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.