Pablo’s Story

I made this two weeks ago, but couldn’t figure out how to upload it. Yes, I know I have uploaded videos before, but I couldn’t remember how I did it. Sigh. Technology is hard. And one more thing: when I say tests are dumb, what I meant is–STANDARDIZED tests not designed with English Language Learners in mind–are dumb. Just wanted to clarify.

Click below for VLOG number two:

www.youtube.com/watch

ONE. DUMB. CLASS.

This is the story of the day I began to believe I was not a writer.

I was 21 years old, and almost halfway through my junior year in college. I went to a small, private college with less than a thousand students. On this particular day, I walked across the student union, my footsteps echoing behind me. 

The thing I liked best about the union were the echoes of my feet shuffling and the reverberating voices of friends you could hear as you walked through. I have a memory of a day my mom and I walked through the union during winter break when no one was around, and we sang the hymn, “Trust and Obey,” acapella. She sang soprano and I sang alto. Our echoing song gave me chills. 

But, I digress. On this particular day that I formed my belief that I wasn’t a writer, there were no songs and no happy voices that I remember. All I remember was walking over to my mailbox in the union, turning the key, and anxiously pulling out the paper I had written for British Literature, Second Survey. 

This paper had a big, fat, ugly, red C written on it at the top. 

My heart began to race. This was my third C on a paper in this English class, AND I WAS AN ENGLISH MAJOR FOR GOD’S SAKE! I was an honor roll student–NOT a C student, and I couldn’t bear the thought of committing myself to a field where I was not excelling. I felt a mix of anxiety and anger, as I clutched the paper close to me. 

I decided to do what I always did in college when I was freaking out:  I RAN. 

I didn’t even know where the heck I was running to. I just carelessly sprinted across campus, becoming more winded by the second, as I breathed in the blustery air of Northern Indiana. 

As I reached the other end of campus, I looked up and saw Shoup House. 

Shoup House was not my campus house. But it was a house where a few of my friends lived. One of those friends was an English major. 

“Becca!” I shouted. “I’m going to see Becca,” as if my subconscious knew where I was headed all along.

I ran in, sped up the wooden stairway, where I was greeted at the top by Becca and two of my friends. They quickly noticed I was not there for just a friendly chat. I was there because I was having a moment

“Damn that son of a bitch!! 😡” I yelled, throwing my paper on the floor. 

The girls quickly realized the “son of a bitch” I was referring to was Professor Tom David. Professor David was young, cool, and some girls even thought he was hot. (Gag.) His muscles and boyish good looks appeared fake to me, just like his neatly coifed hair.  During my sophomore and junior years of college, Tom was unfortunately teaching a larger number of classes than normal for the English department, since two other professors were on sabbatical, as I remember. 

Every English class with Professor David was PAINFUL. My upper level English classes typically had anywhere from 15-20 students in them. Tom displayed an obvious favoritism for the outspoken hipster students in the class from day 1. He would start anecdotes with, “Last night I was at the Electric Brew, having coffee with Caitlin and Brad, and we got into this really interesting conversation about the use of imagery in William Carlos Williams’ poetry…” And I would be forced to listen to him name drop the names of the “cool kids” throughout a story that had NOTHING to do with William Carlos Williams.

I simply could not compete with the Caitlins and the Brads. They were badass,  cool, confident, highly-favored hipsters. They loved Tom, despite his preppy cardigans and argyle sweaters, and he loved them.

The non-hipsters in the class, me and my friend, Michelle, sat off to the side in class, furiously taking notes. Todd never called on us, and may have even forgotten we were there, until one of us had the courage to timidly raise our hand, with our voice shaking, heart palpitating, and finally saying, “Um, I think that T.S. Eliot’s use of the objective correlative in British literature is actually used by a lot of screenwriters nowadays,” and mid-sentence we would suddenly realize that Tom David DIDN’T EVEN GIVE A SHIT, and wasn’t listening to what we were saying. And so we would suddenly forget the very important, courageous thing we were trying to say, and end up stuttering as we looked around the room at people who refused to make eye contact. 

And then, eventually, we stopped speaking in his classes. Like totally. We became selective mutes, since we grew  tired of his disdain for us. 

We were also tired of feeling knocked down. Tired of feeling not enough. I was doing everything I could to write a good English paper, but I continued to receive Cs that were covered with negative, red slashes all over my paper. 

I felt like my identity as a writer was being stripped away. 

I had been working as the student manager/director of the writing center at my college. I was responsible for tutoring several students to write papers. I was helping them succeed. Yet, I couldn’t seem to catch a break myself. I felt like a fraud

And this feeling was enough to cause me  to withdraw from my English classes at college and drop my English major, even though I was one class away from completing it. ONE. DUMB. CLASS. With dumb Tom David. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. 

Not only that, I stopped writing completely. I didn’t write anything substantial for sixteen years. And for sixteen years I felt a certain degree of emptiness–an emptiness that haunts you when you aren’t fully doing what you were meant to do. 

You guys, 

that.

is.

scary. 

It’s scary because I let one person–one teacher–have that kind of effect on my life. And it shows how we, as teachers, play a major role in how our students view themselves.

Tom David (as far as I could assess in my 21 year old brain) thought I couldn’t do it–I couldn’t write a paper worthy of his intellectual time or a decent grade. He showed me through his body language that my comments in class were not worthy of even being acknowledged. 

And I believed him. Even though he was ONE PERSON. 

He was my teacher. And now that I’m a teacher myself, I try to remind myself of this experience as much as possible, because it keeps me focused on the task at hand: teaching my students to BELIEVE they can GROW academically in their abilities.

If I don’t believe that, how will they?

I have the opportunity to show my students that the most important part of learning is growth. I modify instruction and student work, while looking at students’ data over time. Each child is unique and has a specific set of challenges and abilities. As they grow and improve through hard work and practice, they gain self confidence. 
Oh my god, I think I need to say that again. 

As they grow and improve through hard work and practice, they gain self confidence. 

That, right there, ⬆️ was a difficult lesson for me to learn. I dropped my English major when it got difficult, because I didn’t know that I could improve anymore. 

Anyone will quit something he thinks he sucks at, if he doesn’t believe he can improve. Anyone–adult or child.

Now, I don’t blame Tom David for my decision to quit my English classes. I was the quitter. I was the one who gave up. I was so intimidated by him that I didn’t ask for help, nor did I get a tutor, because I was too proud. That was my choice, and I learned from it. 

And what I learned is actually invaluable–I learned that I have INCREDIBLE power as an educator to help my students develop beliefs about themselves–beliefs that can set them on a positive trajectory for life. And the first belief I want to instill is that it is through hard work–not just being smart, that one accomplishes the work that he or she was born to do. ❤️

Me (in the red) and a bunch of other non-English major college peeps, doing our non-English major thing.

I See Children

Judging others will never give us the outcome we are seeking. 

I am an ESL teacher in a public school. What that means is that I teach children (who are native speakers of other languages) how to achieve proficiency in the English language. 

I do this while simultaneously encouraging them to continue to maintain proficiency in their native language. Yes, you read that correctly–I want my students to be bilingual. I understand and value the gifts of bilingualism and biculturalism. I do not ask my students to leave their cultures at home. I do not ask them to change who they are, because these children ARE GIFTS, I tell you–GIFTS to my school, my community, and our country. I only ask that they come to my classroom ready to learn each day and rise to the high expectations I have for them in their academic achievement. 

I take this responsibility seriously, because shaping minds is serious business. I teach every child that walks into my school who qualifies for my program. I do my best to guide them on the path to proficiency in speaking, reading, listening, and writing in English, while providing them access to a rigorous curriculum and critical thinking skills. My program is not a remedial program; it is an acceleration program. 

I love what I do and my students inspire me to be brave everyday, because they are some of the bravest people I know. They show up to school and do the next thing and speak truth, even if their voices shake or if they don’t yet fully know the language.  

My students come from varying backgrounds, which I may explore in another blog post at some point…

But today, I want to talk to you about my students who are refugees, or whose parents are refugees. I have students and/or their parents who come from war torn countries. They have seen things that you and I cannot fathom. 

Have you ever taken the time to hear a refugee’s story? 

If not, you may want to consider googling, “experiences of refugees,” and see what comes up. 

Because most of us have NO idea what a refugee has been through, unless we have taken the time to let our brains and our hearts explore that uncomfortable place. 

This would mean exploring uncomfortable emotions, because there’s nothing comfortable about fleeing war. There’s nothing comfortable about uprooting your entire family because you are, quite simply, afraid for your life. There’s nothing comfortable about seeing and/or experiencing murder or rape, or to live in constant fear of what may happen. 

Each of us have our own ideology about what is right or wrong. Each of us have values and needs that are important to us. I know it can be hard to see another’s point of view; but when I see judgment aimed towards people, simply because of their birthplace, or their country of origin, or religion, my heart aches.  

Maybe that’s because I see children. I see children who have seen things or know about things that are absolutely FOREIGN to us, #nopunintended.

Today, a student from Nigeria handed me a book he had written last night. I told him I wanted to learn about Nigeria. He knows I like to write, and that I value writing. So he gave me a book which had several sentences and pictures he drew. Some of the sentences were illegible (we are working on this), so I asked him to read the book to me. 

As he was reading a page, he paused. 

“This page has a bad word,” he said. “I had to erase it.”

“A bad word?” I asked. 

“Yes… It was the word… The word, kill,” he said, bowing his head. 

He read the page to me. It said, “In Nigeria, some people don’t know who their families are. They come to you and then you are in the hospital.”

I wasn’t understanding, so I asked him to tell me more. He explained that there are people “who can’t find their families and don’t know who their families are… and they try to kill you. And you have to go to the hospital.”

I don’t know this particular student’s exact circumstances or those of his family. But what I do know, is that he has pieces of knowledge and knows things that you and I know nothing about. He knows about war and displacement first hand. He has a frame of reference and understanding of our world that is beyond our bubble that we live in. 

We need to become informed. And that doesn’t happen through the media. It happens through books and research and hearing people’s stories first hand.

I had the gift of hearing this child’s story today. In fact, I have the gift of hearing all of my students stories EVERY day. I want to share that gift with you. That’s why my students and I are starting a blog. The first entry will be up this weekend. And it will be their writing. They are the future. They are writers. They have something to teach us. 

And it’s hugely important. 

  

Everything is Awesome and Hard

So the last couple of weeks have pretty much been loco. 

My exhusband has been in the Dominican Republic for three weeks. This is awesome and also really hard. It’s awesome because I get to have my daughter 24/7. And its hard because I get to have my daughter 24/7. 

And when I say 24/7, I REALLY MEAN 24/7. Because she even goes to my school now.  

 
(I know you really want to make fun of me for holding my second grader, but occasionally it happens. Especially when it’s been a long day and she jumps on me.)

She’s not “in my class” but she’s in the same building. This is also really awesome and really hard. It’s awesome because I love seeing her so happy here and I can spy on her and send spies to spy on her. It’s hard because I’m trying to do reports after school and concentrate on writing eloquent emails and I hear my child singing in the background about “whip me nene or watch my nene” or whatever that song is that all the children are singing nowadays.

And I’ve been SO excited to see my students. And I’m over the moon that I have 40 NEW KINDERGARTENERS in my English as a Second Language Program. I love seeing these bright eyed babies walking into school with their brand new backpacks, ready to conquer what lies in front of them. They are SO brave; because this is SCHOOL. And some of them don’t even know what school is or what their teacher is saying or when they will get to eat lunch or play outside. But they just do the next thing and figure things out and hug their teachers and grow up so quickly in that first week. It’s do or die for these kindergarteners. And they always just DO because they quickly learn to be brave.

I love observing my students who are new to the country take in all the bright colors in their classrooms and school supplies and computers and calculators. It’s culture shock in its richest form–with the word, rich, being a double entendre in this situation. Everything about this country and this new classroom may feel expensive but also complex in the new textures and sights and sounds. 

I have been teaching ESL for fifteen years now. There are so many anecdotes I could tell you about my students. Some of the stories are really funny. Some of them are really sad. Others are both funny and sad. But I will tell you those stories another day. Because today, I only want to say one thing. And that is that I continue to be amazed at my students’ bravery and coping skills.

I mean, can you imagine suddenly having to attend school in a foreign country, not understanding the language spoken around you? Can you imagine how hard that lovely brain of yours would be working for 7-8 hours straight, trying to understand what’s going on? Can you imagine not knowing what time you are going to eat or why you are suddenly singing a song in a language you don’t know or why the other kids who DO know your language, but have been here longer than you, just seem to “get it?”

Can you imagine? 

They are so brave. Their little brains work hard and even if their parents don’t know how to help them with their homework, they figure it out and grow up quickly. They learn how to speak, listen, and then read and write in this new language. They develop this gift of bilingualism–a gift that I pray will not be taken for granted. 

So tonight, I am up past my bedtime, because I can’t stop thinking about them and their smiling faces and how they inspire me to be brave everyday. 

There are times I just want to lie in bed and play Candy Crush or Candy Soda Crush or Words with Friends or read People magazine. But when I think of my school babies–I suddenly remember that I am here to fulfill a greater purpose than to score 20,000 points in Candy Crush. 

I am here to do good and to be brave and to connect with people. And now I must go and do that. That’s my legacy.

I am thankful. And you should be, too. Because we are here to do great things.