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.