Safety Pins and, well, safety.


I have found great comfort in the company of migrant birds in the past three weeks.

Ever since the election I’ve been wearing a safety pin to school. You probably know that this signifies my position as an ally and safe haven for those who need it. It felt a little silly as our school feels like such a safe place, but it made me feel better to do that little thing. I found an article on Facebook that told the history of wearing a safety pin, dating back to the second World War when the Dutch wore them covertly as a sign to others that they were an ally. One of my classes did a close read of it. I had set a little jar of safety pins on the table in the front of the room, without saying a word about it. As soon as the first boy finished reading, he got up and quietly opened the jar and took out a pin. Soon most of the students followed suit. Even then I thought it was a nice gesture, but really. My students are the ones more likely to need an ally, but still. It made me happy that they did that.

Then the other day a Caucasian boy came in at lunch and sat with me for a couple of minutes to look at his grades. The two Muslim girls who go to our school were in there, and one of them said, “He’s mean!” I disagreed with her, and it seemed like light  banter. After he left she said, “He just said, ‘you guys are going to blow us up.'” My heart sank. The next morning when I saw him, I pulled him aside and asked if indeed he’d said that. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I was just messing around with her.” So I told him that it wasn’t a joke. Not to me and certainly not to her. It was a hurtful thing to say. He got very quiet and said,”I didn’t know. I’ll apologize.” And he did. She came in with a big smile the next day and asked if I’d told him what she’d said. I told her I did, and she said he’d apologized. Whew. I was relieved about that.  They seem to be friends, and I think he did mean it as joking banter. But now he knows why it wasn’t a joke.

Fast forward two days later. The second Muslim girl, H.,  came to me during class, crying. She said,”Y. called me Malala. This is the fourth time. I ignored it before.” I was shocked that this had hurt been happening in my classroom without my realizing it. I had a few minutes until the end of class, and in that time I thought about who Malala is, and thought I should talk to H. about it, to see who she thinks she is. During the morning break I asked her what she knew about Malala. She only knew that she is a girl from Pakistan, like her. I told her more about her, and told her that to be compared to Malala is actually a compliment, even if the speaker didn’t know it. I told her that I think she is very  courageous. She comes to school every day, wearing a Hijab, knowing it sets her aside from everyone else. She wears it with dignity and doesn’t back down. I told her I respect her a great deal for being brave enough to be just who she is, no matter what. I also told her I had a book that Malala wrote, and I wondered if she had enough English to read it. She found it right away and looked it over. She said she could read it and asked to borrow it. Then she went home for the rest of the day, still shaken, I’m sure.

Later I kept Y. after class. When I’d first asked her about it, she’d said, “I didn’t say anything, I don’t even talk to her. Why would I say that?” I asked another student who had been there and he corroborated H.’s story. “She said Malala.” So I told Y. that her friend had verified what she’d said. This time she agreed that she’d said it but denied meaning it to be to H. She said she was just saying the sounds. As she sat next to her. Right. I talked about how many mean things have been said over the last few months about all sorts of people. Mexicans, Muslims, Veterans and women and people with disabilities. I told her that as a Mexican woman she was not any safer from these things than a Muslim woman, or I as a older woman. I told her that we must all stand together, to commit to caring for one another, and that we can’t afford to divide ourselves as she had done. She quietly said she would apologize.

It hasn’t happened yet, and I’m waiting until it does. She says she doesn’t know what to say, so I gave her the words. Her English is still new, but she knows those words. If she can’t bring herself to apologize, then I will take further action that she will like less. So far all of the response to bad behavior has  been handled in a quiet and loving way. But the fact remains that something hurtful was said and a lie was offered in response to it and it hasn’t been rectified in any way. That will stand in my mind until the appropriate response has been made. On Monday. No more waiting.

As I write about this, looking at the big picture of what is going on in our country, my actions seem so insignificant. Honestly, for a while I changed this post to “Private” because it seemed like such small event, really. But it wasn’t small in my classroom world and that is the only place I can reach out and have an impact. I believe we have to begin where we are. Being an ally isn’t for the weak at heart. It’s so deep and complex, and one must not compromise if one is to truly stand up for others. As I see it, no matter the apparent insignificance, the messiness, the difficulty of stepping up sometimes, we really have no other choice.

Who comes up with this stuff?

It’s Benchmark season at my school! On October 4th a memorandum came down from on high telling us that Benchmarks are status quo this year. That is, we are to give the same ones we did last year. We had been wondering about that, as we’d heard not a word about it until that day. So we made plans to give them, and some teachers got right on it.

Then on October 11th a second memo came, from the same lofty source. This one said that we are to give the Study Sync Unit I Assessment to all students. Two teachers at our school have been piloting Study Sync, but the rest of us and our students have not even laid eyes on it. And we are to assess our students on the first unit of that curriculum. And to have it done by the 21st.  Tomorrow.  As you might guess, some teachers had already given the previously ordered benchmark, so they will be giving two standardized tests within two weeks.

I tried to give it today. I couldn’t lay my hands on a Chromebook cart because another teacher was still using it for the second day of her benchmark, and I couldn’t get the keyboards for my iPads because they too were in use. So I got the students going on the iPads (Once they got logged in, which was something of a feat since I am not familiar with the Illuminate site, having always used Smarter Balance for the i8th grade benchmarks and for the year end exam). I figured they could do the Multiple Choice test today and the Performance Task, which requires an essay, Monday. (Yes, after the 21st.)

Remember I teach ELD? Okay. The first story in the test is a Jack London story. In the first paragraph alone I found eight words that my students would have never seen before. (“Reiterate?”  “Mittened hand?” It’s not cold enough for mittens here.) The students are to choose a main idea of the story and then base other answers on their first answer. Once they have slogged through this long and complex story. And these were my advanced students! I haven’t even started with the second year English learners.

All I can think is there must be some really advanced eighth graders out there somewhere. They definitely aren’t in my classroom! The stated reason for giving this particular test is that in order to use the scores of it for redesignating English Learners it must be a test that all students have taken so the comparison is fair. This is one of those circular crazy things. Like in order to be redesignated, the student must score proficient or above on the SBAC or the benchmark. But very few of our native English learners score proficient on those tests, so how is making the English Learners score above the native speakers fair?

I’m stymied by it all.  About ten years ago I spent two years at the district office, and while I was there, I realized how quickly I lost touch with the kids and the classroom. I also realized how much harder the teachers were working than I was. I think maybe people who hold positions on high need to spend a week or a month in a classroom every year or two, just to keep in touch with our clientele. I think the decisions they made would probably be a little different, maybe a little more student-centered than those we currently live with.


Will October Ever End?


Some days start out glorious, and go downhill from there.  Others stay pretty great.

We’re in the interminable time of year. That time from Labor Day to Veterans day when the hits just keep on coming, day after day without respite. As much as I like my students and my classroom, I’m getting tired! CELDT testing finally ended this week, which will be a relief. I was working without a prep period for the past several weeks, making sure all 233 English learners in our school got tested, and it’s taken its toll on my energy levels. I bet you were looking forward to hearing me complain, weren’t you? Well that’s it for now.

The first quarter is over already – how did that happen so fast? I wonder if we have enough routine to keep us organized, or have I completely undermined it with all my testing distraction? I think I haven’t done myself any favors in that regard but the beauty of a new quarter is we can start again. Fresh routines, nothing big to detract from them, until the next quarter ends and it’s vacation time. I always think vacation season starts on Veteran’s day and continues through February. All those president’s holidays and yeah. I’m getting head of myself here.

Last week I found some little “student books” of Daily Oral Language (DOL) prompts in a cupboard in my office. I’ve never seen these little guys before. I think they are pretty old. The paper isn’t yellow, but the concept of them is kind of old I think. DOLs are a grammar lesson program that I used when I first started teaching. I would put two sentences that had grammar errors in them up on the overhead. The students had to correct them and we’d talk about the errors. I thought it was a good way to give a daily shot of grammar without putting undue focus on it. Eventually, though, the DOL’s fell by the wayside.

I think that a highly trusted colleague thought they were not focused enough, and I could never really understand the other ones that she preferred, and so, feeling unsure of the rightness of what I was doing, I just quit doing them for a time. Then I think I read that someone thought it was a bad idea to put something that is wrong up before our students. That it would teach them wrong things. Then I went to the middle school where they were using some heinous grammar program put out by our textbook publisher and I gave up completely. I haven’t taught much grammar in recent years because it seems so futile. And boring. (TRUE CONFESSION)

I teach a little bit of it, okay? But really, I’m not going to try to teach some arcane grammar points that I don’t understand myself to seventh or eighth graders. I’m not. The thing is, I don’t understand a lot of grammar because I don’t care about it and I’m old and have had a successful career without it. I still remember my college professor who said that grammar is kind of like Trigonometry. It’s great if you like it, but not all that necessary if you don’t.

But now I have found a bunch of little student DOL books. They are so cute that I’m considering using them. I wonder if that is a bad idea, to use them because they’re cute. An archaic idea.  This guy thinks they are a really bad idea. I wonder if I care. I explain everything so thoroughly, that surely they won’t miss what is right and what is wrong. What do you think about this? Are you a grammar buff who likes to spread the word? Do you agree or disagree with the idea of student correcting grammatical errors in a sentence?  Is an exercise like daily sentence correction just a waste of class time?  I could use a little feedback on this while I’m making my decision. I think I know the answer…but they are so darn cute!

See you soon.

Letting Go


img_1378In nine months I’ll retire from the work I’ve done for the past 25 years. Lately I’ve been wondering, how does one walk away from so many years of the thing that nourished you, that fed your brain and your creativity and your heart?

I look at the kids running around the middle school campus and I know they will move on to high school and their faces will fade from my memory, as mine will fade from theirs. And even though this is true, at this time, in this moment, I matter to them and they matter to me. We pass in the halls and say “Hey!” and we feel noticed. We feel that we matter to someone.

I know that I – any one of us, really – am replaceable, and that other teachers will fill the hearts of the kids to come, as well as the hearts of those that leave and go to high school. That autistic boy who everyone thinks never utters a word? He spends his lunch hours in my room talking and telling me all about his life and his family and his dreams, such as they are. He brings videos of his mom and his dog and his bedroom. I matter to him, and he to me. But whether I am there next year or not, he will move on to high school, and he will find someone else to fill that role of listener.

We fill a short space in time for these kids, at a period of their lives that is sacred. The passage from childhood to adolescence is so fraught with pain and excitement, uncertainty and jubilation. At one moment they are running around like little kids, and in the next they are asking big questions about what will happen next. How they will get to where they want to go? And in all the chaos and noise, I feel needed. We are in this thing together, for better or worse.

And as I look at them and listen to them, and push them forward to their futures I wonder who or what will fill the void in me when I go? It feels like I must begin to let go, one thing at a time, so that there aren’t so many things to drop in June. if I lighten my load a stone at a time will it hurt less in the end? Will I be able to drop my empty sack in June and walk away into the next phase of my life?

How does one let go and stay completely immersed at the same time? How will I know what to let go of and what to carry forward? Will I just know? Will I not look back regretfully, thinking I shouldn’t have let go of THAT yet?  Can I really walk away from all this beauty?  As I savor every day of this year, and I say “Well, there went my last September!” or “I’m doing my last round of CELDT testing!” a small place in me mourns a little bit the finality of it all.

The things I can’t or won’t let go of begin and end with my students. I will love and respect and banter with them until we part in June. I will push for their future success in life, making my best effort to arm them with a love of books, an ability and willingness to write and communicate sincerely and with logic, if not eloquence.  I will share with them all I have to give, until that last day.  And then, somehow, I will walk away as well.

Savoring Every Day


Here it is, my classroom, all ready for my last group of students. I’ll be retiring in June, so this year is so precious. Before school started I hung curtains on my windows. They are made of a soft cotton fabric I bought in Mexico years ago on a trip with my mom, which is such a sweet memory for me. They are a huge improvement over the funky bent-up mini-blinds that hang behind them. Notice the plants and the Lava lamp! What you can’t see in this picture is the essential oils diffuser that sweetens the air and the pretty little lamp that looks like intertwined flowers. The feeling in the room is calm and homey. We’ve been in school for two weeks and so far we’re in love! The kids are as rowdy as any eighth graders ever, but sweet and so cooperative. These are just a great group of kids, but also I honestly think the ambiance of the room is softening the attitudes and actions of its inhabitants at least a little bit.

Before school started I got rid of so much clutter. Like any teacher, I have saved so many great ideas and materials for just the right project, and this summer I decided that if I hadn’t used them by now I wasn’t going to. I filled a couple of huge garbage cans, and put a bookcase outside my door filled with stuff and a “Discard/ Free” sign on it. I saw parents pass by and pick up things they liked, and the (dear, long-suffering) custodians took care of the rest. There is air in the corners of the room!

On the far wall, you can just barely see the words, “6 Things.” This is an assignment my students did twice last year that I learned about in Kelly Gallagher’s Common Core book. It is a spinoff of the ESPN Meme “6 Things You Should Know.” It was a great assignment which required the students to write about something they knew about and format it in a very specific way. They thought it would be hard because of the formatting but it turned out to be much easier than they expected, which was kind of empowering for them. On the wall right now are 6 Things papers they wrote for this year’s 8th graders. “6 Things You Should Know About 8th Grade.”

I decided that this year we will write into the day, every day. It is so easy to not write enough with these guys, and this year I am dedicated to writing with them every day. So far it’s pretty great – I offer a point or two if they read aloud, and they are going for it! We are doing the New York Times’ feature, “What’s Going On In This Picture?” On Monday they post a photo, which we look at and write about and talk about. Then on Friday they add to the photo a paragraph that tells what is actually going on in the photo.  On Monday they write what they see and on Friday they react to whatever is going on. We did this for the first time last week and it was great. It gives them something concrete to write about other than their feelings or hopes and dreams, a subject which is fairly difficult to write about at this age. Not that I never have them write about their feelings, but other things tend to generate a little more writing. I’m teaching them the concept of writing without stopping for five or six minutes as well. I hope that once they get the hang of writing as a regular thing we can begin to go deeper.

I’m savoring every day with these, my last groups of students. I hope you’ll join me as I work  and write through this, my 25th and last year of teaching.

Accepting Late Work or Not?


Since I wrote that last post I’ve been thinking about my policy (or the lack thereof) with regard to late class work. It seems that what they learned from the last minute blitz of handing in late work was that it works out fine to play all quarter because this teacher will do everything possible to help them get all that missed work handed in so they won’t fail her class. They know in the abstract that her class is the most critical of all their classes because it is a two period block and therefore they get two grades in there. But all your buddies are in there so it’s way more fun to play all quarter and then save themselves at the last minute.

Yeah, not anymore.  Today I announced the new policy. All work is due on Fridays (always has been), and late work will be accepted for one week after that. I posted a sign saying that, and asked that they all sign it, just to make sure we’re all in agreement as to the policy.  I made a file bucket with six files in it: one for each day of the week and one for the prior week. I will put a few extra copies of each day’s work into that day’s folder throughout the current week. At the end of the week, they will all go into the “last week” folder, along with that week’s packet cover. At the end of each week the rotation will continue, with the outgoing Last Week’s work going into the recycling bin.

I hear you thinking, “Why is she giving them an extra week?” The reason for that is I think everyone needs a little leeway while learning something new, myself included. Remember, I’m the one who let them hand everything in late. I want them to promote, and I know that my class is so pivotal with regard to that.  So I’m starting with a week and we’ll see how it goes. I may tighten it all the way down next quarter. Or not. I”ll keep you posted.

Zero Hour Scramble


We have just finished the first quarter of the school year. Grades are due today by 3:00, although I suppose we technically have until midnight. I’ve never been a last-minute grader. I like to get them done and move on.This year is a little different from the last few. My grades are all done, it’s not that, but I have some students who have languished all quarter, who seemed impervious to anything I said to them about participating in class and doing their work as we went along. They seemed to go mute anytime I tried to talk to them about their lack of doing a single thing.

In the past couple of years I had many students who just didn’t seem to care. They accepted their failing grades without a hitch. Without even trying to make them up. This year, the kids have a different attitude. The boy/girl balance is off, however. I have far more boys than girls and the boys just have too much fun with one another. Figuring out how to do and hand in their work is just too much for them, somehow.

Until today. Suddenly one of the boys is eager to turn in everything he has missed so far. The meeting that has been scheduled with his parents seems to have lit a fire under him. I should probably tell him, “Too bad. It’s too late to change anything.” But I didn’t. Not this time. My class is a block, so whatever grade they get is doubled, and can seriously impact their ability to promote in the Spring. Upon hearing that I would still accept late work today, another boy (who has turned in about 17% of the work) asked if he could turn his work in by Friday. He received a refusal, but the one who has the work done today, not so. There is a limit, however to how high the grade can be lifted, and his 79.8% will still be a C unless he completes that one last assignment, a page of writing. Normally I’d give the B-, but not this time.

As I sat writing this on my lunch break, he arrived with his last assignment, a letter he wrote to me, telling me all about himself. He told me about how his grades have ended his soccer dreams, and he knows that his behavior in class is a big part of it. For the first time ever, he was quiet and sincere, not putting on a character for show. He got the B and managed to pull off a 2.2 Grade Point Average, which keeps him on track for promotion.

I’m thinking that a contract is in order for the next quarter.

What about you? Do you accept late work? Is tough love in order when they aren’t yet in high school? I’d love to hear what others do in a similar situation.



Before I begin, I’d like to thank you all for continuing to check in to this site, even when I haven’t been writing. I really appreciate it. Today I gave the site a little facelift. A new theme always changes things up, I think. I am not sure if I like this new look, however. It may still be up for modification. I’ll keep you posted on this.

This year I have decided to use my blog as part of my yearly teaching goals. One of the California Standards for the Teaching Profession we were asked to focus on this year was #6, which deals with Developing as a Professional Educator. STP 6.1 is about reflecting on teaching practice and planning professional development. I decided that for this one I’d use my teacher blog as a place for reflection. I plan to alternate between posts that reflect on some aspect of teaching with posts that describe a lesson or strategy I tried recently. I started a new page, one about using the iPads in the classroom. On this page I’ll write about the apps we use and the iPad projects we do in class. As for planning Professional Development, I suppose that might be about books I’m reading or professional develoment sessions I attend. We’ll see how that part goes! So, welcome back aboard, and I hope you enjoy the change.

I”d really like this to be an interactive site, so please feel free to comment, ask questions, make suggestions, whatever strikes you. I’ll be sure to answer. Thanks again.

Beginning Year 24


It is a mixed bag, this starting a new school year, my twenty-fourth. I feel like I’m still new at teaching, and at the same time I feel like I’ve done it all my life. This is my eighth year teaching middle school, and this year I’m teaching eighth grade ELD again, with a bonus class of seventh graders for a ‘support’ class. This class can be whatever I make it. That is a privilege and a challenge! We’ve already begun the annual CELDT testing (California English Language Development Test), and I hope to finish it as soon as possible. We have 215 English learners this year, and doing the one-on-one verbal tests takes time. But I’ll have help with that.

I’m facing a dilemma this year. We usually have about 100 students in ELD classes, and the rest of our English learners, the more advanced ones, are in mainstream English classes. This usually works pretty well, but I always worry that someone is out there who needs our help. So I pore over grades and what little we have in the way of test scores to see if I can determine if we’re missing anyone who needs our classes. Without knowing them all, I can only guess. This year we have a couple of extra sections of ELD classes. In addition I moved a few students (boys) into my eighth grade ELD classes. Their test scores were low, and their grades so uneven, it seemed like the right thing to do.

But here’s the rub. It seems that I didn’t check enough for discipline interventions. Had I done so, I might have taken into account another aspect of the picture. Perhaps they did poorly and scored so low because they were just messing around. They were wreaking havoc on a new teacher and they were seventh grade boys. And putting them into ELD classes can exacerbate bad behavior because they are with all their friends in there and they think it’s play time. That’s what it feels like at any rate.  Most of the students that I moved into my classes are behaving in ways that are inappropriate for class, and they are making it impossible for anyone to learn. So in trying to do the right thing, I’ve created a dilemma for myself.

Today I moved the worst offender back to mainstream English. I thought I’d be able to work with him but he had no interest in interacting at all with me, nor in participating in the classwork. He just wanted to bounce around the classroom and complain. He wouldn’t meet my eyes even when I stood in front of him and asked him to, and he certainly didn’t want to do anything other than play around.  It is clear that his grades and test scores were more about his behavior than his need for an ELD class.  I hope he does better out there, with a strict male teacher. And I do hope it was the right thing to do, but truthfully, I feel a little guilty about not keeping him in my class. I feel like I should be able to be an effective teacher with every student, no matter what. No matter that I know in my heart that isn’t really true. And by keeping him in there because I thought I should, I was taking away the chance for the other students to learn. One really has to weigh so many things in making these decisions.

I am determined to  not only enjoy this, my penultimate year of teaching, but to make it a great year for the students in my classes. I want them to come away feeling like they had a great time and they learned so much, that they are ready to take on the rigor of high school. Isn’t that what we all wish?

I wonder how other ELD programs are set up. Do you have every single EL student in an ELD class? How do you decide who is placed in ELD and who will be fine in mainstream classes? I’d really like to know.

Finally Friday: Libros Nuevos

I know it’s not Friday, but it is our last day of school before Spring Break, so that’s close enough for me. I have some books I need to write about before we go.

If you read this blog much, you know that I teach English learners. Most of them are longterm English learners. They have been in the U.S. for a long time, most were born here, and they speak English fluently. They are still considered English Learners because they are academically behind the mainstream students due to issues of English language developent. Usually we have only a couple of students who are newcomers to the U.S., those who know no English. We used to have a lot, but now, not so much. This year the population of newcomers grew rather quickly. At one point we had eight of them. This doesn’t sound like so many, I know, but the need to provide materials was urgent, as we didn’t have much. Unlike our Longterm English learners, these students are academically close to being on grade level in their native language. This needs to be maintained in any way possible so that as their English grows the academic skill will transfer to their second language.

The only books we had in our school that are written in Spanish are illustrated childrens’ books. I have them in my classroom, but to offer those books to students who are accustomed to reading grade level books is boring to them, and does not help to maintain their reading level.  They need books that will capture their imaginations, make them think, books that will do for them what a book does for anyone who loves to read. Occasionally I buy a book in Spanish for my personal classroom iPad, and they enjoy those but can’t take them home. This has left them at a loss when we do silent reading in the mixed level second class they are in.

So a month or so ago I ordered novels for them. I ordered La Leccion de August (Wonder) by R.J.Palacios, Devolver al Remitente (Return to Sender) by Julia Alvarez, Divergente (Divergent) by Veronica Roth, Hoyos (Holes) by Louis Sacher, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, and El Color de mis Palabras (The Color of My Words) by Lynn Joseph. I already had El Alquimista (The Alchemist) by Paolo Coelho. Some of these books are pictured above. I chose them because of recommendations of others or because I’d read them myself.

Yesterday the novels finally arrived. When they came to class, I showed them to the students. The level of excitement was something that I haven’t seen for a long time. They giggled and grabbed and begged to take them home with them. Kimberly agonized over whether to read Divergent or Wonder and finally, timidly, asked if she could borrow both of them so she has something to read over the Spring Break. Who could say “no” to a kid wanting to borrow two books? Not me.

It was really fun to see kids so excited about books they can read. I wish my other students, the longterm English learners, would get even half as excited about a book. And now I wish I could find a book in Farsi for our lone student from Pakistan. I’m on a quest!