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.

Choosing Board of Education Candidates

I was privileged to be part of a MCEA panel that interviewed candidates for the Montgomery County Board of Education At-Large seat. I’m an Elected Faculty Representative at my school but as far as I know, this was the first time that ordinary teachers were asked to participate in such a forum.  It was tedious but thrilling work, and we all took it seriously. Somehow it reminded me of serving jury duty. Even with a light dinner and an opportunity for small talk with colleagues beforehand, it felt like an important obligation. I was impressed that we stayed well into the evening debating who to support.

Five candidates submitted answers to a questionnaire in advance, which we read and then scored, kind of like grading papers. Then we met with each candidate for 30 minutes, heard their prepared statements, and asked them the same questions in the same order. We made our recommendations to the Executive Committee, who then made recommendations to the Rep Assembly, which voted with more than 58% to NOT endorse a specific candidate for the April 26th race.

I’m reluctant to say more but I have to get it out there — teachers were wowed by Sebastian Johnson, the well-spoken young man who presented himself as an exciting, viable alternative to the incumbent. It is my hope that he’ll be one of the top two vote-getters and will run against Phil Kauffman in the fall.

This article in Bethesda Magazine says it all better than I can.

And now this post from the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County about the MCEA Political Action Committee. I have no idea what this is all about. I’m just a classroom teacher interested in helping elect Board members who listen to me before making decisions. I feel that I’m taking a risk even posting this.

Need for trauma-sensitive schools

I sometimes feel like I am on the front lines all by myself, defending my students from further trauma at the hands of the school system. No! I said recently when my Department Chair asked when I “wanted” to give my students the mid-year MAP-R test. I had to convince her that it was optional, really. I didn’t want this test because, even though the data is mostly useful, ESOL teachers have been testing just about every period, every day since January 6th. ( We test four areas of language proficiency: Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing – we don’t know how the scores are calculated and we don’t even get them back until June AND to make matters worse, we have to test 60 students who are no longer getting ESOL services). The testing windows closes at the end of the week. What this means for people on the outside is that I, personally, have watched students take a test for more than 35 hours in the past six weeks. This does not include a week when we had no school because of snow. I have five colleagues who have each performed a similar number of proctoring hours. We cannot get back the 200+ hours of missed instructional time. These are the students who most need consistent and appropriate instruction in order to succeed in an English speaking world.

This excellent interview in Education Week Teacher doesn’t even mention testing; I just had to air that complaint and get it out of my system. In the interview, author Susan E. Craig mentions that adverse childhood experiences can impair a child’s cognitive abilities. She says that teachers and schools need to be more “trauma sensitive.” Those of us on the front lines are doing a face palm at the obviousness of this statement. Instead of zero tolerance and punitive measures that can force the child to reenact an earlier trauma, some of us have perfected the “warm demander” approach, where we kindly and with a sense of humor try to talk them into doing their homework or coming to class. If you saw my grade book this marking period you’d wonder how well it’s working. Sometimes my goal for the week is to keep one student from dropping out.

I don’t mean to make light of a serious topic. I commend Susan E. Craig for focusing on this issue. I have advocated for trauma-sensitivity in something as simple as a Code Blue drill. Some of our ESOL students have lived through war-like situations – so don’t yell at them to “get down” and “cover your head” without giving teachers a heads-up so that we can provide some context – the buffer that Ms. Craig is talking about here . One thing she says that I cannot repeat enough: students who have lived through trauma need consistency and predictability. All this testing disruption undermines the very nature of cumulative progress.

And can I add one more thing? I have posted about how stressful this year feels. Recently a friend suggested that I stop caring so much! At least now I have some back up. See the quote below from the Ed Week interview with Susan E. Craig, author of Trauma-Senstive Schools: Transforming Children’s Lives (Teachers College Press).

Another challenge is giving teachers enough information and support to avoid being traumatized themselves by their over-exposure to the trauma children. It’s a very serious mental health issue that can come up for people that work with traumatized populations. I don’t think we do enough to help teachers recognize that and get the support they need to avoid having their own mental health compromised because of how stressed they are by the lives of the kids they’re working with.

To Bill Gates: Children are not apps

This article is long, but it’s too good not to share. The public has been duped by corporate messaging. This is a thorough, brilliant expository. Thank you for sharing, Diane Ravitch!

Economic reform is being driven by 3 things: economic self interest of the white middle class, racial and ethnic antipathy, and corporate profits.

Did you know that America is growing browner, older and deeper in debt? Who do you think feels threatened by the fact that 25% of all children under age 5 are Hispanic?

Bill Gates wants to unleash “powerful market forces” on public schools. In other words, he wants a piece of the profits to be made while testing our public school children into oblivion. Thank God Pearson stock and Arne Duncan are in a downward spiral.

Can we get back to teaching now?

Talking Down to Teachers

I haven’t read The Smartest Kids in the World, mostly because the title is such a turnoff, but I loved Amanda Ripley’s Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes. So when I saw her “Talking Down to Teachers” article in the February 2016 Washingtonian Magazine, I was fascinated.

Thank you Ms. Ripley for praising teachers’ professionalism and intellect, and making an effort to change the dialogue about teachers-as-missionaries. But I want to know: Who are the “highest performing teachers” being honored at the Standing Ovation event you described? What is the criteria for selecting these teachers? We should be questioning the value of elevating teachers based on artificial measures, like test scores of children, when most education professionals recognize that external factors (like wealth & poverty) are far more influential on student success than any one teacher.

When people hear I’m a teacher, they say “that’s courageous” and imply that I am making a sacrifice to do what I love. Like the DC teachers she quotes in the article, I am not a volunteer; I am a well-paid professional. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, I work very long hours. But what I (we) really need is respect. Respect from the parents who entrust me with educating their children, trust from my administration that I am doing my job, trust from the School Boards and the taxpaying public that I am a well-trained professional making good decisions and making a difference every day.

And by the way, not once in my 15 years of teaching in MCPS has any parent group passed the hat to buy me a gift. All my students are immigrants and they don’t know this American practice. I think it says more about the parents in Ms. Ripley’s school district than anything else. I’d be happy for thank you from the students at the end of the year!


Snow Day, Good. Timing, Bad

Usually snow days are a teacher’s best friend. However, like most teachers at the end of the semester, I had a long list of tasks to accomplish and was looking forward to two days alone in my classroom with no students to distract me. WiDA ACCESS testing has taken up every testing block — that is, when I wasn’t giving a Semester Final Exam — and I had zero time to grade papers and plan for next semester. I was also looking forward to clearing out old papers, cleaning and getting materials organized. I’m going to be sharing my classroom now with another teacher because we’ve got 18 newcomer students and her classroom is too small. So she’s moving into my classroom during my planning periods, and I will be exiled to the office. I don’t mind, but my clutter is an embarrassment.

When I heard the weather forecasts, I stayed late on Thursday and graded all my semester exams — including the exam for a student who showed up late for a “make up exam” without any warning. Even though she had failed the first quarter, had failed the second quarter and had 19 absences, my department chair and my administrator both said to let her take the test. I was feeling conflicted about the whole thing, but they confirmed my natural instinct to give students the benefit of the doubt. Our grading policy says that a student who gets a C on a final exam can still pass the semester, even with the above profile! On the one hand, I want to ask: Why bother coming to school? Why bother doing any work? On the other hand, I understand the difficult circumstances of some students and how my giving her a passing semester grade might make her life just a little easier; maybe this will be the little break she needs in order to succeed next semester and in life.

So I sit at home watching the snow fall, trying to catch up on my reading-for-pleasure, all while feeling a little guilty that I’m not preparing a scope-and-sequence for the three different classes I will teach starting on Tuesday. And what about my reflections on the Student Learning Objective that is due January 29th? And did I file the quarterly COSY report?

I think I’ll go shovel some snow and curl up with Gone Girl, which I’ve been wanting to read forever.