Friday, December 19, 2014

Reflecting on 2014

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This week as one of my middle schoolers was struggling on a blog post, she questioned her ability to deeply reflect. She said, "I'm not that deep" to which I responded, "You are, keep digging."  I went on to show her my blog and she was amazed at the length of my posts - most of my students don't write more than five sentences.  I also told her that I wouldn't expect her to do anything that I wouldn't be willing or able to do myself.  Do as I do, not as I say.

After that conversation with the middle schooler I realized that at one point, I too perhaps didn't think I was that deep, even though I didn't exactly think of it that way at the time. Blogging can be challenging.  It took me a few months before I mustered the courage to take the plunge.  My main reason for not blogging sooner was that I felt I had nothing to write about.  I was also worried about my writing skills, about exposing my thoughts to the world, about being so vulnerable.  Once I started my blog, I decided that for the 2014-15 school year, I would blog at least once a week.  Thanks to the #reflectiveteacher blogging challenges, I was able to exceed my goal and I am a better teacher for it.  Furthermore, as I connect to other educators I am more purposeful about connecting with my students and the work I assign.  

Today is the last school day of 2014 and as I reflect on this calendar year, I will follow the prompt I gave my high schoolers this morning: "Reflecting on 2014, identify three good things, two things you are especially happy about and one thing you wish would have been different".  

Three good things are Twitter, Twitter, Twitter....and did I mention Twitter?  Thanks to Twitter I am connected to educators beyond my schools' walls, I am more reflective and my teaching is much more than about teaching English communication skills.  I am not only concerned about the quantifiable, but about the qualitative that makes our life complete.  I am no longer teaching English as a Second Language.  I am now teaching and empowering students whose second language happens to be English.  I have learned (and I am teaching) that stumbling blocks are usually stepping stones.

Two things I am especially happy about are this blog and about the positive phone calls I have been making. I don't have huge numbers of followers or readers, but I have found blogging to be very therapeutic.  I am also happy that my students are blogging.  While many of them whine and struggle, I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I hope all of them will be able to see their gains at the end the school year.  As far as the positive calls, last year I decided I would include it on my PDP. Then, this summer I joined #goodcallsmovement on Twitter and my PLN has kept me accountable.  Parents really appreciate the contact, students love knowing that I care, but what's most significant is that I'm on a quest to find good so I can make those calls.  I make a minimum of two positive calls a week.  I won't lie, some weeks are easier than others, but if I seek the good, I find it.

One thing I wish would have been different?  It's hard narrowing it down to one, but I guess the top would be more reading time.  I ask my students and my own children to read daily, but I don't always do it myself.  Sure you can say that reading blogs from Twitter is reading, but there's nothing like reading a good book.  Reading for fun and inspiration, not because it's part of a lesson or professional development.  This is something I've slacked off on and need to get back on track.  Not because I have to but because I want to and most importantly because I want my students and children to "do as I do, not as I say."

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Monday, December 15, 2014

Big Little Things

Continuing on the generosity theme for the month of December, this quote is our "Thought for the Week".  As we approach the Christmas holiday, most of my students are wrapped up (no pun intended) in what they are getting for Christmas and in shopping for gifts and outfits for the upcoming celebrations.  After posting this quote, I asked my classes about special holidays in their native country and/or families where gifting is expected. Students talked about Hindu religious festivals, New Year's Day, Three Kings Day and certainly Christmas.  I went on to ask them about the most meaningful gift they had received on any of those special days.  Their responses were all similar:  clothing, food, electronics, books, toys...all tangible gifts.  I then referred back to the quote on the whiteboard and asked them to think about intangible gifts. None of them had considered intangibles as gifts. They had to think hard and but then again so did I.  It's been years since I was a teen, but my response to a question about the most meaningful gift would not necessarily lead me to think of anything expensive, but it certainly would be tangible.

As my first block class came to a close, I posted the quote on this page, saved the draft and decided I would later write something. First, I didn't have time, but furthermore, I needed time to ponder on this question.  A few hours later, school was dismissed and I went on my phone to check out the latest Twitter feed.  A post by @BarbaraGruener about the "gift of memory" caught my eye and I clicked to read her blog.  She wrote about "an interesting reflection opportunity" one of her connections, parenting expert Annie Fox, had posed as she was preparing to write an article. This opportunity came in the form of the following prompt "Recall a meaningful gift you received as a child.  What comes to mind and why was it so special to you?"  Read Barbara's blog post here.  Before I write my response, let me say that after participating in two blogging challenges, I miss having prompts to stir my thinking, so I appreciate the question.

My most meaningful memory is of a bicycle "Santa" left for me when I was eight years old.  What's so special about a bicycle you might ask.  Well, you see a couple years before, my dad, the main breadwinner at the time, was involved in a horrible construction accident while building the second floor of a skyscraper in Miami.  He fell 19 feet head first and thankfully his hands hit the ground first, sparing his life. Recovery from this accident was lengthy and because of numerous therapies and surgeries, he didn't get back to significant full time work until three years later.  A few months after that Christmas, one of my classmates dropped the news that Santa didn't exist and it was our parents who bought our gifts.  That didn't seem possible to me in light of my parents' financial situation.  We were poor, but also proud and thanks to my dad's frugality, we lived off savings and my mother's measly income. When I confronted my mother about Santa, my first question to her was "How were you able afford my bike?"  I remember the emotion, not so much at the disappointment of Santa not being real, but at my parents' selflessness.  They gave up much that Christmas so I could have that bike.

Many years have passed and many more gifts were exchanged, but the greatest, most meaningful gift my parents gave me was their example.  My daddy has passed and my mother is aging and not shopping much anymore, but their selflessness, generosity and kindness is a gift that keeps on giving. One that I hope to pass on to my own children.

May the giving spirit of the Christmas season remain in our hearts all year long.


Friday, December 12, 2014

'Tis The Season To Be Jolly

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Today is the 12th day of the 12th month of the year - one week away from our Christmas break. Yes, Christmas break. It may more politically correct to say Winter Break, but I prefer to say Christmas. Whether one is Christian or not, whether one celebrates Christmas religiously or secularly or even if one tries not to acknowledge it at all, the fact is that Christmas is a national holiday celebrated in December and the reason why we traditionally break from school for two weeks. Furthermore, it is the only holiday on which Walmart and most other business establishments are closed and commercial life nearly shuts down on that day.

Last week on #ELLchat, our topic was "December Holidays and ELLs". In ESL, we teach English language skills, but we also teach about culture in the U.S. While we don't expect anyone to leave behind their culture and traditions, it's certainly very appropriate to introduce them to traditions and holidays celebrated in the U.S. Many districts across the U.S. are so concerned about political correctness that they choose to ignore the December holidays altogether and acknowledge nothing more than the winter season. Although December brings a heightened awareness of the diversity of ethnicity and cultures that exist in this great nation, I believe that it is perfectly appropriate to teach ELLs about Christmas. Sure we can also teach them about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and any other holidays that are celebrated, but we can't deny the effect that Christmas has on this country.

I'm thankful that I live in the great state of North Carolina-the heart of the Bible belt and we can get away with a little more than in other parts of this country. I'm thankful that the area where I live and teach is not so caught up in political correctness and I have the freedom to teach my students about the culture of their American peers. Make no mistake, I'm very aware of the separation of church and state and I know where to draw the line. I'm unapologetically Christian but my bible clearly teaches that faith (or the lack thereof) is a choice, a personal choice, and even if it was legal for me to teach bible lessons in a public school, I need to respect the beliefs of others.

However, I'm very concerned that perhaps we may have swung the pendulum too far the opposite direction. We don't have to leave Christmas (or any other religious holiday) out of the classroom. I personally believe that in not teaching about Christmas we are doing a disservice to our ESL students, especially newcomers and most especially those that are not Christian. There's a difference between teaching about a holiday and teaching religious beliefs related to the holiday.

I pride myself in validating all cultures and traditions. Every Friday, my beginners have Show & Tell and students are asked to speak about a topic that usually is related to their native country and/or culture in some way. Students bring in items or memorabilia, share personal stories, traditions, holidays and their presentations often include talk of their faith or religion. Nobody is out to convert anyone. Nobody invites others to their church or temple (at least not in my classroom) but we all learn interesting facts about one another and our culture. What I've found is that in sharing about each other, we learn that we are more similar than we are different. Just this week, one of my Asian students-a practicing Buddhist-asked if we can study Christmas carols next week. She finds the songs fun and interesting and would like to learn the lyrics. Even though she and her family don't celebrate the birth of Christ, she displays a photo of herself on her laptop standing next to the Christmas tree at work and has been out shopping for gifts for friends and family.

My point in all this is that it's okay to talk about Christmas or any religious holiday without proselytizing. It's one thing to share the salvation story and it's another to address the fact that many families recognize Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ, while others just celebrate Santa Claus and all the gift giving. Some don't recognize the holiday at all and that's okay. It's their choice and that's what this country is based on - the freedom to choose.

Bottom line, Christmas is a joyful, cheerful season. A season of giving, sharing, partying and celebrating. Homes, businesses and streets are decorated with bright lights and colorful decorations. It's a season to be merry and I won't let political correctness dampen my spirit or dim my lights.

Let's focus on what we can all agree on because it's indeed the season to be jolly. Fa la la la la, la la la la


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Anonymous Gifts

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After focusing on gratitude for the month of November, I found it quite fitting to focus on generosity as we enter the Christmas season. So, the first quote of the week was the quote shown above. In one of my classes, the reading selection was an article about the "Cool Clothes Closet" in South Florida where teens in need can obtain fashionable clothes for free (here's the article in case you're interested).  It was a great lesson for the ESL class.  After reading the article, I also gave them a blog prompt about anonymous gifts.  I asked the class to write about a time when someone gave them a gift but they had no idea who the giver was. They were to share what they received, when it happened, where they were living at the time and most importantly, how it made them feel. They shared some fabulous stories ranging from gifts received through a parent's customer to lunch money left on a day she thought she would go hungry to anonymous Christmas gifts. We also had some interesting discussions about giving anonymously as well. One of them wrote a lovely post about how he and a group of friends once left a donation at the door of an orphanage. It tied in beautifully with the quote for the week and I could tell each of them were emotionally impacted not so much by the article but by the discussion and blogging.  I was very touched myself and it made me realize that when I give I usually expect something in return even if just a "thank you".  I began to think about my own giving practices.  I've always thought of myself as somewhat generous and my husband and I have tried to instill that in our children.  However, I really couldn't remember the last time I gave completely anonymously, expecting nothing in return.  Sure, I give to organizations that help those less fortunate and while I am anonymous to those that benefit from those causes, I do receive a tax-deduction. I started feeling a bit selfish, thinking that I only give expecting something in return.  

Then I thought of the generosity of teachers. From school supplies to anonymous donations for students in need.  And what about all those intangibles - our time and effort. Many folks believe that teachers have a cush job. We work 7:00-2:30 and have summers off.  Quite the fictional statement.  I don't know of a single teacher at my schools whose work ends at 2:30.  Some may leave the building at 2:30, but the work continues at home.  And summers are neither a vacation nor are they paid.  We receive stipends for some of the work, but not most. The majority of teachers give so much of themselves and while it's not exactly volunteer work, there's lots we are not compensated for.

So, if real generosity is doing something nice for someone who will never find out, then teachers are some of the most generous people on this planet.  While the impact of those small (or great) acts of kindness may never be known, we certainly don't labor in vain.  Keep at it my fellow educators, the best is yet to come!


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Reflection On Reflection

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When I embarked on the first Reflective Teacher Blogging Challenge in September, I was certainly expecting to grow as I learned more about myself, my teaching practices and my students.  However, just like a good shopping trip where we set out to purchase one thing and find so many other good deals that we end up with bundles of items we never expected to buy, reflection has well exceeded my expectations.  Not surprisingly, as I blogged and read other blogs, I picked up ideas and inspiration that are making me a more progressive educator.  The best part is that it's changed my mindset and my students are the beneficiaries.

One thing that's surprised me is the virtual friendships I've made.  Okay, maybe I'm sounding like a real loser here, but after so many days of blogging and sharing, I have developed a strong connection to my #reflectiveteacher peeps.  So while I can't afford to continue blogging daily, I am trying to make the Tuesday night #reflectiveteacher Twitter chats.

Last night's chat was on "Encouraging Student Creativity in the Classroom". The first question posed was "What does fostering Student Creativity look like in your classroom?" to which I responded, "student voice and choice".  Well, that got my mind going and I realized that I really need to do more of that in order to foster creativity, but that's not too easy.  Most students aren't used to being in the drivers seat and react as any inexperienced driver would. They freeze.

So this morning I came to school inspired from last night's chat, ready to put my words in action.
And what did I do in my first class?  I put the ball in the student's court.  Every Friday, we have Show & Tell in my high school beginner ESL class.  Students are given a topic, usually related to their native country or culture, and they prepare a presentation and/or bring in something to show & tell the class about. For this weeks Show & Tell, I told them they were free to present anything related to generosity - which is our theme for the month.  I asked them to think about what they would like to present and email me their ideas. As expected, they froze and started asking questions in an attempt to get me to give them ideas, but I only answered with more questions.  It took a little longer to compose the emails than I had planned, but it was not lost time by any means and the emails came in with some wonderful ideas and suggestions.

Later in the day, I headed over to the middle school and used Today's Meet to gather feedback from my middle schoolers on the "words of affirmation" activity (see Brown Paper Bags post).  Most of them told me what I wanted to here, but many shared some constructive criticism.  While I didn't start any projects with them today, last night's conversations have inspired me to give them more voice. Now I will say fostering creativity in middle schoolers is more difficult than with high schoolers, but most of them are long term ELLs and having an increased English proficiency level is a benefit in it of itself. 

I also need to add that I've decided to start a monthly theme.  The idea was inspired by the "Attitude of Gratitude" Blogging Challenge. As gratitude was the theme for our blogging challenge, it also became a theme for the quotes I post and discuss in class.  So, we started with gratitude and now we are moving on to "generosity" for December.  In addition to presenting quotes about generosity and giving, we are taking it up a notch so that reading selections are also about giving.  This is the beginning of something new - a monthly theme.  This part I'm only doing at the high school level. They are my guinea pigs, if you will, the ones I test market all ideas on.

As my PLN grows, I grow and my students grow and I all know is that I still have so much more to grow.  The best is yet to come.