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

Created using Canva
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.
Created using Quozio

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.
Created with Canva

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.
Created with Adobe Post
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.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Teaching Is Like a Sushi Roll

Back in 2016, two of my English learners graduated high school and we had "Sushi Party" to celebrate their rite of passage. They had immigrated to the United States four years prior, not knowing a word of English and despite their limited English proficiency, they had made great academic gains and their graduation was cause for celebration.

The students are originally from Laos, and while sushi is Japanese, it happens to be their favorite food - and mine. Sushi was often a topic of conversation whenever we discussed food in class, so when a classmate suggested a sushi party, she didn't exactly need to twist my arm. All of their ESL classmates were invited, as well as their parents and brother. Some of the students ate sushi for the first time and loved it, others not so much.

Aside from a delightful evening of fun and fellowship, this celebration culminated in a job offer for both students and they are still employed at this restaurant, one is a sushi chef and the other is a server.

As I reflected on this night, I began pondering the many ways teaching is like a sushi roll. Here are just a few:

Raw - Though there are endless varieties of sushi rolls, most of them contain raw seafood. Webster defines raw as "being in or nearly in a natural state." The most effective teachers are authentic and natural - not afraid to admit when they're wrong or when they've failed. Kids see right through us anyway, so why not be upfront and "raw".
Fresh - Teaching, like raw seafood, is best when it's fresh. Teaching is continually changing, and we can't be effective teachers if we recycle our lessons and strategies year after year.  Just like sushi, we must keep our instruction fresh or it will go bad and therefore, stifle growth (ours as well as our students'). From emerging research to shifting perspectives to innovative technologies, change is constant despite the perception that many areas remain relatively unchanged.

Not For Everyone - To some, sushi is a delicious delicacy, while others find it nothing short of repulsive. Teaching is about heart and soul, not paycheck or prestige. Despite it being a difficult, draining, and often thankless job, most teachers can't imagine themselves doing anything else, while many outside the profession wouldn't do it for a million dollars.

Sticky - You can't have a good sushi roll without sticky rice. From classroom management to grading policies to parental conflicts, teachers can potentially find themselves in some really sticky situations. While we dread being in an uncomfortable spot, these tough situations are essential to our personal and professional growth. It's important that we handle issues with diplomacy and grace, always asking ourselves what we can learn from these circumstances. Hopefully, one day we can look back at those times and laugh. 
Image source:

Chopsticks - Most sushi eaters I know use chopsticks. Rather than using silverware, chopsticks are the utensils of choice because sushi pieces are intended to be consumed in one bite, and chopsticks help keep the pieces from falling apart. Like chopsticks, the best teaching tools are those that enable us to keep our instructional delivery from falling apart, helping our learners take in knowledge piece by piece. Furthermore, learning to use them can be tricky, especially at first, but they are fun to use. While some people are natural at using the utensils, it takes practice for most of us to master the art. Same goes with teaching tools. The most effective tools and strategies can be tricky to implement but when utilized effectively they can add lots of fun to our practice.

Expensive.  Sushi rolls are expensive, and you don't get a lot of food for the money, but to a sushi lover, there's lots to appreciate. Teaching is no different. We spend countless hours planning, grading, reflecting, in spite of the fact that it's not exactly a lucrative field. But if we love it, just like sushi, we will savor every bit.

Roll - A good teacher has to roll with punches and not get discouraged when things don't turn out exactly as planned. We can't stress too much, especially about the aspects of our job that we cannot control. Quick thinking and an optimistic outlook are as invaluable as sharp pedagogical skills.

Like a good sushi roll, I find teaching to be enormously fulfilling and satisfying. Having the opportunity to inspire young people and make a positive impact on their lives and their choices is truly an honor and a privilege. Sure, some days are grueling and exhausting, but most days I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Below are some photos of our sushi party at Fusion Bowl.

*This post was adapted from the original post published on my former blog "ESL Musings"

Sunday, February 17, 2019

I Choose Beneficial

Created using
Two years ago I embarked on a weight loss journey and within six months I lost 45 pounds, gaining back my energy and youth. After watching the number on the scale steadily increase year after year,  I was beyond exhilarated when I finally found a plan that helped me win the battle of the bulge. The plan required me to eat my choice of shakes, bars or other prepackaged meals five times per day and a lean and green meal I usually prepared at home. The program promised that if I followed the plan with fidelity, the weight would come off quickly and safely. Day after day, I checked off my daily food and water requirements and sure enough within a few months, I was at my goal weight and had accomplished what I had unsuccessfully tried for many years. It was certainly difficult at times, but attaining a goal that I had pretty much given up on fueled my determination and strengthened my resolve.

But once I embarked on the maintenance journey, I had to develop a sustainable plan that would fit into my family's lifestyle. While the weight loss plan promised quick results, it also discouraged vigorous exercise because it was a very low-calorie plan. I was now able to eat anything, but not everything was beneficial - that is if I wanted to keep the weight off.  Without an exercise plan, once I expanded my menu, so did my waistline. I quickly realized that I had to get serious about my fitness and nutritional choices.

Education, just like health and wellness, is all about choices. There are lots we can add to our plate that while may be good and acceptable, may not actually be effective. From differentiation strategies to technology tools, just because we can, doesn't mean we should. Just because it's available and meets criteria on the list doesn't mean it's beneficial.

Last December as I began pondering on my "word" for 2019, the verse pictured above kept coming to mind. I often quote it when I'm trying to steer my family and friends away from poor choices (especially dietary), but it's my go-to verse for keeping myself on track. While the verse may have been written to address the spiritual issues of the day, this verse applies to choices I make in every area of my life - personal, professional, relational, nutritional as well as spiritual.

For 2019, I want to step up my game and not just get by checking off the boxes on my list. I want to rewrite the list. I want to make sure that what I do is truly beneficial, even if that may or may not have immediate, measurable results. In fact, we all know that change doesn't always produce instantaneous results, but that shouldn't stop us from challenging the status quo and pursuing that which is most beneficial in the long run.