So long, it’s summer!

Last week I said goodbye to all the students who have hung out with me for 10 months. It’s a bittersweet time of year for teachers because we develop such a strong bond with our students. I’ve graded final exams and I’ll go in this week to clean out my classroom.

But I am still reeling from what some of them wrote in their final essays about a moral or ethical dilemma they faced. After reading their exams I had to get up from my desk and walk around the building. Most high school students are exposed to dystopian plots by reading science fiction stories, but my students have lived through such things.

One essay that particularly stands out was written by an African girl whose best friend disappeared. Nobody knew what happened to her. She knocked on neighbors’ doors and searched the community. She couldn’t believe that her only friend in the world would run away. Three days later the girl was found, barely alive on the edge of town. She was naked and bruised and filthy. My student went with her to a hospital and was there when her friend’s family walked in. Her friend started screaming hysterically and pointing at her own father, saying “get him out of here!” The father was apparently part of a cult that was required to perform savage acts on virgins. He was arrested and thrown in jail, but bribed the prison guards to be released. Shortly after, my student immigrated to the U.S. and her friend moved to another country. Thank god they were able to escape such horrors!

Another boy wrote about a classmate of his, a young woman forced into marriage at age 15. The following year she had a baby but unfortunately her husband died. The village elders accused her of murdering the man, but my student did not believe his classmate was capable of such a thing and stood up for her in front of his grandfather. The elders decided that her punishment would be burying her alive up to her neck then stoning her to death. My student remembered a quote from a movie he’d seen about how all humans have rights, so he went to a priest to speak up for his friend. The priest convinced his grandfather and the elders not to kill her; the girl was exiled to another village with her baby instead. It was his courage to speak up that saved the girl’s life. It’s impossible not to feel the pain of a 15-year-old processing such a real and profound ethical dilemma.

And you thought Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery was fiction?

I’m glad I have the entire summer to recover and plan. What new dilemmas will face these students this summer? I think I will teach differently next year, and I will try to be more sensitive to the quiet students and encourage them to write about their experiences more regularly. I will be thinking about this all summer.


Teacher Appreciation Week

I got a lot of hugs on Friday and I don’t know if it was because of the MCPS Shelter-in-Place, Mother’s Day or the end of Teacher Appreciation Week. Sometimes my students surprise me in the most wonderful way. This letter was delivered after the bell rang. “Don’t read it now!” the student said. So sweet. I really do have one of the best jobs in the world.

Teacher Appreciation Week is over but I am still basking in the afterglow. I don’t usually get much attention from anyone on these days because my students are all immigrants and they haven’t quite figured out American customs. It makes this kind of letter even more meaningful.

Dear Ms. Sullivan, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for being such a wonderful teacher. In your class I don’t just learn new things but also how to improve my English skills. Thank you Teacher. You are very special because thanks to you and other teachers that take the time to teach a new lenguage to new students. Thank you for having patience with us and also thank you for sharing your wonderful stories with us. Thank you for helping me with my homework. Thank you for letting me stay in your room when I couldn’t. Thank you for trusting me and most importantly thank you for teaching me what I know. You are one of a kind. Thank you for sharing your gift of teaching with us! We may not always say it but we always mean it! Happy National Teacher Appreciation Week! Sincerely, X

Student says thanks
Student says thanks

Teacher training for dealing with students who have experienced trauma

In This WAMU article , my MCPS colleagues are discussing new ways to deal with complex trauma in the classroom.

We have so many new students fleeing violence in Central America who arrive in this country to live in unstable families. It manifests itself in so many ways in the classroom.

It’s good to see that there’s training for it. Can we have more?


A Personal Challenge

When Yanis* showed up at my classroom door with her baby, I knew it was to say goodbye. I hadn’t seen her for three weeks and she’d completely missed final exams.

“Oh, can I hold him?” I gushed. She’d dressed him in a miniature bow tie and vest. He wasn’t even old enough to walk but he was wearing little booties that looked like wingtip shoes. I oohed and cooed at the little cherub.

“His name is Yannick,” she said, beaming at my reaction.

I know what kind of effort it takes to get a baby dressed and transported under the best of circumstances. When my son was born, I was in my thirties, married, with a new Master’s degree and a predictable life trajectory.

Yanis was 16.

“We’re moving to Miami, Miss. And I don’t want to go,” she said.

The streaks of blue in her hair matched the mischievous streaks of her personality. On more than one occasion she had come in late after lunch with two miscreant boys, a little too broad a grin, and a humility that completely disarmed me. “Sorry miss,” she apologized and sat down. She had bloodshot eyes and an adorable gap in her teeth when she smiled.

I couldn’t think of what to say to a teen whose life was so full of drama and instability, so I stuck to the script.

“I want to see pictures of you in a cap and gown, holding your diploma.”

When my son graduated from high school he’d already been accepted into six different universities. I wondered what lay ahead for a 16-year-old mother and her baby.

Yanis was one of the more promising students in my remedial reading class. She wrote with an enviable clarity that exposed the emotional truth of a story. Once she wrote on the topic, “Overcoming a personal challenge.” She described her move to the United States from El Salvador two years earlier.

Her father and the grandmother who’d raised her brought her to the airport to say goodbye. She thought she was going to be gone for a month, visiting her mother in Maryland. She hadn’t seen her mother since she was seven years old. Her grandmother was sobbing and Yanis didn’t understand what the big deal was. “Mi hija,” said her father. “This isn’t a vacation; you’re moving to the United States permanently.” Yanis boarded the plane by herself, in shock and disbelief.

Yanis wrote about the fights she had with her mother – typical teenage arguments about clothing, boys and staying out too late. But magnified by the fact that she and her mother were almost total strangers. Her story was so powerful that I asked her to rewrite it for the school literary magazine. I was impressed by how she could produce such good work with so little effort. When I write, it takes me forever to revise a paragraph. And people still tell me to “dig deeper” to express my feelings more. Yanis seemed eager to please me, and made a half-hearted attempt. But she didn’t have the motivation to follow through this time. Now she was moving away.

Every year I have a student like Yanis who steals my heart. My life moves forward on the projected path as I struggle to capture my tiniest drama in writing. So I am telling her story instead of my own.


* not her real name

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

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.




ESOL Activists Asked to Clear Out

On Monday evening dozens of parents, teachers, counselors and advocates for English Language Learners showed up at the Montgomery County (MD) Board of Education meeting to support testimony on the questionable restructuring of the ESOL Department.  We so overwhelmed the board members that they asked us to move into the overflow seating in the auditorium.

My concerns are personal. Yesterday I covered a regular 9th grade classroom while the teacher was on a field trip. I could see a stark contrast between these students and my own. The 9th graders entered the classroom in an orderly manner, got their laptops and began working on their assignments before the bell rang. I had to quiet them down a little to take attendance, but everyone was working or talking quietly for the entire period. Three students asked, one-at-a-time, for passes to the restroom, and one girl braided another girl’s hair. In contrast, students in my class entered the room jostling each other, pushing, mock fighting (one guy grabbing the other around the neck), throwing things, shouting loudly, and sitting down with earbuds at an empty desk — no folder, no book, no notebook, as is (supposed to be) our routine. One student turned the light on and off to get attention, another went directly to the heater by the window and sat on it, checking his phone. They didn’t hear me after the bell rang when I asked them to get their folders and sit down.

Social-emotional learning is one of the most critical areas of need for ESOL students, especially those with interrupted formal education. I teach high schoolers from Central America who have a 5th grade education. They do not know how to be students. In addition, many are dealing with family-reunification issues: They have just arrived in-country to live with mothers or fathers whom they haven’t seen in years. While they are adjusting to a new family, new food, a new house and a new country, it is my job to teach them academic language. But they need so much more. That is why I am worried about the changes in the county ESOL program. Who will guarantee that my students’ needs are being met? We need more bilingual counselors, more Parent Community Coordinators who can visit homes and meet with families. We need a sensible pathway to careers for students who may not make it to college. We need a serious drop-out prevention program, like paid job internships that also give course credit. (I would love to coordinate such a program!) We need less emphasis on graduation in four years. Many ESOL students require more time and direct instruction to become proficient in English. We need fewer standardized tests and less disruption to our weekly schedules. (Thank you state legislators — it looks like we won the Less Testing battle!) We need cultural competence training  like this program for regular classroom teachers.

This video shows all the homemade signs we brought to the Board of Education meeting on Monday evening. They say, “I stand for students,” in the different languages – Spanish, French, Amharic, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, etc. that our students speak. We are worried that the changes in the countywide ESOL program may mean that critical services will be cut.  I had no idea what to expect when Kristen and Margarita asked us to support them and their testimony. Our strong concerns were voiced. “I stand for students” was more than a slogan. We spoke up for the most vulnerable and at-risk students in Montgomery County Public Schools. Now it is up to our elected officials to take action.

I am proud to live in a state that takes care of its students and invests in their future. I am optimistic that our voices have been heard.


U.S. graduates are last place in technology education

America’s high school graduates look like other nation’s dropouts. Check out this NPR story about how we are failing our students, especially in Technology.

At my school, a public high school in one of the wealthiest districts in the DC suburbs, my students have limited access to computers. Sure we have computers in the school – something like 10 different computer labs, and three or four carts of laptops. But with 1,700 students in one building, it’s often impossible to get access. When testing season starts on May 2, it will be out of the question. I’ve tried to incorporate technology into my instruction, but if I rely exclusively on smart phones, there are always kids who don’t have them. My students are all English Language Learners. This is a serious equity issue.

A few short years ago, computer skills were not part of any curriculum. Now they are critical to being successful. Whose job is it to teach students how to use email, use a drop-down menu, and save and name a file? How is it possible that students can graduate from high school not knowing how to do these things? Many teachers assume that students are acquiring these skills outside of the classroom. Just because they own smart phones doesn’t mean they know how to use them for academic purposes. When I take my ESOL 1 & 2 students to the lab, it is clear that I have to start from scratch: how to log in, how to press the Return/Enter key to go down a line, how to click and drag, use a scroll bar, create a document, how to navigate a website. Over the last few years most high-stakes tests have moved online. Students learn quickly, but with limited access to technology many are at a serious disadvantage.

We were supposed to get Chromebooks last year (inexpensive laptops from Google), but Governor Hogan’s budget cuts made that impossible. So only Social Studies departments got Chromebooks. The problem is that they’re only available to students enrolled in Social Studies classes. My ESOL 1 students (newcomers) do not take any Social Studies classes their first year, so they miss out. This problem may just be more pronounced at my school. Colleagues at a recent district meeting all said they could get computers for their students; it just took a little Personal Persistent Operating. (One district administrator suggested that I write a grant or put out a Go Fund Me request. Why should I have to beg to get essential materials to teach my students?) Maybe I need to be more pushy. I’m writing this blog instead.

I have so many online resources at my disposal, thanks to MCPS. I’m feeling the pressure to get my students before a screen as much as possible before testing season begins.