My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the category “teaching”

Tenure.. Curse or Cure?

Education isn’t as much in the mainstream media as it was just this past school year, which is sad given the march on Washington that recently happened (psst! As a former activist, i have to say that emergency rallies, while harder to populate, are much more effective).

So while this post also may not be as timely, I feel I must weigh in.

Not long ago, I was discussing (here?) a colleague from a nearby school who was being scrutinized for no clearcut reason. Her principal said things like, “I don’t think you know how to teach children how to read.”

The teacher in me cringes when I hear this because, while quite pointed, it isn’t helpful criticism. Is there a strategy she’s using that’s ineffective? Is there some aspect of the program she isn’t implementing to the principal’s liking? With the principal’s few extra years of teaching experience, was she able to problem solve and lead the teacher to find and address her weaknesses? Or is teaching children to read suddenly as easy as A, B, C?

The researcher in me cringes even more. The children this particular teacher is responsible for tend to be young, English-learning immigrants with limited or no prior education or experience with literacy in their native tongue, and have no exposure outside school with oral English. They typically aren’t read to at home or included in meaningful conversation since parents work long hours or are illiterate or alliterate themselves. Anyone who knows anything about ESL knows how pivotal oral competency or proficiency are to literacy. And there is scant research on how children such as these are learning to read in this new tongue. Much of the existing research is based on older students. They can’t “transfer” in the same way literate children can (in terms of reading skill and habit), even though some people like to talk about transfer as some magical element that just makes literacy in the target language “happen”.

Teachers responsible for teaching these children — and their administrators– are doing them little good if they are simply regurgitating the same approaches used to teach English-dominant kids. Yet that is what some teachers are being told to do. They are given teaching points such as, “good readers make sense of new words by asking themselves ‘does that sound right?'”. What a worthless lesson for newcomers! Yet when these teachers’ students don’t advance as quickly as native English-speakers, they are the ones being held accountable by getting their probation period extended before tenure is granted. Who does this help? It’s like setting a fire and locking the exits.

Anyway, back to my colleague. After two years of getting observed months apart, her principal came to teach a lesson to the students in this class. Only then did she realize the problem wasn’t with how this teacher was teaching. She saw how much they still needed to hear their first language to understand complex ideas (and codeswitching is outlawed), how several had clear learning disabilities, and how the current curriculum was severely deficient. This colleague was finally given some validation and the S grading she deserved.

My purpose in recounting this story is to show that the problem isn’t tenure per se. It isn’t a lack of tools for assessing teachers. It is sometimes a lack on the part of those assessing them. It might be pragmatism, relying too much on “data” (which is neither objective nor completely accurate), laziness, and lack of experience implementing the new curriculum and strategies they are pushing.

Tech and Teaching

There are a zillion posts about the different technology that can be used in education that only go further to show me how backwards public schools are. You want kids to be college ready but there aren’t enough working computers? Or you want to insist staff use their personal time to get used to or incorporate new tech (like smart boards), because you want to criticize or bore us during professional development instead? Puhhhlease. But I digress.

I was just reading this post by Cassy that asks the simple but so important question of what we could do when the technology is in our students’ hands. Also today, Langology posted a link to a new iPhone app that let’s you check class participation. It’s called My Class Talk. It offers a possibly useful service, but try telling your principal THAT was why your phone was out during class time. I often have considered getting an iPad to make taking small group and individual conference notes easier, convenient, and more fun. But, aside from the cost, I’m sure I’d be asked for my old-fashioned binder anyway. (side note: I used google docs last year for my conference notes. Since I was preggo, they were pretty lenient on me carrying heavy binders around. But all of the teachers I mentioned it to either didn’t know what docs was or thought it was just easier to paper & pen everything).

A colleague of mine recently suggested proposing to our principal to popularize some technology in our school. This is a school where teachers cringe at having to check their emails and prefer to waste oodles of paper because they don’t want to deal with google docs. They never even go to the school blog unless given no other option. (not that the blog offers much reason to visit).

Our principal would no doubt support the use of new tech by teachers. She and an AP fought to get Internet access to portable trailers back when I was in one because I said I would use it to make podcasts with my then-third graders. She has also been supportive of a teacher who has been working to secure a grant to get some laptops for kids to take home. That’s because it doesn’t require her figuring any of it out. To really do a project to really get teachers using new tech in our school, you would need a team of teachers using their own time to create plans and actually train and support their colleagues to not just learn the tech themselves and find uses for it, but to integrate it in meaningful ways in their classrooms. I’m never pessimistic (ok, rarely), but I feel most teachers I know are so burned out by bullshit, they have to be the type to get REALLY excited about new things to even be willing to give it a try. The promise of new ideas won’t be inspiring enough for most of the teachers I worked alongside these last few years. With the current atmosphere, I don’t blame them for being cynical. If course, as Mr. Foteah points out here, there are always teachers looking for new avenues of inspiration, too, as many do with twitter.

If I didn’t have a new baby who has given me new passions and responsibilities (I have typed this all with one hand on my phone as she napped on my shoulder, in between having to tap her back or feed her), I’d probably welcome the challenge of connecting with the few still-excited, non-Luddite teachers at my school. Then again, many of them are now pregnant or moms themselves. So, for now, I’ll just be planning on bringing kid blogs back into my class this year and making my smart board use more interactive. I have other non-tech visions and plans this year. And you will hear all about them as they fail or succeed. :)

Summer studies

So even though I still consider myself on maternity leave (my baby is now 2.5 months old), I always get inspired during the summer to “reinvent” myself as a teacher. I try to think about what i did the previous year that is worth repeating and what do I want to try out or fix in the coming year. I find that my three years in the classroom have taught me that I need to be flexible and creative while growing from my experiences and developing things that can be part of a more stable repertoire. The students will be different, so i need to be as well So I envision, I plan and I read.

So what books have I purchased so far this summer? Perhaps surprisingly none are directly related to ESL. This is because I have read most of them and they all either repeat what I already know or really don’t address the needs for me in my classroom. So I am reading:

Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop by Jeff Anderson

Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter H. Johnston.

If I learn anything useful, I will let you know. Assuming, of course, my infant lets me read them in time for September!!

If you’re reading anything good, or have a book (ESL-related or not),you’d recommend, I’d love to hear about it!

Protected: So much for reputations, or maybe it could have been worse

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Protected: A week I’d like to forget but probably never will

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