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Sometimes you just need to be hit with a brick to slow down.

The last time I posted was August.


I can’t believe it’s October. And not just the beginnings of October, but darn near the middle.


So to catch you all up…

My class, for those of you who have not read through this blog, is for students new to the United States. They are usually refugees. They don’t always know what to expect or how to do things here. They may or may not have had education before coming. And those are only part of the challenges.

I also have started this year doing intake for the district. Any student who is new to the United States and speaks (or has been exposed to) a language other than English goes through me. I’m supposed to test and report back.

It’s been a challenge, sometimes testing up to four students in a day–oh, and teaching my class. Last year, I taught English learners at both the elementary and high school level.

I used to say that the only differences, really, were the sizes of the kids. The WHAT that I taught was often the same. The HOW was different.

But to be honest, the problems they come with are also grow with them when they get older. They may still be children in their hearts and mind and souls, but the problems these kiddos have could break your heart.

I’ve spent many a night crying over troubles that are so much not my own.

And just to make things a little more challenging, our union is voting this week on whether to strike.

So now, like it or not, I am starting to get a chance to breathe and report in on all the beautiful–and some scary–things that have been happening in my classroom.

And I’m glad to have you along for the ride.

Let me know if you have any questions… I live for the exchange of ideas!

A plug for my group…

I am the incoming president for NNETESOL, an affiliate organization of TESOL International.

We have our annual conference in November, and it would be great to see you there!

Click on the picture below for more details. Margarita Calderon will be there… We’d love to have you there, too!


Resources come up short for deaf Bhutanese


Last year, partner teacher Suzy and I met up with a lot of Bhutanese parents who, we were told, were deaf. We wondered why. Nobody could tell us.

Turns out, nobody knows. Some were sick. Some were born deaf. This quote from a recent Seven Days article is just fascinating:

Among the population of 16,000 Bhutanese refugees still living in camps in Nepal, nearly 5 percent have a disability of some kind, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Half of those disabilities are classified as hearing or speech impairments. Untreated ear infections may be a factor, but no scientific study has been conducted to validate this or other possible causes, said Deepesh Das Shrestha, an assistant external relations officer with UNHCR in Kathmandu.

The article describes American Sign Language classes that are being offered through the Howard Center. I’m so excited that Madhu Neupane got this started. He used to be a liaison for the school district. We truly missed out when he moved on to the Howard Center.

He has brought so much good to the Bhutanese community. I miss him.

Anyway, this article is amazing. I really wish I could meet Stephanie Cramer, who is cooking with these women and teaches both ASL and Nepali sign language. And, Seven Days says, she’s the only one in Vermont who has that skill.

We have so many students whose houses we have gone to who have caregivers who have been described to us as “disabled.” Nothing else. Just “disabled.” But that doesn’t help us as teachers.

Do they not hear us? Do they not understand? Are they unable to understand in any language? How can we bring parents in when even the guardian doesn’t really talk to the biological parents while we are in the room?

When we pressed at the beginning for clarification, we met with resistance. It seemed to be an uncomfortable question to ask.

Research tells us that parent involvement is critical when dealing with at-risk students, which is what all of our students are, honestly. I have so much still to learn about my students… Communicating with parents is critical if we are to really help these new Americans move ahead.

We may be in for a tough journey.

Facing Down Fears with a Friendly Face

Photo Apr 11, 3 53 37 PM

Rita tells her story while I stand by. Flynn artist Susan Palmer and Evelyn Glennie, along with bassists who comprised the rest of the trio. We participated through generosity of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts educational program and the Community Engagement Lab.

A little over a week ago, two of my students took to the stage of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

I needed to be there as a crutch. I did very little. Other than stand there. These young women are very strong. And very brave.

They didn’t quite understand why we would want them to tell their stories in Nepali and Somali.

They knew we wouldn’t understand.

But that was kind of the point.

Dame Evelyn Glennie, deaf since age 12, worked with my students on finding a new way of listening. I wrote about their work with her (on a day that I, unfortunately was out of town) in the post What happens when I’m gone…

They were all so brave. They all took a trip outside their comfort zones.

If you look at the videos attached to the above post, you will see body language that SCREAMS discomfort. They were with a substitute teacher who they knew, but they didn’t really know. They were in a new space. New learning. But there was nothing to hang their hat on. No place to feel really comfortable.

And this is what is really so hard with ELL students with interrupted schooling. They need a place that feels like home, otherwise it’s all so terrifying that there is no room left in their brains for learning.

It’s why we can’t just continue with business as usual as we try to move these square pegs into the round holes of rigor and proficiency-based learning and Common Core State Standards and, well, just life. We need to make sure that these students, who are the most fragile of all, are well considered as we work to make education better. They need connections. And sometimes they need school to be much more than school.

Yesterday I made a doctor’s appointment for one of my students. I’ve taken them to the hospital, to funerals, to court. I’ve sat and held their hands. I’ve doled out tough love and sometimes just a quiet presence. I’ve bought phone repair kits and purses and jackets for them because they had no credit card to order online.

They need more than just the normal approach to keep them engaged. To keep them at all. Their lives are so much more difficult than most. They face a lot of things alone that I do for and with my own children, bringing my cultural capital with me to fend off the enemy.

It’s a lot to do when you are a teen or twenty-something who doesn’t speak the language with absolute fluency. My students don’t have cultural capital to keep the fears at bay. No parent to jump in and help them fight their battles. My students often are taking care of their parents, who more often than not speak little to no English, or are here on their own, trying to go it alone.

We can’t leave these students behind. But “business as usual” does just that.

Please listen to their stories.

They are truly amazing. Even if you don’t understand them.

Soon, I’ll be posting video from the actual show, where these stories, their translations and the improvised music that was created to accompany them, will be available.

And thanks for listening.

Sometimes I really miss NYC

I have been doing a lot of theater work in my classes for the past three years. It always comes down to money with how much support we will get, how many visits by our artists…

It is the way it is.

But today, I saw this on a flier for an immigrant resource fair next Wednesday at NYC Public Library: After a training on how to protect the immigrant community from fraud, there will be a performance by the People’s Theatre Project.

art-716928_640I get these emails because I subscribe to the listservs from the TESOL affiliates and state ESL listservs nearest us here in Vermont. I’m a member of Massachusetts TESOL (MATSOL) because I often present there, and it’s cheaper to be a member. I get notifications from our NNETESOL sister states–Maine and New Hampshire–occasionally getting an email reminding me of the cool things they do. And I get NYS TESOL’s notifications.

I have always wanted to go to their conference, but they often have theirs on the same weekend NNETESOL stages its conference. And as a board member, I can hardly make the choice not to go to my own conference.

Some states do such cool things.

Maine for a while was advertising distance learning for ELL teachers in its state. It’s necessary because of the distance northernmost teachers have to travel to get to some kind of professional development.

NH has regional meetings to support their teachers; not sure if these are directed from the state or just a few very involved teacher leaders. I just got a notification from New Hampshire that they are looking for a full time teacher for next school year in Londonderry, just in case you need to know that.

Vermont is a small state; we don’t do much to provide professional development to teachers of English Language Learners. So I’ve always been a little jealous of the TESOL affiliates that somehow seem to be there for everybody. And the connections those affiliates make in their communities.

The People’s Theatre Project is one affiliate connection that I’m particularly jealous of. Could you imagine? A free program that gets students talking, acting and out of their shells? The past couple of years, I’ve been bringing my students to our school plays, in the hopes that this could be a door in, to help them become more fully involved in their high school community.

Most kids who start U.S. schools in high school don’t enjoy the same kind of idealistic view of high school that the rest of us grew up with. For most American-born students, school is our social, emotional and educational realm, all wrapped up in one package, dotted by games and dances, senior pictures and yearbooks.

My students, however, know nothing of that. They don’t go to the dances, for the most part. Most are not involved in sports. They don’t really have a social circle that extends outside the English learning classroom, unless it’s through P.E. or art classes. They don’t participate in theater. Or chorus. Or band. Or clubs. You can lead a horse to water…

I miss those kinds of opportunities like the People’s Theatre Project. I miss them for my students.

While working as a full time teacher in the Bronx, I once helped bring 100 students from my school (at the time, the 8th worst high school in the city, according to the New York Times) to Lincoln Center to watch musicals. My babies at that time were scared to order their burgers from the white clerks at the Manhattan McDonald’s we passed, afraid they would not be understood by non-Spanish speaking people. We had to rehearse how to order, stand a few feet away to answer questions just in case… They just had never traveled out of the barrio.

And it was scary.

Burlington mostly is not that scary. But the opportunities to get students into the community, supported by the community, also are not really there.

It’s sad.

In my next post, get a glimpse of the rehearsal almost two weeks ago that brought my students out of their shells. A little bit.

Here’s what I’m doing tomorrow night…

The embed code is not working, but the Burlington Free Press has a video of what my students got to experience on Wednesday.

My kiddos learned a lot while I was gone. And tomorrow night, Monday, we all get to go to the Flynn and do it for real. SO EXCITED!

I can’t wait.

Thanks, Evelyn Glennie, for taking the time to work with my babies!

SRO at my 1st TESOL session!


I just got back from TESOL, and at my very first accepted presentation (other than a couple of dips into the Electronic Village–which, don’t get me wrong, are super fun ways to connect person to person), I had STANDING ROOM ONLY!

It didn’t hurt that I was one of only three sessions that focused on art. People like art. And this is a great way to experience it.

But I had been rejected–and then accepted! I thought it was a mistake. Turns out, it wasn’t. I was scheduled opposite some thing where the TESOL leadership dressed up like the characters from the Wizard of Oz, but enough people didn’t feel like doing that that I had people standing in the corners.


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The most amazing part was that people were smiling at me for the next few days. People I didn’t know. People I only marginally remember meeting. And now that I’m looking at the pictures again, I see them! I see them again!

There were so many people who knew what I was talking about, who have the same kids I have, and who get that we need to find new ways to get past undiagnosed trauma that our students carry with them wherever they go.

And we talked about the kids who just don’t want to dance. And Jose, who took the giant selfie above, was the one I chose to be my disinterested student. He took pictures until my iPad filled up. Just what he was supposed to do.

I wish I would have had more than 45 minutes. I had so much more to share.

One woman came up and asked if I were presenting more at TESOL. Oh, I wish! But my presentations tend to be practice focused. The focus at TESOL is, more often than not, research-based. And for next year’s conference in Seattle, they are looking for the intersection between classroom and research.

I kind of wish I were planning on going.


Question Everything. It’s a good read!

9781118438190.pdfI recently finished reading Jay Mathews’ Question Everything.

There are not many books that have me looking at where a program is described so powerfully that I look to see where these schools are and check out their employment lists.

This just seems like such a great idea. I don’t like that it’s so restrictive, because a lot of kids could benefit from this kind of program.

Take kids who are working hard to make the grade but generally fall through the cracks, students whose parents did not go to college, enroll them in AP classes and then give them the extra support they need to learn school and generally succeed. Three days of learning things like how to take notes, interview, and learn learning skills. Two days of tutoring in which students learn the Socratic method and are held to it, by paid tutors recruited from a local university, closer in age to the students they are targeting. Such a great idea. Take kids who don’t usually make it and teach them school.

Schooliness. That’s what we’ve always called it in our district. And our students don’t always have it. My own children will be fine. Though I don’t always think they are or even will be the most well-prepared to take on college. I think they will stumble, like I did, but they will have support from their family. They know they will be going to college. They know it’s an expectation.

AVID really targets those kids who don’t have those expectations.

This book won me over. And not because it sang praises. It does, but it also looks at the other side of the coin.  If you’ve ever gotten lost in a really great in-depth investigative reporting piece, then you have felt what this book feels like. Mathews comes from a reporter’s background, and he doesn’t shy away from the dirty underbelly. Superintendents who scuttle a teacher’s best-laid plans for students. An entire school district that tried to take this on but failed. Principals who wouldn’t fully support the program. And yet…

It’s hard to believe that this has been around for more than 20 years and that I’d not heard of it. And it’s harder to believe that there aren’t more people trying to make sure that more kids get access to such help.

If we really want college-ready students, then we have to put our money and time and energy where our mouths are. We have to give students the extra support, socially, emotionally and academically, that they need to achieve.

And I don’t know that we ever fully do that.

I mean, unless parents are being the squeaky wheels, where are school board members supposed to hear about the students who are dropping out at an ever quickening rate? Where does the superintendent hear that along with proficiency based learning will come a culling of our most fragile and needy children? Where does the community hear about problems shifting from the schools to the streets?

Maybe they will hear about it through the police. Or the courts.

Our communities are only as strong as the weakest links. And as long as we don’t do some lifting up, we will do some falling.

I am wondering how to expand this, though. How do we get the kids who don’t fit the AVID profile (the ones labeled as troublemakers, as kids without enough proficiency, without any support) to get a hand up?

This program would never work for the newly-arrived ELL students I teach. I wonder what would.

You Don’t Have to be a Star, Baby…

… But we surely would like to give you the chance. That was the message I tried to deliver to my students today.

The Flynn staff graciously invited us to come visit the mainstage today. And my principal, despite the short notice, has allowed it all to happen. Thank you, Amy Mellencamp. I so much appreciate your support. Every time I go to her: “It sounds like a great opportunity. Go ahead.”

And so it is.

Again, I’m feeling so fortunate! Counting all of those blessings…

There was nervous laughter all around as my students walked up to the stage. Fear and celebration–depending on the victim–as they approached the microphone and tried to bring their BIG VOICES.

And I found out a couple of my boys are in love with mikes. Rock stars. That’s what they want to be…Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 7.24.43 PM (Just too bad the music they’ve fallen in love with has language that cannot be used here.)

Susan Palmer, our artist in residence, met us at the Flynn and tried to give students a preview of what we are trying to accomplish with this new project. We’re trying to create a piece that will bring in emotions that can be conveyed despite language barriers and age and socio-economic status.

And I wish we could have started with this group a lot earlier.

My friend Stacy Raphael dropped by to see how things were going. And to drop off a much-appreciated latte. She is program director at the Flynn. She asked how it was going. I told her that I thought they were doing really well, sharing my distress about the lack of time to create something really great.

They are ready to take risks, ready to try something new, but they don’t quite get what we are asking of them. Say this with emotion. Think about a story when you had to listen. We thought by allowing them to express themselves in their first language that we could bypass a few steps. That is not proving to be the case.

It’s not that these kids don’t have emotions. I have seen them angry beyond belief. I have seen them regress in an instant. I have seen some of them cry. I have seen shock. I have seen fear. But to express these vocally… It’s strange to me that this could be such a different language. But it is.

IMG_3456I so wish this–what we do with the Flynn–could be part of our curriculum for English Language Learners, part of what we do. These students, these young adults, need a voice. And it’s so hard to find that voice in the middle of trying to learn another language, learn content, follow rules AND search for your identity in the world.

Our partnership with the Flynn has fostered risk-taking in the most positive way. It has created community that can be counted in years across cultural and language boundaries. It has developed voice where there before were only whispers.

I love these people and what they do to for our students and their personal outlook on life.

So feast your eyes on a few of our voices, as we test them out on the Mainstage.

O Sweet Sorrow to Lose a Partner!

Last week was our last class period with Lida Winfield.

She has been our partner teacher through the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts for three years now, born of a chance encounter at the supermarket, reminiscing of the time that she taught my own daughter in a theater class.

I will miss her so much. I wasn’t able to be there for most of that last class. I’ll share some moments from it soon. But in the meantime, I’d just like to share some of the past two wonderful years with Lida. There’s no way we could ever replace her.



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