This moment is too big

You would think that with all of this down time I’d be blogging more than ever. Instead I have been almost paralyzed by the enormity of this moment in time. Where would I even begin to make sense of it all? I’m taking an online writing class and the instructors always recommend that we “write small.”

Do I write about a newcomer ESOL student whose first day in my class was the Wednesday before school ended? The one who spoke no English at all? I got her a Chromebook to take home and she signed into my Google Classroom. When she asked why (in Spanish), I didn’t have the words or the time to explain. I thought it would be a two-week shut down and at least she could see my announcements.

Do I write about how I’ve taught myself how to use a new platform? How I’ve downloaded unfamiliar apps, selected, edited and published assignments, then performed troubleshooting tech support when my students couldn’t access the content I spend hours and hours creating? I could talk about my first Zoom meeting with 21 students. Before I knew how to use all the features and before my district blocked some of them – one of the students took the entire class with him into the bathroom while he checked his hair in the mirror. He made loud, rude noises while we all watched, listened, and laughed uncomfortably. Now I’m happy if students show up at all for Zoom class.

I could write about my ESOL 5 class, the advanced class. I’ve noticed that even with these nearly-proficient students, there’s some back-sliding. They’re making grammar and pronunciation mistakes that I thought were corrected back in January. But the good thing is that I’m focusing less on the errors and more on the substance of they’re saying. If one good thing has come from this coronavirus shutdown it’s that students are giving better, more thoughtful responses to questions I pose.

“If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” or “If you could meet anyone, living, dead, or fictional, who would it be and why?” or “What is more important, fairness or freedom?” My students have more time to be reflective. I have more time to read all their answers, to give personalized feedback, and to have the sense of real and valuable exchange. I wish we had more time to be reflective during the school year instead of running on a treadmill. This slow down is causing us all to be a little more philosophical.

Students all over the world are being affected negatively by this shutdown. But many of my students are hungry, fearful, and bored. Immigrant families are not getting a stimulus check or filing for unemployment. They’ve lost jobs and have no safety net. Every day I call the families, and they seem grateful for information about community resources, food, medical assistance, immigration centers that offer financial aid, etc. One student said she’s afraid for her mother to go shopping for fear of deportation. Another selected an image to describe for an assignment. It showed a woman walking down an empty city street. “She’s probably going shopping because there’s no food at home.”

I understand what a heroic effort it takes to learn new technology. My students are doing it in a foreign language, during a global health pandemic, often without any support at home. The ones who most need my help are not able to ask for it. One of my Level 1 newcomers sent me a message that she had deleted by mistake all the slides on Google Classroom. She hadn’t deleted anything; she had simply added 10 empty slides by mistake and didn’t know to scroll down to see them. Most can not even tell me why they’re not doing any work.

I’ve got half the students most high school teachers have. I won’t say it’s easy, but I have now telephoned, emailed or sent USPS letters to every single one of them, starting with seniors and working my way down to the ones who have disappeared. When that doesn’t work, I can ask bilingual counselors, administrators, or pupil personnel workers for help. I can also text students whose cell phone numbers I have and ask them if they know how to contact a classmate. These are not normal times, and sometimes we have to go against “the rules” to make sure our students are okay.

I want to write about my Level One ELL newcomers who will barely open their mouths during a Zoom conference, even when I provide sentence starters, a model, and plenty of wait time. They prefer to speak Spanish. But I’m so happy they’ve shown up at all; I cherish every moment together, even if I’m doing most of the talking.

I want to write about how I’m working way more than 40 hours per week, and learning so much that I didn’t have time to learn before. We will come out of this shutdown stronger, I think, with more compassion for each other. I know for sure that I will change my teaching style and try to get to know my students better, faster. I will need to foster communication circles so that we know how to talk to each other (in English) face-to-face. The importance of human connection has never been brought so starkly to the forefront.

As a teacher, it is my duty to instruct English language, but in the future, I will focus more on authentic tasks that bring students closer together. The rote homework-completion tasks will have to be reduced, and the classtime spent on learning who our classmates are. This “relationship building” will not just be relegated to something to check off a list during the first week of school. I need to get better at the touchy-feely aspects of learning that I once used to be skeptical of. There is nothing more important than human connection right now.

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

In spite of the beautiful spring flowers, we have endured one of the most anxiety-filled weeks I can remember. It started with Daylight Savings Time taking away the morning light. Most high school teachers know the effects of asking teens to wake up an hour earlier. First period was zombie land for three days.

On top of that, it was a full moon. Students are usually agitated just before a full moon, but this was not just any full moon; it was a bright supermoon that shined like a glowworm through the eyes of every miscreant. S is not usually the most focused student, but when she called me a bad name in Spanish, I pretended not to understand. I had to remind J & K not to fake chokehold each other while I was presenting literary elements.

By Thursday, the anxiety over corona virus had spread to my classroom. On Thursday, I had to stop instruction 15 minutes early to talk about it. Teachers were instructed not to “ad lib” so we went to the district and the CDC website and looked at information there. Mostly I just let students vent. My students are all from foreign countries. One student has a mother in Wuhan, China and his worry is already two months old.

On Thursday evening, the governor of Maryland announced that all schools will close for two weeks. Friday was a scramble of trying to finish work, clear out the refrigerator and make sure students could get on to Google Classroom for any information. We are NOT allowed to create new assignments for a grade or to continue instruction. I told students that I will check email every day and post optional assignments so that they can keep up their English language proficiency.

Now I’m heading outside to enjoy the spring weather. I hear that sunshine is a natural antibiotic. I plan to get a lot of it in the next two weeks.

Paperclips in my pockets

On the last day of school before Winter Break, I cleared off my desk, stuffed student papers into color-coordinated take-home folders, took down my classroom holiday decorations, cleaned out the shared refrigerator, and headed to my car before the sun went down. When I changed clothes before bed, I noticed that my pockets were bulging. I pulled out chewing gum, mints, an Advil, and a handful of paperclips. I don’t remember putting those things in my pockets, but I was clearly prepared for coffee breath, a headache, and organizing stacks of papers.

Teachers subconsciously prepare for every single school day like this. Anyone who’s been around children long enough knows to expect the unexpected. It’s one of the reasons teachers have such good auto insurance – we drive with eyes in the backs of our heads, too. As we head into 2020, it’s hard not to proclaim perfect vision for the next year just for the effect. Even though I don’t have any clue what’s coming, here are the paperclips I’ve got in my pockets. Metaphorically, that is.

Money in the bank. I’m old enough, stable enough, and married long enough to have some savings for the first time in my life. As I witness the generation before me starting to pass away en masse, I feel prepared for our next life stage – financially, at least. If I don’t blow it. I have good insurance, I own a house and a car, and I don’t have any debt except a monthly mortgage. My children have no more student debt. That is a huge relief.

A bucket list. Although many of these things are still just vaguely-formed desires floating around in my head, I have travel journeys picked out, a pile of books to read, and writing goals to accomplish. I hope to visit as many Maryland state parks as possible in 2020, to drive cross country, to publish something with my name on it (short story, memoir, poetry, curriculum), and to travel to Eastern Europe and maybe Madagascar.

Good health habits. Every day when I get home from school, I take a walk outside. I’m fortunate to live in a woodsy suburb where fresh air feels good no matter the time or temperature. As I walk up and down the hills, I feel fortunate to call this my neighborhood. I greet neighbors out walking their dogs, I see basketball games under the lights, and I recharge my energy. Since we don’t eat too many meals together anymore as a family, I usually eat something small early in the evening and finish before 6:00 pm. I’m not sure if this counts as intermittent fasting – the health trend of the year – but I like how it makes me feel.

Family. During the holidays, most of us connect with important people in our lives. I am grateful to have a big family that, in spite of all our differences, can come together for Christmas every year. We have a White Elephant gift-giving tradition that seems to be our “new” family model – a way that my autistic brother, my elderly mother, the unemployed young people, and the Jewish in-laws can all feel comfortable participating. Like the ever-ready teacher, I always bring an extra gift or two in case someone shows up I didn’t expect.

Friends. More than ever, I am grateful for friends. My oldest friends are women I have known since I was a teen. We have shared big moments in each others’ lives: weddings, babies, international relocations, new jobs, retirements, and funerals. We can call each other up to share moments of pain or joy, or to invite the others to join us in a new adventure. When I was younger I did not place enough importance on these friendships. But now I realize that my female friends sustain me like nothing else in my life. Just like I put paperclips in my pockets, I put my friends there without thinking. In 2020 I hope to bring more mindfulness to nourish these relationships.

As we roll into the new year, I am ready for the unexpected. My desk is clear and my pockets are full. I am bursting with plans and gratitude in equal measure.

 

Paper Clips

There’s no tired like teacher tired

There’s no tired like teacher tired in late November when Thanksgiving Break looks like it’s never going to come. On a Friday afternoon, it hits like a ton of bricks. “Sorry I can’t make it to your opening reception at the gallery,” I tell my friend whose artful photography has finally gotten some recognition. I wanted to support her but the truth is, I was out every single night last week at different union meetings. My profession is under attack, and I need to learn how others are fighting against the dismantling of my district’s flagship ESOL program. I’d been feeling demoralized and disrespected by the higher-ups making decisions about what’s best for me and my students. I was simply exhausted.

I love my job. I love teaching high school English Language Learners – all of my students are recent arrivals in the USA, and they are eager to learn English, learn American culture, and get that Maryland diploma. Their enthusiasm and willingness to do whatever I say (even though they don’t always understand it) makes me feel the grave responsibility of educating a new generation. I take my work seriously, but I also like to have fun. Lately that’s getting harder and harder to accomplish. My teammates at school are caring, supportive, creative, lively, and way more emotionally intelligent than I am. Usually they can nod and smile when being given a top-down directive, but this time they’re as outraged as I am.

From the outside, it doesn’t seem like we’re being asked to change so radically. Rolling out a new quarterly assessment two weeks before I have to administer it, however, is against my contract. A test that hasn’t been piloted may be full of errors, it probably doesn’t match what I’ve been teaching, and it’s not fair to students. Can you imagine if they tried to do this to the Math Department?!

The fact that ESOL teachers are being told to comply with a worst-teaching practice disregards our need to plan out each marking period by “backward mapping.” It’s not teaching to the test; it’s testing what is taught and not changing the objectives in the middle of the course. Then what? Someone in a district office will look at my test scores and decide that a) my students are underperforming and b) it must be my fault. This type of flawed reasoning may explain the necessity of “restructuring” ESOL.

Next year, there will be no high school ESOL in my district. It looks like all ELLs will be placed into grade-level English classes. The outstanding programs that we have implemented over the past 20 years will be gone – both the proficiency-based courses and the electives. It won’t be so bad for the students with advanced English, but it could be disastrous for the lower-proficiency students. I believe our Superintendent thinks that a lack of rigor in the ESOL classroom is to blame for poor test performance by ESOL students. Wait until he sees how newcomers who don’t speak any English handle Romeo and Juliet!

It may not seem like such a big stretch for high school ESOL teachers to suddenly start teaching the mainstream English curriculum. I’m dual certified in English and ESOL, have taught both, and love teaching Shakespeare. I’ve often questioned the disconnect between our two programs. For some of my colleagues, however, it’s daunting. There’s a huge difference between being a language teacher and being an English teacher. During this “transition” there’s been no curriculum roll-out, no training, and no support from administrators and school leaders. The questions we raise at school are going unanswered. Teacher frustration has been building since last year.

“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions” isn’t just a slogan. Mostly, my job is really good. It is no coincidence that I work in a district with a strong union. I dragged myself to a Bargaining Session on Thursday night instead of grading papers. I got to eat pizza standing up while visiting with colleagues from other schools. When I finally looked at the handouts, I almost screamed with delight. Written in to our new contract, are six pages of ESOL-specific language, outlining requirements for treating us like professionals. ESOL concerns were Number One on the evening’s agenda. I am so lucky to work in a district where somebody gets it.

Attending those union meetings was just the morale boost I needed to get through the next few days until Thanksgiving Break. Now that I’ve had a chance to rest, maybe I’ll go check out my friend’s artwork at the gallery.

 

 

 

September glory

September was always my favorite month as a child. Now it flies by so fast that every attempt I make at capturing its beauty in writing fails. The gorgeous late days of September deserve poetry better than any I could write. The orange-yellow-pink sunrise over the Potomac River last weekend is etched in my mind and on my Facebook feed forever. The early morning air dehumidifies and greets us like an old friend. For the first time in months, outside feels better than inside. Too bad that September is one of the busiest months for teachers, and we have less time than ever to truly enjoy the changing seasons.

That’s what made my weekend trip to Maine so special.  Up north, it seems people cherish the good weather more than we do in the DC area. Maybe because Mainers live “the way life should be.” Maybe because the winters are so harsh, they enjoy the last heated rays of the sun that linger over lakes, coves, and bays. We took a motorboat into one of the many coastal waterways and saw a seal, some osprey, a kingfisher or two, and several bald eagles soaring overhead. It’s late September but my son and my husband went swimming in the Kennebec River with an old friend. I swam in a lake that I had just canoed across. Later, while I was bundled in several layers, hovering near a bonfire, true Mainers were wearing shorts and sandals, reluctant to acknowledge that summer was really over.

We spent part of the long weekend at a farm, where more than a dozen of my husband’s former Woodsmen’s Team classmates gathered. We had a tour of a self-sustaining farm, where they grow all the vegetables they eat throughout the year, and raise and butcher their own livestock. They have solar panels that make enough energy to sell back to Maine Power Company. They produce aged goat cheese and bake their own bread. They have engineered their own wheat threshers, made a fire pit out of an old tire rim, and grow peppers inside a greenhouse all winter. The farm couple clearly loved having the reunion at their place, but they never stopped working the entire time we were there. If that’s the way life should be, it is an exhausting way of life.

I think of the Great Outdoors especially fondly at this time of year as I commute 30 minutes to a climate-controlled school building where the only light I see all day is man-made. Teaching is like farm work in many ways – it’s just as unrelenting, it’s seasonal, with a schedule determined by some cycle that’s not quite in my control. The work is intrinsically rewarding, like farming, with its own harsh realities. It’s the life I chose, even though it keeps me away from the natural world that soothes me.

So now, I want to capture every beautiful outdoor moment. Because everything changes in late September, and not just the back-to-school busy-ness that takes over. The enjoyment of nature will soon become a luxury, and I’ll be happy to have an indoor job. Fortunately I have the ability to travel and see how other people live, and I have the weekends to reconnect with who I am during the good weather.

farmhouse in Maine

sheep are cool

Crossed It Off My Bucket List

As I reflect on the summer and start planning the new school year, it feels good to say that I have crossed a few things off my Bucket List. I traveled to El Salvador. Check. I went skydiving – okay, it was indoor skydiving. Check. I raced in a rowing regatta. Check. I’ve read 19 out of the 28 books I set out to read in 2019. Check. And finally, I biked 150 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland. Check. School starts up next week for students – and I feel good, accomplished. I’ve got a clear model for the “What I did this summer” essay.  But I might change up the format this year.

I’m wondering if other teachers do this during the summer. When my kids were little, summer was filled with family travel and family activities. Now that they’re grown, I can focus more on my own wants and needs. It’s liberating to be at this phase of life. And I’m lucky to have friends willing to go along with me.

I’ve spent a week getting ready for the students to come back after Labor Day. The night before school starts, I usually need a quiet, calm place to gather my thoughts and run through the plans I’ve so carefully made. This year, I think I’ll change up one of the the get-to-know-you activities. For my advanced ESOL 5 students, they’re going to create a six-word memoir, like the famous Hemingway one. For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn. I’ll show slides with several examples and a short video. Then I’ll show them my model. I’ve got the perfect title, with a photo to explain it.

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.