Teaching more than English to English Language Learners

People often ask what it’s like to teach students who don’t speak much English. The first question I get is “Do you speak Spanish?” but that’s the wrong question. I speak the language of teens who’ve just arrived in the U.S.A. and find themselves in a wonderful environment of opportunity and freedom for the first time. In my classroom they learn how to conjugate verbs and use academic language, but they also learn how respect boundaries, think critically and value independent learning. In my classroom I give them just enough leeway to be themselves, and I watch as they become a little more American every week. It is both frustration and privilege.

They come into my classroom wearing a uniform of jeans with strategic tears at the knees, carrying colorful Jansport backpacks, the boys in black hoodies or soccer jerseys in the colors of El Salvador or Barcelona; the girls wear tight pants and tops that bare the midriff, having discarded the outer layer as soon as they stepped off the bus. It’s like emptying a cup of marbles through a funnel into a wine bottle, the way they all jostle noisily through the door, a multicolored striata of Tiger’s Eye and mocha lip gloss, high ponytails and giggles. Some smell of last night’s kitchen, some smell of too much cologne sprayed on after PE class. Why don’t they take showers any more? Sometimes I feel invisible as I stand before them. They are so in tune with each others’ every gesture, every flick of a girl’s hair, every nuance of eye contact and intonation, and way too much touching for an Anglo. I feel a surge of panic at the urgency of their physicality – hugging, breathing too close, tapping, elbowing, pressing against, jostling, fake fighting, a burst of Spanish curse words,  acne, chewing gum, shampoo, unwashed t-shirt, illicit baseball cap that gets lifted off one boy’s head and passed from gel top to gel top, a bottle of water and a half-eaten ice cream sandwich passes between two girls, licking fingers, chocolate dropped on the floor. The transition music playing through the intercom stops and the bell rings but nobody is sitting down with the book open to page 54 and Luis Chavez is still roaming the back row conversing loudly with with Jose and Karen asks if she can close the windows, bless her heart, she’s wearing a tank top and it’s 20 degrees outside.

I’m patient as they open their books. I teach them how to turn a page without ripping it. How many had consistent schooling in Central America? I teach them the past tense of irregular verbs. How many knew both parents before they came to Maryland? Knew and came. I teach them questions. Why didn’t you eat breakfast? Didn’t eat. I teach them negatives. Please don’t share your answers. I laugh at their little sotto voce jokes in Spanish. English please. I point to the prompt that says On Your Own. Independence is such an American concept. It will come.

I’m not in a hurry. When I was a child, my family moved from Louisiana to upstate New York and then to West Virginia. I had to learn new social rules and a new way of talking each time. And I’m fluent in English. It takes years to get used to a new culture and a new language. Today we’re one step closer. I repeat the pertinent morning announcements for them, slowly and with visuals. I use realia to get them more involved in school activities – like holding up the purple bow for the PTSA Gift Wrap project. Now they get it. Some stay after class and ask who and where and when. For one more day, I’ve given students a safe environment where they can take risks, make mistakes and pick themselves back up to start all over again. I have one of the most important jobs in the country. I’m shaping the next generation of Americans.


What I know about the Anacostia River

What I know about the Anacostia is what others will find out soon, when the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail bike path opens in about a month. This DDOT video shows how the last segment of the trail moves north, up through Anacostia Park, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, under the New York Avenue bridge, toward Bladensburg Waterfront Park, where it will connect DC to Prince Georges County and to Montgomery County via the Northwest Branch Trail.

For me the smell of the river awakens some deep, visceral connection to my past. I  spent so many mornings of my early adulthood pulling an oar through the water that the river has become part of my psyche. The river continues to welcome me and, as I age I appreciate it even more. In the early morning, it smells of wet earth and a world of turtles, birds and fish waking up. This is unlike the Monongahela River, where I learned to row 1978, and it’s completely different from the Potomac River, where I still occasionally ply the waters. For 10 years I’ve been carrying a 24-foot racing shell on my head down to the low rowing dock at Bladensburg Waterfront Park. When I put my boat in the water at 7:00 am on a Saturday, I can see the ethereal morning mist rising up from the river.

The first thing I notice is the tides. If it’s low tide I can see the mud flats reaching into the middle of the river, with ducks and geese squatting on the embankments. I know to avoid these areas because if my skeg gets caught, I’ll have to get out into the thigh-high mud and push. I don’t want to join the Anacostia Swim Team, an exclusive organization for those who fall out of their skinny singles. Or those who didn’t see the hidden logs lurking just below the surface. The second thing I notice is the debris. Did it rain last night? What detritus and branches will I have to dodge? The most beautiful time is a late September morning when the colorful leaves reflect on the water, when the tides are just right and the surface is glassy. On a Saturday morning in early fall, you can see bald eagles with fish in their talons, circling above. Black cormorants stretch their wings to dry from a tree-top perch, like some Dracula opening his cape. White egrets linger into October and dot the shoreline.

In the afternoon, it smells of high school students’ sneakers left on the dock. DeMatha, Seton, Walter Johnson, Blair, Churchill, and Montgomery Rowing all row out of Bladensburg Waterfront Park, as well as Catholic University, University of Maryland, and Washington Rowing School, of which I am a member. In the afternoons it is a chaotic cacophony of boats launching, coxswains shouting, coaches’ motorboats puttering off, yellow buses idling in the parking lot. Once the crews have pushed off, it smells of rich mud and photosynthesis. It’s a smell that says, “Keep Out!” if I turn my head one way and “Welcome Home” if I turn my head the other way.

In the middle of the river, you can see concentric circles where fish have leaped up. Osprey sit singly in the sparest craggy branches of the dead trees. Sometimes you can spot a deer swimming or a other mammals. Once when I was coaching a high school team, the girls Varsity Eight stopped rowing suddenly. I was upset that they weren’t executing the workout plan the way I’d told them. “Wait, stop!” they shouted. I pulled up next to their Eight in my motor boat. “Why did you stop rowing in the middle of the piece?!” I yelled from a megaphone. The girl in Bow Seat gestured at her long oar. I thought maybe her blade had caught a hidden obstacle and the boat was stuck. I wondered what tools I would need to get out of my bag. Instead, there was something I’ll never forget: a baby beaver had swum up to the boat and was resting on the upturned blade of her oar before swimming across the river. I guess he just needed a break.

What I know about the Anacostia River is that it gives us all a break. It is no longer the open wound filthy with pollution, chemical waste, and trash. Even though commuters rush across the New York Avenue bridge without a second glance, that will soon change. The Anacostia used to be a sluggish gash dividing Washington, DC into the Haves and the Have Nots. Anacostia, the community, used to be known for its food-desert neighborhoods, for neighborhoods so riddled with crime and poverty that for decades there wasn’t even a supermarket. At least that’s what I heard on the news. The Anacostia runs past the Anacostia Community Boathouse, a yacht club, and the Navy Yard, where the last tall ship was towed away before the drawbridge is replaced with a fixed-span bridge. It runs past RFK stadium where football and soccer events still draw crowds. There’s now a high-concept walkway accessible to the public just down from the Navy Yard, a welcoming feature where once there was only rubble. “If you build it, they will come.” And they have come. And they keep building. And that’s a good thing, I think.

Rowers have long known the secret world of nature and beauty that is the Anacostia River. The new Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is due to be finished this fall, and will soon delight newcomers the way it’s delighted rowers for years. DC’s “forgotten river” is the one that unites all of DC. It’s the river that draws us to an unexpected natural world of phenomenal beauty in the heart of the city. What I know about the Anacostia is that it’s finally getting the attention and respect that it deserves.

Reflections on 9-11

I taught English at the World Trade Institute Language Center on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center for five years in the 1990s. An overlooked incident in 1993 probably saved many lives on 9-11. The first bomb attack happened on my day off, thank God! I was home with my baby, whom I had wheeled in to the office to meet colleagues just days before the bomb blast. A truck full of explosives went off in the lower parking area of One World Trade Center, killing six people. My co-workers and students reported that the first floor rippled as waves of explosives blasted out and up from the basement. Our secretary, who was a Port Authority employee, lost her best friend.

Fellow language teachers told me about the chaos that ensued. They had no idea what was going on. Several listened to the radio or TV in their offices, where reporters were telling them to break windows to let the smoke out. There was no fire alarm, no sprinklers, no plan for evacuation. It took my colleagues four hours to get down the stairs. The Spanish language teacher told me that everyone was calm, that they let a pregnant woman pass in front of them. Nobody panicked. When he finally got to the bottom, he noticed that all the evacuees had little black mustaches from breathing in smoke and fumes. Ironically, he offered people cigarettes to comfort them as they emerged into the bright sun.

By 9-11, the World Trade Center parking garage was too secure for another car bomb. However, there were some positive changes: an evacuation plan was in place, and each floor had a fire chief. It may not have worked perfectly, but when the unimaginable horror of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers occurred eight years later, communication was greatly improved, and tens of thousands of occupants were able to evacuate successfully.

We had just moved back to the U.S. from five years overseas when 9-11 took place. I was one week into my new teaching job, and we were in a new neighborhood. We had just met the elderly ladies on either side of the house – who had given me their phone numbers “just in case.” My boys were in two different elementary schools and were scheduled to walk home from their separate bus stops after school. Normally, I would have arrived home just minutes after they did, but on 9-11 I needed to stay late at school with students waiting for the bus. My new neighbors came to the rescue, each one happy to greet a child and walk home from school with him. After 9-11 I arranged for the boys to attend the YMCA after-school program. After 9-11 I got a cell phone. After 9-11 I had my children carry an Ident-a-Kid safety card in their backpacks and I made sure they had the neighbors’ phone numbers.

After 9-11 I flew an American flag on my porch and felt a surge of pride and patriotism. We were living in a house in suburban Washington DC that was on the flight path to Andrews Air Force Base. I couldn’t sleep for many nights, as I heard huge transport planes fly overhead at 3:00 am, wondering if they were going to drop bombs on me. Irrational fear soon gave way to a feeling of resilience. I was part of a competitive women’s rowing team at the time. We resumed early-morning practices on the Potomac River after about a week. One morning, a police boat appeared at 6:00 am on the pre-dawn Georgetown waterfront asking to see our coach’s permit to operate a motorboat. Suddenly I didn’t feel so reassured. That same week, a police officer stopped me on K Street by pointing what I thought was a gun directly at my oncoming vehicle. It freaked me out. It was one of those speed detectors, but I thought he might shoot me. I was shaking as I pulled away with a ticket for “speeding” in a 25-mph zone. Other security measures took over and somehow I felt less confident in my political leaders than I had before. I took down the American flag.

So much of our mindset has changed since 9-11, especially in terms of airport security and travel. One unpleasant side effect is that we may be less trusting of strangers than ever before – I certainly think that 9-11 turned public opinion against Muslims. I was sharing an office space with a young mixed-race Muslim teacher at the time. She told me that fellow educators were coming up to her and saying, “I know you have nothing to do with this…” or they were saying, “I’m sorry.” She was puzzled by their reactions. She told me that the police came to her house because neighbors reported “a lot of parties” where they thought they saw Mohammed Atta, one of the terrorists. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, I asked her if she felt more Muslim or more American. She answered that she felt more Muslim. I understood why when she told me how her colleagues and neighbors treated her differently.

This summer when I traveled to Germany, I saw more women in hijab than I’ve ever seen in my seven years of living in three different Muslim countries in Africa. I saw women covered from head to toe in black veils – some even had their hands covered – walking next to husbands wearing shorts and polo shirts. It was shocking to me, coming from the DC area, where I see people from all over the world – often sitting in my classroom. I tried to understand why they were so covered up. I spoke with a woman from Munich who expressed what seemed to be a racist attitude. But she explained that her government granted refugees 800 Euros a month and a place to live; they had an obligation to try to fit in with her culture a little more. She said that families were given prime real estate with an enviable view of the lake, but turned it down because 200 years ago, pork had been prepared on the premises. I could understand her point.

Has 9-11 created an anti-Islam world? I don’t know, but I certainly hope not. There are educated people out there trying to improve understanding between cultures and religions. I follow the writings of Asra Nomani and the Muslim Reform Movement. I know that I work hard to stay informed about what is happening around the world in this scary election year. I hope that Americans will vote based on hope rather than fear. There is room for divergent opinions in a post 9-11 America. Let’s move toward a brighter future where we can accept one another’s differences and invite discussion about the commonalities we share. Can’t we all just get along?

Domestic violence in the classroom

This NPR story about domestic violence and how it affects every student in the classroom is relevant to me. When students act out, you have to wonder what’s going on at home – but this data is alarming! Is it true that 10 to 20 percent of my students experience domestic violence!? Wow! Based on student behaviors in some of my English Language Learner classes, I think the percentage might be on the high end. Students are often reluctant to discuss what is happening at home, but I have the unusual fortune of getting to know students over many years and, once they feel safe with me, they will reveal what’s happening in their lives. Sometimes it’s shocking. Like the student a few years ago who stopped coming to school because she was worried about her stepfather beating her mother while she was gone. The student rationalized that she needed to stay home to protect her mother. In those days teachers did not have the same reporting requirements that we have today. I referred her to the counselor and made a copy of an essay she wrote – in case Child Protective Services was called in. I don’t know what happened to her, but I hope the cycle is broken now that she’s in the USA where help is available (see below).

It’s early in the school year, and I already see the cries for attention. We have so few counselors for the number of students who need help. I hope to be the one person who shows respect to them, who listens and who cares. I feel gratified that one of my seniors, who had me as a freshman, has written in a letter stating that she always felt relaxed the moment she walked into my classroom. That makes me feel hopeful that this year I can be that refuge again. I really love high school students and I love teaching. It’s a privilege and an honor to help develop the workers and leaders of tomorrow.

Here is a link to Domestic Violence Help in Montgomery County MD: http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/circuitcourt/court/FamilyDivision/Domestic_Violence/dv.html#DV-On-line-Resources

This year will be different

I spent the first day of school on an international flight from Munich, where I attended the most spectacular wedding I will ever experience. I’m so glad my nephew married a German girl so that I could visit that Bavarian city and get a taste for lederhosen and dirndls, bier gartens and trains that run on time. This is the first time in 16 years I’ve missed the first day of school and it was well worth it.

The reality check came when students showed up this morning expecting something from me and I could barely remember how to turn on the smart board. As an ESOL teacher I get to know my students pretty well from year to year. The best part is seeing last year’s students after a long summer. They look a little older, a little more relaxed and happy to be back. M.B. told me she spent six weeks in summer school, has passed all her exams and is proud to be a senior. Finally. She gave me a hug. I love the nervous smiles of the new kids in each class, the posturing of the familiar faces back for a second (or third) year of Ms. Sullivan. Poor things! And I love the excited wishes and goals that each student brings at the beginning of a new school year.

What’s going to make this year truly memorable is that I will be teaching Honors English 12 for the first time. And what happened today leaves me feeling both nervous and thrilled at the same time. First of all, they asked me how the wedding was. That means they read my letter to them. Second, most had completed the homework assignment and written a letter back to me! A couple of students even asked how to turn it in online! They were already ahead of me. (They don’t get their new passwords until tomorrow.) I quickly calculated the rapid succession of successful events that must have taken place, and I stood with my mouth agape. Or maybe it was jet lag. Not one of the 29 students asked to go to the bathroom. Wow, I thought to myself. This year is going to be a really different experience for me.

Don’t get me wrong – I love teaching ESOL. But after so many years, it’ll be a welcome challenge to work with students who already know the culture, whose language skills are developed and who understand the idiomatic expressions in my lame puns. I shared some of my hopes and goals with them and I can’t wait to read about theirs. I hope to learn from them as much as they learn from me. I have high expectations for all my students, but today I realize that these Honors students will also have high expectations for me. This is the best kind of challenge to come back to. Each of us will work hard because those around us are motivated by the same thing. Seniors. Who are motivated. This year will be different and better because of my students.

It’s hard to believe I was in Munich yesterday morning. Now can I go to sleep? Gute Nacht!


How to get over your mid-life crisis

Last week my midlife crisis ended. Just like that, from one day to the next. It was ushered out with great fanfare while I was surrounded by friends and family at a Mexican restaurant in New York City. Everyone toasted to my health, we drank margaritas, ate delicious burritos and fajitas and took lots of photos. I particularly like the one of me in an enormous black and gold sombrero blowing out the single candle stuck into a small lump of flan. People came out of nowhere and started singing and clapping. The next morning I woke up and my midlife crisis was gone.

You may have figured out that it was my birthday. And the reason my midlife crisis is gone is that I am no longer middle aged. Last week I celebrated my 60th birthday and (to misappropriate Sartre) I have entered the infancy of old age. I’m trying to digest the fact that I am now old. I continue to fret about health issues, my career, my marriage & family, and the long bucket list of things to do while I still can. But it’s different now. I feel like a huge burden has been lifted. Being 60 makes me feel free to do what I want without apologizing. Skip dinner to keep working on my memoir? Sure. Head off to the beach for the weekend with a good friend from college? Why not? Buy a $200 pair of shoes? I’ve worked hard for my money, and I can finally spend it on a luxury item. I’m fortunate that my husband is supportive of my pursuits. We’ve weathered the middle-aged storm together and, like victims of a flood or fire, we’re looking around for the best of what we had together to take into the future. Most of what we had is good, and now we can leave behind what wasn’t.

After a lifetime spent fulfilling other people’s expectations, my time has finally arrived. I no longer feel guilty about going in my own direction, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. I no longer have patience for people and situations that drain my energy and make me doubt myself. I am grateful to be surrounded by good colleagues, caring neighbors, and friends and family to help me take the baby steps into old age. Just as new parents coo and clap when their baby learns a new skill, my social network is cheering me on, sometimes literally – as they did at the Mexican restaurant. I know it’s a cliché but “we’re not getting older, we’re getting better” is really true.

My advice on how to end your midlife crisis is this: find people who support your crazy ideas and reach out to them as often as possible. Stop focusing on your imperfections and start taking steps toward one goal on your bucket list. For me, my goal was finishing my memoir and taking it to New York to try to find a literary agent. I pitched it to eight agents at a conference, and all of them would like to see my manuscript. I think good things come to those who are plodders. I’ve worked on this book for nearly five years while teaching full time, coaching a rowing team and raising two children. Writing was always a secret passion of mine, and now I’ve got a finished book and a blog where I can write whatever I want. Maybe somebody will read it and be inspired.

Just as an infant takes baby steps before learning to walk, I am taking baby steps into publishing. I’ve kept a diary or journal all my life. It’s a new experience to share my thoughts and opinions with others. I am thrilled to realize the power of my words. I’ve had a lifetime of hiding my truth because I didn’t think anybody would be interested. What turning 60 has taught me is not to be afraid of being judged by others. I have something to say and I’m putting it out there. I don’t expect singing and clapping, but I’m kind of enjoying this second childhood.

“I wrote in order to write. I don’t regret it; had I been read, I would have tried to please. I would have become a wonder again. Being clandestine I was true.”

– Jean Paul Sartre


Why ignore champion women rowers?

While most of America is focused on the darling gymnasts and the freakishly talented swimmers from my great state of Maryland, there’s almost no coverage of America’s greatest athletic success story: the U.S. women’s rowing team! For 10 years the women’s coxed Eight has dominated international competition. In this this wonderful New York magazine article there’s a complete story about their wins. But there’s almost no coverage of their phenomenal racing during the Olympics. What gives? Is this more of the sexism that’s been on display? Like the Chicago Tribune story that, instead of reporting on the Bronze Medal winner’s success, mentioned her only as the wife of a Bears football player.

I’m proud to be a long-time member of U.S. Rowing. I’m old enough to remember when it was the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, but fortunately that name changed as more and more women poured into boathouses and insisted on equal treatment. Why hasn’t the coverage of women’s sports on network TV kept up with the times? Is it because they’re not wearing sparkly outfits? Come on, NBC, you can do better!

Speaking of outfits: one of my coaches participated in the 1976 Olympics, the very first one that allowed women to compete in rowing. In one way, we’ve come pretty far: she told us that their uniforms for the Opening Ceremony consisted of a purse and a hysterically funny and anachronistic undergarment – a girdle! Can you imagine asking Olympic rowers to wear something designed to hold in a fat stomach?! It makes me angry to think that our news coverage hasn’t gotten much past this era.

I am so proud to be part of a sport that offers such powerful, confident women a chance to compete and dominate on the world stage. I know that they don’t look anything like me – or like most Americans, for that matter – but they are my heroes. I have some idea what it takes to get to their level (and I don’t mean height), and I wish that they were getting the respect that they deserve.

So here’s to Katelin Snyder, Amanda Elmore, Eleanor Logan, Meghan Musnicki, Tessa Gobbo, Lauren Schmetterling, Emily Regan, Kerry Simonds, and Amanda Polk.