All I have to do is teach
In the past when I have taught, I would spend days, hours, nights, weekend trying to develop lesson plans to teach the students, but at the same time, I was struggling with how to help families get food, get clothing, get dental services. How to help them access government services that are already set up.
And I had – as a teacher, I had to make a choice: Do I want to create a solid lesson plan so that my kids are coming and learning, or do I want to meet their basic needs so that they’re ready to learn? And a lot of times, I had to make the choice to meet those basic needs, where, now, there are strategies in place and structures in place that, my kids are coming to me, and they’re not hungry, and their teeth aren’t hurting, and their mental health services are being provided so that they come to me and they say, “Okay, here I am, you know. I want to read. I want to do math. I want to be the best student I can be.” And I’ve seen such growth in them, and not only in them.
But when you look at the families and you see how the younger siblings are coming ready to learn and you have these pre-K kids who have older kids in a community school, they are so much more advanced academically because of support the school provides.
Part of the school community
At the other schools where I used to teach it was lonesome. I was off in my classroom by myself, not really attached to my school in such a community way. But working here, I feel like I am such an important part of this community that I want to do better. I want to push myself harder. I want to do whatever it takes to get the students to succeed.
When you have students coming to you with those basic needs met, you are able to dive so much deeper and richly into your curriculum. We’re no longer skimming across the top because we’re keeping our heads above water. We’re able to really get to the meat of lessons so that our children learn more.
Dental problems for students
I had a student that kept complaining about their mouth. And so I kept thinking, “Oh, well, it’s just, you know, getting a tooth in or a tooth is coming in.” Well, when we finally was – were able to get them to the dentist, we found out that they had had this cavity that they needed to be addressed.
And that made so much sense. It was like this aha moment, like, wow, for two weeks I was thinking this child was just kind of complaining about a typical development, and it wasn’t. It was an impairment in their mouth. And so once the cavity was replaced, all of a sudden I saw their academic scores take off, and it was just amazing to watch this growth.
Welcoming families to Wolfe
The community school strategy has helped us get buy-in and trust from the parents, and so they want to come to school. They want to be the ones that walk their child in the front door and sit at the morning meeting and help us get their kids settled and ready to go.
And whenever we have IEP meetings or parent-teacher conferences, we have so much support from our parents, and anytime there’s an issue, we’re able to get them on the phone. It’s that trust we’ve built with our community. At previous schools, that was never there. It was so hard to get parents to want to come to the school because they often felt like, “Oh, you’re just going to tell me something negative. Oh, it’s going to be my child wasn’t behaving in class.”
But that is not happening here at Wolfe. It’s a joy to see the families come in and bring the little ones and to see the teachers know the names of the siblings that aren’t even in school yet but will be here in two or three years.
Just recently we had a student move back to Mexico, and she came with her family and her siblings. And they took pictures with the staff and with her teachers and with people that weren’t her teachers and her standing next to the fish tank because she was so connected to Wolfe Street. And that is what the community school strategy is all about, is creating this vibrant community within our school so that we know everyone and we enjoy being around everyone.
And you look to each other, and you treat them like family. They become part of your family.
So our mobility went from 45 percent to 8 percent. So we are having families stay, and that’s challenging for families living in concentrated poverty. They don’t always have the option to (inaudible). This is an – become an expensive neighborhood to live in, but they are doing whatever it takes so that their children can stay and attend our school. And that – it’s the trust. And they’re telling other families.
They’re saying, “Come to Wolfe Street. They have it. They will listen to you. They will support you. You need anything, they may not know the answer, but they will get the answer.” And that, I think, is one of the biggest successes that I see working in a community school, is getting the trust from the families and getting the families to really support the school.
Building trust with Mixtecan families
About six years ago, we were looking at this group of students, and we were realizing that there’s this statistically significant portion of students being diagnosed with this language disability, and we really decided to look into that.
And what we found out was, this was a group of students who spoke Mixtecan. And when we started talking to the families, we realized that there was this great deal of shame, speaking this – what we call a dialect, and, though we know it’s a language, they refer to it as a dialect, and so we went out of our way to talk with them, to teach them about their language, about language acquisition as it relates to education.
And the families started developing such a sense of pride about themselves that now we had – we have a family member who does Mixtecan interpreting for us, and we have students who will say, “Oh, I can say that in three languages. You can only say that in two languages.” And so what it has done – it has created such trust that that is how we get our families to come to our school, is through trust.
Action plan: Mixtec
When we were researching this language trying to find out more about it, we really reached out to school districts in California and up in New York.
And those were the two primary centers that seemed to have the most information out there on the topic of Mixtec, and we also did reach out to our local Johns Hopkins for support from their linguistic department.
Once we discovered for our knowledge what this was, we looked at the language, and we discovered that it was a tonal language. And so one sound, depending on the tone you make, could say three or four different vocabulary words, which is so different than English or Spanish.
We also discovered that, instead of saying very fast, they would say fast—fast over and over, and so we then would see that in the – their writing, sometimes they would put multiple words down when they were trying to describe how somebody ran, and so we realized, “Oh, it wasn’t a misunderstanding of what to write or they didn’t just forget that they wrote it and wrote it again.
They are actually expressing it in their language but through English words.” And so it was neat to then say to them, “Oh, I get how you’re saying that. That’s great. That’s how you say it in Mixtec. Here in English, this is how we’re going to say it.” And then we saw them starting to transition to more standard English.
Training for teachers and staff (Mixtec)
We had a staff development, and we had a PowerPoint and went through all the nuts and bolts of everything like, here’s where the language is spoken, here are the parts of the language, here’s what you might see in this – in the classroom.
But then we also went and gave like some specific ESL strategies for teachers to use so that when they went back to their class they could say, okay, here’s how I’m going to create my vocabulary wall, or here is what I’m going to look for in student writing when I’m using it as a formative assessment. But then one of the key things we did as well was, we had a professional development for the parents, and we sat with the parent, and we discussed how children develop language and the importance of developing a solid primary language.
And then we would ask the parents, “So do you speak Mixtec at home or do you speak Spanish?” And many of them say, “Oh, no, no, I only speak Spanish, but I will speak Mixtec to my husband.” And we’ll say, “Oh, great, okay, so here’s how you could really help your child. If you and your husband, who are fluent in Mixtec, speak Mixtec to your child, that will help them develop a solid primary language.”
And so we worked with them understanding that, and they had a misconception. They said, “Oh, but no, I teach them Spanish so that they can learn English.” And we really helped them understand that it was developing that solid primary language that would help the child develop English at a much faster rate.
And we also did discuss with them that children who are what we call L3, trilingual learners, will often develop English at a slower rate. And so, you know, not to look at what the other kids are doing, not to look at what your neighbors are doing, but maybe just look at your child and understand that they’re dealing with three languages, and that’s big stuff right there, and that the more they can give their child a primary language and solidify that – that is one of the best gifts that they could give their child to get them ready for academics.
And so now what we are seeing is, some of these younger kids who haven’t come to our school yet, like these one and two and three, the families are now speaking to them in Mixtec versus switching over to Spanish the minute that they start to comprehend what’s happening, and then when they come to pre-K, their transition from Mixtec to English is much quicker than if they had to go from Mixtec to Spanish to English.
Union support of community schools
I am a member of the Baltimore Teachers Union, and our parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, have worked tirelessly to help promote the community school strategy at the local, state and national level. They’ve worked hard to get the teachers what they need to be able to just teach a classroom and to be successful.
Working at a community school makes a teacher’s job so much easier because these basic needs are being met. And so the union wants teachers to teach, and the community school strategies frees up teachers to teach. And so we’re not worrying about all of these outside elements so much. And we have strategies in place, and we have people to talk to, it kind of goes hand in hand.
So all these crazy things we’re doing, we are not violating our union contract. There are provisions within our union contract, the school-based options provision, for example, where we can, as a staff, take a vote to change when we have our parent—teacher conferences or if we want to have an extended day or if we want different parts of our calendar modified, if we want to do an alternate calendar.
And so we have really found a way here at Wolfe, and I think any community school could, where you work with the union, work with the contract, to make it work for you and what your students need.
Testifying in front of Congress
Testifying in front of Congress was one of the most exciting experiences of my professional career. Teachers so often feel like their voices are not heard, and it was so nice to have this experience where I felt like people in positions of power who can make changes to ESEA and other laws are listening to a person who stands every day in front of children and teaches them.
The children I stand in front of are living in concentrated poverty, and many children across America are in concentrated poverty, and we need the voice of those teachers to be heard. We need to come together and let the people who make the laws know what we need in order to be successful. And in my belief, the community strategy is key, and I was so thankful that I was able to go and talk to Congress and let them know that, in my opinion, in my professional judgment, that is the difference.
A strategy change to education
Our goal of education should be that everyone can read and write, do math, but we want productive citizens. We want a community that’s vibrant. We want students to come back to our community and give back. And by creating community schools, we are encouraging and showing how that can happen, and we’re giving the community the tools to then continue it on themselves as well.
The community school strategy looks at its assets within a community, and it uses those assets to build upon the community. I think too often we look at our communities and we can find the problems. We can find the negatives. And we then put our own ideas of how to fix that onto a community. And we’re seeing, as you look around, that that’s not make difference.
So when you look at the strengths and you pull in those strengths and – you know, being an immigrant has a strength. It might not be a strength that everyone can identify right away with, but it – there are strengths to that. And so we use that to help facilitate change in a community and to facilitate growth in families for children who deserve to have the best education and the best families and the best community that they can have.
That is something that I think everyone deserves, and everyone is here looking for that, and I’m just happy that we can be part of that search and that solution.
Special education and ELLs
Working in special ed and ELL, it’s often difficult to tease out whether something is a language development issue or if it’s a disability. A lot of it is just being an investigator and putting that hat on and analyzing everything that your child is doing about written language, spoken language, all of that, and teasing out like, can they memorize the sounds but just can’t blend the words? Are they having trouble in their native language as well as in English?
Talking to the parents and gathering information, and then as you go along, I would say just move slowly and carefully through the special ed process. We don’t want to over—identify – that’s not fair to anyone. But we do want to make sure that our ELL students who are – do have special needs get caught early enough that they get the interventions that they’re legally entitled to. And it’s always just walking that fine line between open communication, looking at the child, looking at the data and having discussions with all of the members of the community to figure out why this is happening and how to help them.