Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Grateful Heart in the Classroom

My colleague and friend, Sheila Monger and I talk a lot about gratitude. After a particularly rough couple of years teaching, she and I would daily remind each other of our mantra to Choose Gratitude. When teachers get caught up in the problems it is easy to become negative and grumpy. No one sets out to be 'that teacher' but we all know them, and at times, may have been them. There really is so much to be grateful for. And lest you think I am a Pollyanna, rest assured, I am not. I was laid off every year for my first 6 years of teaching. I have had great and not so great colleagues and administrators (I liken a principal to an appendix, you don't notice them until they are bad) My husband was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of year 8 of teaching and died the following winter. So I have had a lot of reason to be grumpy and not grateful, yet still, I choose gratitude.

So imagine my great joy to meet +Scott Meile. Scott is a 8th grade English teacher in New Jersey.  His district is in an area with one of the highest teen suicide rates in the country. He saw a need for connection in his classroom and community, and he created it with the Door of Thanks. With all the bad in the world, Mr. Meile encourages his students to stop, think and appreciate what they have.  Throughout the year, students place note of the wall that state what they are thankful for. Notice I said wall. The door of thanks became the wall of thanks, and that became a virtual wall of gratitude!

I met Scott when he traveled to San Mateo, California to participate in a panel discussion at Edmodocon16. I was honored to facilitate the discussion on Supporting the Whole Student with Edmodo. This panel included short presentations from speakers on how they use Edmodo to meet the unique needs of their students for more than just academics—building community, supporting a school Gay-Straight Alliance, reaching out to students who struggle to get to school, and encouraging gratitude.

Although I've begged Scott to blog about his gratitude journey, Being a busy dad, husband, teacher and coach hasn't allowed him much time to write. So I asked his permission to share his story. in his own words.
It’s our job in education to show them that our school, our community, our families aren’t just about what we’re teaching but the people that are involved and the relationships that are created and the people we meet. The issues in New Jersey aren’t uncommon everywhere else, There is that many young kids don’t know where to turn. There’s peer pressure, bullying, and self image awareness which often leads to students not knowing who to turn to or who they can trust. Peers are left with unanswered questions, they often don’t understand or realize that some kids need help and aren’t being taught compassion or understanding and the ability to find the right people to talk to. 
In our class we try to recognize the importance of our team and our goals, in addition we take time to recognize our lives outside of the classroom. We push ourselves to complete tasks, but more importantly we learn about each other. We take 6-10 minutes everyday and give thanks. Edmodo is the key because it unlocks a level of communication and acceptance that isn’t always easy for students to receive or acknowledge. We each and everyday make it a point to reach out to one another, and comment on some of the things that are going on in our lives outside of school (or within our school community) and that allows for interpersonal growth that sometimes is lacking in today’s students busy schedules and culture. Edmodo creates a connectedness that allows for something easy, reachable, and creative. It takes a snapshot of our class, the highs, the lows and everything in between and we document these moments and get to see the growth throughout the year.
Emotional intelligence is something we try to grow throughout the year, taking time to talk about gratitude leads to more interesting conversations regarding citizenship and compassion.  As I have become more and more experienced in the classroom I have found I have less and less to say to my students regarding their learning.  I often find them discovering new things and showing me more about their learning then I ever imagined was possible.  But, what I have found myself talking more and more with the kids is their responsibility to each other, how we as a class can make a difference, and more importantly, every person should act with respect, integrity, and empathy.  
Even more importantly it has made me a better teacher, dad, and coach because I have come to realize just how much of a struggle the kids go through on a daily basis.

I am grateful for teachers, and friends, like Scott.

Monday, December 19, 2016

When Mommy Can't Read

Let me start with a story - it will connect to the topic, I promise.

This fall, my niece was married in Jamaica. I was fortunate to join in the family festivities, and spent a few days relaxing in the south coast for a few days after the wedding. Like I do every time I am on an amazing vacation, I fantasize about living there. The place where we stayed (which I am not going to name, so it stays small!) supports Breds Foundation and one of their projects supports Sandy Bank Primary School. Well, this is fate! My nickname is Sandy and I am a credentialed school teacher! I could come here and teach! I was giving voice to this little fantasy while on a small fishing boat with a local captain. He asked what I taught, and I explained that, as a 5th grade teacher, I taught all subjects, reading, writing, math and all.  Captain Clive said, "Well, why don't you just teach me? I don't read very good."

That got me thinking about making an impact on the local economy through adult literacy. I'd need to learn how to teach adults.  And if there adults in Jamaica who can't read, there are certainly adults in my city who struggle with literacy. I researched online and signed up to become a tutor of adult learners here in my home town with the Santa Clara Library's  Read Santa Clara service.  I met with Shanti Bhaskaran, the program supervisor, who seemed thrilled to have someone interested who not only has a teaching background but also experience with educational technology.

During out meeting, she shared some rather startling statistics.  More than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read, write or do basic math above a third grade level.  Adult literacy impacts our workforce, family finances and heath. And now I come back to the topic of this post.  Children of parents who had not completed high school score lower in vocabulary assessments. A mother's level of reading skill is the greatest determinant of her child's academic success. I am not sure it ever occurred to me that some of the parents of my students could not read, write or speak fluently. I know I had some English Language learners, and for those families, I'd arrange translation.  But what about the parents who just can't read yet in any language? I was not making accommodations for them.

My first job in education was to help three recent immigrants to the US learn English. My thesis was titled "Effective Classroom Methods for Teaching English Language Learners." I often joked that mu classrooms were like a mini-United Nations, with all the languages spoken at home. Yet not once in my pre-service or in-service professional development was the literacy of parents ever addressed.

I haven't yet been matched with an adult learner, but I am passionate about spreading the word.  As teachers we need to be not so quick to judge that parent who doesn't respond to our emails, return permission slips or volunteer in the classroom.

What can we as educators of children do to make a difference? After all, we already differentiate and accommodate for our children, now you want us to do the same for parents? Yup. I do! I am not suggesting we all teach adult literacy classes, But there are things we can do. Be aware of the signs that someone might need help reading or writing. Find out about programs similar to Rad Santa Clara in your area. Get some of their literature and make in available to all families 'in case they know someone who might benefit'. Never call them out directly. But think of how hard it must be to have your child read and write for you. Show some compassion to that parent who might just be too embarrassed to participate in classroom activities or unable to read or reply to your notes home. If not for the parents' sake, for your students'. Remember, your students' literacy will improve along with their parents'.

Signs a person might need help reading and writing:
  • Uneasy body language, facial expressions or embarrassment when asked to read or write
  • Humor or other distraction is used to change the subject of reading or writing comes up
  • School experiences rarely mentions. If they are, it is in a negative light.
  • When expected to read or write, excuses might be, "I forgot my glasses,' 'I've hurt my hand,' 'I don't have time.'
  • Person appears unable to follow written instructions
  • Reluctance to fill in forms or asks to take forms home
  • paperwork is filled out incompletely or incorrectly.

NPR's All  Things Considered had a 4 part series on Adult Education, where they concluded:
Low literacy rates for adults can have wide-ranging effects on those around them. They may rely more heavily on government services; their children may not get that extra hand with schoolwork; their families may not get sufficient financial support. 
But for the millions of adults with low literacy, the ability to read, write and speak English might offer them the most important opportunity of all: a chance to emerge from the shadows and participate as equals in society.
I still may end up retiring in Jamaica, but for now, I will make a difference locally.

Read Santa Clara
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
NPR: all things considered