Substantial Learning Gains–Teaching Seuss to Read

Dr. Seuss Wooden Nickel

Dr. Seuss Wooden Nickel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Graduate school is delicious. I love it. It is especially delightful to take a program that is grounded in practice. Such is my luck. This last semester I was asked to carry out a case study with a student in need of a literacy intervention. I was required to identify the student, administer word inventories and miscue analyses, and to learn as much as I could about the student’s prior schooling. With this information I was then required to design a literacy intervention, carry out that plan, and write up the results.

Well…the student I worked with achieved tremendous learning gains in two months (jumped several levels in the word inventory and moved from the primer level to level 3 in reading comprehension. It was an absolutely transformative experience for both my student and me. Here I am sharing my reflection about what elements I believe made such substantial learning gains possible–in such a short time (from mid-March to mid-May). NOTE: We didn’t do a lick of test prep ;-).

What the above results from pre- and post-assessments do not demonstrate is the tremendous socio-emotional transformation Little Seuss has undergone in the last two months. Indeed, he has transformed into a smiling, confident, participative boy in contrast to the reserved and quiet boy I found hiding in the corner of the classroom in mid-February of this year. In fact, just ten days ago Little Seuss approached me and said, “I want a nickname.” To which I responded, “Hmm. Let me think about it. We need a good one.” A week later I told him, “Hey kid, how about I call you Little Seuss?” He responded immediately, “No, call me Doctor Seuss because I know how to read.” I nearly cried. “Dr. Seuss it is.”

What facilitated such rapid growth?

I strongly believe that this intervention was successful for a variety of reasons, which are not listed in order of importance or degree of impact. First, I benefitted substantially from my colleagues’ collegiality and willingness to collaborate and brainstorm. In particular, one reading specialist at my school was always willing to look at writing samples, listen to my reflections on specific lessons, and to share ideas about what types of intervention were likely to benefit Seuss’s. On the same front, I received tremendous support from my supervisor and  a colleague responsible for overseeing the identification of students in need of special education services. Perhaps most importantly, I was also lucky enough to receive intellectual, emotional, and political support from my university-appointed field supervisor, Myriam, who generously shared her ideas and created space for me to talk through what I was learning throughout the case study process and to situate it all in a social-justice lens. Without Myriam’s insight and support I doubt that I would have been as fired-up and inspired as I was and continue to be.

Second, the miscue analyses provided invaluable insight into Seuss’s instructional needs. Once I had a sense of his instructional and independent reading levels, I was better able to choose appropriate materials for our work together. The miscue analyses also tuned me in to the difficulties Seuss was having in making sound-letter correspondences. As a result, we were able to focus on those particular needs from the bottom up—that is, through direct phonics instruction. However, it is important to note that my intervention used a blended approach, which combined explicit phonics lessons with multiple whole language experiences. Whenever possible I used authentic texts to introduce, clarify, or reinforce specific skills.

Third, from the start I was deeply concerned about the literacy poor environment in Seuss’s home. Therefore, I deliberately assigned him activities that were designed to create a more literacy rich environment in the household. For instance, Seuss and I would read a book, such as The Fine Gardeners together during a one-on-one tutoring session. He was then required to take the book home and read it to his mom in English, and to translate it into his L1 as they moved along. This practice had multiple goals: building a more literacy rich environment at home, building Seuss’s ability to read and retell, and to create opportunities for him to expand his proficiency in his L1. Seuss became an enthusiastic independent reader after successfully reading The Cat in the Hat to me during one of our tutoring sessions. At one point I asked if he wanted me to finish reading the story because there were still fifteen pages to go and we were running past our allotted time. He insisted “No, I want to read this myself.” He did. As we walked together back to his homeroom he told me “I love this book. I’m going to read it a lot.” Two weeks later his mother reported in a meeting with school officials that Seuss was reading everyday after school—a lot more than he had ever done before. If any of the causes listed in this reflection were to be identified as the most important, Seuss’s consistent effort in reading independently is no doubt the strongest factor leading to his dramatic learning gains. I am so darn proud of this kid.

Finally, Seuss benefitted from the constant and compassionate support his classmate provided him. Soon after I arrived to the school in mid-February I recognized that Max, another ELL in Seuss’s homeroom, was a bright, mature, and successful student. I made him an ‘editor boss’ whose job it was to provide support for Seuss and another student in his group. Seuss and Max soon became best friends, which I believe improved Seuss’ self concept and helped facilitate his construction of a new identity as a reader, as a writer, and as an active participant in a learning community.

Now, the million dollar question is: How do I find the time to work this closely with all of my students who are in need of such an intensive intervention? This experience–working with Seuss–has been the absolute highlight of my first year. He has taught me so much! Thank you Seuss!

Department of Mis-Education

Nearly every morning I wake up with a sense of dread. The innumerable structural inadequacies that complicate my ability to teach overwhelm me to the point of despair. However, once I walk into the building and begin interacting with students, I feel a sense of belonging and peace. Then the adults show up and disturb that peace. Politics, bitterness, back stabbing, and gossip. Each day I begin with an earnest desire to provide my students with quality instruction, conversation, and relationship. Each day I am beaten down by the slew of bureaucratic inertia and toxicity that has infested the system at large. It has become clear to me at this tender point in my teaching career that authentic teaching rarely happens in the classroom—and is even less likely to happen during a formal observation.

This reflection is written from the confluence of fear (concerning formal observations), a new awareness of the social politics among teachers, and the deep sense of uncertainty about whether I should remain in my current position next fall—or within the profession itself. Although I am absolutely certain that I have made a tremendously positive impact on many students’ lives, very little—if any—of this is measurable by the instruments used to evaluate teachers. Is it possible to function in a system that is so broken, so malicious, and utterly inhumane? Each day I watch this archaic and mindless machine crush the souls of curious, creative, and intelligent young people. I see the talents and intellect of teachers overlooked, obstructed, and wasted. All of this destruction is in service of what? Indeed, at this point in my experience I do believe that Lauryn Hill’s voice captures the truth most succinctly and completely: This is the Department of Mis-education (D.O.M.).

Late in the school year I narrowly escaped the hostile grip of my first principal. Her irrational compulsion to destroy me was not dissolved by my departure. She made sure to follow me to my new school by going out of her way to contact the main office there and inform them that she would be sending my file, which was filled with her vitriol. It filled me with panic and I continued to feel as if I were on a sniper’s hit list. How can I learn? How can I grow when I am living in a shadow of fear while navigating a maze of structural violence?

This, I suppose, is precisely the danger that Parker Palmer warns against in the final chapter of The Courage to Teach.  Palmer recommends that in order to not only survive the institutional dysfunction but also to actively promote change we must not make the institution our center. He writes that we must find a community of like-minded people who are devoted to creating motion that will promote change and ground ourselves in that community and within that spirit of change. What tears at my equilibrium is the seeming duplicitousness that is required to function within such a system—one that marginalizes the essence of its charges. I’m still processing my position in this institution—the D.O.M.—and how I can work within or against it—or if it is worthwhile to do either.

I wish I could write that I feel rejuvenated and that looking back I see that I have grown. Unfortunately this is not the case. Indeed, I feel deflated, defeated, and consumed by an existential doubt that creates an echoing voice that asks “Why am I here?” A backlog of hostile exchanges, baffling absurdities, and the debris from the tsunami of blind and brute force that swells up from the belly of a terrific beast—the D.O.M.—fighting viciously to preserve its own existence…all of this has left me shipwrecked and seeking cover. My only intention, at this point, is to spend the summer writing. As for my philosophy of education?—by definition, it is something that must happen outside the diseased walls of the D.O.M.

Reflections on a Haunted Induction

Shortly before planning this lesson I had been reading Anne Ediger’s article “Developing strategic L2 readers…by reading for authentic purposes.” While reading the article I became aware that I hadn’t yet deliberately and explicitly taught my students metacognitive or cognitive reading strategies. Perhaps in some cases I have stumbled upon a strategy that I understood intuitively and then clumsily in the moment made an effort to share that knowledge with my students. However, I had never—until I planned the lesson for this observation—deliberately designed a lesson focused on teaching strategic reading. Truly, upon reading this article I realized that most of the strategies mentioned within it were known to me intuitively but were learned so many years ago I failed to recognize that they are teachable skills. Now that it’s May…. Thus is the process of a fellow?

Inspired by Ediger’s article I decided to return to Brown’s Teaching by Principles to reread the chapter on teaching reading. In particular, I wanted to revisit the micro- and macro-skills mentioned in that text. Suddenly, I felt the space and the compulsion to design a lesson that was guided by theory and research. This, in my opinion, demonstrates some type of growth—but oh, G-d how much more I have to learn. I settled on two foci for the lesson: a macro-strategy (reading for a specific purpose—i.e., to learn how many people in the Global Village have access to clean air and water) and a micro-strategy (using a discourse marker—‘while’ in comparative constructions—to help interpret the text).

Ediger’s article begins by stating, “Learning to read is a type of problem solving…” (2006, p 1). As I made my way through that first sentence my students appeared in my mind’s eye, hunched over their New York State ELA exams with furrowed brows trying to make sense of passages that stumped many native English speakers who were previously thought to be reading on or above grade level. As I continued the article I asked myself, “Which of these strategies—if any—have I seen my colleagues teaching when I push in to their classrooms?” It continued, as I pored through the article my mind went on a journey revisiting classroom encounters, school visits, conversations with colleagues, moments in which I skimmed through this or that book.

A sort of pedagogical pastiche took form to show me—with absolute certainty—that I need to pick up my game and develop a much more deliberate and informed approach to my planning. I simply do not know enough about language, literacy, or instructional strategies that work. I have survived until now on intuition, raw intellect, and a big arse dollop of Grace. Moving forward, this will not suffice and so I am looking forward to this summer during which I hope to synthesize the experiences I had throughout the school year with the information I’ve learned in my coursework.

Theory and research are wonderful—indeed, I’d be happy to immerse myself in academic articles for days, weeks, or months on end. Real kids with their own diverse needs, personalities, and moods demand more than plans guided by theory. They need a teacher who is present, mindful, prepared, and flexible. My delivery—because I was being observed—was complicated by anxiety. Essentially, the specter of $%*#’s scowl is a heavy presence in any space in which I’m observed. It’s as if a chanting chorus is standing, swaying, heckling in increasing volume “U…U…U…U…U…U…U….” Deep in my gut there is a gnawing fear that I am a complete fraud, a failure, a terrible teacher. In the moments I am free from this phantom, magic can happen. It doesn’t always happen but it sometimes does. When the phantom is present, I am changeable, nervous, and I tend to abandon my plan. This is what happened during this observation.

I emailed my final lesson plan to my mentor around 8:30pm the night before my observation. I had mailed another draft earlier in the week but decided to make some revisions and resend it. She suggested that I think of ways to push students to move up the DOK matrix by asking higher-level questions. Trigger phrase. I panicked and essentially reworked my lesson—and in large part abandoned the careful thought I’d put into the original plan—to ensure that I do something to check that higher-order-thinking box. Thus, I spoiled what could have been a strong lesson by allowing my plan to be rewritten by a knee-jerk reaction grounded in fear. After the observation my mentor and I discussed the lesson. When I explained to her what my original intention was (the macro- and micro-strategies mentioned above) and how in response to her feedback I had made certain changes she clarified for me that her feedback was meant to be food for thought for the unit as a whole and not a directive to revise my plan. Luckily, I was able to reteach the original lesson to another group of students a few days later. In its original form it was successful—the students walked away feeling empowered. Too, I was careful to emphasize to the students that we were learning a reading strategy to help us cope with reading passages that may be difficult for us to approach. They actually sang “Yay!”

After our debrief I felt much more relaxed—it was clear to me that my mentor is committed to helping me develop my practice and that it is not her wish or need to tear me down. She is rigorous for sure but she is also humane, dignified, and loving. I am so grateful to work with a mentor who is a builder rather than a breaker. She helped me to dissolve some of that scar tissue that is very much leaning into my practice—especially when I am being evaluated—and I am grateful for that. She also took the time to read through my case study notes to give me feedback, advice, and encouragement for my work with J. In this observation—each step in the process—I recognized that I am not a brilliant, experienced educator who ‘has arrived’ but this recognition was accompanied ultimately with self-forgiveness, compassion, and permission to take time and space to grow. I know the potential lives inside me. I know I have the capacity to make it bloom. I now am prepared to give myself permission be precisely where I am right now: imperfect, searching, and practicing with the full force of my heart, intellect, and intention. I am learning and at times I teach.

Great Resources for Elementary Level English Language Learners

Sweet. New job, new students, and I’m happy to share some materials I made for my new students. Feel free to share these resources with your students and colleagues.

I’m in the process of building a wiki for my students. These days I am working with fourth and fifth graders at an awesome elementary school in Brooklyn. As testing season looms large many teachers and students are feeling stressed and overwhelmed about the “new” tests and looking for resources that will help students work on particular skills in need of strengthening. Many of my new students are struggling with mathematical language–they understand the concepts and are skilled in problem solving but they are often confused by the language used to describe the assigned task.

A colleague of mine found an excellent collection of resources on the Granite School District‘s website. Among those resources are printable flashcards of CCSS math terms by grade level. Each flashcard contains the term, definition, and an image demonstrating the term. I’ve digitized those lists for the fourth grade terms and created four sets of vocabulary cards on quizlet. You can also find all four sets on the class wiki I’m building. In the next few days I will also create a set that covers the terms in the fifth grade list.




Teaching Induction: Reflective Teaching and Video

The last Monday before the winter break I had my first formal observation by my principal and was also required to video-record a lesson for my practicum course. Now that I’ve officially made it ‘halfway’ through my first year as a public school teacher…I find myself engrossed in a stream of reflection that feels a lot like the deep and urgent breaths a person takes after being submerged for far too long. Here are my thoughts.

It took me a while to sit down and watch this recording and another while to respond to my observations in writing because I am pinned beneath the weight of a looming and overwhelming inquiry: What am I teaching them? What should I be teaching them? And if I am to call in a ‘should’ then further inquiry storms my brain: ‘Should’ according to whom? The ‘should’of the Common Core? The ‘should’ of the NYCTF—as murky and unrealistic as it might be in light of my lack of experience  along with the lack of resources available to support new teachers? The competing voices declaring what ‘should’ are at once cacophonous and debilitating. At this point I am hoping to cordon off a cavern of solitude in which I will routinely reflect in order to unearth the ‘should’ of common sense. Death by philosophy will surely seize me when I begin to question: Common to whom?

Here’s the truth: I have no idea what will best prepare my students for coping with their present and preparing for their future. From what I can glean—during the limited amount of time I make to read articles by other educators—folks much more intelligent and experienced than I are similarly unsure which ‘should’ to place their bets on. Before becoming a teacher, I’d read many times about education being a “contested space” but for the love of mental peace, when will the storm subside?

A lot of time is spent corralling, soothing, organizing, and convincing—my students and myself. By the time we get to the lesson I am tired and, admittedly, at times, resentful. The lesson in this video was delivered to my most well-behaved and highest-performing class and much of the above is not as prevalent with this particular group of students as it is with the others. There seems to be a warmth in the classroom—even though one girl (directly before the camera—the student I reminded a few times, “Don’t whine. They won’t take you seriously if you whine…”) spent half the class disengaged because she was frustrated with her groupmates’ inaction. Am I exhausting myself because I am endeavoring to ensure that every last student is engaged, working, and moving forward? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing? Isn’t that what is morally sound? The more time I put in the more a sad truth unfolds into my slow grasp: I’m not going to reach every kid.

Aside from my maddening ambivalences and uncertainties, I notice a few things in this recording that are worth mentioning. Most are things I want to work on and one is recognition of something I appear to be doing well…at least during this particular lesson. First, the good news: as above, there is an evident warmth and safety in the classroom. When I talk to the students I sound patient and even kind. Unfortunately, I do not successfully strike this note every day or with every class. Moving forward I am going to pray as I enter the building that I will be successful in achieving this throughout each class and the day as a whole. In order to achieve this I know for certain that I must do two things: make strong boundaries in regard to the number of hours I put in each week; and maintain my meditation and workout schedule (reliant on my success in making boundaries). I cannot continue working eighty plus hours seven days a week. It’s simply not sustainable.

Now for the stuff I need to work on: entry routine (warm-up), closing, and not talking so much. “Not talking so much” includes creating more opportunities for meaningful talk among students (bonus points for this! It also happens to be a citywide and CFN-endorsed instructional expectation), providing students with more time and opportunity to respond and or participate verbally, and ‘loosening my grip.’ My sense is that I talk too much because I’m a novice and it’s a control thing. If I were to count how many times I say, “Hey guys, listen up” it might feel like a self-inflicted waterboarding, drowning on my own compulsive expressions of anxiety. Do I really need the students to “listen up” as frequently as I request them to do so? How can I rearrange the dynamic so I am less center-stage and their own conversation and learning drives the lesson and demands their focus? My challenge with this—or their challenge—is keeping them on task. The few times I have tried to have students turn to a partner or discuss something with their group it seems one of two things happens: they ignore my request and continue on as they were; or, they ignore my request, abandon what they were doing previously, and enter into a raucous few moments of open social conversation unrelated to the subject at hand. Yes, they are young, they are wild, and they resist my ridiculous efforts to channel their energies.

Also needed (I suppose), an entry routine and a meaningful closing. Here’s what I’ve noticed with my students: They are very slow starters but once they start they do not want to stop. If I attempt to transition from the ‘meat’ of the lesson to some sort of closing or reflection they either ignore me or behave as if class is over completely. Now that I’m reflecting on and writing about it I realize my own feeling: good for them for ignoring me—they’ve spirit and aren’t so easily conditioned. Thank God. Imagine if my students took a newbie like me so seriously. However, I know that I am expected to begin each class with a warm-up and that I need to have some kind of meaningful closing. Too, many of my colleagues and I have noticed that a number of our students do much better when there is more structure. Indeed, I think that the number of students who prefer structure is greater than those who flourish when there is less. Although I am not experienced or educated enough to determine whether I agree that pedagogically this is the soundest approach (highly structured, clear beginning, middle, and end), I need to start somewhere. This last unit overturned our routines because we were working with computers most days, which meant (or at least turned into) not completing a writing exercise as a warm up then losing track of time because we were so into our work (score!) and closing by rushing to collect the computers. In short, I need to reestablish our warm up routine in a way that inspires buy-in from the kids—and me—and determine what kind of closing routine to implement. It must be meaningful.

I’m currently blind to all other weaknesses in my teaching because a person can only take so much self-scrutiny.

Learning to Access the Deep Heart

They are the walking wounded. The poorest most vulnerable young people among us. Do we want to forget about them or pretend that they deserve what they are (not) being given? How is it we can stand ourselves–living in this so-called developed nation–knowing full well that we routinely abandon our youth–especially those who are living in poverty and on the increasingly thick margins of privilege. What can we do today and moving forward to reach and teach these young people so that they have the skills they need to not only read, write, and reason but also to access their deep hearts and connect with others in this world? To not only read the world but also to respond to it.

On Thursday I visited a Title 1 school situated in a working poor neighborhood in Brooklyn. The kids walk through security gates each morning before heading to school. They place their book bags on conveyor belts leading to the x-ray examination. Dear kids, come to school and we will remind you each morning that we think of you as accomplished criminals or criminals in training. Dear kids, come join us in the pipeline. Schools starts with a bag search, a body search, and a direct expression of our lack of trust. (As a visitor, I was also required to go through the ‘security’ procedures.)

Many of the young people simply don’t show up to school on time. During the first period class I observed–which was supposed to begin at 8:00am–the majority of the class was absent. As students trickled in, there was no apparent consequence presented or communicated regarding their tardiness. I wondered to myself if this is a case of ‘choosing one’s battles.’

Throughout the day I observed an ongoing detachment among the students–they simply  (there were a few exceptions) weren’t really paying attention or doing work. The phrase “walking wounded” kept appearing in my own mind as I observed young people staring into space, ignoring their assigned tasks, wandering into class late. There appeared to be lots of “assertions of toughness”…that type of affected “you can’t get to me” swagger that I saw from a deeply traumatized young man (12 years old) I worked with in St. Louis. (He kept that up until one day–after months of one-on-one work together–I told him “You know, you’re safe here.”) I wonder, how many of the young people in this school feel safe and settled enough to learn? How many of them are getting their basic needs met?

I was given the opportunity to sit in on a teachers meeting. The teachers were all absolutely lovely and apparently committed. It was clear that they knew the students well: their progress (or lack of) and their particular situations. Too, their was a notable collegiality but also a sort of fatigue–but not cynicism–which was managed by what I perceived to be a healthy sense of humor. As the teachers discussed the upcoming graduation and worked to come up with names for recognition, scholarships, etcetera, I repeatedly heard: “She’s not going to make it. [graduate] She’s on the two-day plan.” And, “He’s not going to make it. He needs credits and regents and he’s on the one-day plan.” These “plans” aren’t plans-they refer to students’ chronic absenteeism.

Each class I observed was taught by a high quality teacher–the lessons were interesting and well planned and presented. The geometry teacher in particular was a brilliant educator. In another class, I was sitting alongside two students who were reading an overview of the Democratic of Congo’s “resource curse.” I engaged them in conversation about the reading assignment and looked at the graphic organizers they were completing in order to prepare for a debate. It soon became clear to me that one of the two students was reading at a very low level. She was able to decode the words but had extremely limited comprehension. My guess is that she was reading at about a third grade level. When I asked her if she understands the phrase “resource curse” she looked at me with the most heartbreaking expression it ripped into my soul–she looked scared, lost, helpless, sad when she said “I know curse is a bad thing so I think it means something bad.” She is in the tenth grade. My heart is breaking and I do not know how we can begin to heal all the damage that has been done. When will me make that change come?

Recommended Reading: Educating Esme

Educating Esme arrived, with a bunch of other books recommended by the New York City Teaching Fellows, the day before Easter. Unfortunately, I was in New Jersey at the time and had to wait until Sunday night to tear open the box. It was an obvious choice—what to read first—because I’ve been feeling super jittery and curious about (hopefully more than) surviving my first year as a public school teacher.

Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year is hilarious, overwhelming, heartbreaking…and it brought up a sort of sad longing in me because I so wish I had been a fifth grader in Madame Esme’s class. The book is filled with wisdom and some wonderfully practical tips. Here are a few highlights you might enjoy (but you MUST read it! It’s a can’t-put-it-down type of book and Esme’s voice is golden).

Esme reminiscing about her mentor, who died just before Esme began her first year teaching her own class:

“She urged me to forgive myself at the end of each day, that no single thing I could say would break a child…or make a child. Still, she taught me not to be too flippant, that, as a doctor cures what ails the body, I must strive to diagnose the roadblocks to learning…. I have no right to indulge in a lack of confidence. It would only interfere with the task before me.”

I bracketed those last two sentences and drew exclamation points in the margin! (!!!)

“I will kick pedagogical ass in her memory.”

It’s Madame Esme,…that’s what she asks her students to call her. It drives the principal nuts. Her roller-skating down the hallway also makes him nuts, but “certain people just think it’s their job to freak out. As long as they’re freaking out, they feel busy, like they must be doing work.” She continues, “Getting upset is a force, but no motion. Unless we are moving the children forward, we aren’t doing work.”

The problem basket (into which each student unloads his problems before entering the classroom each morning); the time machine (for facilitating students’ imaginary transport to the far-flung places they are reading about in books—reading inside the time machine;-); weekly conflict mediation sessions that are facilitated by Esme for the first few weeks of school, but then taken over by the kids…and on an on. Esme writes about loads of inspiring, effective, and fun approaches to teaching, learning, and building relationships with students. (Not so much about building great relationships with administration….though Esme does make a reader lose her coffee while reading about her sassy exchanges with Mr. Turner and his associate principal.

Esme spent her first two years teaching in a new public school in Chicago serving at-risk youth–her first year was also the school’s first year. At times she mentions the crap her students were dealing with (brutally abusive parents, homelessness, pressure from neighborhood gangs, and so on) and her method for focusing on the kids and their learning, rather than their problems. She criticizes other teachers’ tendencies to hyper-focus on students’ problems outside of school, “All a bunch of gossip. But bend an eyebrow here and there, let out little breaths, and then it is concern. Then it is love.” Then she prays, “Dear God. Help me love the little children.” She approaches this issue from a different perspective in the final chapter of the book—Advice for New and Aspiring Elementary Teachers (though I think much of this advice is useful at all levels).  There, she writes “It is important, however, to be sensitive to these situations without being enabling; otherwise children will begin to confuse their situation with their potential.” [my italics]

Peering into Esme’s class through her diary, it’s clear that she is concerned about her students, she works tirelessly, passionately, and with inspiration to create exciting and effective lessons. She spends so much of her own money decorating and stocking her classroom (including a library)…I got nervous!

Okay, honestly, I could go on but I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a beautiful book and one I expect to refer back to again and again.

What books do you recommend for new and not-so-new teachers? What are you worried about as you prepare to become a teacher? Fears, hopes, visions? (I’ll lend you my time machine if you think it might help…)

Tumblr Weeds (slowly) Blowing into Kandahar…

Teaching English twice a week via Skype to a girl in Afghanistan is exciting, enlightening,…and slow. It’s slow. Sometimes, we (volunteer teachers) spend a lot of time waiting. We wait for the center to sort out a variety of issues: Internet problems, a malfunctioning generator, and–more often than you can imagine–missed classes as a result of bombings throughout the city. Our girls are brave and dedicated students who quite literally risk their lives to come to school and learn.

They are also quite effusive when expressing their gratitude. For example, this is fairly common (an excerpt from our Skype archive:

(highfive) (inlove) (h)
bye dear miss very nice

thank you to my kind teacher
have a good night

i love you
my dear teacher

For those of you who don’t have your Skype emoticon translation service at hand, (highfive) means just what it says, (inlove) is a smiley face with bursting heart bubbles, and (h) is a heart. This might not seem so strange to those of you who work with young kids, but my student is fifteen! My other student was equally expressive. At first, I was a bit surprised but I rolled with it. The fact is, it’s a pretty big deal for these kids–a big exciting deal–to even have access to a computer. To have access to a computer and teachers is even more exciting. In short, they are looking to us to help them “support my family” and “become my wishes” and “one day become a doctor or a professional teacher of English.” The stakes are high. “My parents want for me to get all the education since my older brother is dead.”

When my current student told me “Miss, I wish I could talk to you every day” and “Do you think I will become my wishes?” I thought about her walking with her mother an hour each morning to school, about her diligence and intense focus during our lessons, and the fact that she’s a kid who deserves an education…I tossed and turned thinking…how can I do more for her? Two hours a week simply isn’t enough! As I tried to drum up ideas that I could translate into practice that would create more learning opportunities for my student, I worked to recruit new volunteer teachers for AIWR, I pledged a monthly donation the Afghan Canadian Community Center (the school that AIWR partners with to provide Skype classes to the girls), and I kept on thinking.

Typically, the students at ACCC have very limited access to the Internet. In fact, most of them have access only for the two hours per week they are working with their English language teacher on Skype. This, of course, makes it difficult to link students up with a variety of online opportunities for further study.

Luckily, my student has a bit more access to the Internet…about one hour each morning before school starts. She comes to the center early, hangs out in the computer lab, and if there is space she works on the computer. Aha! Why not carry over our exchange to a Tumblr blog? And so,…I am trying…to get this Tumblr weed rolling into Kandahar.

We haven’t chatted in a long time because my student had to cancel classes for two weeks so that she could focus her time and energy on preparing for and taking her exams. During that break, we have occasionally run into each other on Skype and chatted briefly. During one of those chats, I explained to her that I would like her to use this blog to practice reading and writing in English on the days that we do not have class together. Our coordinator at the center, a wonderful young woman and brilliant communicator, further explained to my student what the blog is, what I’m asking her to do, and how to upload her response. This obviously wasn’t ideal…I was hoping she’d catch on quickly and post something, anything, so I could see that she understood how to reply and post.

It’s been six days, which for me–because I am online constantly–seems like ages and my student hasn’t managed to post a reply. It will be interesting to see how…if at all…this works. We will start meeting again this Friday for our English lesson. It should work a bit more smoothly if we go over the blog idea together while we are talking (rather than sending instant messages via Skype). At this point, I am wondering if she is reluctant to write on the blog for other reasons (does it feel too public, dangerous, confusing, etc). She hadn’t heard of a blog before when I mentioned it to her over Skype last week, so we might just need to work on it together, bit by bit. Insha’Allah, once we are up and running with this added opportunity for reading and writing in English, my student will find it useful, educational, and fun.

Got any ideas? Have any of you taught English (or anything else) via Skype? Have you used blogs with students who have bery limited access to the Internet? I’d love to hear from you here, on Twitter, or Tumblr.


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