Saturday, February 28, 2015

#Teach2Teach Q3: Troubling Times

What has been your most troubling experience with teaching and how have you handled it?

My first year of teaching was a troubling experience. Period.  Not in your typical "first year of teaching" type of way, necessarily. 

I was the second teacher in two years to teach a Heritage Spanish class.  This program was pitched to me as an opportunity for a large percentage of our population who are native Spanish speakers to take a higher level language class that would help them perfect their mother tongue.  The miscommunication among the other teachers in my department seemed to be that the program was also an appropriate spot to place students who had Spanish-sounding last names and who appeared to know enough of the language to become a behavior problem in a level I course.  You can imagine the difficulties that ensued.

Enter me:  5 foot 2 inches of white skin, freckles and red, curly hair.  "Newbie" written all over my lesson plans and shaking hands.  Even worse:  Spanish Spanish instead of Mexican Spanish came from my lips.  Oops.

They ate me alive, to say the least.  Class sizes of 6 and 10 students didn't ease the pain.  It was them vs. me immediately.  My attempts to get to know them, to interest them in learning and to maintain any semblance of order were mere fantasies.  Let alone my hopes of  challenging them in Spanish. HA!  What did I know, anyway? Not much, from their perspectives. They did everything in their power to trip me up, embarrass me and catch me in errors (which I had plenty of, let's be honest).  I think I walked out to my car nearly every evening with hot tears dripping down my face.

Now, don't feel too bad for me.  I am not even a little proud of how I handled the majority of the situations I came across my first year.  I tried to be more "tough" like I saw some of my colleagues being in their classes.  I embarrassed those high schoolers right back to "put them in their place."  I sank to their level of arguments many times.  And, at a certain point, I stopped making rigorous education any sort of a priority and just tried to survive until the end of sixth period. It was a nightmare. Repeat 179 times.

Add to all of this a lack of any sort of administrative support.  Add to this a "mentor" teacher who could not have cared less if I succeeded or failed.  Add to this no written curriculum.  Add to this students who did not have a high enough level of Spanish to succeed.  Add to this students who had a higher level in Spanish than I did.  Add to this the fact that I was simultaneously writing curriculum for a new course in a separate building, traveling there during my prep period and teaching 3 different courses.

I have blocked much of this year from my memory, to be honest.  But I recall a distinct moment around Christmas time when I came home with tears and told my husband, "They honestly hate me.  We are getting nothing done, I have no idea what to do to make it better and they hate me."
Cue dramatic music change.  One key conversation happened about that same time with a student that I would consider one of my biggest disruptions and one of the most natural leaders I have ever seen.  He said something quite rude to me in front of the whole the point that everyone turned to look at me and see what my reaction would be.  I simply stopped what I was doing, maintained eye contact with him for a few seconds and then took a deep breath and began again, right where I had left off.  He interrupted me again, trying to rile me up.  And I stopped.  And I breathed.  And I started over.  We must have done this three or four times before he gave up.  As the bell rang, I asked him to stay after class. He immediately said:  "Oh great, you're mad at me, aren't you?"  Instead, I told him that I thought he was funny.  Genuinely funny. I told him I like him as a person.  And I told him that I could tell that others looked to him and followed his lead.  I told him he singlehandedly had the power to change the culture of our class. I don't know what I said that time that was so different than other conversations we had before, but he looked up at me and said, "You know what, you're actually a nice person.  You're really nice."  And he walked away.

That may sound like nothing.  But to me, it was everything.  And from that day forward, I kid you not, he stood up for me.  When another student smarted off, this student intervened.  He was still rambunctious and crazy, but he never directly defied me again.  He talked to me about his life from time to time and he even listened sometimes when I spoke.  We had some sort of agreement that I didn't mean to make, but it worked.

All that to say, I dealt with this difficult situation by still trying my darnedest to matter to my students.  It was not easy.  And it did not happen daily.  But I tried to show them that I saw them as people even when they did not return the favor.  They weren't really listening to me in regards to Spanish, but they listened to life lessons from time to time.  I gave them more privileges than other teachers I knew because I wanted to show them I respected and trusted them.  I journaled to them.  I talked to them about the work force. I got them involved in our community.  I apologized to them when I messed up.  I freaking hip-hop danced with them in front of the school.  If that humiliation doesn't bond you together, I don't know what will!  To be honest, I think I failed at my job description my first year.  But I think I found a way to still make some sort of an impact on these students.  I pray I did, at least.

And the next year, I promptly reduced my contract willingly to be part of a different program I truly believed in instead of 3 programs I felt under-qualified for.  And that has made all the difference.

Monday, February 23, 2015

#Teach2Teach: Q2: Politics

How do you stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching?

Especially recently, this is a very tricky thing for me to do.

This past year our school was given a "D" by the state.  It felt like a punch to the stomach for a school that had been part of a corporation of "A" schools for the previous two years.

I know I must be biased, but my current school is the absolute best building of administrators, and teachers that I have ever been a part of.  Creative, passionate, talented adults truly looking out for students and challenging them to be their best.  All the parts of education I have always longed to be a part of, and none of the stuff I hate.  The despair and discouragement that rippled from this injustice was a knife to the heart.

So, this year, the politics of teaching have taken a front seat, I hate to admit.  Our school has been forced to make decisions that don't put students first.  Our administration has been backed into a corner and our teachers have been pushed to their breaking points.  Inspiration has felt sparse at times.

BUT.  There are still gems of individuals who say the right things at the right times and burst through all that negativity to remind me what is most important:  the relationships we build with students.

If there is one sure fired way to stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching it is this:  invest into the souls that are in your classroom each day.  When it seems easy to feel burdened, stressed and overworked by things that are out of your control focus your energy on asking questions of your students. Not "Did you get your homework done?" or "Are you ready for the test?"but rather "What are you looking forward to this week?" and "What inspires you?"  Use your life experiences and perspective to shed light on their emotional disasters and challenge their black-and-white thinking.  Present them with more than assignments.  Present them with challenges and opportunities.  Push the pause button on the all-consuming conversation of standardized testing and offer a handshake and a personal greeting to the shells of people walking through your door.  Refuse to accept the answer "fine" when you ask how Juan is doing today.  Take notice when Melissa can't stay awake at the back of the room.  Congratulate Mitch on winning the geography bee last night.  Double check with Ellie when you notice a pattern of nurse visits right before quizzes.  Channel the energy typically put into teacher's lounge gossip and pointless complaints into how to better relate to and connect with your students.

The politics of teaching could leave me feeling inadequate, undervalued, ignored or stifled.  But the faces staring up at me from my desks beg for more than my wounded ego and victim mentality.  They deserve my fullest attention and energy for the moments that I stand in front of them.

Choose to matter.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

#Teach2Teach Q1: The Balance

How do you balance the workload between teaching and planning? 

This is a question that I have grappled with every week since I began teaching.  There are thousands upon thousands of new, great, creative and inspiring ideas out there...and I, for one, have been known to spend hours upon hours just pondering the philosophy of what I do in my classroom and why.  But, when the bell rings and the students file in, at some point I am going to have to actually teach, explain, and model all these fantastic thoughts.  And, if I'm not careful, my passion for deep thoughts will impede my effectiveness as a teacher.

I hate that last sentence.  But it has been true at different times in my career.

So, here is my best advice for anyone embarking on this intimidating adventure of education:  prioritize.  You cannot do it all today.  You cannot do it all this week.  But you can do it all (to some degree) this year if you prioritize your goals.  Easier said than done, for sure. If I'm being honest, the following tips are best case scenarios for me...they don't always happen.  However, they have become vital to me this year in particular as I try to manage time with my 5 month old and time at school.  So, take everything with a grain of salt and fit it to your style, but if you're like me this might help you balance your enormous "To-Do" list:

1. In one sitting, plan out an entire "unit" (chapter of a textbook, project, etc).   As any good education major knows, start with the end in mind.  Focus on 3-5 objectives that are vital to your students' success.  Look at a calendar and vaguely map out how long you want to spend on each topic.  If you're new to teaching, this might be a MESS at first.  Just jot it down, even if it changes daily, to give yourself a timeline to work from.  I write down what formative assessments I think I'll need along the way (not specifics, just where I think I'll want to quiz) to give myself some short-term goals.  If I have any specific activities already in mind, I write those down too, but I don't spend time "lesson planning" per say.  Just over-arching themes here.  This is normally a Saturday or an evening a couple of days before I begin a unit.
Calendar in my classroom for student use.

2.  Now focus on step-by-step lessons for one day at a time. I know not everyone has to do this to be a good teacher, but I definitely did at the beginning (and still do when coming back from summer break, Christmas break, etc until I'm used to it again).  Using the general timeline you made for the whole unit, look at the activities you want to do on the first day.  I usually split mine up into a "Para Empezar", a few activities as a class and a "Tarea/Salida".  I go into school, sit at my desk, and open all my files and cabinets for this step.  I make my copies for the week.  I post as many details as possible on my Teacher Webpage.  Rarely do we get to everything I've planned for a day, so as I look at specific details for Day 2, I adjust.  When I first started teaching, this was something I did literally the night before a lesson.  Now, I can do most of my detail planning on Saturdays for the following week.  The more detailed I get at this step, the easier everything goes on the day of the lesson.

3.  Mentally plan to spend 1 evening a week at school. When I say evening, I mean an additional 2 hours after school.  I advertise to my students that on Thursdays from 3-4 I am theirs.  They can study with me, ask questions, make up assessments, work ahead...whatever they need.  Then, I usually stay until 5 working on my own organizational nightmares.  When I first started teaching, this was every night of every week until 6 or 7...or 10pm.  I simply cannot commit to that anymore, so I make stringent limits for myself.  This is not planning time; it is essentially additional teaching.

Baby Girl comes to Momma's study sessions.

Students at study session after school.

4.  Grade immediately. My policy has become that if I cannot grade it and get it back to them the next day, it is not worth assigning.  My first year, I was the teacher who put stacks of worksheets in a random desk drawer and ended up throwing them away the day before grades were due out of total frustration.  I've learned now that feedback must be immediate and consistent in order for it to affect learning.  So, when baby girl goes to sleep, Momma gets out a stack of exit tickets or quizzes and grades while she watches old Tonight Show episodes online.
First year frustration:  Why did I assign this nonsense?!

5.  Dream!  After you have mapped out your unit, zoomed in on what you will do tomorrow, set aside time for students, and graded what you've you can change the world!  Or, at least, this is what I tell myself.  It's like a reward system:  if I've done the tedious items above, I will allow myself to #langchat, to read up on blogs (Maris Hawkins, Amy Lenord, Sr. Howard, yeah, I'm looking at you!), fantasize about future field trips and delve into what practices I've let slip into my routine that are not aimed at proficiency.  If I do not let myself get to this step, I wither away.  If I let myself start here, I'm about in tears by 2nd period because nothing seems to be going right.

Field trip to La Carniceria!!

As I look over what I've written, I'm amazed by how crazy it looks. But, it is honest.  I force myself to plan the little things (what I assume most people see as teaching) and reward myself by planning the big things (the things I LOVE to incorporate, but the things that are sometimes too huge to tackle everyday).  To teach, you must define what is most important for your students and put that first.  To teach effectively, happily, and for many years, you MUST define what energizes you and purposefully put doses of that into your life as well.  

Friday, February 13, 2015


Life in middle school can be hard.

The body is going through the biggest period of development and change next to infancy.  The transition from elementary school to high school is short and intense.  And to be frank, kids can be mean.  

I recently watched an episode of Dateline discussing middle school and high school students who were seeking out plastic surgery due to extreme bullying by their peers. It saddened me so deeply that I couldn't help but discuss it with my students.  I tried to emphasize how temporary this stage of life is, even when it seems unending.  After the discussion, I began to visualize a way of actually showing them how different life can be in a matter of years.  

So, thanks to the Lakeview Middle School faculty and staff, we now have a #ItGetsBetter bulletin board in my hallway.  It includes horribly awkward school pictures of many of my students' favorite teachers.  Scattered among them are pictures of current celebrities when their lives were less-than-glamorous.  Phrases such as "Life goes on" and "People change" give poignant reminders to their readers.  

It immediately garnered lots of attention as students tried to predict which photo belonged to which adult.  Teachers also enjoyed sharing horror stories as they reminisced of their younger years.  It was a lot of fun to put together and I think it did forge somewhat of a bond between teachers and students as they realized we were all once in their shoes.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Make every minute count!

I NEVER get to everything I have planned for the class period.  Anybody with me?  When I'm trying to refresh topics from yesterday, conference individually with students, practice listening/speaking/writing/reading, have the students moving around, use authentic resources AND assess students along the way...I just don't know where the time goes!

Some people use "exit tickets" to double check that their students got that one main thought from the day.  But, if you're like me, you have come to the conclusion that you are incapable of stopping class in enough time for the students to successfully complete their exit ticket. So, I decided to do the exact opposite...come up with a super quick assessment that is their ticket IN the door.

If we have just introduced new vocabulary, for example, the following day I meet the students in the hallway before they get a chance to walk in the door.  I have a stack of pictures in my hand, along with my gradebook.  I show the students a picture, one at a time, and have them recite the word to me in Spanish.  If they can do it on the first try, they earn 3 points and they can enter the classroom.  They then can begin their "Para Empezar" on the board.   If they cannot answer the first question, they go to the back of the line and wait to try again, but now they can only earn 2 points...and so on, until they are out of points to earn.  Those students enter the classroom after repeating after me and receive a 0 for the day.

I have noticed that this practice takes care of 4 objectives:

  1. Students are held immediately responsible for information they learned the day before.  It is not a test next week, nor a homework assignment they can look up information for, but rather a quick "got it or don't got it" type of wake up call.
  2. This has all but eliminated my tardy issue.  If you are late to class, chances are you are still waiting in line to enter and you are already mentally rehearsing your vocab.  If you are so late that we are already finished, you have earned a 0 until you have made up your word.
  3. It feels fair. It's straight forward.  No tricks.  No test taking strategies.  If you mess up, you get 2 more chances.  If you bomb a whole day, it was only 3 points.  But, after you consistently do well at this for a week, you have a 15 point assessment in the gradebook to be proud of.
  4. It helps me conference one-on-one with my students.  I get a brief moment with each individual to hear them pronounce a word or two.  I can see how long they have to think before they respond.  I no longer have to wait until a paper quiz to see how students are doing...I know before they enter my classroom.  And, oftentimes, I base my instruction on that!
As the week progresses, I typically stray from rote memorization to more complex things.  Sometimes they have to translate a sentence.  Sometimes they have to answer a question.  Sometimes they have to simply pronounce a word.  It varies.  This idea could work for all content areas, too!  It is a great way to assess students in a non threatening way, with very little prep for the teacher.  Plus, it gives me a few minutes of classtime back...and I need every minute I can get!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Frase de la Semana

I am always looking for ways to encourage students to incorporate Spanish organically into their daily conversations.  Sometimes it happens, often it does not.  So this year I decided to take a more proactive role in targeting one "frase de la semana."

Each Monday I introduce a brand new phrase that I think will be helpful for them to know.  I have a spot on my front chalkboard where I write the phrase in Spanish and leave it all week for them to reference.  I do my best to act out the phrase in Spanish using gestures, pictures and whatever else I can gather to express the meaning.  Each time I hear the students using this phrase in context throughout the week, they receive a red "boleto."  They write their name and class period on the back and place it in my little bucket by the door.  On Fridays I draw out a name (or two or three, depending on how generous I'm feeling :) ) and the winner gets to choose from my highly coveted "premios" box.  It was JUST refilled, so tickets are going hot!

This semester students requested the ability to use the phrase on social media sites and gain credit that way too.  I think that still accomplishes our original I said yes!  We will see how it goes this week.  At this point, I love seeing tweets from my students using #valelapena, so I'm considering it a win.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


If you do not have a teaching account on Instagram or are missing out!  I (finally) got on Instagram last year and only this year really started utilizing Twitter regularly.  They have been game changers for me!  Here is one way in particular that I have had success using Instagram:

Somewhere online I found the idea of creating an Instagram challenge.  Students would be given a list of daily hashtags (words used to group or label photos) and asked to post pictures related to those topics.  When done in the target language, this can be an effective way of assessing if students are understanding difficult vocabulary or possibly even getting them curious as to more challenging words not yet studied.  My first challenge was to promote World Language Week at school, so I came up with these for the month of March.

I posted pictures daily and used #LMSespañol along with #marzo and the daily hashtag as well.  This way, my colleagues and administrators can easily see what my class is doing by simply searching our class hashtag. I tried to think of spring-type word and I also used our school calendar to see when we had school-wide events they could incorporate. Students seemed to like seeing what I would post and coming up with their own creative ideas.  During one of our homework choice assignments, I even let students choose to participate for seven days straight in this challenge and submit it for credit.  Overall, it was a good start.

I tried a second challenge over the summer to encourage students to continue to use the language even outside of school.  As fun as I thought it was, I didn't get much student involvement.  Many of the teachers from my building who follow my school account jumped on board, however, so it wasn't a total loss!

My favorite Instagram challenge by far was our most recent one.  This December I came up with yet another list and promoted it much better this time.  I had it posted in the hallways, I posted a count down online and I even offered prizes.  Many students participated between 1-5 days, a few did more than that...and three students posted every single day!  It was a lot of fun to see their daily updates in Spanish.

Upon further reflection, I realized that a month is probably too long of a time to keep up the excitement.  I think a shorter challenge for one or two weeks will probably gain more momentum. Enjoy some of the goofy/creative submissions I received from our #diciembre challenge.  How could you incorporate Instagram into your classroom?  What suggestions would you have to improve this idea for the future?



Thursday, February 5, 2015

Nuestro Mantra

"I'm so stupid."
"I never get good grades."
"I can't do this."
"I'm just not good at Spanish."

These are just some of the common tidbits I overhear as a teacher.  At the beginning I used to just say, "Did I say that about you?" and when they answered, "" I would reply, "Exactly.  Because I don't think that." I assumed they got the picture.

But as the negativity began to be more prominent and as I began to read more about fixed mindsets vs. growth mindsets, I realized these statements went much deeper.  No amount of lectures seemed to be getting through.  Time after time students walked into my classroom already defeated because of something that happened at home that morning or in the hallway before class.  I couldn't take it anymore!

So, I drafted what I call our Mantra.  I introduce it as positive brainwashing.  I explain to the students that the words we say over and over again are what we subconsciously begin to accept as truth.  I give them the handout and allow them to practice pronunciation of unfamiliar words and then we go through what the Mantra means.  If I hear negativity from that day forward that affects our class culture, I loudly begin the first line and the students break into a grin as they repeat after me.  In fact, on days when I feel rushed and accidentally forget to start class with the Mantra, I have multiple students who interrupt me and say "You forgot our Mantra, Maestra!" Sometimes as a quiz or test is being distributed they ask to say it one extra time "for good luck."

Lately, students have been asking if they can say my part and be our Mantra leader for the day.  I take a seat in their desk and shout the student part as loud as I can..."Puedo alcanzar mis sueños poco a poco empezando con mis decisiones HOY!"  

Monday, February 2, 2015

Cultural Lenses

This activity was something that came up during curriculum planning with another teacher in my corporation.  We wanted to come up with a visual for our students to help them better understand what culture is and how our cultures define us.  My favorite thing about teaching a 9 week exploratory course was that we got to dive into topics like this one.

I started by asking students to define the word culture.  We listed topics on the board such as ethnicity, religion, foods, clothing, language, etc.  After we had a good working definition, each student received a handout that had a large pair of "Cultural Lenses" on it. We discussed how our culture is similar to a pair of glasses we put on each day when we wake up.  The rest of the day, everything we see, everyone we talk to, and every interaction we have is colored by the way we were raised and our definition of "normal."  So, inside their "Gafas de Cultura" students tried to depict their own personal culture, including each of the categories we listed on the board.  They could use a mixture of pictures and words to more accurately define what makes them unique and what affects the way they view the world around them.

How do you discuss topics such as stereotyping, racism and cultural awareness in your language classroom?  Do your students come from similar or diverse cultural backgrounds?  I'd love to hear about your experiences!