My Happy Place

For at least three decades I have been a member of a non-profit professional organization that I am today calling My Happy Place.  This past Saturday, I drove 45 minutes to a community college campus which has housed this group throughout its four-decade history to attend a workshop on using digital technology to empower learners.  The workshop was being presented by a younger teacher friend I’d made several years ago when attending a workshop. Her topic was of interest to me as I am devoting some time to cultivating community connections to provide “authentic” opportunities for learning for students.

Flattening the School Walls & Empowering Students to Learn Anytime, Anywhere!

Gone are the days when students only completed assignments for their teacher and the learning would come to a halt when school was closed. With digital tools, students can share their ideas with the world and learn and create all the time! Spend a Saturday morning with the Long Island Writing Project on February 3rd and hear how third grade teacher and LIWP Co-Director Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski has been working to flatten the walls of the classroom and inspire students to be curious learners, readers, writers, and creators through every season. Share your ideas on ways you inspire students to keep the learning going!

As I strode across the parking lot toward the building where today’s  gathering was taking place, the silence and emptiness of the campus on a Saturday morning allowed me to reflect upon my personal experiences with this group over this long stretch of time. The organization to which I am referring is the Long Island Writing Project, located on the campus of Nassau Community College on Long Island.  It is a  local offshoot of the National Writing Project which began in 1974 at  the Graduate School of Education in Berkeley, California and is one of 200 plus local  sites spread throughout the 50 states.  The simplicity of its mission is the foundation of its success: Practice what you preach.

The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.

Writing in its many forms is the signature means of communication in the 21st century. The NWP envisions a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.

I  have learned more about teaching and writing through participation in this group than through any other professional development I’ve been privy to during my 25-year teaching career. Most of the PD programs in which I participated over the years, some by choice, others required by my school district, never adequately addressed my particular pedagogical interests.  As an elementary ESL teacher and as an adjunct in the English Department at Suffolk Community College with a high minority student enrollment,  I was perpetually seeking ways to improve or refine my teaching practice, while addressing the specific needs of my limited English-speaking students at both the elementary and college levels.

Although most of the PD offered through the LIWP did not specifically address the academic needs of English Language Learners,  here was a place where teachers are considered lifelong learners and where the conversation is always teacher directed and student focused. Teacher practices and opinions are highly respected and exchanges between teachers are encouraged; in fact, they are at the heart of every workshop I’ve ever attended.  Although each workshop has a specific purpose, the model for every workshop is a presentation by a practicing teacher; several pauses during the presentation to allow for quick writing responses to the topic being presented; a followup discussion of the topic with all the participants sharing their “takes” on the topic.

Teachers love these workshops because they are supportive, reflective, imaginative, practical and they offer a sheltered place where teachers can honestly share their own practices and concerns in a nonjudgmental way, while learning ways to augment or enhance their teaching and writing skills.

I retired from teaching three years ago, yet I still choose to attend these workshops because I continue to  benefit from them; they help me continue to thrive as a life-long learner and educator.  The conversation goes on…over the weeks, months years and everyone is always welcome to join in.  I have seen many young teachers launched into amazing careers thanks to the support they are given and the confidence they gain through participation in this organization. Its grassroots, no-frills, low-budget, democratic model seems to really appeal to those of us who have been lucky enough to discover the LIWP and participate as members and participants over the years. The three women who are codirectors of the organization receive very little compensation, yet they  devote much of their precious free time to keeping it alive and current despite their own full-time careers and family responsibilities.  They are there because of their commitment to writing, teachers and students.

There have been periods of my professional life when I have been very active in the LIWP and other periods when I may not have attended for a year or two due to other obligations, but I have always felt welcome and comforted by the fact that the LIWP exists: It is My Happy Place.

How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting

“…viewed as a symbolic tale of oppressed people seeking liberty, the story, clothed in contemporary dress, echoes the voyages mad by many throughout the years in search of liberty.  Peck’s deepened chalk colors and misty backgrounds bolster the fragile facial expressions and fearful body postures, lending suspense and believability to the saga. A discussion starter on several levels.”  Booklist, November 1, 1988

Eve Bunting’s emotionally powerful story of a family fleeing oppression from their island nation by taking a dangerous journey to their new destination which they hope will become their new home has a lot of resemblance to the diaspora of people fleeing war and oppression in the Middle East, many of them  risking their lives at sea and too many of them dying on the way.  Although she does not write specifically for English Language Learners, Ms. Bunting was always a favorite author of mine when I taught English as New Language students because of her compassion and empathy for those who are facing what often seem like the insurmountable hurdles  of estrangement from their cultures and isolation in their new culture. In addition, she writes in a simple yet eloquent style that is not condescending to her readers but instead invites them to want to know more about her topic

How Many Days to America? is a book I often taught around Thanksgiving because it in some ways resembles the story of the first European immigrants, the Pilgrims, arriving on our shores with nothing but what they could carry.  But there are also noticeable differences in that Eve Bunting’s story  is about more contemporary immigrants who face different dangers on their journey, including thieves who come on board their boat and rejection by the inhabitants of another island nation. In spite of the differences there are enough common threads for most immigrant students to find  some commonality between their migration  story and that of the family in the book.


The first time I used the book, in a middle-school ESL class of 7th and 8th grade students, there was one student whose reaction was so poignant and powerful it taught me an important lesson as a new teacher.  He had been put on a boat by his family with his brother to escape the violence taking place during the Vietnam War.  They were taken a perilous journey to a nearby island nation where they were stuck in a refugee camp until they were able to join an uncle living in the U. S.   When I met my student he was clearly quite traumatized and was living in a foster family without his brother.

While perusing the very  illustrations in the book with my students, we came across a two-page spread of the family in this story in a tiny, crowded boat in the middle of the ocean surrounded by whales!  When my student saw this picture,  he leapt out of his chair and began shouting that he had experienced the same thing on his journey. He had clearly been very afraid since he was still quite young when it happened. I learned to become much more attuned to how sensitive some instructional materials can be for students who have been traumatized.

My favorite way to begin teaching the book was to ask the students to examine the illustration on the first page of the story, looking for any details they could find that might give them a clue as to who the characters are and where the story is taking place.  Since the author deliberately does not identify the place where the story begins, this  allows the students to fantasize about and , in some cases, to identify with the setting of the story.  This kind of close reading for evidence is something English Language Learners are good at since they often must rely on visual cues for survival when their language skills are far from proficient.

Needless to say focusing so intently on a text promotes lively discussions which become the basis for word study. As the discussions evolve I chart the new vocabulary provided in the book as well as the new words we need to learn to carry on a meaningful discussion.  Learning new vocabulary in the context of a discussion that students are  committed to is the best way I know to assure that the new vocabulary will stick.

(Due to technical difficulties, the remainder of this blog will be posted on next week’s SOL.)












Has the World Gone Mad? Thoughts On Co-teaching ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom

Yikes!!! Things are happening in the world of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and they are NOT ALL GOOD! I’ve been reading and hearing bits and pieces about how the new CR Part 154 regs have changed (they determine the rules and parameters for ELLs and ESL teachers), but never did I imagine the current scenario: ESL teachers are now required to co-teach in mainstream classrooms on a regular basis.

Before I retired a year ago, after 22 years as an ESL teacher, I taught a mostly pull-out program. Although I often wanted to collaborate, I co-taught with only one willing co-teacher every day for three years in a third grade classroom, and occasionally I co-taught a special unit (ex. Chinese New Year) with several other teachers in the building who sought or welcomed my input. For the most part, all the teachers I interacted with preferred the pull-out model for their English Language Learners because they knew how “out of synch” the ELLs were in their classrooms, and how much they would benefit from differentiated instruction in my classroom. Whenever possible, I tried to support the work that the mainstream teacher was doing in the classroom while I had his/her students in my classroom. This, of course, was not always possible and never with Beginners, but everyone understood that. Usually they expressed relief when I came to collect a Beginner.

Here is a quote from an ESL teacher commenting on the new regs
(from a NYS TESOL listserv)that require ESL teachers to co-teach in a mainstream classroom:

“Here are my thoughts regarding CR Part 154: As a result of these changes, ESL teachers have lost their independence. We’ve been reduced to classroom aids at best. What a waste of talent, experience and instructional time. ESL is a discrete subject, with its own goals, knowledge base and methodology. All the good ESL teachers I know have a well-ordered system for imparting the English language to new learners, and know which materials are most effective and when to use them. Many of us have spent years collecting and developing these materials. Thanks to CR Part 154, all of this is out the window: We’re part of the regular ed. classroom now–too often in the same sense that the furniture is. None of the classroom teachers I know have training in ESL. None of them are aware of the revealed wisdom contained in CR Part 154. Even if they were, and cooperated fully, there is not enough time in a day to for me to stay abreast of the goings-on in five or six different classes and come up with lessons relevant to ESL students and everyone else. It is now impossible to work with beginners in any meaningful way without disrupting an entire class full of kids. More advanced students no longer have a sheltered environment where they can practice their developing language skills, or have a difficult concept retaught in a way that they can understand. Students with no English whatsoever are now forced to sit through lectures on Hamlet. Regardless of what the studies say, this is not what the parents of ESL students want. They simply want their kids to learn English in the most effective manner possible. For newcomers to America, mastering English is critical to success in school and in life. It is imperative that ESL be taught as a stand-alone class by people who know what they are doing and without unnecessary distractions.” (Comment by Stephen Blanchard:

I completely agree with everything this teacher has said. Are you experiencing these changes in your district? As a mainstream or ESL teacher, how do you feel about them? It took me nearly three years, including student teaching for the second time in my life (I have a degree in teaching secondary English), to fulfill the requirements for my certification in TESOL, and even so I felt it was really challenging for the first several years. Based on my 22 years of experience, without that kind of preparation, no one is qualified to teach ELLs.

What I would rather see happening is encouraging teachers who would like to collaborate,giving them some common planning time and making sure they have compatible schedules. There are times when it makes sense for co-teachers to be in the same classroom and times when the ELLs need to be taught separately because of their special needs. They are, after all, learning a new language; something that seems to have been forgotten by the policy makers

During the three years I co-taught with a mainstream teacher all our planning was done during our own lunch breaks, before school began, and often after school. Without this kind of support from the administration, co-teachers eventually become exhausted and stop co-teaching. Now teachers are being told to do this, still without the necessary support, causing resentment from both sides.

Would love to hear your comments….

Horseshoe Crabs Are Survivors…Just Like Me!


Today was one of those golden days  of summer.  The tide was perfect: high tide at 2 pm.  My daughter had the day off from work and I was ready to relax.  We quickly collected our beach stuff, grabbed our beach bags and hastily spread sun lotion on each other.

I grew up on the North Shore of LI in a small beach town. Unlike living on the South Shore where you can swim anytime, on the North Shore our beach lives revolved around the tides; a good tide meant a fun week. A week of low tides in the afternoon meant a week of no beach which was torture back in the days of no air conditioning.  You learned to drop everything and make the most of the beach during the week of good afternoon tides, as we did today.

Although it was a scorching day, when we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to find that there were few people on the beach. We found our spot on a spit of land bordered on one side by a deep channel and on the other side by an inlet of the LI Sound.  We immersed ourselves immediately; the water was clean and so salty it felt like we were swimming through jello.  Two hours passed quickly and it looked like it might rain, so we began to prepare to leave.  Just then I spotted a group of young boys huddled around a horseshoe crab I had seen bobbing on top of the water about 100 feet away.  I had been thinking about retrieving it and keeping it, as I have done in the past, as a specimen to show to my students.  But they got to it before I did. I rose from my beach chair and walked over to the boys who were passing the dead horseshoe crab around and poking at it tentatively.

“If you kids don’t want to keep that shell, I’d like to have it,” I ventured.  “I  would like to have it as a specimen for my students.” They shrugged in agreement and we began to discuss the fossil.  It turned out to be a complete horseshoe crab; its insides were still intact. In my many years of scavenging horseshoe crabs, I have found only empty shells.  This find was a biologist’s dream. It still had all its parts: its pincers, claws, gills, digestive system and other parts I couldn’t identify. The boys knew a lot about the creature which surprised me. Most people who encounter a specimen such as this one usually have never seen one before, and even if they have, they don’t know anything about them.

When the boys left, I brought the horseshoe crab over to my daughter for her to inspect. She had once dreamed of becoming a marine biologist and still loves to examine and even dissect creatures she finds dead. After we examined the creature as much as we could, we returned it to the water where it continued to float just as it was when the boys first found it.

Coincidentally, last week at a writing workshop for teachers I taught a demo lesson and my topic was…horseshoe crabs! My intention was to teach a lesson that would demonstrate to mainstream teachers how to conduct a science lesson with a class that includes English Language Learners, helping them to develop the vocabulary and academic language they would need to write about any science topic. The workshop leaders encouraged us to teach something we were passionate about and enjoyed teaching. I had taught a similar lesson to my own class of English Language Learners a few years and it was a big hit at the time. I was again very successful this summer teaching the lesson to my colleagues in the writing workshop. I am convinced that everyone is fascinated with a survivor…and the horseshoe crab is a big time survivor, having been on this earth for about 450 million years.

So why am I so passionate about the horseshoe crab (and have always been so)? It is one year since I was diagnosed with a rare, metastatic cancer, and have since become a cancer survivor. I have great respect for this creature that has managed to survive so many millenia and is still swimming in the same places I once swam as a girl. I hope it will be around for many more eons and that I will be able to enjoy its company for as long as we are both still swimming in these waters.