I'm happy to host a guest blogger this week, Mary Hamel from my graduate class at UMass (Research in Teaching/Critical Pedagogy, Dr.Keisha Green). Thanks for guest blogging, Mary!
Despite all we know about how powerful an impact a critical approach to teaching can have on our young people, teachers today are struggling, perhaps more than ever, to reconcile socially just teaching practices with the demands of more traditional, assessment-geared schooling practices. The constant uphill battle of school reform has many educators burning out, leaving the profession, or succumbing to the pressures of status quo teaching. However, critical teachers are out there. They are working to promote social justice in classrooms and empowering their students to participate actively in their own education. They are decolonizing their curriculums and engaging their communities in discussions on school reform. They are pushing back on unfair and biased policies that widen opportunity gaps and inequities across multiple diversities. For the sake of all our students, the need for strong mentorship of a new generation of critical multiculturalist teachers is essential to keeping the ball rolling towards progress.
Theories behind critical pedagogy have existed in academia since at least the 1960’s. Brazilian philosopher and educator, Paulo Freire, is most often credited with introducing theories of power, oppression, and praxis into education with his famous 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This seminal text has often served as the foundation for conceptual frameworks used by educator-scholars like Christine Sleeter, Sonia Nieto, and Django Paris as they work to evolve and redefine the goals of multiculturalism. Thanks to these educators, the meaning of the word “multiculturalism” in the classroom has shifted away from the practice of offering students exposure to shallow, culture-essentializing practices and instead asserts that education does not exist within a vacuum, but reflects the social, political, and economic factors that are salient within our institutions
Today many progressive colleges and universities are throwing much needed energy into adapting their teacher preparation programs to give teachers the skills and understandings they need to become not just multiculturalist, but critical multiculturalist educators in the field. Coursework focused on critical issues in education, such as language acquisition, trauma-informed teaching practices, social justice, opportunity gaps, anti-racist curriculums, and cultural proficiency are increasingly required in tandem with traditional content methods courses. Requiring dual practicum experiences in urban and suburban settings is becoming more and more the norm for pre-licensure candidates.
But here’s the rub: Though the theory and conceptual frameworks for a critical reformation of the institution of schooling has been laid for some time, it is easy to feel as though little headway is being made in actual praxis (actions taking place in classrooms).
While more and more teacher preparation programs are shifting to reflect the goals of critical pedagogy in our classrooms, a critical multiculturalist mentor teacher is a bit of a four leaf clover: damn near impossible to find, and withered dry all too soon. The absence of critical pedagogues actively teaching in the field and willing and able to mentor student teachers presents a massive stumbling block for higher ed. institutions wanting to grow a critical mass of teachers who are prepared to undertake the real work (praxis) of addressing educational inequities in America. In their absence of critical mentors, too many student teachers are being socialized right back into the trap of status-quo teaching.
Teaching practice most often begins through apprenticeship. New teachers are immersed in a veteran teacher’s classroom and learn by observing and imitating their mentor’s instructional practices, attitudes, management style, and expectations. In this way, new teachers are generally socialized into the profession of teaching. They learn the norms of teaching through the teachers and school climate surrounding them as they navigate their practicum experiences. Teachers reflecting on their humble beginnings very often identify their practicum experience as the most memorable and influential part of how they learned to teach. Without a strong mentor to help bridge critical theory with praxis, student teachers are unlikely to carry newly learned critical pedagogy into their future careers.
Compounding this problem is another dilemma in education; an extreme lack of teacher diversity. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between 2015 and 2016, 88% of elementary teachers in the workforce identify as women, and 80% of all teachers (elementary and secondary combined) identify as White. This presents a significant challenge to critical teacher preparation programming because student teachers are not shaped solely in university classrooms. Like all humans, they are socialized into their own cultures. This strong socialization creates the lens through which we see the world. The hyper-dominance of White female teachers in America makes it highly likely that, despite receiving critical coursework in their preparation programs, most of our teachers will enter the field already highly socialized into White cultural norms. These norms dominate our media, classrooms, curriculums, and ideologies. They show up in things like deficit model instruction. We see it in zero-tolerance discipline policies, colonialist textbooks, community politics, hiring practices, the demographics of school administrations, etc.
Without opportunities to recognize and challenge these socialized norms in ourselves, we lose the opportunity to comprehend the underlying context of what we encounter. Simply requiring a student teacher to complete a practicum in an urbanized district is not enough to develop a critical teacher. In fact, it is quite possible that it does the opposite by further entrenching ideas, attitudes, and ideologies shaped through socialization. This is because the lens through which she is examining her experience has not been examined. It is assumed to be objective, free from implicit bias, but scholars and theorists alike from multiple fields are adamant that this cannot be true. This is problematic for the critical pedagogue, as a critical lens requires constant recognizing and questioning of one’s own socialization.
So, where does this leave current educators who are steadfastly pushing that ball of social justice progress uphill? Targeted in a call to arms, I suppose. A call to reach out to nearby teacher education programs and agree to mentor a student teacher. Provide a new generation of educators an opportunity to change their own lens through a meaningful apprenticeship with a critical teacher. Yes, it is a lot of work, but so is pushing that ball alone!
This has been a packed fall for me. Aside from teaching full-time, teaching graduate students and being a graduate student (in a PhD program) myself, in addition to regular life responsibilities and family, every minute of my time has been accounted for. Suddenly, tonight, I had an evening with a stretch of time, and nothing urgent to do, so I thought it was a good time to reflect on the year so far and some of the highlights. I love my classes and my students are easier in some ways this year, though I'm working more to try to teach all their levels and meet their needs. The students are funny, warm, respectful most of the time, and have claimed the ELL rooms as their school home.
The other day I had one of those moments in class that I could get in trouble for. Many people who are learning English as a second language have trouble pronouncing short vowels sounds in English. So, in my beginner English class, we have been practicing both. The other day, I gave the students little white boards so they could write down the words they heard me saying. I had said maybe 20 words when I got to "beach". Most of them pronounced the "i" as a short i sound, making it "bitch". Teachable moment! I wrote both words on my small whiteboard, making an "x" through "bitch" as I modeled how to pronounce it, and exaggerating when I opened my mouth wide to show them "Beeeeeach". The students laughed in delight. Their teacher had said a curse AND written it down! I emphasized they should NOT say that word in school. "And outside of school?" asked one student. Those middle school students have a question and an answer for everything! At least they make me laugh.
Other highlights and moments this fall:
Recently, my good friend and fellow ELL teacher, Blanca Osorio Castillo, was the recipient of the Roger Wallace Excellence in Teaching Award. This award was started to honor Roger Wallace, a beloved longtime elementary school teacher in our area. Not only is this award important because it honors Roger's long tenure in our town and his love, dedication and passion for teaching, but it also honors the career of an African-American man who is a local hero for our students.
I was so proud of Blanca's acceptance speech, and the audience was so moved by it as well, that I asked her if I could publish it here. We had to take out the beautiful pictures and videos she included of her students because of permissions, but the essence of her speech can still be felt. Gracias, Blanca, por dejarme compartir tus palabras tan lindas!
Hello, Buenas tardes.
Thank you very much for being here today celebrating with me this great accomplishment.
I am honored and humbled to receive the Roger Wallace excellence in teaching award. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here today. It feels great to be recognized, and appreciated; and today I want to share this great feeling with all of you. I want to share this recognition with all ELL teachers and all the Latinos and Latinas who are educators in our schools.
I want to take the opportunity today to talk to you about the power of telling your own story
Stories bring people together. Telling your own story is not an easy task, because it makes us vulnerable.However, I believe that telling our stories is the backbone and the heart of social justice, when we tell and listen to our stories we recognize each of our own realities.
It builds real, human bonds.
At The end of the summer, I came across an article from the National Education Association that stated the following: “If we don’t share our stories and we don’t take time to listen to other peoples’ stories, we will continue to live in a world that is very limited in knowledge and understanding.”
Our stories and our interactions shape our identity. We, as educators, believe in the power of telling our stories. Every day we ask our students to tell us about their experiences,
to make connections with their background knowledge. We truly believe that stories have the power to influence and motivate others,And that exactly is my intention today.
I will tell you my story -well parts of it- in 4 sections, and as I do so I hope to connect with you in different ways, the same way that my story has helped me to connect with my students and their families.
Mi nombre - Mi name
My name at birth: Blanca Stella Castillo Mahecha
My name has a powerful meaning.It was chosen by my parents to honor my two grandmothers, mis abuelitas. And it carries my “two last names” to represent my connection with both mi papi and mi mami. Although I was aware of the meaning of my name I liked to be called by my nickname name. And my nickname represented my identity while I lived in my country
All my friends, my neighbors, and every member of my family calls me by my nickname.
Paca, Paquita. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I got used to being called by my first name. And it was then when I also learned about the different ways my name could be mispronounced: Blanco, Blank, Bianca. The wrong pronunciation of my name, it is not an offense to me, but it is a reminder that I am an outsider
My current name, Blanca Stella Osorio-Castillo
It was my choice to take my husband’s name Osorio but I also wanted to be hyphenated to keep the power of my own last name Castillo...And two be able to fit “both last names” in the single space in the American forms
My school name: Ms. Castillo ( the pronunciation of the double LL may vary depending on your accent and yes, either castiyo or castillo are correct). My name is a reflection of my identity, of my past, of my history. The fluidity and changes of my name reflect my experiences in different spaces and times.
How does this connect with my students? Well, I believe we are responsible for learning or taking the extra time to pronounce their names correctly.Mispronouncing someone’s name leads to invisibility.When we pronounce correctly someone’s name we are letting them know that they are valued, honored, and respected.
I came from Colombia in 1996, when I was 22 years old, I had finished my undergraduate studies in marketing, but my country had suffered high levels of endemic violence for a longtime and things were difficult. The financial situation at home was bad, things changed drastically for my family, and many members of my family explored the option of leaving Colombia.
When I think of Colombia I think of my parents. My parents are the bravest people I know for letting me go, they are brave because they knew that leaving the country at that time it was the best, or the only option for me to succeed. So I left my parents, my brothers, my dog, my nana, my almost 30 cousins, mis abuelos, mis amigos and all the people I loved.
I want to share with you a quote from the Colombian winter Gabriel Garcia Marquéz
“La memoria del corazón elimina los malos recuerdos y magnifica los buenos, y gracias a ese artificio, logramos sobrellevar el pasado.”
The heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good; and thanks to that artifice, we manage to endure the burdens of the past. ”
I fit all my belongings in a suitcase, and I also packed my invisible bag, a bag that you carry not only at the time when you leave your country, but is a bag that you carry every day when you are an immigrant.I packed the the best memories in my invisible bag, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, the heart memories.
My family, my friends , my dog
My passion for traditional dance
My love for music and futbol
The chaos of my beautiful city
The beauty of my country
and then I arrived to Western Mass during the winter of 1996.
During my first years as an immigrant I learned a lot, oh yes, it was a steep learning curve,
more than a learning curve. You may call it a “hands-on” experience.
The words race, ethnicity, immigration, and language shaped my new identity.
I learned about stereotypes and assumptions; I learned about adaptability, assimilation, acculturation, and most importantly I learned the meaning of the world resilience.
I began to learn English, I did a variety of jobs, I worked in restaurants, cleaning houses.
I became a mother at the age of 23. I worked with children and women victims of domestic violence. I faced many challenging new roles.
Conocí la adversidad, pero la adversidad me enseñó a agarrar la vida con fuerza, y me enseñó a conocer mi yo más fuerte - I met adversity, but adversity taught me to grab life with strength, and taught me to know my strongest self.
I am sure that everyone here has encountered adversity at a given point in life. Many of our students and their families have faced adversity as well. Many times,family separation, violence, trauma, or pain that we cannot even imagine. But they are also strong and resilient. They want to succeed, and they hold themselves to high standards. We need to remember that minority and diversity are not synonyms of lower expectations.
We ask our students to tell us about themselves, to write stories from their lives, ‘to be vulnerable’. Therefore, We should create safe spaces where they can feel comfortable telling their stories, spaces that allow them to unpack and share the million things they have in their invisible bags.
My family is the most important part of my story. Today my son, my daughter, and my husband are here with me.They are my strength, my motivation to be better, my whole life. Los amo, I love you with all my heart y les agradezco todo lo que hacen por mi, every day.My in laws are also here today, gracias suegritos por venir hoy!
Yes, we speak Spanish, English and Spanglish, we make up new words and we have learned the power of code switching and translanguaging. I was the first one in my family to immigrate to the United States. The rest of my family is divided between Florida and Colombia, and as you can imagine, the words MISSING, te extrano, me haces falta are words that are with me every day.
The good thing is that when you are far from your loved ones, your friends become your family.
Gracias amigos por estar hoy acá. Most of my friends, are educators. Teachers, school counselors, librarians, administrators, we share the same passion about education.
Many of my friends also share with me the love I have for music and dance, dancing is one of the best therapies. Gracias al grupo folclórico tradiciones for being here today and for giving me your unconditional support.
The emptiness of being away from the family is filled by sharing with friends, con abrazos, con risas, food, music, crazy karaoke singing and dancing, with language and made up words: Madrugashion, Estrenashion, Agotashion ;)
Dancing with friends and performing has been part of my life since I was in kindergarten. Traditional dance is a way to keep me connected with my heritage, my family and my friends. It is a way to pass my culture to my children and my students. I believe that is very important to keep alive cultural events that highlight the celebrations and honor the traditions of our students and their families.
I am very proud that we have now multicultural events in the three elementary schools, I have been part of all of them, And I am particularly proud that we have brought back this event to my school. My nomination for this award included my work on the cultural fair but I want to acknowledge the work of all the teachers, parents, Parent Guardian Organization members and friends that contributed to make this event happen.
In this last section of my story, I want to recognize and celebrate all the educators that have been part of my teaching career. I have worked in all the three elementary schools in our district.
I have been supported by each of the school leaders there. I believe that having a strong, organized and reliable leader makes a huge difference.
They have made an impact in my life. They (the administrators I have worked with) have been there for me and have provided my with the support I needed to succeed. Not everything has been perfect, but I have always felt welcomed, valued and comfortable when expressing different points of view. I am here today because the leaders at my school have pushed me to get out of my comfort zone, and they have included my ideas and opinions.
I also want to honor my co-teachers.I have learned from the best teachers in the three elementary schools, some of them also recipients of the Roger Wallace excellence in teaching - award). All of you have taken the time to plan lessons with me, to share your knowledge and teach me new things. My work with families wouldn’t have been possible without you.
Teamwork makes teaching and family engagement more successful.
To my current co-teachers, thank you for being willing to open up conversations about skin color, for embracing differences, and for celebrating the cultures of all our students in kindergarten and 1st grade. Thank you for advocating for our students, for reading books that mirror our students’ experiences, and for making teaching fun and engaging for all of us.
I have also worked with all the ELL teachers at the elementary level. I have learned from each of you and from the bottom of my heart I want to tell you that I admire you and I see the great job you do every day. An important part of social justice is taking action and speaking up. Today I want to take a stand against bias about the ELL program, and its students.I wish everyone knew that ELL teachers are highly qualified, most are licensed in more than one area, such as elementary, special education, foreign languages, or have several trainings and years of experience, many are bilingual or multilingual, some of us have accents, but if you look at the question from a sociolinguistic point of view, everyone has an accent.
We don't take our work lightly, and every day we take action to break the misconceptions and stereotypes of class, race, bilingualism and inequality that still exist about the ELL program and our students. We embrace and support high standards for bilingual and bicultural education. And more importantly absolutely we love what we do.
Thank you very much for taking the time to listen to my story, by doing that you gave me and my students the power of being seen.
I would like to finish my talk today by reading the last two pages of the children's book “The Day You Begin” that reminds us that sometimes, when we reach out and begin to share our story, others will be happy to meet us halfway.
where no one else is quite like you,
the world opens itself up a little wider
to make some space for you.
This is the day you begin
to find the places inside
your laughter and your lunches,
your books, your travel and your stories,
where every new friend has
something a little like you
– and something else fabulosamente
not quite like you at all.
There is nothing quite like a new school year. While it brings hope and new beginnings, it also brings chaos and exhaustion. This year the latter two seem to have headlined the beginning of this school year, and by this weekend, I was already sick for the second time this fall, this time putting me into bed for 2 full school days. While teachers are used to changes every year, it is always hard to get used to being thrown into the year with barely enough time to prepare. To add to the many challenges at my school this fall, we have a bubble of newcomers that have arrived - not a huge number, but enough to make us think about best ways to welcome and teach them.
Newcomers, or ELLs who arrive with very little English, come with special challenges. Some of these are SLIFE - Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education. They are 2 or more years behind their U.S. peers in literacy and numeracy. Some of them didn't attend school regularly in their countries for safety reasons, financial reasons, or other. Some of them did attend school, but what school looked like in their country was very different from U.S. schools. Sometimes, these students are not literate in their first language, making it harder to learn English because they can't transfer knowledge from what they know to their English learning. Some of them are literate in their first language, but need a lot of reinforcing of concepts, vocabulary, and writing. And some of them have had so little schooling in their countries that they need help with learning basic studentship skills, such as holding and sharpening a pencil, sustaining attention in class, organizing binders and folders, and other classroom systems. Yet others are struggling with adjusting to how radically different American systems are from their country's ways, such as unfamiliar ways to flush the toilet.
Some of the newcomers we are welcoming in our school are not SLIFE. They have had adequate education in their countries of origin and they are on close to grade level. Their challenge is that they speak very little English. They have something of an academic background, so they will probably learn English quickly, being able to transfer their knowledge and apply it to English.
Mainstream teachers are not the only ones who struggle with newcomers. They present a challenge even to ELL teachers. Sometimes people ask me if I speak all the languages my students speak. I wish! I would love to! It is definitely a struggle when there is such a range of English levels and languages in one class.
In one social studies class this year I have students who speak Kinyarwanda, Spanish, Cape Verdean Creole, Portuguese, Chinese, and Vietnamese. They English levels range from low intermediate to true beginner, as in, can say "hello" and that's about it. My biggest challenge is how to teach them content when they are just getting used to school here, barely know their way around the building, have trauma in their backgrounds, and don't yet have friends here because of the lack of a common language. I don't have the magic solution of how to teach them well, either.
So, in the third week of school, as I was feeling very overwhelmed, I remembered to go back to the basics: building community. I brought hot chocolate packets to class, ripped swaths of paper off of the huge roll in the staff copy room, took all my markers and crayons out, and typed up some instructions for class. They were to make banners representing their countries, with flags, "hello" in their language, and the names of others in the class from that country. Because it was social studies, they also wrote the continent their country is on.
The activity seems basic, definitely below their academic level - but the outcome of the activity was not the point. The point was for the class to have some down time at a very stressful time for most of them (as new arrivals) where they could chat with each other in their beginning English while enjoying some hot chocolate (a first for some of them). I would like to believe it helped to bring them together as well as allow them to see they were in the same boat, or recently had been. As I put the banners up, I hope they will be a reminder of our little ELL community, hopefully a safe, comfortable space for them in which they will be able to learn and grow. And, they will remind me of the joys of teaching them when they smile, laugh, show off talents such as dancing, and say their first words in English.
Summer....a time of rest and relaxation for teachers, of renewal and rejuvenation, self-care and catching up. All true - but few teachers I know actually take the whole summer off. I myself taught a graduate class, collaborated with colleagues, went to several meetings before our official back to school date, planned, and set up my classroom on my own time. Other teachers I know taught summer school, went to professional development institutes on their own dime, met and collaborated with other teachers, read books about teaching and education, and more. It is true that our schedules, for a brief time, are more flexible; we can use the bathroom calmly; we can eat meals at more regular times; we can sleep in. We also use this time to take care of many repairs, personal care, and medical appointments we can't get to during the school year: haircuts, dentist, all kinds of doctors, car repairs, house repairs and improvements, and so on.
We treasure our summers, and we need them. We need the physical break from teaching, and we very much need the mental breaks. We take our students home with us in our brains, constantly worrying about them and thinking up ways to reach them and strategies for helping them at school and home. By the last day of school in June, I am depleted.
As we begin this new school year, if you are not a teacher, keep us in mind. I know that many people have difficult and stressful jobs, and I don't mean to play the victim. But each year, teaching gets more and more challenging. Among the stressors we face are the ever-growing fears of armed attacks on schools; students' increasing anxiety and declining social-emotional state; human resources practices that cause alarm among teachers; families that are ready to blame teachers rather than forge relationships with them and work together towards the children's education.Sometimes, the public forgets that teachers are on the front lines, so to speak.
If you have children in school, please find ways to support their teachers. There are many things you can do without having to spend a lot of time. Here are some:
Teachers, I hope that you embark on this school year with renewed hope for our students and our schools, and with memories of a summer that fulfilled you in some way. As I start my 25th year of teaching, and 5th year of blogging, I still get nervous, and I still have hope.
Here we go again!
As this school year comes to an end, I'm having all kinds of feelings. This happens every year in June, but this year it's especially magnified because my son graduated from high school.
I know it won't be his final graduation,and he's not leaving home yet - he's taking a gap year to stay home, work, and take a few classes - but it is still a big deal. I remember my own high school graduation, and how I cried inconsolably, thinking about how things would never be the same again. I knew it would be a departure from my home town and my classmates, and I was both scared and looking forward to that change.
Graduation has made me very reflective about my son's school pre-k to 12 education, and thinking about how I am so very thankful for so many wonderful teachers.
My son started preschool not knowing any English (we spoke only Spanish at home) and still in diapers. He was so nervous and anxious about being there that my husband had to attend preschool with him for a few days until he would be allowed to leave. Thanks to his amazing preschool teachers, Dolly, Krista, and Gabe, his adjustment was short. Soon he was learning English as well as some Korean words from his new Korean preschool friends, who were also learning some Spanish from him. I would drop him off every day, and he would run towards the large wooden blocks and start building airplanes, boats or cars. When that graduation happened, I cried like a baby.
Kindergarten was a new and wonderful experience, with so much creative learning happening thanks to Ms.Wilcox and Ms. Mastroianni. And there was room for creativity, which was a beautiful thing - not the kindergarten experience many kids have today. His teachers cultivated his literacy and he published his first book, an important part of the elementary curriculum at this school.
While my son had many great teachers, two especially stand out from his elementary experience after K. In second grade we were lucky that he had Ms.Mattone, who allowed my son to sit at a desk when everyone was sitting in circle on the floor, to do pull-ups in the hallway, and to become her tech assistant in class. She didn't love him at first, she told me, but she always found something to love about each student she had - and eventually she found that about him as well. In 5th and 6th grade, Mr,Prather let my son explore on Khan Academy, seeing his potential as a bright young boy who needed something different. In my mind, he understood my son and didn't try to make him a different person, and because of Mr.Prather, my son finished elementary school prepared for the next step.
I was worried about what my son's middle school years would be like for him, especially because I was teaching there. But again, he had teachers who managed to bring out the best in him. There are too many more to name from 7-12 - I wish I could thank them all individually for helping him along in their way. They each contributed something to my son's education, whether it was pushing him to do better, allowing him the space he needed, or seeing the potential in him.
At a retirement party I went to last week, several people commented on how much the retiring teachers cared about her students, and I thought about how much all the teachers I know and work with ALL care so much about the students. Teachers are pretty amazing people, with the capacity to care for kids every year, over and over, despite so many challenges and issues. Every year we wipe the slate clean and start over again. We have eternal hope for our students - we must, in order to do our jobs well. We cry when our students leave and rejoice when we heard good news about them. Years later, we wonder about students who have moved on.
After an emotional night at graduation, I feel so grateful to all of my son's teachers. And I am grateful to teachers everywhere, for all the love, care, concern, tough love, pushing, guiding, correcting, crying, and laughing they all did and do. So thankful for all of you. Enjoy your summer, enjoy your time off, your families and the things you like to do, and wipe the slate clean for a fresh start in the fall.
I can't believe that there are only 14 days to go. So close, yet so far! May has been a nonstop whirl of events and driving kids places, hence the lack of posts. In honor of Mother's Day and Teacher's Appreciation Week, I'm posting an article that was recently published in our local newspaper, the Hampshire Gazette, about the experience of writing with my mother.
Almost five years ago, I started blogging as a way to commemorate my twentieth year of teaching.My blog was a way to reflect on my practice. I wrote about the mundane, the funny, the serious, and the frustrating aspects of teaching and education. Though when I graduated from college, I was sure that I didn’t want anything to do with teaching, twenty years later I found the outlet of blogging helped motivate me in the classroom.
Then, one day, I was offered the chance of a lifetime when my mother, a lifelong educator, asked me if I wanted to write a book with her. I was elated and nervous; my mother is my biggest fan but also had already published numerous books about education and has had an illustrious career in academia. This was an opportunity I could not pass up. The result was our book, Teaching, A Life's Work: A Mother–Daughter Dialogue.
It was a daunting task at first. Fortunately, my mother had been through this process many times and guided me in her confident but gentle manner. She taught me how to lay out the table of contents and work from there. I taught her how to use Google documents, an invaluable tool for this sort of collaboration. Also, years of writing for an audience, through working with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and blogging, helped me feel comfortable with the thought of writing for a larger audience. We wrote from our own perspectives as teachers/teacher educators, checking in with each other as we wrote.
When we began the process almost two years ago, my mother was still busy speaking at conferences and universities, editing her own series of books, writing forewords for other academics’ publications, and more. I was embarking on a two-year stint as a halftime administrator and halftime ELL teacher, and was raising (still am raising), along with my husband, three teenagers. We knew that in order to get chunks of writing done, we had to get away. However, we couldn’t be gone for long periods of time, and we couldn’t go too far away. We took a series of mini writing retreats, starting in August of 2017 in Brattleboro, Vermont. We fell into a routine: we worked steadily starting early in the morning (though not too early!), stopped for lunch and an afternoon nap, then continued writing until it was time for a pre-dinner drink and an enjoyable dinner. In this manner, we worked our way through the book’s chapters in Brattleboro, Hartford, New York City, and the Berkshires. When we were home, we also took long mornings to work at local cafes, or to work at my mother’s dining room table. One morning, we sat in her dining room to complete our “talking chapter” (a format popularized in a terrific book by Ira Shor and Paulo Freire in 1987), where we posed questions about education to each other over a cup of café con leche, and we recorded our answers, to be transcribed later.
Our book was released in late January of this year. When I received my copy, I was a little numb from disbelief. As someone who loves to write, it was a dream of mine to publish a book one day. I never thought it would be a nonfiction book about education and teaching; I always saw myself as a writer of fiction. It was, nonetheless, a thrilling moment for me. People love to ask me, “What was it like to write with your mom? Did you fight?” I inevitably respond, at the risk of disappointing people, “No - not at all.” It’s true. We discussed, reflected, questioned, advised, recommended, and edited each other, but we never argued. We’re lucky to already have a strong, perhaps unique mother-daughter relationship, and writing a book together only strengthened it.
Recently, I was at a conference with my mother, and I attended a session at which she presented along with other “elders” in the academic community, and their views on the future of education. After listening to the speakers in this presentation, I felt humbled. In public education, old ideas are constantly being brought back and touted as new, or completely new ideas and policies are thought up, ostensibly by people who sit in cubicles, and not teachers who are actually in classrooms. Instead, perhaps we should take the time to really listen to our elders, and draw from their collective knowledge and experiences. Writing this book with my mother allowed me to do just that. I learned from her and with her, and in the process, spent much valued time with her - something I will never regret.
Middle school: a cruel, amazing, funny, weird, horrifying and scary time of life for so many kids. For middle school teachers, many of those adjectives apply as well. As I sit listening to one of my 8th grade students explaining A Midsummer Night’s Dream to another student, all in her heavy NY accent and using teen-friendly language, I am amused and amazed. I get confused every time students read the play, yet I am confident that if I listened to this student, I would get it.
Last week my students asked me why I chose to teach this age. I responded honestly. I have taught all ages from 9/10 and up, and this is the age I chose because I love it. They didn’t seem to really believe me. However, I insisted that I decided years ago that I identify as a middle school teacher. My mother and I were just talking about this, and about how more and more, there is a middle school teacher identity that is different from a teacher biding his/her time until they can teach high school.
Here are just a few of the reasons I love teaching this quirky, strange, fun and funny group of kids.
Middle school students are brutally honest.
One asked me today, “Is that what your hair is like, Ms.Lopez, curly?” I said, “I guess, it’s wavy when I don’t blow dry it.” She responded, “I like it.” I trust that if she didn’t like it, she would have either told me, or remained quiet. I also trust that if my white hairs begin to show, or if I just got got a fresh dye job, they will also tell me. If my chin hairs are visible, or my concealer is not blended in, they will point it out. I trust this will happen because it always does. They will let you know, unlike some other ages who just want to impress and show love to their teachers. They have to keep it real by telling you the truth you didn’t want to hear.
Middle school students are funny, and you can laugh out loud with them.
The other day, I overheard a Latina student urging a classmate, also Latino, to forget about his recent breakup with a non-Latina. She exclaimed, “Ayyyyyyy! Come on, you’re Latino! You gotta go! Move on!” I pretended I didn't hear her and quietly laughed.
I have a class during which, if I forget to hide my phone, I will pick it up later in the day only to find hundreds of selfies in a “burst” that 2 of my students, (always the same 2) took, of themselves making faces. One day I found a video of one of those 2 students mocking me, staring at the class over my reading glasses, scolding them and telling them to finish their work. When I mentioned it to them in the next class, they imitated me again, and I laughed out loud along with them.
You can be silly with middle school students and they will still appreciate it.
I told my student teacher, Ms.Stephani, a few days ago that she definitely has the personality for middle school. A singer, she will sing directions to students when they are not paying attention until they finally listen: “Roberto, close your computer, close your computer, close your computerrrrrrr” in a catchy tune. They might laugh awkwardly and think she’s weird, but they listen.
It still works to threaten parent contact.
In middle school, families are learning to let go a little, and give their kids some independence over their school work/school life. However, that is not to say that if you contact them, they won’t follow up. I find that in 9 out of 10 cases, my students are still somewhat anxious to totally terrified that I will contact home with bad news. Using the app Remind has made family contact much easier for me, and the students know that I will send a Remind message on the spot if needed. One day a few weeks ago, I sent a parent a message about a student cursing in class. I know it was just a slip on the student’s part, but on the 3rd slip, I let the dad know. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for the student, this dad happens to work in our school. He showed up at my classroom door less than 2 minutes after I sent the message, finger crooked in a “come here now” gesture toward his kid.
Middle school students are not too old to show they need you
One student comes to mind right now. He is a gangly, fidgety, energetic student who is like a puppy in that his body is growing faster than he can keep up with it and his legs and arms seem to be all over the place. He will go up to male teachers and slap them on the back like they are old football buddies, and when he high fives you your hand will sting for a few seconds. He doesn’t quite know his strength yet. He complains pretty consistently about school, yet is almost never absent. This student shows up at my door maybe 3 or 4 times every day, whether he has class with me or not, to say hi to my student teacher and me. Sometimes it is between classes, and sometimes on his way back from the bathroom during a class. The consistent presence of some teachers, and some classrooms, are a grounding force for him, though he might not be able to articulate it.
There are perfect matches for every grade and every teacher personality. I feel lucky to have found mine.
Dear Adriene of Yoga with Adriene,
My student teacher and I are huge fans of your YouTube channel, Yoga with Adriene. We love your no-nonsense style and how you can laugh at yourself. We also appreciate all the different routines you have, such as: yoga for the neck, yoga for migraines, yoga for couch potatoes, and yoga for loneliness. Today, we decided to show our class of 7 middle school boys (who are learning English as a second language) one of your seated yoga videos to warm up at the beginning of class. We assumed that, like for us, a bit of yoga would help them get some energy out and relieve stress, while getting them ready for learning.
After that experience, we believe this is a whole niche your YouTube channel may be missing. We have talked about it and we would like to suggest a new routine for your channel: Yoga for Middle School Boys.
This routine should probably include the following poses:
We believe that Yoga for Middle School Boys would be appropriate for ages 12-14, especially. We have 7 middle school consultants who are very vocal and would be happy to help you plan this routine. We are certain that they would even be willing to be filmed doing this routine, dramatically recreating cat cow noises, screaming "ay fo!", and farting on demand.
Please let us know what you think of our proposal. In the meantime, we will keep following you and trying out new videos while observing our students add their own individual middle school twists to each pose while we stand there, looking at them in disbelief. Thank you.
A middle school teacher who has seen it all, and her student teacher who is learning fast to not be surprised by anything.
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: