With a little, we can do a lot

(I want to start this by saying I felt super tech-savvy when originally writing this blog post, because I didn’t write down my ideas. I put them into a recorded evernote in my car while parked outside the cat shelter where I volunteer, so I could transcribe it later on my computer.)

It’s a tough world for education these days. Everywhere we turn, it seems like teachers and the educational system are under attack. We have things like value-added measurement, the loss of tenure (which many people still seem to think is a get-out-of-firing-for-free card when really it means that teachers have the right to due process), and political figures such as Scott Walker slashing educational budgets left and right. It seems like there are many people out there who don’t want our schools to succeed.

But right now is one of those times where I can smile and say, YES, people do care. Lots of people care. If you don’t already follow Humans of New York (the blog or on facebook,) you need to. It will bring a smile to even your darkest days. HONY, as it’s called, is a photojournalism project by a guy named Brandon who photographs, well, people of New York. About a week ago he posted this story about a student named Vidal:


And it went viral. Being an educator, of course I hit ‘like’ and ‘share’ as fast as I could. Since I’m in the system, I know there are people out there who bust their butts every single day in the hardest, most poverty-stricken districts in the country to try to help even just one kid. But we educators can’t do it by ourselves; we need buy-in from parents, community leaders, politicians, everyone.

What gives me hope is seeing that HONY created a fundraiser for Ms. Lopez’s school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, to give her students – rather, her scholars – a chance to get out of the projects and see what it’s like at an Ivy League college. For kids who have to worry that they might not make it through high school, this is a pretty big deal. And the world came through for them. When I made my original note-to-self on Saturday, the original goal had been met by about 3,000 backers. At the time of this writing, there have been over 30,000 donations for over $1 million. Most donations aren’t that big – $5, $10, $25. The same thing happened last summer with Reading Rainbow’s kickstarter fund, eventually raising over $5M (with another $1M matched by Seth MacFarlane, who for all his low-brow jokes and toilet humor, clearly cares about education).

Now, don’t get me wrong – I think it’s kind of ridiculous that schools are forced to ask for donations through Indiegogo, Kickstarter, or Donors Choose, but it makes my heart smile that through the power of the internet, these services can even exist. Nobody is going to fundraise for my classroom because my kids have plenty of opportunity. These fundraisers serve our most critically at-risk groups of students, and it shows that if everyone gives just a little, we can do a lot. I can afford $5 here and there to help out someone else. None of us can do it alone, but if I give $5, and you give $5, and she gives $5, and they give $5, pretty soon $5 from 1,000 people will go far.

When we work together, we can make a big difference. To donate to Mott Hall Bridges Academy, please click here.

#Teach2Teach Question 1

I am so excited to participate (okay, so I’m a little late) in Amy Lenord’s #Teach2Teach series because… well, I’m a teacher! I love helping people learn stuff! Being a younger teacher myself, it wasn’t too long ago that I was the fresh face in the building who was fumbling and bumbling my way through my first year. On top of it, I had to rebuild a language program that had been razed to the ground by prior teachers, so my work was definitely cut out for me.

The first #Teach2Teach question from Garrett is: How do all these teachers balance the workload between teaching and planning?

To be honest, some of us are better at balancing it than others. There are a lot of teachers who balance it on the back of the personal lives. And it’s not just teaching and planning, you also have to consider that most teachers pick up some sort of extra duty by choice (like a club, sport, or other extra-curricular activity) and others are not such a choice (ticket taking duty for events, concession stand duty, awards ceremonies). We all get the same 24 hours in a day. I like to think that I’m pretty good at keeping the balance, but I will state for the record that I don’t have children – teachers with kids at home, especially young ones, are a special kind of superhero. I don’t know how they find time for everything.

Unit plans are your friend

This year (my 5th) is my first year using long term unit plans (with more than a little help from these tutorials by Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell!) and it has made things much easier. Instead of teaching.. uh, stuff, and then testing them.. somehow.. on the stuff, I know exactly where I am trying to steer my students and what our final goal will be. If an activity isn’t pushing us towards that goal, out it goes. My problem was, the summer before I started teaching, I didn’t make unit plans. I made activities. Lots and lots of activities. I typed up vocab sheets! I created worksheets! (Oh, so so so many worksheets. Conjugation worksheets.) I made word searches and a few information gap activities! And then, when I got to that unit in December, I asked myself why in the world I thought word X was more important than word Y, and why did I include Z at all? Now I had all this stuff I had made, and it was useless.

So if nothing else, plot out some major concepts/themes you want to cover in each of your courses. You should have access to a textbook (if you are required or intend to use one) that can help you sketch out some main ideas. Think about what you want your students to be able to do (remember, a good objective is able to be actively demonstrated by the students) and consider what your assessment should look like based on that. Then you have to create the activities, find the readings, and cull the songs that get you there. That is the part that takes the most time your first year. After that, all you have to do is adjust. What worked? What didn’t? If it didn’t work, can you make it work or should you just pitch it entirely?

Have a discipline plan and follow it. No, seriously.

After a few months, lesson planning will become second nature and probably be one of the easiest parts of the job. I am a really good teacher when I don’t have actual, physical students to teach! So to help you with the ongoing challenges of teaching, you need to have a discipline plan in place from day one. Perhaps your school has a school-wide behavior plan or maybe you have to come up with your own. In either case, depending on your school, you have anywhere from 1 minute to 1 week of honeymoon (when the kids are still feeling you out) before you’re going to have to make a major disciplinary decision, and it’s easier if you’ve already made up your mind how you will handle situations.

Some things to consider: How will you handle a phone or ipod in class? How will you handle inappropriate use of computers? How will you handle swearing? What about aggression (verbal or physical) between students? How will you handle bullying? (The bullying question is particularly difficult because sometimes it’s hard to pin down what is normal students-learning-to-be-fully-fledged-humans behavior and what is downright bullying. And sometimes, if the teacher gets directly and obviously involved, it only makes it worse for the victim.) What behaviors will get a Teacher Look or Stern Voice? What behaviors will receive a detention? (And if you decide to give a detention, what will that look like? I like to sit the student down and ask them why they think they are there, correct them if they’re totally off, and then ask them how we can fix it.) What behaviors will have the student immediately escorted from your classroom? Remember that it is very important to handle as many behaviors on your own as you can, because if you are constantly shuttling students to the office, both the students and your administration probably won’t take you very seriously.

No matter what your plan is, from the beginning, you have to follow it. None of us like confrontation, and I prefer to use non-confrontational means when possible, but eventually there will be a situation where you will need to make it clear that you are the teacher and you are in control of your classroom. Practice your Teacher Look. Practice your Stern Voice. It is much easier to be very strict at the beginning of the year and loosen up than vice versa.

Make time for yourself

My last piece of advice sounds kind of ‘duh’, but in the thick of things – for example, when I have been at work or working on education-related things for pretty much the last 2 days straight – make time for yourself. Make sure you have a lesson ready to go for tomorrow, but sometimes it’s going to be an okay-at-best lesson. (But seriously, have something for them to do – 5 minutes of unstructured time with a freshman class is as stressful and exhausting as 45 minutes of engaged time.) Grading can almost always wait. Your students cannot have a healthy, happy educational experience if their teacher is not also healthy and happy. Keep some non-educational hobbies. Go to the gym. Make time for your significant other, if you have one. Eat well. There is always something more to do, some other resource to find, some kid who needs your help – eventually you have to turn that off and go to sleep at a decent hour.

And with that said, I’m going to eat some chocolate and play Marvel Puzzle Quest.

Locations markerboard game


El oso está en el estante. Está encima de las revistas y a la derecha de los libros.

Recently in Spanish 1 we had a quiz over location prepositions. Normally this falls within the boundaries of unit 4 which ends the first semester, but I missed over a week of school this fall for various activity and medical things. (Not all at once, thankfully! But a day here and a day there sure adds up.) So then I had this weird little section where I needed to cover things, but it’s not enough for a full sized test. A bonus to this conundrum is I was teaching the school unit – a particular target for teachers who argue against ‘legacy’ teaching. The argument against ‘legacy’ units like stuff around the school is that it’s not useful and super boring. But it doesn’t have to be useless or boring! After all, how many of us have to ask our students where their pencil is, where the paper is, and so on? It’s part of the normal classroom patter we use every day.

Thursday’s activity (after a few days of comprehensible input) was a simple game that you can play in your classroom with zero prep. Here’s what you do:

1) Use something as your main object to be located. In my case, I have a drawer full of various stuffed animals that I had placed around the room yesterday when we practiced as a group. (This is also a great way to reinforce animal vocabulary and if you’re feeling really spiffy, you can do some quick group mega-easy-by-now questions like ‘Is it a cow or is it a monkey? What color is the monkey? Is the monkey big or little?’)

2) Put your kids into groups. Give each group a markerboard.

3) Place the object somewhere around the room. Make a big deal out of it.

4) Set a timer for 1 minute per round.

5) Each group has to write a sentence about where the object is (no notes!). My very competitive period 3 class enjoyed trying to one-up each other. They went from something like ‘The bear is on the table.’ to ‘The bear is on the chair and underneath the table.’ To make sure everyone was participating and not just the superstars doing all the work, a different student in the group had to write each time.

6) Here’s where you can get creative. I gave one point per correctish sentence. (I didn’t take off for missing or incorrect el/la/de or spelling.) You could give more points for perfect sentences, correct use of accent marks, or bonus creativity. For example, if another group wrote the same sentence, their points cancelled each other out. I liked to put it in a place where there were multiple correct answers to get them thinking about different ways they could answer. Plus, this works on communication strategies – if you can’t remember how to say what you originally wanted to say, how can you restate it and still be understood?

7) Preferably, everyone writes great sentences and then they’re all winners!