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Can I really do a 40-hour workweek?

helmet-158268_640.pngSometime this spring, I applied for a scholarship to be part of the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club, a professional development club created by Angela Watson.

I am a workaholic. I work all the time. I ignore my family a lot. I love my job and I wish I could do it better. But I need to spend more time with my little family before my girls grow up and leave the nest. No matter how much I really want to do my job well.

I don’t know if I can work 40 hours. I work a lot. A lot a lot. Even when I’m sleeping.

My friend Mary told me this morning that maybe I could cut down to a 60-hour workweek.

Next week I’m going on vacation. So maybe I can put it on hold for that. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m going to set my brain to work on prepping for an easy peasy start to the new year, despite teaching a new class and trying to flip the content. (That means putting the lecture outside school hours so we can focus on practice in class. More time for students to get the help they need!)

We’ll see, we’ll see.

It’s a lofty goal.

Finally, Guidance for ELLs and CCSS

It’s about time.

I’m reading a book co-authored by one of my favorite bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo. He chronicles tons of resources for all levels of English . (The most recent entry has to do with Ramadan, which begins Monday.)

And I say, “It’s about time,” because so much of what is in the Common Core State Standards is just unreachable for high school students who immigrate come to the United States. With this resource, I can see some light.

Don’t get me wrong… others have been focusing on how to meet CCSS standards, Like Kenji Hakuta through Understanding Language. There are some really nice things out there.

But I’ve never really thought they’ve spoken to me.

I teach mostly very recent immigrants who belong to the refugee community. Many of them are Students with Limited or Interrupted Schooling (SLIFE, or in some states, SIFE).

And when I read in the CCSS that you should not pre-teach vocabulary, I just kind of wonder how students with limited to no background knowledge about the United States or its history could potentially understand without some frontloading of vocabulary and concepts…

Just last week, I read a book with student that had to do with the automobile. It was a fiction book from the point of view of a young boy whose father was the first in his town to get a horseless carriage.

Now I ask you, how is a third-grader who spent most of his short life in a refugee camp in Nepal supposed to understand anything about that? He read the piece nearly flawlessly, but he had no concept of what an automobile was (had the piece said “car,” he’d have been able to get by just fine) or insight into U.S. history and our particular national affinity with horses and the idealized image of cowboys on the range.

I don’t know that in the Nepali refugee camps that there was much talk about cars. I imagine not many people owned or had access to cars, much less thought about how they affected horses and changed the way of life for millions of people.

So what Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski are doing is being CCSS interpreters. I had, for example, never heard that the CCSS writers had “dialed back” the emphasis on not preteaching vocabulary, but rather gleaning meaning from context.

And they seem to “get” where I’m coming from. If a student comes to me in 9th grade with very low literacy skills in any language, I can’t see the goal of “college and career ready,” the mantra of the CCSS movement.

We are all for having our students be “college and career ready,” but we’re not sure that the socioeconomic infrastructure is there yet to support student, teachers, and schools in meeting the Common Core standard’s definition of that state of readiness (p8).


So the setup of most chapters is actually quite predictable, and therefore quite digestible for the average teacher. I don’t know about you, but I tend to skim rather than read deeply, which is what we are supposed to be teaching our students. Because the format’s always the same, I know I can go back and read the information that I know I didn’t absorb before.

First, they give an overview of the CCSS and then “Creating the Conditions for English Language Learners to Be Successful in the Common Core Standards.”

That’s what I’ve been looking for all along. How do I take a student who is not literate in any language in 9th grade and get them to think deeply in a topic in English? These authors get this. This chapter focuses on socio-emotional skills that students need to learn to really play the game of student well, such as goal-setting, meta-cognitive thinking, and asking questions, to name a few. Each of these has lessons and resources to teach these across the continuum of English Language Development.

They split the rest of the book up by domains (reading, writing, speaking/listening) and then go into Language, another focus of the CCSS, as well as content areas, presented by others who know more about it: Math, Social Studies and Science.

Each of the chapters starts with the Anchor Standards, the ones considered to be the most important for all teachers to focus on to help students reach that college and career-ready standard. And then it gives explanations, what it means in the classroom, tech tools, example lessons and tons of resources.

The lessons are well scripted and innovative, beyond the regular stuff.

This book serves a guide to help teachers navigate this course with a special eye on those learners who need that extra support and need to learn how to do it without the scaffolding. And it’s a guide that we’ve needed for a long time.

Some states do a great job making sure all teachers are aware of the CCSS and how it should be affecting our teaching and students’ learning, but here in Vermont, I feel like teachers think this is just the next fad. I heard from the beginning that people thought our Vermont State Standards were so much more rigorous than the Common Core. “Take these rocks from this place and restack them over there.” Just another lens through which we do what we’ve always been doing.

But still, I have to wonder who is holding our feet to the fire. And if we were so much better than the Common Core, why were students still falling through the cracks? Especially the New American students that we expect to conform without really adjusting our teaching?

Teaching is more than standards. And I’m grateful to hear from people who have been in my shoes how I can help hone my practice so I can be a better teacher than I was yesterday, meeting the needs of those kiddos in front of me.

At the end of the year, I always find myself getting very excited about next year. Clean slate and all. And I know this book will help me think about it more deeply.


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.

It’s great to get a little love…

I just love presenting.

It’s so much fun being able to share with people what I’ve been doing and to have them talk to me about what they are doing and puzzling through…

Today I did two presentations at MATSOL.

One, with my good friend Shelly, was on bringing academic talk in mathematics to the classroom. More than 50 people crowded into the room and played our reindeer games. I made them do some Whole Brain Teaching stuff from Chris Biffle. It was nice to think back on the days when I used to use those in ExcELL, when we had enough students. Such a nice way to get kids to repeat words again and again, and to get the class to have joy in followiIMG_0252.JPGng directions. I just love that stuff…

And it’s great to have dedicated time to talk to colleagues about professional experiences. I was able to share what I did eons ago with my students at the elementary school, the year I was teaching math to try to cover two years in one. That was interesting…

The girl on the left is now a sophomore in high school. It’s been a while…

We shared a room and were able to talk about our math experiences. It gets me hungry to work on next year, since this one is almost over.

seesaw-script-icon-comboAnd then I presented on SeeSaw, software that works across platforms to create digital portfolios. I just found this app this year, and I am in love with the possibilities.
It’s very simple to use but not simplistic. And it could be so powerful if we let ELLs create the kinds of assignments that would get them to see their learning in context.

The greatest part about today was that I felt like an educational superstar.

About half a dozen people followed me from the math presentation to the apps presentation. I was glad I had not scared them away. When I said as much, I was told that they were fans. How great is that to hear?

I had one woman start this conversation with me: “I don’t know if you remember me, but I went to your session on dance and movement last year at this conference.” She told me that the session made such an impression that she was running into others at the conference who had attended the same session and they recognized each other, just from that one encounter.

Another woman who was eating lunch at the same table told me that she was in a WIDA class that I did about four years ago. She reminded me that she had sent me multiple emails about an activity that we had done because she wanted to do it with her colleagues.

It’s just nice to be remembered. And appreciated. And to have those rich, rich conversations that make us all better teachers.

So happy to be a teacher. And happy that I get these opportunities.


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.

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