Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Know the Whole Student: Facilitating Content and Language for English Language Learners

If you ever wonder what real diversity looks like in Madison, WI, walk through the doors of Sherman Middle School. If you want to feel the power of inclusive education where students benefit from differentiating of curriculum and have access to a structured and engaging learning environment, I can vouch for my school.  And if you want to see real leaders of English Language Learners and teachers on the front lines of bilingual education, there is no doubt you'll find them there too.  In fact, Nichole Von Haden just happens to be one of those teacher-leaders at Sherman, and here she writes a smart and practical piece about ELL students and the effects teachers can have on their classroom and school experiences. Her knowledge is evident but it's her passion that brings the real challenges to the forefront. Read on and enjoy!

 A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with one of the first students with whom I’ve ever worked.  As part of a presentation for a new initiative at our school, she came to address staff about her experience as both a former student at our middle school and a high school participant in the program we are now adopting.  She spoke about her current status as a UW-Madison undergraduate in the field of neurobiology and her future goal of attending graduate school in the same field. Poised and professional in her demeanor and public speaking skills, this young lady is a shining example of everything I believe about structured academic language support for English Language Learners and the importance of bilingual education programming.  She hardly resembled the timid sixth grader I once helped support—the recent immigrant to the United States, who came to us understanding very little English.  I was her first line of support in her English-only environment.  At that time, I sat with her and translated her work so she could continue to learn, and through conversations in Spanish, I was able to assess her content knowledge, which could not be expressed fully through English.

 Based on my experience, I always knew this student was intelligent, so why am I surprised to see where she is today? Because what I, as an ESL/bilingual teacher, and what other teachers understand about content and language, in general, tends to be very different, and this has negative implications for our English Language Learners. Far too often educators intertwine specific language abilities with content knowledge.  Far too often we have this stereotypical view that if a student is coming to us from another country and uses a language other than English that s/he is somehow “less apt” or “unteachable” until s/he learns English.  Far too often, our English Language Learners are left behind due to standardized testing and classroom pedagogy that is culturally - and linguistically - irrelevant to them.  And altogether too often, students like the one described above, are a rarity — a success story — rather than the norm.

So, how do we change this?  How do we educators provide a learning environment that facilitates content AND language growth?  The answer is two-fold. First, we have to move away from the traditional deficit-based model approach to students’ learning.  We must see each student in terms of what s/he CAN DO, not what s/he cannot do.  Most of our immigrant and bilingual students come to us with a wealth of knowledge and competencies in their native language.  Because this foundation has already been created, our job as language educators (and we are ALL language educators) is to build bridges for them so that they can acquire the English they need to continue learning and express what they know and are able to do.  Even with very little English, there are many ways they CAN learn and demonstrate understanding.

Second, we need to actively construct a school and community culture that values multilingualism and multiculturalism — one that prides itself on mutual trust and respect.  For districts that are fortunate enough to have a sizeable population of students who speak a language other than English, Dual Language Immersion programs should be implemented and supported appropriately.  Such programs inherently build bridges between students of different home languages and cultures as they developmentally teach students content in two languages.  If this type of programming is not available, simple day-to-day appreciations of the linguistic and cultural diversity in our classrooms and our buildings can strike ripples that build into waves of asset-based pedagogy.  

Acknowledging students’ home cultures and funds of knowledge, as well as demonstrating a willingness to share about our own cultures and become students of our students, is crucial to fostering a positive multicultural, multilingual environment.  These fundamental changes will have lasting positive implications, not only for our English Language Learners, but also for us and our students of all backgrounds.  By implementing these changes, we will assure that our colleges, universities, and workplaces will be filled with lifelong learners who are both academically and socially competent, multilingual, and culturally-fluid.  Most importantly, they will be filled with people who value and appreciate diversity and know how to collaborate for a job well-done.  

Nichole Von Haden is a Bilingual Resource Teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District.  She is an avid reader and adventurous traveler.  Her most exciting travel experience was a 17-day, grant-funded trek throughout Southern and Eastern México, studying the ancient Maya and Olmec civilizations with her former teaching teammate.  Together, they co-authored an interdisciplinary unit of study that brings the experience alive for students as a “virtual fieldtrip” to the region.  Currently, she is dreaming up ways to make her next excursion, a trip to visit the ancient sites of Bolivia/Peru, a reality.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Do You Really Want to Teach?

As an educator in touch with many of my former students, I feel as if I'm on a constant wave of memories - most positive, some surprising, a few sad ones - but nevertheless, very rewarding.  And I don't mean that lightly.  I've been happily connected to Annie Hank for over a decade now.  Really?  It's been that long?  Once my 7th grade student, still our on-call babysitter, and now an educator herself, it's been so fun to watch her come into her own.  Here she reflects on her lifelong vision of being a teacher and what's coming to pass as she marches down the road with a sure-fire sense of self.  Enjoy this!  

Do you really want to teach?

Scene: It was my first day of class at Madison College. My teacher entered the classroom and
immediately noticed a middle-aged woman, who we soon learn through their not-so-private
conversation was a former student some twelve years ago. As the two catch up in front of the
whole class, it is revealed that the woman has returned to school because her previous plan of
working as a teacher had not turned out as she would have hoped. Cue the teacher bashing.
In an attempt to make the woman feel better I suppose and generate some laughter in the
classroom, my teacher proceeded to joke that she had a daughter who thought about being a
teacher. Said teacher asked daughter, “Wouldn’t you rather be a street walker or drug dealer?
They get more money and respect.” The rest of the class laughed. Fade out on me, shrugging
my shoulders and once again mustering up some reassurance that I had indeed chose the right
career path. End scene.

Throughout my pre-service teacher training and now as a licensed, but unemployed

(soon to be substitute) teacher, I’ve faced similar scenes as I found myself in last week. During
my experience in the field as a student teacher, the questioning often came from teachers
themselves. Disheartened by the political climate, the loss of collective bargaining, the looming
threat of accountability based largely on standardized test scores, and not to mention the day to
day pressures of being in the classroom, teachers sometimes questioned my decision to enter the
profession in this current state. I remember attending one of the early February 2011 protests,
standing on the steps up to the capital, listening to Mary Bell speak to what would later seem like
a small crowd. She recalled how she recently spoke to a group of pre-service teachers and had
a hard time looking them in the eye. She, the president of WEAC, was questioning my decision
to become a teacher. Couple this with the constant public attacks from the Rush Limbaughs,
the Scott Walkers, and the Average Joes of the world; it was a strange time to be a teacher-in-

As a girl who idolized teachers like her peers idolized sports figures and boy band

members, this was an unexpected question. Growing up in the liberal bubble that is Madison,
teachers, at least in my view, were always regarded with esteem and respect. Now, I faced
having to defend my decision to become a teacher. Although surprised to have to defend this
choice, I was experienced at responding to this sort of questioning. Growing up on the east side
of Madison, I had to stand up to loaded questions that went something like “You go to
Sherman?” or later “You go to East?” These were not so subtle jabs at what many outsiders
considered “ghetto” schools. These questions were often followed up by even worse insinuations
like, “do you feel safe there?” Outsiders never looked past the negative stereotypes to see the
beautiful diversity and life buzzing in these schools of mine. My eastside pride has amounted in
an appreciation for the underdog, the scrappy fighter; facing the outside bashing and
misunderstanding of the trials and challenges of the profession, becoming a teacher is just a new
part of my life that I am proud to defend.

Do you really want to be a teacher? Yes. Through all the questioning, I have never lost

confidence in my decision to become a teacher. Teaching remains the same at heart, no matter
how much others work to change and belittle the profession. Teaching, to me, is the opportunity
to connect with youth; the possibility of making a positive impact on their journey to adulthood,
the chance to help guide them along the way and help mold them into compassionate, accepting,
questioning citizens of the world. Teaching is a profession in which I find value, fulfillment, and
undoubtedly, challenge. I think the latter is the most common misconception about teaching; that
it is an easy job. Having just emerged alive from student teaching, I can tell you it is one of the
most demanding and testing professions. It’s not something you can pick up in a week or two or
that you can master in a year or two. I enter the profession knowing I have nothing on veteran
teachers for experience is so invaluable. I am hungry to grow and mature as a teacher through
time, reflection, collaboration and constant learning.

As hungry as I am, it is yet to be determined when I will get my first shot at the job. Just

having graduated from UW in May, I currently find myself in a limbo year. Committed to
working in the community where I myself was a student, I only applied to the Madison
Metropolitan School District. Due to the competitive nature of finding a job in Madison
combined with the fact that my license, Early Adolescence to Adolescence History, has turned
out to be somewhat insufficient, I have turned to plan B. For the time being, I will be subbing for
the Madison schools and working on credits at Madison College in order to attain my Broad
Field Social Studies License, which is more marketable but still a dime in a dozen. I have
channeled my optimism into my plan B. Although my favorite part of teaching is forming
relationships with students and watching them grow, as a sub, I will have to focus on my own
growth and development. I hope to transform myself into a fly on the district wall and take note
of great classroom plans, tools, and strategies so I can improve my own teaching. When I enter
the next hiring season, I plan to be a little more seasoned and well rounded through an additional
year in the classroom(s), added coursework in Social Studies, and more life experiences in
general. Until then, I remain confident in my decision to become a teacher and put all my eggs in
the MMSD basket. Hopefully someday soon an employer will reaffirm that decision!

Annie Hank is a native Madisonian and proud east sider who loves lazy mornings, gathering with friends, and retreating up north to camp or for a stay at her family’s cabin. She graduated from the UW-Madison this May with her teaching certificate and aspires to have her own history classroom that focuses on social justice issues, both past and present.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reflection on Life and Teaching

Most educators I know have to actively seek ways to find and maintain the equilibrium between teacher burnout and fulfilling their promises and potentials in the classroom.  While many do this through some type of workshop, seminar, class, or institute, the reality is professional development comes in various forms.   This summer, I followed my friend Chris Cowan's Facebook feed of pictures of him rafting the mountain waters in Idaho, and silently envied his summer activity from afar.  Little did I know - until I contacted him to write for this blog - that his version of professional development happened right there on the river.  His experience reminded me that engaging the mind and the heart  helps recognize and honor negative feelings, and is a necessary part of change and renewal.  I appreciate Chris' honesty as he shares his journey as a veteran teacher.  Wow . . .

I haven't done much professional development for years. I've been teaching for 14 years and seen trends come and go and my own enthusiasm ebb and flow as my personal life has had ups and downs that influenced how much energy I could put into work. I worked through many seminars and conferences to gain and re-new certifications, but found myself uninspired and let down by most of them. Many presenters utilized the worst of teaching strategies. These presenters seemed poorly prepared and I'm often insulted by the "techniques" they try to pass off as teaching. Don't get me wrong, I'm a good teacher, but I want more, expect more, and would love to see some truly phenomenal techniques. In recent years I've really done the bare minimum of professional development and with budget problems in Utah slowly stripping away our professional development days I haven't mourned their loss. Our pay has decreased and that is a price I'm more than willing to pay for another ski day in February.

I've often said it is the meetings that will drive me out of teaching. I'm not a good meeting person. My staff in Wisconsin once played "professional development" bingo where they distributed bingo cards with slogans, educational acronyms and things they knew were going to happen. Things like our principal making egregious grammatical errors (that one was guaranteed). I was not given a card, but I was on the card. There was a square for me "storming" out of the meeting in disgust. Someone called "bingo" as I was leaving the room. They filled me in on the bingo game at lunch after our meeting. Serving as department chair and our our planning committee for inservices at my current school has been so difficult for me. One, holding my tongue in this interesting Mormon culture I work in and two, trying to make something productive come out of my time in those meetings. I don't know if I've managed either.

It was with this background that I headed into this summer. I had just had what I'd consider the worst year of teaching in my career. I actually dreaded going to work, a first, and struggled to maintain energy for my students. A big part of this was the ending of a two year relationship with a co-worker, (bad idea, I know) with whom I shared a number of interests and had a great two year adventure with. We broke up a day before our first professional development of the school year and had to sit through the first week of school meetings in the same room. My heart was completely broken. Here was a girl that I'd thought I might marry, but due to some different life goals it wasn't going to happen. We had shared river trips, climbing trips, 100 days of backcountry skiing one winter, and innumerable other adventures and now we were done. I could barely get up in the morning, let alone face classes of 30 to 40 kids looking to learn science.

But, I taught, I phoned it in, I struggled and tried to manage. I pulled my life together and worked to enjoy teaching, but it was difficult. That said, by the end of the year my AP Biology class went from a 54% pass rate to an 80% pass rate and a huge increase in 5's. The kids also voted me the Rotary most influential teacher of that year. I know I helped some kids do better with their lives, even while I was struggling with mine. So good things happened even though I was not teaching to the best of my abilities.

I was actually counting down the days until the end of the year last June. Something I'd really never done before. I had liked my job and didn't stress about it ending, but last year I needed to be done. I needed that break. I had a summer job lined up rowing whitewater rafts on 5 day wilderness trips in Idaho, down the beautiful Salmon river. Something exciting, something different, and something physically demanding, but not mentally challenging. It was amazing. The water levels held in Idaho, the rapids stayed exciting, and taking groups down the river was so fun and fulfilling. Watching them bond during the 5 days, make new friends, and gaining comfort in this new, wild environment they were in. Heck, they even got used to pooing in a can (the groover).

Even with all that, I found myself pondering my classes as I was rowing. How could I increase student engagement, student understanding, student retention, and how could I make it more interesting for ME? I would sit on the beach after cooking dinner and think about what is really important in education, what techniques or labs would help students learn certain concepts, and how could I re-capture the joy of teaching. I made some drastic changes in how I planned to teach my three courses (AP Biology, College Anatomy, and College Biology). Each course taking a different approach, but all seeking to decrease content lecture and shift the responsibility for learning to the student. I re-worked my syllabi to introduce these changes and after teaching for only 2 weeks still can't tell how they're doing.

Am I re-invigorated and re-energized, ready to teach with excitement? I don't know. I am struggling. I feel like I've seen this "type" of kid before with many of my students. I'm still not happy with how the courses are going. They could be better. My attitude is still more negative than it should be. It has been hard to come inside after spending a summer outside with periodic doses of adrenalin and constant vistas of beauty. My classroom doesn't blow my mind like the Salmon River does, but I'm trying. The kids are still great, cute, and trying to learn. I can still see each day what I could do better next year. I just need to find that joy of teaching somehow. Even the email I got yesterday from a mom, who was kind enough to copy it to the superintendent, thanking me for the difference I made in her daughter's education and her ability to get into the college of her choice was only a minor positive bump for my attitude. I'm trying, step by step, to make my courses better and improve my attitude. We'll see where this goes.

Professional development means our ability to improve as professionals. It isn't always a course, seminar, conference or meeting. We can strive, we can research, we can re-work and analyze our courses to improve the quality of education we are delivering. While I didn't attend meaningful conferences this summer, I feel like I have made gains in my teaching abilities and I hope my students enjoy my courses more this year and have an easier time learning the concepts we're exploring. Wish me luck and more importantly wish my students luck putting up with me.

"The world is enough for man's need, but not man's greed."  --Mohandas Gandhi

Chris Cowan has been teaching Science for 14 years. 11 of these were in Wisconsin and the last 3 in Utah. There are some huge differences in education between these two states, money does help improve educational quality. He runs a casual, calm classroom with an emphasis on the student and learning. When he's not working he climbs, mountain bikes, skis, and runs rivers. He's got a phobia of meetings.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Lesson on Positivity

One of the advantages of a class that focuses on Identity, is that even though the participants might not interact much after the class is over, there is a built-in sense of connection because of what we publicly shared.  In one of my professional development classes this summer, I had the good fortune of being in the same cohort with Fahima Ife, an insightful and engaging person, and a recent transplant to Madison who rides a really dope bike!   Many of my own friends and colleagues are venturing into the unknown this week as we begin another year of teaching in the public schools.  I just love how Fahima spins all those fears and anxieties by focusing on the simplicity of being positive.  Enjoy her thoughtful words of experience!  

“Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet. That is the message of The Vinegar Tasters.” – Benjamin Hoff

In the final moments of my extended summer vacation, I reread Benjamin Hoff’s charming book The Tao of Pooh and was reminded to find positivity in all things. At the beginning of the book, the author and Pooh “travel” to China to examine a painted scroll of “The Vinegar Tasters.” In this scroll, there are three men who represent Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-tse. All men have dipped their finger into the same vat of vinegar, which represents the Essence of Life, and tasted it, but each man’s face holds a different expression. Lao-tse is the only one smiling. Even though life is not always pleasant, he still has found a reason to remain content. It was a wonderful reminder, especially since the past few months have been anxiety-ridden for me.

I was admitted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to begin a Ph.D. program in Curriculum & Instruction, so I relocated to Madison from Atlanta, GA but the transition has not been entirely without apprehension. I love living in new places, but this transition seemed to carry so many unknown variables, which bred so many unnecessary fears. In Atlanta, I was a full-time teacher earning a livable wage. In Madison I will be a full-time student with a meager stipend. For 6 years, I had made a home for myself, including a large social circle for emotional support. In Madison, I will be alone without an immediate support circle. In Atlanta, I had my usual routines and habits. In Madison, I will have to explore and discover new routines. At this point, I can see the positive aspects of my relocation, but in the beginning, these worries made me fearful and upset. I was especially saddened that I had said my goodbyes to my former students, even though my departure promised the next steps in my path as a critical and transformative educator. While so many friends celebrated my new adventure, I silently sulked and fretted over what my new life would be like.

During an especially stressful moment, brooding over my impending school schedule, I gravitated towards Benjamin Hoff’s literature and began to reconsider my transition. What I discovered first was that my entire experience in Madison so far has been extremely positive. Despite my initial trepidation regarding meeting new people, I met several people during my first few days in town, including many like-minded educators, and community activists at a Hip Hop training institute. I’ve met even more people at recent new student orientations. I imagine I’ll continue meeting inspiring people once school starts. Additionally, in a stroke of luck, I was hired for an assistantship, which means that my stipend is not so meager after-all! On top of everything, a friend explained that after doing something 21 times, it becomes a habit. I’ve decided to color my Madison experience with positive routines and locations to add many interesting excursions on this exciting journey!

This summer has probably provided the greatest learning experience that I’ve had in all of the 30 summers I have experienced so far on this planet. In reflecting on my attitude about things, I realized that it’s so easy for me to focus on the one sour aspect when 25 other things are sweet. Even though I am an educator who has tried to model optimism for my students, I brought so much initial pessimism to my own experience. It was the biggest contradiction. Reading The Tao of Pooh forced me to go inward and examine aspects of myself, which I so often like to leave hidden and untouched, and helped prepare me to begin thinking about my role as a researcher. I cannot imagine beginning any type of research without first doing this sort of exploratory and reflective work. How can I even begin to explore circumstances beyond myself, if I haven’t focused a bit on myself first? I’m glad that I slowed down, took the time to reflect on my emotional state, and learned to celebrate the good in all things. So far, my Madison journey has been sweet.

Thanks, Pooh for the reminder.

Fahima Ife is a world citizen who enjoys eating vegetarian food, writing creatively, meeting new people, exploring new cities, appreciating multicultural experiences, and biking around Madison.  She is a former critical K-12 educator-activist  and still enjoys working with youth, facilitating resistance-based writing workshops.