What is a teacher
Without her students?
The start of class
Each day a new chance to start over
What is a teacher
Without the daily
Ins and outs
Without the warm-ups and cool-downs
And the rhythm
Of the class
The 4 walls decorated
With the colorful work
Of her students
And posters of rainbow children
Across the world
Hand in hand
What is a teacher
Without the comments
Interrupting her every sentence
“Can I go to the bathroom/drink water/get an apple/call home/take a lap in the hallway?”
“Do you have a snack/pencil/eraser/tissues/a Band-aid/a fork/a cup/an elastic?”
The amazing questions and curiosity
The resilience and vulnerability
Reining them back in
The funny thoughts and stories
She can’t help but laugh at
What is a teacher
Without the interactions with her colleagues
In the hallways
In the staff lounge
By the mailboxes
Waiting for the bathroom to be vacant
Keying in our cards by the side door
Sneaking in a few minutes after the 7:30 bell
Avoiding human contact until necessary
What is a teacher
Without her community
Her students, colleagues, families, support workers
Without the solidarity
Pushing and holding each other
But still supporting each other
Still admiring the each other's work and talents
And loving the strength of our school
What is a teacher?
March 26, 2020
It has definitely been one of the strangest weeks I've ever lived through. I'm sure many of you are feeling the same. In a week where information was moving faster than I could keep up, I went from thinking that some time in the near future school MIGHT close to watching a video of our superintendent announce a minimum 2-week school closure, with teachers providing online work for students.
With the serious contagious nature of COVID-19, I have been reading a lot about "social distancing", a term I already hate, though I understand its necessity. Meanwhile, I can't stop thinking about all the people who must still go to work. Yesterday as I went to several supermarkets where the lines were unlike anything I've seen even at the holidays, I thought about all the custodians and cleaners who are working hard to disinfect every surface anyone has ever touched, in schools, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and other stores. And about the school administrators, who have been keeping us informed over the last 2 weeks, and who have grappled with many hard questions and issues when contemplating closing schools. I think about people like my sister, who works as a patient coordinator in a pediatrician's office located in a hospital in a small local city; and my friend who is a pediatric nurse working hard in NYC (and was named chief officer of managing the public health crisis in her clinic!) My niece, who works as a server at a popular local restaurant (where the owner had the sense to take bar stools out to put distance between her customers knowing they would probably not stop going to the restaurant), her only current income. My friend's daughter, who works in an ER near an urban area. Personally, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all of these people. You are all brave and strong!
I have thought about ways I can help others, too, since I have the relative luxury of staying home and getting paid (teaching through online platforms) and being with my family. It's small, but if you live near me and you are home-bound, I can bring you groceries. If you have to work and don't have childcare, I have 2 great babysitters! If you need someone to help your kid with homework, we have 2 teachers here. These are the little things we can do to help each other through these scary times and through the "social distancing".
If you are home with family, take advantage of the time with them (I plan to). In case anyone cried "boredom" I already made a long list of things we can all do around the house! Stay safe and hang in there, folks.
This week in my social studies class, we learned about Ruby Bridges and bravery in honor of Black History Month. After watching the movie "Ruby Bridges", students brainstormed a time they or someone else was brave, and then they wrote paragraphs. Here is their work!
I was brave when I came to America. I came on September 5th.I went to talk to my family and friends to say good bye.My family was happy and supported me.I feel happy and sorry that I felt angry.
I was brave when I came to America in 2016,
What happened to me I have to see so many new people in America. What helped you I'm thinking about how I will be in a good school. My family and aunt helped me.
I was brave When I first went to study in the US. This happened on 8/28/2019. I couldn’t speak English and I didn’t have friends. My family, and my teacher, my friends helped me by giving support. I felt good, funny.
I felt brave when I agreed to come here. That happened on July 3,2019.
I accepted to come here and the next day I left here. To think that here I would have a future and know a language more helped. I feel good about being here.
During a mass celebration on Sunday, I did a pantomime in front of a lot of people. I remember that it was in 2015 in Puerto Rico during a mass. I had to do a pantomime in the Church in front of 1,000 people. I was worried to be embarrassed In front of my congregation. After doing my pantomime I felt proud, calm, relaxed and happy.
By "Bad Bunny"
Being a teacher is not getting easier. In fact, fewer young people are choosing teaching as a career, and I see stories all the time of teachers leaving the profession, burned out and exhausted. I recognize that I myself do not want to be teaching 7th and 8th graders when I am 65, However, I am definitely in it for a while more. At times, it's good to think about the little things that motivate us to stay in teaching. And, sometimes it's the little things we do for students that helps them feel loved, safe, and secure enough to learn in school. This became clear for me one day in a class of long terms ELLs (they have been ELL students for most of their school careers). They are probably my hardest students to motivate, and so I have created curriculum that is almost all project-based and is hopefully culturally relevant and relatable.
One day, one of the students in this class wasn't feeling well. A student I had heard a lot about last year, but had not taught until now, she was purportedly trying hard to keep her grades high and stay out of the drama she used to be involved in. So, I offered her a cup of tea, hoping it would get her mind off of how she felt and get her to do some work. (I have an electric kettle in my room, and a collection of mugs, like any teacher!) Once other students got wind of what was happening, they of course also wanted tea. So, I served the class of 7 tea, but told them they had to rinse their mugs after. They were thrilled. Some of them left half of their cups full; I don't know if they even liked tea. The following class (I see them every other day), you can guess what happened. They all asked for tea again. So, I made it again. For the next few classes, I prepared the mugs in advance, got some sugar, put the teabags out and filled the kettle. As long as they had tea, they would at least make an effort with their work, and considering this was a class with pretty low motivation, that was something, Now sometimes one or two of them still ask for tea, which is good, because I was worried I'd be serving them tea until the end of June.
On another day, I brought the same class hot chocolate. I was about to have them do some writing they probably would not be excited about, so on my daily agenda I wrote: "hot chocolate and writing." They more or less did their work, but the funny part came a few weeks later. Another teacher stopped me in the hallway one day and said, "Ms.Lopez, I have to know - what is it about your hot chocolate? The kids just LOVE it. Roberto is obsessed with it and told me I should get the same kind.. Do you make it with milk or what?" I laughed and told him that it was literally Swiss Miss chocolate packets, made with hot water from my electric kettle.
In a different class, I have an English learner from Central America who is very shy about speaking English and is sometimes grumpy about doing her work. She puts up a (small) fuss sometimes until I either cajole her or threaten to call her mom, and then she grudgingly does her work. For Valentine's Day, she brought me chocolate and a beautiful card. That grumpy student made my day with her words: "Thank you for believing in our possibilities, for your infinite patience." So, remember - all the little things you do every day matter!
I'm teaching my social studies class about the Tainos of the Caribbean and the European conquest of the Americas. This year, I have changed a few things about how I’m doing it. For one, after reading the New York Times articles, 1619, I will be introducing slavery right away, at the same time as the arrival of the Europeans. Also, the new trend is to refer to slaves as “enslaved people”, so I will take the opportunity to explain this language to my students.
This year as the students delved into readings (written by me) and videos about the Taino people, one student questioned the existence of fossils as proof of how people lived before. He claimed that there were people who went around the world, planting fossils all over so others could find them. He said they have to made up, because after all, where in the bible does it mention fossils? I knew that I had to respond carefully.
“Well,” I said, showing him with my hands, “the bible is one thing, and science is another.” I knew I couldn’t tell him that the bible wasn’t real, but I also knew that I had to convince him that science is.
I’ve had this student in class since the beginning of last year, 2018, so I know him pretty well. Later that class, he made another comment which I did not address at the time. He wondered out loud what would have happened to the Tainos if Columbus had not mistakenly run into the Caribbean islands. He followed that with, “Ewww, we would have been tanned, ugly.” I had heard comments like these before from him - a sad commentary about a kid whose people are a mix of Taino, Spanish, and West African people. At the time I was too busy with other students and it was nearing the end of class so I just said something like, “don’t say things like that.” However, I know I will have to address it.
Today, he brought me oatmeal cookies and was better-behaved than any other day all year. Coincidence? Maybe.
How do you address statements like this from your students? I have thoughts about how to continue integrating social justice awareness in my curriculum, but I would love to hear from readers! Please comment below!
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!