Tuesday, November 19, 2019

How Can We Make Lessons Relevant to Students' Lives?

Learning can't always be fun and interesting, but it must always be relevant. This is at the core of my educational philosophy. But what does "relevant to students' lives" really look like in the classroom?

Let's look at Webster's definitions of the word relevant:
(a) Having a significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand
(b) Affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion
(c) Having social relevance

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Relevance in learning is not only about the "matter at hand", the age, and/or the intellectual level of our students, it's also about social relevance. Inarguably, we can analogize the material so learners can assimilate the content, but a crucial aspect of relevance is presenting lessons that contain true, authentic, updated information, applicable in the "real world", theirs ideally, but certainly to society at large.

One of the ways we can help students find relevance in lesson plans is to tear down classroom walls and virtually connect with classrooms and experts outside of the school building. Here are some ways I have facilitated connections without having to leave the building:

Global Communications & Collaborations. From across the district to across the globe, students collaborated on projects with other learners using technology. In my early teaching days, students connected via discussion boards and chat rooms. These days, we videoconference and use Google tools. When time zone differences prevent real-time communication, we've shared video recordings and blog posts for partner classes to view and read as convenient and respond accordingly.

Paired Reading. Pairing fictional reading with informational text is a great way to bring relevance to academic content. Pairing current events or non-fiction reading with academic content takes learning to a whole new level. Add a Skype session with an author or an individual featured in an article can energize a unit. Last year, I connected a Spanish teacher at my school with a professional translator who had been featured in this LA Times article. Students were reading a fictional novel and the plot closely resembled the content of the article. After reading the post, I emailed the writer who connected me with the individual. After a few emails and a Skype call, I introduced him to my teacher and we planned a lesson that brought the novel to life.

Virtual Guest Speakers. This works perfectly in Career & Technical Education courses, but it can work in any content. Regardless of our subject area, we are all preparing students for the workplace. When young people hear from industry experts how their content connects with real life, it energizes our lessons and helps students find meaning and purpose to their work. While an in-person speaker is ideal, time and travel sometimes make scheduling classroom visits difficult. Furthermore, when connecting virtually, our students can hear from people all over the world. And as remote work becomes ubiquitous, getting students comfortable with remote conversations is very valuable.

Most of my learners have found these experiences to be fun and interesting, but there were always moments that were not so enjoyable. My goal in connecting with other classrooms, pairing content and bringing in virtual speakers is not about enjoyment, but about making content relevant. And relevance is about bridging gaps and moving our students forward in their learning journey.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Thankful for the Starfish

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like you are spinning wheels and going nowhere? Whether you are a classroom teacher, an administrator, or in a supportive or coaching role, we all have those days. Sometimes, it's not just a bad day, but a bad week, month or year. Perhaps you may be wondering if you should explore other career opportunities, or you may have considered leaving the education profession altogether. While I haven't felt lead to explore opportunities outside education, there certainly have been many times when I'm not sure I am making a difference. And then when I find yourself hanging by a thread, someone - a student, a colleague, or a supervisor - will say something that will turn everything around and will help me reclaim my calling. Even if I impact one life, I know that my work is not in vain. What I find fascinating is that once I realize I'm am are making an impact, suddenly I find that I am actually impacting many lives.

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It's November and I've committed to practicing gratitude and looking for good things around me and blogging about it. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude will not usually change my circumstances, but it does shift my perspective and alter my reaction to challenges, which in turn do sometimes change my reality. 

So, my fellow educator, as you go about your day, I challenge you to search for that one starfish in your building, focus on saving that one life, and be thankful for the impact you’re having. Whether it may be a student or a colleague, let this person reignite your passion for teaching and learning. I'm certain that once you find that one, you will soon realize you are making a difference in countless lives.
Image Credit: Reader's Digest

Thursday, October 31, 2019

30-Day #ThankfulTeacher Challenge

Tomorrow is the first day of November and I as I do every year, I will challenge myself to maintain an attitude of gratitude all month long - not just on Thanksgiving Day. Starting on November 1st, I will post on someone or something I am grateful for on my personal Instagram and Facebook accounts using the hashtag #30DaysofThanks. In past years, I have posted an occasional gratitude tweet related to education, but for the most part my gratitude posts are shared with family and friends, and are personal in nature.

This year, using the hashtag #ThankfulTeacher, I want to focus on all the ways I am blessed in my professional life and I challenge my fellow educators to do the same. I want to practice gratitude and post expressions of Thanksgiving all month long. Whether it's about major events or simple things, having an attitude of gratitude is about counting our blessings in spite of the challenges that come with being an educator and maintaining a love of teaching and learning.
Image credit: Etsy
Won't you join me? Let's spread gratefulness during the month of November in the hopes that it will stay with us all year long.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Key to Consistent Blogging

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I love blogging. While I may not be a prolific writer, blogging (or any sort of writing) for me is therapeutic. Writing helps me process my thoughts and challenges to better develop ideas and solutions. As a teenager, I kept a diary. As a young adult, I kept a prayer journal. When I became an educator, I debriefed by writing notes on my lesson and unit plans. But when I discovered blogging, my reflective practice and my mindset were transformed.

However, once I left the classroom, I felt as if I lost my blogging voice. While time is certainly a factor, I mostly struggle with content. I’m like a newcomer English learner in her silent period. My blog has always been reflective in nature and I wrote about what worked and what didn’t work. When I entered the coaching role, I was taking in the newness of the role and didn’t feel as compelled to write and share as I did when I was a classroom teacher.
Image source: Pixabay
I recently read an ASCD post on content-area writing and it was like an epiphany moment. “The Keys to Content-Area Writing: Short, Frequent, and Shared" offers practical ways to help educators incorporate writing across the curriculum - the title says it all - but it gave me exactly what I needed  to help me get out of my writing funk. Just like with content-area writing, the key to consistent blogging is short, frequent and shared. Keeping posts as short as possible, writing frequently and sharing them with our professional learning networks.

So here’s my plan:
  • Short. I often overthink my posts and worry about reader-friendliness. In order for my blog to serve its therapeutic purpose, it must be more about reflection than about readership. When I first started blogging, I often wrote a paragraph or two and published a few times a week. As I honed my skills, my posts were lengthier but I published less frequently. This may be a good place to start to get me back on track.
  • Frequent. Making blogging part of my weekly routine will help me stay consistent. I made a calendar entry to remind me to publish every Friday to keep myself on track. However, my goal is to write a little something every day, even if just a few sentences.
  • Shared. Social media sharing is the quickest and easiest, but I will share my blog with anyone who’s interested. While my blog is intended to be read by educators, I have shared my work with students in an effort to model reflective writing. Moreover, although reflection is on my evaluation instrument, weekly blogging is not. Just like we want students to write for more than a grade, I write for more than checking off an item on the list.
If you’ve been in a blogging funk or struggle with consistent blogging, please share your thoughts and ideas. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Monday, July 29, 2019

Start the New School Year By Building Relationships

I love the newness of the beginning of the school year. New clothes, new shoes, new school supplies, freshly painted walls, and newly waxed floors. All are wonderful reminders of our opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again. If you are like most teachers, you may be tirelessly preparing for the first week of school and the to-do list seems never-ending.  But as we ready ourselves for the kickoff, let's keep in mind the reason we teach.  
Image Credit: Pixabay
The start of a school year has to be about building relationships.  It's a time to establish an atmosphere of cooperation and support so that significant learning can occur. Aside from imparting knowledge and skills, educators have a tremendous responsibility to lead young people on their learning journey. As they learn the rules to follow and the content they'll be taught, it's imperative that students build relationships with those who will be on the journey with them.  
Image Credit: Pixabay
Here are some of my favorite activities to help build classroom community.
Every student is given a bingo sheet. Each square contains a question and students must find classmates who can affirmatively answer a question and sign the corresponding square. Because students cannot sign more than one square, kids must circulate the room and talk to many different classmates in an effort to cover five in a row or even the entire sheet.  
Developed by Shelly Sanchez Terrell, students are given a list of questions, and for a period of one minute, pairs of classmates will interview each other and answer a given question. After a minute, they find another classmate and move to the next question. The game ends when all questions have been answered. This activity will help find commonalities. Students are often surprised to find how much they have in common with those they perceive to be most different. Afterward, students reflect on the results, which could lead to a group or class discussion, a writing activity or blog post. 
Using the presentation tool of their choice, students create a collage of images that represent a vision of their future. When completed, students present their vision boards to their classmates. While this a great strategy for focusing on goals and aspirations, sharing the boards with peers helps to find commonalities that can strengthen the classroom culture. Here's a sample.
Developed by Kyle Schwartz and featured on national news networks, the lesson plan was first implemented with third graders as a sentence starter. I adapted the lesson when I taught secondary English learners and used it as a blog post prompt. Students were asked to compose a paragraph and share any information they deemed essential to their learning. Teachers can gain invaluable insight from this activity. It can be implemented with any student population and can be tremendously helpful in planning for differentiation.
As we embark on the new school year, let's remember the words of Dr. James Comer. 
Learning about our students and helping them learn about each other helps develop significant relationships that should, in turn, maximize their learning experience.

Modified from its original version, I originally wrote this post as a response to Larry Ferlazzo's question, "What are the best ways to start a school year?" published on August 8, 2016. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Voice of a Quiet Leader

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Regardless of where an educator falls on the leadership spectrum, if they inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, they are leaders. Leadership is not about position, paycheck or prestige and is therefore, not limited to administrators. 

The term “teacher-leader” has become a ubiquitous term, commonly found on teacher evaluation rubrics, résumés, and publications. Leadership is no longer limited to principals, central office personnel, or superintendents. It has become an expectation of all educators. But what exactly is a "teacher leader?"

Commonly referring to those teachers who have taken on leadership roles and additional responsibilities in their school communities, teacher leaders are perceived to be visible, vocal and impactful - individuals that are often found chairing committees, mentoring beginning teachers, leading professional development sessions, and involving themselves in decision-making alongside the administrative team.

But how should we define being "visible, vocal and impactful?" Do we need large crowds to make an impact? Do we need to undergo mentor training and be official mentors? Does leading professional development require a large group? Must the decision-making be part of a school improvement team or school leadership committee? If you concur with John Quincy Adams’s thoughts, your answer to these questions might be, “not necessarily.” A teacher leader is one that identifies a need, steps up and attempts to find solutions. 

Whether or not we are vocal and visible, sitting on committees or taking on additional duties, we are
all leaders. Our work as educators is less about curriculum, standards and student data, and much more about connecting with learners. Effective teachers not only impart knowledge, but they also inspire students to, as John Quincy Adams purportedly stated, “dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.”  Regardless of your official title, from the teachers’ lounge to PLCs to formal professional development sessions, we are leading our peers in larger and smaller ways. We are also leaders to parents who entrust their children to our care. To other stakeholders, we are leaders who foster their support for the children, the schools, and the community at large.

Teacher leadership is about relationships. It is not necessarily about how visible or how vocal we are. It’s about seizing every opportunity to make a difference in the life of another human being. Adams’s quote sits on my office wall serving as a reminder, to me and the teachers I serve, that every day we have the opportunity to lead - to make a difference.

Just as oxygen is not seen or heard but is critical to our existence, quiet leaders are the invisible force behind the learning process. Their efforts may be seldom acknowledged, their accomplishments may be rarely recognized and their voices may not be heard loud and clear, yet without their leadership, our schools could not survive. 

If you are a quiet leader, know that you are invaluable to the school community. And for those who are at the front and center, let’s not fail to affirm those who are leading from behind. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Is Stereotyping a Form of Racism?

Have you ever heard yourself or someone else say: 
  • He's smart, he's Asian. 
  • Her family is Hispanic so they speak Spanish. 
  • Italians love pasta. 
  • He's from Iraq, he's probably Muslim. 
  • African-Americans can jam.

While you may not think these statements are racist, they are blanket, stereotypical statements that may not be accurate. And just like we buy in to positive stereotypes, we likely believe some of the negative ones as well (even if we don’t want to admit it). But what is most damaging about stereotypes (positive or negative) is that they interfere with our ability to connect and form relationships with individuals.
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Is stereotyping a form of racism?

Just like racism, stereotyping carries a negative connotation as racism does. But is stereotyping always negative or ill-intentioned? Before we answer that question, let's look at the definition of a stereotype. 
According to Webster, a stereotype “represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude or uncritical judgment.” While you may not consider yourself prejudice, you may hold oversimplified opinions about groups of people that are stereotypical in nature. And if we pretend to know things about an individual based on our knowledge or experience about their group, we are giving in to stereotypes. Stereotyping, just as casual racism,"is as much about impact as it is about intention." (Australian Human Rights Commission). Even if you may not intend to harm, pander or patronize, or even if your assumption is accurate, stereotypes are offensive nonetheless, and there is no place for them in schools.
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I entered the education profession as a CTE Business Education teacher when my husband and I moved to the town of Sparta, North Carolina in 1996. Prior to our move, we lived in Miami, Florida. Sparta and Miami are drastically different -  demographically, geographically, socioeconomically and in every which way. Despite being fluent in English, well-educated, having traveled throughout the United States and vacationing in the Sparta area many times, I soon realized that I had no idea what it was like to live outside of Miami. Growing up Cuban in a predominantly Cuban community, I had never experienced racism or stereotyping of any kind. That is until I left my hometown. "Are you a Spanish teacher?"
The first time someone asked me that question after introducing myself, I chuckled and thought, “How crazy, why would they think that.” But then I heard it time and time again. At one point, I talked about this with a colleague and they responded, well it's because you have a Spanish last name. My response was, "Well, if my last name was Jones would you assume I am an English teacher?" At that point in time, Sparta was not very diverse. However, it's 20 years later and despite living in a much more diverse community, I occasionally get the same question. I also hear comments about my features and my accent. I happen to be racially Caucasian and green-eyed, so I often hear, “but you don’t look Mexican" when they learn that I speak Spanish. I usually respond by reminding those individuals that Spanish is spoken in over 20 countriesThus, not all Hispanics and are Mexican and we come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Even those that know I've lived in the United States since I was a toddler,  often comment on my lack of Spanish accent. It's clear that in the mind of those persons, Hispanics are Mexican, olive-skinned and speak with a Spanish accent (and who knows what else they may be assuming).  
Image credit: CTS Consulting
Let’s look at some examples of widely held stereotypes about Hispanics.
  • Spanish Language Skills. Not all Hispanics are fluent in Spanish and if they speak Spanish, they may not be literate. Do we assume that Americans of German descent are fluent and literate in German? Generally, we would not. 
  • Food. If the only Hispanic food you’ve eaten is Mexican, you have no idea what you’re missing. I love Mexican food, I actually like it better than Cuban food, frankly, but they are quite different. Most Hispanic foods are not spicy, although it’s safe to say most recipes call for exotic spices and condiments, similar to French and Italian cuisine.
  • Religion. We can’t assume that the predominant religion of a given territory is observed by everyone in that area. Not all Hispanics are Catholic, not all Middle Easterners are Muslim, not all Asians are Buddhist…and so on. And even if they identify with the predominant religion, they may not observe it the same way. For example, Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated on All Soul's Day. It is not a Hispanic holiday.
  • Socioeconomics. Not all Hispanic immigrants are poor and/or uneducated. While many families do immigrate for economic opportunities, many immigrants are professionals from upper or middle-class backgrounds. And while some families may be struggling financially, it may be a temporary situation and most importantly, not indicative of their educational background. Which brings me to the next point.
  • Educational Background. I’ve had students whose parents are blue-collared workers, but in their home country they were doctors and lawyers and are unable to practice due to licensure requirements, English language proficiency level, or perhaps they are transitioning to a new career. On that note, we can’t assume literacy skills either. English language proficiency is no indicator of an individual's level of intellect.
  • Physical Features. I always say that Hispanics come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. And this applies to all ethnic groups. The world is a very small place and we have ancestors from all over. The Americas - North, South, Central and the Caribbean - was conquered by Europeans settlers and many of them (sadly) brought African slaves.
  • Family Dynamics. Some students may live with only one parent, but they are not necessarily a broken home. It’s not uncommon for one immigrant parent to move to the United States prior to the rest of the family or send their kids to live with an older sibling or extended family. Sadly, some families are separated due to immigration issues or incarceration and while we can't pry, we should never assume the level of support available at home if you assign homework regularly. For some you may be pleasantly surprised, but don’t be quick to assume students are lazy or apathetic when their home life includes childcare and housekeeping responsibilities.
  • Academic Interests and Potential. Many Asians are indeed smart, but making a blanket academic achievement assumption is unfair, just as it is to assume about the intellect levels of other minority groups. High achievers come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Moreover, just because their older siblings or parents were not high flyers, doesn’t mean that student in your classroom will not be.
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While I address this issue from a Hispanic perspective, most notably my personal experience, one can find parallels across all subgroups. Bottom line, there’s no room for stereotyping at schools. But how do we combat our own personal biases and perspectives? First and foremost, never, ever assume. Maintain an open mind and give everyone a blank slate. In doing so, consider the following:

  • Read up and listen before you ask. Note that order. Listen and take note before asking, so we avoid unnecessary, inappropriate questions. There are certain questions that are illegal for educators to ask, such as regarding immigration status.
  • Think carefully before asking questions. For example, instead of asking, “Are you Mexican?” ask them where they (or their family) are from? Rather than assuming that a parent doesn’t speak English, ask if they prefer documentation in another language. For example, Brazil is located in South America, but their official language is Portuguese and while it's a bit similar to Spanish and many Brazilians understand Spanish, it is not their native language and we shouldn’t expect them to be able to read it. 
I could go on and on.  I do believe that most educators are good at heart and have students’ best interest in mind. If you remember nothing else, just remember that everyone is unique, regardless of genetics or upbringing. All students deserve a fair chance – every single day. Most importantly, educators are there to empower students and their families and enhance their educational experience. We can't allow our assumptions or prior experiences keep us from giving our learners the educational excellence they deserve.