Back to School Virtually…As a Retired Teacher

Covid-19 virus has brought me out of retirement and back to the world of education…virtually, that is.  I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on in the New York Times, in teacher/union magazines, and online to find out what’s happening in education and how teachers are coping with the monumental changes taking place in schools everywhere, virtually or otherwise. I’m simultaneously horrified by what’s happening in terms of teaching and learning during Covid-19 and awed by the ability of most teachers to carry on despite all the new demands placed on them.

To get a more reality-based point of view on the above, I participated in a virtual workshop hosted this past Saturday by the Long Island Writing Project (a local chapter of the National Writing Project started in Berkley, CA in the 60s). The topic was “Writing the Moments,” … an effort to get teachers to document in writing the monumental changes  occurring in education as they and their students struggle to adapt to remote and in-person teaching and learning. The presenter offered several options for documentation including notebook entries and using such online programs as Padlet to minimize the writing output from teachers pressed for time.

Teachers spoke of the toll it sometimes takes on them to teach online for three or four hours straight, unlike in-person teaching which allows them to walk around the room, take short breaks, observe students working at their desks, lean over students to help them and so on. Several described odd combinations of co-teaching a subject online, while a second teacher is simultaneously teaching students the same material in the same classroom. A shared complaint is tech glitches that interrupt the flow altogether, forcing teachers to stop in mid-lesson and run up three flights of stairs to a colleague who is more tech savvy. One of my former colleagues told me she retired from teaching because she couldn’t imagine being videotaped while teaching all day, every day, which is the option she was assigned.

There were several expressions of genuine frustration about how best to engage students in their new learning configurations. More than ever teachers are sharing approaches with colleagues that are and are not working for them on their own time and on weekends.  Their school days are jam packed with inservice training, planning with co-teachers and struggling to maintain contact with students and parents. It’s not going to surprise anyone that younger teachers who are more tech competent are feeling more in control of their teaching than those who are older, non-digital natives, struggling with computers, computer programs and the myriad applications of them currently in use. As an “older” teacher I spent my final five years of teaching acquiring these new tech skills while also adapting to the national Learning Standards. (From what I understand from reading articles about current teaching, the Standards have pretty much taken a back seat.) It was a pretty tall order for someone on the cusp of retiring!

But there I was…from 1 to 3  p.m. on a Saturday, with two trainers, and six teachers (including myself)  spending  precious time meeting online to discuss common concerns and ways to address them. I am sure it wasn’t the measly 1/2 professional credit that convinced any of us to give up a beautiful Saturday afternoon. It was, instead, the same old story. Being a dedicated teacher requires many more hours per week than just showing up to a screen or to a classroom of actual children for seven hours a day. It means putting in the time and effort to be the best teacher possible, no matter the circumstances.

Teachers Are Frontline Workers Too

Driving up the hill past the sign planted by our neighborhood civic association, I realized that although it was a well deserved tribute to front line workers during these Covid-19 times,  there was no mention of teachers. This made me both sad and upset.  Please give me a few minutes of your time to tell you why.

As a retired teacher I know all about the gripes and criticisms leveled at teachers. I mostly think of those rants as disguised resentment for those “cushy hours” and long summer vacations that teachers get. I never let them bother me because I know firsthand how hard teachers work every day under normal circumstances.  

But today’s circumstances are far from normal. Yesterday  I dialed into a zoom event hosted by one of the co-directors of The Long Island Writing Project, a group of teachers that provided a lot of writing instruction and support during my teaching years.  One of the markers of  teachers is that we are in it for life so we continue to learn whenever we have an opportunity to do so. I learned so much during that hour about the teachers who are currently in the trenches. Many are juggling personal lives with school-age kids of their own while trying to learn and adjust to a new mode of teaching and cranking out daily lessons for their students scattered hither and yonder.

I heard and saw teachers talk about sitting at kitchen and dining room tables in their homes with their own kids surrounding them, each family member simultaneously looking at their individual screens while following a lesson or teaching one. Many teachers’ homes have been converted into semi-classrooms with furniture rearranged for minimum disruption to daily life while offering some kind of quasi-school structure for the homebound learners.

All of the teachers talked about the very quick shift they were forced to make from being  classroom teachers to acquiring technology skills on the fly. Remote learning and teaching is a field of study unto itself. I know that because in the late 70s and 80s I helped to produce some on-air programs at the State University at Stony Brook for graduate students. Having to acquire the skills to effectively deliver digital lessons to their students within such a condensed period of time without any support is a tribute to how resilient and dedicated most teachers are.

Most parents (at least those communicating online) seem to be very grateful to their children’s teachers for their efforts. Many teachers are going above and beyond delivering academics to also supporting their students’ mental health. Teachers with low-income students have it doubly hard trying to keep track of their flock who do not have a strong support structure at home yet are the students who need them the most.

This is a work in progress, folks. Fortunately most teachers are lifelong learners and will keep at it until they get it right. Meanwhile they bravely plow forward usually with only each other for support. The online group meeting I attended  made me very proud to be part of a tribe called Teachers. Let’s show them some love, too.

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.

A Fresh Start: Piecing Together a Reading/Writing Life

As I read my email this morning, searching for familiar names, I realized that I really have created for myself a connection to the wider community of readers/writers/lifelong learners during this past year.  Before my retirement two years ago, I was uncertain how I would be spending my precious new “free” time. Cancer stole one year from me; but the year that followed has been a splendid feast of reading, writing and learning.

This morning alone, I logged on to attend a webinar on the subject of ELLs and the Common Core to be held later this week on Education Week, courtesy of Melinda and Bill Gates (thank you!).  As a former ESL teacher, I do my best to stay current in my field so I can continue to build on my 22 years of teaching experience with the newly acquired wisdom of others. At a recent TESOL conference, I presented a workshop on The Power of Teaching Poetry to English as a New Language Learners and attended a couple of other workshops to keep my skills and knowledge about teaching ENL students up to date.

Then I responded to the news, delivered by email, that two of our writing mentors at Two Writing Teachers (TWT) are going to be stepping away from their positions as co-directors to become contributing writers. I wrote a short post thanking them for their contributions and mentorship. In a year of interacting with them (and others), I have come to value their mentoring and now honor their decision to move forward in their lives. In this writing community we are all juggling time and other interests; its vitality is one of the things I love most about it.

Next I wrote an email to my local library, to check on the progress of a workshop proposal I have recently submitted to lead a study group based on Julia Cameron’s newly published book, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again. As a person who became a fulltime teachers in her mid-40’s, and now as a retired person who is restructuring her life once again, I feel very excited about sharing what I have learned from previous encounters with Julia Cameron’s writing. I am hopeful the workshop will be approved.

In the past few days I have read several articles online in the New Yorker and in the NY Times about authors I am currently fascinated by: Karl Ove Knaussgard, the author of a six-volume autobiography entitled My Struggle and Elena Ferrante, author of a widely acclaimed multi-volume autobiography known as the Neapolitan novels, who also explores her past lives from a much different perspective. Last year, while recovering from cancer, I read the first half of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and will read the second half probably sometime this fall or winter. I don’t know why I am so fascinated with these longitudinal autobiographies, but I am. Once I settle into a genre or author I tend to “live” there for a while. Perhaps it has something to do with reflecting on my own life during the year I was struggling with my own cancer survival. I love the fact that the New York Times Sunday Review section offers so much “food for thought” each week. I could survive on that diet for a long time.

Finally, there is the writing. Several decades ago I was discouraged by an English professor who told me I could not write and did not belong in the graduate program I was attending. This experience crushed me for at least two decades. But over the weekend I found myself writing to a very close, old friend of mine, who is also a writer of poetry I greatly admire, to say that I have finally begun to think of myself as a writer. What has brought about this shift?

Now I think in terms of writing about whatever preoccupies me; it has become the way I process all the disparate parts of my life. I enjoy the challenge of finding connections between the threads of my life and then celebrating them by writing about them, much as I am doing today. I cherish the writing/teaching communities I have become part of: the Long Island Writing Project and the Two Writing Teachers website. Writing has become my “oxygen.”

Tonight I will attend the monthly meeting of the Great Books Discussion Group at my local library. We will be discussing Michel Foucault’s opening chapter to one of his best known works: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977). This is definitely not a selection of writing I would pursue on my own, but that is the beauty of this group. As a community of readers, we choose to accept the preordained list of readings, read the selections with respect for the writer, and share our personal perspectives in a lively discussion with respect for each person’s opinion.

My reading repertoire and writing skills have been stretched as a result of these yearlong experiences, my enjoyment of being part of a group has increased as a result of my own efforts at participation, and I now feel as though a good amount of my precious time as a retiree is devoted to the things I love most: reading, writing and being a productive participant in several communities of like-minded people.

Today, dear reader, I celebrate (my OLW) these experiences with you.


Thank You for This Year

Last year’s March Slice of Life Storytelling Challenge was my first.  I had been invited to join the challenge by a relatively new friend I met through the Long Island Writing Project, who is now one of the co-directors of the Two Writing Teachers website. Her name is Kathleen Sokolowski.

Kathleen very wisely knew that I needed something positive and stimulating in my life.  She knew that I had recently become a cancer survivor and was seeking a fresh start.  Her suggestion was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I happily blogged every day for the entire month of March 2015.  In fact, I couldn’t wait to get up every day to see whether I had any “comments” on my blog and to read all the new posts that had been written.  It was an exhilarating and intoxicating time for me, and I almost forgot I was a cancer survivor during much of that month.

In addition to the thrill of blogging and commenting and reading my fan mail, I was starting to think of myself as a writer.  That was a quiet realization that sneaked up on me that I didn’t even dare to acknowledge during the first weeks of the  March challenge.  I  began to realize how much I was enjoying the act of writing: the search for a new idea each day, the careful selection of words that would express precisely how I felt; the desire to connect with an audience of wise and skilled readers and writers.  I was hooked.

I have blogged on TWT  every Tuesday ever since ( with the exception of two weeks during my visit to Germany at Christmas), and now I’ve completed my second year of the March challenge.  I have had “conversations” with familiar and unfamiliar bloggers and have begun to really appreciate certain writers’ styles.  I have been awed by the diversity and the richness of the writing, as well as the different styles and approaches that are presented each week. I have finally come to the realization that I am now a bona fide member of this writing community and that makes me so proud.

This year I volunteered to become part of the “Welcome Wagon” and that, too, has enriched my writing. It has made me a better reader so I can respond more specifically to a writer’s words, commenting  in a more meaningful way.  The give and take of this writing community is unique, I believe.  The warmth and hospitality of the group is exceptional.  The skill, talent and perseverance of the writers is nothing less than admirable.

In one year I have managed to transcend my status as a cancer survivor to become someone who “writes.”  I sometimes do mention my cancer experience when I blog, but it no longer defines me.  I have a new self-definition; one that I prefer.  I am a member of the Slice of Life writing community; I am a committed writer ; I am a blogger. One year ago I could never have imagined I would be writing these words today and having these good feelings about myself.

Thank you, Kathleen and the crew of TWT and thank you, Slicers, for an unforgettable year of writing,  growth and happiness.  I look forward to our future together.

Play Your Own Drum

This past Saturday I attended a workshop hosted by the Long Island Writing Project, a group of educators based at Nassau Community College on LI, dedicated to promoting and supporting the practice of writing in both students and teachers’ lives.  The focus of the gathering was a recently written book for educators called Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.

There was a lot of free-ranging discussion about what each of us thought about the book, which ideas we planned to add to our own bag of tricks, and so on. Eventually we strayed from the topic and began talking, as we often do, about our own “take” on what is happening in education today and how we are responding as teachers and advocates for our students. We were then asked to write for about 10 minutes in response to an excerpt that was read to us from Teach Like a Pirate entitled: The Mighty Purpose.

Here is an excerpt from my written response:

How do you take the least politically important group of learners in a school community (based on my personal experience) and turn them into people who feel positive about themselves and the society they have been thrust into? How do you accomplish this when their dislocation is usually not by their own choice, but instead a result of circumstances over which they have no control such as poverty, war, economic disadvantage and lack of education in their parents’ native countries leading them to emigrate to the United States to seek a better life for their children. This was my challenge for over twenty years as a teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs). My passion has always been to help them become part of The Big Picture. To do this meant I had to do a lot of work to have them and myself taken more seriously in the school community.

Now a recent retiree, I realize that I spent my first several difficult years just learning my trade; like most teachers I improved with time and practice. Then I entered an even more challenging stage of my job. I had to figure out how to make myself and my students become more a part of the fabric of the school by pushing myself and them into situations where we weren’t usually included.  I had my work cut out from me on many fronts. I had to advocate for translators to be included in parent-teacher conferences and to ask individual teachers to include me in their parent meetings so we could “share” vital information about the student with their parents. It meant seeking out parents on Back to School Night who traditionally skipped visiting my classroom because they felt it was more important to meet the mainstream teacher. It meant convincing parents of ELLs that being in my program was not meant to divert the student’s attention from what was going on the in the mainstream classroom but rather to provide the ELL with more support and language instruction that would result in an overall better learning experience. I could go on and on…. Last but not least, I had to learn to diplomatically work with every staff member in the school many of whom were not happy to have these students in their classes because teaching native speakers is hard enough nowadays without the complications of having a non-English speaker in your classroom.

For my  students it meant pushing them harder and harder to become a more proudly visible part of the school community. It meant, for example, prepping them to read the poems they had written on the PA system so others could hear their voices for the first time. It meant making sure that every year at The Annual Literacy Cafe, a showcase event for students’ language arts accomplishments, my students’ books and art work would be showcased as well. It mean occasional trips to the Principal’s office to show off a new project or to enable a new arrival to read in English for the first time.  It meant explaining to the students that I wanted them to strive to become better students because I knew all too well the strains and pressures they would face in middle school and high school if they began to fail academically.

Did I teach like a pirate?  The answer is yes, but I did it my way. Burgess says it best in this excerpt, also from his book:

“Isn’t that what life is really all about?  We all have to find our own personal “drum” and then play it the best we can.  For me, I never feel  more  truly alive than when I’m standing in front of a class of students or a seminar room full of teachers….Forget about all of the things you can’t control and play your drum to the best of your abilities.  Play with all the passion, enthusiasm, and heart you can muster.  Nothing else really matters. You can offer no finer gift or higher honor to the world than to find out what your “drum” is and then play it for all it’s worth.” (P. 152)

I have retired, but I haven’t given up playing my drum.  The LIWP is a safe place that allows me to continue playing it and, in fact, encourages me to do so, for which I am ever grateful.