When I found out that this year I would be supporting ELL students in a science class, I was immediately nervous. Science, while I found it interesting, was never my favorite subject in school. In fact, physics was the only class I ever got a D in, and for which my parents got me a tutor. My science teachers in junior high and high school had without exceptions been males. For the most part, they talked down to us. If you didn’t understand, too bad - you just did what you could. Science class meant lab reports and a lot of teacher talk. If you didn’t do well, there wasn’t much you could do about it. Back then, modifications and scaffolding did not exist. I was basically silent all the time in science.
When the year began and I walked into the first science class, I sensed this would be different. And it sure was. I could never have imagined that the teacher would have students constructing DNA, and then “critters”, as she calls them, out of candy: marshmallows, gummy worms, licorice, and Sour Patch kids. In fact, there were many things I could not have imagined, that were creative, interesting, hands-on, and just plain funny.
For example, who ever thought you would hear these comments come out of a science teacher’s mouth?
“Okay, now you’re going to unbutton the shirt of your partner” - said in the context of a lab showing how important our opposable thumbs are.
“See how far your Barbie will fall” - during a lab where each student pair had a Barbie doll tied by one foot to rubber bands and “bungee-jumping” to practice metric system measuring.
“Tomorrow, you will make Mallow babies, then you can eat the babies.” Or, “You can eat your babies tomorrow, don’t eat them today!” Or better yet, “Who are you having babies with?” This was the critter lab - students figuring out from Punnett squares how to construct a “Mallow” and and have it then reproduce with another Mallow, all using candy.
Then there was the time I walked into the science room to find the middle table labeled in huge letters: “ANUS”
Of course, there was a reason behind it as well. Students were learning about body systems. It was all perfectly planned and logical (even though it had come from a crazy dream the teacher had - yes, these are the sorts of things teachers dream about). Each table was labeled with a part of the digestive system through which students (and their candy) would travel. Needless to say, the teachers on our team had a good laugh out of that one as we started our team meeting at the anus table; we might have even laughed more than the kids.
There are other treats to walking into this science classroom. Bunnies brought in by a friend to demonstrate how albinism happens (imagine 13 year-olds carefully holding baby bunnies). Demonstrations of cutting planaria worms in 4 pieces to show how each piece would grow into its own worm. The day we went outside to competitively speedwalk (again to practice the metric system) and I couldn’t stop laughing watching some of our more challenging students walk, throwing their hips from side to side. Authentic comments praising all students: “That’s a great connection you just made - you are really great at always making those connections, thanks for that.”
In this classroom, I have felt my science-phobia slowly dissipate. Everything is done, and re-done, in ways the students can access no matter what kind of learners they are. ELL students are not only appreciated in this classroom, but praised because they are really learning 2 more languages: English and science.
And - icing on the cake - my daughter is lucky enough to have this science teacher this year. She especially appreciates the way her teacher makes everything visual so she can understand it. She loves science - thanks to her teacher. She’s also a great role model for so many kids - great for girls, for kids into science, for ELL students, and students of different abilities and colors. What I would have given to have a teacher like Ms.Welborn in 7th grade!
I didn’t go to kindergarten. Straight from daycare/preschool at La Escuelita Infantil Bilingue in Brooklyn to 1st grade at Marks Meadow School in Amherst. At Marks Meadow, I had a magical first grade teacher, Mrs. Edwards. I don’t remember a whole lot about her teaching, but I do remember that I loved her, and that she made me feel comfortable even as a kid who had not been in kindergarten with the other kids.
Positive experiences count so much as students - and as teachers, they do too. At last year’s Western Mass Writing Project Summer Institute one prompt we had participants respond to was to write about a positive experience in the first few years of your teaching. Even as I tell you that I love my students, and love teaching, I can also spout off things about the way education is going in the U.S. or about my own experience as a teacher that are not so positive. So, that day we decided to focus on the positive.
As I wrote I remembered my first teaching job at a private all-girls school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I taught French and had a group of Seniors I had taught for 4 years straight. They were so thrilled when I got engaged that they threw me a bridal shower at the house of one of the students. They were a thoughtful group and they helped make my experience there a positive one.
As I wrote, I also remembered a funny a-ha moment I had at that school. I was co-teaching a French class for 6th graders at the same school with my friend Claire. One of our students could NOT understand how to conjugate verbs for the life of her. She tried and tried to get it; we worked with her after school, we each met with her. Still, she didn’t get it. Finally, we were wrapping up that unit and we gave the girls a quiz on conjugation.
As we looked at the quizzes we were thrilled with the results. SUCCESS!! Sort of. Our confused student had written:
Je table, tu tables, il/elle table, nous tablons, vous tablez, ils/elles tablent.
She had gotten the endings right, but she had not conjugated a verb. She had conjugated a noun!! We laughed for days about that one.
The teaching profession has gotten more difficult in the last few years and sometimes I find myself clinging to those amazing moments with students. I started putting together an album with cards, drawings, note that my students have left me. Once in a while, I look at it and smile, thinking about the thousands of students who have been in my classrooms and wondering where they are. I’m still in touch with some, and I see many around town. When you teach middle school, it’s very gratifying to see your students when they grow into adults.
As education becomes more standardized, high-stakes testing determines the paths or more teachers and of students, and many school administrators adopt a more top-down approach, it is more important than ever to remember the positive. It takes more than staying away from negative teachers, or investing in self-care, though those are important, too. It’s essential to remember what we love about teaching, to think about the students who have been extra special, and appreciate the moments that help us go on. I’m trying to remember all of this myself as I hang in there for the last 20 days of school.
iIt's that time of year. Teachers are counting down with a little bit of sadness to say good bye to some students but also excitement to be nearing the summer, when we can finally turn our alarms off, eat lunch at a normal hour, not spend our entire days with hordes of children, and pee whenever we want. I know it's bad when I start to sound like a middle school student - means it is time for some time apart! Of course many of us work in the summer, too, which still means alarms and schedules, but at least it is a change of pace.
In my school, there are definite markers of May:
The smells begin to increase in intensity and bad smelliness.
In May, our heating system has not officially changed over to the cooling system, something the whole district has to do at once because of antiquated equipment. Since May is so crazy weather-wise in New England, this means we can have 50 degree days followed by 90 degree days, and school heats up fast. In addition to freakishly long arms, I have a hyper-sensitive nose. As you can probably tell - since I keep coming back to the lovely smelliness of middle school. May is one of the worst times for that.
7th graders' behaviors begin to look and sound more like 8th graders' behaviors, and 8th graders already think they are in high school.
7th graders are getting taller and in some cases more mature. In other cases, well, it might be a while.
8th graders are starting the breakup process with us. Some of them become aloof, others act like jerks, and some of them get more attached to us right before they leave. It's all part of the process. They will come back next year to visit, especially the ones who drive you the most crazy.
Teachers are counting down and not hiding it.
Some teachers have been counting down since September, at least quietly. Now it's out in the open. I love teaching and I love my job - but, yes, there are 26 "early wake-ups" left and I am tracking it on my whiteboard.
MCAS is over.
Hallelujah, thank God for that. Although we opted out kids out again this year (and so glad we did), as a teacher I still deal with my students' stress and the aftermath of MCAS. And the in between time, when it is almost impossible to make progress because they are so worn out.
Teachers are getting sillier.
It's just in the air. Part of it is being in a middle school - a lot of times silly is ok. And part of it is we are actually pretty fried, so being silly and laughing helps us through. Thank goodness for my silly teacher friends and the laughter we share.
Speaking of laughter, this had me almost in tears. If you are or were a teacher, you'll appreciate the silliness. Hang in there!
Copy the link into your browser - it's worth the laugh.
Last Thursday I had the opportunity to attend the MATSOL (Massachusetts Association of Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages), and listen to my mom give a keynote address during the luncheon. Although I have heard her speak many times, I found myself listening, and even taking notes. I listened through teacher ears, and found many gems in the things she said. Here are a few:
Teaching is advocating.
Challenge labels on our students.
Culture is not destiny (although we are all influenced by culture)
There are no "best" practices.
Challenge taken-for-granted assumptions.
Students should be urged to retain their languages.
Be a critical educator, but remain hopeful.
Being culturally responsive is not a list of things you can do or check off.
Be culturally responsive in ways that work for you.
Best is different for everybody.
Students belong anywhere they want to belong.
My mother never misses a chance to tell me she is proud of me and to tell others that I'm a great teacher....But I wouldn't be who I am as a teacher or person without the gems she has taught me throughout the years. When I teach, my mom's words are always in the back of my head.
Thanks Mami, for a lifelong education, for being a role model, for always inspiring me to do more and do better.
Happy Mother's Day!!! Te quiero.
Happy Teacher Appreciation Day! Sharing with you one of my favorite poems, written by my first teacher and inspiration, my papi, Angel Nieto. And it happens to be his birthday. Enjoy his poem in English then in Spanish!
TO BE A TEACHER
To be a teacher means
to be a parent, a friend, a companion,
a confidant, a nurse, a constant counselor.
To be a teacher means
To love, to cherish, to set an example,
To push, to have patience (and to lose it),
To advise, to persevere, to be a friend,
To explain, to apply, to not give up,
To have charity and compassion,
strength and determination,
joyfulness and passion,
passion and love
for that madness
which implies creation.
To be a teacher means
To stimulate, to encourage, to be humble,
To repeat, to correct, to instill pride,
To fulfill, to impose, to laugh,
To imagine, to mold, to care,
To persist, to struggle, to dare,
To make rules and to break them,
to mistrust the obvious
to reject the comfortable
to escape routine.
To answer and to ask,
always to ask,
not paying attention
to what people might say.
To sleep a little and dream a lot,
to dream asleep,
and dream awake,
always to dream and
reach for the impossible.
To learn, to share, to teach
and to learn again.
To discover, to shape, to achieve
and then start all over again. 
Ser maestro es
ser padre, hermano, amigo, compañero,
confidente, enfermero, constante consejero.
Ser maestro es:
Amar, apreciar, dar ejemplo,
Perseverar, tener paciencia (y perderla),
Aconsejar, empujar, dar amistad,
Explicar, aplicar, no dejarse derrotar
caridad y compasión,
firmeza y determinación,
alegría y pasión
mucha pasión y
amor a esa locura
que implica la creación.
Ser maestro es:
Repetir, corregir, dar orgullo,
Estimular, animar, ser humilde,
Comprender, reprender, ser atrevido,
Imaginar, moldear, tener ganas,
Insistir, sufrir, tener humor
Hacer reglas y romperlas,
no confiar en lo obvio
descartar lo cómodo
escapar de la rutina.
Contestar y preguntar,
No hacer caso al que dirán.
Dormir poco y soñar mucho,
soñar dormido, despierto soñar,
siempre soñar y
lo imposible buscar.
Aprender, compartir, enseñar
y aprender una vez más.
Descubrir, formar, lograr
y luego volver a empezar.
“Ms.Lopez, WHY are we still learning all about Native Americans? Can we move on to something else?”
Always discouraging words to hear from a student, but ones that made me think about the importance of going back to our learning goals and reasons for studying Native American tribes. Once again, I realized that a connection that was automatic for me (U.S. History requires first learning about the First Nations) was not for my students. And, once again, I stopped class for a few minutes to go back and review why. Thankfully, a few students remembered the connection and were able to articulate it.
Throughout this unit on Native Americans, I felt it was important to do a few things: 1. Point out that Native Americans should not be blobbed together as people sometimes do, but should be shown as distinct tribes; 2. Drive home that America was already a land thriving with civilization and that it was not “discovered” at all; and 3. Set the stage for when the first English people arrived, and what happened after that.
As we studied different Native American regions (Northeast, Plains, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest), we observed the differences in terms of their beliefs, art, ways of living, and structure. We used Venn diagrams to help organize comparative paragraphs about different regions.
Our school’s arts integration teacher, Elena Betke-Brunswick, and I collaborated on a culminating project for this unit. We talked about various options but in the end decided on making totem poles in the style of some Pacific Northwest Native Americans. Rather than carve on wood, however, Ms.Betke suggested we make prints. Each student would choose an animal to represent a family member. This way, students could choose 5 or 6 from their collective prints to make a printed totem pole that would symbolize their families.
The final project motivated students again and provided a change of scenery from my classroom, as we have been working in one of the art rooms. This week students finished their carving and moved on to printing. See the process and some of the products below.
I might have spent more time than I had originally planned on this unit, but I don’t regret it. The time we spent in the art room working was a special time, where we all sat around the same tables and chatted as we worked. We laughed, listened to music, and took mental breaks from the rest of the school day. And all the while, my students were engaged and learning. Priceless.