Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In their shoes

at Two Writing Teachers!
Yesterday, in the midst of shortened classes after an IEP meeting that followed a two-hour delay due to a bomb threat (oh yes, there were so many stories I could have written yesterday!), I got a little reminder of what life is really like for my students and their families.

note: if I'm talking with my student or her parents, it's happening in Spanish. 

V. (one of my Spanish-speaking Beginner students) comes up to me during Resource (supported study center) with a problem: "Before Thanksgiving, the lunch lady said I owe $9 and some change, but we applied for free lunch."

It's 5th period and lunch starts in about 40 minutes, so we'd better get this taken care of. "Umm, do you want to go to the office and see what the problem is?  I'll come with you." V. and I walk down to the office, but when we get there, none of the assistant principals are in their offices.

Hesitantly, I stick my head into the principal's office. "My student is supposed to be on free lunch but she says the lunch ladies told her she owes $9..."

"I've got it, come on over here..." Before the principal can give much of an answer, his secretary, (who's basically the "mom" of everyone in the building) interrupts.  We scurry over to her office and she clicks and types and eventually says that she'll go with us to talk to the lunch ladies.

When we get to the lunch room, she marches straight behind the lines and starts explaining the situation to the head of the cafeteria staff.  "Hmmm, let's see how she rings up on our computers," the lady says, motioning for V. to punch in her lunch number.  To our surprise, V. rings up regular price.  "Well, that's why she's being charged!"  The lady scrolls around for a few minutes and discovers something interesting: "I see, she was free lunch until Nov. 12 and then it changed to full price.  That's right about the day there was an audit.  Did her parents get some paperwork at home?"

I translate, and V. says maybe.  I explain that they don't speak any English, so they wouldn't have known what to do with it if they did get it!  The cafeteria lady tells us that about 10% of the free lunch families were selected to be audited.  We can find out if V.'s family was one of them by calling someone at Central Office.  If so, her parents will need to prove that their income is low enough to qualify for the program. "She can be on free lunch until it gets sorted out."  Back to the office.

As the secretary dials, I look at the clock and realize that lunch is about to start!  I send V. back to the classroom so she won't be late too lunch, and I stay to wait for the call to go through. "I'll let you know when I find something out!"

After a few minutes and a lot of name-spelling, we verify that V.'s family is one of the audited families. "If they're on food stamps, they can give us the food stamp number.  If not, they'll have to send in copies of their pay stubs.  Can you call and explain that in Spanish?"  Alright, need to look up how to say "audit", "food stamps", and "pay stub"...

I race back to my room, grab my lunch, and scurry to the workroom.  Almost 20 minutes of lunch left, that's not too bad!  I wash my hands, take a few bites of my peanut butter sandwich, and take a few deep breaths.

That's when sharp, fast knocks rap on the workroom door.

Since I'm sitting at the end of the table, I get up to answer the door, but somehow I know it's V. before I even open it.  Her face is flushed, her hair is flying in her face, and her words are tumbling out in rapid-fire Spanish.  "My parents are here and they don't know who to ask for and they can't talk to anybody..." I follow her down the hallway, telling her not to worry.  She must have called them on the way to lunch and asked them to come.

Now that I know what information we need, I fill V. in on what the Central Office lady said. "Do you know if you get food stamps to buy food?" (Obviously, I didn't have a chance to look up "food stamps", so I make up something that seems like it could be right...)  "No... we go to a church that gives us food."  Hmm, I wonder if they should be on food stamps?  Seems like they should if they're going to a food pantry. Maybe they don't know about them?  I should find out if they're eligible.

As we round the corner into the back part of the office, I can see a small Hispanic man and lady sitting nervously on the couches in the waiting area.  They look frightened and lost.  Their faces light up when V. says "She speaks Spanish!"  We start to chat, and V. interrupts. "Do I have to stay, or can I go back to lunch?"  "Oh yeah, go back to lunch!" I grin at her, and start to explain the situation to her parents, with plenty of circumlocution.

"The government has chosen some families to verify if they qualify for food stamps.  Did you get a letter from the government?"  They start rummaging through piles of papers they brought, pulling out school newsletters, permission forms, district information... "No.... no... no.... look, it doesn't really matter if you have the letter, don't worry.  You just need to prove how much money you make.  Do you get food stamps to buy food?  No?  Ok, then you'll need to bring in a copy of... umm, the paper you get from your job that says how much money you make."  "The paycheck?"  "Oh yes, um, your copy of the paycheck, the part that says how much money you make.  Do you both have a job?  You'll both need to bring in the paper so we can see how much money you make.  You can send them in with V.  Is that ok?  Ok."

I notice that tears are threatening to spill out of the mom's eyes, and I remember that she told me she's undocumented.  Not only are they overwhelmed by the school and the system and their inability to communicate with anyone, but they're probably scared to death that any situation like this could lead to deportation.  "Don't worry, it's ok, they just want to check to see how much money you make, and probably V. will still get to be on free lunch.  It's just that the government chose some random families to verify."

Their shoulders and eyes relax a little, and suddenly they're shoving the rest of the papers they brought at me.   "Could you tell us what this one says too?"  "Oh, that's to tell you that V. qualifies for a special program for students who have trouble reading, to help her improve her reading skills.  Sign it down here to say that you want her to participate in this special reading program."  "Can she bring this back too?"  "Oh yes, that's fine, she can bring it back. You don't have to mail it."

"Oh and what was that phone call we got this morning?  We understood two hours, but we didn't get the rest..."  "Oh, umm, the principals received..." Man, I can't remember the word for threat! "... a message that someone was going to put a bomb in one of the schools.  So we had to wait for two hours so the police could come and check all the schools to be sure there wasn't a bomb.  But there's no bomb, don't worry!"

"Can we come back here to you if we get more papers like this that we don't understand?"  "Oh yes, of course!  Please come here when you need help, or you can call me!"  "Oh thank you, teacher! Who should we ask for?  We didn't know who to ask for today and nobody knew what teacher we wanted."  Ugh.  Poor things.  The front office should have known to get me or the bilingual aide. I'll have to talk to them.  I grab a piece of paper from the secretaries' desk and write my name, my voicemail number, and the Spanish bilingual aide's name.  "If you come here, you can ask for me or this other teacher who speaks Spanish.  Or you can call this number and leave me a message."  "Oh ok, teacher, thank you so much."  I grin.  So that's why V. always calls me "teacher": now I know where she gets it from!  "On your way out, make sure you sign out at the desk where you got your visitor badges!"  About 5 minutes of lunch left.  Good thing it's the crazy late start schedule so I have my plan period next so I can eat!

I treasure every glimpse I get into my students' lives, and I'm glad I got this reminder of what they and their families deal with every day.  What would it be like to navigate an unfamiliar world in a completely unknown language?  Some of the parents know far less English than their kids, since they don't have the advantage of going to school!  What can we do to help them?

Friday, November 16, 2012

¿Qué es el amor?

at Latinaish!
¡Vaya!  Hace muchas semanas que no he participado en Spanish Friday!  Me alegro que por fin puedo volver a escribir en español.

Sólo llevo tres meses enseñado el inglés, y ya echo de menos el español.  Me encanta enseñar el inglés como segunda idioma, pero a veces extraño los días de mostrarles el mundo a mis estudiantes: de traer Pan de Muertos y hacer viajes imaginarios a los países hispanohablantes.

Pero de todos modos, todavía utilizo mi español en este trabajo nuevo, aunque en una manera distinta.  A mis estudiantes hispanos les encanta hablar en español conmigo, y a veces ellos necesitan hacerlo.  Y a veces, ellos me recuerdan que no sólo están en busca de un futuro mejor, sino también en busca de sis mismos.

-- ¡Maestra! -- V. me está señalando con la mano.  (Siempre me llama Maestra, en vez de Mrs. M.) -- Tengo una pregunta. --

-- Sí...--

-- ¿Qué es el amor? --

-- ¿En inglés? -- V. no tiene poco inglés y muchas veces traduzco para ella.

-- No...en español. -- Sus ojos grandes y tranquilos me miran como los de un cervato. -- ¿Qué es? --

-- eh, pues... -- ¿Qué es el amor? ¿en mi segunda idioma? -- Pues, el amor es... cuando tienes mucho cariño para alguien...y, eh... (Pienso en su novio, un chico que a veces se comporta con algo de machismo.) -- Pues, el amor es... cuando quieres que la otra persona siempre esté feliz.  Sólo quieres lo mejor para la otra persona. Éste es el amor verdadero, cuando todo lo que quieres es la felicidad de la otra persona.

-- ah. -- V. se fija sus ojos en los míos y se asienta con la cabeza. -- Gracias. --

(¡Creo que le di una respuesta bastante bien, para una pregunta así, inesperada, en mi segunda idioma!)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Strong Schools Matter

at Two Writing Teachers!
Since our levy failed last year, my district is back on the ballot again this year. Another Tuesday of knots in my stomach and blood thumping through my body more powerfully than usual.  Another Tuesday of waiting and hoping.

This year, the committee of parents and staff members committed to passing the levy decided to collect stories about the impact our schools have made on people's lives.  They posted the stories to Facebook and their website, created videos, and even organized Twitter chats so current and former students could share what our district has meant to them.

I attended our district K-12 and know that I would not be who I am today without the amazing experiences I had in our schools.  Even though I've still been swamped with work lately, I knew I could not pass up the opportunity to share my story, so I dropped everything Friday evening and sat down to write.  But could I make a difference?  Would anyone even read it?

Within a few hours, more than 60 people (some of my colleagues, some of my former teachers, and some strangers!) had liked my post on Facebook.  My mom called me to say that her staff members were telling her about how good my post was, and she said that it brought tears to her eyes.  My writing had moved people!  It was just like slicing!

Since it's Tuesday, I'd love to share it with all of you:

My husband makes fun of the fact that I can name every teacher I had K-12, and he laughs at the childlike adoration with which I still talk about them.  But he didn’t attend Dublin City Schools.  He didn’t have the thousands (perhaps millions) of unique, memorable learning opportunities that I had.

In first grade, Dr. Wright had a cardboard spaceship that we could read in during our space unit.  In LEAP, Mrs. Lytle helped us embrace our creativity and stretch our brains with thematic units like a simulation of ancient Japan. She also taught us the most important lesson that a perfectionistic gifted kid can learn: “I am lovable and capable.” During middle school, I lived for the fun goofiness of Mr. Prosser’s Funky Rubber Chickens (Odyssey of the Mind) but also embraced the serious skill-building of Power of the Pen.  And even as athletically challenged as I am, the opportunity to try out middle school track taught me to overcome my fears by running hurdles… even though I was only 4’10”!

I can’t even begin to list all of the amazing learning experiences I experienced at Coffman High School.  From building a model house with real circuits in Ms. Milanovich’s physics class to traveling to Boston to make American Lit and AP US History come alive, my classes were full of authentic, real-world learning.  The fantastic Spanish program enabled me to score a 5 on the AP test, ultimately allowing me to jump directly into 400-level Spanish courses at Ohio State.  And nothing taught me more about persistence, hard work, collaboration, and striving for excellence than being in the Coffman Marching Band under Dr. Keller. 
While these incredible experiences certainly made a huge difference in my learning, the best part of Dublin City Schools was knowing that my teachers cared about me.  In third grade, Dr. Kumpf let me spend my indoor recesses using my inventions (like the “Sankey Staple Pick-up and Bucket”) to help her.  When my reading level surpassed all the books available at Scottish Corners, I was allowed to miss class to go into the hallway and talk about reading with an older student who was also a voracious reader.  At Sells, Ms. Ward went out of her way to nurture my interest in Native Americans, like the time she let me help her tan deer hides in the traditional way during Indian Day at Highbanks Metro Park.  After our last contest my senior year, gruff Dr. Keller choked up while telling us that our score was just 0.3 points away from our class goal of surpassing the highest score in DCHSMB history.  As we stood around him in the dark parking lot, we all knew that he cared about us just as much as we had wanted to do well for him. 
If I really wanted to describe each moment in my educational experience that had this type of impact on me, I’d end up writing a book.  Instead, I’ll just say that being a student in Dublin City Schools changed my life.  Because of Dublin City Schools, I was able to excel academically in so many different subjects that I had trouble deciding what I wanted to be.  I became a National Merit Finalist and got a full scholarship to the only university I ever wanted to attend: Ohio State.  After the engaging and challenging learning opportunities I had K-12, most of my college courses seemed boring and easy.  When I made The Ohio State University Marching Band in a regular spot, the rigorous practices were just a natural continuation of my marching band experience at Coffman.  (Honestly, the band’s rehearsal discipline seemed a little lax to me!)

All around me, I saw students from other school districts who struggled with the workload in their classes and were not prepared for the marching and musical demands of the marching band.  I started to feel pride fill my chest when I told people that I was from Dublin, because I discovered that they knew what that meant.  No matter where they were from, my fellow band members and classmates had heard of Dublin.  They knew it was a district of academic excellence and a cradle of future TBDBITLers.  When I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, one of my Dublin Coffman classmates was right beside me.  I realized that growing up in Dublin was a gift that had a profound impact on my future. Now, as a Dublin teacher, I strive every day to give my students that same gift: to provide them with unique, challenging learning experiences and show them that I care. 
Please vote YES on Issue 48 for my students, because Dublin City Schools can change their lives. That’s what it did for me.
(cross-posted at the Dublin Good Schools Committee) 
Now it's just time to wait.