Why the exaggerated pause?

I know I said I’d be posting soon about academic language and how to incorporate it into your teaching of ELLs. But you know that feel when you have just discovered something that just totally rocks your intellectual boat and you just can’t get past it? Or, has your mind ever been like a boa constrictor where it has taken in so much that you know it’s going to be weeks before you totally digest what you’ve just learned? Well, choose whichever metaphor suits you, and that describes me of late. I just can’t wrap my head around explaining anything else until my mind stops reeling. I love moments like these but they can be frustrating, too, because they cause such writer’s block. I’m not capable of writing about even the most mundane daily tidbits. So, please indulge elsewhere for a little longer. I’ll be back soon 🙂

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.


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.

Because It’s Simply Not About Me.

The first thing I notice is her little mouth, open toward me, with her eyes still squeezed tight with the remnants of sleep. Even in the dark room, I can still see. Her little body rocks, having grown stronger with the ability to turn over, eagerly awaiting la leche. Every morning, somewhere between 2 and 4 am, this is our ritual. She begins to stir, just slightly, so I know she needs to be fed. And although I haven’t slept for more than two consecutive hours in 5 months, I cherish these moments. I look forward to these quiet times, just the two of us, as the world outside our window continues to slumber.

I’m tired all the time. I have the worst memory ever. But my life has never been richer, my emotions never deeper, and my hopes never stronger and more vulnerable since having my daughter.

In many ways, this is also how I feel as a teacher; hopeful and seeing life in new ways with each child I interact with, and eager to continue, despite the bottomless exhaustion. And I wouldn’t be the teacher I am if I weren’t connected, through blogging, to other educators; educators from as close as NJ and as far as Europe, whom I have come to admire. Blogging has changed my world because of the people I have come to know; people who have taught me ways to be better in my craft, but also ways to recognize when what I’m doing is worthy of repeating and writing about.

Although I have been blogging for years, I began my first teacher blog the moment I joined the profession. I was leaving a treasured profession behind, as well as a decade of work as a too passionate “serve the people” activist, and I thought there was nothing more valuable I could do if I wasn’t protesting or organizing people to act in the interest of humanity. I was entering teaching hoping it would fill that void for me. It was about me, and blogging was my way of making sense of it all, and it was the blogging community of educators who gave me a sense of belonging to something much bigger than myself, and made me see that teaching and being a good teacher was meaningful, and ultimately not about me.

I was able to see beyond myself, beyond my school’s walls and place this new “job” of educating children into a much bigger, more complex and vivd picture. Since I came to teaching via a nontraditional route, it made sense that my “education” was nontraditional too. I learned from you: readers and edubloggers the world over.

It is luck, really, that led me into teaching, with the low percentage of people who make it into the NYCTF, and it was luck that got me my job when other principals didn’t seem willing to take a chance on a career-changing journalist who wanted to teach ESL. But it was blogging, and not luck, that led me to value what it means to teach children, what it means to be part of a union of professionals, and to be in the oldest and often least respected jobs.

It is too easy to lose sight of our importance in this world, and lose ourselves in the vast needs we see in front of us, without each other. Blogging has changed my world by both making it bigger and bringing it in closer. In those wee morning hours, when I lay my daughter back down to sleep and get dressed in total darkness, I know I am getting ready to do something important. I don’t feel part of a daily grind, even while some would like us to just be abiding cogs in a wheel.

As a teacher, and now as a mother, I am inspired knowing that my life simply isn’t about me anymore. It’s about the faces I see in front of me, whether it be at 3am, or 8am, and it’s about the world they so desperately need to understand so that, one day, they can indeed change it.

This post was inspired by Matt Ray and the Rockstar Meme— how blogging rocked your world. Now I’d love to hear from: @used2bprincipal, a former principal whose opinion I value greatly and who taught me self-respect as a teacher, jd2718, a teacher blogger who influences and inspires me, @naomishema, a blogger I like to read, @KKSorrell, who I have interacted with ao my laflecha blog, and who I enjoy reading, and Mike Harrison, an EFL teacher across the pond who helped make Twitter a welcoming place for newbies like me, and helped me realize my colleagues span the globe 🙂