Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back at 2015

I recently read Life After the Storm by Jan Harrison (@JanMHarrison77).  The book was a gift to my husband, who's not exactly fond of reading and so it landed on my reading stack.  It is an account of the author's emotional and spiritual healing experience after the death of her son. While I don't have any real connection to it at this time, there were lots of good points presented and I found it very uplifting and enlightening.  There was one line in the book that really resonated with me and it is pictured below.

Although reflection is crucial to personal or professional growth, one must be careful not to dwell on the past. Whether we are building on successes or learning from our failures, it's important to focus on the road ahead in order to stay on track. 

As I reflect on 2015, I feel it was a year of sowing - a year of investment and risk.  If you regularly read my blog you know that I am continually reflecting. Whether reflecting on a lesson, a new tool, a setback or a celebration, I'm on a quest to learn from my experiences.  In recent posts, I've been deliberately sharing strategies and tools that have worked well (or sometimes not so well) in my classroom.  As I read other educators' blogs, I find myself learning from their travels and therefore, I want to reciprocate by sharing my journey as well.

At the end of the school year in June, I wrote "I've Been Wowed" after experimenting with the Wowed app and through it I reflected on all those who have contributed to my professional growth.  Back in November, I wrote a post titled "What Have You Done For Me Lately" and again reflected on how my PLN has built me up.

In December, I had an accomplishment that frankly I had only dreamed of. I had the privilege of being published in Education Week.  Thanks to my involvement with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), I was asked to contribute and share some insight and therefore wrote "Tips For Connecting With Non-English Speaking Parents".  The experience was incredible in many ways. While I am passionate about advocating for ELLs and their families, I love having the opportunity to take my experience from working with this student population and share what I've learned with all teachers. I also have fallen in love with writing and this experience has helped me to hone my skill. Subsequently, I was asked to contribute to other publications. I will be sure to share those as they are published.

Also resulting from my writing experience with the CTQ was the nomination to attend the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) Conference in San Diego, California at the end of January 2016.  Although the conference is still about four weeks away, I have already connected with some amazing educators at my school, as well as through Twitter and Voxer, who are active in this network of teachers.  Stay tuned for an exciting post in early February 2016.

One more celebration was the acceptance of a Student Showcase proposal at NCTIES.  On March 3, 2016, several of my high school ELLs and I will take our show on the road as we'll travel to Raleigh, NC. My students will have the opportunity to present their English language accomplishments through blogging to educators across North Carolina and beyond. This is very exciting for my ELLs as it will provide a tremendous leadership opportunity.  I look forward to sharing a celebratory post in March.

As I move forward to 2016, I feel that now is the time to reap.  I have planted much and will naturally continue to do so, but I feel this a time of harvest.  Frankly, I have no idea what the future holds, but I feel some changes are in store.  These may be changes in attitude and approach. There may be continued opportunities to share. Changes may be minimal or they may be huge, but I am keeping my options open. Regardless of how it all plays out, I feel that some of the seeds I have planted are ready to bear fruit and I choose to have an optimistic outlook.

In spite of having a fantastic year, I am counting on 2016 being extraordinarily eventful.

Wishing everyone who reads this the #BestYearEver.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Gift of Affirmation

Image Created at
A couple of weeks before Winter Break some of my high school ELLs asked about having a Christmas gift exchange.  This particular bunch is a pretty close-knit group, but they are also culturally heterogeneous and some of them don't celebrate Christmas. Interestingly enough, the most vocal proponent of the gift exchange idea was a non-Christian student who wholeheartedly embraces the festive and gift-giving aspect of Christmas.  While everyone agreed on the exchange, I had some concerns that this may present a burden to some students and simply told the class that I needed to give it some thought.  A few days later, I brought it up again for class discussion and the idea evolved into a class project that positively launched us into our break.

First, I gave them the quote pictured here and asked them to think about good, intangible things. As they brainstormed, words like love, feelings, help, smile, friendliness and life came up. Next, I asked them to write their names on a small sticky note and toss it into a small bucket.  They drew names for the person they were to exchange a gift with.  Finally, I asked them to create a gift that would require neither an expenditure nor a shopping trip.  Although they were free to use the tool of their choice to create their gift, I introduced them to Buncee and all them chose to go with this tool. And so they created online holiday cards containing words of affirmation.

Buncee is an interesting presentation tool that allows users to create anything from digital stories to slide shows to greeting cards. It is cloud-based and projects are shareable.  Students drafted their messages on a Google doc, which was to contain at least five positive attributes of the recipient.  Before creating the digital card, they shared the doc with me in order to have the messages checked for syntax error and content.  A few of my students use a translator and it's important that messages read well in English so they translate well into their native language.  Afterward, students used Buncee's holiday greeting card templates to share the affirming words.  They personalized the cards by adding clipart, animations, photos and more. When finished they emailed them to one another and copied me in.  The activity went so well, I took the idea to my middle schoolers and they also enjoyed it very much.

My high schoolers topped off the celebration with a food party. From homemade dishes to store bought items, each brought something to share with their classmates.  We had so much food that many of my colleagues were able to join in the festivity.  Because my schedule is not as consistent at the middle school, I bought some red velvet cake bits, so the feasting continued.

As expected, it was heartwarming to see students' reactions when they opened up their digital cards and read those edifying messages. However, I believe the most impactful part of this project was in composing those messages.  Although this is a close group, some relationships are tighter than others. For a few of them, it was not easy to compose a list of five good things.  I found it very gratifying to help students see each other in a positive light and discover good things in those whose virtues tend to be rather disguised.  It really brought the group closer together and I believe will help them start 2016 on a favorable note.

My middle schoolers had an alternate schedule on the last day, so they didn't have a chance to open their cards in class.  Most of them don't check their school email when class is not in session and
therefore, I will make it a point to go through these with them during the first week of school.

At the end of the activity, students learned about a new tech tool, they learned about one another and they were affirmed.  It was a wonderful gift exchange although they did not spend a dime. Echoing the words of Art Buchwald, "the best things in life aren't things".

In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, let's take the time to give the gift that keeps on giving - the gift of love, kindness, and affirmation - a gift that knows no race, ethnicity or religious affiliation - nor does it need an occasion or reason.  Affirmation is eagerly accepted and appreciated by all people, all year long.

I also encourage you to check out Buncee and let me know what you think.  Please share how your learners have used it, especially if you use it to uplift and affirm one another.

Wishing everyone the happiest of holidays!


Monday, December 7, 2015

Bird In A Cage

Many of my students routinely ask me to proofread their written work for other classes. My newcomers are especially notorious because most of them compose their writing in their native language and then use a tool, such as Google Translate, to translate the content to English. Translation tools work relatively well and generally capture the gist of the message, but they are not perfect and it usually requires some cleanup

Last Friday, as I've done on many occasions, one of my newcomers asked me to look over a piece she had written for her English class. The class had just finished reading My Forbidden Face, which is the true story of a teenage, Afghan girl and her personal account of her life as the Taliban seized power in 1996. Below is a screenshot of her assignment.  

Like many newcomers, she first translated the instructions, then composed the writing piece for her project in Spanish and finally translated her composition to English. While I did some editing, her message for the most part was left intact. I was very touched by her thoughts and felt compelled to share them here on my blog. Although I'm not releasing her identity, I did have her permission to share. The italicized text below has been copied and pasted directly from her Google doc.

"I remember the times I spent at my old school. They were the best and I will never forget those days. The teacher asked us to talk about a situation in which we personally have felt trapped by society or oppressed by our peers. I chose the option of writing about feeling oppressed because I thought it will be easier to relate to my current situation.

I always enjoy being at a new school because I am very social and like having many friends. A new school gave me the opportunity to make new friends. I remember the first day at this school when I was so eager to start and meet new people. I think my dreams were shattered because of a few people who didn’t even know me and judged me based on my lack of English language skills.  People who think that because I don’t speak or write in English, I am not capable of achieving my dreams.  This the most unhappy I have ever felt.  I felt left out in a world that was not for me, encountering more obstacles than I ever imagined. I'm not afraid to meet and get to know others, even if we don’t speak the same language. Not knowing English is so difficult for me now.  I feel like a helpless animal that just wants to be free, spread abroad his wings to fly and travel the world.  I see only iron bars that are keeping me from fulfilling my dreams. As far as those silly people who mock me or ignore me I have no other words to describe them than the iron bars that have kept me locked in a cage without being able to spread my wings and fly. I have also felt scoffed when trying to talk to others who don’t even try to understand or reach out to me, but I will not let these obstacles get in my way.  

There is a difference between a defenseless bird who cannot stay in the cage and one that is willing to fight to be free. I do not have to stay in this cage. I have to extend my wings and fly, no matter what they say. I learned the first time that I cannot sit and expect someone to me help me out of this cage. I have to move forward and I will."

A language barrier is most definitely a constraint, and just like a cage, it traps individuals, limiting their activities and potentially stifling dreams. What I most enjoyed about reading this passage was the fact that she is keeping herself at the wheel, as she "cannot sit and expect someone to help her out of this cage." This young lady moved to Mooresville from Mexico in November 2014, knowing no English whatsoever- not even her colors or numbers. Yet, she enrolled in drama class and was on stage a few months later performing in front of a crowd. Her roles were minor, but she gave it her all and was successful. She later tried out for color guard and made it, despite the fact that there was not a single Spanish speaker on the team. Frankly, I was concerned at first, but she was not. She wanted to dance and is good at it. Therefore, she felt that her talent would pull her through and she was right.

She is still struggling but is not afraid of risk. This young lady has proven time and time again that no one but her has ownership of life, and she will not let anyone dictate her future. The future looks bright for her if she stays on this course and does not lose momentum. Her cage door is open, and soon she will fly away and reach new heights. She is immensely inspirational to me - as are most of my ELLs - and I hope her story will inspire you as well.