I am a published author. What?? I can hardly believe it. A lifelong dream of mine, realized. I didn't think my first book would be about teaching and education, nor did I think it would be nonfiction. When I was younger, I imagined myself an author of Nancy Drew type books. As I got older, I fancied myself a writer of memoirs, and maybe a book of poetry.
No matter - it happened in the best way. I am eternally grateful to my mom, Sonia Nieto, for believing in me and for taking me on this path. She guided me as we constructed our book together, figured out what our focus would be, and wrote together. Without being heavy-handed, she led me through the process of becoming an author.
Our book is a labor of love. The time we spent together on weekend retreats and long mornings at our favorite cafes is time I will treasure long beyond the publication of our book. I know that not everyone loves to spend so much time with their mother, and that many who would like to spend that time, cannot. I have many friends whose mothers passed away too young, and I know how fortunate I am to have mine by my side (literally - we are neighbors). The time we spent writing involved a lot of work and some pleasure as well. On our retreats, we always took naps, and always broke in the early evening for cocktails and a delicious dinner. Our mornings spent at cafes included tasty breakfasts or lunches.
Our book is also an ode to teaching and teachers. From one of the biggest fans of teachers I know, and from a teacher who has been in the classroom almost 25 years, we reflect on our beginnings as teachers, and explore topics such as writing, cultural responsiveness, ELL, public education, the importance of mentors, and curriculum. Many of my contributions to the book were originally published in this blog and revised for publication.
We both hope that our book will provide teachers and others some insights, and that it will be a statement in support of public education and hardworking teachers all over the country. If you would like a copy, you can order it here:
Would you rather get a root canal or go back to school to teach a full day after Christmas break?
Would you rather hear the dentist drilling to your core or the whining of your students when they realize they have to do school work again?
Would you rather smell the onion-y odor of middle school youth in the halls, or the medicinal minty scents of the dentist's tools?
These were actual questions I asked myself on New Year's Eve Day as I sat in the dentist's chair hearing his diagnosis: I needed a root canal.
The big question was: would you rather teach all day with tooth pain that makes you want to cry or scream, or get the root canal ASAP? I opted for the root canal.
In a strange way, I was relieved. I had none of the usual anxiety about going back to school after the break. I was almost happy to be facing the dentist first thing in the morning rather than my students.
It made me think. What was happening that I would feel relief to get a root canal on January 2? I realized that even though we had just had a good 10 days of vacation, it wasn't quite enough. In my case, I had appointments, errands, food shopping, and cleaning to do - so much so that I rarely had down time. Though I don't like the terms "me time" and "self-care", I understand that teachers really need both. And over my break, I didn't reserve enough time for either.
Our job is hard. Maybe, like a fellow teacher with whom I was talking the other day, one of the hardest. We do our job without enough time to collaborate and prepare. We deal with the neediest people, sometimes at their most vulnerable, day in and day out without enough training to do so. Social problems and mental health issues are growing, and work-creep continues. Budget cuts leave us without arts, languages, dance, counselors. It is all overwhelming and exhausting.
That is why today, while having my root canal and listening to a podcast, I actually felt relaxed. It shouldn't have to take a 2 hour dental procedure for this to happen, though.
I guess this is all to say this: teachers, take care of yourselves. We often put everyone before us, our families and our students. While it's hard to not do this, at the same time we need to be more deliberate about doing things that relax us or make us happy. Today at the gym, I was doing laps in the pool when in the lane next to me I recognized a long time guidance counselor from my school (now retired), mentor, community pillar, and family friend. When I asked him how he was, he said "Hanging in there. If I can do one thing a day that makes me happy, it's all good." Words to take to heart.
As teachers know, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break are a test of our patience and sanity. It can be a challenging time for adults and students alike for so many different factors. Here in C-21, I am just trying to keep my curriculum going forward and the students in a semi-working and learning state. Not an easy task on December 17th!
In social studies, my beginner students are (fairly) engaged with a task-based project on an African country. This was part of our continent study of Africa, which I recently rolled out. On the first day, my students watched a slideshow of beautiful, colorful, amazing photos of glittering cities, modern skylines, clean streets, and smiling and healthy looking people studying, shopping, working, and going to school. The students had to decide which continent each photo showed. At the end of the slide show, surprise! They found out that all of these amazing photos take place on the continent of Africa. One student, who is from Korea, knew that they were all in Africa. When I asked her how she knew, she said that her father traveled all over Africa for his work, and she had seen many photos of his travels. Another disbelieving student shouted, “Miss, that can’t be Africa! Everyone knows they are all poor and it’s only desert there!!”
I knew I couldn’t get angry at this student, because this was his perception and probably what he had been taught by media images for years. I had a huge job ahead of me, teaching about 50+ diverse countries in the 2nd largest continent, and I had more undoing of stereotypes than I thought.
The other comment that alarmed me, made by another student, was, “Why should I want to study Africa, anyway? I’m never going to go there!”. Now, this student’s own country was a colony to which hundreds of thousands of slaves were taken, and which has an ethnic blend of African, Taino, and European ancestry.
I challenged both of these students on their notions of what Africa is like, telling them how diverse it is, and how indeed, there are huge modern cities, and much more than deserts, animals, and jungles and, I told them, who knows if you will go there or not one day!
The next task in the roll out of my curriculum for this unit was, freestyle and without looking at any maps or globes, to draw the continent of Africa. The results were amusing, and even the students laughed when they compared their drawings with reality. They wanted to vote on who did the best, and unsurprisingly the student with the closest rendition of Africa was from Cape Verde. A few weeks later, after studying many different political, physical and other maps of Africa, we repeated this exercise, and the results were much better. My students were coming along.
We then looked at a map of Africa, published by Boston University. In it are all the places that could fit inside Africa: the whole continent of Europe, and the countries of China and the United States (including Alaska). The students were wide-eyed. I hoped that they would begin to understand the immensity of the continent.
This week, the students began their quest to find out more about a country in Africa. They were each tasked with convincing my student teacher that she should travel to the country they are reporting on, and just to make the stakes a little higher, she will actually choose one of them. Because I know that my students will have to find the information on their own in order to really believe it (middle school students have a healthy amount of skepticism, even about what their teachers tell them!), they will each delve into finding out what makes their country interesting and special.
At the end of this unit, I’ll have the students reflect on what they learned. We will watch the slideshow once again, and perhaps instead of shocked faces that the photos were all of Africa, they will shout out, “That photo is in Lagos!” and “That one is Nairobi!”
In any case, in 4 days, we will have a much-needed retreat from our beloved students and schools. Hang in there, teachers! We got this!
As teachers, we often underestimate how students will react to the things we say or do. I have been surprised many times over the years when former students make comments such as, "I remember you always said -----", or "I will never forget that time you told me ----". And sometimes, the students we think we might not be reaching at all are the ones who remember us the most.
I have a class that is small, but quite loud. One of the students, who punctuates everything she says with a little scream, and is not ever afraid to express her opinion, regularly calls me her second mom. I can count on a daily hug from her as she passes my door. We played Kahoot in class the other day, and this student didn't have her Chromebook (we are a 1:1 Chromebook school). Not wanting her to miss out, I lent her my phone on which to play the game. At the end of class, as she handed her phone back to me, she showed me with delight all the pictures she had secretly taken of me, in addition to several selfies of herself. At least it was on my own phone, not hers, so I know she couldn't actually post them anywhere. I don't have to guess with this student - I know we have a connection, and it helps to keep her engaged in class.
In a not-so-clear cut example,a few years ago I had a class made up of half very vocal and half very shy students. One of the quieter, shy ones always started every assignment 20 minutes later than everyone else. He always appeared to be in his own world, and I didn't think he was listening when I spoke. I wanted to light a fire under him to show what I knew he knew. In fact, all of his teachers were worried about his lack of engagement and low work output.
At the beginning of the school year, I had tried something new; I showed a slideshow explaining the class guidelines, and I added a slide that said "I believe in you: you are a good person, you are appreciated, you are part of this community". I told each class that as corny as it sounded, it was true. They half-smiled at me, not really seeming to believe it.
The quiet and shy student who was disengaged had an emotional crisis that year. Shockingly, he named me as an adult in the building he would feel comfortable speaking to. I don't know if my corny "I believe in you" slide had anything at all to do with this, but something had made him feel at ease in my class.
We never really know what our students are taking in and how our words or actions influence them. We can only hope that we are that "go to" adult for some students, or that classroom where they feel like they can let out their breath and be themselves. In my school district, teachers work hard at making those connections with kids, and I would wager that most kids feel "seen". In fact, one teacher who had my son and daughter in two different classes expressly makes it one of her goals to make sure her students are "seen".
I had a few teachers who "saw" me - whether they knew it at the time or not, I don't know. I see them once in a while for coffee, and I tell them, lest they didn't know a the time, what a huge influence they had on me when I was a high school student.
Sometimes the connections teachers and students make are obvious. At other times, we have to have faith that, where the connection is not so clear, the impact we have will still be long lasting. We all have that power as teachers.
I recently attended the annual Western Mass. Writing Project's annual Best Practices conference, held at UMass Amherst, the home of our local National Writing Project site. As every year when it is time to sign up, I did not relish the thought of spending a Saturday indoors, away from my family and the multitudes of weekend errands and activities that needed to be accomplished. And, just like every year, I left feeling uplifted, energized, and reminding myself that THIS is why I love the WMWP and the NWP. By the way, the National Writing Project and its sites are NOT only about writing, and not only for ELA or writing teachers! All teachers pre-k-college and beyond can and should participate.
I've written other posts about the WMWP and the NWP, and it's because I am always awed by the power of teachers working together and teaching each other. At the conference, the morning started with warm greetings, cider donuts and coffee. I checked in, got my conference folder and reviewed the workshop options. At this conference, the majority of workshops are led by the new teacher consultants, the title participants of the Summer Leadership Institute earn when they complete the intensive 3 week program. The first workshop I went to, though, was led by two veteran members of the WMWP. By 8:40, we were writing and by 8:50 we were discussing the myth vs. the reality of the American Dream, and how to use the PBS film "American Creed" in the classroom. By the time the session ended I was already full of ideas I wanted to implement in my classes next week.
My next session was about writing with your students every day in a writer's notebook. While I already do this with my students, the workshop presenter reminded me of useful tips for using the notebook in class, such as decorating it so students can make it their own and express themselves. We tested out 4 different prompts as if we were students ourselves. I relaxed into the writing, treasuring the time to sit quietly with my thoughts and paper. In my favorite prompt of the session, we were instructed to write a break-up letter or a love letter to someone or something. I wrote a love letter to the pool at my gym, which I recently rediscovered and has brought me a peaceful outlet, and has reminded me of my love for the water.
At lunch, we heard a keynote speech from Kelly Norris, a local English teacher who has just published a book, Too White (Bedazzled Ink Publishing binkbooks.bedazzledink.com/books/books-t/too-white/). She talked frankly about her book, a memoir, which chronicles coming to terms with racism and white privilege throughout various experiences since her childhood. It was thought-provoking and honest.
Also at the luncheon, I was honored to receive the Pat Hunter Award for Outstanding Teacher Leadership, which is given in memory of Patricia Hunter, a teacher who was one of the founding members of WMWP. She died in 1999 and I never got the chance to meet her, but I admire her legacy as a teacher leader and advocate. When the award was presented and I said a few words to the crowd, I mentioned how meaningful the award is, coming from what I consider to be my professional home. And it's true; teaching can be isolating, maddening, exhausting, and infuriating. Yet every time I attend a WMWP meeting, conference, or other event, my belief in teaching, public education, and our world is reaffirmed. It's always hands-down the best PD teachers can be involved in, and I am convinced the main reason is the model of teachers teaching teachers. Valuing what teachers already know and can contribute to helping and teachers just makes sense.
You won't regret it: RUN, don't walk to your local site! www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/doc/findasite/home.csp
In my town, Columbus Day has officially been Indigenous People's Day for several years. The movement to make this change started with students at my school who researched and then advocated for this change first with our school committee and then with our Town Meeting body.
In an effort to present to my ELL students the story of Columbus from a more socially just point of view, a few years ago I wrote the text I wanted them to read, in a way that facilitated their understanding of it. Today I am excited to share the link to this lesson, just published by Teaching for Change. I hope it comes in handy for those who are teaching about this topic this week or in the future!
Here's to all the brave and curious critical thinking students out there. Our future depends on you!
You will find the article/lesson at this link:
Third week of school, and finally teachers and kids are settling into the routine: get up, go to school, go home, go to sleep, repeat for 180 days. This year I have 3 preps, which are actually 6 classes; 3 of them are academic language development sections, and the other 2 are the English and Social Studies I've been teaching for years. Only this year, those 2 classes are different. Very different.
I have this class of mostly boys this year - it's the kind of class where you might linger in the hallway a few more seconds than usual just to avoid going in because you know the chaos that is in store. The kind of class where on the FIRST day, you threaten to call home, and on the second day, you do it. By the second week they have permanent assigned seats. And the kind of class where you have already heard unexpected words and expressions, such as "Mr.Testicles" and "vagina", and where sometimes all that is heard are fart noises by way of the armpit or raspberries on the arm, and all manner of animal noises all the time. The kinds of class where you spot one kid switching from raspberries on the arm to kissing his own arm, and where if you turn your back for one nanosecond, things happen. The kind of class where, when I took out puppets for a conversation activity, one student had the Ernie from Bert and Ernie thrusting his hips forward, "dancing". It's the class where you have to write instructions on the board, act them out, read them aloud in 2 languages about 7 times, and show them through interpretive dance. And where, on day 2 of school, one student lets out a full 10 seconds of actual fart and doesn't bat an eye.
The day I had them for 3 hours in a row in 85 degree weather inside the classroom and 93 outside was the day I wanted to cry, and began to seriously question if I should keep teaching.
Luckily, it's also the kind of class where, in the first 2 days they have already called you "Mami" and "Titi" by mistake several times because they feel comfortable. And where they tumble in, all over each other, because they are happy to be there. It's the kind of class where, when the bell rings for the next class, they want to stay with you. They call you "Missy" affectionately and are fascinated by animal fights, dinosaurs, and volcanoes. They have random facts in their background knowledge which they love to share. They love reading out loud to each other in their beginners' English. They still respond to threats of phone calls, texts, and emails home. They love games and are playful, and raise their hands all the time to answer - when they remember to raise their hands and not shout out answers. At least they're engaged, and not tuned out.
This is the kind of class that makes you, as a teacher, step up your game. You have to be 100% prepared for every class, no winging it here. No down time or spare time at the end of class. I have had to rethink everything I was going to teach, and instead look for highly engaging material and activities that are also at their level. After the first day I learned I had to plan breaks, insert games, walk outside, and make sure they have transition time. Slowly, we are making progress. The animal noises and raspberries on the arm continue, but I am learning to ignore them. Focus on the bigger behaviors and ignore the small ones. I'm trying out my PBIS skills by praising whenever possible ("Excellent use of your eraser!").
I know there will be lower points than the 85 degree in the classroom day, just because, well, that is how it always works. With teaching, you feel like you are making great progress, and then something happens to make you feel like you are the worst teacher ever. I'm holding on to other days, though, the ones where you see your students happy and engaged, and know they are learning, and you know you went into the right profession.
To all those teachers who have classes like this, hang in there. We need you! There will always be bad days, but hang on tightly to those good ones.
The knot in your stomach gets tighter and tighter, as if 2 tiny beings are pulling on either end, as the days seem to fly by, each one more quickly than the last. Your nights get shorter, and you wake up more often. When you wake up, you have a harder time falling asleep. Your brain is suddenly wide awake even though it's 3 AM and your body tells you it's still time to sleep. In your waking hours, you spend hours on YouTube or Pinterest, looking for fresh ideas and engaging activities. You are excited and anxious at the same time. Your dread builds up while you also look forward to this first day. You are a teacher, and it is back to school time once again.
Some of us have had many "back to schools". In fact, my good friend Dave, who just retired, has been going back to school for a good 57 years. This will be his first year ever NOT going back to school. He plans to spend the day in a nearby bookstore, leisurely reading his book and not thinking about the students coming through the door. He promises to bring me coffee once in a while this year, though he says he will not stay to visit, and definitely not to sub.
People who are not teachers marvel at the fact that teachers have 2 months "off". However, teachers everywhere know what really happens. We use large chunks of the summer to prepare for the following year, meeting with other teachers and going to professional development workshops. We teach summer school. We attend conferences. We work at other jobs to make extra money. I know - we are lucky, too, to have unstructured time at home with our families or by ourselves, recharging for the following year. But by the time the summer comes, we need it. In fact, I need a good three weeks before I start feeling like a normal human again. By the end of August, I think I might have the energy to face 400 seventh and eighth graders once again.
As August comes to a close (and I know many teachers have been back to school for a few weeks already), teachers, take a deep breath. It's going to be fine. The anticipation is often the worst part for me, and once my students walk in, I'm excited to be there once again. Students, try not to be nervous. It's a new year, with new possibilities for excitement, learning, friendships and growth. Families, as you send your kids off to school, keep us in mind. We work hard to make every day count for our children. Work with us, not against us. Administrators, support your teachers, listen to them, value them. Unions, thank you for all you do for us; stay strong!
The first day of school is just around the corner for me and has already happened for many. Vacation is almost a distant memory. As my mom and I work on finishing our book, I found myself looking at blog posts from my first year of blogging. I found this one, still very true today and appropriate for this time in the summer!
The anticipation before the first day is the worst. You feel desperate to hold on to every last second of summer, wishing you could drag every minute out, and thinking about everything you didn’t get to do that you wanted to over the summer. There are always more things to do than days in the summer. The night before you go back you just want to cry. How can it already be over?
Then, inevitably morning comes and you have no choice. You grudgingly accept it and get ready for your first day.
During the first days back, before the students arrive, there is always hope. Hope for the new year, starting fresh, and trying new things. Hope for new routines, new students, starting lesson plans from scratch. Everything is bright and shiny, you open new boxes of markers and fresh post-it pads excitedly. You even feel hope as you listen to the new principal talk about new procedures and her vision for the school.
Hope wanes a little as you sit through convocation, not so inspiring this year (or maybe it’s just how you’re feeling). The 88 slide powerpoint that follows and the mandatory trainings on Epi pens, safety, etc. start to wear down your excitement.
Finally, freedom – you are finally given time to finish your room, and prepare for your students. You finish the day, head swirling, exhausted, feet throbbing, and STILL not ready for the first day. But then, are you ever 100% ready? Either way, the kids will be there at 7:30 the next morning, also nervous, excited, and mourning the end of summer. Another year is starting. Good luck!
Here is to 24 years of teaching, new beginnings, and HOPE. Always keep the hope.
Have an amazing year!
This blog post is dedicated to two of my favorite people to work with: Mr.David Ranen and Dr.Patty Bode.
Two years ago, I set out on an adventure, a new chapter in my professional career, and two years later, I have no regrets. When I started my 22nd year of teaching, I also started my first year of being an administrator. In an innovative model, the new principal decided to reach into the pool of teachers for 2 assistant principals who would teach half time and be half-time administrators. I was lucky enough to be one of them. Some of our central office administration couldn't seem to wrap their heads around it: how would they figure out payroll? Who would be in charge of what aspect of the school? Who would do special education? Who would oversee discipline? Somehow, we knew it would work out.
Dave had been a beloved chorus teacher for 36 years at the school, while I had taught first Spanish, then ELL. We had been friends already. When Patty Bode came on as our principal, we already knew her from her years as art teacher, and for me, as family friend. We began planning for the school year on a summer evening over burritos on Patty's screened-in deck. We had a good vibe already, and we knew our team would gel. What we did not know was how well we would come to work together in such a short time.
Between the three of us, we had over three quarters of a century of experience under our belts. We each brought different strengths to the our team. Patty held the big picture, and the vision, always at the center of what we were doing, always grounded with the question, "what are we learning today?" She developed our school's visual culture and embraced the themes of solidarity and empathy, which then the faculty learned to embrace as well. Dave had a deep understanding of and kindness towards the middle school student. They all knew they could talk to him and many would seek him out on a daily basis. He had a calm way about him that diffused challenging situations. I was able to help engage Spanish-speaking families and create a safe space for them in our school and to work with families in a way that was open and inclusive. The three of us supported the school's inquiry group work, field trips, special activities, teachers, and more.
As we wrap up two years working as a leadership team, I have been reflecting a lot on what we accomplished. In fact, I am still trying to formulate into words some of the lessons learned along the way (maybe for a future post). It was not easy most of the time, and in fact, we faced some of the most challenging times of our personal lives and of our careers. Dave and I juggled teaching with being administrators; in fact, really our district was lucky - they got 2 full time administrators who also taught on the side. Still, I know that I am richer and a better educator/administrator for having worked with them. In the meantime, the words that keep coming into my head as we wrap up our work as the "dream team" as some people called us, are "No regrets", and I truly feel that way. I learned so much from each of them, and feel incredibly privileged to have walked into an office every day where I was supported every step of the way.
Dave will be able to make his own schedule from now on in retirement. Patty will be able to follow more creative aspirations and I will continue making waves in any world she goes into. As for me, I will happily go back into my classroom full time and continue to blog about teaching, students, and education. No regrets.