53 + 18: Endings, Goodbye’s, and Choosing What’s Next

This has turned out to be a week of many goodbye’s. A week ago today (Sunday) I experienced my mom’s death.  An example of a very long goodbye.

Flowers from my garden for my mom's graveside.
Flowers from my garden for my mom’s graveside.

I also said goodbye to my summer writing cohort at the Prairie Lands Writer’s Summer Intensive.  I hope the ending of our month of writing together is less of a goodbye and more like, “See you later.”

When my mom passed, I was given her wedding rings as a keepsake.  What I take away from my experience at summer institute and from each of my writer-colleagues is as precious and valuable to me as her rings, even if what I learned is less tangible in the strictest sense of the word.  One of the things I loved most about my experience as a cohort and when working individually with other writers is how every interaction provided insight, while also leaving an open space for more questions.  As most of my colleagues probably noticed, I love asking questions – perhaps even more than finding an answer.  What would life be without questions?

It may come as a surprise to people who know me that for several years I’ve been questioning the value of my work and my role in education, and wondering if I even belong in education.  I’ve filled numerous pages in handwritten journals and posted other blog entries specifically to ponder whether I should pursue a PhD. And why?  A PhD sounds so “ivory tower”.  Do I need a PhD to do the type of work that enlivens me and gives me a sense of purpose?  Will people not take my ideas seriously if I don’t have a PhD?  Will I become out of touch if I pursue a PhD?  I feel as if I do my best work and have a greater ability to act compassionately when I am in the trenches with people – whether that’s

  • living the challenges of our daily lives (never enough time, never enough money…);
  • as a student trying to master something new (Twitter, blogging, Google Docs, Spanish);
  • as a teacher striving to create the best possible learning opportunity (I can’t possibly do/know everything);
  • choosing the right volunteer experiences as means of developing empathy (how can I as one person give my time or money to so many different needs?).  

What the writing institute gave me this summer was an opportunity to be in the trenches every day doing something I’ve denied myself for a long time (too long?) – the opportunity to study the craft of writing.  Being in the writing trenches with other writers and writing teachers I discovered the depth of vulnerability required to really touch people with the well-chosen word.

During peer to peer readings and feedback sessions, my colleagues gave me the opportunity to experience that I do get to choose my response to criticism in favor of author’s intent.  And that it’s perfectly okay to hold on to a word, a comma, or a metaphor after explaining why my choice matters.  And while these experiences are liberating in once sense, in another they also exacerbate my dilemma of making a good discernment about the connection between my work, my life’s purpose, and my dream life.  

In addition to what I learned about writing and teaching writing, this summer was even richer because it was gave me the simultaneous experiences of being a writer and while also being a teacher of writing.  But what does the difference in these roles mean to me at this age and juncture in my life?   

I’m fearful of having to start over and obtain another degree in English if I choose to be an English teacher.  As an ESL teacher I teach people how to communicate in English, but I don’t teach literature and I certainly don’t teach writing as a craft.  Would I want to teach a sheltered English class for secondary ESL students?  Do I want to teach composition for ESL students at the community college or university level? Do I need more university study to continue my work with digital storytelling and narrative writing at any grade level or age level?  One program that caught my eye is the PhD in TESOL and Composition at IUP, but the out-of-state tuition for this low residence program is out of reach.  UMKC offers an MFA that would at least keep me writing.  MWSU offers a gradate certificate and an MAA in Written Communications that could launch me in either direction.

I am fearful of not being able to make a living as a writer.  Everything I’ve heard or read says it’s nearly impossible.  Only the very few and highly talented are privileged to discover that their vocation as a writer is also their sole means of income.  It seemed so easy to imagine a paid writer’s life as a little girl reading and rereading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  I idolized the character, Jo, from the story who was portrayed as the writer of the March family.

I don’t indulge myself with false praise.  I think I’m a competent writer with some natural abilities.  I don’t know that I’m a highly skilled craftsperson.  Yet, how many times have I heard from teachers, from colleagues who are teachers of writing, from office colleagues, from friends in response to an email, from the look of disbelief on a family member’s face after reading a piece of my writing…You are a writer!  But what do I do with that?  

A lifetime ago when people reacted to my cooking ability in similar ways, I started my own catering company while simultaneously going to culinary school (and yes, I did put the cart before the horse in real life just as I intentionally put the cart before the horse in that sentence). But can I do “this”?  Can I really “write”?  Can I support myself as a writer first and foremost? And if I can, what does this look like?  Or must I persist in putting my words, my craft second while teaching other people (students) the craft?

About ten years ago, I discovered the writings of Thomas Merton.  I treasure my dog- eared and marked up copy of Seven Story Mountain.   I cried my way through the book, entirely blown away by the stark vulnerability of Merton’s writing.  Everything – and I mean everything  – about him lay in my hands as they held the book, a memoir on par with Augustine’s Confessions but in contemporary life.  I’ve searched relentlessly for a female author I would consider to be Merton’s equivalent.  I read many of the female mystics and have come close in some of their work, but I have yet to find her. I suspected even before I finished Seven Story that I wouldn’t find a female equivalent.  Before I even finished the book, I knew that I wanted to be her.  I want to be the female equivalent of Thomas Merton telling my story of the human experience with as much transparency and craft as he offered.  I look back on the attempt I made with my master’s thesis, Ways of Knowing, and even though my thesis committee praised my vulnerability I know deep in my heart that some areas of my thesis leave the reader with questions.  In Seven Story Mountain Thomas Merton doesn’t leave anything to the reader’s imagination or wondering.  He is all there – at once self-conscious and not, remorseful yet unapologetic, hesitant but also unwavering in his relentless pursuit of clarity and honesty in telling his truth.  Seven Story is very relatable.  The reader can be both Merton and him or her self, so one seldom feels outside of the story.

How deluded we sometimes are by the clear notions we get out of books.  They make us thnik that we really understand things of which we have not practical knowledge at all.  I remember how learnedly and enthusiastically I could talk for hours about mysticism and the experimental knowledge of God, and all the while I was stoking the fires of the argument with Scotch and soda.                         — Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain

Here’s the thing – I have absolutely no self restraint when I’m writing…I will sit well beyond the point of muscle cramps while trying to get to the essence of whatever idea I’m trying to capture – I ignore my screaming bladder, the cramps in my right shoulder and hands, the painful bone spurs in my neck, the arthritis in my spine and hip that are exacerbated by sitting.  I am well aware these aches and pains are there but they are secondary to my need to get the words on paper or screen.  Which brings me back to my questions of what I would get out of a PhD:  Do I need / want a PhD because it will force me to keep writing?  Do I need / want a PhD because it ensures I have an audience and a deadline?  Do I need / want a PhD to teach?  Do I need a PhD, period?  Or do I have some romanticized notion about pursuing a PhD?

I may be a writer, but what does a writer’s life look like and feel like?  This summer pushed me to produce something of my craft within tight deadlines even when I didn’t feel inspired to write.  On the other hand this summer also enabled me to live the writer’s life of feeling I have something so important to say that I was willing to drive more than two hours a day just for the privilege of sharing my work. And most important this summer taught me about the writer’s experience of having writing group(s), because as much as I have daydreamed about writing being a solitary experience each and every one of my writing colleagues proved to me that it is not.

To that end, and for the most part, I’m pleased with the writing I produced this summer.  There is room for improvement sparked by your thoughtful comments and questions.  Thank you for that.  But what I have discovered this summer is that I am but a shallow imitation of a writer if I am not also sharing what I write.  I think of the three pieces of work in my portfolio as “our work” and that pleases me a great deal.  Each time I polish those pieces, or see them (finally) published or spoken, I will think of “us.”

Thank you seems inadequate.  Good bye is not an option.  So I will close with the invitation to stay tuned, stay connected, and stay true to the writer within.

If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men–you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.

Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation


53 + 17 weeks: Do I Believe Romantic Love Exists?

I am a skeptic.  On the one hand I want to fall in love, and stay in love.  In reality, it is perhaps more precise to say that I want to know if romantic love actually exists and if it comes with a death-do-you-part ending.  My rational, logical side finds it hard to imagine that two people are meant for each other, or that you “know” when the person is “the one”.  But is that because this knowing is so subtle as to be undetectable to those like me who are unfamiliar with its vibration, or because it takes your breath away when it happens and I have yet to experience that breathlessness?  Since I seem unable to identify it, I cannot rule out the possibility that it may once have happened to me and I lost it.  That is probably the real reason I am now a skeptic.

I may never unlock this mystery because my skepticism is the shield I use to cover my grief and my fear.  I’m scared to find the answer, all the while knowing that the only way I will find out is to risk having my heart broken.  There is no avoiding heartbreak regardless of the answer.  Even upon discovering that romantic love actually does exist, it only postpones the inevitability that my heart will be broken if/when my partner dies before me.

Perhaps I haven’t found or been found because I’ve refused on principal (and even scoffed at friends who have made lists) to make a list of my ideal partner.  I guess it’s a place to start. What would be the traits of my ideal romantic partner? They would be…

  • A Kindness-mentor, first and foremost and not just with me, but with everyone
  • A role-model for gentleness and acceptance, even at times when a line must be drawn
  • A helper, sharing in the responsibilities of daily living based on strengths and interests
  • A supporter, yet knows when to leave me to my struggles without it being a punishment
  • A protector, not Rambo but someone who instinctively walks closest to the street
  • An entertainment conspirator, able to take the lead on planning and execution of fun
  • A humorist, someone who is undoubtedly more funny than I am, but gets my lame jokes
  • The person most-likely-to-be-available for spontaneous interactions
  • The person whose schedule I’m most likely to consider before making other commitments, and vice versa
  • Living together? Uncertain but willing to discover or create mutually fulfilling alternative
  • Financially undependent, an equitable ratio of shared expenses based on earnings

“I want a relationship that is somewhere between traditional and modern” sounds like such a cliché.  I think my parents were ahead of their time because my mom almost always worked, and she worked a lot.  My dad had a very precise schedule and was home much more than she.  He enjoyed reading and listening to his music, but he almost always washed the dishes and in later years did all the laundry.  There were some “traditional” duties each of them never gave up until my dad’s cancer made him too weak; my dad always mowed the grass, my mom always cooked.  Dad took mom (and me) out to dinner almost every Friday night that I can remember.  My dad always paid the bill at the end of the meal.  My ex-husband almost always paid the bill, and in white linen restaurants even communicated my order to the waiter.  I’m a sucker for that. I don’t expect it, it’s simply hard to break a tradition that in my world exemplifies a “protector” trait.

  1.  Setting my skepticism aside for a moment and allowing myself to imagine having a romantic partner, it’s important that a partner understand that they are highly likely to have more disposable income than I do because of the work I do and the glass ceiling the profession imposes on me.  This does not mean that I am looking for someone who will “take care of me” in the financial sense.  I am not looking for a partner who will start making car payments for me.  I am fully self-sufficient precisely because I do handle my finances pretty well given what they are.  Realistically, this does mean that a disparity in income requires expenses associated with a relationship (entertainment, travel) be shared in relation to earnings, not split 50/50.  My partner would need to be accepting of the reality that a disparity in income will probably exist between us forever.  And they need to understand that this restriction is what imposes on my disposable income because my living expenses are my first priority. I don’t buy on credit.  In my chronicles of past dating, there have been partners whose interests and hobbies required more disposable income than my budget allows, being too embarrassed to admit my inability to bridge that financial divide I hide behind excuses that I’m too afraid to XYZ or that I don’t know how to do XYZ.  It does not mean that I wouldn’t be willing to try if money were no option.  I use these excuses rather than be embarrassed to point out that my income is less than yours especially at my age, level of education, and skill.  I’m even more embarrassed that unless I do point this out (or even when I do) I run the risk of being stereotyped as either another woman who only wants to talk about money or another one of “those women” who are just looking for a man to take care of her financially.  I don’t need your money; I need a partner who is willing to step into some (not all) of my usually less expensive recreational pursuits if for no other reason than it enables me to feel like I am making a contribution to our having a relationship grounded in mutuality.  I have been the breadwinner during downturns in my previous marriage.  I don’t think I want to do that again outside of an emergency, so I respect your having similar feelings.

2.  I’m 53 and I imagine that a partner would be the same age or older.  Maybe I should imagine someone younger?  Regardless, I don’t know how well I would handle being in a relationship with someone who were retired or semi-retired, but who also didn’t have some major plan or interest that still excited them.  I am an entrepreneur and workaholic.  My mom was an entrepreneur and a workaholic.  My ex-husband is an entrepreneur and workaholic.  Would I resent a partner who does not have the hard-driving energy I experience in life?  I think it would depend on what a partner is doing with their life, which sounds judgmental – I can’t quite find the words, but I think I mean that rationally I recognize that people (partners) experience life in different cycles, and that each of those cycles comes with its own levels of energy, creativity, downtime, need for introspection, action, and inaction.  But I’m an illogical human being at times.  A by-product of that is that I am prone to fits of resentment when I perceive that a partner is “being lazy” when spending an entire day to lay about while I work.  The reality is that I know I need to be asking myself, what work am I (not) doing that I then resent what anyone else is (not) doing?  There is a fine line between owning my resentment for what really is, and facing the reality that one, both, or either of us are not making good on agreements held between partners.  This is perhaps best explained by way of example from my childhood; my dad seemed to be at home all day, every day after he retired – he’d go out to get the oil changed on the car (code for he went to the neighborhood garage in the barrio to hang out with the guys), he’d drive to the lake house to mow the grass a day ahead of my mom (code for he needed a day – or in later years an entire night alone — out in the wild).  However, I don’t remember him doing this without first doing the things that daily life demanded – cutting the grass at home, doing the laundry. Which is probably what lies at the heart of my inability to resolve this issue for my self – I want a partner who is a lot like the image I hold of my dad because my dad shaped my image of what it means to be “a man” and therefore, “a partner.”  Just reread the bullet list if you don’t believe me. Although it wasn’t intentional, looking at what I wrote I can see it’s a profile of my dad to a large degree.

3.  I want to laugh.  I know I will cry.  I may get annoyed or even angry over something erroneous, when considered in hindsight.  I will apologize.  I do work very, very consciously to not blame. I am not infallible about anything written in this epistle, and am much chagrined when I discover I’m not.  I have a bad habit of expecting you (whoever you are) to be infallible, although I am vigilant about noticing it for what it is and letting it go without involving you.

4.  I want the person I’m in a relationship with to be an example of the kindness that I aspire to.   I want the lessons lived in the relationship to help make me a kinder person, but not cause me shame when I find I am otherwise. (Reread paragraph immediately preceding.)

5.  I say I want transparency and honesty in a romantic relationship, but deep down I question if I’m mature enough to really handle that.  Maybe I don’t know exactly what this even means.  As of right now, I think I mean vulnerability although that word seems overused lately.  I know I don’t want the other person to lie just because they don’t want to hurt my feelings or because they think they should say what I want to hear.  I want us to say what needs to be said in a safe environment and with kind intentions, not hurtful, and especially not blaming.  I will act on my freedom to ask for clarity, while realizing that I cannot demand an answer.  This will be frustrating.

6.  I want to be with someone who is a friend who also loves me in a romantic way.  There are a few things in life it’s kind of difficult to do without a romantic partner.  I suppose I could settle for a dog, but I don’t allow furry animals on the couch and I’ve never seen a dog tango.

7.  I’m not sure how I feel about sexual intimacy.  At this point in my life, I certainly don’t feel the urgency nor does it have the priority it once carried.  In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t keep adult toys in my bedside table.  I have not read, and don’t intend to read, Fifty Shades of Grey.  I don’t consider myself a prude, sex is simply not something I think about.  I mean, if you moved to Arizona, wouldn’t you likely stop thinking of snow after a while?  Kissing and hugging, especially wrap-your-arms-entirely-around-me hugs is where it’s at for me.  Kissing sounds fun.

8.  Relationships I admire for various reasons and probably reflected in my “fantasy romance”:

  • Rachel & Mikael (my daughter and son-in-law),
  • Judy & George (my eighty-something year old friends who still throw full-moon yoga parties around their outdoor pool),
  • Dave and Earlene (my mom and dad icons of romantic love),
  • David and Lora (my brother and sister-in-law who married as high school sweethearts and are still married),
  • Beth and Kenny, (my friends who married later in life and hold every Sunday night as sacred pajama night – meaning early into pajama pants, a home cooked meal and watching movies as a method of staving off the Monday morning blues)

9.  On the matter of living together; I’ve surprised myself in the last two or three years with wishful (or wistful) imaginings of coming home to someone.  (A househusband?) It’s more of a sensation that I’m looking for, I think.  But I’m not sure.  I’m exploring the feeling of whether it’s loneliness versus tired-of-living alone, by renting my spare bedroom for four months to a young woman recently moving here to attend university.  Having her here will enable me to explore the differences between just wanting someone around (which will actually be a test of endurance for me), the possibly of wanting “the right person” around, or confirming that I do indeed still enjoy living with no other person at all.   I’m testing the hypothesis that I might merely be looking for a sense that someone is at home waiting for me, although my renter and I will clearly NOT have a romantic partnership.  In a romantic partnership I’m looking for someone to whom I can always return, and have confidence that we will both be content to see each other. (Notice I did not say “happy”, which I think sets up a problematic expectation.)

10.  Maybe this idea of coming home to someone is also linked to my father.  His shift at the post office ended at 3:00 every day, which meant he was almost always home when I arrived from school. And with rare exception, I knew I could find him in his brown tweed-covered lazy-boy rocking chair reading the newspaper or a magazine, bare footed, one leg crossed over the opposite knee, his reading glasses falling slightly away from the bridge of his nose, with the TV on or listening to music.  The table lamp beside him casting a glow in the family room that was never sunny because of the large trees and metal awnings my parents had placed on the house to protect windows from hailstorms and rain.  The occasions for me having to enter an empty house without him are so rare I think they never happened, but surely they must have. Funny that I don’t remember ever expecting my mom to be the one at home when I arrived.  On the other hand, it was so common for my dad to be there that I never even realized until this very moment that what I’m searching for in a romantic relationship is an underlying sense that when the expectation of a daily reunion is fulfilled, there is a sense of rightness and a sense of having arrived home that is present in that moment of reconnecting.  This is an elusive concept to describe, and perhaps even more elusive to put into practice.  I may never find it again.

And so, I can only consider from behind my shield of skepticism whether it is coincidence or providence that my uncertainty about falling in love ends with homecomings.





53 +10: Firsts at Fifty-three

A list of things I’ve just recently done for the first time:



  1. Traveled to the Netherlands!
  2. Sat on the 4th row of an internationally acclaimed symphony performance conducted by Valery Gergiev.  Yes, the Valery Gergiev
  3. Eaten a weed lollipop.
  4. Slept on a houseboat.
  5. Hailed an Uber in a foreign country. (Twice in one night.)
  6. Salsa danced until 2:00 a.m.
  7. Eaten my sandwich with a fork.
  8. Smoked a hooka.
  9. Received acupuncture and cupping.
  10. Climbed to the top of a basilica – on the outside of the structure.
  11. Seen the original painting of “Girl with the pearl earring” by Vermeer.
  12. Attended a singing bowl meditation.


53 +16 weeks: Waiting to be heard


Waiting to Be Heard (Slam poetry) by Diane Mora

July 6, 2016

I wear black on black.  She’s a

Bubblegum pink, rolled up jeans, rainbow topped teacher asking,

“You ever heard of slam?”

And THAT’S what got my attention!

She said, “I like it. But sometimes the words can offend.  

So remember, the words are just words.”

She starts playing Anis while I wonder

Which word she’s talking about

Because every word seems meant for me.

I beg to differ with her on only one point –

Words are more than just words because

Sometimes words are all we’ve got.

THE word,

HIS words,

Now HER FAVORITE words,  

Took me all the way back to

A wood floor at the top of the stairs

As gritty beneath my feet

As the dirty words coming from my mouth.

The hoots, the cheers, the deep guttural “Yeah…”

That comes at you when the room takes the bait,

Swallows the hook,




I don’t wait for them because

I refuse to break MY RHYTHM.

After all – these words ALL ABOUT ME

And what I THINK




Because I have lived my whole life waiting to be heard,

To be seen,

To be acknowledged

As so much more than that person who always raises her hand before she speaks.

I raise my hand now only to silence the crowd before

Swimming my way back up to the top of another crest of spoken word that would otherwise

Lay flat and voiceless on paper

If I did not









After Another

After Another.

Is it them or me coming to life

By the force with which I have ex-haled the words from my mouth,

My brain,

My body

Now caught up in a haze of words like smoke hanging over our heads






And might as well be blood, because of how much I sweat stringing them together to make sense of MY life,

YOUR life…


“You ever heard of slam?”

Her question slams me back and forces me to reopen a door

I have kept closed for too long.

“Give me that mic!” I’m screaming in my head.

“You ever heard of slam?”

You’re asking ME? Or is that a collective YOU?

We watch her favorite master-of-the-craft shake the dust

And I realize that I am sitting in the dust

And now she leaves me no choice

But to shake. Again.

I used to shake the mic every time it was open.

I stopped because of a man.

He didn’t approve of my crowd.

I should have shaken HIS mic right out of my life!

He left, but I stayed – silenced only by my fear.

I dropped the mic because I was afraid to slam harder.

I thought I needed to become something less,

Not something more.

As if only feeding the gentle, tender side of speech

Would make me so.

I quit steppin’ up to the mic

Afraid of being too old.

But what if the rantin’ and the slammin’

Get better with age?

In that instant of hearing the familiar ebb and flow of someone shaking at the mic

I realized how wrong I’d been.

I’m here to rant until the rafters shake!

I’m too young to not shake the mic again


Age doesn’t matter

Who cares what you’re wearing

Be LOUD, be soft

Talk fast or…go…slow

Speak gently, say the hard truth.

The words are NOT just words and I am no longer

Waiting to be heard.

53 + 15 weeks: I Dream of Giving a TedTalk

Author’s note:

I have been dreaming of giving a TedTalk about this topic for over two years but have never put my ideas on paper until this week at the 2016 Prairie Lands National Writer’s Project Summer Institute.

It’s a bit of a rant, although my ultimate goal is to draw educators into action by reframing a common concern as a positive challenge.  And to appeal to their desire to be the very best practitioners they can be in a slightly in-your-face sort of way, but with a smidgen of humor.

This piece is a call to action and a call to change.  I want the reader to feel challenged to the point of increasing their curiosity about becoming better teachers, but not challenged to the point of feeling defeated, defensive, or like a failure.  I do not want to come off as preachy because I’ve learned much of what I write about the hard way, myself.

The most common word I read in the myriad email messages I receive as an education consultant is, “Help!”.

This day is no exception.  I read past the exclamation point to the rest of what’s written.  After clicking “Reply,” I sit…watching the cursor pulse like a yellow caution light at the intersection of “Don’t go there.” and “Now is the time.”  I breathe deep yoga-breaths.

On this particular day I consider a plethora of possible responses, but hesitate to begin typing.  I feel as if I’ve said it all before.  What can I possibly say this time that would be any different?  Teachers in the district’s middle and high schools are reluctant – if not downright averse – to teaching students who are also English language learners (commonly known as ELLs) in their content classrooms.  Sadly, this is a prevailing attitude that exists among more secondary teachers than it does elementary teachers.  I sense frustration, uncertainty, and near-defeat from the writer of the email.  If only I dared to respond with the words I would really love to say.  Deep inhale.  Slow exhale.

And then my fingertips are caught up in the rhythm of making words appear on screen, the chattering of keystrokes underscoring the earnestness in my reply.  I decide that today, is the day.  I begin…This is what I would say to your staff:

Let me be clear, ELL students are not going to singlehandedly ruin your teaching career.   Only you can do that.  On the contrary, I can think of more than a dozen reasons why ELL students will force you to be a better practitioner.  I know this because I owe any success I’ve had in my teaching career to my ELL students.  Here are but a few reasons why you will end up feeling incredibly grateful to your ELLs for pushing you to become the best educator you can be:

  • You will come to realize that if your instruction is clear enough to be understood by a student whose dominant language is something other than English, then there is no question that your lesson will be understood by your English-dominant students, too. All of your students will benefit from your exceptional planning and precise delivery.  Among the staff you will become known as that Rock Star teacher who gets to teach the cool kids from all over the world.
  • You will develop a hunger to see if you can identify precisely where the language barriers are going to be in every lesson before you teach it. As a result, you will become a master at choosing or creating materials and resources that support the content and language objectives of your lessons.  You will staunch any over-reliance on Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers because you will think those sites are for wimps.  And besides, nothing measures up to the cool things you’ve learned to invent out of everyday situations that tie experiential knowledge to your content.
  • You will realize that not all dictionaries are created equal. Likewise, you’ll figure out that cell phones in class are actually a life-line for ELLs (and you), especially when it comes to translating key content words or clarifying instructions.  Before you know it you will be challenging your building principal to please, please, puh-leeeeeze reconsider that no-personal-device policy and its impact on all  students.
  • After reviewing the test scores of all your students, you will acquire additional evidence that validates your intuition about just how little high stakes assessments actually inform anyone about student progress and aptitude. You will develop a love for curating student artifacts and student portfolios so you can substantiate why that test score is an inferior indicator of any student’s potential.  As an added bonus, you will likely become a very vocal advocate for changing archaic testing practices — and not just because you’re bored teaching to the test.  Your new sense of advocacy will arise, in part, from the frustration of being prohibited from giving your student(s) the XYZ test in their dominant language – which ultimately prevents you from giving your students the content grades they are actually capable of earning.
  • You will have no choice but to learn something – anything – about other languages if you really want to understand why a student “insists” on making the same grammar or spelling “mistake” over and over and over again. You will become even more sensitive to these difficulties of code-switching each time you attempt to spell a student’s name phonetically, but fail miserably no matter how much you practice.   Similarly, pronunciation of names keeps you humble toward students and parents who are equally challenged by English pronunciation.  Most important, you will have no choice but to admit to yourself that you’ve been equating a person’s ability to communicate in English with your perception of their intelligence.  First you will be embarrassed, and then you will immediately wish to change. You will remind yourself of this new self-awareness before parent meetings, specifically to keep it in check.  You will notice you are becoming more patient during conversations with everyone you encounter.  This is a good thing.
  • You will think more deeply about your own identity and how much it impacts your teaching, the choices you make in your classroom, what you choose to teach, and why you chose to teach it.
  • You will learn to see the world through an entirely new lens without having to travel beyond your very own United Nations of a classroom. You will learn that when students write stories about how their family hid in the woods to avoid being shot by extremists as they attempted to flee their country, that your students are actually writing personal narratives not creative fiction.  Sometimes you will cry.  An upshot of this awareness is that you will wake up and stop using presumptive journal entry prompts like, “Write about the best vacation you ever had.” and replace them with prompts like, “Tell me about a trip you will always remember.”
  • You will be humbled by the perseverance that ELL students and their families demonstrate toward educational attainment. It will push you to do more than “just teach” because you can’t help but see evidence of this determination to succeed every day.  It will seem unthinkable to you that students and parents believe this success comes from you not them.  (See numbers 1 and 5.)
  • You will challenge yourself with the mission to eliminate any wasted time in class because you will have a deep understanding of the urgency behind the phrase, “Make every minute count.” You don’t have to be a math teacher to figure out the problem: Second language acquisition research says it takes five to seven years to attain grade-level academic English proficiency, but your student enters a U.S. school in tenth grade meaning he has only two years to increase his fluency quickly enough to pass all of the courses he’s going to need in order to graduate on time. (Yes, that’s a run-on sentence because you are running out of time.) He needs X number of high school credits to graduate in the allotted two years.  What are the odds expressed as a percentage that your student will graduate if you’re not teaching with intention every moment? This is why teaching with a sense of urgency becomes your mantra.  If you don’t figure out how to up your practice with additional supports for him (see numbers 3 and 4), he will drop-out or age-out of the building.  Trick question:  Who’s the real loser in this situation? Answer:  It’s not the student.

Teaching even one ELL student will force you to be a better practitioner.  I guarantee it.  It will change what you think you know about teaching and learning.  Self-reflection will become your most reliable “quality indicator” inside and outside of your classroom.

Now, are you ready?