My Standards for My Childrens’ Education

My daughters are 8 months old, and I am expecting another baby in August. And yet, so many days, I spend worrying about how I will send them to school. They attend nursery school now (at Smart Start Academy in Grove Hall, Dorchester), and I love it. Their teachers know me, my family; they know my daughters’ interests, personalities; nothing is high stakes – YET.

High stakes education, the kind found in today’s public schools and charter schools, means testing, stress, and conformity are too often prioritized. This means that what most parents hold dear about their families – identity and values – may not be.

Today as I cleaned the house, I began to photograph objects (mostly books) that symbolize my hopes for my daughters’ education. I also thought deeply about my daughters’ emerging identities.

Why are parents often the missing voice in deciding WHAT we teach? Shouldn’t schooling reflect the values of families and communities or at least connections to the important learning that families and communities provide? I think so. I would really like to hear from parents (either as a comment, post on another blog, or via email: jenniferdines@gmail.com) about their hopes and dreams for the children’s educations. The education articles I read frequently discuss what parents are protesting or (in a majority of cases) do not discuss parents at all.  I am interested in what parents have to say. I would really like to write an article that features PARENTS’ VOICES.

My Children and Their Identities So Far

Francine

Francine is my “older” daughter; she is fourteen minutes older than her sister. She cannot stop moving. I think she would do well in a school that incorporates a lot of movement into the classroom or where the activities change frequently. I know she doesn’t have ADHD, but I worry that her future teachers might think so. She is very social, so, in that sense, I do not worry at all about her fitting into any social situation as she has a big personality. She does not sit with a book, but she likes to look at books, flip the pages, and climb up to stacks of books.

Mover FrancineFrancine climbs up to books

Sofia

Sofia is very quiet and observant. She will play with one toy or book for five to ten minutes and then she will move on to something else. She loves textures; for example, she loves to touch all different types of fabric, touch people’s hair, and pull on tags. I worry that she will be pushed to socialize, but I know she is content to play by herself for long stretches of time. I can see her excelling in art or science.

Sofia and BookSofia and Rattle

What I Want Francine and Sofia to Learn at School

1. Character: I want my children’s school to teach them right and wrong. I would like my children to attend a school that discusses social justice as well as good values. I also want the school to tell me straightforward when my children misbehave, so I can help them to correct their misdeeds.

whatdoyoustandfor

2. Love of Picture Books and Understanding of Life Around the World: I picked up this book right before the girls were born. I want my daughters to experience the beauty of having an adult present story time on the rug. I like this book Nasreen’s Secret School because it teaches children about the privilege of getting an education and how people have taken risks to gain that knowledge. Other good books on this topic are Running the Road to ABC and Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges. My daughters are young for all these books, but they will know them in time.

picturebooks

3. Traditional Literature: There is a reason why people have told particular stories over hundreds and thousands of years. Universal messages and values are embedded in traditional literature. I don’t want my daughters to live in a here-and-now world. I want them to have an understanding of the societies who shaped the world as we know it. We have many books of traditional stories in the house, but these are a few of my favorites. It scares me that history is now minimized in school to make room for the tested subjects of Language Arts and Mathematics. Of course, all subjects are very important, but not just to take tests.

Traditional Literature

4. Arts History and Artistic Expression: I want my daughters to understand that reading and writing aren’t the only ways that humans capture history, ideas, and emotions. The arts allow us to tell our hidden stories – the ones that may be unsuited to words or the ones that need for us to transform into someone else in order to endure their telling.

art

instrument

5. How to Build and Repair Things: I so wish that I knew how to build and repair things. I am terrible at it, but yet it is such a practical skill – to change a tire on a car, to fix something that is broken instead of throwing it away. I have many former students who struggled with learning disabilities go on to be super successful in our school system’s vocational program in areas such as cosmetology, auto repair, and woodworking. But shouldn’t everyone know some of these skills? Imagine the stress it would save if we could all fix basic problems with our cars!

thewaythingswork

9. Español: Los latinos han llegado. Para preparar por el futuro en los EEUU, es esencial que todos conocen inglés y español.

Spanish

10. The Stories of MY Heroes: I don’t prioritize being rich and famous. I wouldn’t want my children looking up to Hollywood or the NFL. I want my children to learn about MY heroes: Mother Theresa, The Mirabal Sisters, Malala Yousafzai, and the many unsung heroes who are just normal people who stand for justice everyday.

womenaroundtheworld

The Eclectic Mae Claire: “Taboos need to be lifted via pen and paper.”

Author Mae Claire is as multi-faceted as the island of Hispaniola itself. A Haitian orphan, Mae was adopted by Christian missionaries and raised on the Dominican Republic’s North Coast. After attending college in the United States, she returned to the Dominican Republic to teach history and English at an international school. Mae has also become a mother to three adopted children, and, in 2012, she met her partner, Mary. So, is Mae Haitian? Dominican? American? Black? Polyglot? Mother? Lesbian? Christian? Atheist? One thing is certain – Mae Claire is not easily categorized.

Mae Clair has written several novels and memoirs, including Jogging to HellWhat Part of Me Is Saved?, and Larimar. Her books are available through her shop on lulu.com. In this exclusive interview, Mae discusses her 2010 young adult novel P.S. I’m Eleven: Surviving Haiti’s Quake.

Mae Claire, A Novelist of the Caribbean

Mae Claire, A Novelist of the Caribbean

P.S. I’m Eleven is written in English, yet the narrative is certainly not an American style. Would you say the book is set up as a diary or does it follow a narrative pattern particular to the Caribbean?

This book is written in the form of a diary as I traveled to the border of Haiti and jotted down my observations. At some point in the book, when [the narrator] Antoinette is in school, she says that she is writing down everything that happens to her, and that one day she hopes to get it published.

Antoinette’s narration assumes that the reader is quite privileged for being in possession of a book. How do you see reading as a privilege? Do you think reading is a right? 

It is miles and miles to get to a source of education for Antoinette and her best friend. The assumption is that if you have a book, you have the means to get it whether it being via car, bicycle, or horse. In Haiti, checking out books is not a familiar concept. People read the books in the building. I went to visit my oldest daughter in college in August, and I noticed that the facilities are wonderful. I stepped into the library, and it was huge, all air-conditioned and fancy with wireless internet, desks, and everything the kids could ever want. But books? They were behind the circulation desk and were rarely permitted out of the building. Books are sacred, and only privileged people get to read them.

So for [Antoinette], having a book means you are either privileged, or, the concept of book-keeping is quite different. I currently teach 4 year old underprivileged children. Every morning, my routine includes reading a book. My [students] are fascinated by them. [One of the students] does not have any books in her house. When she comes to [my tutoring center] though, she is surrounded by books. Books are also super expensive, and there is usually only one copy of each, so to lose them would be a tragedy. One book would cost about 800 pesos ($23.50 in U.S. Dollars). I sell P.S.I’m Eleven for about 450 pesos ($13.25 US)  and people don’t even dish out the money.

P.S. I'm Eleven  - in Spanish and in English

P.S. I’m Eleven – in Spanish and in English

The book is full of religious imagery – mostly Christian. However, when the Haitian women are burying dead from the earthquake, a polytheistic chanting ritual is performed. I have read that Catholicism is the more official religion of Hispaniola, but what other religious practices exist on the island? Are non-Catholic or Christian practices considered taboo? How do missionaries influence the religious practices of Hispaniola’s residents? 

I think I have infused a lot of my personality and vision into Antoinette’s character, and this is where Christianity has become part of the imagery. I imagine myself in Antoinette’s position. If I had not been adopted at such a young age, I could see myself being her, being all of her.

Religious taboos are not really part of Haiti; if anything, the religions are a mix of everything and anything. They contact the gods, wherever the gods are, at any time, and in any situation. If the Christian God shows himself, then they talk to Him or Her. If the Buddhist God shows up, then that is who they work with. There seems to be little to no discrimination when it comes to their gods.

Missionaries have really created a discriminative perspective on spirituality as they claim that only Jesus can give you life to the fullest. But we know this not to be the truth, as there are many people groups and religious groups experiencing life to its fullest in a much larger spectrum. Missionaries have taught the people of the Hispanola to hate, judge, and discriminate against their own people. Christianity has not taught them to love one another unconditionally, but only to accept one another under certain conditions. Missionaries are the ivory of the ages. They offer food, drink, clothing, and health, and then open up their agenda book. They provide the physiological needs to later say “I told you so”.

What is your writing process like from the start of to the completion of a book? How do you plan your books? Do you have a writing routine? 

My writing process has evolved greatly. As an English teacher, I use writers’ workshop to teach my students how to create a good plan, complete the first draft, work on the second, revise, then edit with a teacher, and then, finally create the publishable draft. But the more I think of that process, the more I realize that not everyone thinks in such a sequence. It is a good idea in theory, but not in life. For me, i always start with an idea, and i build my writing around that one idea. The book I am currently writing, Gracias A Dios, is based on people’s opinions about a God who helps some and not others. I am using my experience and that of other people to formulate and finally create the book. I used to begin by starting at the beginning. But now, like in P.S. I’m Eleven, I at times start at the end. Sometimes you need to know what happens at the end to be able to create a wonderful beginning, middle and refined end.

You seem very in tune with the mind of an eleven-year-old. The book’s narration seems extremely authentic as Antoinette has many understandings of the world, but she still seeks guidance from adults. How did you find Antoinette’s voice? Did anyone in particular inspire you to develop her character? 

Before writing the book, I made a trip to Haiti’s border and spent time helping in a triage two days after the earthquake. I watched and listened and learned. I spoke with kids, around the age of 11. I then documented what i saw, felt, touched, and heard. I came home and then I worked with [cover model] Rocheyli in the summer. Rocheyli is part of the Mariposa Foundation. I spent time with her, at her house, with her family and got an idea of what she wanted in life. I found her character similar to my personality, and the character and voice I wanted for this narrative. I also considered this to be a book I wrote for my 6th grade students at the time. There was one student in particular who reminded me of Antoinette, and so I expounded on that. In short, three to five different kids influenced my writing and making of this character.

P.S. I’m Eleven addresses many topics that are normally taboo in young adult novels: perversion, menstruation, molestation, and lesbianism. Yet, these topics are extremely relevant to the lives of young people. Do you think it is an author’s responsibility to lift taboos? What prompted you to address these ideas through Antoinette’s character?

Taboo is a big word, especially when it comes to children and education. No one wants to step on people’s toes. But, I believe that taboos need to be lifted via pen and paper. If kids are reading it, parents can’t necessarily claim that a teacher has “said” this or “said” that. Alice Seabold’s Lovely Bones is a prime example of topics that are really poignant. My book was not openly welcome even in my school as the principal was afraid to answer questions if parents were to ask. But it is in their library, so kids can choose to pick it up if they please. These topics need to be discussed because children go through these things that are so relevant in their lives. In public schools, kids are dealing with all these topics and more. In private conservative homes, kids are dealing with these topics and more. So sometimes, if a child can read about it, and realize that the main character made it through, they may also acquire the hope that they too will survive. I wanted to address these ideas because i can’t leave them out. If I’m writing about Haiti and poor kids, then the need to include it –  it goes hand in hand. I want my book to encourage kids to ask questions. And hopefully, there is someone who can answer them.

How does the impact of the 2010 earthquake still affect Hispaniola today?
Kids are still homeless, parentless, motionless. No jobs, no money, more prostitution. More fear. Harder to adopt due to new rules, fewer buildings, but a new sense of hope, faith, love.
 

To a Thinker: An Original Poem by Jennifer Dines

An original poem by Jennifer Dines.

An original poem by Jennifer Dines.

To a Thinker (PDF download)

Sunday Dialogue: A Talent for Teaching

I am positively giddy over my New York Times 7-Day Home Delivery and Unlimited Digital Access, which I purchased as a gift to myself for all of my hard work this year.

How poignant that today’s Sunday Dialogue discusses what makes a talented teacher! I enjoyed reading the readers’ comments (some of whom are students, some veteran teachers, and some Teach for America “folks”), as they caused me to reflect on my own teaching practice.

This year, my students have shown a great deal of growth in standardized reading test measures. In fact, predictive assessments show that my special education and ESL students have grown by an average of 11% on measures of grade-level reading assessment (moving them from the “Warning/Failing” NCLB category to “Needs Improvement”), with several students showing growth of 20% or more (almost “Proficient”). Additionally, my students have very high attendance (around 95% or so).

I am a sixth year public school teacher, yet I had several years of experience working with children and young adults as an after-school music (piano, voice) instructor as well as experience tutoring college students in ESL. Also, throughout graduate school, I worked as a substitute teacher in the Boston Public Schools, where I currently teach (and plan to teach for a long time).

So, what has shaped me as a teacher and what has made a difference for my students?

1) Mentorship

When I was a student teacher for four months in 2006, I had the great fortune of having Dr. Berta Berriz as my practicum supervisor. This incredible, strong woman possessed a doctoral degree and a NBPTS certification, and she had diligently served for 27 years in the Boston Public Schools as a classroom teacher. How inspiring to work with a veteran teacher who had continued her professional growth and developed her practice over three decades. I worked alongside Dr. Berriz in her classroom, and I found her methods for teaching reader’s and writer’s workshop and building students’ identities as scholars to be positively inspirational. To this day, I incorporate her style of writer’s workshop in my own classroom.

I made up my mind to follow in her footsteps. After becoming an ESL teacher, I pursued my special education degree (just like Dr. Berriz) and I am currently pursuing my National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification. Six years ago, I also made a promise to myself to stick with teaching for 30 years, by any means necessary. I want to be that teacher in the future who teaches her students’ children and maybe even their children’s children.

For the past three years, I have also had the incredible opportunity to work with Mrs. Deborah O’Shea, a middle school teacher and teacher leader who pursued her Reading Specialist license while serving at our urban public school. Mrs. O’Shea recruited me at a difficult time in my career, after I had been asked to reapply to my position at a highly dysfunctional “Turnaround School” and had refused. Mrs. O’Shea encouraged me to continue my professional development and strongly encouraged my enrollment in the MGH Communication Sciences and Disorders Reading Specialist CAS program. This program has not only developed my knowledge of reading expertise, but it has also provided me with a network of like-minded literacy teachers and speech and language pathologists who value knowledge of phonics, decoding, fluency, comprehension, and oral language development as essential elements of classroom instruction. Mrs. O’Shea has been a continual source of encouragement, and she shares my pride in my students for each and every academic and social achievement that they make.

2) Quality Professional Development

When I say quality, I mean research-based. There is a breadth of educational research literally at our fingertips (http://scholar.google.com – Most articles on this site from leading educational journals are accessible from the Boston Public Library website with a library card number and PIN number).

There is absolutely no reason for professional development of any kind that is not research-based. Be skeptical of what you spend your time on and look for the research to back it up. There are tons of “educational products” available for sale. Be wary of “white papers” and research by corporate entities themselves. Look for the citations of research from universities and esteemed professional organizations (i.e. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, The International Reading Association, etc.) when you attend a presentation or seminar.

The best professional development for me has been self-selected graduate courses and programs, as well as a fantastic training provided by our district and taught over several weekends by Connie Henry and Bruce Kamerer on examining the base-10 number system to develop number sense.

I consider the gold standard of professional development to be the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification in which teachers examine and reflect on their practice through the careful examination of student work and videos of their teaching in the classroom. Teachers completing this certification must submit a dense portfolio, which includes 4 extremely dense 14-page essays that include description, analysis, and reflection, and they also must pass a rigorous three hour examination that consists of six essays about the content and practice of their certificate area.

Basically, the more I know about teaching and research, the better I can teach my students.

3) Rigor

My students have a lot of challenging work, every day of every week.

They are required to read aloud in our classroom, and they are graded on their decoding and prosody. I assign passages from class novels or selection on articles, and they practice at home, using dictionary.com to perfect pronunciation of unknown words.

My students complete essays regularly using process writing. Every day in my class, they are writing at least a page or more, single spaced. Sometimes they are writing answers to comprehension questions. Other times they are reflecting on a class project. Other assignments include writing, revising, and editing drafts of longer assignments.

What is my classroom management strategy? I provide difficult assignments within the students’ zones of proximal development, and I supply a great deal of encouragement and support. (At this time of year, I can be frequently heard saying,”You know how to do this. I have given you the tools you need. So, reach in the toolbox of your brain and use them!”).

4) Celebration, Joy, and Arts Integration

This is my “warm/fuzzy” side. After we work hard, we party hard (but still maintain our academic focus).

I celebrate students’ achievements. This can be as simple as a high five or a small piece of candy. After students performed in a play, they received certificates, and I put a video of their play on YouTube. When students publish a collection of essays in a book, we celebrate with a publishing party at which students read their work aloud and then they have an opportunity to autograph one another’s books.

After the first and third quarter, students who receive passing grades are invited to special field trips to 826 Boston, a local writing center, and then, they are treated to ice cream at McDonald’s (not the healthiest, I know, but it’s a special treat).

Arts Integration brings excitement and joy to my lessons. Again, this can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. For example, when we studied the concepts of compression and tension, we “acted out” the diagrams of an arch bridge and a suspension bridge in our reading by pushing and pulling of hands. We have constructed a tetrahedron with brightly colored paper in order to explore geometric concepts.

I sing out “Hy! Potenuse” in a silly voice, so that my students can remember the word. I teach using evidence in writing through having students “act out” a weight lifter. Evidence bulks up your argument, just like a weight lifters weights make him strong. A visual image of a weight lifter with rippling muscles is posted on an anchor chart in my classroom that reminds students to “bulk up” their argument with evidence.

One student told me,”When we laugh, we laugh hard, but when it’s time to work, we know you’re serious.”

5) Parental Involvement

My students’ parents are urban immigrant families who work. They are also caring and dedicated parents who love their children and want the best for them. We keep in touch regularly through text messages and phone calls in English, Spanish, and my terrible version of Portuguese-Cape Verdean-Criollo mixed with a splash of Spanish and a dash of made-up words.

At the beginning of the year, students are given syllabi that have my picture and contact information on it and their parents must sign the syllabus, so they at least see who I am. After first quarter, students select their best work and write reflections. Parents are then invited to attend Student-Led Conferences to show their work to their families and to set academic goals for the remainder of the school year. I had 15 out of 18 families from my grade 7 and 8 ESL 3 class attend these conferences.

Conclusion

I will close with one of my favorite quotations: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” I learned this from working with Patricia Suriel of the Mariposa DR Foundation in the Dominican Republic. For my own practice, I interpret this quotation to mean that I do not need to wait around for an administrator or policy maker to tell me what to do.

I will continue to seek out best practices and apply them to my students and teaching. Teachers do not need to wait around for an official or administrator to approve their work or to tell them which program to use. If teachers collect data on students (notebooks and file folders with dated assignments – make your students write the date on everything!) to show their progress, teachers have evidence to show that students are learning and growing. I have found that if I get good results and act professionally, I will be respected and not micro-managed.

Teachers cannot wait for the government or an organization or even the New York Times to tell us what is best for our students. We all can have a critical eye and examine the research on our own. We can look at data (student work) every day, and see what is working for Angel, what is not working for Clayton, what is working for Natalie…no one else knows the children like we do.

We must become experts on the students we serve and learn practices that serve them well and inspire them to take on difficult assignments and challenge themselves academically. Our students are our future. Will we cloak our future in bureaucracy and petty debates? Or will we forge a path of values, hope, and success? We are the ones we have been waiting for, and we can do this.

The Perfect Place for Me: Cabarete Language Institute

Back in March, in the midst of state testing and a flurry of IEP meetings, I was online one night, and I found a $500 plane ticket to travel to the Dominican Republic, where I volunteered for three summers, for three weeks in August. I had neither arranged a place to stay nor did I have any plans of what I would do there, but I decided to buy the ticket anyway.

Myself, Elena, and Nataly (my classmate) outside of CLI on my final day there.

But how would I spend my time? Yes, I can visit friends and former students, but what else? I know myself, and I need to have some sort of schedule. Aha! I can study Spanish at Cabarete Language Institute. I had heard great things about the school from a friend who had studied there, but I had my doubts that I could succeed in a Spanish class. I learned Spanish as an adult from my Dominican and Puerto Rican students in Boston and from living and working in Cabarete for three summers. My Spanish was a teacher’s Spanish and a Spanish from the streets. I could communicate basic information about school events and meetings to my students’ families, even on the phone. But, there are still hiccups, gaps, and stops once the context changed or the ideas became more complex. I had taken Spanish in high school, and that’s how I learned the basics. I had tried a popular course at a local adult education center, but I dropped out because I felt uninspired. I received a scholarship to attend an evening program at a prominent Ivy League university, and the teacher bored me. Although my two weeks at Cabarete Language Institute did not make me a perfect Spanish speaker, they did instill my faith that I was capable of refining my Spanish in a classroom setting. I found that, for myself as a learner, Cabarete Language Institute provided the perfect place for me.

Spanish Immersion
When I entered Cabarete Language Institute for the very first time, Rosa, a cheerful and enthusiastic intern from Venezuela, greeted me in Spanish. I took classes from 10 am – 1 pm each day, and for that time, except for a few clarifications in English, I heard, spoke, read, and wrote in Spanish and Spanish only. Even during our charlar con café coffee breaks, we spoke in Spanish and we were provided with feedback from our fantastic teacher…

From L to R: Elena, Nataly, Me, Al (another student), Rosa, Jessica

Elena
Elena is a teacher’s teacher. As a teacher myself, I judge other teacher’s strongly, and Elena exceeded all of my expectations. First of all, Elena knew her content. Elena is a native Spanish speaker from Spain who has lived in the Dominican Republic for a little under two years. Elena knows her Spanish backwards and forwards, and she even studied philology (which I learned is the history and structure of languages). Elena makes the students feel so welcome and comfortable in her classes – she asks lots of questions, and she is interested in learning about her students. She sets clear goals and she provided us with interesting classwork assignments, such as listening to and dictating lyrics, creating shared narratives using various verb structures, and discussing personal experiences, and homework tasks – such as constructing questions based on common interests and writing summaries of a wordless film. Elena provides consistent feedback and corrections in a way that supports students in their language learning without making us feel stupid or overwhelmed.

Elena (center) in action: a dynamic and professional teacher.

A Welcoming Atmosphere
Jessica, the director of Cabarete Language Institute, was prompt in responding to any communication over e-mail before the class started. When I arrived at Cabarete Language Institute on the very first day, I noticed that the chalkboard in the lobby read ¡Bienvenidos Jenny! The lobby also contained a library of books in a variety of languages, which is a treasure in Cabarete where there are no book stores and a few extremely tiny library collections here and there in shops and non-profits. For me, personally, a particular highlight was the free coffee, milk, and sugar provided by Cabarete Language Institute. I am a shameless lover of coffee, so it suited me perfectly! The classrooms are comfortable and airy, and the teachers and staff are hospitable, professional, and able to answer any questions about Cabarete.

Welcome sign and library in the lobby.

I wish I could spend a whole year at Cabarete Language Institute. Between the wonderful atmosphere, classmates, teachers, and students, it is the perfect place for me. It would benefit my Spanish incredibly to work with a talented and experienced teacher like Elena, and I love the enthusiastic, warm, and caring atmosphere of the school. Although I am now back to my reality in the United States, I am fortunate that Elena and Cabarete Language Institute provided me with the confidence to continue my pursuit of “perfect” or at least “progressive” Spanish.