Fighting Together

By Guest Blogger, NBCT Bethany Rivard

On August 14th, I answered a phone call from my union president. She asked me to step up into leadership and head to a training in Longview to prepare our members for a possible strike. The possible strike turned into a likely strike, and then before I knew it we were out on the picket lines. There were MANY sleepless nights and massive amounts of anxiety swirling through my mind and body during this time. The strike both tore me apart and strengthened me, in equal amounts. The negativity we encountered paled in comparison to the support and solidarity we received.

Somewhere in the midst of those Twilight Zone like weeks, I stumbled upon a text I had been perusing pre-strike entitled, When We Fight We Win. I flipped to chapter two, “Grounded in Community: The Fight for the Soul of Public Education.” I learned about the Chicago Teachers Union Strike of 2012 over issues of excessive testing, increased class size, the school-to-prison pipeline, and corporate takeover of public schools. The strike was ultimately successful because impacted families (led by African American and Latino parents), community organizations and labor allies joined forces with educators. The strike shut down the nation’s third largest school district for a week. The entire community came together to fight for the heart of public education, and won.

The three days Vancouver Education Association members were on strike, we were joined full force by our community. The overwhelming support has been a common refrain through teacher strikes across the state; education allies consistently showed up and linked arms with us. Over 900 parents and guardians lined up outside the VEA office to sign declarations that their child would not be irreparably harmed by a work stoppage when we were threatened with an injunction. Many parents and guardians brought their kids to the picket lines to meet their teachers. Local businesses stepped in to donate and show their support for educators. Labor allies were consistently on the lines with teachers, ILWU, SEIU, LiUNA, Firefighters…the list goes on. We were not alone.

The negative vocal minority painted us the same way that Rahm Emanuel painted the Chicago Teachers Union: Greedy. I find this false narrative of educators insulting and ridiculous. It’s no secret that the educator workforce is overwhelmingly female, and that certain people find it “unseemly” for us to ask for professional pay, even if the state money was earmarked for salaries. We fight for smaller class sizes, increased supports, full day kindergarten, arts funding…and now, ourselves. The vast majority of educators I know literally pour their heart, soul and resources into their students and classrooms. We routinely spend our money on food, supplies and curriculum. We give of our time well above and beyond what we are paid for. We know the relationships we build with students and families goes well beyond our contract hours.

The strikes in Washington state are about valuing the education profession. We have a massive teacher shortage, so it is imperative that we find ways to attract new educators into teacher preparation programs and make it worth taking out hefty student loans. I want my culturally and linguistically diverse students to become future educators in my building, and to be able to stay in the communities they love. By standing up for ourselves, we are standing up for the future of public education in Washington state.

José, a fabulous former student who is also leader and organizer, gave a speech to bolster the spirits of my fellow Fort Vancouver High School Trappers when we were on the line. He knows what it is like to confront adversity, to confront power that seeks to silence. He told us, “It’s not easy raising your hand and declaring your opposition to injustice. I know how it feels, teachers. I know how it feels to stand up and use my voice only to be ignored. I know how it feels to be treated unfairly. I know how it feels to be promised something only for that promise to be broken. Keep fighting. Keep striking. Nothing is more beautiful that uniting for one cause. Being a teacher is an overlooked job, but they are crucial in every student’s life. There is no way around this, to get through it we must go through it. Do not give up. In the end, they have no choice but to hear you. Keep on fighting and follow the light that is surely at the end of the tunnel.” José knows that with solidarity, unity and community we can confront opposition and declare our worth.

Educators across the country are running for office because they know we need to be at the table to shape education policy. We have expertise on issues that directly affect our caseloads and classrooms, our kids and communities. These educator-leaders have inspired me to announce a run for my local school board of directors. I know I will not be the only educator running for an elected position this year. I hope many others have internalized their worth and realize they have much to offer and choose to run as well. I stand with educators. I stand with students and families. I stand with my Labor Union brothers and sisters. I stand for the transformative power of public education. When we fight, we win!

Bethany Rivard, NBCT, teaches English Language Arts and Theater at Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies and is a member of the Washington Teacher Advisory Council (WATAC). She is a 2016 Washington Regional Teacher of the Year and serves on the Professional Educator Standards Board. Bethany is a Vancouver Education Association member and recipient of the NEA Foundation California Casualty Award for Teaching Excellence. She lives in Vancouver with her husband and two daughters. 

Support Strikers Even If You Aren’t Sold On The Idea

Sometimes, you don’t realize how much you need a hug until someone reaches over and gives you one. Sometimes, you forget to hug the people closest to you and say “thank you.” Anyone who became an educator knows this is part of the deal. We don’t become teachers or counselors for the praise. We do it because we believe in community and the power of education to change lives. We believe our work makes the world a better place.

But for many public school educators this summer has presented a challenge to the “Why” of our work. By now, you’ve seen or read the news about education association contract negotiations. When the legislators finally agreed to put money towards funding the McCleary decision last spring, districts across the state celebrated. They also began to grapple with what the new funding would mean in terms of teacher salaries and program development. Simultaneously, education associations across the state began re-negotiating their contracts, specifically focusing on compensation. The purpose of this post isn’t to explain the ins-and-outs of the work (start here if you’re feeling wonky and listen to Nerd Farmer & Citizen Tacoma) but what I am going to ask you is to support the educators in your community.

We may disagree on the way McCleary funds should be spent locally or what percentage should go to educator pay. Perhaps you feel the whole thing is such a confusing mess. Regardless, it’s critical that you support your public school staff.

I’m part of Tacoma Education Association and we’re headed into day three of striking. Every box of donuts, case of bottled water, tray of cookies, baggie of fresh fruit, or cup of coffee dropped off to striking educators, is like a giant hug of support that means more than any pictures, hashtag, or blog post could convey.

As I reflect on the last few days and look through the countless photos of educators from across this state, I’m reminded of a couple things. Teachers aren’t perfect. We have our faults. We mess up. But because research shows that an effective classroom teacher is the number one in-school factor impacting student achievement, we have to make sure that the best teachers are working in our public schools. A competitive compensation package is one way to ensure this.

If that doesn’t persuade you, then think about the individuals. The person in the red shirt holding a sign is the same person who taught your son to read last year. The lady in the capris is the same person who comforts your child when he falls down on the playground. We are the people who wipe snotty noses, help tie shoes, celebrate SAT scores, wrestle through career choices, and cheer your baby on from kindergarten to senior year.

Support your educators any way you can.

 

OUR Mandy Manning

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks. I got moved out to a portable this summer, and the new carpet didn’t get installed until August 27.

By that week, of course, we were doing teacher work days, so I did trainings and meetings all day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; afterward I stayed late each night working in my room. Then I worked in my room all day Thursday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday and Monday. The day after Labor Day we had more meetings and that night was Back to School Night.

Of course that week, last week, was the first week of school. I think the earliest I made it home any night last week was about 7 pm.

This morning I got up early and worked on school work until about noon.

I talked to my mom. I did some cleaning.

I decided late this afternoon I could sit down, put my feet up, and do some reading. I picked up the neaToday, which I hadn’t opened since it arrived.

About five minutes into my relaxing moment, I saw the headline for the article “Meet 2018 National Teacher of the Year—” and said, “Wait a minute! That’s OUR Mandy Manning!”

Holy COW!

National Teacher of the Year!

I am so impressed, and so proud of her!

She’s OUR Mandy Manning. Washington State National Board Certified Teacher, Mandy Manning.

I immediately tore out the page so I could share it with everyone I know.

She’s OUR Mandy Manning. Regular contributor to “Stories from School.” Inspiring writer. Voice for us all.

I called my mom back so I could share the news with her. She’s a retired teacher, and she loves hearing good news about teachers.

She’s OUR Mandy Manning. Teacher extraordinaire. Compassionate advocate for students.

I want to be more like her. And isn’t that what the National Teacher of the Year is supposed to be—a model for all of us?

Congratulations, Mandy! I’m excited that you get to share your ideas with the rest of the country!

Put Down Your Phone and Pick Up Your Room

I’ve been reading a lot lately about children and adolescents and young adults having trouble managing their behavior and emotions.

  1. Psychology Today had an article “Crisis U” about the rise of mental health issues, particularly anxiety, in college students. Many students haven’t had to deal with much disappointment in their first 18 years. “In their overparented, overtrophied lives, many have not learned to handle difficulty.”

Simple frustration becomes a trigger for overwhelming emotional responses. “For increasing numbers of students all across the United States, disappointment now balloons into distress and thoughts of suicide. Lacking any means of emotion regulation and generationally bred on the immediacy of having needs met, they know no middle psychic ground: Mere frustration catapults them into crisis.”

Over-exposure to social media sets up unrealistic expectations. If everyone posts just happy, smiling pictures and glowing reports of vacations and accomplishments, then what is wrong with me? Older adults generally have more perspective than college students about their peers’ public personas and their private lives. Kids can feel like abject failures just by looking at their phones.

Unrelenting competition, both to get into preferred schools and to maintain the desired GPA, is another issue. A solution from Psychology Today? Stop grading on a curve. (I was lucky enough to have teachers and professors who gave out the grades we earned. We could all get an A. Alternatively, we could all get an F. On the other hand, if we all got an F, our profs realized their teaching was at fault. They were willing to come back and reteach, even in my college classes. That attitude has informed my instruction throughout my career.)

  1. Nina Parrish’s Edutopia article on “How to Teach Self-Regulation” provides tips to teachers on how to move beyond instructions in academics. Her exhortation to observe problem behavior with the goal of figuring out why it is occurring and their addressing that behavior once the child has cooled down really resonated with me. I confess I don’t manage to do that all the time. I’m still working on it!

She also recommends setting clear expectations and overtly teaching study skills, which I start from the first week of school. On a side note, virtually our entire teaching staff went to the AVID training in Seattle this summer, where we were inundated with the power of focusing on study skills.

  1. NPR’s piece “Why Children Aren’t Behaving, And What You Can Do About It” claimed we face “a crisis of self-regulation.”

Even for younger school children, their access to technology and social media is a culprit. For one thing, there is too much seat time already for students K-12. If they go home and spend endless additional hours on the computer, on the phone, or in front of the TV, that’s exacerbating an already existing problem. Young kids can have the same reactions as older, college students as they see that everyone else’s life looks perfect on social media. They can stress about what is wrong with them, or what is wrong with their family. Finally, news reports tend to focus on the negative. If young children watch the news, they see everything that is wrong with the world at a point in their lives when they can do little to effect meaningful change. It can contribute to a “mean worldview” vision of the world, and can leave them feeling out of control.

Lack of play is another issue. Not having time to play is a big part of the problem. Then not having unstructured playtime is another. In my school last year we were down to two recesses a day and PE two or three times a week. I would love to give kids PE every day and three recesses a day: morning, noon, and afternoon. Budgets and master schedules and limited numbers of specialists make my wish list impossible, at least for now.

So here’s what I can do. At parent conferences in the fall, inevitably I have parents who tell me that they require their child to get their homework done immediately after school. Only then can they go out to play. I always say, “Please don’t do that. By the time your children get home, they have been working for hours at school. They really need to go outside and run around before they sit down to do more work. Besides, we have such short days here. I’d like the kids to get outside in the sun as much as possible.” Parents and students both seem to relax once I say that.

The last point from NPR had to do with chores—any household job that children do to contribute to the well-being of the family as a whole. If kids aren’t pitching in, they are “underemployed.”

It’s part of the work of the family. We all do it, and when it’s more of a social compact than an adult in charge of doling out a reward, that’s much more powerful. They can see that everyone around them is doing jobs. So it seems only fair that they should also.

I have to say, I found this argument to be highly persuasive. Translated into the classroom, I like the idea of “we do the work to keep the classroom clean and organized because we are all part of the community” so much better than “we do the work just because Mrs. Kragen gives us a reward.”

Of course, I grew up doing chores. I had to clean my room every Saturday morning before I could watch TV or play—put all my stuff away, dust, and vacuum. (I took forever to get that done each week. I was not an organized child.)

As soon as we were done with our bedrooms, we had to do an inside job: dust the rest of the house, vacuum the rest of the house, clean the two bathrooms, or mop the kitchen floor. I always had last pick. I finally complained to my mom. She said the first person down got first pick. Oh.

Then we had an outside job which could be anything from sweeping the patio to helping put up a fence. We did get paid 50 cents or so for the outside jobs.

I tell my students about that regimen, and they act as though my parents were committing child abuse. Many of them have no chores at all. They think they shouldn’t have any. (I wonder if their lack of chores fosters a sense of entitlement.)

At our Curriculum Night next week, I’m going to share this article and suggest to parents they might want to institute some “household jobs” with their own families!

Find a Mirror, Peek Through a Window, & Open a Sliding Door

For me, summertime = reading time.

During the school year, I can’t keep up with the growing stacks of books precariously balanced on my nightstand. So in the summer, I set a goal of reading 5-10 books. My pattern is consistent—usually some young adult fiction to add to my classroom library (All American Boys, Ms. Marvel Vol 1), something political (Evicted), something I meant to read ages ago (Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, Orange is the New Black), a friend recommendation (Number One Chinese Restaurant), a “teacher” book (I’ll read that one mid-August), a book I only half-finished years ago (Whistling Vivaldi) and a mindless beach read (Matchmaking for Beginners, Girl Logic).

Despite burying myself in non-school related books, I don’t stop thinking about the work. I know, I know. Like many teachers, even when I’m “off”, I’m still on. No matter how much I try to avoid thinking about my classroom and my students (even with my mindless, beach reads), my mind wanders back. When I read, I imagine faces of students who would ____. I mull over ways I could use a certain chapter in my unit on ___. After years, I’ve finally accepted that reading and reflecting during the summer is part of my “self-care” plan.

And so this summer, I met 2014 Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenage girl struggling to balance faith, family, and friends. I deepened my understanding of the American housing crisis and how evictions disproportionately impact Black women. I ruminated on the meaning of love and how to express it to those closest to me. I reflected on the meaning of identity threat, and how stigmatization directly impacts student success in my classroom.

Summertime is also prime travel time. My husband and I make it a priority to grab our passports and get out of town. The magic of travel is that it literally transports you to a different world. Eating Korean BBQ on South Tacoma Way or ordering Tom Kha in East Tacoma is not quite enough to understand what it means to be Korean or Thai. Breathing Bangkok air, sitting in Kuala Lumper traffic, visiting the S-21  Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh puts you face-to-face with people, culture, and history in a new way.

Both the acts of reading about and physically traveling to another world, always refreshes my perspective. I might arrive with preconceived notions about a certain group or culture based on my previous experience or my hours scouring a Lonely Planet guidebook and TripAdvisor pages. But I always leave with a greater understanding of systems, an empathy for human struggle, and a realignment of my own values with what actually matters. Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” This is the main reason I continue to get out of dodge each summer and sweet-talk my friends into going abroad. For students, there are more complications than simply applying for a passport and buying a ticket to Beijing.

Literacy experts use the phrase Windows & Mirrors when referring to the way a reader engages with a book. This concept was actually developed by Dr. Rudine Bishop in her essay Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Essentially, a book can help you see yourself, your family, your community or your values (mirror). A text might serve as a window, peeking into someone else’s life and learning about another world. Finally, a novel could work as a sliding door–at first giving you a peak into another realm, then sliding open so you can walk through it (think Butler or Tolkien). I’ve made it a reading habit to ask myself is this text meant to be a mirror, a window, or a sliding glass door? For whom? As a reader, I want mirrors to feel a sense of personal validation (that’s easy for me to find since I’m a white female). As a reader and an educator I know I need more windows and sliding doors in my life to help me be a better teacher.

And so this summer, I once again remember that while I still believe everyone should travel abroad, I know not everyone can. As the new school year approaches, I accept my responsibility as a teacher to construct classroom experiences that transport students to new worlds, even for a few days. Besides showing pictures and sharing stories, I can make instructional choices such as incorporating more diverse texts as mainstream curriculum. We must intentionally find windows, mirrors, and sliding doors for each learner.

Janus: Thoughts from an Association Leader and a Self Proclaimed Supreme Court Nerd.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS for us Supreme Court watchers) released their opinion on the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31.  For the majority and dissenting opinions visit: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-1466_2b3j.pdf.

Janus, as it’s popularly known, reverses an earlier decision (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education) made by the Court in 1977.  In Abood, the Court ruled that a public sector union could charge an agency fee to any person who decided not to be a member of the public sector union.  This fee is charged for the work that the union does on behalf of all of it’s represented population, not just it’s members. For example, when I, a local association president, go in to negotiate our  collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the school district, that CBA addresses the work environment, compensation, and benefits for all teachers, counselors, school psychologists, instructional coaches, etc.. not just the dues paying members of the union.  This fee provides our local union officers compensation for the work that we do on behalf of the fee payer. In Washington State, agency fee payers can complete paperwork asking for reimbursement for any of those fees that have not been spent on their behalf but paid out for/toward activities/benefits that only members of the association can access (such as members only scholarships).

This isn’t the first time a case has come to the Court on this issue. Two years ago I wrote about the Frederich case here http://storiesfromschool.org/understanding-the-frederich-case/. This might help break down the challenges to a case like this and address some legal lingo associated with Janus, as well.  The Court ruled 4-4 in Frederich (Associate Justice Scalia had recently passed away and his seat remained vacant, hence only 8 members of this court).

So, two years later, with a Court of nine, the question posed in Janus is whether requiring an individual to pay the agency fee to a union is a violation of the individual’s First Amendment right to free speech.  The argument made by Janus and ruled by the majority of the Court (5-4) was that Janus’s requirement to pay the fee to a public sector union represents his agreement with speech that he may not condone.  Therefore his right to free speech was infringed upon by having to pay the agency fee.

So, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued their opinion and here’s what it boils down to:

  • Agency fee payer status does not exist in public sector unions.
  • Some teachers may choose to no longer become members because they want to save some money.
  • Those non members have lost a right to union representation (including legal representation) in any disciplinary meeting unless (according to footnote 6 on page 22 of the decision) the nonmember asks for representation by the union. Then, the union may charge a fee for that grievance procedure.
  • Fewer local dollars coming into the local union ultimately means fewer funds available to do the work.  

Why is this of concern?  Well here’s what our local association does:

  • We provide 3 scholarships to local graduating seniors.
  • We provide money in the form of grants to support classroom teachers. Our teachers use this to buy library books, guitar strings,  classroom snacks, materials, calculators, copy paper, student novels, etc…
  • We provide scholarships to our members.  This has purchased: robots for student use, guitars, attendance at college classes, and professional development at our local ESD.
  • We provide dinners and refreshments for evening parent teacher conferences so teachers can be fed when they have to stay at school late.
  • We bargain benefits, work environment, employee rights, and now, salaries.

These dollars support teaching and learning 

It’s not that I can’t see the argument held by the Majority in Janus. I’m an AP Government teacher who teaches civil liberties and the judicial process to my students each year. While it might be a fair argument to make, as a government and politics teacher, I learned a long time ago to see competing arguments as just that.  As a teacher and advocate for civic engagement, I instead encourage my students to embrace questions instead of opinions. So here are my questions:

  • What will bargaining look like now?
  • Will our local members remain committed to one another?

And here’s the big question:

  • Will our association continue to serve as a beacon of teacher leadership and strong student advocacy if resources are depleted?

Setting the Stage for Learning

“Mommy made me mash my M&M’s,” trills from the nervous troupe of twenty-five on the stage. Kindergarten to high school, these children are all warming up their voices for this summer’s presentation of “Alice in Wonderland” to be presented at our community theater. It is an all-children production; children will be acting, building sets, running lights and generally spending their summer months of June and July busily learning the art of theater. Wow! It is a whirlwind of creativity and intense focus!

I sit in the seats and watch the artful director as she manages her cast and the chaos about her. She is a natural and is adept at bringing out talent in her students. She is trained. She is skilled. She is volunteering.

Who knows who might be on the stage in front of me; the next Bette Midler (cleverly disguised as the girl who is constantly poking the boy next to her and giggling) or James Dean, who sits nonchalantly at the edge of the stage taking it all in, coolly removed from the preparation of it all and yet, on cue, his voice solos a piece that draws you deeper into the play. Each child is actively discovering and shining their own diamonds in the rough.

I want this moment in my classroom; this theater, this drama, this drawing out of students’ talent. Butand yet

But, I do not have the skills nor the training to finesse such a dynamic. I can clearly see the skill set the director before me has on display. It is a different type of with-it-ness than what I use in the classroom. It is an odd blend of “more loose” and yet more commanding. She knows how to spatially place her players and what will and will not work onstage. Her visions are grandiose. She makes bold statements of how a scene will play and I think, “What? They can’t do that. It is too complicated.” And yet, as if by the magic of the theater, the action takes almost immediate form on stage. She is skilled and gifted in theater. Neither of these are traits I possess.

And yet, it is clear that our state has fully embraced requiring schools to provide these opportunities for self-expression in the form of theater, dance, music, and the visual arts. As of 2017, we have adopted new Arts Learning Standards. These standards are being assessed in-district, using OSPI developed assessments. As a school, we recently completed a school accountability survey set forth by the Office Superintendent of Public Instruction of what we are currently offering our students in the Arts. How many hours are we providing per week? Who is providing the instruction? As a staff, in a small rural school, we often have to be very creative in how we make these experiences happen for our students.

Should schools require the arts to be taught in school? YES! According to the Dana Foundation, the Arts increases attention skills, spatial skills and motivation. Not only do these contribute to an increase in reading and math test scores, they impact a person’s entire life beyond academics. The ability to pay attention, to see connections in space relative to themselves or between concepts, and a desire to go and do? These are basic foundational needs that all learners need in order to be successful in their lives beyond school.

Should the state provide funding for teaching the arts? YES! Currently, there is not funding allocated specifically for the instruction of the Arts at the elementary school level. Our school supports our Arts Program through fundraising and grant writing. These tasks are often placed on the shoulders of our staff. Both of these are time-intensive tasks that take away from the education of students. It should not be this way.

Why do the Arts even matter? The answer to this could – and has – filled many a book. For me, on this sunny summer morning, the answer is in the awkward teen whose entire demeanor changes as he sets foot on the stage – shoulders lifted, a broad smile; he is in his element. His voice rolls forth in a solid sound, “Mommy made me mash my M&M’s!” So silly…so freeing…so theatrical! His face is one of newly found confidence; a new found self.

The power of art to not only to express who you are, but to learn who you are.

Thinking about Feedback

In the last few weeks of school I was admonished by two students from different classes, and different schools actually, about the feedback I’d given them on their writing. There was not enough, basically, is what they both said.

I don’t disagree with them.

I remember the power of teacher feedback when I was in high school, and college. In fact, my graduate program did not give out letter grades. Each semester our professor/mentor/writing guru would write a half-to-full page review of our work. I was not alone pacing in the vestibule before the wall of student boxes afraid to pick up that powerful envelope, open it, and read what those professors said about me and my writing.

And that was after a semester of generous feedback. My whole master’s degree program was modeled on writers in conversation about their work and the great writers of the world.

As a professional I have read Nancy Sommers’ Harvard study, Stanford’s information on how to improve student writing through feedback and many other sources.

I get it.

Currently I teach four different English courses across seven sections, and they are all writing intensive. I love it and I don’t want a different course load. But there are realities I must face with this course load, like the amount of hours I can remain awake. And I don’t need much sleep.

I have rubrics designed to give as much feedback as a rubric can with the circling of a box. I hold individual student conferences, a few times a semester because I can say more than I can write, and I strive to, at bare minimum, note something working and something not working in a piece of writing so students can give it attention and amplify it or rework it. I think that works. And I know for a fact there are weeks and, sometimes months, where I do this really, really well, and there are weeks or months where I do not do this very well.

Here is what I am thinking about, offering up, and plan on working on next year: the way students ask questions about their writing. The students who questioned my level and quality of feedback had a legitimate concern. I looked back at their documents and remedied the problem by offering feedback and asking them multiple questions. I don’t mind doing that. But what has stuck with me most in the exchange is the fact that these writers (these student writers—though I’d argue we’re all student writers) did little more than complain about a lack of comments and never engaged with their own work at any level.

If a student won’t engage with their own work beyond, “is this good?” or “what’s wrong with this?” or “I need your feedback to reach my full potential,” then one problem in my classroom is not my feedback or lack of feedback, but the way these writers are engaging with their work. I have not taught them how to ask questions about their own writing. Good writers are good tinkerers. They always look at their work from one direction, then another direction, delete something, add it back in, re-arrange, etc. I need to find ways to foster that mentality in students. I never know if a piece of writing is “good,” and I know for sure I have nothing to do with a student’s “full potential.” Those, of course, are things they must work out for themselves.

I read interviews with writers obsessively, and can say with some confidence that the majority of great writers will acknowledge that the quality of a piece is ultimately measured by the writers’ internal satisfaction with it, with the knowledge they’ve done everything they can and it is time to abandon the work. What the world does or does not do with it is, well, up to the world. All artists know this.

Therefore, the writers I know and share my work with have conversations about our writing that center around language such as, “I’m having a problem with the ending….” Or “is the tone off in the third paragraph?” or “do you believe this character?” or “dear god, I can’t think about commas any longer, but I’m sure some of the commas are off in this, could you take a look?” The point is the questions are specific and come from a perspective of deep engagement with the piece of writing.

That is my new teaching focus in writing instruction. How do I foster attention (beyond telling them to pay attention to their language and to ask specific questions, which I’ve done for years) in a student writer?

Good thing I have some time to think about it.

Shelton’s Evergreen Elementary: A Dual-Language Model

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction recently convened a task force for the purpose of expanding dual language programs in our state for all students. Should the initiative get traction and be implemented throughout our state, this would make dual language available across our state. All students would have access to instruction in two languages. As an English language educator and the parent of a child in the Spanish Immersion program in Spokane, the prospect of dual language rolling out for all students is exciting. The benefits of bilingualism are countless, including expanded job opportunities and brain function.

Few districts in our state currently provide dual language programs. However, there are a few ahead of the game and can serve as prime examples of what dual language can look like and accomplish. Pasco school district has a robust bilingual program which particularly supports their Spanish speaking English Language Learners. They are working on expanding to all students. Seattle public schools also has several dual language programs in multiple languages and there are successful programs in Burlington and Mt. Vernon. 

One program in particular, though, serves as a model for the potential outcomes of successfully implementing dual language throughout a school – Evergreen Elementary School in the small district of Shelton, Washington. Evergreen elementary school implements a 50/50 model, in which students have instruction in both English and Spanish every school day, across all subjects. This is a key piece to the program. Students have access to academic language for every subject, which is essential to gaining true biliteracy. Additionally, Evergreen serves students from pre-k through 5th grade and has shown tremendous growth in all students. 

Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act which measures academic growth, Evergreen is a Tier 1 school, outperforming the other two elementary schools in the Shelton school district in academic growth for Hispanics, whites, students of poverty and English Language Learners. In addition, Evergreen has the highest transition rate for English Language Learners. This success is based on data from 2014 to 2017 (See data link below).

An additional impact of the program has been a positive effect on attendance. In Shelton, Evergreen has the highest attendance rate for the whole district at 94.4%. Students are not only learning content and language, but also learn to value school. They enjoy being at Evergreen and are so engaged in their classes and connected with their teachers and one another that they want to go to school every day.

I had the pleasure of meeting the pre-school teacher, Celia Butler. She is from Columbia. Her passion was clear from the moment I walked into her classroom and her connection with her students was inspiring. She greeted her students in English and in Spanish and had a room rich in color and in language. Each tiny student who came in, greeted their teacher with “Good Morning” and a hug. There was love in her classroom – an uplifting community to get them started on there journey through school. This classroom is representative of all the classrooms in this school. This in and of itself shows the community and engagement in a dual language environment. 

I am anxious to see what comes out of the OSPI task force for dual language. With such tremendous programs, like Evergreen elementary, with its excellent student outcomes, the Office of the Superintendent has good examples to draw from in developing the initiative as it rolls out across the state. One of my English language learning colleagues, Amy Ingram, is a member of the Task Force. I’ll be following Amy’s blog, as she documents the work of the task force. Particularly, how it will work in concert with existing English language learning programs and its potential positive impact on recruiting bilingual and diverse educators. 

Check out Evergreen Elementary’s date:

http://reportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us/SchoolIndex_2018.aspx?groupLevel=District&schoolId=1&reportLevel=State&yrs=2016-17&year=2016-17

(The report is on the OSPI Report Card site.  You have to press New WA School Improvement Framework, and then go into the SIF Data Display tab, and click on district and school.)

Framing the Debate on Immigration

Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New York

I would be willing to guess that most people born in the United States have at least one immigrant in their family. Immigrants are people who settle in a country other than the one in which they were born. This can be said of most of our ancestors. Unless you identify as “Native American,” a member of an indigenous tribe here in the United States, you are likely the descendant of immigrants. Immigration is a permanent and important part of our shared history in the United States. Despite this shared history, every day in my newsfeed, I witness a heated debate about immigration. 

One important piece of that debate is terminology. I see people use the terms, “immigrant,” “documented immigrant,” “undocumented immigrant,” and “refugee” interchangeably. I also see some use other terms, more derogatory terms that seek to dehumanize others, which only work to divide us. Since this post focuses on creating a shared understanding, I will not share those here. 

When we use “immigrant,” “documented immigrant,” “undocumented immigrant,” and “refugee” interchangeably, we are confusing the conversation. It is essential when discussing people coming to our nation seeking refuge that we use the appropriate terminology, otherwise, we have the tendency to group all people and “other” anyone not born in the United States. This leads to fear and isolation, neither of which connects our communities or makes them stronger. 

Here are the basic definitions of the three terms:

Immigrant: A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

Documented Immigrant: A person who comes to live in a foreign country, either permanently or temporarily, having the appropriate legal documentation. 

Undocumented Immigrant: A person who comes to live in a foreign country, either permanently or temporarily, not having the appropriate legal documentation.

Refugee: A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster and has been granted legal refuge in a foreign country.  

More importantly, behind each of these terms, is a person – a man, woman or child – with a story. As the teacher at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington, I have the honor of being the first teacher for some of the immigrant and refugee children in our country. In the United States, public schools are responsible for educating all students and cannot check a student’s immigration status or otherwise discriminate on the basis of a students national origin. As a public school teacher, I get to know these students and their families as people, hear their stories and understand their cultures. It’s incredible. These stories are what is missing from the debate I read about each and every day. Here are just a few: 

Sara is a refugee. She came to the United States from Kenya. She was originally from Sudan, but war and persecution in her home country forced her family to flee their nation in order to find hope and life in a foreign country. During their journey to refuge, they walked on foot for hundreds of miles and spent several months hiding in caves. When they finally arrived at the refugee camp in Kenya, they struggled to provide enough food for the family and lacked sufficient water. Due to this upheaval, Sara had severely interrupted formal education. They applied for refuge as a family. After seven years of waiting, they were granted legal entrance into the United States. Sara came as an eighth grader. Despite her limited formal education prior to coming to the U.S., Sara graduated from high school only five years after coming to our country. She entered University and is studying to be a nurse. She applied for and took the exam to become a U.S. citizen as a freshman in college. She is now a U.S. citizen and productive member of our community. 

Jesus was a documented immigrant who became undocumented. Jesus came to the U.S. with his mother, brother, and sister. His mother was working in a law firm in Mexico, but after she discovered corruption in her office, she feared for her family’s safety and decided to move to the U.S. She applied for and was granted a six-month work visa. After moving to the U.S., she had some difficulty finding work that matched her skills, but found a job on an orchard. She attempted to extend her work visa, but was denied. Back in Mexico, her former boss had been arrested, and feared returning home until she knew it was safe for her children. She overstayed her visa, and the family became undocumented. Jesus, the oldest son, wants to attend university to work with computers. He is an excellent student, but is not sure there is a path for him to attend college. He hopes one day he can a U.S. citizen. 

Linda was an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who became documented. She came to the United States because of extreme violence due to civil war in her nation. Her life and the lives of her family members were in danger, and they had to flee their home. They fled on foot, crossed rivers, road on busses and trains to get to the border. They crossed the border at the southern end of our nation and took refuge with a church, who fed their family, clothed them, and gave them a safe place to stay as they attempted to navigate the immigration process. After countless more Salvadorians entered our nation due to the civil war, the U.S. finally granted them temporary protected status, opening a way to citizenship. After a lengthy and difficult process, Linda received her Green Card, became a permanent resident, and after fifteen years became a U.S. citizen. She works as a Paraeducator, helping to instruct students who are going through similar traumatic experiences.

It is important as we address immigration in our nation that we understand the difference between documented and undocumented immigrants, and refugees. It also is important that we be compassionate and empathetic to the circumstances under which most people leave their home countries in search of refuge in the United States. While refugees are granted entry to the U.S. due to violence and persecution in their home countries, it is clear that many documented and undocumented immigrants also seek entry into the U.S. for equally dire reasons that are not yet recognized for refugee status. No one wants to leave their home. It is not easy and takes a toll on themselves and their families. But what would you do if your children’s lives were in danger? Moreover, what I have come to learn the most as the Newcomer Center teacher is that immigrants and refugees who come to this nation are dedicated, focused, and determined to give back to this country. They are committed to becoming productive and successful members of our communities and they succeed in doing so. 

*Names and minor details such as locations in each story were changed to ensure identify protection.