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.

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