Oh, yeah, I have a blog

Please enjoy this kitten.
Please enjoy this kitten.

I seriously forgot for a while there. Let’s see:

  1. Did not pass my Spanish test. Continuing to study. I am planning to retake in January 2014. If I don’t pass then, I probably will just do ESL teaching and skip the Spanish bit. But I think I will pass.
  2. I’ve been practicing a lot of Spanish. I had about two or three weeks when I felt like I was plateaued, but recently I think the work is paying off a bit.
  3. I want to finish up my personal statements this week. Strike that: I will finish them this weekend. After I get some feedback, I’ll polish them up and apply by December 2.
  4. Homework Hub is now called Homework Help. It’s been fun again this year. I’ve been working more with the high school kids and have seen a few of my Wellstone students.
  5. Plus, shopping for affordable health insurance (as opposed to the kind I have now). I think it’s figured out.
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Next step: Spanish

Baby steps to Spanish. (From What About Bob?, you guys. Remember that?)
Baby steps to Spanish. (From What About Bob?, you guys. Remember that?)

I am officially done with my classroom volunteering. I’m a little sad because I’m going to miss those kids, but since it ate up my only day off of the week, I’m glad to have a little more free time/time to make some more money.  And I’ll still be at Homework Hub, so I’ll get to see those kids, and maybe a few Wellstone kids, too.  So, what do I need to do now?

That’s right: learn Spanish. That’s going OK. I came into a little money and paid for 4 private lessons, and that’s been helpful. The main thing I need to practice is speaking out loud.

I’m also going to spend 2 weeks studying in Guatemala! This is huge. I’ve never been away from home for 2 weeks before. No, really. It’s about time, right? I’ll be studying at a school in San Pedro La Laguna (last night I dreamt of San Pedro…) and staying with a family that speaks Spanish and maybe another indigenous language, but no English. My brain is aching just thinking about it.

My sister the traveler (who has a delightful blog that you should check out) has been very helpful in planning this trip. In fact, she graciously gifted me the travel miles so that I could get there in the first place. She’s going to Spain, Uganda, and possibly Wisconsin in 2013, so she’ll get them back. She also studied in Guatemala a few years ago, albeit at a different school in a different city. But tips like “Don’t bring clothes you like because they will likely be ruined,” or “Know the money exchange rate so you don’t get ripped off” are helpful.

I’ve been saying all along that I need to take the proficiency test before I apply. Well, the notes I have, which I just reviewed last night, say that I don’t have to complete it until I start student teaching. But, I also have a handwritten note that says I DO have to have it done before I apply. So, I’m just going to do that. I’m sure it will make my application stronger, in any case. Maybe I should schedule it for shortly after I return from Guatemala so I’m fresh.  Plus, if I fail, I’ll have time to retake it before the December application deadline.  Oh, and I have to take ANOTHER written test, but that’s not until I’m in the program. I forgot about that one.

One step at a time. I finished the volunteer work, I made a lot of progress with my Spanish. Now I can focus on Spanish for maybe 6-8 weeks, then go HAM on my personal statements.

Tuesday, second period

Remember D'Nealian?
Remember D’Nealian?

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I’ve just had a hard time organizing my thoughts. I’ve completed 70 hours of volunteering, and right around hour 50 things started getting real. Two years from now, I will have nearly finished school, including student teaching. That’s exciting–two years seems like a long time, but I’m going to need that much time to get prepared.

Instead of trying to summarize everything, I’m going to describe one class last Tuesday. This is an Orientation level class, which means that the students start with no English, and possibly little schooling in their native language. It’s a lot of vocabulary building, reading simple stories, and sometimes writing sentences.

Second period was approximately 12 students when I started, but it’s doubled in size since late March. (One student also moved up to Level 1–I’m so proud of her!) It’s always awkward to start a new class mid-term (I speak as a student and guess how a teacher would feel) when you’re not sure what the student’s background is, but when the student has trouble communicating in your language, it’s extra rough. I saw a girl a few weeks ago copying the warm-up off the board letter by letter. Not even word by word, but letter by letter. I don’t know if she gained anything from that lesson, but two weeks later, she seems to be making progress.

We had two more new students, because why not? It’s the second week of May. These two seemed to pick up on directions and how the class works fairly quickly. I worked with one, since his partner didn’t speak his language. The other was seated next to a fellow Somali speaker who did a great job helping her.

First, everyone did partnered reading. One student reads while the other holds the bookmark (so they have to follow along), then they switch. This method makes more sense in Level 2, when they switch by paragraph, than it does in Level O, where they switch sentence by sentence.

The stories they read in Level O are fairly interesting and often based on true stories. The students in 1 & 2 read a lot of books meant for little kids, which I imagine can be boring. There are a few simple books for ELL students about things like taking the bus to school and getting a job that are much more age-appropriate, but there’s a need for many more (assuming they can make money and the schools can afford them).

After that, they answered questions about the story guided by the teacher. While this happened,  the teacher put me to work cutting some paper for another lesson. This teacher tends to be apologetic when she gives me simple tasks like cutting paper or organizing folders, but I don’t mind. It’s part of the job, it’s helpful, and I can pay attention to the activity in class while I do it.

In the last 15 minutes, the teacher asked me to lead the class in spelling while she did some prep work for a later class. I had seen her do this exercise many times, but I had never led it before. The teacher asked students to hand out 8″ x 11″ white boards, markers, and erasers. I called out a word from the story they had just read (the teacher made a list). The students write the word on the white board and hold it up so I can check to see if it’s correct. I tell people when they get the word right, correct mistakes, and write the word correctly on the board.*  I find it really fun for some reason. It feels like a game, even though I don’t keep score.

So that went great! The teacher was happy that she got to do her work, the students were enthusiastic about the activity (they like the game, too), and I got practice leading the class. I’m working on giving simple instructions, since that’s necessary in all teaching, but especially when your audience has limited English skills. I’m making progress. Even just cutting the amount of times I say “probably” by 80% helps. Eye roll.

I did give the students the word “race” to spell, and about half of them wrote “rice.” I said, “Oh, no, ‘rice’ is a different word. Listen carefully: ‘race.'” To which they replied, “What’s rice?” Uhh…it’s food. White food. Little white food. Chinese food has a lot of rice. How do you explain what rice is? I could have said “arroz,” but that would help the African kids not at all. So I don’t know if that was helpful, but they don’t need to learn everything in one day.

One thing I should have done differently: ask for volunteers to pick up the boards, markers, and erasers. I just said, “Hey, someone pick this stuff up,” but it wasn’t any specific student’s responsibility. The students are great about helping, but they need to be prompted sometimes, especially when they’re thinking about getting to their next class. So, noted.

Like I said, it’s becoming more real. I know everyone’s first year is tremendously hard, but I believe I can get through it and do this job. This might even be the elusive passion I’ve searched for, although if it’s not, that’s OK, too.  I think that, as long as I like the kids, I can handle the hard parts.

*BTW, my teacher handwriting is pretty sweet! It’s hard to write on the board, and neat handwriting hasn’t always been easy for me. Especially if it has to be neat and large. But after a little practice, it comes out nice, if a little crooked. I find writing in a nice hand to be very satisfying, and I had no idea i had so much D’Nealian left in me. Thanks, Mrs. Kennedy!

Two classes

Please enjoy this kitten
Please enjoy this kitten.

When I got to Wellstone on Tuesday, I encountered one of the teachers I work with. She told me that they were having standardized tests all morning. Um, surprise? What will I do all day? So I went to the volunteer coordinator, who told me to go to one of the classrooms where students who didn’t have to test would be “doing homework or something.” Fine, at least I don’t have to sit in the hallway all day.

The teacher in that room decided to try to teach something instead of just letting the kids watch movies or dink around. The kids were mainly Spanish speakers, and the teacher found a story written in English and Spanish. The students took turns, one reading English and one Spanish. They didn’t all have strong reading skills in either language, but they got through it.

I had never worked with this teacher before, and it was fascinating to see someone who could get and hold the students’ attention and selected a lesson they would attempt even if it wasn’t graded. (There was some whining and stalling, but not too much. Honestly, I would have probably stalled, too–I can’t stand busy work and don’t like to make students do it.) This guy is a good teacher.

After lunch, they had their morning classes in the afternoon. (As someone who loves routine, this made me CRAZY.) One of the classes had a substitute teacher. It was…an interesting contrast with the teacher from the morning, if you get my meaning. The lesson was above their heads, the students didn’t want to sit still after being tested all morning, the directions were unclear…I literally  ran out of that room when the bell rang without stopping to put on my coat.

So, how do I become more like the first teacher and less like the second? She was at a disadvantage, since she didn’t know the students and couldn’t access the lesson plans. But still. There was no control of the room. When the lesson didn’t work, there was no flexibility to change. That is exactly what I don’t want to be, and I think the fear of being that type of teacher kept me from seriously considering this as a career possibility until recently. Experience is going to help, but until then…off the top of my head:

  1. Comfort in public speaking
  2. Having a lesson plan and a backup (especially a game or something)
  3. A loud voice
  4. Not backing down when disciplining (for example, if I ask for someone’s headphones, I damn sure better get them)
  5. Engaging the students in the lesson, especially the social leaders
  6. Reading the room and knowing when to change courses

To be fair…

Too cool for school.
Bad ass.

After writing last Sunday’s post, I reflected on what I wrote and thought maybe it was a little too positive. I actually woke up in that night thinking, “I shouldn’t make it look like everything’s perfect. I shouldn’t sugar-coat things.” I’m not sure if I woke up because of that thought, or if I just woke up while thinking that thought (if you see the distinction), but fortunately the following week gave me plenty to write about.*

It must have been spring break fever, because there were some crabby teens at Wellstone. Even a few kids who normally come bouncing into class and greet me right away were really off. The teacher asked a few students to move seats and they just refused. Another teacher asked two students to work together and they just refused. And then there was the case of the class who had to pick partners, and it took TEN MINUTES of class time. What happened?

Teachers, parents, others who work with kids: what do you do when they just refuse to do something? I haven’t figured this one out yet. Besides sending them to the principal’s office–that’s appropriate sometimes, but one probably shouldn’t bust that move except in extreme cases. The teachers in the situations I mentioned above took the kids aside and gave them a “Look, this is serious” talk, and that worked.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how polite some of the students have been. You hear horror stories about teens, and I was wondering if maybe these kids were different because of cultural differences. And look: everyone is entitled to bad days, and I know young people don’t always have the skills or the agency in their lives to express their feelings in the best possible way. But when it interferes with learning, what do you do?

*I’m also being cautious about complaining because I think I’d get in more trouble for talking about my experience negatively than positively. I just want to point out that I’m being really, really, REALLY careful about posting anything inappropriate or revealing anyone’s identity.

Getting along

Let's get along!
Why can’t we be friends?

After the racially-motivated food fight at South High, a friend asked me if I’d seen any interracial tensions at Wellstone. I said that everyone seems to get along, although their close friends are generally people of their own ethnicity/language background. I’m not naive, and I know I don’t see everything. So I decided to pay closer attention to student interactions.

I think I was right in my initial belief. I haven’t seen anyone getting bullied or even giggled at as they walk away. Some kids keep to themselves more than others, mostly the ones without big groups of students of their own backgrounds. (Wellstone is about 45% Latino, 45% East African, and 10% other.) But the other students are friendly enough to them, both in class and on the field trip I took last week.

I’m not sure why this is. I know these kids aren’t angels and I’m sure they’re plenty capable of being jerks, same as the rest of us. I suspect that it has to do with the fact that they all feel like outsiders to certain extent. “I miss where I’m from, you miss where you’re from, let’s not make a big thing out of it.”

The school is also not very big. I estimate about 200 students, although I only see a percentage of them. The teachers refer to most of them by first names only (as in, “Penelope* is doing really well lately”) and everyone seems to follow along. And all the students all have started within the past few years at most. There’s no teasing about how you puked on spaghetti day in third grade because nobody knows about that. I have noticed a few boy-girl couples, but none that cross cultural boundaries.

There is also the fact that the Latino kids have Spanish, and everybody wants Spanish. I’ve come across two African boys on two separate days saying, “I know ‘te amo.’ That’s ‘I love you,’ right?” (Why do they want to say “I love you”? Are they planning to make moves on the Latino girls? Hey, they seem like nice girls for the most part.)  I also heard a Latino boy saying either “cono” or “coño” instructionally to one of the African girls. I tried to nip that in the bud just in case. The boy in question is likable but a bit of a troublemaker, and I would not put it past him to bust out “coño.”

According to the teachers, the African students have started saying “finishado,” which means absolutely nothing, when they’re done with assignments, and that’s traveled back to the Latino kids. “Oh my gatos” is also a popular expression. Is this how creoles are born? If so, I’m completely in favor of it.

I’m going to keep observing this because it’s a fascinating topic. I haven’t witnessed any interactions with the Roosevelt High kids, who are in the same building as Wellstone. And I realize that my presence affects the situation–nobody is going to knowingly break the rules in front of a perceived authority figure. I’m glad I haven’t seen any trouble, but I hope it’s because it’s not there and not because it’s deep underground.

*Name changed. As far as I know, there are no students named Penelope at Wellstone.

38.5 hours of volunteering

This showed up in an image search for "Wellstone International High School." Sure, fine, whatever.
This showed up in an image search for “Wellstone International High School.” Close enough.

I’ve done 38.5 hours of volunteering at Wellstone International High School. 42 if you count lunch breaks, but I’m not counting lunch breaks (although I do get a lot out of listening to the teachers discuss school issues). I’m really enjoying it, even more than I thought I would. But it’s been hard to write about. I guess I generally write about things that bother me as a way to process, so it’s harder to tackle the good stuff.

Field Trip

I helped chaperone a trip to the state poetry competition (you can look at poetryoutloud.org to find out more about the competition in general). Overall, I was so impressed with how well-behaved the students were in general. One even thanked me–thanked me!–for coming along.

As the program went on, I observed some of the students affected by the performances. I’m not saying they were sitting rapt with hands folded the entire time. But they had definite favorites when we talked at lunch and at the ride home, and they didn’t play with their phones nearly as much as I expected.

Cell Phones in Class

Cell phones in class were never a problem when I was in school in the ’80s and ’90s, obviously. But some days it’s like, what are you doing? You know you’re not supposed to have phones in class. Yet there they are, watching a video. They’re supposed to surrender the phone to the teacher, but it’s hard to get them to give it up, and I never quite feel comfortable pushing hard enough. Then the other day, I caught a girl on her phone twice in the space of ten minutes.

To be fair, one kid was translating from Spanish to English with his phone. I still made him put it away, because it’s not like I can tell from a distance. I hauled a Spanish/English dictionary to his desk, but I don’t think he used it.

The Truth about the Moon Landing

A lot of my time is spent helping kids read individually. I was helping an East African boy read a book about the moon that was written at approximately a second- or third-grade level. The book stated that the moon has mountains, and this kid’s mind was blown. “I don’t believe it!” It just completely threw him. I know some of the students have had very little formal education before coming to the US, and I can only assume he is one of them. “Are they big mountains?” I said they were. (Are they? I’m actually not sure.) I showed him the photos in the book and explained that the dark spots you see from the earth are the craters.

The next page talked about humans landing on the moon. This was less surprising to him–maybe he’d heard it before. Remembering the book Packing for Mars, I told him that the first spacecraft carrying humans only had about as much seating area as a love seat and that everything had to be done sitting next to your crewmates, including bathroom activities. That either went over his head or he thought I was being rude and was polite enough to ignore it.

How do you do your job, anyway?

Workplace comedy!
Workplace comedy!

Week 2 of volunteering at Wellstone was much like the first. It’s probably the highlight of my week, although I’m a little concerned that it’s going to be mad intense to teach 5 days a week. But sometimes I’m just so bored at my office job it’s starting to look like a good trade-off. Be careful what you wish for, Sarah… I do feel like I have to do something worthwhile instead of just pushing papers or rubbing on spa bitches.* Something that’s fun and a little unpredictable, though, unlike my grant-writing job.

One class is starting to be my favorite. I think it’s because I know the students’ names better than the others. And the reason I know the names is because there are some squirrely kids who drive the teacher bonkers and she’s always calling them out by name. They don’t seem like bad kids, so they amuse me a lot more than they do the teacher. If I were trying to cram a lot of information into 50 minutes, I have very little doubt that I’d feel differently.

One of the teachers I work with suggested that I talk to the student teachers about their impressions of the program. Maybe I’ll ask if I can email the student teachers my questions. We don’t have a lot of time between classes, other than a 30-minute lunch. Or maybe I can sneak in one question a week so they begin to dread the sight of me. All I want to know is, “Can I do this?” and they can’t really answer that.

This post is kind of all over. What I really want to ask is, how do you help someone learn without just giving them the answer? I know the theory is leading questions, but I have trouble doing that. For example, I was helping a fourth-grade girl at Homework Hub who had a two-page reading about aircraft carriers (yeah, weird) and some questions to answer. She said she was having trouble finding the answer to one of the questions in the reading. I found it and told her, “It’s in this paragraph. See?” She didn’t really get it right away, so I was like, “It’s the Battle of XXX and the Battle of YYY.”

Did she learn something from that? Maybe she learned that the answers are there if you look for them. I don’t know if she learned a lot about aircraft carriers, but that’s probably not the ultimate point of the lesson anyway. The real question is, can I teach? I don’t think I need to know how to teach NOW–that’s why I’m going to school–but can I learn?

*Not all my clients are spa bitches, but you know who and what I’m talking about. If not, I’m happy to explain it in detail over beers.

Thoughts on my first day of volunteering

Please enjoy this kitten.
Please enjoy this kitten.

I’m going to organize these better and probably expand a few out into their own posts. But for now:

  • The teachers and many of the students seemed happy to see me. That’s always nice. I wasn’t sure if the teachers would know what to do with me, but they mostly used me as extra help. It felt a lot like Homework Hub, and I think that experience was extremely helpful.
  • I was in 3 different teachers’ classrooms. They all had different styles of teaching that mostly seemed to work (hard to make an exact comparison, especially after one day). One of those teachers has to write my recommendation for grad school–who will it be?
  • I like that the school day is broken up into 50-minute chunks. It helps the day go faster. It works very well for me, although in the classes with extended reading times, it interrupted some of the students before they’d finished their books. I hope they get to finish books and assignments the next day, but I don’t know–I’m only there once a week.
  • Since I’m working with ELL students, they have to read simpler materials. Some of the books I read with them were little kids’ books. I would think that would be kind of boring, but maybe these students weren’t thinking about reading for pleasure.  They certainly seemed to be appropriate for their reading levels. It was a little weird to tell one student to quit macking on the girl next to him and get back to “Turtle and Snake Go Camping.”
  •  Standing all day is hard on my back, and I was wearing my comfortable snow boots. Note to self: no heels. Sorry, fashion.
  • When I was in school, I was fascinated by the teachers’ lounge, the only room I was never allowed into. Well, guess where I ate my lunch on Tuesday? Mm-hm.

Get in my brain, Spanish!

Duo the Duolingo owl says, "Si, se puede!"
Duo the Duolingo owl says, “Si, se puede!”

I had two meetings last Friday to put me closer to my grad school goal. Let’s talk about them, shall we?

First I met with my potential U of M advisor, MM. She reviewed my transcript and found it good. It looks like I won’t have any prerequisites to take. Awesome. And in fact, my undergraduate linguistics class might count for grad school, although I’m not totally counting on that.

MM also told me that doing ELL and Spanish at the same time is not that much extra work. In fact, she said, “you might as well take ELL at the same time.” She also told me that, if my volunteer experience goes well, I should have a competitive application.

But it’s not all smooth sailing from here. I have to learn the hell out of some Spanish. I have to take an oral exam (tape-recorded!) before I apply in December. I’m going to shoot for late September/early October, just in case I have to retake it.

So what do I do to learn Spanish? Duolingo is going well, when I do it consistently. Spanish language music is a good idea, although I can’t find anything I like beside “Elena la Ballena” (which, to be fair, is the jam). A conversational group, if I can find one that meets at a time that works for me (lots of them seem to like Saturday mornings, and I work or go to book club at that time). I may have to set one up myself. Movies and TV, if I can find something on Hulu Latino that doesn’t make me want to vomit out of my eye sockets. I downloaded Harry Potter y la piedra filosofia, and I can find other YA books in Spanish.

My second meeting was an orientation for volunteering in Minneapolis Public Schools. It went great! And this morning, I got an email from Wellstone International High School. I’ll start volunteering there next Tuesday. Success!

So the focus for the next 6 months? Spanish Spanish Spanish.