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: Read more of this post

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A Sense Of Place

I write less and take fewer photos here in California than I did in Michigan. Maybe because any energy or time for communication or artistic expression is already monopolized in other parts of my life. Maybe it’s because I don’t need to work as hard to find beauty as I did in those long, grey winters. One sunny afternoon feels like the next, and my sense of time isn’t as rooted in fireflies / changing leaves / numb extremities / slushy roads / crocus buds.

This year I have been teaching a photography club after school. Maybe “teaching” is the wrong word because mostly I’m just handing cameras to kids and leading them rambling explorations. They climb trees, lie on the sidewalk, climb up into trees, and cluster around any available tiny leaves, unique garbage, cute dogs, and interesting patterns.

Their perspectives on the world make me more aware about my own, as I sift through the digital residue of the last few months. I’ve been in San Diego for almost three years – long enough to have routines and connections, but not to outgrow a feeling of being a newcomer. Pulling up roots can be so fast, and regrowing them so slow.

I love reading novels with a strong sense of place, and after 3 years in this place I have more senses than I have fully formed thoughts.

Cloudy May mornings.
Radio telling me about the texture of the ocean.
The bend of pelican wings above me (not quite echoed on my shoulder blade.)
Jacaranda purple pooling on sidewalks.
Palm trees bending and crackling under jet paths.
Smoke creeping over dry hills.

I can recognize the songs of humming birds & the scent of jasmine.
I am waiting for my lemon tree to produce fruit.

Seven Years Treading Water

I just* finished my seventh year of teaching.

I’ve gotten in the habit of taking time each summer to to reflect on the school year. It’s been valuable to look back and see growth in myself. I would encourage any new teacher to journal through their first year (at the very least) just so that later on, when things feel particularly crazy, you can look back on the craziest times to see just how far you’ve come. (That’s also why Educating Esme was an important read during my first years of teaching.)

*Normally I do this before the end of August, but not this year. Still… it’s important to look back, even as I am already looking forward and planning for the coming year.

I’ve been at four different schools now, including my one year in Spain, and the longest I was at one school was three years, so my experience of teaching has been a string of fresh starts. Even within those short stints at each school, being a Specials teacher has also has been an endless cycle of fresh starts and a fair amount of flailing.

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Here’s to more than just survival.

This year brought yet another new school, yet another fresh start, and new lessons to learn: Read more of this post

Year Six: Leaving Loose Ends Untied

Through the eyes of my students.

At the end of the school year or of the quarter, wrapping up my time with each group of students, I always feel the same pressure: not enough time. Along with the anxious countdowns to summer vacations and sleeping in and having a personal life, I always wish I had more time. Students finishing projects or presentations without the chance to present them. Graded work that goes in the recycling bin after grades are submitted. Students that have struggled all year, and who suddenly have a light bulb go off in their brain sometime in June, just as productivity dissolves into field trips, class parties, award ceremonies, and absences. Language use blossomed at the eleventh hour: students making Spanish puns, or understanding Spanish puns and begging me to stop, students having entire conversations in Spanish, interviewing each other in Spanish, and then suddenly it’s the last day of school, and… ya está.

On the last day of school, there were lots of hugs and lots of crying, especially from graduating 8th graders. This year the end of the school year was particular emotional for me, as well. My husband and I have been toying with the idea of an out of state move all year, and in the final weeks of school I was using the time difference to my advantage, scheduling phone interviews with West Coast schools after my own school day had finished.

Remote interviews are pretty exciting. Hypothetically you could outline your professional qualifications over the phone while in a bathrobe, or via Skype in pajama pants and a blazer. (I’m not admitting that I did that, of course. But who would even know, right?) Sometimes high tech online video conference rooms malfunction, and your video flips upside down while you are describing how adept you are at integrating technology into your lessons. And sometimes you set up a phone interview for the last day of school, after emotional goodbyes to students and sharing funny and touching memories with staff over beers. This already might not be ideal, but then the sky might open up, spitting lightning and thunder, and dumping down buckets of rain right when you are trying to find a quiet parking lot for the interview.

Read more of this post

A Pause, and a Teacher Update

Back in the Fall I started a blog post, because I was going to write More Thoughts While My Students Were Taking Standardized Tests, things I contemplated in the mind-numbing boredom (and other angst) of watching them click buttons and fill in spaces… but then I didn’t finish any more than a sentence, much less an entire post, because there was still too much to do. Peripheral chatting to stare down. Passes to sign. Attendance to enter. Papers to grade.

I wrote a lot during my first years of teaching, because I had so much to say about this difficult, inspiring, complicated, hilarious, and exhausting job. It is no less difficult, inspiring, complicated, hilarious, or exhausting now, but  I am probably busier than I ever have been. It is all rewarding but it turns out that after being engaged all day long, and then driving home (sometimes for several hours in our crazy winter weather) my brain is a puddle of slime unable to orchestrate anything more than putting food into my mouth and watching mindless TV (at best) or dragging myself directly from my car to my bed (at worst.)

However, this year’s holiday break stretched into several weeks without school (due to extreme winter weather) followed by more weeks punctuated by snow days. We haven’t worked a 5 day week since December. After many snow days spent holed up in bed recovering from frigid commutes, I am trying to take time to reflect.

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A 1st grader’s depiction of how I spend most of my day. That is me with my teacher cart, and an objective on the board in Spanish…

This year I’m doing some new stuff and expanding on things I’ve tried before.

Intentional Professional Growth

Even as I am finishing my Masters in TESOL (opening up the possibility of shifting my career in that direction) I’m trying to be a more involved and proactive in my profession. I’m a mentor teacher for the first time this year, in charge of my school’s website and online content, part of the tech team, and most recently on a PLC task force. Sometimes it feels like a lot, but what I’ve discovered (particularly during this year’s early-winter, pre-break, end-of-the-quarter slump) is that being engaged and involved in improving myself as a teacher is way better than just slogging through… because as a teacher, even just slogging through is exhausting and overwhelming. I might as well be striving for something. I’ve been trying to spend set time every week browsing teacher blogs and websites, and getting resources and inspiration from other teachers via Edmodo. I’m signed up for EdCamp Detroit this Spring, and am pretty excited about the possibilities.

Technology Integration

Technology is a fairly intuitive part of how I connect with the world, and I’ve always tried to incorporate it in my teaching. This year I’ve been trying some new things, inspired by workshops at MIWLA. I am using Edmodo with my middle schoolers, and experimenting this semester with BYOD (Bring Your Own Device.)

Culture Journals

One of my goals for this school year (as part of my school community’s push to boost those all important test scores) is to incorporate writing in my curriculum a bit more, so I’ve been doing “Culture Journals” with grades 1 and up. It has been good for me to see what kind of support and guidance each grade needs with their English writing development. (It helps that I share an office with our fabulous writing teacher.) When we learn about new cultural traditions, artifacts, or celebrations, the youngest students write about it using guided sentences and word banks, and the older students use a writing checklist and some peer editing.

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My Spanish bulletin board is right next to the lunch line, so kids can get some cultural education while waiting in line for lunch.

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“Caga Tio,” Catalunya’s Christmas log that poops out presents, is always a popular topic.

Creating Monsters

I’ve seen other teachers using “Create Your Own Monster” as Spanish lessons (to teach parts of the body and describing adjectives.) I tried it out myself with my English students in Spain, and this year I did it with my Spanish students for the first time, and it was a hit. I also have a nice collection of student-created monsters that I can use for “Guess Who?” style listening comprehension activities, because the kids love monsters and love the monsters they have created more than anything.

(We also created a guessing game on our Spanish board using three monsters to be matched to the descriptions the 3rd graders wrote in Spanish.)

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Raps (& Differentiation)

Ever since attending a great workshop with Señorita K of Escuelatón (formerly Magia Escolar) I’ve been teaching my 4th through 8th graders describing adjectives and the “ser” verb by having them write “Yo Soy” poems or raps about themselves. This year it was especially successful with one particular class of fifth graders. I had them for the first two quarters, and it was a rough start. They were the “lowest” fifth graders in the school, with many of them lacking basic reading and writing comprehension, but with an excess of interpersonal drama. Many of the structured activities that have been successful with other groups fell flat because of a lack of literacy, motivation, or both. The poems and raps allowed these kids to focus on oral language, and they ran with it. Some kids who hadn’t been willing to (or able to) write a coherent sentence in English during the two years I’ve worked with them had enough confidence and interest to write paragraphs in a new language and put it to a beat. I put aside the majority of the reading and writing that I usually introduce in upper elementary grades, and returned to oral language. I’m so proud of what these kids achieved.

(Accidental) Jokes

New language learners know that humor is tricky to understand and to use. My first graders this year – at an age where they soak up language like sponges – learned some jokes despite me. While learning parts of the body, many children were mispronouncing el pelo (hair) as el pedo (fart) and I mentioned the difference between the two. Of course, the kids decided that el pedo was just as important to learn and use… with gusto.

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The rest of the semester was punctuated by fart jokes in Spanish. Oops.

  • Me: ¿Puedes describir a tu monstruo? ¿Tiene ojos? ¿Tiene pelo?
    (Can you describe your monster? Does it have eyes? Does it have hair?)
  • First grader: Tiene… pedo. (giggle giggle giggle)
    (It has… a fart.)

Spanish Club

I finally ran a Spanish club this year, and it was so much fun. With about 16 members, we made sugar skulls, papel picado, Mexican tin art, Ojos de Dios, sock puppets for conversation practice, and other crafty cultural things that are harder with larger groups and limited time during normal Spanish classes. Unfortunately, this semester I have graduate classes on Wednesday nights, so finishing my last class of my M.A. (!) has trumped a second round of Spanish Club.

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Grading things

With 9 different classes across all grade levels (Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade) and only limited time for planning and grading, I have to choose which classes to plan meticulously for, and which assignments to grade. Until this year, I have spent most of my grading and planning time for the upper grades, and taught the K-2 classes from what I know works, with a focus on oral language and group activities. This year is really the first time I’ve graded individual assignments and tracked individual master in the lower grades. I tried to focus in on one or two projects in each class (for example, the monsters we made) to assess several different objectives at once. As it turns out, that is a LOT of grading, and that is with only a few separate assignments to enter for each class. In an ideal world I would assess every one of my hundreds of students every week… but as of now I haven’t entirely figured out how to go without sleep or food, so I am still figuring out where to fit it all in.

I’ve also found that when choosing what assignments I should focus on grading, I get better results when I choose the things that are fun (for me and for the students.) Students put in more genuine effort if they are engaged, and I am more likely to power through the weekend pile of grades if it includes something fun to grade (like comics and monsters.)

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Staying Organized

I am still planning and teaching over 30 individual lessons per week, but I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it is less overwhelming. (Remind me of that, because in a few weeks I’m going to be faced by end of the quarter grades again.) I would like to think that I have my life a little more organized. I have realized that to keep track of everything I need really meticulous organization of both my teacher cart and my teacher bag. I have three separate folders for each class – one for assignments turned in, one for assignments graded to return, and one for materials to pass out. I stack up the outgoing folders every morning in the order that I will teach them, and shuffle them to the bottom of the stack as I go.

I also have a lot of little minions to help me out. Without my classroom jobs, I would never get anything done. The kids put attendance in, keep track of behavior reminders, remind me what objective we worked on yesterday, make sure I bring my clipboards and coffee cup with me when I leave each room, and even check to make sure I’m not taking the homeroom teacher’s markers on accident.

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Having a life outside of school

There are still some things that I haven’t figured out. During our most recent snow day I took some time to reflect on how I spend my time, and being the visual person I am I mapped out my (ideal) work day with different colored pens: time for work, homework, driving, sleeping, cooking and eating, exercise, even writing… and then I realized that I had no more colors (and no more minutes) left for people other than myself and my students: my husband, family or friends

I am working on it.

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Season Spaces

September through December. A new apartment and communal dinners in Ypsilanti, cold sleet on Canadian beaches, bookdust and hazy skylines in Detroit, graduate work in sociolinguistics that I wish I could spend more time on. All that and more is drowned by – more than anything – the color and noise of my students.

For the first time in a long time, I have had the chance to go through the photos I’ve taken over the past few months. It’s good to see the small spaces in between the all-consuming parts of my life. The hardest parts of these months are not captured in photos. No photos of the expanses of pavement, no crumpled cars, no parking lot naps, no steering wheel tears, no grades, no spreadsheets, no adolescent angst. Maybe all those things can fade away, leaving only the residue that is beautiful – captured textures leftover from transient things like meals, dusk, autumn leaves, snowflakes.

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Year Five: Becoming a Better Teacher vs. Becoming a Statistic

(Things remaining out of reach)

Since finishing my first year of teaching, I’ve tried to take a moment at the end of the school year to reflect on the year and what I’ve learned. I ended my first year a little shell shocked, began to pull things together for a second year, and by my third year could see some structure emerging from the chaos. The following year I was working with kids in Spain on a Fulbright grant, but something about my reduced responsibility as an assistant, the shortened work week, the long lunch breaks (with real plates and silverware), the frequent holidays or strikes, the Mediterranean two blocks away, the distinct lack of snowy Michigan commutes, and the weekend travel made it seem more like a sabbatical. At the end of the year I was busy packing up, watching things burn, and walking the Camino, with no time to reflect – at least not in a digital format.

So it’s my fifth year of teaching, and I’m back in the mitten, at another Detroit charter school, teaching K-8 Spanish once again. The school year wrapped up weeks ago, and the summer “break” is speeding by. I still haven’t gathered the words to summarize this past year.

Things are looking up. My new school has the central organization and supportive leadership that was lacking previously. I have tuition assistance, a real contract and benefits, and administration who listens to ideas and input from staff. There is a lot of parent participation, and the school feels like a community. This helps to balance the fact that I am back on a cart instead of in a classroom, and that I am teaching 7-8 classes a day, 10-13 classes per semester (with a varied and inconsistent amounts of time with each group, that’s approximately 35 lesson plans a week!)

This year, for some reason I am finding it hard to cobble together a list of things I’ve learned, or things I did right this year. Starting at a new school is like going back to your first year of teaching in many ways. You have to get to know new staff and new students, a new set of school policies and politics, new expectations and curriculum. (Unless you are a Spanish teacher and just do everything from scratch.) On the other hand, unlike a first year teacher, I had a sizable collection of lesson ideas and resources from my previous lessons, along with lots of cultural tidbits and increased fluency (albeit a bit lispy) from my year in Spain.

As a first year teacher, however, I made up for my lack of experience with determination and an optimism in the face of the reality which (sometimes literally) punched me right in the idealistic face. For some reason that idealism and optimism is what was missing this year. For years, a voice in my head kept reassuring me that this would get easier, that I would get better at it, that I would learn, that they would learn. Something about looking back on five years has muffled that voice. It might be the expanding black pit of student loan debt, the long commute with eyelids fluttering on the highway, the student casualties that rack up whenever you work with large numbers of young people, especially in the environment I work in – students defiant or failing or suspended or expelled or more concretely lost to suicide, cancer, violence, tragedy. More than anything, what was drowning everything else out was purely selfish: exhaustion. I’ve seen other teachers bite the dust – lack of budget, lack of all-powerful standardized test scores, too many opinions, too much work for not enough pay. I’ve heard the statistics of teacher attrition for years, and somehow assumed I wouldn’t burn out.

I thought that five years in I would have figured things out a little more, that I wouldn’t constantly be overdrafting my bank account, that I would have time for family and friends and grocery shopping and sleep. More importantly, I thought I would be a better teacher. As it turns out, to be a good teacher you have to have drive and enthusiasm and the willingness to give up a lot of things for your job, but you also need to have a reservoir of mental stability. I didn’t have that this year.

I still care about my job and about my profession. (I even care about this soul sucking M.A. that is inching closer each day.) Even more than that, I care about my students. They are worth the exhausting hours and emotional roller coasters. So I’m going to remind myself of that, and I’m going to pick my mantra back up and trust that it is going to get better.

(And it probably will. A few more weeks and wedding planning will be done. A few more semesters and grad school will be, too.)

Maybe that’s the hurdle I crossed this year as a teacher: I kept my head above water. I taught the things I knew how to teach. I put together delusional outlines of the things I planned to teach each grade, and then usually scrapped them as schedules changed without warning, or my own time limitations caught up with me. Kids learned Spanish, sometimes despite me. (The blessings of working with the younger grades.) We sang, and had mini-dialogs, and greeted each other in Spanish in the hallways, and rapped about ourselves using describing adjectives. Onward and upward.

By the end of the year the kids wrote down the things they could do in Spanish after spending the quarter with me, in the form of “I Can” statements.

Of course, the first and second graders illustrated theirs in adorable ways.

(I like the one kid’s honesty about his achievement. “I can name one color in Spanish and that is rojo.”)

Okay, okay. I’ve learned things.

I can name one thing I did this year: I kept going.

I can recall and describe my reasons for doing what I do.

I can make progress, inch by inch.

I can become a better teacher.

I can try again this coming year.

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El Día de los Muertos – a small portable altar remembering Frida Kahlo, in a cigar box that I carried around to my classes. I turned off the lights and let children speculate about the flickering light that came from inside the almost-closed lid.

We didn’t learn much Spanish today, partially because culture is important and partially because I am completely defeated and gave up on language teaching in favor of cultural theatrics and coloring calavera masks. We accidentally learned a lot today, however – about Frida, about other cultures, about the ways death has played a part in the lives of my students, and what they have done about it – and about people different from ourselves, and what we are going to do about it.

I was a good teacher today, but completely on accident. I needed that, though, because I have no effort left to put into being good at things – just a lot of things that seem to be falling apart.

I have faith (that I will understand someday)

For some reason this week I am less exhausted. Sometimes I wake up before my alarm. Take time to drink a cup of coffee, to sometimes (& accidentally) catch the bus on time, to meander into school early and wait outside the doorway of my first class – papers and flyswatters in hand – before the bell rings, instead of scrambling things together at the last minute.

Maybe there's just something about the sea air.

Somewhere below my feet (or below my skin) I can feel the slow almost perceptible shifts – things connecting. Getting It Together.

In school I am hearing a lot more Hellos and less Holas.

Nodding heads and ah, vale vale vale or even okay, of cooooouuuuurrrrse are replacing panicked blank faces.

We are drawing superheroes using comparatives and superlatives, who can throw hotdogs from his eyes or transform into a chocolate.

Occasionally my name is morphing from the familiar SAH-rah into a more deliberate SAWR-AH. (Not really phonetically closer to my native pronunciation, but paso a paso, eh?)

In classrooms and hallways students stop to ask me questions about the United States. (I haven’t had anyone ask me about England in weeks.)

Somewhere the 6th graders learned oh my god (I don’t think it was me) and like to use it with gusto.

(One learned asshole and used that with gusto, too – again, I swear it wasn’t me.)

And slowly we begin to move forward.

More than anything, I notice that when I am speaking to individuals or classes in English, students listen to me with trust instead of apprehension. Trust is big in language classes. I didn’t realize this at first, but it is. Trust and confidence are both far more integral to language production than boatloads of grammar. Similar to my first days in front of my American students years ago, during my first lessons here in Spain I was met with a sea of furrowed brows and many glassy stares. Even if I was repeating instructions that the teacher gave in Spanish or Valencian, these kiddos were totally at sea.

Write your name and the date at the top of the paper using pencil.

At first, despite wild gestures, brandishing utensils, and pointing to the date on the board, I imagine I sounded a lot like the adults in Charlie Brown. Bwah bwah BWAH bwah bwah BWAH bwah BWAH.

With some time, individual words began to emerge – thanks to some cognates, some basic vocabulary, and the fact that English is a stress-timed language. Bwah bwah NAME bwah bwah DATE (exaggerated indication of the date on the board) bwah bwah PAPER (waving around a paper) bwah bwah PENCIL (by now a few kids are on board and assist me in my wild pencil waving.)

Now, students watch me closely, perhaps trusting that somewhere in the sea of seasick vowel sounds there will be a life raft – a gesture, a cognate, or – even better – a word that now connects firmly to some image or idea in their heads.

Today in English a 4th grader made a joke.

Me: That looks like my cat. I have a black and white cat, with green eyes.
Kiddo: Pues, tu cat is old.
Me: Old? What?
Kiddo: Black and white photos? Old?

I am so proud.

So as the calendar Marches on (get it?) and with a date set for my return home (July 30th) I am hanging onto hope, and reigning in my building anxiety about returning home. I am going to trust that clarity will arrive when I need it.

Abstract Interpretation of a Wednesday

One of many interpretations of Las Meninas by Picasso

In sixth grade plásticas we are looking at Picasso’s works from across the wide swathe of his career – pale blue faces, Guernica’s newsprint cartoon horror, smug mustachioed smiles against a backdrop of sensual curves. The kids worked on their own interpretations, where Picasso went blonde or Las Meninas became Una Menina, with vague features and very detailed shoes. One boy worked on a robot, built of solid geometric shapes, including a little rectangular wang, square balls… and a rectangular tie. (Que profesional – pero, ¿dónde están sus pantalones?)

Blank papers, lips bitten, tapping pencils, ideas waiting to happen. I listen to the teacher’s instructions in Valencian, to kids questions in Spanish, and answer in English. They meticulously outline reproductions, or trace jagged lines across the page.
In third grade we learn the meaning of silly along with the parts of the body. We collaborate on very silly drawings using the parts of the body. One small boy doesn’t understand the directions, and almost falls over with laughter when he finds that the torso of his drawing has become part of the (very long) neck. ¡Ese hombre tiene tetas en su cuello! Other kids are concerned because these are not quite careful enough, and how will they take their work home or receive a grade if there have been four (often sloppy) artists involved with each portrait? I remind them of the meaning of silly, and we decide that we have met our objective.
In fourth grade there are cross-curricular connections – lessons about the parts of a flower and classification of leaves – leaves carried in backpacks, strewn across the table and floor, and finally splayed out onto posterboard in neat categories. I do some quick internet research to brush up on my botanical terms, and explain them English. We find the faint blue lines on our wrists, and the green raised veins on the leaves.
Abstract pieces of language litter our mouths. Fingers on throats to find the voice of vowels. Feeling the puff of air of the bilabial stops.
At lunch time I sink down inside myself again. Concentrate on peeling an orange into a citrus spiral, submerged in an oasis of silence between loud Valencian and more jokes I can’t understand. I understand only the most simple and physical humor – the principal yelling ¡joder! as he races for the last ice cream, or the cross-culturally unintelligible yelp of surprise as water is tipped across the table. But words are surfacing from the trainwreck of my comprehension.
Fulles.

Tardor.

Llapis.

Tot el mon. 

Menjador.

Xiquets i xiquetas.
After lunch two other teachers and I intend to find “un poquito de relax.” In the music classroom, with the door locked against the students doing homework in the hallway, we lay out yoga mats, turn on quiet music, and nos tumbamos.
Tumbarse – If you tumbar someone else, this is violent. You knock them down. If you do it yourself, you lie down – generally for a nap. Positive connotations. But inanimate objects can knock you down, too – me tumbaron en matemáticas. (I failed math. Math knocked me down.)
So on Wednesday afternoons we knock ourselves down for a while. Slip out of the vertical world of speech and sight. Let the classroom rearrange itself – cool tile, vertical silver of table legs, yellow window frames filled with squares of blue from a Mediterranean November. I am reminded of my three o’clock exhaustions, where I locked the door, hid in an invisible corner, and slept with my face on a table for a while, before beginning the long drive home under a sky spitting snow.
After school I have a language exchange. We are making our way through the museums of Alicante – free contemporary art galleries. Submissions of comics by local youth. A distressingly extensive history of postage. A room full of silver geometric sculptures that wink and glitter as they are set in motion by an employee – whose job is to sit in the gallery reading a novel, and set the sculptures in motion every few minutes. We talk – in English and in Spanish – but we also stand in silence, looking at broad brush strokes, earth and bricks jumbled onto canvas, and the dizzying movement of stationary canvasses.

Tierra de Campos – Juana Francés (an artist from Alicante)

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