Saturday, November 24, 2012

What Are You Going To Do?

"Yo, Miss, I don't like reading, so save that crappy book for someone else." This was both an exact quotation and the general consensus on day one in my ELA 8 class. To be precise, this is not “my” class per se; I am a middle school ELL (English Language Learners) teacher in an underperforming school in Massachusetts, and my role in this particular class is to provide ELL support to students with intermediate English skills. I recall looking at the book in my hand that I was attempting to pawn off on the class. In a way, this kid who declared this a “crappy” book had me over a barrel. This text looked pathetic. Were I still in 8th grade, I would turn up my nose at it the same way he did. In fact, every single book in the classroom stack of Walter Dean Myers' 145th Street: Short Stories was in seriously sad shape. Pages were missing. Most of the covers were ripped. I remember glancing up at my co-teacher, who returned my look with a “oh-well-what’re-you-gonna-do” shrug.
This is typical of the experience in an underperforming school. My school does not have automatic funds to replace worn materials at the drop of a hat. We usually make do with what we’ve got – and what we’ve got seems to diminish in number and quality by the day. What’s more, students here don’t come to school with freshly scrubbed faces and newly sharpened pencils, ready to just eat up every single lesson plan that their teachers have put countless hours into crafting. They tend to have issues and problems that make learning difficult. In the setting where I teach, my students are tough, hardscrabble kids, most of whom are refugees from harder lives in Puerto Rico. They are English Language Learners. They come from broken families. They live in poverty. They are hungry. Many are homeless. Yet my students are fiercely proud - and they should be. They are as deserving of healthy lives and better opportunities as any other person on the planet
I teach in what is called a Gateway City in Massachusetts. My school has been deemed "underperforming" by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. We are in a school turnaround plan, a three-year endeavor that has required an all-hands-on-deck approach to reform. We are faced with what feels like an insurmountable task--but our resolve to succeed is unshakable. Giving these kids a chance at an education is the most valuable gift I can offer. The gangs and the streets wait outside the doors of our school every day. In spite of all economic and social obstacles, my job—my mission—is to convince the students I work with that learning and literacy are the ticket to a better path.
Oh well. What are you going to do?
My co-teacher and I forged ahead. We modeled fluent reading and guided students through comprehension exercises as we read 145th Street: Short Stories as a class. Class discussions began to get more lively. Kids asked questions about the characters in each story, making meaningful connections and writing insightful journal entries. By the time we finished 145th Street, every copy had fallen apart completely. Ceremoniously, we took the pages and made annotated murals as a final group project. The kids were visibly proud. It was beautiful.
Knowing that it would be tough to replicate this experience for future classes, I thought about ways to raise funds to purchase a new set of books. A colleague in my ELL teaching community on Twitter had suggested writing a proposal on Donors Choose some time ago. I sat down at my computer one recent weekend and wrote. And wrote. I submitted a proposal on a Saturday evening, and by Monday morning I got word of its approval. I sent the link to my project at the Donors Choose website to everyone I know. Within 6 hours, my project was completely funded. I was overjoyed!
Since the completion of this project, I have successfully submitted and funded another one, and I am now working on a proposal for materials to use in my role as an after school tutor. Tutoring is as vital as classroom instruction in the setting in which I work, possibly in all teaching and learning communities. There are ways to succeed even when circumstances are challenging, I have learned. Opportunities are everywhere, if we simply allow ourselves to see them.  
Click here to see my ongoing projects:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Donors Choose (hopefully me)

I've posted before about the works of wonder that Walter Dean Myers writes, and how his voice so clearly and resonantly speaks to the population I work with. Today's post is an indelible underscore of my belief in the power of his writing and how it can transform the lives of young learners. I am reaching out to folks in every possible way I know in an effort to help gather support for my ESL classroom. We are looking to acquire a new set of Myers' book 145th Street: Short Stories. It's a collection of stories written about young people in an urban setting with tough lives, and it's serving to turn some of my more reluctant readers into motivated, capable students. The copies we had up until this year have fallen apart completely, and unfortunately the school does not have the funds to replace them. Right now, Donors Choose is pledging to match any donation dollar for dollar up until November 19th. I thank you in advance for considering, and please feel free to share this project with others who might be looking to support local underserved students.

Click this link to see my page: 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Vocabulary and ELL's

When it comes to learning a new language, the importance of vocabulary cannot be undervalued. Words are points of synthesis, like little power packs or building blocks to new knowledge, better understanding, and greater ease of movement in a new language and culture. Words are food. They help a brain to grow.

The process of teaching words to students who are learning a new language is, well, a process. They need these aforementioned power packs, not just in my ELD (English Language Development) class, but also in their other core academic classes, in gym, in music, in life. But when you look at my particular students in my particular setting, it's pretty clear to see that the teaching of new vocabulary requires a special touch.

I realize I haven't posted in Tales From The Clink in quite some time. I guess it's because I spend most of my time trying to perfect that "special touch," which is really just what all caring teachers do as part of their jobs: the constant pursuit of better methods to optimize student learning. I have a constant time crunch, and that means I'm on the go as soon as my foot passes the threshold of door 3 at M School every morning. "Spare time" in my world is an oxymoron. Let me paint a picture. 

My classroom consists of sectioned off quarter of a regular classroom, and I share it with two other teachers who are also equally compromised for space, time and resources. My students are ten in number, are seventh and eighth graders, and are growing both physically and as numbers on a roster week by week. We are big people in a small space. We are transient. We are victims of significant trauma. We are homeless. We are refugees. We are on government assistance. We are hungry.

My teaching, and my planning for my teaching, has to take all this into account. I know I have to expect obstacles to learning, and so I plan my lessons in 20 minute chunks of time (studies show that both ELL's and kids who have been exposed to trauma need tasks broken down into roughly 20 minute periods of time). One of these chunks is devoted to word study. I have come to rely on a fantastic website called Vocabulary and Spelling City I discovered VSC a few years ago when I started teaching reading in the juvenile justice system. Someone had mentioned this site at a conference I had attended, and I found the site and started experimenting with it with my students at the time. The group of students I had been teaching then were pretty diverse in their reading levels, and using this website allowed me to customize word lists to each student’s ability. It was an instant hit. I could create assignments that connected to what each student was reading but also wove in customized writing and listening tasks. I could give them feedback right on the site, which they loved. 

My year started with a pull-out group of 5 students, and now, in early November, this group has doubled, and it promises to continue this trend. The coming and going of students on a regular basis requires a high degree of differentiation in my instruction.  Having the use of Vocab & Spelling allows me to create custom word lists for my brand new beginners, my emerging students, and those who are approaching fluency. Even those students who have access to the internet outside of school can log on and work on word study assignments outside of the classroom. My students have all improved their scores on a variety of literacy assessments, and I feel that our word study routine using VSC has a lot to do with this success.

I don’t know what I would do without VSC., and I want others to know about its great features and benefits. I feel as though I have a partnership with the people who have created this web resource. I hope other teachers and learners will discover it too. If you do, let me know what you think! 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Yes, We Can

Wow. It's nearing the end of the school year, and what a long, strange trip it's been. At M School, we've taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to turning things around, and by "things," I mean a collection of indicators of performance as seen through the lenses of higher-ups at the state level. Those things would include, but are not limited to: test scores, attendance, and behavior (internal and external suspension rates). We have increased the length of our school day, and we have added two hours of professional development to our working time each week. We have made a concerted effort to improve student writing skills by delivering monthly open response questions and focusing more on writing instruction techniques. As of this past Thursday, we were still awaiting our MCAS test scores, which many in the M School community are awaiting with the most bated of breath. 

But the sparkling cider corks are already popping for me.

MEPA (Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment) scores arrived this past Thursday. Our district goal was 62% improvement. M School beat that goal, and moreover, the ELL kids at the middle school level surpassed it by an even larger margin. As a teacher of beginning English Language Learners in grades 6-8, I've got myself a tall order. My students arrive directly from Puerto Rico with little to no English proficiency, and believe it or not, they don't always arrive in my classroom doorway with freshly sharpened pencils, clean, smiling faces, and positive attitudes. Frankly, they're pissed that they had to leave P.R., their culture, their families, their homeland. They take one look at me, Gringa Maestra, and suck their teeth and cross their arms, waiting to see what I do with their defiance. Fortunately, I've gotten my Spanish on this year, so I've gained some competence in bridging this gap. I don't look like I can speak their language, but when I throw a few key Spanish phrases around, they pay attention and sit up. In addition, I've had a full year's worth of trying different teaching approaches, diversifying my techniques. I've worked hard to earn their trust and build relationships, and really, that matters more to me than test scores.

But I can't help but feel a sense of pride and affirmation in seeing those MEPA scores shoot right up, especially after such a grueling year. Half of my students improved enough to be mainstreamed into regular English Language Arts classes. I expect there to be a steady stream of newcomers next year, however, and they will likely arrive at random intervals during the school year. My brain definitely needs the summer off - for a very necessary vacation. In September I'll be ready to do it all again, knowing that when there's a will, there's a way. Si se puede!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Reckless Abandon

I often think about writing. More often, and lately, I think about not writing. I am not writing. Sure, I write lesson plans (tons), and behavior reports (half tons), and scads of assignments related to my practicum and CAGS program and other professional development endeavors, but let's call a spade a spade. This isn't writing. Writing is nourishment. Writing is love. It's sustenance, the kind of soul food that makes some people feel integrated and whole. And then, when writing disappears from the regular routine, things atrophy. They wither. If writing were my child, which it kind of is, then I would be reported to the authorities.

I feel like I've ditched my kid.

I effectively gave up writing Tales From The Clink when I left my job teaching reading in the juvenile justice system. I did not leave willingly--I was laid off, and because I have bills to pay and mouths to feed, I had to chase down a full time gig. Quickly. And with good fortune on my side, I landed my current job, teaching English language learners at the middle school level in an underperforming school. Yes, I think I may have mentioned that I work in an underperforming school in a previous blog post. The underperforming status of M school serves to make sure that I (and my fellow teachers at M School) do the opposite. Perform. And golly, do we do that all the time! We do it before school, giving extra help to students; after school, when we are contracted to teach extended days because someone theorized that more instructional time translates to higher academic achievement; after dark, when we are mandated to stay 2-3 hours weekly for professional development; and after we return home to our families each weekend, which I'd prefer to reserve for spending time with, well, my family.

The time that I used to use for reflective thinking and writing has been supplanted by these new "have-to"'s. I feel stripped of a certain vitality that used to feed my teaching self as well as my whole self. Do I just need to become a better manager of time? Or am I in an untenable situation?

I try to meditate sometimes. I'd been hearing more and more about meditation, from the occasional Facebook post or in quick snippets of "news" from Yahoo, that meditation is the new/old essential practice for good health. So I try. I never seem to stay at it that long, but when I do, and when I try to "listen" as I empty myself out, I hear something in myself. A voice, a signal. Write, it says. You have to. Don't and you'll starve.

Starving is a pretty senseless thing to do when you should and do have access to food. It's reckless. Making time for writing in the face of all these other responsibilities feels the same way. As I type this blog post, my children are fixing their own dinner and bickering over who got more mini chicken tacos. Voices are being raised. They clearly need their mother's attention. But I'm finishing this piece because I owe it to myself. Sometimes, you need to go after and get what you really and truly need. With reckless abandon.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Glow of Opportunity

And summer school commences.

I was really on the fence about whether I would teach this summer. This past year has been pretty rough and tumble, between getting laid off from my job as a reading teacher in the juvenile justice system, to starting a new position as a middle school teacher of English Language Learners in a severely underperforming school. I have learned that if you're looking to raise your blood pressure by, say, ten to fifty or more points, a good way to do it is to start a teaching job in the middle of a school year. Even better if you're teaching middle school. And you get bonus marks if your students don't want to learn English, which is what you're contracted to teach them.

Over the course of the past six months, my head became like an over-inflated tire, dangerously close to exploding. My days were spent in the mode of constant redirection, with little successes sprinkled in here and there. I told myself, over and over, that this summer would be my grand reward, my treat to myself for having endured an incredibly stressful year. Images of beaches, lawn chairs, books I've been meaning to read, and cool drinks swirled around in my head. I was dizzy in love with my dream summer-to-be.

In early June, my school's ELL coach told me that the summer program had reposted the ELL Writing position. "I know you're not thinking about working this summer, right, Kate?" she sort of sheepishly said one day in passing. No, I'm not. Or I wasn't. I hadn't been? But it was becoming more and more a part of my thinking as we got closer to the end of the school year. I'll admit that part of my thinking had to do with my son's recent declaration that he wanted to go out for the high school golf team in the fall (big cash hemorrhage). But the bigger part of my shift in thinking had to do with conversations I'd been having with colleagues on Twitter. I participate semi-regularly in what's called an #ELLCHAT, in which teachers, consultants and other professionals in the field of teaching English Language Learners get together and share ideas, pose questions and create a supportive community in the field. A few folks had mentioned during one particular chat what a glowing opportunity it is to teach in the summer, particularly with this population.

I guess that's all it took. "Glowing opportunity" is the term that got my attention, but was I thinking of the kids' opportunity, or my own? At this point, I'm inclined to believe it's both. True, I'm far from the idyllic beach setting I imagined myself in earlier this year, but I'm glad I took this job. The kids are (surprisingly) well behaved, at least in my classes. We go on lots of field trips in this program, which provides great fodder for writing. The picture above was taken on our first excursion to a state park about 20 minutes outside the city. The kids got to explore the shallows of a pond and use small hand nets to find critters, creatures and other sorts of freshwater aquaculture. Later, they got to go swimming (although their swim was cut short due to tardy lifeguards). We'll be writing about this trip, and others to come, using pictures, posters, pamphlets, and more.

These kids often don't leave the confines of the city in which they live and, from what I hear, they often don't leave their homes except to go to school. It's awfully hard to teach kids when they have such a severe lack of background knowledge on which to base their learning. But here, in this program, there's a great - and yes, I think glowing - set of chances for kids to enrich their experiences and broaden their horizons. Maybe, together, we'll start to stretch ourselves in ways we never thought we could.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Saturday School, Part 2

It's June. The weather out here in western Massachusetts is pristine, with a series of recent wild storms and tornadoes having all but scrubbed the skies clean. I look up and see clear, azure tones. I hear summer's call. And my students do, too. I can tell, easily: they're absent all the time now.

This means they've gotta do their due time at Saturday school, which is like structured, glorified detention, for three hours each Saturday. As I've confessed already, I usually work these shifts to pick up a little extra cash, but honestly, I also do it to build relationships with my students. They seem as though they're not all that interested in buddying up with teachers in general, but I've noticed lately that when I approach them to offer help or redirection, they look away or suck their teeth less often. Hoorah! This is progress. I feel the tiniest little victory inside when this happens, and I know that these moments represent learning, in seedling form.

So it's Saturday again. Normally I'd be in my car right now, headed south for the 40 minute commute to school. But today I'm home, still in my nightclothes, a mug of hot, fresh coffee next to my laptop. In a little while I'll be preparing to take care of day-long duties as a baseball mom. I'll certainly miss the opportunity to continue the process of strengthening the bonds with my students. They may or may not show up, I know. But in the back of my mind I'll be thinking about them, engaging in my favorite metacognitive game of playing and replaying the tapes I keep in my head, the ones that have to do with being a better teacher.

There are three more weeks of school this year, and two more Saturday school days. Seventeen opportunities left for me to grab the attention of fourteen Puerto Rican adolescents. I'm ready for a grande finale. I just hope they're at school to see it.