Mi Noveno Año: Small Victories, Big Dreams

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Estoy de acuerdo.

After nine years of teaching, I am appreciating again the process of reviewing and reflecting at the end of the year, and reading back through almost a decade of reflections on teaching. I like to do this at the beginning of the summer, but over the years the reflection process has crept across my summer… and here I am, writing just before school starts again, during the first week back at school, finishing it up during the first (long!) weekend of the school year.

Wrapping up my 9th year, I reached some milestones:

  1. I’m entering my fourth year in the same school, which is my longest time in one place yet. (Before I have been at schools between 1 & 3 years, including student teaching and my Fulbright year.) And I’ll know the majority of my students on the first day of school, since I recently changed grades – my 5th graders were my students in 3rd, so I already have a relationship with them.
  2. My schedule this year is essentially the same as last year. Whoa, right? I’m teaching at similar times, the same number of grades, and the same number of classes. (!!!)
  3. I have a teaching partner! We finally hired another full time Spanish teacher to teach TK-4th grade, which means I have someone to collaborate with.
  4. I had a full and healthy summer. This is not necessarily related to my teaching year, but it is part of my ongoing hunt for that rare beast named work/life balance (again.) This past school year felt unbalanced towards the being-devoured-by-work side of the scale (again) so it felt really important to have a full, productive, healthy summer. This summer I traveled, hosted a variety of international travelers, taught summer camp, did some creative things, did some community organizing and activist things, and stayed physically active. Despite being at school a lot for summer camps and to help with hiring, I did very little unit planning… and that felt really healthy.

I feel like the biggest big-picture challenge has been growing rather than just surviving. Surviving as a teacher is such a big part of the first years. Sometimes after connecting to students / teaching / assessing / reteaching / repeating / responding to all the emails / turning in all the paperwork / grading all the papers / going to all the meetings, there is very little time to assess: Am I growing as an educator? Am I not only doing this job but doing a good job? For me it’s always hardest at the end of the year, where other questions loom: Is this worth it? (or When am I going to get a full night of sleep? or Did I eat anything today?) I need to be able to clear away the busy work and focus on refining my curriculum and methods.

Some defining and certainly worthwhile moments this past year:

Making and sharing zines with our community. I started the year with a zine project to cement the why before diving into the how. (Lots of details and resources here.) This was one of my favorite projects I’ve ever done, and it was so rewarding for my students to share their zines at a local zine festival. This summer I worked the Tijuana zine fest as a volunteer, and am excited to have another table at this Fall’s Zine Fest in San Diego.

Sharing a song that became a hit at the middle school dance. At the Halloween dance, I requested Soy Yo, and saw the whole dance floor erupt in kids dancing and singing in Spanish. (In addition, the middle school team surprised our students with a Thriller flashmob. It was a fun night.) This might not seem like it deserves a place on a list of accomplishments, but to a teacher with three decades of life and one decade of figuring out how to trick adolescents into enjoying learning, it felt significant. My 7th graders became so obsessed with the song that I used it to shape their second trimester project.

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Learning to embroider with my 7th graders. My overly-ambitious 7th grade project last year was focused on identity and describing ourselves. Students described themselves to pen pals, wrote poems about themselves, and created art pieces that expressed their identities using language and visuals. I gave the kids lots of leeway in choosing the format for this final piece (after exploring a variety of art by Spanish speaking artists) and they created some great things. We explored Mustang Jane’s Cartas desde Juárez and lots of kids decided to embroider (while others used photography, face paint, word clouds, digital animation, and more.) One of my favorite pieces is from a student who has done very little work in his three years with me, and no homework. He went home, embroidered with his abuela and turned in an artistically unfinished Perezoso hoop. Although I would adjust the scope of this project a bit next time, I loved giving kids the space to shine in a way that fits with who they are.

Connecting my students with a global community. I’ve done a variety of pen pal projects, with limited success. It’s hard to find reliable groups to write with, and I’ve burned out several groups of students on unreturned letters. This past year we had some sporadic communication between middle school and students in Spain, but I ran one of my most successful pen pal projects with my 5th graders. We used SeeSaw to communicate with a multi-age classroom in a small, rural school in Spain. It was fun and way easier than coordinating/scanning/mailing letters. 5th grade also participated in the Journey North project again, making it a very globally connected year.

Creating excitement about formative assessments. (Sort of?) This year I tried to do a lot more formative assessments using PearDeck, Quizizz, Quizlet live, & Kahoot, which worked very well for differentiated groups and getting fast snapshots of student’s comprehension. These are all high-interest for my students, which means everyone involved is more motivated. I would like to do more formative assessments of skills and move away from quizzes (which are already infrequent, but which I still don’t love as a use of our precious class time.) I also found a few fun activities that tricked kids into enjoying conjugation practice, which is an ongoing struggle.

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Developing a new generation of slow-walking, tree-climbing, detail-noticing photographers. Inspired by a successful photo camp over the summer, I started a middle school photography last year. It turned into one of my favorite parts of the year. I love teaching language, but it was so much fun to explore a passion of mine along with my students, in an environment where kids choose to be involved. It makes a difference! I’m continually inspired by the perspectives and angles my students find. (You can see some of our publicly published photos on our Blog)

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Connecting with my students. Completing a third year at my school means that I know my students. Although teaching middle school is a challenge and sometimes makes me wistful for the songs, games, and adoring portraits of the primary grades, the meaningful connections with these young people are all the more rewarding. There was some pretty fuerte stuff this past year, but working with a team of caring adults to help young people survive and thrive through their craziest years is one of my favorite parts of the job.

Goals for the coming year:

Vertical planning to create a strong TK-12 Spanish program. We added TK and high school recently, and as the senior language teacher in the middle of those grades (teaching 5th through 8th) I want to work on clarifying realistic and meaningful language objectives for all grades. I’m on the instructional leadership team this year to help align all enrichment classes at our TK-8 school, and now that we have a full time Spanish teacher for the primary grades I’m very optimistic about the potential for strong vertical planning.

Teach to change the world. This has always been my goal, but in the last year I’ve gained a new sense of urgency. I watched my students’ fear during the recent presidential campaign and election, and helping students facing the threats of those fears turned very quickly into a need to face real threats as a nation. In my personal life I’ve been very active in local resistance against what I see as true and looming evil in our country. In the face of helplessness and despair at what I see in the news each day, I have felt fortunate to have a job that truly can impact the future. I plan on still using my free time this year to fight the good fight, but at school I want my project planning this year to be focused on social justice, community involvement, fighting xenophobia and racism, and using language to build bridges rather than walls.

Increase focus on literacy with native speakers. I have had the chance to develop a more diverse library for all my students’ levels, and while a few motivated kids took advantage of it last year, this year I really want to push all my native speakers to read at a level that is right for them. Digital resources like Veinte Mundos are good training wheels for kids with limited Spanish literacy, so they can listen while they read… but I also hope to have book clubs and reading time for all, perhaps with the assistance of parent volunteers.

More focused conversation practice with middle schoolers. This has been successful with my younger students and will be more natural as incoming students are coming from our recently developed K-4 program, but many middle schoolers are still nervous about using Spanish in spontaneous situations. I want to find more strategies for fostering daily conversations in Spanish: for example, conversation circles, entrance/exit questions, and communicative prompts. (Last year I enjoyed students’ slightly creepy take on using our describing adjectives to say positive things about people: Me gustan tus dientes.)

Cultivating a growth mindset and weaning us from “I don’t speak Spanish.” I hear this a lot, especially from middle school. (And even some “Why don’t you speak in English?”) I want to empower students with a growth mindset and with language they are confident with. We can say No entiendo or Más despacio, por favor or ¿Cómo se dice…? but Sí, hablamos español. This is going to be a big focus of the early weeks of school.

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Typical end of the week.

Self care. Self care. SELF CARE. Maybe the tenth try will be the charm! Another milestone is that this is the first school year since moving to California that my husband will also be working full time, which is very good news, but also means that I need to pull my weight at home a bit more and not just collapse after using up all my energy and waking hours at work. I am trying to be very deliberate about my time and energy this year, in a few ways:

  • Waking up early every day to write, work out, and/or walk or bike to work.
  • Scheduling grading and email time during specific preps.
  • Not volunteering for too many extra things at school. One week in and I know this isn’t realistic!
  • Scheduling times to leave school (even if sometimes I do need to finish things up after schools) and actually leaving the building on time.
  • Eating lunch with other teachers 3 days a week. (2 days a week are still for helping students.)
  • Planning food and clothes at the beginning of the week to cut down on decisions during the week.
  • Doing things on weekends (and maybe even in the evenings!) that are not planning or grading.

In general I want to slooooooow doooooown and take time to gather my strength, because it definitely affects my health and my ability to do my job(s) well. Too many years of frantic schedules, multitasking, digital devices, and the thousands-of-decisions-a-day nature of teaching have ruined my ability to really mull anything over. I don’t write as much as I used to, because my brain is better at lists or photos now. The only time I feel I can unravel my thoughts is while walking or running, and by the time I reach my destination those thoughts dissipate into to-do lists and digital screens. So I’m going to keep walking and running, and keep writing… and maybe some of those unraveled thoughts (or some of my unraveling!) will make it onto this space.

Here’s to year 10!

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3 Responses to Mi Noveno Año: Small Victories, Big Dreams

  1. Maureen says:

    Good reflections dear cuz. You’re one talented teacher and those kids are so lucky to have you. Praying this school year is one of ever improving work life balance and those little moments that bring you joy and energy 😀

  2. Chelsea Lonsdale says:

    I’ve been on the fence about whether or not I want to keep a teaching blog anymore, and this post is pushing me pretty heavily toward the “yes” side. There’s so much here that I’m not sure I could do it any justice with a comment, so just know that I’m sitting with your words, doing my own reflecting and goal-setting, and feeling some hope when I have your work to look at. ❤

  3. Pingback: Ten Years: Doors Closing, Windows Opening | Me importa. Me importas. Me importan.

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