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.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

La escuela de sabado

It's Saturday. Can't think of anything I'd rather do than make a hundred bucks the hard way. Actually, what used to be the hard way has become pretty easy money. I have to admit, I work Saturday school for the money, not for the glory or the power. Kids who come to Saturday school are here because they've racked up piles of unexcused absences. If they want to move on to the next grade in September, they've got to erase those missed days. So they show up here, at school, to immerse themselves in higher learning for three hours. With me.

The schedule says that four of my lovelies should be here today, but only one has shown up - and her name isn't even on the list! Am I going to turn her away? Um, no. Come. Come in, dear Kiana. Let's spend time together, and teach each other a thing or two.

More later...

Friday, February 18, 2011


This is my first post since January 1, which was two days before I started my new job as a middle school ELL teacher. It's February 18, 12:05 pm, and the kids have just been dismissed so that we teachers can have a half day of professional development.

I feel like someone just handed me a snorkel. I am just now surfacing. I can breathe. I can write.

Overwhelming is a mild term to describe my transition from teaching reading to teenage boys in the juvenile justice system to working with English language learners between the ages of 11-13. Let me make this clear assertion: teaching in jail was way easier than this gig. The kids knew the drills. They knew that if they stepped out of line, there were clear and foreseeable consequences, and so they pretty much behaved. Most of the time. But here, in this level 4 school, in this socioeconomically stretched city in western Massachusetts, things are a bit more dicey. This is an academically underperforming school. There's a general lack of motivation among the kids and, perhaps in a greater sense, among their parents. In very real, tangible ways, there are big behavior issues. There is neglect. There is truancy. And then I also get to deal with those added layers of a language barrier and the age-old challenge of the creature that is the tweenager.

I keep calling this the molotov cocktail of teaching jobs. It's kicking my ass in ways I've never quite felt. These kids have tested me as though I were a 22 year old student teacher. In my first seven weeks here, I've seen a student stabbed with a pencil, had things thrown across the room, watched my materials get broken, been called many unsavory names in Spanish, and, oh yeah, had a kid--somehow--post a picture of an erect penis on my computer (that happened on my second day. it was unforgettable). And throughout all this nonsense, I've had to remind myself that I'm supposed to teach these kids English, not just play defense.

I think a lot of people would turn and run, or go get a real estate license, or find a good therapist. I've felt all kinds of things over the past 7 weeks, but defeated is not one of them. One of the reasons I wanted to work in a community like this one is that I know there is goodness and potential in these kids. I know that they haven't been given a fair shake. The odds are against them, and statistically, they are highly likely to fall prey to a long list of risk factors. A bunch of them will end up in the juvenile justice system, and then prison. Yes, it does suck to be them. But I believe in working for social justice, and the way that belief needs to play out is right here, in this little, hot, windowless classroom. I am sticking with this job, and with these kids, and when we all return from this blessed winter vacation, we will be refreshed and recharged. And ready to learn.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Au revoir, Le Clink

As I ring in the new year, my thoughts turn both to reflection and a bold look at the road ahead. I hereby bid adieu to 2010, as well as to my tenure as a reading teacher in the juvenile justice system. Yep, I've busted out of jail - but not really by choice. You see, I got laid off a month ago. Even though my brief leisurely schedule was kind of fun, it was not a sustainable situation. A smart person once told me something about necessity being the mother of invention, and in my little world, it is definitely necessary for me to work full-time. Knowing I sure couldn't stay laid off, I hit the pavement and found a brand new gig as a middle school ELL teacher. For those not up on their education acronyms, I'll be teaching English Language Learners, or kids whose primary language is something other than English.

I start Monday. So goodbye, my youthful offenders, whose faces and voices and stories I will treasure and keep with me always. Hello to a new community, new challenges, and the next chapter in my professional life. Maybe I'll have the time and creative energy to refresh my blog and give it a new look. I'll try to make that happen. But I know that my students get first dibs when it comes to their new teacher's time and energy. Kids deserve that, don't they?