April Fool’s Day is NOT Funny

Wow.

I feel like the worst teacher in the world.

This is probably top of my charts on bad teaching moments.  It’s up there with the time I stood on a chair and yelled at my class.  It’s up there with the time I accidentally sent home the wrong end-of-the-year testing results to my class.  It’s up there with… eh.  It’s high.

We decided this morning to pull an April Fool’s Day joke on our students.  We each switched classrooms after lunch, and pretended that we had been placed in that class as the teacher for the rest of the year.  We talked about what would be different: no art, no P.E., no recess, lots of math, etc.  Then we left, had a laugh in the hallway, and returned to our own classes.

To tears.

My poor babies.  I feel like the biggest meanie in the world!  They had NO idea it was April Fool’s Day.  They had no idea what April Fool’s Day is.  They couldn’t understand why we say such a mean broma.  I tried to smooth it over by teaching them jokes like, “Your shoelace is untied.”  “There’s something on your shirt.”  “Mom, I have detention.”  That helped.

But I still feel horrible.  I think I may need to bake some cupcakes tomorrow.

April Fool’s Day is no joke, people.  Not in Mexico.

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English Language Learners: A Teacher’s Reflection

“Monday is a bich,” she had written on her paper, boldly proclaiming what the rest of us refrain from voicing.  It was my first teaching day in The American School Foundation of Chiapas in Chiapas, Mexico.  Unsure of what the curriculum had in store, I gave my new set of students the assignment of writing what they had done during Christmas vacation.  I wasn’t just taken aback by Elisa’s story of vacationing with her family on the coast, but I soon found that I had student who were unable to even label their pictures with words that they knew in English.          

In Northern Virginia my classes were a mix of whom we called “neighborhood children” and “Janna Lee kids.”  Our neighborhood students were mostly upper middle class white boys and girls whose parents worked in Washington D.C.  The other students that filled my classroom with laughter, crying, and liveliness were from subsidized housing found across Route One.  They were American blacks, Africans, and Latinos.  I thought they had prepared me for Mexico.

            When interviewing for my position in Chiapas, the assistant principal hesitantly told me that my students were about a year behind other second graders.  I quickly mentioned that I would be fine—after all, my last year I taught half-day first grade.  She didn’t volunteer much more information other than letting me know that I would have two classes of 25 students 18 of whom were female.  Not a problem.  I had specialized in rambunctious boys at my previous school.  That same week I received my first stamp in my passport as I began my adventure teaching English Language Learners in Southern Mexico.

            To say I was unprepared for teaching ELL students is an understatement.  I quickly saw that I was at a disadvantage.  I needed to get procedures set up in the first couple days, but every time I opened my mouth I received the deer-in-headlights look.  I am as thankful now as I was then that I received Responsive Classroom training, because meeting with the students to say hello, play games, and speak English made a difference.  It was something new and fun—and it was a nice change for them from the rigid classroom of the teacher who came before me. 

            Then it became apparent that I needed to teach some basic rules.  But how do you teach rules to students who don’t understand a word out of your mouth?  My frustration escalated, and if I had been closer to home, I would have quit.  I learned quickly to act out what I wanted, to find picture clues and print out what I needed them to do on large papers, and to shut up.  That was the best lesson of all.  The minute I became too wordy, they were done—transported to another place and time.

            I began to learn Spanish, and that was helpful!  Seeing me take risks without worrying about mispronouncing words allowed them to begin speaking and writing in English.  We covered our walls with the words they needed to write stories.  I kept my bilingual dictionary on hand, and each word went on a poster with a picture beside it.  They were then grouped on the walls—actions in one area, family members in another area, activities we enjoy in yet another part of the classroom. 

            Six months wasn’t long enough to make a huge difference, but it was just long enough to see improvement.  I have videos of boys retelling The Gingerbread Man with finger puppets.  I have the sweetest memories of an autistic student quizzing me on the playground, “Miss, how do you say mariposa in English?”  And most importantly, I have the experience of being in a situation where I understood nothing that was spoken around me while trying to build the necessary knowledge needed to survive at home, to excel at work, and to create relationships that still thrive.  

World Read Aloud Day

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My heart is breaking.  Seriously.  I take so much for granted–like this wonderful world of literacy!  Reading has been an escape for me since I was a little girl.  Writing became my therapy a couple years ago when I felt like the world was crumbling around me.

And now?  Literacy is my future!  It’s what my job is based on, and I’ve already signed a contract as a literacy coach for the next two years.  You could say that I can support my family because I learned to read.   That’s the truth.

But still, my heart is breaking.

My custodian just asked me sheepishly, “Miss, what does this say in English.  I don’t understand.”  He was holding a button that I had made proclaiming March 5th World Read Aloud Day.  I didn’t think anything of it, and I explained in broken Spanish the idea behind World Read Aloud Day.  It’s a day where you read with a loud voice (the actual translation).  Suddenly, a look of near panic crosses his face.  “Us too?” he asked?  I explained that no, we wouldn’t have everyone reading, but that some schools do celebrate like that.  “But, it’s because I can’t read.  I had to quit school when I was eleven,” he continued, “when my father died.”

Hard swallow.

I quickly assured him that I understood how that could happen.  My husband too worked his whole childhood and missed out on a lot of school.  I can help, I explained.  It will be hard.  But I know I can help him learn to read.

Wow.  I think back to the notes that I’ve written, the cards that we’ve signed, and the text that is literally dripping from my classroom walls.  Poems decorate my door, banners fly in the hallway with each writing celebration, and this sweet man who takes care of us everyday just told me his secret.

I know that it is a secret.  That expression on his face?  I know that expression.  I see it daily on the faces of the boys and girls who struggle with reading–Who know that they are struggling.

There are a lot of things I can’t do in this world.  But teach someone to read?  That’s something I can do.  And it all starts with reading aloud.  Reading with a loud voice.  Be loud.  Be proud.  Read someone a book tomorrow–even if that someone is just yourself.

 

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Sleep is for the Week(end)

When I was younger, I could sleep forever.  No, seriously.  Actually, Victor and I were just talking about how my sleep is very important, so I don’t know if that has changed.  Since the baby has come along, there have definitely been nights where I’ve had to say, “Victor, I am sorry, but you have to take care of her tonight–I’ve got to get to sleep!”  Or even in those early days, I would get up and pump, then he would get up and feed Ale later when she cried.  (A friend just told me the other day that I had a diamond…so true!)

When Ale was young, she slept a lot! I didn’t complain like other new mommies about sleep deprivation all the time (Seriously, people, that can mostly be avoided if your baby sleeps near or with you…)  Now she’s learned that she can fight the sleep–unless we time it just right.  (Most of the time, she just cuddles up next to me and breastfeeds–which makes Bedtime Mommy a lot friendlier.)  In the evening, she will hang out with us, playing and reading, then when she’s tired–she doesn’t fuss–she just attacks me.

When I came to Mexico, I thought I had learned to put work in its proper place.  It didn’t follow me home.  It didn’t sneak into my dreams.  And my weekends were work-free.  Then I got offered a promotion for next year.  I will be the literacy coach for the teachers at our school–and I am oh-so-very-excited.  I am also determined to prove myself.  Here is where the trouble lies.

The monstruo that is inside the heart of every working mom has reared his ugly head.  I have started feeling guilty and resentful for the time I spend at work.  I know it is good time for Ale and Papi, but doesn’t a girl need her mama?  My work can’t help but follow me home.  And when I get home, I really don’t mind cooking.  It actually makes me feel like a better wife and mama–because I know my family is eating healthier than if we go out to eat.  Ale crawls around my feet, and I avoid stepping on her by letting her play in the cabinets.  Then we leave the dirty dishes (most of the time), and we play.  But we play with the conscious effort on my part to put the overflowing in-box of work that is always in my head to the side for later.

This brings us to the present–where I sit typing this blog while drinking coffee at 5:30 in the morning.  This is when I do my work.  It is when Ale and Victor sleep.  This time is productive (usually)–and waking up at 4:00 isn’t nearly as outrageous as it once would have been.  Waking up at four is just what I do to keep Work Mommy and At-Home Mommy from becoming Guilty Mommy.

Sleep?  As my mamaw used to say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

What Makes a Good Teacher?

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At Readers and Writers Workshop we talk about what it looks like when you are a good reader or writer. We make statements like, “Good readers look at the pictures to see what is going on,” or “Good writers write about what they know.” I feel like I have reached that point where I can say, “Good teachers reflect on their teaching.”

Because of reflection, lately I have reexamined a lot of things that are typical to see in a classroom or at school. And I have started asking myself, “Hey! What’s wrong with that?”

Example 1: When children run, jump, hop, wiggle.
This is what children do. They seem to follow the rule of thumb, Why walk when I can run? I had a student from last year that had one speed–full throttle. Not surprising, this year he busted his head open the second week of school. Good teachers recognize that children move different than adults.

Example 2: When children talk in a line.
What are we operating? A school or prison? As long as no one is being disturbed, I don’t see the point in a quiet line. Actually, the whole “line walking” thing leaves a lot to question. Good teachers don’t enforce ridiculous traditions.

Example 3: When children giggle or laugh and we shush them.
There is nothing better than a happy child. And how wonderful that we have happy children in our classroom! Why are teachers scared of a giggle getting out of control. Good teachers know that happiness is something that makes work a lot better.

Example 4: When children ask why.
How many times have you heard, “Because I said so”? There is nothing wrong with a student wondering why. We tell them to ask questions, and then when we have students who are inquisitive, it becomes a problem. Why? Good teachers know that inquiry is the basis for life-long learners.

Example 5: When children sigh with boredom when the same old lesson starts. If I were presenting a conference to a group of adults, and they loudly moaned when I told them what we would be doing–I would have to rethink that presentation. Why don’t we pay attention to children when they tell us with their body language, words, sighs, moans, etc. that we are boring the pants off of them? Good teachers pay attention to their audience.

Example 6: When students become excited, and we tell them to calm down.
This happens when we teach new games, when we learn new energizes, etc. We want our audience to be attentive! Why are we always complaining about their energy? Good teachers allow energy to flow.

Example 7: When someone farts and all the students giggle.
Farting is funny. For years I would give the old everyone-does-it-and-it’s-normal speech. Then I had a kid. We all laugh when she has gas. It’s especially funny if she has gas when we are just sitting around and it is quiet. Before you tell me it isn’t funny–think about the shows you watch on tv. I bet there is farting humor in most of them. I always choke back my giggles in class. No more. Laughing is allowed. Good teachers can see humor through the eyes of a child.

A good teacher recognizes when change needs to be made. A good teacher admits when she is wrong. And a good teacher vows to be different.

I Am The 22%

This is in reference to an article posted in The Washington Post today. You can read it here.

Two years ago my life changed for the better. I didn’t know it at the time. In fact, I really never could have imagined all that was in store for me. Two years ago (and a few days) I quit my job.

I didn’t have another job. I really had no clue what I wanted to do, but I knew that I couldn’t survive another school year at the Northern Virginia school where I had spent the last three years. With the support of my family, I walked into the office that Tuesday, and resigned. It was easier than I had imagined it would be–probably due to the end of the rope that I had been dangling from snapping in two.

It took me four months to recover.

Luckily, I was able to rediscover my love for teaching, and I moved to Mexico to teach in an American School. This school was far from being perfect. The teachers I taught with were very unhappy. As foreigners teaching in Mexico, they were lacking the support that most international schools offer. I didn’t mind. I was happy with my shabby furniture, the extremely hot houses, and the lack of water.

One of the teachers who was experienced in teaching overseas said, “You know, Jania, you were just in an abusive relationship before–so everything seems great to you now.”

Oh, how true those words were.

I feel somehow validated to read about my school in the Washington Post. I was one of the 22% who left with the first mass exodus. We knew as we left Fort Hunt that we couldn’t cite the REAL problems as reasons for leaving. Fairfax County Schools probably has a file folder full of teachers resigning for “personal reasons,” “health reasons,” or “moving to another area.” That’s so far from the truth. The truth is that telling your future employeers that you had to quit because you couldn’t work in a “toxic environment” any longer makes you sound like you’re weak. Telling future employeers that your principal sucked the life out of a great little community school makes you sound like you shift responsibility. Telling future employeers that you were promised many things that never came to light makes you sound like a whiner. Telling your future employeer that you were switched grade levels, given split days of two grade levels (around 50 students), and not given the special ed support that you were meant to have (by law) makes you sound inflexible.

When other teachers left, we were led to believe that changes would occur. That the whole reason why we were miserable was due to the a group of old school teachers and their negativity. We started Happiness Campaigns to boost moral, but that will only go as far as the administration allows it to go.

The readers of the Washington Post article speculate (as did the parents) that teachers left due to the population of students. False. Our students were the best thing we had going for us. We had a great mix of low-income minority students and the neighborhood kids. I say a great mix, but for years they weren’t allowed to actually mix. The administration did actually encourage that to happen–but with very little cultural understanding.

The teachers were completely unsupported. One teacher was told after a trip to the hospital with heart palpitations (at the tender age of 24 or 25) that she needed to learn to deal with her stress better. I was told in a post-evaluation conference that sure, I would be a good reading specialist, but so would my co-worker. We were built up and broken back down on a daily basis. Teachers were moved like pawns to intentionally (admittedly) disrupt their comfort. Teacher after teacher would leave the school ragged, tired, and worn out. Happy Hours became more common, and more teachers than not would mention the need of alcohol to relax. Many teachers retired before they planned due to the environment. Some teachers left to have their children–choosing to stay at home. One employee told the cluster superintendent that he would take a demotion rather than work at that school another year. Others did move to areas outside of Northern Virginia. But most would have stayed had the situation been different.

I feel like I suffered from PTSD while working at Fort Hunt. I have blocked entire memories out of my head. Sometimes, I think of something–and often it is with wonder that it even happened. Be assured: this article isn’t lying. It isn’t exaggerating. It’s the real deal, people.

Maybe you don’t feel like pointing fingers at the administrator is an appropriate thing to do. The truth is, in this situation, it’s the only thing to do.

 

First Day of School Hatred

I am just going to put this out there: I hate the first day of school.

I used to love it, and part of me still does! But then there are the supplies still thrown all over the corner of my classroom… I never thought the day would come when I would complain about too many supplies.

It arrived with the 75 boxes of Kleenexes that some helpful students organized today.

There used to be a time when I would fret about supplies. Mama and I would scour the Sunday paper advertisements for the 1 cent sale. I loaded up on enough folders, glue sticks, and pencils to sink a battleship. It was necessary, you know, in order for my students to have what they needed.

This is one reason why teachers should make more money. We spend so much of our already meager earnings on our students. Sure you can write off some on taxes, but not enough to make a dent in my debt…

Before, my students families weren’t able to purchase the list of “suggested supplies.” They would envy the goodies the other students brought to school. So, we began community supplies. At the beginning of the year, I collected all the supplies–and we used them at our table groups throughout the year. It. Was. A. Game-changer.

This year, it took me three days to sort through Kleenex boxes, highlighters, and colored pencils. I had students with pencil sharpeners that look like toys, artist quality colored pencils, and pencil boxes organized with each pencil labeled. Back to community supplies! Rich or poor–learning to share is always a challenge…

The Land of My Birth (a.k.a The Weirdest Place on Earth)

I have a list of things I have to do while I am home.  Buying underwear, socks, and tennis shoes is on that list along with getting a social security number for my bebita.  

Last August I prepared all of my re-certification paperwork in Tennessee for my teaching license.  I have never taught here as a teacher, but I know that I might return someday.  So I petitioned Fairfax County for all the certificates from the training I had received.  I received a package, made copies, and left it with my Mom.  

I also left my mom the paperwork to send off to get an apostilized birth certificate.  Do you see where I am heading with this?

Sometime in late August, Mama tells me what she did.  She packaged everything together and sent it all to the office for my birth certificate.  I received my birth certificate in a very timely manner, but I never heard a word from the Education Department.

I didn’t give it much thought until this morning.  Bebita and I woke up at five thirty, and while she played in her play gym, I started looking for more info about my teaching certificate.  

Only in Tennessee would someone be nice enough to forward all that information.  Because somehow, I have an extended expiration date on my teaching license…  Oh, Tennessee, you are so weird.  But I am oh-so-grateful for whoever worked things out for me!

Teacher Let The Monkeys Out Year Two

I have never in my life seen so many students crying.  Today was the last day my kids were in school, and you know how in the States kids get super excited?  My kids cried.  I would like to believe that it’s because I am an amazing teacher and they will miss me so much, but really, it’s not that.

First of all, they have a flare for drama–it is what makes my Mexican students so lovable, fun, and frustrating.  So when the waterworks started in one kid, I knew it was because he is moving in about three weeks to Monterrey.  When two girls started crying, I knew it was because their home lives are a little lonely.  But then, it was like an epidemic.  Before I knew it, half of my class had teared up, and this hormonal teacher started crying too.

Now, here’s the thing.  I love my students.  I care about them.  I have enjoyed them.  I will even miss them to a degree.  But I am NOT sad that it is the last day of school!!  While other first year teachers have been telling me how sad they are all week, I have bit my tongue.  Because saying, “Oh, well, that will change!” isn’t something a first year teacher likes to hear or believe.  I remember.  So I didn’t say it.  But I sure did think it!  So these tears?  I attribute them to hormones.  I knew crying would just make things worse, so I choked them back and hid them from the kiddos.

THEN, we went to dismissal.  A older student found out that his cousin died.  Someone called his mom while they were sitting there waiting, and I was alerted by his tone of voice.

“Que paso? Que paso?” he said urgently.  Then he broke down.  I was worried.  I was sad.  But I didn’t know him–so I was able to walk away dry-eyed when I saw he was being taken care of by the counselor.  Until I started thinking about that poor mama.  Oh, my!  If I were to lose my Bebita!  Ah!  I can’t even stand to think about it!!

I calmed down–and returned to normal.

Then, my little boy who is moving came back with his mom.

“He is sad, because he is going to miss you,” she said, “He doesn’t want to leave.”

“Oh!  You’ll have so much fun!” I assured him.   Before I knew it, the mama was tearing up.  I looked at her a little worried and confused.

I asked, “Are you okay?”

She nodded towards her son and said, “It’s just because…”

I sprung another leak.  I finally understand!  I used to think my Mama was silly when she would look so hurt when we were sick or hurting.  It always kinda made me laugh.  Never again!  I get it!  And while the office staff, other parents, my co-teachers, and students looked on, I stopped holding it back.

And there we stood, us three, crying over the last day of school (kind of).