You can’t have too many word walls…

I have several word walls in my room. Aside from a math word wall and one for shared reading, I also have these: one is my area for words kids are always asking to spell, which includes mostly sight words, beneath that is my bunch of school-related visual word cards for newcomers. My primary word wall is the one with the trophy; on it are the “award-winning” tier 2 words that comes from read alouds, shared reading, conversations, etc. I also have listed “super synonyms”, which are to help kids discover more words for commonly-used words. For this, they suggest the word and we use a thesaurus to discover and list alternatives. Finally, on our window are the “boring” or most commonly-used words we are trying to use less.





Bilingual Parenting Ain’t for the Weak-hearted

My husband and I want our daughter to be exposed to several languages now that she is young. Too much research supports this, but it’s also a personal necessity; half her family speaks English only, and the other half speaks only Spanish, and still others who my husband grew up with speak only French.

So, from the moment she was born, and even before, we have been speaking to her in both Spanish and English. We read to her, sing to her and do as much as we can in both languages. Of course, she is immersed in English with my parents for most of the day and gets Spanish only from my husband who actually, unfortunately, spends the least amount of time with her given that he works and goes to school. This has made our One Parent One Language approach rather problematic, since Spanish is completely minimized in her life. At this point, it’s mostly sung to her since he gets home in time most nights to just help put her to bed.

Plus, it can be a little strange — whenever he is with her, he needs to speak Spanish, so do I translate between him and my parents? Does he speak to me and I respond only in English? All these questions weigh on us.

I have said for a while that for my daughter to be bilingual and bicultural, I need to become the same, which is easier said than done. I also worry about the impact of hearing a non-native speaker; plus, if I am essentially code-switching, even if I do it at specific times, am I going to confuse her? I haven’t done enough research on this specifically except that I do know being able to codeswitch is a real strength. I’m just not sure how great it is as an unintentional teacher. So, for now, I’m sticking with speaking English to her and Spanish to my husband in her presence, which is to help him speak to someone other than her in his language.

The approach of One Parent One Language sounds good on paper, but it’s far trickier in practice.


Letter: How Can I Not Be Thankful

This is the response to the letter I wrote, as part of a series I will be exchanging with one of my colleagues on a variety of issues. The full length of this letter can also be found on his blog.

Dear Donna Mac,

Happy Thanksgiving! I was so excited to receive your letter because all the questions you asked are ones I have asked myself and I’ve, for some time now, wanted to throw the answers into a blog post.

It is true, I am in a totally different place this year and last than I was in my first two years. The differences are pretty striking, indeed. For starters, I went from general ed to special ed. I went from upper grades to lower. I went from an annex to the main building. I went from a (comparatively speaking) larger room with no closets to relatively small rooms with ample closet space. I went from 28 students to 12. I went from being on my own in the room to having a para (and in the case of this year, two).

It is true, as well, the move to special ed is one that I had to make in order to have a full-time job. However, my view of special ed has evolved considerably since I was appointed to my position in the summer of 2010. Although frustrating at times, I relish my role as an advocate for my students. I enjoy being the voice that stands up for them when it seems like no one else’s will. I also enjoy helping students feel empowered to be their own advocates.

One thing that doesn’t change, regardless of general ed fifth grade or special ed lower grades, is that kids need to feel good about themselves. I feel like I am still improving in helping kids develop positive self-images, but I can say, for most of my students, they walk out of our room in June in a better place than when they walked in in September. This, I feel, is the greatest gift I can give and the best lesson I can teach – that, no matter the grades they get, they are extremely important and valuable to me and others.

Teaching special ed is difficult. I am constantly grappling with the need to have my students do grade level work when they lack the prerequisite skills. I find myself reteaching lessons the day after I teach them because I failed to properly anticipate appropriate points of entry for my students on my first try. Things take longer than they did in fifth grade, yet the expectations to complete units in a timely fashion remain the same. This often induces stress because I want to do only what is best for my students. It is a tough balancing act, and I am working on it a lot this year.

Something I really have enjoyed this year – and I didn’t even realize how much I missed it – is the way this year’s students’ personalities are shining through. In fifth grade, kibbutzing was a major part of my M.O., and the kids and I kept each other laughing throughout the day. This year, with third graders, as opposed to the first and second graders I had last year, I am enjoying this aspect of the Mr. Ray-student relationships once again. The kids are quick-witted and insightful. They always surprise me with their clever ideas and unique points of view. And they get my sense of humor (which, as you know, can be quite wry…and unfunny!)

As to whether I’m “chummy” and “sarcastic” – two words that I would not choose to identify myself as a teacher – I hope not. The students are not my chums, and there is a line between being friendly and being a friend. They know they can trust me, that I support them, that I believe in them, that they’re important to me. If that’s how you define “chummy,” then perhaps that’s what I am. As for sarcasm, I’ve grown and learned that sarcasm is lost on all children. I try to be much more straightforward now than I ever was.

Donna, in my first year of teaching, I had a class of students that most people told me were “low-functioning.” I never liked the way people dismissed them as incapable with an airy, “Oh, but they’re low-functioning.” They might as well have said, “Oh, but they’re incapable.” That class stunned a lot of people with their sensitive, powerful photography, which as you know, was featured in the building and received local media coverage. I took a lot of pride from those students’ accomplishments because pretty much everyone had written them off. Only thing is, that class was the bee’s knees and they knew it.

That chip on my shoulder from year one is only greater now that I teach special ed. So many have stigmatized and written off my students – with no valid reason for doing so other than knowing they have a label – and it is my great pleasure to put these children in positions where they can be celebrated (like when they blog or, in last year’s case, raise the most money for the school fundraiser for Japan earthquake relief). You know I’m a Mr. Rogers type: I truly believe every child needs to be celebrated for who he or she is, and that’s how I go about my business.

So, where will the road eventually lead me? It’s impossible to guess. I never thought it would lead me to where I am today. Yet, it has, and I’m a better teacher for it. Wherever I wind up, I am grateful for the opportunities and students that have been part of my life. I’ve learned from all of them and remember them all fondly.

On this Thanksgiving, I can honestly say I am thankful to be where I am today and where I was previously. Wherever I wind up after this, I’ll probably be thankful for that, too.

And I thank you for your letter and friendship. I wish you and your family – especially your little turkey – a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Letter: On teaching younger students…

This is the second in a series of letters I will be exchanging with one of my colleagues on a variety of issues.

Dear Matt,

Since we started with the subject of “changes” in my life, I have been thinking about changes in your own.

When we first met, you were a new teacher, teaching a fifth grade general ed class with intermediate to advanced ELLs. I was always impressed to peek in your room and see the arts & crafts, the student photography, the baking, and overall “homey”, creative atmosphere in your room. Your students were eager, conversant, and had many years in this country and in formal education.

Now you are teaching younger students in a self-contained Special Education bridge class. I know you kind of fell into this new kind of teaching; younger children, children with special needs, etc., and I have yet to see you teach this group. Are you still sarcastic and chummy? Or do you now see yourself more as a father-figure? Do the arts and crafts have an even more memorable impact on the kids?

Reading your posts, I find myself wondering : do you prefer this new position? If you could choose, would you prefer the older, more advanced youth with their own unique challenges, or remain with the second-third grade ages? Do you feel you are finding yourself as a teacher more now, or do you see this as a detour on your way back?

Looking forward to your response,

My Nominees for the Edublog Awards 2011

I have always seen blogging as a communal and personal experience; a way for individuals to come together and share, inspire, create and express. So, I have always been opposed to the idea of giving awards because I feel it changes what blogging has always been about for me. Yet, I do feel there are those bloggers who deserve recognition for their efforts and contributions, and for sharing in a way that moves people to perform better in this, the world’s most important profession.

For his efforts in blogging frequently and for the optimistic, Mr. Rogers-esque glow his blog emits, I nominate From the Desk of Mr. Foteah for Best Teacher Blog. He is a teacher blogger who consciously and consistently tries to inspire others and lift the profession up to new levels through his now daily postings. Because of his post, 10 Reasons Your Students Should be Blogging, my class began commenting on his students’ blogs and they started writing their own. They have found an authentic purpose and new motivations for their writing that hadn’t existed before.

For Most Influential Post, I nominate A Global Classroom Is Born. I have never been more awe-inspired and excited by a post. The immensity and sincerity of their project is almost intimidating, but it shows what happens when teachers listen effectively to their students to learn from them, and then broaden their potential for learning to a literally global level. I wish I had seen it earlier.

For Best Resource Sharing Blog, I nominate Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day for Teaching ELL, ESL & EFL, because there is not a single blog I, as an ESL teacher, recommend more often to different teachers. He is also responsible for the ESL/EFL Blog Carnival, which I was lucky enough to host on my other blog, My Life Untranslated, which is yet another way Mr. Ferlazzo moves others to share and connect within our community.

Lastly, I’d like to recommend Dropbox as the best free web tool. It has saved me more time and headaches in trying to figure out where to put all the documents i create and website resources I find and want to reuse.

Mobile Math Word Wall — watch it grow!

In the spirit of sharing, I thought I would post pictures of how I adapted the math tip shared at our school that Mr. Ray shares here on his blog. The suggestion was to put unit vocabulary words on a sentence strip or yard stick that can be walked around with, shared, kept close and accessible, etc.

The one in the photo below is for the fourth and fifth grade unit on fractions. I also gave the kids a sheet to paste into their books for when they write about math.

I include visuals, numbers, and words, so students can relate and apply what they see when they read the math. I hang it in the meeting area at their eye level so it is easy for them to reference.

It is a growing word “wall”, so with each new lesson, I add a new word since my ELLs would get easily overwhelmed if I just threw all of these at them at once. Today I added “simplifying/simplest form” (not pictured), with the division symbol on it.


Making Real Time for Diversity

“Chinese music,” he said to me, wrinkling his nose and pointing at my speakers where cumbia bounces out, as we celebrated Hispanic Heritage music.

“In January,” I suggested spontaneously.

There is nothing in the curriculum to celebrate China, but with 4 Chinese students who act as if they feel quite ostracized from the Spanish-speaking majority in my class, I decide on the spot that I must bring a balance. Recently, we were celebrating Hispanic Heritage and attended a student-created assembly. It was almost entirely in Spanish, and each class was expected to learn the Spanish theme song. I have to say I honestly felt conflicted by this.

While I think it’s good for all of my students to be exposed to Spanish, I think my Chinese students feel overexposed to it in their community. In some schools, the ELLs are the minority. In my teaching experience, the minorities have been the students who don’t speak Spanish. Plus, because of the higher percentage of Spanish ELLs, addressing the needs or supporting the language of Spanish ELLs has overall been a no-brainer, but for non-Spanish ELLs, it can be a true nightmare for the newcomer and their teacher to find ways to communicate.

I have even had the experience where schools couldn’t afford to hire chinese translators for Parent Teacher Conferences, and I fear this just reinforces for the parents that communicating with them is not as much of a priority. Either because it isn’t easy or because Chinese isn’t seen as important; they can’t tell the difference.

So, while I believe diversity concerns need to be addressed more deeply than just through things like holidays or food, etc., it is a start. But, whether your minority are ELLs or another specific grouping, or even if your number of boys largely outnumber your girls, finding ways for their lives and voices to come through are necessary for the classroom culture, but also for their own individual and emerging sense of self.

So, it’s unfortunate that the opportunities for this aren’t explicitly given support and time in teachers’ packed curriculums. It can often be difficult to do things like celebrate a minority culture without just giving it lip-service with a pre-made bulletin board or crash-course on a holiday.

If diversity is built into the curriculum at your school, or you have the freedom to do so in your class, what have been your successes?