Learning Languages

In addition to tutoring students in a variety of subjects, I also provide English classes to adults and children. I, too, am a student, having signed up for a six-week course to learn Spanish using graded readers. The more I explore language teaching and learning, I am intrigued by the similarities and differences between them. I am primarily speaking of English vis-a-vis Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Russian.

In high school and college, I took courses in French, but as is the case with many students taking a foreign language: if you don’t use it, you lose it. I rarely used French. I am most familiar with French and Spanish. Based on my current experience, I think I am further along in Spanish because that is what I am currently learning. Pronunciation in Portuguese is challenging for me, but I am totally lost when it comes to Russian. I’ve never studied it nor Portuguese for that matter. I can’t even use my translation app with Russian because I don’t know the Russian letters. I have one kindergarten student who is Russian, fluent in conversational Russian and English.

It is challenging for my students who speak Portuguese to navigate the vowels or where to place the stress on a word. English is difficult in these two areas. There are no accents for guidance and the vowels in English do unpredictable things when they get together. I incorporate reading literature in my English classes. Reading aloud allows for repetition that helps with these skills.

I also think about word order and translation. I wish I could find a literal translation of Spanish texts to get a sense of the sentence structure flow. This would help me to create sentences in Spanish that are not a direct two-step translation from my mind. I this would help me “think” in Spanish.

The language teaching and learning continues…



To Not Working a Day in My Life

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. –Confucius


How do you combine a love of teaching, a penchant for writing, and a skill for formatting documents into highly stylized arrangements of spaces, footnotes, and punctuation? I am trying to figure it out.

I am a tutor, an independent ESL instructor, and a copyeditor. Writing is the only activity that does not generate revenue. After being a classroom teacher for almost a decade, I began tutoring full-time both in-person and online. I started copyediting, mostly dissertations, before I left classroom teaching.

This work is extremely rewarding. Working one-on-one provides the opportunity for me to get to know my clients and their unique learning needs. It is truly a journey, especially with my clients in kindergarten through 1st grade who often greet me with pouts. They would rather play than work on skills that cause them to struggle. During those first couple of sessions, I am a detective trying to figure out a way in. As if by magic–really perseverance–they come to enjoy our sessions and that is when the progress begins.

My adult clients are interesting people. Many of my ESL clients have come to America due to a family member’s job relocation, leaving close family and friends. One of my clients has been in the states for decades and is a widely respected dancer in her community. In the dance school she founded, she is the guru to the students who attend her school. I was honored to see the recent dance production by her students. It was heartening to see her life’s work on display.

Because most of my copyediting clients are not local to me, I never get to meet them face-to-face. Reading their research gives me a window into their motivations and the research interests they have invested a great deal of time studying.

I feel particularly fortunate to have this space and time, this flexibility. I hope to use it to devote more time to write during those days and weeks that are not filled with appointments. This work is not work in the sense of something you dread facing on Mondays. It is that work that gives me the opportunity to be of use as illustrated in Marge Piercy’s poem so named.

On the cusp of another school year

Only a couple of weeks separate me from the beginning of preplanning week, the week prior to the first day of school when teachers return. Usually around this time of the year, I am ready to return to the breakneck pace of full-time elementary school teaching. This year, however, I am anxious.

The difference is that I will be both a full-time teacher and a full-time PhD student. Can I juggle all the competing priorities? Will I be able to maintain the level of intensity and quality needed to do well in my classes while fulfilling my role as a proficient teacher? (I no longer seek to be an exemplary teacher according to the district’s definition. I have found that the evaluation system is highly subjective.) I am hopeful about my ability to do the juggling, but my anxiety remains. I’ll have roughly a month before my PhD classes resume. My plan is to immediately carve out protected time for my PhD reading and research before classes begin.

I enjoy classroom teaching, which is both a blessing and a curse. While I’ve pledged allegiance to certain slogans for this transitional period–keep it simple, work smarter not harder, leave school on time–I am easily derailed by my “bright ideas,” which usually lead me down a path to overextend myself. Thankfully, I’ve given up my extracurricular activities (e.g.,  planning grade-level field trips and serving on various committees).

I’ll be back periodically to blog about my experience.

The Best Model

Recently, I read an article on the Farnam Street blog, “Mental Model: Hanlon’s Razor,” that presented a way of orienting ourselves to others. Hanlon’s Razor is a mental model:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.

I immediately thought of my 4th graders. They needed this quote. Developmentally, they are prone to think the world revolves around them and that anything negative that happens to them must be intentional and part of some diabolical plan. When they can’t find something: “Someone stole my fidget.” When someone mistakenly bumps them, “He hit me.”  I calmly tell them not to assume someone stole their belongings. “Perhaps, he mistakenly brushed up beside you.” It doesn’t help that he doesn’t immediately apologize after the inadvertent bumping, but that is another lesson. After arming myself with this quote, I share it with my students, explaining each word. I give them examples. As days pass, I often refer to it. It is emblazoned on the board.

One day, I notice my eraser is missing. It is a layered eraser. The soft fabric can be removed when the underside becomes over soiled and ineffective at erasing. There are layers lying around but no eraser. During indoor recess, I recall how certain students love playing teacher using the easel, dry erase markers, and my eraser. I ask one student who loves playing teacher if she knows where it is. I mutter to the class how someone pulled off all the layers and probably threw away my the top. After mentioning the missing eraser one other time, I move on. My eraser is a casualty of one of my students.

A few days later, I escorted my class to the computer lab for. As I was explaining something, I reached for an eraser to clear off the board. The name written on the eraser was mine! Here was my “discarded at the hands of my students” eraser. I immediately picked it up, and basking in my chagrin, I apologized to my students and waved the eraser so they could see. “Oh my, what a great example of Hanlon’s Razor,” I gushed, “It was my neglect that caused this. It wasn’t you!” The class erupted in applause. I’m not entirely sure why they applauded, but I knew in that moment that I had given them the most authentic example of this quote or how not to exemplify it. I, the teacher, modeled the behavior I wanted them to change. I was the best model of what not to do. Maybe they applauded because they had both forgiven me and been transformed in that instant.

My students need your help!

Please consider giving to my Donors Choose project. Little by little becomes a lot… This project will fund 6 devices which will enhance my instruction. We have a bring your own device program at my school, but many students don’t have devices other than cell phones. Please click on the link to get more information. Thank you!


Everything in one Equation

When I landed my first teaching job, I was excited beyond words. I become consumed when I am passionate about something, soaking up everything about the object of my passion.  On one particular evening, I was reading the employee calendar when something caught my eye. In the bottom left corner of each calendar block were two numbers separated by a slash. For example, 3/2 or 6/12. I was unsuccessful in trying to figure out these numbers so I flipped to the front of the book. I found an explanation.

Numbers in the bottom left corner of each school-day block denote the instructional day. The school year is made up of nine instructional months and 20 days each, for a total of 180 instructional days. For instance, 4/17 on December 2 is the 17th instructional day of the fourth month of school.

After reading this paragraph, I surmised there had to be a way determine the day of school (1-180) using those two numbers. I played around with different equations. My husband and daughter tried when I enlisted their help, but they couldn’t figure out an equation that would work. I can’t remember how long it took me, but I figured it out that evening.

The equation is: (IM-1)20 + ID= Day of School. That is if you take the instructional month subtract 1 and multiply the difference by 20 and add the instructional day, it would yield the day of school. I eagerly shared it with my class that first year. Considering that my students were only 8 and 9 year olds, I knew it might be difficult for them to understand. I did have one student who grasped the equation to my surprise.

As years passed, I shared the equation with my class, albeit later in the year when I had taught more math concepts. I was met with glassy eyes. My explanation didn’t go over any better with teachers. At the beginning of this year, (my 5th year) I made a commitment to teach this equation at the beginning of the year and require that students figure out the day of school every day. My efforts have reaped much fruit. Every day, I write the IM and ID on the board. Students use these numbers to figure out the day of school. This is their morning work. I’ve also added the expectation that they take the day of school, subtract it from 180 days using the standard algorithm or using mental math. Then they have to write the days we have gone and the days we have left as two fractions of the whole. Lastly, they have to draw a graphic illustrating all this. The graphic is a 3 X 3 grid. The 9 squares stand for each of the 9 instructional months. As we reach 20 days, they shade in a box.

From this simple equation, I can teach much of 4th grade math content: Number & Operations, Fractions, Geometry, and Decimals. This equation that came out of curiosity is a fruitful and authentic math resource. I get so much, veritably, everything in 4th grade math, from one equation.

You are the memory

One of my former students contacted me on Saturday via Messenger. He sent me a pic of a card I gave him for Christmas 3 years ago. I’m floored that he kept it. 

As he chirped on and on about his life, I grinned and reminisced. I remembered his obligatory hugs and requests to teach the class a “science experiment.” To know you made a difference in a child’s life is bliss. 

Ready for School

  One more day and my enchanted Holiday break will be ended. I’ve enjoyed these two weeks off. Lord knows I needed it! Considering that I don’t get breaks at school-Yes, I eat lunch with my kids-and the generally difficult job of shaping young minds, I needed some rejuvenation. 

But I’m ready to return. Yesterday morning, I dreamed that I had overslept and would be late for school. I dreamt this not once but two times. Last night, I dreamed I was a substitute teacher in a class from hell! I have classroom on my brain. 

I’ll ease back in on Tuesday for planning sans students. I have redone my seating and am eager to rearrange desks. In science, I’ll begin the unit on sound so I have to pull out the materials for those experiments. There are other things on my list, but mostly I’m eager to see them and hear all about their breaks. Typically most students are as eager to come back as I am. 

Disenchanted Melody

I am a teacher who has become infected with an increasing sense of disenchantment. Each of my 3 years as a homeroom has been wrought with struggle. By this 4th year, I am beat down, which is so unlike me, always up for a challenge. I am in a constant state of self-encouragement to get me through the week, “You can do this.” “Friday is coming.” I have invested a tremendous amount of time, money, and emotional energy into the pursuit of teaching. It is disappointing to feel within me a growing desire to transition.

What do I love about teaching?

  • The content is what drives me. I enjoy approaching a subject, mathematics, science, social studies, and using literacy to delve deeply into the knowledge. With voracity and delight, I enjoy learning and exploring in community, exchanging ideas, constructive argument, and analysis.
  • The order and structure grounds me. A classroom and the larger school is part of a system that demands order. From the alphabetized class lists, neatly labeled materials, and the rows and stacks of desks and chairs, a school cannot thrive without orderly systems and procedures.
  • The autonomy (most of the time). The research suggests that the teacher is the most important determinant of student success. Sometimes this leads to daily autonomy.  For the most part, the teacher is able to create a classroom community aligned with her own teaching personality with limited meddling from administration. Of course this is not absolute as the teacher has to adopt the teaching models espoused by the school and modify based on student needs. Overall, though, the teacher “rules the roost” and creates the work environment they and their students inhabit daily.
  • Creatively igniting a passion for learning in the students. Seeing students become excited about the content and learning gives me great gratification and joy. I can indulge in and invite them to indulge in multi-model means of expression: singing, writing, dancing, and technology.
  • The two month summer vacation and other holidays off. This is a great perk. Most people don’t know that teachers are required to engage in continuous professional development so the summer is not constant lounging poolside. Given the stress of teaching, it would be difficult to imagine teaching without these breaks.
  • The mission driven nature of the job. One of my gifts is helping others. Teaching is nation building as we form the minds of our future citizens. Teaching is unequivocally people centered. We meet students at their areas of need, academically, socially, and emotionally.
  • The salary and benefits are good.

What disenchants me about teaching?

  • The perpetually expanding demands and requirements placed on teachers with little or no tangible support. Every year. there is some new instructional practice or teaching framework that teachers are required to adopt with minimal training. Often the training is on the job without adequate opportunities to learn the new strategy/practice and incorporate it into the daily routine alongside the plethora of other required duties. A few of the new and subsequently repackaged practices are: The Workshop Model, CAFE, Daily 5, Depth of Knowledge, Word Study, Greek and Latin Roots, Formative Instructional Practices, Number Talks, Calendar Math, Inquiry Circles, Conferencing, Formative Assessment, 6 Writing Traits, Literature Circles, Word Walls, Cooperative Learning Groups…I’m not disputing the efficacy of any of these practices. It is overwhelming to implement them while new ones are introduced and some are forgotten.  With the advent of least restrictive environment, teachers, are expected to deliver instruction to each student according to their individual needs whether they are general or special education. These needs might include accommodations for a learning disability, behavior/social/emotional problem, limited language proficiency, medical issue, and any other thing the child might need. There are support teachers and paraprofessionals who are assigned to assist the classroom teacher; however, barriers often push the responsibility back on the teacher or lessen the effectiveness of the support they are supposed to give. These barriers include a lack of on the job collaboration between the teachers. Often the support teachers show up and jump in as needed. Their presence would be much more effective if the teachers had time to collaborate beforehand. Additionally, the support teachers are often pulled from their regular schedules to provide assistance in other areas so they are often not there to deliver the instruction. In these cases, teachers have to be creative in providing the accommodations for these students and all students.
  • Necessary Multitasking & Breakneck Speed. Managing a classroom full of students requires superhuman feats of multitasking. I am in the Autumn of my multitasking, my dendritic leaves are falling. I often make mistakes. I forget things. I am scatterbrained. This is due in large part to the required time multitasking and lack of time to think and process. When there are so many calls on your time and attention, slow purposeful thinking is too expensive. The scope of all the content we have to present ( I dare not say cover) in the small amount of instructional time provided makes teaching a daunting task. It doesn’t allow for the fun aspects of teaching and learning: experiments, projects, hands-on learning, creativity. In school we learn that we need to create lessons for every type of learning. It takes more time. Collaborative learning takes time. This is precious time you don’t have.
  • The long arduous process to get a student into special education. I understand the reasons for having a multi-step process for qualifying students for special education. Too many of African American children were shuttled into special education due to the racial and cultural biases of teacher. But now the pendulum has swung in the other direction. The process is so long and paperwork driven that teachers are dissuaded from pursuing it unless in extreme cases. Students who are below grade level are pushed along with no hope of catching up. The students with serious behavioral problems who disrupt learning create a particularly stressful environment for students and teachers.
  • The inordinate focus on standardized test scores. Test scores have become the marker of effective teaching in education. This is unfair and disheartening for teachers like me who have a high level of students below grade level in all areas and suffering with behavioral and emotional problems. A contingent of my class receives 45 minutes of instruction from a special education teacher. I never get a chance to collaborate with them. Those who are in special education for reading and writing are in general education for Science & Social Studies. These two subjects are heavy on reading. When it’s time to take the test, I have to read it to them.
  • The emotional & idiosyncratic demands. This is where I confused my love of content with my love of teaching children. I do enjoy teaching children in the teaching moment. I don’t enjoy the job of a homeroom teacher, being with the students all the time. I cringe at how it sounds, but it is true. I would rather pop in for a lesson or activity and then leave, have concentrated time with students instead of the everyday, all day presence of a homeroom teacher. I enjoy getting to know them, but am frustrated by their individual idiosyncrasies.  Most of it is developmental, I know: their need for constant attention, bent for tattling, spaciness, laziness, failure to write their name, forgetfulness, inability to use a stapler after repeated lessons, lying to parents…I could go on. I would have less disenchantment if I had more time away from them. I would much rather support other teachers like those support teachers I describe above who pop in and out. WOW, this is revealing.

Considering that every year has been a struggle for me, I wonder if one year without struggle would change my tune? I don’t know. I want to stay in education. Is the answer to teach older kids? Adults? I’m not sure. I do know I’ll have to figure it out by next year.

A Joyful Heart

Reluctant obedience or sheer willpower will never last the distance. Only a joyful heart can walk the long and difficult road.

  from Dare to Journey with Henri Nouwen by Charles Ringa

The above quotation is the last two sentences of a devotional I read this week. It pierced my heart, opening it up to receive the beautiful epiphany I needed for the journey, my journey. I must have a joyful heart to survive and thrive in my vocation.

I am on a journey, a long, difficult one. Are my adjectives correct? Is this journey both long and difficult? I could argue for the accuracy of both. The journey I speak of is my professional, vocational journey. I am an elementary school teacher. Though I’ve been in this profession since 2009 and officially since 2011, I am still a novice teacher.This is my first year beginning at the start of the year. The other years I began after the school year started, or I was in a different capacity other than a homeroom teacher. During this time, I have learned a great deal. Yet, I have a so much more to learn.

My journey is long. I work many physical hours and a triple amount of mental hours thinking about my teaching practice, my students, or my perceived shortcomings. It seems as if the work of teaching is never complete. My hours put the “lifelong” into the “lifelong learning.” I’ve cut back some out of self-preservation, but each week brings new challenges. The requirements continue to mount without the proper assistance.

My journey is difficult. Each student has his or her own unique behavioral and academic strengths and weaknesses. In my case, students require additional services they are not getting for various reasons. As a result, it is my responsibility to meet those needs. In the process, I feel scattered. I want to go deep in my teaching, but often I have to sacrifice depth for breadth. In the face of these challenges, I walk away feeling ineffective and defeated. Often, I’ve felt like a silo.

What I describe seems negative and dreary. It is, but it is because I am making it that way. For success, attitude is as important as ability. This has been my mantra. However, I still walk away with a negative attitude. What I need is a joyful heart to last the distance. I like to feel successful. I get joy from helping others, being a leader. I’ve often felt too tired and overwhelmed to really help anyone or feel like a viable part of my grade level. When you are drowning, you have to save yourself first, right?

After meditating on the devotional, I realized the joyful heart providing the sustenance for my journey has to come out of a daily intention of joy. I can create my own mental reality, thereby affecting all around me. There is much to be joyful about each day. My students are lights along my path.