapers.  I knew it was coming.  The kids had been late to school the previous day and had excitedly told us all about being interviewed and photographed for a news story.

That weekend I found the article on the front page.  It was really well-written and moving.  It outlined their comfortable middle-class life before their country went to war.  Then the reporter went on to describe the terror of their city and home being bombed and the family's brave but only possible decision to flee.  They left with almost nothing and walked a long way to get to safety, careful to walk only at night so they wouldn't be shot.

After a few years of limbo in another country, they were lucky enough to be able to come here to the U.S.  Their life here has been hard.  The dad walked miles to interview for a job.  It's been disorienting to get used to a new language and a new culture.  They have to be strong for their kids who were traumatized by their experiences. But, they are adapting and they are so grateful for this new life.

My heart swelled with admiration and love as I finished the article.  I looked at the lovely photos of the humble family and I felt satisfied that so many others would know their story as I knew it.  So, my senses momentarily left me as I scrolled down to the comments.

I forgot about the Internet trolls and the haters and the mean people.  I thought a story like this would be a breakthrough in how people viewed this group of refugees.   I felt so moved that I expected to see lovely supportive comments.

There were a few, but the majority were extremely ugly.  One even said that they looked like a bunch of terrorists.

I looked back at the photos of the family of seven huddled on a beat-up sofa in a run-down apartment. I looked at the adorable little children.  I burst into laughter at the notion that these people could be terrorists.

And, then I started to cry.  Hot, angry tears first.  How dare they!!  They didn't know this family like I did.

And, then the tears turned to tears of real sadness and hurt.  How could you not be moved by this story?  Where is the humanity?  Where is the kinship with our fellow human beings?

I thought briefly about answering every one of those mean-spirited trolls.  I would eviscerate them, humiliate them.  Or, I would appeal to heir humanity, their innate human goodness.

Suddenly I felt exhausted.  So exhausted by this battle that has always been a part of my work.  I closed the computer and went and got a hug from Mr. Husband.


I didn't answer those comments in the newspaper that Sunday, but I have made Speaking Up on behalf of refugees and immigrants an integral part of my life's work.  

It's often awkward and uncomfortable, but I can't NOT do it anymore. 

Refugees, immigrants and Muslims are major issues of political contention these days in our country and in our world.  I am still shocked at the casual insults thrown around... about people.  Our fellow human beings.

I think part of the reason so many people are able to talk like this is that they are nameless and faceless to them.  Every time I hear a cruel comment about a Mexican or a Syrian or a Muslim, I want to ask the simple question, "Do you know any Mexicans or Syrians or Muslims?  Because  I do.  And, do you have a minute for me to tell you about these people?"

"It's hard to demonize people you know."  says, Father Greg Boyle.  Father Greg is one of my living heroes.  He works with the poor and the marginalized in the most challenged parts of Los Angeles.    He helps gang members find their way to a different kind of living.

So, now when I hear comments, I confront them.  I talk about my experience with refugees and immigrants.  I try to educate.  And, even though it's tempting, I try really hard not to be cruel or demeaning.  I try to follow Michelle Obama's advice when she says, "When they go low, we go high."

Sometimes the comments have a special hurt because they come in situations or from places or from people that I don't think have any business holding these hostilities

Like the people whose own ancestors were refugees and immigrants once in the U.S.  Hello, most everyone!!!

Like the weekly church goers who show up every Sunday yet say the meanest, most unkind things about their fellow human beings.

Or educators and school staff.  Yes, this happens.

I've heard things like this said about my students over the years:

-They are all so lazy.

-Why are they even in my class?

-I always get stuck with your kids.

It's not easy, but here is what I try to do.

I speak up.  I am trying so hard to be kind and calm these days in the face of these challenges.

 I speak up.  I try to have the most generous view I can of the person in front of me.  I think about how maybe they are just really uncomfortable or fearful.

I speak up.  Sometimes I ask gentle questions or give suggestions for working with newcomers to the country, ignoring the nastiness of the comment.

I speak up.  I talk about how amazing and strong the kids are.  I say they need time and patience to adjust.

I speak up.  One of the main reasons I write this blog is to tell the real stories of the refugees and immigrants I work with every day.

I speak up.

I think Father Greg has it so right when he talks about the notion of kinship.  When we think we are separate from other humans- this is when the problems begin. This is where humanity breaks down.

Father Greg explains the true meaning of  kinship here:

"No daylight to separate us.  Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

I brought the newspaper article about our refugee family to class the next day.  We read parts of it to the class.

My teaching partner, a refugee once herself, told the kids how she understood their journey.  She started to cry.  I started to cry.  A lot of the kids started to cry.  There were hugs among the tears and pats on the back.

And, my outrage and depression from the previous day dissipated.  I looked at our beautiful children crying together and comforting each other, and my heart filled.

Kinship- We were living it in that moment.

Let's all speak up and remember the fundamental human truth that Mother Teresa reminded us of.

"We belong to each other."

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

My Best Back to School Advice for New and Old (I mean Experienced) Teachers

We're officially back to school.  We're doing our teacher week and the students will arrive on Tuesday.

It won't take long to remember how tough teaching can be.  No one goes into this profession for the money or the fame.  We become teachers because we love kids, our subject matter, and want to make a difference. Unfortunately, no college course or training can quite adequately prepare you for just how challenging your work will be in the classroom.  We all have to walk through the fire and find our way.

Teachers are always striving to be better. We read and take trainings on best practices in our field, classroom management, culturally-relevant teaching, mindset, mental health, and on and on.  We fret when lessons don't go well.  We experience heartache when students and families struggle.  We care immensely.

Sometimes we care so much that we get stuck.  We get overwhelmed by the needs and start to get pulled under.  At the end of the last school year, I was at the edge of burn out.  I was almost out of energy and not taking care of myself.  And, I wasn't at my best for myself, my colleagues, or my students.

This year, I resolve to keep on track to the best of my ability.  To stay strong physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  To forgive myself.  To know that I can't solve all the problems of my students and their families.  And yet to understand that I can still make a tremendous difference in their lives.

Join me in making this a remarkable teaching year.  Here is my 9 point listicle for a healthy and happy teaching life:

1.  Laugh hard and laugh frequently.

My teaching partner and I laugh a lot.  We laugh when things are funny and we laugh when things are ridiculously hard and stressful.  After three years together, we know each other well, and we know which buttons to push to make the other laugh.  Sometimes all it takes is a raised eyebrow to make us dissolve into laughter. Science tells us that laughter releases endorphins, the body's feel-good chemicals.  So, even if the problems are still there (and they probably will be), you will feel better. It's great medicine. It's free and it's always available for you to access.

2.  Reflect on one thing that went well in your teaching every day.
Even better, do it with a colleague.  Better yet,  write it down.  It's easy to get in the venting habit and the "what went wrong today" routine, and those things have their time and place.  But, I think focusing on what went well can cause a shift in mindset about teaching.  Your daily thing can be something huge, like a student having a major academic or behavior breakthrough.  Or it can be something small, like a student remembering to bring a pencil to class for the first time.  The important thing is that you take time to notice it and honor it.

3.  Decide to have a positive attitude and mindset.

You don't need to be a Pollyanna, but do be positive. Sometimes my teaching partner will chuckle as I'm spinning how some terrible situation could actually  be a positive.   Sometimes I challenge myself to see just how positively I can reorient an issue. It's a good mindset to have when you consider the alternative.  And, it's contagious.

4.  Share your insecurities about your teaching practice with someone you trust.  

Chances are the person you're sharing with will say something like, "Oh, me too.  I feel like that all the time."

"Me, too."  Some of the most powerful and compassionate words in the English language.

Everyone has insecurities and struggles in life and in their teaching practice. For the most part, we're all doing the best we can.  And, we're not robots.  We need to talk and connect over the difficult aspects of our profession.    And, then, after you commiserate, maybe you can move into some problem-solving.  

5.  Choose your battles.  

One of the biggest surprises I've had in my job as an English learner teacher is how much I've had to be an advocate for my students and even the necessity of my profession.  Turns out not everyone thinks what I'm doing is important or even understands the need.  

So, I've had my share of struggles because of those attitudes.  If you try to address everything, you'll exhaust yourself and annoy others.  So, there are issues I'm wiling to let go after I've professionally said my piece.  And, there are also issues that I'm willing to go all the way with, where I won't back down.  Mountains I'm willing to die on.  (well, not literally)  Think and reflect on what really matters when faced with thorny problems.  Weigh and consider carefully the importance.   Learn when to let go gracefully and when to stand firm.

6.  Choose your "extras" carefully.

You'll remember that Mr. Husband is a principal.  He talks to new teachers about thinking carefully about what  additional responsibilities they may take on at school, such as  coaching or  advising student groups.. He tells them to take on extras that they find  energizing and enriching.  It will still be work and it will be tiring,  but if they enjoy it, they'll get something out of it.  It might help them build better relationship with students and it should enhance their overall experience of their job.

 I think this same philosophy can apply to committees and and other extras we may volunteer for at school.  I used to volunteer for almost everything, and it eventually led to burn out.  I like to be generous with my time and talents, but I've learned that I need to carefully consider where to use my energy.  So, I try to just carefully choose a few extras that I'm really passionate about and where I can truly make a difference.

7.  Have relaxing and nourishing rituals with your colleagues.  

We still have this set of espresso cups in one of our classroom cabinets.  At one time, many years ago, my colleague and the teacher before me would take a break some days and have espresso. We've never done that, because we're so busy.  I look at those cups longingly when I open the cabinet. They look so elegant and they evoke the notion of relaxation and connection.

I've decided that the end of the day after the students leave would be a good time to get back to the espresso or the tea or whatever.  There's something really lovely about sitting down with your co-workers with a hot mug of something and chatting for ten minutes before moving on to the million things you need to get done.  These rituals are important and they'll likely make you feel relaxed and energized, and therefore more efficient and productive when you do get back to work.

8.  Figure  out what combination of practices keeps you healthy and happy.

You are not a robot. Teachers' days are very intense and we all need to find healthy ways to decompress at the end of the day.   You know best what works for you.    For me, I've made a commitment this summer to work on my health and I've found that I feel best  when I'm getting enough sleep, eating well, running, and maintaining a mindfulness and meditation practice.

9.  Do the best you can.  Then, go home.

That is the exact advice one of our incredible volunteers gave me one day.  I was walking out with him and it had been a really rough morning..  I was telling him all the hard things and expressing my feeling of overwhelm and even despair.  He listened carefully, said a few kind things, and then wisely gave me that simple yet brilliant advice, "Do the best you can.  Then, go home."  I've never forgotten that advice. I add to it, "Rest. Renew.  Come back tomorrow ready to teach with an open heart." I repeat these words in my head, take a deep breath,  and just crack my heart open a little wider.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Building a Strengths-Based Model of Teaching and Learning for English Learners

Close your eyes.

Imagine a classroom and a school where we focused on the strengths of the English learners.  What if these students' cultures, languages, countries of origins, unique skills, and life experiences were held up as assets?

Let's decide this school year to focus more on these strengths and assets and the unique potential of our English learners.  What brilliance might be unleashed?  What confidence might be built?  What might non-EL students learn from the ELs?

This would be a change in the way we view our English learners as well as a shift in how we view the very nature of teaching. The basis of teaching is to teach students what they don't know.  We're trained to look for gaps in knowledge.   We're the teachers, the experts, the givers of information.

At the beginning of the school year, most teachers will be asked to look at data from state tests.  Tests that focus on who is proficient and who is not proficient.  We will identify gaps and deficiencies.  Of course, this analysis has its place, and we need to know where students are struggling.  However, we can also stimulate growth by capitalizing on existing strengths.

Here are some suggestions for making this shift in how we work with our English learners this year.

1.  First and foremost, make it clear that your students' first languages and cultures are a tremendous strength and asset.

These students are the newest bilingual or multilingual members of our community.  They are also learning to be bicultural or multicultural, figuring out how to navigate the tricky ins and outs of living in a diverse society.   Our country will continue to become more diverse and knowing more than one language and being able to navigate multiple cultures will be highly prized skills in our community.   Make sure you explicitly share this information with parents as well.  They need to know that their culture and language needs to be preserved and it will only strengthen their child's future.

2.  Uncover students' unique strengths and fonts of knowledge.   

Some strengths will be easy to see, like how expert they are at playing soccer or the great artistic talent some students possess.    

Some might be a little more difficult to uncover.  Make it your job to find the hidden gems that each student has. Sometimes you discover these assets through conversation and questioning, and sometimes you might stumble upon them.  By observing carefully, here are a few things I found in my students:
  •  Our art teacher decided to do a sewing project one week. I walked into the room and the African boys were already amazingly adept with that needle and thread. There they were, heads bent over in concentration, sewing like nobody's business.  It was amazing.
  • On one of our field trips we took the class ice skating; most had never done this before. The handful who already knew how to skate took off and skated together, expect our Japanese student who already knew how to skate.   I noticed that one by one and with great patience, kindness, and encouragement, she was teaching all the other girls how to ice skate. They trusted her and took risks they may not have taken with their teachers. This kind of interaction among students is something teachers love seeing. This student told us later in the year that she wants to be a teacher. 

3.  Once you've discovered some of their brilliance, make sure you tell them what you see.

Be specific in your praise.  Acknowledge students' strengths in front of the whole class and have conversations with kids privately.

We had to rely on one student sometimes for interpreting when students had conflicts and a bilingual specialist wasn't available.  He was a refugee from Africa, already fairly proficient in oral English and also spoke the two most dominant languages in the classroom. The unexpected joy was realizing that he was also a natural peacemaker with a very keen sensibility for justice and fairness, also possessing a charming sense of humor and sweetness that would make kids laugh and get over things quickly.

My teaching partner and I made sure to tell him that he had something special- the three languages, of course, but even more than that, his natural diplomacy skills.  I told him he was going to do something great in his life – be a diplomat or a community organizer. He'd always say, "Thank you, Miss,” while looking slightly embarrassed, yet with a huge smile spread from ear to ear.  

Then he told us one day that he wants to be a police officer.   I can just imagine the impact he could make, a black police officer who speaks three languages, understands many cultures, and is a natural peacemaker.  We should do everything we can to build on this young man's strengths and help him reach his full potential. 

4.  Teach your students to validate each other.

One year we did an activity every Friday called "Fill the Bucket", which comes from a popular children's book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud.   We drew a different name each week and focused on that person, or if a student was moving, going back to their country, or exiting our program, we would choose them for the activity. The student would sit in the teacher chair at the front of the class and receive praise and compliments from their classmates.  We encouraged the kids to be as specific with their praise as possible.

One Friday, it was a particular student's turn.  He was from Saudi Arabia, and we were exiting him from the program because he was proficient enough to transition to mainstream classes in the school. When he sat in front of the class, every hand shot up.  

"You're a great friend."  "You helped me with my locker on the first day."  "You're always so nice to everyone."  "You make me laugh when I'm worried about things."

I watched this sweet boy absolutely dissolve into tears.  Nobody laughed at his crying.  It was incredibly moving and I wondered if he had ever been told how amazing he was.  We all need validation.

5.  Highlight and elevate the English learners in big and small ways in your classroom, in your school, in your community.

Work on integrating the ELs into the greater school community.  Have native English speakers help them with the language and academics, but then make sure the ELs have a chance to share their talents and knowledge as well.

We teach all of our kids to play chess and they get really good at it.  There are always a few who become especially skilled and competitive.  They go to tournaments and compete, including the state tournament.  We reached out to the local newspaper and made sure this great story was told to the community.

6.  Finally, never forget that refugees and immigrants are doing a tremendously difficult and challenging thing simply by trying to make their way in this country.

It takes courage and strength to move to a new country and adapt to a new culture, language, and way of life.  Most refugees have already endured unimaginable hardships and are forging ahead despite experiencing loss, grief, danger, and trauma.  There is a resilience in refugees and immigrants that is just unbelievable and which they will ultimately use to contribute to their new home and community.

A few years ago, I was on an interview committee for the EL coordinator in our district.  The individual who eventually got the job kept talking about the very principles I have outlined in this article.  He believed that the English learners could be the stars of the school district. I had never heard anyone express this sentiment quite that passionately and forcefully, and I immediately knew that what he was saying held enormous value.  And, I believe in his vision, and it’s my vision too. 

When you point out kids' strengths and value to them and to others, they grow in confidence.  They know you see them.  You see the whole individual, not just an empty vessel that needs to be filled with your knowledge.  Not just a kid who doesn't know English.  But a human who already has many unique strengths and assets.  Your belief in their value and potential will help their confidence grow.  This confidence will enable them to build upon the skills they already have and to be brave enough to learn all the essential things they need to know in this country in order to succeed.

Now, open your eyes.

Decide your model of teaching and working with English Learners this year will be a strengths-based one.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying.

The brilliance and possibilities you uncover might just amaze you.