Friday, December 23, 2016

Twelve Little Gifts, Thirteen Melted Hearts

(NOTE: This photo and story are from last Christmas. I couldn’t write it last year because the emotion was too raw.)

My 8th period Spanish 1 class keeps me on my toes; I’ve determined that we are together at the end of the day, not for Spanish (though we do that, too), but for “Life”. Twelve young men and women and I are learning how to navigate life together, facing our difficulties and finding ways to overcome them.

We learn how to behave in a classroom setting. It should be obvious, but I’m learning not to assume. What is most important, and why? How does your behavior affect your academic success? How does your behavior affect others?

We learn how to work with each other, and this requires extensive training. At times it’s like “Boot Camp”: training, retraining, practice, retraining, a few more gray hairs, practice, retraining, repeat.
  • This is how you ensure that everyone can take part
  • This is how you express opinion without tearing down your classmate
  • This is WHY you learn to work with others

We learn the importance of completing tasks, and completing them well. Responsibility is learned, not ingrained, Responsibility is a key to academic success, but also to committing to family and friends, keeping a job, and ensuring that your money doesn’t end before your month. (To read about my “responsibility experiment,” see this previous post: "Am I Holding Their Hands or Holding Them Accountable? )

We learn how to read, in two languages. We learn how to craft thoughtful answers. We learn how to write sentences, tell a story, add detail, edit (in two languages). We learn how to give our BEST effort.

These rowdy, impulsive 9th graders have stolen my heart. As a whole, they have so many needs: broken families, hurting hearts, fears visible and invisible, poverty, learning disabilities, insecurities, and more. Who tells them that they are important? Valuable? Capable? Loved?

Surely I am not the only voice of love in their lives, but I can’t be positive. So, I’ll make my impact as great as I can. I must treat them with love, with patience, with dignity, with belief, with high expectations.

This Christmas I want to share with them love and joy. My husband helps me prepare 12 gift packages: gloves, socks, pencils and pens, stickers, candy canes, homemade cookies.

I have to admit that my hands and my heart trembled when I brought out the packages for them: would they laugh? Would they reject them? Would they suspect me of ulterior motives (I assure you, there are none).

The kids let out a collective shout--they laughed with surprise and with joy.

They examined their gifts as if it were the “mother lode,” they examined every item, they showed each other, they celebrated with and for each other. Many put on the socks right away. Others had their gloves on through the remainder of the class. A few ate cookies; most began setting aside items that they were going to share with friends and family.

They hugged me and I hugged them. They cheered, and I tried not to cry in front of them. They wrote me letters and emails. One parent sent me an email the same day; another sent me an actual card and letter.

I left humbled and undone by unexpected emotion and gratitude. The gifts, though simple, have stirred my students’ hearts, and they have melted mine.

How much these students need--and though I think Spanish is important, there is so much more that I must share:
  • Patience
  • Self-control
  • Peacemaking
  • Happiness as a choice
  • Cooperation and collaboration
  • Self-respect and respect for others
  • Responsibility, hard work, pride in one’s work
  • Leadership and servant-ship

This is teaching; this is why I am here.

I pray that I never forget.

<A year has passed since those Christmas packages. Even as I write now, I have a lump in my throat. Many of those students still come to see me regularly. Their needs are still great. But perhaps I’ve given them hope. I know that they have done so for me. Though the journey will not always be easy, I will believe in and love my students. It is the least, and the most, that I can do!>

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Yawn, Fidget, Cringe: "Professional Development"?

We've all been there: yawning, fidgeting, cringing--it's "Professional Development"!

By Revital Salomon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

On many occasions I have suffered through "Professional Development," and on other occasions I was the one inflicting the suffering. Professional development isn't always bad, boring or irrelevant; sometimes it's downright fascinating! Regardless of the quality, we all have a responsibility to put the "Professional" in the "Development".

How should we treat "Professional Development"?

Administrators and Professional Development Planners:

  • Refrain from using PD as a punitive measure. If you have staff members with "issues," address these individually; don't create a PD to blanket the entire staff with topics meant for one or two.
  • Communication is essential; no one should have to guess why this PD is taking place. Well ahead of time, clearly articulate what you are asking staff to learn/do, and why. Is this something required by the state? Does this address an area of weakness in the school performance profile? Do you feel it is relevant to topics our students are facing?
  • Utilize the professionals in your building(s). Are your experienced teachers involved in planning and presentation? What expertise do they have that they could share?
  • Consider giving PD options to your staff; trust them to choose what is most necessary, relevant or interesting to them.
  • Participate in PD alongside, not over, your staff. If you feel the PD is necessary for your building(s), join with your staff in the training, and be an invested participant.
  • Treat  your teachers as professionals, even if/when they don't behave that way. Model professionalism.

Teachers (and sometimes PD presenters):

  • Professional Development is a Professional opportunity; behave like a Professional. It's not time to grade papers, text friends, carry on a conversation, or critique the presenter. Even if you do not like or appreciate the PD, it is your responsibility to attend and learn. Set an example for your colleagues.
  • Commit to learning. Whether the PD is a training mandated by your district, part of advanced degree work, or a pursuit of interest, approach it with a learner's attitude: what can I take away from this and apply?
  • Respect the presenter(s). Make eye contact. Nod. Refrain from scowling or shaking your head in disagreement. (You can address areas of conflicting opinion personally, not in public.) Thank the presenter for his/her time. 
  • Experienced teachers: be willing to be involved. Avoid cynicism and criticism--in yourself or in your colleagues. Care. Model the learning attitude you desire in your students. A new teacher is not an "annoying know-it-all". He/She may have valuable information and skills to share. Besides, being a listener is a great way to establish a relationship in which you can contribute to the new teacher.
  • Newer teachers: be willing to be involved, and be willing to be a learner. Avoid the all-knowing smug look. An experienced teacher is not a "cave man" just because his/her tactics differ from your current training. "New" is not always "Better".

Together we can give new meaning to both words:



Let's Do This!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Forging Friendships and Unity

"You know, Señora, we are all friends today because you made us work together."

At our senior dinner my students told me, "You know, Señora, we are all friends today because you made us work together". 

There have been times that I have despaired. The students assigned to my class came unwillingly, unhappily. At times they were hostile, and sometimes even violent--throwing both insults and fists. They didn't like themselves, didn't like each other, didn't like Spanish, didn't like school. I felt like a lone firefighter, rushing in different directions to extinguish one flame after another.

Each year's classes and students are unique. Each class develops a personality as it develops a routine. It's my responsibility to shape that identity, and it takes conscious effort and determination.

Students gravitate toward their friends and toward classmates with whom they have the most in common--don't we all? If I let them, the students would choose partners at the beginning of the school year and they would never change. Some students would never work with anyone, choosing to be alone while surrounded by their peers.

So, why do I force group work, and why do I force them into new (and sometimes uncomfortable) groups?

Students' first choices aren't always their BEST choices. 

They naturally gravitate to their friends, but often this leads to distractions. Conversations and minds wander, and students' work suffers. At other times, students will do less than their best work because they rely too heavily on a friend, or because they don't want to look "too smart" in front of their friends. Peer pressure is intense.

Strengths and weaknesses remain the same if unchallenged. 

When the students work with the same people time after time, their work becomes predictable as well. Jim knows that Sarah can read this paragraph, so he can let her tell him what it says. Emily doesn't have to figure out how to write that sentence; she can just copy Tim's answer, "because he's good at it". Jamie and Tony don't know and don't care; they can't and won't learn Spanish.

Students have different ways of thinking and understanding. 

When they work in different groups, all receive exposure to how their classmates process information and learn to use it. They can help each other learn, understand, apply. The students become coaches simply by sharing their learning processes.

Weaknesses can become strengths. 

Joe rushes through every assignment because it's easy. He makes careless mistakes but understands in general. Cara is cautiously slow because she is not confident. When they work together, Cara ask questions and Joe has to take his time to think and explain. He helps her to gain confidence and skill; she helps him to improve accuracy and attention to detail.

The "real world' is waiting, and my students have to be ready. 

They must be able to work with others, regardless of personality, strengths and weaknesses, attitude. My students must know how to communicate, to coach, to ask questions, to accomplish a task, and how to bring out the best in themselves and in each other.

If this is as important as I say, then I have to be deliberate and persistent; I can't stop insisting on new groupings, regardless of their protests or pleadings. Admittedly, it's easiest to say, "With a partner...". (Note to self: I've been letting this slide lately.)

At the beginning of the year I devoted significant time to establishing class norms. For our classes, "Norms" are what we need to succeed: from the teacher, from our classmates, from ourselves. The students spent considerable time drafting their ideas, sharing and comparing, and then selecting the most important items. When they finished, I gave each student a typed copy, along with a few of my own suggestions. This is one of the most important:

Friendship is not necessary to be coworkers:

you have a mutual goal.

You can view our final Class Norms with these links:

This year I printed seating charts with a notation: "Students are encouraged to move around the room and sit with different people each day." Three of my six classes have really taken this to heart, and I have seen a lot of growth:
  • The Spanish 5 students began the year creating their own class norms: a word web about "Familia" (in Spanish V we are now family). These dozen students continually ensure that all are welcomed and heard, and they have extended this care to a Spanish exchange student who regularly comes to visit. I'm so proud of them all!

  • In Spanish 4 last week, the students were in groups of 3-5 to accomplish a task. One group of close friends was not working well together and knew it. Making a difficult decision, they chose to part ways and join other groups. Their task was accomplished; their friendship remains intact. I am excited by their maturity and wisdom.
  • My lunchtime class of Spanish 3 impresses me daily. They move around the room, often with one friend, and they work together to accomplish the day's tasks. None of them tries to be the lone holdout, and we have yet to have a conflict between students. 

  • Two classes of Spanish 3 and one class of Spanish 4 have become "habituated," stationing themselves in the same places, and working with the same people. I need to shake them from this lethargy.

"It's funny. We are all so different, but here we all get along."

How do you help students to stretch out of their comfort zones?

What advantages / disadvantages do you see to continually changing seating arrangements?

What are your favorite activities to build / promote classroom unity?

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Twitter for Education? Yes!

I was not a Twitter fan. 

In a graduate class about technology in education I was required to make an account and find people to follow. At that time, I felt overwhelmed with Twitter's immensity, and underwhelmed by the posts that I found. Consequently, the account sat idle after fulfilling the course requirements.

Two years later I attended the Pennsylvania Keystones Technology Innovators Summit, and there began to discover Twitter's value. I found passionate educators who shared resources, experiences and inspiration, and I experienced Twitter chats about educational topics. This was a turning point in my professional development and in my view of "frivolous" social media. 

I developed a PLN (professional learning network), and that group of people and organizations helped to increase my desire to learn and grow, to take risks and try new things, to reflect and to share my reflections. 

Two years later (that's pretty funny, right?) I finally gathered enough boldness to share my view of Twitter with my colleagues. It began with an email to the faculty in my building: Would anyone be interested in learning more about using Twitter for PD? The responses came in quickly, and before the first session a dozen educators had expressed interest in pursuing the topic with me.

Our school has an open PLC (professional learning community) policy: 20 minutes at the beginning of the day are set aside for educators to pursue their interests. Twitter PLC began three Thursdays ago.

Session 1: Why use Twitter? How do I begin? Whom do I follow? (Click here to look at our agenda and resources: Twitter for PD 1.) I felt that the most important objective was to show them Twitter's value for educators. Here are some of the things that we discussed:
  • Develop a PLN (Professional Learning Network)
  • Encourage and/or be encouraged
  • Find teaching, classroom management ideas
  • Share resources
  • Connect and collaborate with other educators anywhere
  • Participate in chats about topics of interest
  • Acquire infographics
  • Learn more about educational technology
  • Stay informed about current news, educational updates
  • Conduct formal/informal research
  • Find relevant reading material
  • Connect to and read blogs: reflective pieces that challenge and encourage
  • Share what you are learning
  • Ask and answer questions
  • Enroll in contests, giveaways, trials of new apps/games
  • Sign up for free PD courses, edcamps
  • Subscribe to newsletters, blogs, classroom ideas
  • <announcements, connecting with parents and/or students> *These are bracketed because I haven't tried them yet.

In the intervening week: I tried to connect with each person on Twitter, and then to suggest people/groups to follow, share resources, infographics, links to blogs, contests, etc. In other words, I wanted to prove that I meant what I said about Twitter's value.

Some teachers didn't want to continue, but that's okay. Life is busy and we constantly have to prioritize.

Session 2: How do you Tweet? What do you Tweet? Why use a hashtag #? Could we create our own school #? (Click here to look at our agenda and resources: Twitter for PD 2.) Participants created Tweets and used #MASHPD to see how we could follow school conversations. I also shared accounts that they might like to follow. Everyone left with a Twitter Tweasure Hunt to complete, and two weeks to work on it.

In the intervening two week period: The Twitter PLC participants are working in teams to complete a Twitter Tweasure Hunt, with the winners receiving a Tim Horton's breakfast during our final PD session in November. I created the Tweasure Hunt using Google Sheets. It's designed to serve as an introductory guide to developing a professional profile, finding and connecting with a PLN, and beginning conversations about educational topics. (Click here to view the Twitter Tweasure Hunt)

Session 3: In Session 3 we will learn about the many educational chats available on Twitter, participate in an educational "slow chat," and learn about Tweet Deck.

Session 4: We will participate in our own Twitter chat from our classrooms/offices.

I'm hoping that we will develop a Twitter community at our school, and then in our district. These four sessions may lead into more, who knows? Perhaps we'll have a regular PLC meeting on Twitter. It's a beginning, and I'm excited about the possibilities. I want other educators to see and experience the passion and professional dialogue available through Twitter.

Do you have a professional account on Twitter? 
How does Twitter help you develop as a professional?
How might you find time to pursue it?

Friday, August 5, 2016

Am I holding their hands or holding them accountable?

File:Parent-left child-right yellow-background.svg
By Ezra Katz (File:ParentChildIcon.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have had quite an adventure with my ninth graders this year! I think that I have learned more from them than they have from me...or perhaps just as much.

There is a lot of debate regarding homework: some believe that it should no longer be assigned because students' home lives are such that homework isn't a priority and assigning it is penalizing them. Others (myself included) contend that homework serves useful purposes: reviewing material outside of class, practicing skills, developing independence and responsibility.

I try to make the homework short, worthwhile, focused, attainable. For my 9th graders, a typical homework assignment can be completed in 5-15 minutes. It may be the ONLY time that they actually "study" material outside of my class.

But, homework completion was at an all-time low this year, with only 1 or 2 students completing each assignment. Many students regularly forgot, lost it, or didn't care to try. They were not worried about a grade penalty either--my 9th graders didn't care what grades they got, even if they failed.

So, I began an experimental "accountability activity". Each day when I collected assignments (and I increased the number of assignments, but kept them very short), I would spend 10 minutes checking their work. If a student did not hand in the assignment, turned in a partially completed assignment, or made mistakes on more than half of the questions, I wrote a note to be delivered to them in homeroom the next day.

The note required that they come and see me. If they had a study hall during the day, the note was a pass to come to my room during that period. If they had no study hall, they came during homeroom. They came. I instructed them to complete the assignment. They did. I checked it immediately. When their homework was satisfactory, I signed their pass and let them return to study hall, homeroom, or the next period.

At first they came, angry and resistant. I was firm, but not aggressive or confrontational. "When you complete the assignment fully and correctly, then you can leave". It could take two minutes, or it could take half an hour. One young man was so angry that he couldn't (or wouldn't) speak to me or look at me. But he completed the assignment easily, spending only a few minutes and consulting his notes only once or twice. When he finished and gave me his paper, I looked him in the eye and said, "I believe in you more that you believe in yourself, and I am not going to let you be less than your best!" (or something like that).

The first few weeks were a discouraging battle. It seemed to make no difference, and it seemed that the students were not learning any good habits or responsibilities.

But then...

  • students started to trickle into my room before school, verifying homework assignments, asking questions, handing in their work early (gasp!);
  • students began to come to my room during their study hall period, sometimes staying to complete their homework there;
  • students began to talk with each other about homework, both holding each other accountable and becoming a personal pep squad;
  • students' grades overall improved as they finished their assignments, and their quiz/test/project grades improved as well;
  • students learned how to tutor and coach each other, not sharing answers, but helping to understand concepts;
  • students began to read the daily posted agenda and look for assignments;
  • our classroom became a community, a family as it were, and they sought to help each other and please me!

Never would I have dreamed that the results would prove this exciting!

But some educators will ask, "Aren't you holding their hands?"

...perhaps I am. Or,

  • Perhaps I am leading them in the path of responsibility;
  • Perhaps I am showing them the value of work done well;
  • Perhaps I am modeling for them habits that they can use in all their classes and in the workplace, both now and in the future;
  • Perhaps I have given them a safe way to try again, and provided an option other than excuses for shoddy work;
  • Perhaps I have taught them how to learn for themselves, work as a team, and coach/tutor peers;
  • Perhaps I have given them value, purpose, respect, responsibility, trust;
  • Perhaps I have offered them a chance to be part of a loving, protecting family.

Am I holding their hands, or holding them accountable?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Turning Corners in My Teaching Career

Sebastian Ballard [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have to admit that somewhere in my teaching career I turned a corner. Twice.

It’s not that I don’t love Spanish any more; I love language and the logic behind it. I love discovering new words and connections to other words, and I love when the lights come on for students. Teaching Spanish is fun!

At some point, I realized that I love teaching. It doesn’t matter the subject (gasp), I just love helping others learn. And I think it shows. It’s exciting and I like to share that excitement. Reading books, attending training sessions, reading educator and administrator blogs, listening to other teachers-all of these are thrilling and inspiring. I love to learn new ways to teach, and I love to experiment. Teaching is fun!

In an ideal world, I can go to work each day and have the time of my life. There are new lessons to craft, and old lessons to tweak. My “unread bookshelf” is full and I am reading any number of books all at the same time.

Back in the real world, some days aren’t as awesome as others. At times I go home discouraged, tired and overwhelmed, and I need to distance myself from it, at least for a time.

It’s not that I don’t love teaching any more; I still love to teach. There is a thrill in implementing a new idea, in stretching myself to grow through failure or success, and in helping my students to do the same.

But, I’ve realized that I have turned another corner.

I love my students. I love each of them, regardless of yesterday, today, or tomorrow. 

Love is a choice, like my career. I choose to love them; it is my decision to make. 

Love is a calling, like my career. I am called to love them; it is my responsibility to do it.

What sends me home depressed at the end of the day? An unsuccessful lesson? No. A grammar error I made? No. A jam in the copy machine. No.

It is the relationships. I share in my students’ joys and sorrows. I worry about them, grieve over them, celebrate with them, and sometimes communicate my frustration to them. I want to see each of my students become a man or woman of honor, to choose what is right over what is convenient, to take responsibility for himself or herself.

Their success or failure is not ultimately up to me. But I have a role to play. I can believe in my students. I can show them the right way. I can challenge them to care and to dare.

I love when I hear from or about my former students:
  • one is in medical school;
  • two are pursuing doctorate degrees in the sciences;
  • several have graduated from Ivy League schools;
  • one has graduated from the Naval Academy;
  • three former students now teach in our school district;
  • one is currently serving with the Peace Corps in Paraguay;
  • one is in graduate school to become a Spanish teacher (awesome!);
  • several serve in the military;
  • many are raising families;

But there are other stories:
  • my students often move away (transience is a large issue in our school);
  • some students bounce in and out of classes, or in and out of cyber, alternative, and public school;
  • at least three of my former students went to prison from high school;
  • many of my former students dropped out of high school;
  • at least five of my former students have died from alcohol, drug use, careless accident or suicide;
  • more than a dozen of my former students have had criminal charges against them, and many continue in that lifestyle.

It can be very discouraging.

But I cannot give up.

My students today have not made their choices.

I do not know the future.

Therefore, I choose to love today. I cannot fix their yesterday, but I can help with today, and I can invest in tomorrow.

The choice is theirs, but I am going to be the best coach, encourager, parent, teacher that I can.

I choose to love. 

Teaching comes second. 

Spanish comes third.

I choose to love! 

Which students most try your patience?

In what ways can you demonstrate belief in those students?

How can you find encouragement on the long and discouraging days?

<Note: I wrote the blog and published it previously (12/13/15) at>

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"Happy" is a Choice

My last class of the day is Spanish 1. It's really small, just 14 ninth graders. During class each day I try to make sure that I speak repeatedly with each of them, both about class topics and about personal ones. As class began on the first day after Christmas vacation, I circulated the room checking materials (more on this in a subsequent post), and inquiring about the students' vacation and current condition.

Carmen still hasn't let down her guard and doesn't fully trust me yet. Sometimes I see a little relaxing, but most of the time her defenses are high, her answers are terse, and her attitude is combative. When I approached her desk, she showed me her materials, handed me two late assignments, and asked,

"Why are you always so happy?"

Quickly I responded, "I love my job and I love my students. Why wouldn't I be happy?"

She shook her head and didn't say anything back to me, though when I walked away I heard her recalling grumpy teachers from her past.

Two days later, the question is still ringing in my ears. Why am I always so happy? I have a lot of answers, mostly borne out of knowing who I am, understanding that I am called to teach, and believing that I have been gifted to do this job. But there is something more:

"Happy" is a Choice.

In today's society, "emotions" are given the right to run lives. People make "snap" decisions, make and break relationships, react and overreact, and allow their emotions to determine what kind of day and attitude they have.

Emotions CANNOT drive our lives. We must employ our minds and bring our emotions under control. It is possible to "BE" happy without "FEELING" happy.

When I begin each of my classes, I deliberately choose to begin with a positive attitude. I choose to greet my students in an uplifting manner, regardless of what he or she might have done the day before. (*Disclaimer: I have had days when I did not present a positive attitude; but students will remember the way things usually are.)

I am not always happy. Some days I struggle with debilitating headaches, and on other days I am sad, worried, angry, frustrated, preoccupied, etc. But I CHOOSE to be happy. And usually my choices actually impact my feelings, and I am happy.

Some of my students live in a whirlwind of emotional choices and reactions. They don't reign in their emotions, and they don't experience family or friends doing this either. It is yet another part of their lives that lacks any self-control.

Perhaps my consistency will impact some of them. Perhaps I need to find a way to explain it to Carmen, and to my other students. Could I convince them that "Happy" is a choice? How can I teach them to choose their emotions? 

Do you rule your emotions or do your emotions rule you?

In what ways have you chosen to override your emotions and present a positive attitude to your students?

How might your consistency in emotion benefit your students?


(This blog is a conversation between my good friend (and instructional coach), Mrs. Stephanie Sandrock, and myself. As is often the case, I...