Take your eyes off the clock

One of the things about being a full time K-12 teacher is that it takes several weeks after school ends to emerge as a whole person. I’m more than halfway through summer break and I finally feel like the real me.

In late June I started off the summer by traveling to El Salvador – not exactly a top tourist destination. It was for a graduate course on Visual Literacy as a Tool for Cultural Proficiency in the Classroom – how could I not go? That was almost the exact title of my last WATESOL presentation! Perfect synchronicity! Since I have so many students from El Salvador and Central America, I wanted to try to understand a little more about their country and culture. I also wanted a chance to speak Spanish every day in an authentic setting. And I’m getting graduate credits!

Laberinto Projects Educa was the perfect way to combine education and tourism – an experience led by a woman who grew up in San Salvador, a child of immigrant refugees, who is trying to keep her mother’s art legacy alive. Her personal story is a powerful entry into learning about the Salvadoran Civil War, the gangs, and how ordinary people are trying to find a way to make a difference. Our group of DC area teachers had several powerful lectures by local artists, a photo-journalist, a museum curator, an archeologist, a seed conservationist, and a gallery owner. We were able to travel around the western part of the country with a trusted driver. Everywhere we went we were the only tourists. In one colorful mountain town, villagers took photos of us taking photos.

Not everyone has the chance to kickstart their summer vacation like me, but I feel empowered. Now that I have had some down time, I’ve been able to catch up on exercise, my family, and my reading.

I subscribe to a blog called Curmudgucation that I absolutely love. It’s written by a retired teacher who stands up for public education. It’s usually more political than the following post, but I want to share it anyway. Time flies during the summer, and sometimes teachers need a reminder to unlearn certain behaviors that develop over the 10 months we’re jogging on the conveyor belt of the school year.

This is from the July 26th Curmudgucation blog, about teachers needing the summer to unlearn some things.

Here are some things I have had to learn.

* Measure out time in increments larger than 30 seconds. It is not necessary to squeeze achievements into every second of the day, particularly when you could be using the time to interact with the other carbon based life forms in your home.

* Eat a meal in more than five minutes.

* Read a book without repeatedly thinking, “I could use this in class for my unit about X.”

* Read a book that you couldn’t possibly use for class ever.

* Visit an interesting location without grabbing pamphlets for your classroom.

* Moving through your day without a gnawing sense of urgency that there’s something you should be grading, reading, planning or reviewing.

* Figuring out what to do with the uncontrollable urge that hits every time you learn something new, which is the urge to pass it on to somebody else.

* Understanding that you might never not be a teacher, and you’re going to have to figure out what to do with that.

* Exercise. Because you’re not walking ten miles a day any more.

* Face you’re unreasonable addiction to office supplies.

* Talk yourself out of running for school board.

* Seriously. You can take fifteen or twenty minutes to eat lunch. Take a breath between bites. Chew your food. Talk to somebody.

* Take your eyes off the clock.

 

 

Memorial Day

May 28, 2019

Memorial Day has come and gone. I’ve read the stories of soldiers who fought and died for freedom, watched the parades, and listened to the commentators praise our military service members. I’ve stood facing the flag with my hand over my heart five days a week and said the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a room full of immigrants and recited the words, “with Liberty and Justice for all.” But I’m not feeling it this year. I understand that my perspective may be in the minority and it might make me unpopular; I’ll say it anyway. I’m a little bit angry about all the praise for war.

Don’t get me wrong. My father, my mother, and my uncles fought in World War II. My cousin served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. His name is engraved on the Wall on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I’ve taken my students there and pointed out Peter M. Sullivan on Panel 15E, Line 10. They were impressed when the docent climbed a ladder to create a rubbing for me. It made the experience a little more real for them. My students from Vietnam were silent. Even though we’d read an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, later they told me, “Miss, I thought we were going to see something about my culture!” They understood that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not about them. They helped me see it in a new light.

I have cousins in the Army today, and I’m sure they are making a sacrifice to serve in the military. I am not against giving people respect for the jobs they do. But why aren’t we giving the same respect to people actively promoting peace? to students who lose their lives to gun violence in schools? According to Education Week , and the Washington Post more American students died from mass shootings than died during active-duty combat while serving their country in the U.S. military. There have been 13 school shootings so far this year in the USA. Wikipedia says that there have been 48 school-shooting deaths since January 2018. I have had to conduct active-shooter drills in my classroom. There’s no honor in preparing for some crazy person with a gun who wields more power than I do. His rights are firmly protected by the Constitution and the NRA. What about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t want to put down the work of our military; they have an important role. But when the focus is so strongly on the heroism of death, why aren’t we honoring the teachers and students who face a lunatic gunman and come out alive? Instead we get Parkland students mocked and threatened for daring to speak out after surviving a school shooting where 17 children were gunned down. They were followed around by badass NRA-provoked warriors in tank-like vehicles. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? *

Why aren’t we honoring people who bring peace to our communities? The Martin Luther Kings of the future? The activists and leaders who speak out against killing and preventable gun violence? In 1961 President Kennedy founded the U.S. Peace Corps. My ESOL 5 students started a unit about it this week. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and I served this country. I raised my right hand and swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. More than 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries. We’ve never gotten an entire holiday dedicated to our service.  What about all the Foreign Service workers and diplomats? The ones who do the actual work of promoting the interests of the United States? I served again as an English Language Fellow helping promote American ideals overseas. Why is peaceful service not being honored?

All the flag waving feels hollow to me. I don’t want to glorify death via military service or any other way. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? Next Memorial Day, I will honor the peacemakers.

* Hot off the press! Parkland school journalists win Pulitzer Prize!

 

Am I less valued because I teach low-income students?

I’m re-posting this piece I wrote 3 years ago.

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Time to make noise (again.

Here’s another great voice for the need to support teachers of low socio-economic-status students in this EdWeek article. Bruce Hansen mentions that when he received the “golden apple award” his colleagues assumed that he would pursue an easier job at a school in a high-income district. He may feel guilty, but that’s exactly what he did. “There’s a perception that really good teachers work in schools that cater to students from wealthy families,” he writes. He recommends that teachers get special training “from university educators,” who develop specialized techniques and curricula. But the reason Mr. Hansen left his job has nothing to do with curriculum or training. He left because he did not receive enough support.

I’ve been teaching high-poverty English Language Learners for 15 years and it’s both rewarding and exhausting. When students are so needy every day, it can be emotionally and physically draining. We don’t need more university educators telling us what to do.  We need compassionate administrators who understand what it’s like to “work in the trenches.” We need a network of like-minded teachers and student counselors who can prevent us from being traumatized by the traumas of our students. At the end of the day, I can get in my car and drive back to my leafy suburb. It’s important for teachers of high poverty students to be mentally healthy.

Unfortunately many low-income schools are where new principals get placed to learn the ropes before moving on, where teachers involuntarily transferred land, and where there’s high teacher turnover and little administrative support. I’m proud to say that this practice is not prevalent in my mixed-income school. However, I definitely get a feeling that I count less than teachers of AP and IB students heading to Harvard. My administrator has never set foot in my classroom to give his famous Timeline speech, in spite of my annual plea to come for a visit. However, he is very supportive in other ways. And that makes all the difference.

I also have a union that backs me up at the district level, full access to excellent training resources, and local leadership that listens to teachers and gives priority to education. Now if they could just add back that hour of time that Daylight Savings took away, I could get a lot more done in 24 hours.

 

 

 

Boxed In – Help!

During the holidays, I ordered a lot of items to be delivered directly to my house. I’m not an Amazon person – except for books – but I have been a Catalogue Queen for two decades. Lands End, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, J. Jill, Garnet Hill, and DHC are among my favorites. Each item comes in a box that is sometimes so beautiful that I don’t want to throw it away!

Lands End used to have a holiday themed coloring outline on the inside of its boxes. When the kids were little, we used to cut open each one carefully and spend hours on the floor with crayons and markers. It was a surprisingly fun holiday activity when we lived overseas. Now I have no such excuse to keep the boxes, but they are filling up my basement and cluttering up my life.

To make matters worse, my son seems to have inherited this disturbing habit. Just when I start to clean them out, he orders another Japanese robot collectible. Each comes mindfully packaged in high-quality cardboard. Like me, he thinks, “That box would be a perfect container for something.” I brought some to work when we were cleaning out the book room, and those things proved to be quite sturdy. He must have noticed the same properties because, when I got home, they were filled with my books. And his Japanese transformers now cover the bookshelves. Where is Marie Kondo when I need her? These changes do NOT spark joy!

While I was living in Laos last year, my sister sent a message. “What do you want from the house?” They were clearing out my mother’s home of almost 50 years, and I wasn’t ready to stake a claim. “I don’t want anything,” I replied. It was an honest reply. Until she sent photos of each room: the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the TV room, the bedrooms. “Some things will go to the new house, some will go to family members, and the rest will be donated,” she wrote. I suddenly wanted some mementos. Antique family treasures now form the foundation of the Basement Box Room.

Help! I’m looking for inspiration to overhaul my house. And maybe my life. Please don’t tell me to kick out my son. That will come in due time. But what do I do with these things?!

 

Boxed sets – empty

My 2018 Heroine’s Journey…

I’m reading a book called You Are a Heroine, A Retelling of the Hero’s Journey, written by  Susanna Liller (a friend). In it she describes the journeys we all take throughout our lives. She names the steps along the way, provides practical exercises to help women hear “the Call,” and provides encouragement with her own real-life stories of heroines who are traveling this time-honored path. It’s a good way to think about my 2018, which has indeed been a journey.

It started with a swim in the warm pool right outside my apartment in Vientiane, Laos, where I was living. It finished with a dip in a hot tub surrounded by snow in the mountains of Maryland. In between January 1st and December 31st, I traveled to 10 countries, attended a wedding, a funeral, and a family reunion. I lay in a hospital bed, alone, in Thailand for five days, where I recovered from a bone infection. In the jargon of the book, I traveled through the Belly of the Whale, I met some Mentors, became a Mentor, and had to deal with some Dragons (women don’t slay their dragons; they invite them out for tea). I have crossed the Return Threshold and am trying to figure out what it all means and how to share what I’ve learned with others.

Several friends and family members traveled to Laos to visit me during my 10-month Fellowship with the U.S. Department of State.  I became a tour guide, a culture broker, and a companion for my visitors. I shared photos of exotic places on Facebook, and friends back home loved my captions. I felt an obligation to teach about the country where I was living. I accepted new Lao friends on social media – something I never would have done two years ago. My public profile and my private life are intermingled now in a way I’ve grown to cherish. Laos is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and I’ve been getting wonderful Happy New Year messages for a couple of days. To imagine someone across the world thinking about me, carefully choosing a little gif in English, and sending it to me is a gift I would not have appreciated before I took a risk and moved overseas by myself.

Winter Break is a time for teachers to rest, renew, and recharge. For me, it’s a time to reconnect with my higher purpose. I love my job, but why did I take a year off to live abroad if not to share what I’ve learned with others? During this break, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I did in 2018 and what I want to do in 2019. I want to continue rowing and staying physically fit. I’m lucky to be part of a welcoming rowing community. However, I feel pulled to travel again, to write about my experiences. Maybe I’ll try a long bike trip next year. I’ve recently connected with fellow writers through social media, and done a couple of manuscript exchanges. We’re all writing about faraway countries. Maybe I’ll get published in 2019.

In 2018 I made a presentation at a professional TESOL conference that connected me back to the English Language Fellow program, exposed me to new opportunities, and helped me connect with international English teachers. I now have Twitter followers whose names I can’t even read because they’re in a language whose script I don’t understand! Some of my teacher friends have retired this year. I’m not quite ready for that, but I long to teach in a quieter way – without bells ringing every 50 minutes. We’ll see where summer 2019 will take me.

I have finished one heroine’s journey and I feel only marginally clearer, more focused, and more powerful. According to You Are a Heroine, self-reflection is a key component of  claiming one’s true identity. The Milestones I’ve reached this year were the results of micro-decisions that helped me widen my view of what is possible. On January 1st I will make some New Year’s Resolutions that will guide me toward the next Call. Thank you for sharing this journey with me!

fullsizeoutput_4e5a Sunset on the Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2018.

 

It’s a Good School

A few years ago, the Superintendent of schools added a controversial Gallup poll to our district’s annual staff climate survey. Teachers had a good laugh about one question: Do you have a best friend at work? Based on their answers, an elementary school received public recognition, and named one teacher Most Hopeful teacher of the year. It came with a $2,000 cash award. By the time the staff survey rolled around a year later, we all decided to find a best friend at work and to be a bit more hopeful on the survey.

School climate is a reliable indicator of student success, but it’s rarely something that gets media attention. People tend to measure a school by word-of-mouth or personal connections. It’s no coincidence that most parents like their child’s school, no matter how negative the “ratings” are. But the happiness of teachers is one of the most important factors for student success. It takes a school leadership team that is both supportive and strong to keep teachers happy. I am proud to work in a district where this is the norm.

When people ask where I’m working this year, the predictable response is, “Oh, that’s a good school.” The first few times it happened, I felt validated, pumped, that I had landed in a school worthy of the praise of my friends and acquaintances. But then I started to get bothered by it. Why do they think it’s a good school? It’s not really different from my old school, except that it’s bigger and – oh yeah – it has an application-only, competitive-admissions magnet program attached to it. I do not teach in that program.

I thought my previous school was a good school. I had supportive colleagues and a principal who let me teach in two different departments – exactly what I wanted. My commute was 12 minutes each way. Recently in the news, however, there was a story about a former student who stabbed his pregnant girlfriend and was sentenced to 70 years in prison. I remember seeing him in the hallways. Does his conviction make my old school a bad school? People’s impressions of a school are often based on stories like this, but teaching and learning continue despite the sensational headlines.

Nowadays high schools are huge, diverse, sprawling institutions with 1,000+ students. Being a “good school” is just an illusion. Every high school in my district is simultaneously a “good school” and “bad school,” depending on where you look.

At my old school, students revered the principal, especially the top athletes. The coaches loved him too. He attended all the football and basketball games, and created a special mentorship program for struggling athletes. He was always visible in the hallways between classes, during lunch, and after school. He helped improve school spirit dramatically. At graduation each year, some students would talk about him as if he were a beloved coach. Except that my ESOL students never saw that side of him. And some teachers I spoke with confidentially in the hallways thought he focused too much on certain programs at the expense of others.

From my perspective as a transfer teacher, I can see how the leadership team sets the tone of a school, and determines its priorities. Sure, we have good AP test scores, a percentage of National Merit Scholars every year, even a few Siemens-Westinghouse STEM awards to post in the main hall. But the expectations for teachers of all students are high, and systems are in place to keep academic achievement front and center.

It’s exhausting.

The end of the first marking period approaches, and I’ve barely managed to keep my head above water. The work load is intense – and I don’t just mean coming up with what to teach five times a day, then delivering perfectly-tailored lessons with clear objectives and differentiation, then scoring all students’ work in a timely manner. I think I have a handle on what happens inside the classroom. In fact, the principal, my department chair, and a Central Office guy all came to observe me teaching during my first month on the job and gave me high marks. They told me they lucked out getting me as a transfer teacher. I replied, “No, I’m the lucky one!” Really, I am.

This school takes the accountability systems seriously, and I’m constantly out of breath trying to keep up. At my old school, I begged the principal to visit my classroom. Nobody questioned my lesson plans. It’s a little stressful this year trying to keep up with colleagues who don’t have the same learning curve. They smile indulgently at me, while I struggle to learn the school culture. The leadership team here actually checks the Gradebooks, Student Learning Objectives, our Professional Learning Community logs, and the School Improvement Plan focus groups. I feel an intense pressure to do my part well.

I’ve been meaning to enlist the support of my colleagues, who have been amazingly helpful, but I’ve barely had time to step out of the classroom. It figures that the leadership team has already anticipated the need of new teachers to learn from their peers. They’ve developed a protocol and a timeline for informal observations so that we can improve by watching each other teach. I feel very hopeful and supported, and have added this to my To-Do list. It’s great being at a good school.

Now if I can just find a best friend at work…

 

Bringing cultural proficiency back to school

fullsizeoutput_6bdcIt takes most teachers a couple of weeks to adjust to the routines of a new school year. The first week is a head rush of frenetic activity when all the plans we’ve carefully made face the reality of the mass movement of teens walking in and out of classrooms every 50 minutes. Once the bell rings, there’s no rethinking the bulletin board, the handouts, or the icebreaker activity. We make it through the first week as if struck by hurricane-force winds. It’s not just me, returning from a one-year leave of absence; it’s everyone. Teachers gather in the department office for lunch like divers coming up for air. We laugh, eat quickly, and get back to work. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. By the second week, we’ve learned more names, what time the photocopier is least likely to jam, and where the nearest staff bathroom is.

I’ve been a public school ESOL teacher for 18 years, so I don’t know why this September seems so much harder than previous ones. Is it because I lived and worked in Southeast Asia last year and got used to a slower, more-balanced pace of life? That’s certainly part of it. I’m returning to a different school, but I’m not a new teacher. The general curriculum, overall expectations, and district jargon are familiar. (Honestly, I don’t know how the brand-new teachers cope with all the acronyms). I’m adapting to new classroom technology and getting comfortable with updated reporting systems. But the biggest change, by far, is that I’m in a new school with new colleagues, different leadership, and a unique micro-culture that I’m still learning.

I spent half of my summer taking required courses on “religious diversity,” “supporting LGBTQ students,”  and “equal opportunity in the workplace.” I’ve been living and breathing these lessons for most of my professional life. As an ESOL teacher exposed to students from around the world, I thought I was well prepared for my school district’s focus on cultural proficiency. We’d always provided a space for Muslim students fasting during the month of Ramadan. We’ve had bilingual counselors who can speak to students and their parents in their native language – Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, etc. Sometimes we have to speak up to make sure our English language learners are accommodated fairly. It can feel lonely and scary to stand up for my students alone. At my new school, however, there’s an entire team of ESOL teachers promoting the needs of ELLs and celebrating this type of diversity as a positive contribution to our school community.

After a year abroad, I am struck all at once by little changes that my colleagues have experienced incrementally. For example, our district policy now addresses the rights of gender nonconforming students. Teachers and staff should use a student’s preferred name and students should be addressed by the chosen pronoun. My colleagues shrug when I tell them about my first transgender student two years ago, about how I felt awkward and embarrassed bungling the he and she. At a celebration this summer my friend’s 6’1″ son showed up with purple hair and a beard. I’ve watched him grow up, from a cute toddler to an awkward adolescent. But now he’s a they and called by the name of a flower. I’m struggling with how rapidly everyone has adapted to this new reality.

Between 5th and 6th period, I sometimes have to take the elevator. I see the same girl in a wheelchair every day. She’s got an aide who travels with her. We smile and say hello. Schools have had to accommodate students with disabilities since the ADA was passed in 1990. But this week I saw something I’ve never seen. A girl was walking up the stairs with a dog in a harness. It looked like a standard poodle because of it’s prancing gait. I smiled as they passed. The girl didn’t appear to be vision-impaired. It was clearly a service dog, probably for a mental or emotional disability (do we even say that any more?).

I realize now that cultural proficiency is a broad term that includes equity and acceptance for all kinds of diversity, not just language diversity. My course in Culturally Responsive Teaching has taught me to be more aware of my own beliefs and to take responsibility to help reduce students’ social-emotional stress from stereotypes and micro-aggressions. I will have to do a lot more than just accommodate students from different countries.

A public school is probably the most diverse institution in the USA. We accept students from all backgrounds, interests, gender identities, learning styles, families, and developmental levels. We build lessons at the beginning of the year to create a safe space for learning. We teach them how to respect each other as they work together in cooperative groups. ESOL students have a unique challenge in that they are learning the language and culture at the same time. If little changes are difficult for me — an American returning to the US — I can only imagine how difficult adjustment is for my students.

ESOL classes have age diversity because students are placed by language proficiency not grade level. I’ve got brand new 9th graders and second-year seniors who are almost 21. Many students work after school and support themselves. Some are here alone, living independently or with distant relatives. I have to spend extra time establishing routines and structures to help the class get comfortable with each other. They have trust their peers before they can share their own stories and feel a sense of agency in their newly-adopted culture.

We’re three weeks into the school year, and I can finally begin to process my own re-entry shock. It’s natural for teachers to put the needs of their students first. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by colleagues who understand the importance of team building better than I do. This week we went out for our first department Happy Hour – I mean professional learning community – and I think it’s going to be a fabulous year.

I have to remind myself that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world; it is also one of the most rewarding.

IMG_0241 My colleague has created a rain forest in her classroom.