Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Science, too!

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
If you would have asked me ten years ago where I'd be today, this would not be it. It's the middle of 6th period, and I'm suddenly having one of those random moments of acute self-awareness, as if I'm floating above myself, watching a scene unfold while also acting in it.

My small group of students is huddled around me on one side of the biology lab: two Muslim boys, a Korean boy, a Chinese girl and boy, and three Muslim girls in hijab. As we work together to scrutinize cell diagrams, I hear myself saying things like, "Remember, cells with a nucleus are eukaryotic..." Look at me, teaching science, haha!

"Ok, 5c: 'Based on your answer to the previous question, what can you infer about the cells without this structure?'... This question wants us to use our answer from 5b to make a guess. We said the flagellum, that little tail, helps the cell move..." If my engineer dad, who can't picture what I do in my science push-ins, walked in here right now and saw me pointing to a cell diagram with one hand while waving my other hand behind my rear end like a little swishing fish tail, he would die laughing... "So what can we guess about the cells that don't have one?"

I like this activity. My kids are getting it! At first glance, I didn't think it would be helpful. Too wordy, too boring, another packet in the Sea of Too Many Worksheets otherwise known as high school. But upon closer inspection, the diagrams were clear and well-labeled, and the questions (once we decoded their academic language together) were carefully targeted to help us closely read the diagrams to learn the most important characteristics of each type of cell.

I seriously love teaching. I feel like skipping down the hallway. We are making such a difference!

Before my colleague and I pushed into content classes, our ELLs spent most of their day drifting, lost, silent. In their own ways, our colleagues were just as lost, feeling like they had no idea what to do with kids who didn't speak English.

Now, I spend two periods of my day in science class, right there to support everyone, and I love it. I love seeing my kids fully engaged with rigorous academic content. I love working with my awesome science colleagues to design and implement more linguistically appropriate activities and assessments to enable that engagement. We still have so much work to do, but I truly believe we are on the right track.

Most of all, I love moments like one of my favorite snapshots from this fall, when a "regular American" freshman, frantically looking for one of my colleagues in the hallway, saw me and exclaimed, "Hey! You're my science teacher, too!"

"That's right! What do you need?" My grin stretched so much wider than his. I'm your science teacher, too! 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

After all

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Hi :-) Mrs. M teacher! :-)" As I settled into my chair to check my morning emails, my eyes flicked from the subject line to the Korean characters in the "sent" column to the English version of the name beside them. Oh my gosh. It's K.

K, who used to be standing outside my classroom door every morning when I got to school, shoulders slumped in and long bangs combed purposefully across his eyes, hiding from the world. K, who scrawled a mixture of astute explanations (often accompanied by impressive diagrams to compensate for his limited English) and heavy-handed, repetitive "I hate..." statements. K, whose monsters would scare him so far into himself that he'd shut down completely, a little ball of lanky teenaged boy over by the window. K, who would then suddenly just let loose in a stream of hesitant-but-perceptive questions and reflections, pouring out his battles in halting beginner English for 20 or 30 minutes after class or before school the next day.

Identifying his triggers. Figuring out coping strategies that might work. The same anxious questions over and over again. Fighting his brain and feeling so frustrated and discouraged by what was "wrong" with him. Apologizing for disappointing me and sweetly thanking me for my help. Creating fascinating analogies, like comparing his energy to a phone battery that ran lower as the week went on, but could be "recharged" by help from his support system at school. Such insight in the midst of such overwhelming challenges.

K, who was suddenly just gone. Withdrawn from school one day last fall and sent back to Korea after an awful incident at home. Just like that. All the hours of listening and talking, of hooking him up with other supports, of keeping in close communication with those team members and wracking our brains to come up with innovative ideas to help him be successful... gone. We didn't even get to say goodbye.

Hours of work off of our plates, but it didn't feel good at all. Just when we were starting to get a really good support system in place, just when we were really feeling good about what we were doing to help him... he was gone. Ripped away from all those new supports. We didn't even get to try the check-in form that I'd worked so hard to make for him. My whole body seemed to be trying to tie itself in knots as I signed his withdrawal paperwork. What would ever happen to him, starting over in Korea?

And here he was, after all this time, right in my inbox this morning. Nothing in the body of the email, just that greeting in the subject line. But it was him. Alive, presumably not in jail or in a hospital, and emailing me to say hi with cute little emoji smiles. Tears spurted from my eyes as I restrained myself from replying IN ALL CAPS! "K, I'm so glad to hear from you!!!"

And later today, in his reply back, this sentence that tugged my heart right back to all those arduous-but-profound conversations: "Thank you for letting thoughts."

We didn't save him. We didn't get him close to graduation. We couldn't even help him avoid blowing up that weekend last fall. But he remembers my classroom as a safe place, and he remembers me as someone who cares. I must be doing a pretty good job, after all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Tuesdays at TWT!
"It's so empty in here!" I scrunch up my face as the newly blank cabinets, walls, and counters of the copy room strike me like a slap.

"Yeah, they worked really hard to get it cleaned up!" The secretary making copies can't see my face. "Isn't it nice?"

"No! I hate blank rooms! They're unfriendly!" I laugh. "That's why my room looks like an elementary school room. I want it to be home-y!"

Actually, I want it to be more than home-y. I want it to be home. And at the start of every new year, love spills out of my heart and flows around those tables and up onto those walls as I implement new tweaks to make it home-ier. As I work, I see shadows of kids huddled in groups, curled up in corners, and gathered in the meeting area: happy, comfortable, determined, enthusiastic, safe.

I've worked hard to create a variety of functional, comfortable learning zones!
Every year, I'm able to optimize our space for learning a little more. This year's improvements include re-arranging to create space for another small group table, adding bigger supply caddies on all the tables, and improving our schedule and learning target displays.
Cards on the schedule board
will help students know where
they should sit during each activity.
Below the calendar display,
a clearer display of specific targets
that are our focus for the day.


Color-coded ongoing learning targets will be added to this board
 as we go, since we will build on most throughout the year.
Fidget toys, activity books, and tip sheets
to help manage stress & difficult emotions!
And because my room does become their safe place in the midst of so many struggles, I'm adding a calm-down zone near the reading corner. You can't even begin to reach all those standards I'm throwing at you if your brain is stuck at high alarm!

"You will learn. You will grow. You will find your joy, peace, and strength. And you will know that I love you." As I staple, scoot, organize, and plan, I hum and talk to the shadow-kids that float in front of my dreamer eyes.

Tomorrow, those mind-shadows will crystalize into real kids, and I will start the hard work of stitching classes into families. Today, this home-y space that will become their home is ready, and it is waiting to welcome them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Coming back

Tuesdays at TWT!
"This keeps getting more complicated." Over the dull din of other diners at Panera, my colleague tosses his head back and laughs. "I keep finding that teaching is so much more complicated than I ever imagined."

"So do I!" I giggle, but I feel a surge of silent gratitude to be sitting here on a summer afternoon, discussing the joys and challenges of this job career profession calling life I love with a colleague who, despite a first year that absolutely kicked him in the gut, somehow loves it too, just like me.

We're working on our presentation for next week's district conference about supporting ELLs in content classes, but our teacher brains, too used to running a thousand programs at the same time, keep taking us other places. As we screenshot the best examples from our adventures together in his 3rd period Physical Science class, we drift back and forth through time, reflecting on last year and looking ahead.

Now that it's on the topic of school, my brain is spinning hard. "I really want to do more with my kids this fall to help them learn how to learn in their regular classes!" I'd thought of this in the spring, but it almost slipped my mind until we started remembering the utter lack of academic skills my kids ("ALL freshmen, really!" he interjects) have. "I mean, nobody tells you in your education classes that in addition to your content, you're going to have to teach your kids how to study, how to take notes, how to focus, how to regulate their emotions, how to set goals..."

The sheer BIGness of teaching hits me with its full force. It IS complicated. And amazing.

And out of the haze of a baby-filled summer, I remember, in a visceral surging way: I LOVE this job career profession calling life.

This crazy, stressful, fun, demanding, soul-crushing, uplifting, life-changing job career profession calling life. Am I looking forward to returning to lunches gulped in fifteen minutes, one scheduled bathroom break, and work that piles up far faster than I can ever get it done? Not really. Do I love feeling like I constantly have to settle for "good enough", knowing I could do so much better if I just had more time to prepare, reflect, and collaborate? Definitely not -- it's that much harder when you're a perfectionist.

But I love it. I love sharing my love of literacy with my kids. I love getting to know my kids and learning about their cultures, their languages, and their incredible lives. I love encouraging them in their learning and supporting them through their many challenges. I love being an expert who helps my colleagues teach my kids better, and I love being a learner who is constantly looking for new ways to improve my own instruction. And mostly, I. love. my. kids!

And while I'm grateful for the rejuvenation summer brings, I can't wait. I can't wait for booktalks and read-alouds, brainstorming and revision, messy thinking and proud products. I can't wait for purposeful conferences and quick conversations, joyful hugs and hallway tears. I can't wait for those cinder block walls to become a little home. I also can't wait for family meetings, for collegial collaboration with hearts like mine, for failed and successful experiments in new ways to help all students learn.

This is a colossal, complicated, challenging job career profession calling life. And an awesome one. And I'm so thankful that for all the ways it beats us up, it holds so many joys and promises that keep us coming back, whether it's our second year or our tenth.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Learning to fly

Tuesdays at TWT!
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote that learning to fly consists of "learning to throw yourself at the ground and miss".

Watching my 14-month old lately, I realized that learning to walk is pretty much the same thing. She took a few of those first tottering steps this weekend, in the midst of a hundred hilarious kerplunks, tumbles and flops. And every time she fell, she giggled, squealed, chortled, and clambered back up to try again.

Getting there!
Splat! (with a big smile!)
So while pondering how to make this post more than a series of cute baby pictures, I remembered an article I saw recently (which alas, I did not save, and now cannot find) about how the role of persistence is often undervalued in creative pursuits. And how I immediately thought of writing, and the sheer persistence that is required to be a writer.

I remembered so many Tuesdays and March days where I've had to absolutely drag myself to the couch, pry my laptop open, and make myself write. Throwing myself at the ground, over and over, whether I have a huge spark of a story that begs to be written, or a tiny hiding inkling of a maybe-idea, or no ideas at all.

However I start, the important thing is that I started. Something always comes out. Something great comes out! In that repeated persistence, I end up with stories that might not have been told, craft moves I might never have tried, conclusions and revelations I might never have arrived at, and connections I might never have made. Only in repeatedly throwing myself down do I learn to miss the ground: to conquer my fears, rise above the minutiae of being "too busy", vanquish tiredness, and dispel the myth of having "nothing to write about".

I've always loved how Thomas Mann said that "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I pour so much of myself into my writing. I agonize over words and phrases, play with hooks and conclusions, spin and weave the pieces of a story until they fit just write. I purposefully use strategies I've learned over time. It's hard work, not some magical cloud of golden inspiration.

I don't want my students to look at me and just see "a good writer". It's so easy to look at "talent" and think "That's not me. I can't do that!" Right? We all have our myths we've created: I'm not a good artist, I'm not athletic, I just can't do whatever like so-and-so does.

Soon, my baby will be walking everywhere without giving it a second thought. But other babies won't look at her and say, "oh, that kid's just a good walker. I can't do that." No! They, too, will someday fling themselves at the ground enough times to eventually learn to miss, and then off they'll go, walking everywhere too!

I work hard to make sure my students see me as someone who works really hard to make herself write, to learn about good writing, and to try different strategies to make her writing better. That's why I write in front of them, and that's why I share my writing life with them.

In fact, that's why I share my life with them: so they can see that success is not luck or some magical fairy dust, but rather the result of habitual, intentional tenacity over time. Writers write. Readers read. "Good students" study with purpose and intensity. Success comes from being strong, and being strong comes from being brave enough to keep throwing ourselves down, over and over, until we miss the ground and just take right off.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A walk with elsie

Tuesdays at TWT!
I love the feeling of possibility of a winding path cutting through a wooded field. The sunlight shines through the opening like an invitation, full of the hope of more beauty.

Little Sweetie, more asleep than awake in the stroller, stirs and gently fusses as I stop to take a picture. Maybe I can slice about this walk! I've been in such a writing rut, and Elsie always writes such fun slices about her walks! 

Around the bend, the promise of beauty is fulfilled as the fountain glitters like a firework shooting out of the pond ahead.

And to the other side, a bursting flowerbed that I would normally walk right by with just a quick glance. But Elsie would take a picture of those flowers... And find a story in them! So I flip the brake on the stroller:
ok, but...
I almost keep walking, but oooh, but the other end would show those pink ones that are hiding now! I sneak a few yards backwards and take another.
much better!

Little Sweetie is now flopped limply under her canopy, breathing with that steady rhythm of pure sleep.

When the gentle jostle of wooden bridge slats doesn't stir her, I decide to brave the stronger bounce of bumping her across the grass to a bench by the next pond. Sure enough, she stays asleep, and I settle on the rough wood and open my Blogger app. 

A spiky seat is a small price to pay for this exclusive view: my sweet baby asleep on my left and a picture-perfect window of branches framing the pond just for me.

Squeak! To my surprise, a tiny brown frog leaps in the mud in front of me. I'm used to the big bullfrogs everywhere, but this little guy is new! When I stand up for a closer look, several more scamper through the mud and sticks too! A whole little community of little friends that I would never have known about if I hadn't sat on this particular bench!
Do you see him?
So thanks, elsie! Even though you're states away and we've never met in person, we sure had a lovely walk together today! 

And thank you, TWT and all my slicing friends, for teaching me to walk like a writer, with my eyes, ears, and heart more open.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

House and home

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Ok, bye-bye, park!" Even though I'm so excited about our new house, tears sprout at the corners of my eyes as I get M&M to wave. I'm just terrible at endings of any kind, and really, this park is one of the things I'll miss most about this neighborhood. We've relished so many sweet, sunny afternoons here throughout the past year, and the playground has a few unique toys that most others don't. I don't know anywhere else that has a bouncy turtle and a bird teeter-totter!

This house, our first house, has been a wonderful one, but we always knew we wouldn't stay here. Still, nearly seven years of happy memories is a lot to leave behind.

Pure wonder when a spindly-legged spotted fawn wandered gracefully into our yard as we ate dinner one evening. Silly squirrels refusing to be baffled by the squirrel baffle. Scampering bunnies and gorgeous roses that somehow always blossomed in spite of our lack of careful attention to their wellbeing. Snow days, snow forts, and snow rollers. Birthday scavenger hunts.

Four years ago (almost exactly this week, probably!), I was soaking up sunshine and bird chatter when my phone rang with our district ELL coordinator offering me my current job. From traveling Spanish teacher to ELL teacher at a building I might stay at for the rest of my career: what a moment!

A year and a half ago, I gleefully ran downstairs when Husband got home and surprised him with the "Which hand?" game. (That's a family tradition where you hide something behind your back, making the other person guess which hand it's in but moving it every time until you both collapse in giggles and they wrestle it away from you!) His initial puzzlement at being handed some weird blue plastic contraption gave way to happy tears for both of us when he turned it over and saw the little screen displaying one word:

Just over a year ago, we pulled into the driveway, dazed and overflowing with love, incredulous that the hospital had actually let us loose to just take care of this little wiggly bundle of squeaks on our own. "You've never seen a place like this in your whole life!" we told her, seeing it with new eyes ourselves.

Over the next couple of weeks, I was determined to work my way up to walking to the park. One hand over the wrap on my belly, with Husband pushing that sleepy, squirmy bundle of animal noises coiled in the carseat-stroller, I shuffled along the sidewalk: down the street, then around the corner. A whole block, then several blocks! Down to the first major junction, within sight of the park. And finally, just before Husband's paternity leave expired, to the park and back!

At first, I was afraid to take her out of the house by myself. What if she started crying and wouldn't stop? What if she wanted to eat again really soon? What if she spit up everywhere or had a diaper blowout? What if... I don't know what else I thought might happen, but it seemed scary! Getting out the door the first time was a major accomplishment. Look at me! I could take my baby someplace! And it was fun!

From then on, the park was our place. At first, every tiny bump in the heaved-up sidewalks made her fling her arms and legs sideways in full startle mode, so the blacktop bike path in the park was a relief for both of us. I reveled in my newfound strength: in my legs, my belly, and my heart. We relaxed on our favorite bench in the shade. She started noticing trees, staring wide-eyed at them and cooing. She began babbling at me and flailing when she saw something exciting: a dog, a bird, a person, a branch swaying in the wind. Eventually, she was shrieking and giggling on the swings, waving to everyone she saw.

One gorgeous fall day, Husband and I were both walking her to the park as she lounged contentedly in her seat, gazing up at the trees and us, when she looked me right in the eyes and said, "Ma-ma". Pure magic.

Her first giggles and babbles. Rolling over, sitting up, pulling up. Cackling with delight to see us every morning. Stretching out her tiny finger to point at all her favorite things: her toys, her wall decals, the headboard of our bed, our bags, clothes, and water bottles.

Snuggling up and reading her good-morning book. Her eyes getting huge each time we pulled into the darkness of the garage after being out somewhere. Panting and squealing with excitement at the sound of Husband opening the door after work, then thumping her tiny hands and knees across the floor with determination to go see him once she finally figured out how to crawl forwards. Sweet, snuggly evenings filled with so much love. One of us creeping upstairs with her limp body snuggled into one of our shoulders, one arm dangling straight down.

Chortles and flails as the neighbors opened their doors on Trick-or-Treat night. Staring at the Christmas tree with wide eyes and tearing through wrapping paper on Christmas morning. Pondering the cold feeling of the first snowflakes on her soft skin. Meeting the Easter Bunny and doing her first egg hunt in the park.

But a house is just a building, and everything that I treasure most still lies ahead: an apartment full of anticipation, and then a lifetime of memories in our dream house, with every detail just the way we want it. The toothy smiles and shrieking laughs will bounce off new walls, and we'll snuggle up with books on the same comfy couches, just in a different arrangement. Little Sweetie will take her first steps, play with her first friends, do her first homework, and so much more.

Our first house has been a good one. But more importantly, our home is a wonderful one, no matter where we are.