The Closet Scientist

My favorite part of ordering from Amazon Fresh is the dry ice packs.  I immediately open those little packs, pour them into my sink with water so I can turn my kitchen into a mad scientist lab.

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I love science. It’s a rather recent passion maybe because I barely had any exposure to it growing up. Back then (in the time of the dinosaurs) in my native country there was no science in elementary or middle school. And you only learned it in high school if you were following a science degree–which I was not.

When my kids started school here in the US, I found that I loved studying it along with them, and when I decided to go back to school the first classes I enrolled  for in college were in literature and science.

Ever since becoming an elementary school teacher I have grown in my love for science and found that just like language and technology I have a natural knack for it.

Crazy scientist. Young boy performing experiments

Unfortunately I’m an ESOL teacher, a teacher for English as a Second Language. I say unfortunately because the system still believes that language can only be learned through language arts and I am–more often than not–prevented from teaching science, one of the richest subjects in terms of academic language. Science has it all: language, problem solving, methodology, reading, writing… you could even add art in there for good measure. And get this–it’s also fun!

I absolutely love teaching language through other content areas and I’ve done it even through art. For children, learning language through content that is highly visual and hands-on really works. Yet, I often hear things like, “ELs (English Learners) have to have more guided reading, not science classes or art.” Don’t get me wrong. Guided reading has its merits, but I’m here to tell you that if my elementary school teachers had taught me how to read with guided reading I probably would hate reading now. Guided reading is abstract and most second language learners do not connect with it at all. Put a bottle of vinegar, drop a teaspoon of baking soda in it and you have an explosion of dialogue, observations, vocabulary exchange, true wonder that leads to new language and new love for discovery and problem solving.

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So, when I turn my kitchen into a mad scientist lab for a few minutes I think of all my little students who would love to see it, talk about it, come up with hypothesis- will hot water create more fog than cold? How long will it take for the ice to vanish totally?

So rich! So exciting! So underused in schools today.

The Beauty of Writing Groups

I am a teacher by day, as many of you already know. This summer I was able to join a writing program at a local university for teachers, the Northern Virginia Writing Program. This is a national program with many branches and groups spread out through the USA. The program aims at giving teachers the tools and the motivation to make writing something our students will enjoy and do for the rest of their lives.

NVWP

On Thursday we had our first writing group session and let me tell you, it was the most rewarding moment of the week for me. I didn’t have much non-fiction to bring so I brought a flash fiction piece that I am hoping to turn into a novel in the future. It’s one of my favorites and I was really curious (and nervous) to find out how people who do not know me would react to it.

I am pretty sure that these moments are what most of us writers live for. Yes, we want to make money with our books, but it’s the knowledge that you have managed to entertain or take someone else away from reality even for a fraction of a moment that really drives us. Imagine my delight as I am reading this piece to hear their reactions to what I was reading. A little gasp of surprise here, another of distress there…and then the kind, wonderful words of praise and support afterwards. I knew I had a winner with that piece, but to see other people react to it the way I reacted as I wrote it, it’s a total different feeling. It validates your writing, your decision to put those words down on paper.

Sippy Cups

This is not my first writing group. I have mentioned my local writing group a few times. The famous (maybe not yet, but we will be) Sippy Cups and Semantics started as a small neighborhood group of women with one thing in common; our love for the written word. We were, at first, a strictly online group. Our fearless leader religiously posted three prompts every Monday (and still does) and we ran with it.

I had been on a dry spell for many years. The lack of success during my first attempts at publishing (ages ago) and life in general had steered me off writing. I still wrote, but not necessarily creatively anymore. When I accidentally stumbled into this group something woke up in me and I have been writing furiously ever since. Thanks to them I can now claim to be a published writer.

Now we meet physically for writing and critiquing and it’s always my favorite time of the week even though we may sit for two hours without hardly a word being exchanged. We write and that is amazingly rewarding and fun.

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Writers are more often than not riddled with doubt about what they write and how they write it. Writing groups are the most valuable asset a writer can have. If you are fortunate enough to find at least one group of people who will be honest (without being mean) about your writing, you have struck gold. Just knowing you have someone you can call for a quick read or when you’re stuck about something, or maybe just to brainstorm an idea…it’s priceless.

I think I will start some writing groups with my students this year. If they know they have a fair and supportive audience in their teachers and peers they will blossom as writers, fearless and brilliant. Writing is magic and I am certain that even the most reluctant of students won’t be able to resist the pull of the beauty of a writing group.

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The Importance of Hugs

You should never underestimate the power of a timely hug. I have never been much of a touchy-feely person, preferring that my personal space be respected even by close relatives. I feel almost claustrophobic if people get too close or too clingy. That said I sometimes feel the need for a hug.

As some of you know I’m a teacher. I’m surrounded by munchkins all day–the kind that wiggle, yell, talk nonstop and giggle uncontrollably at the simple mention of underwear. My husband often wonders why I refuse to go out on Fridays. It’s simple; I can barely move at the end of the week and my brain is mush. The couch and some non-threatening TV shows or movies are all I can handle by the end of the week.

Today there was something in the air. Teachers around the world have never been able to identify it, but we always know when it’s happening. There is even more giggling than usual, a lot of horseplay (which often ends up in tears), and you don’t even have to go as far as uttering “underwear” because even words like “eat” and “sit” provoke epic bursts of laughter that spread like wild fire amongst the munchkin hordes.

The simple act of climbing three steps and waiting for me to open the door to the classroom seems too complicated today and invariably one student accidently pushes the one behind him stirring up a undeserving rant of accusations. He did it on purpose. He pushed me off the steps. It was Timmy, Mrs. Non-Hugger

We somehow manage to enter the classroom without further incidents, but next thing I know little Timmy is in tears at his seat.

“What happened, Timmy?” I ask, surprised by his outburst of emotion.

Little Timmy, a quirky sweet boy, looks up at me with tears rolling down his cheeks and says, “I need a hug.”

This is where Mrs-Stay-Out-Of-My-Space opens up her arms and says, “Honey, hugs are always available for free in my classroom”  After a good long hug and a bit of crying , Timmy recovers from the hurt of being wrongly accused by his classmate and he’s ready for some giggling with the rest of the class.

Hugpainting

That hug did my soul some good, as well. But the good feeling doesn’t last long, for another munchkin has a major meltdown over the fact that our time is up, and we must return to their regular classroom. He wants to finish coloring his Miss Nelson from the day before. Nothing–and I mean nothing–sways him from the fact he WANTS to finish it. I try to talk him into accepting the bribe of a small box of crayons to take home, but it backfires. Now, he wants to take it, but he wants to make sure he can return it tomorrow.

“But honey, tomorrow is Saturday and I won’t be here. You can give it to me on Monday.”

“NOOOOOOOOO…I want to return it tomorrow. TOMORROW…you don’t understand.”

“I do understand. You are frustrated because you wanted to finish your picture, but I also have rules I must follow and it’s time to take you all back to your classes.”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOO…you don’t understand.” Followed by howling that would make any wolf proud, and a river of tears.

I now need a hug really badly. I even play with the idea of following Timmy’s example, turn to the rest of the group and ask for one. However, I really need to get them to their classes. I call a friend in the office and she comes to my rescue. She stays and talks with my out-of-control-sweetums while I deliver the others safely to their classroom teachers.

I have one last errand to run before returning for the semi-isolation of my room. I just walked in a classroom to drop off a reading tool when I feel little arms wrapping themselves around my waist. It’s my “attachment”. I call her that because she likes to walk “attached” to me.

“Missed you, Mrs. Non-Hugger,” she says, looking at me with her innocent, sweet eyes.

And just like that my headache fades (at least for a few minutes) and I feel good again. Never underestimate the power of a hug.

Writing Magic

Most people consider writing boring and hard work. As somebody who has always loved writing, I have always found this puzzling. For me writing is like breathing, a way to express myself, therapy. So why do others think of it as something they avoid like the plague?

When I became a teacher I quickly found out why—or at least I found a working theory. I was shocked by the way writing was being taught in school. I am an elementary school teacher and back then writing was still considered an important skill. Not that “back then” was that long ago; I’m speaking about a little over ten years ago. With each passing year, writing has regretfully become an area of educational neglect. It has had a slight resurgence in the past three years or so in the area of non-fiction or functional writing.

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For the first few years of my teaching career, writing instruction consisted of learning how to use some kind of organizer and then write the infamous five-paragraph essay that would be required at the end of fifth grade as a standardized test. Children were given “prompts’ and then told to write, share with peers, edit and revise. Needless to say that the writing was not good and the motivation to write was nonexistent. However, students were at least able to write somewhat creatively. This has now vanished from our schools. Nowadays children are being asked to write only functional text as reading responses or short answers to questions. Creativity is not a factor.

Don’t get me wrong. Functional writing is very important and should definitely be taught and cultivated. However it is the very rare person that is going to be excited about it. Sitting in a full classroom being told to fill in a graphic organizer about why your bedroom is your favorite place to relax in is NOT fun, not even to a die-hard writer like me.

IMAGINATION_by_archanN

After a few years of this mind-numbing writing instruction and a constant wave of teachers’ complaints about how the students hated writing and how impossible it was to teach something everybody hated (including the teachers in many cases), I decided I was going to try something new; use the kids’ own imagination to build a fictional story.

We worked on a group writing first. I started the story with just a few sentences and then asked the children to help me add details. After we did the writing, the editing and revising, the students got to illustrate their group story. Now that they had a “model”, it was time for them to get excited about their own characters. They got to draw them and answer a short “character interview”. Then, they were able to get into their characters’ skins and tell others about them. They “designed” the setting and shared it with the other kids. Finally they started writing their story while I hounded them with questions that produced more content, more interesting details. Were these stories amazing? Maybe not. But the kids loved the process and were extremely proud of what they had achieved in the end. So much so, they begged to come with me and write more. If nothing else I succeeded in fostering a love for writing in those few students.

 

Since then I have found other ways to get the most reluctant of writers excited about writing (I may even share them here another time) including using art to tickle their imagination, but that year will always be one of revelation to me. What an amazing and rewarding thing to see bored children become excited about their own work. How amazing to see the power of writing magic at work!

 

*cover picture “The Power of Imagination”by Marcinha  at http://marcinha-jp.deviantart.com/art/The-Power-of-Imagination-555809518 *

Writing Therapy

first wordsI love writing, that’s not a secret. I take great joy thinking of words and putting them together to form sentences which then turn into stories. I just finished the last edit for my book (that will be published in January) and I keep thinking, “Wow, did I really write that? I have some skills!” Okay, okay I would never say that out loud, but it is very rewarding to read your own work and realize you can actually write. It’s not too different from the joy and pride of being a parent. In fact, many writers refer to their books as their babies. They are not kidding. They ARE their babies and as I am getting ready to put mine out into the world, I am delighted and scared out of my wits. What if people don’t like it? The reasonable side of me knows there will be people who most definitely won’t like my novel. They may even hate it with a passion. I also know that some of those individuals will be ruthless when leaving a review. You know you shouldn’t worry about that because some will love it and enjoy it, but you still worry yourself sick.

Releasing a book it’s a bit like walking naked into a room full of people. You are in a very vulnerable position, you’re exposed. A lot of yourself, that you care to admit it or not, went into the writing of that book. So, in some ways you are giving away secrets, parts of you never shared with anyone before. It’s nerve wrecking and liberating at the same time.

Almost exactly one year ago I decided to participate in the National Novel Writing Month. I had no idea whether I would be able to finish it or not. In fact, at first I didn’t even have a story. I had a piece of flash fiction I had written for my local writing group, the fabulous Sippy Cups and Semantics and that was all. I am not much of a planner when it comes to writing. I do a sketchy plan (very sketchy) and then I just run with it. So on November 1, 2014 I had a little over one thousand words, the beginning of what I was hoping would be a romance. I had nothing. I had two characters, a mystery that even I didn’t know what it was, and a title. It was one of the most exhilarating months of my life. I wrote every chance I got; first thing in the morning before going to work, during my lunch break, right after work and into the wee hours of the morning. On November 31 I had a fifty-thousand novel written. I felt awesome. The proud “mom” of a full size baby novel.

I saw the same positive effects of writing in the eyes of a few of my students this week. I managed to convince a select small group of 5th graders to do the Young Writers Program for NaNoWriMo. A couple of these students I knew enjoyed writing and there was a good chance they would love the challenge, but in the same group there was also a few kids who normally will tell you they hate writing. Writing is boring, writing is hard work, why do we have to write? I was surprised and delighted when they accepted the challenge and I was even more surprised with the results. Only one met his goal but they all wrote and they all shared tidbits of their story with me and with each other. They had flights of fancy and plot twists planned, characters drawn in their heads, settings picked. They took every occasion they could find during the month of November to tell me when something changed in their stories. And when I came to congratulate them for a job well done and to tell them I would love to read what they came up with, I got hugs and thank yous and “can we keep doing this?” I was floored. Were these the same kids who claimed to hate writing? Somehow writing or even just planning their stories gave these students a sense of freedom. Freedom to be themselves, to give their imaginations a wide rein, to just dream.

For the past few months, life has been complicated to put it mildly. People I cared about and thought cared about me turned out to be fair weather friends. My job, which I had loved, became a place I have to drag myself to every morning and where I second guess myself constantly. Through it all writing has sustained me and given me the motivation to get up in the morning and look forward to the future. Writing (with a little help from yoga) it’s my therapy.

 

The Power of Language

This morning sitting in my usual booth at Panera enjoying a book and coffee, here they come; I call them the German ladies club. I am not sure whether they are family or just friends that share a common language and culture. I listen to them for a while. It’s good practice for me considering I haven’t spoken German in over 20 years.  I understand maybe 30% of the conversation and that’s not bad all things considered.

From amidst all that German there are many words and phrases uttered in English. I hear “tornado watch” and “slight chance” sandwiched between German words. I smile. It’s always interesting to listen (or participate) in conversations between bilingual people. There is something weird about how our “wires” are connected. They often “shorten” and out comes a mash-up of words in different languages. Fascinating how a bilingual person can switch between codes without even thinking about it.

I speak (read and write) a few languages. Some of them have fallen into disuse since I haven’t really had the chance or need to use them in years but there are three in particular I use frequently; Portuguese (my native language), English, and Spanish. I have caught myself often speaking in the “wrong” language; meaning, speaking in Portuguese with English speakers and English with Portuguese speakers for example. In the brain of a true bilingual different languages or dialects become almost one. Because our brains can process all of them in similar, if not the same way, the “wires” get crossed sometimes and the wrong language comes out. One day while talking to the secretary in the school where I work and to a Spanish speaking parent,  I caught myself translating what the parent had told me into Portuguese instead of English. The total look of confusion in the secretary’s face was what made me realize what I was doing. My brain didn’t register the difference. We had a good laugh and she still reminds me of this incident once in a while. When I go home to visit  my mom, and especially when I bring my kids and husband (who do not  speak Portuguese), it’s pretty common for me to start speaking in English to my mom and Portuguese to my kids.

Bilingualism gives you a unique perspective into language. You begin “understanding” languages you know nothing about for instances. When I took a class in linguistics I was amazed on how easy it was for me to make sense of languages I had never learned as long as I knew just a few basic rules. Speaking more than one language is like owning your own Rosetta stone, a code-breaker of sorts that will serve you well throughout a lifetime and foster better understanding of other people and other cultures.

I come from a country where the learning of foreign languages is highly valued and encouraged. Everybody starts learning another language while still in elementary school. It always bewilders me that there are people in the US who are for English-only. Why? Doesn’t that foster cultural isolation? So many cultural strife comes from miscommunication. I always believed that people from different cultures would get along a little better if they could have a basic understanding of each other’s languages. How many times have I heard people be suspicious, sometimes angry, because someone is speaking in a language they don’t understand? The tendency is to immediately assume “they are bad-mouthing” you.  I really hope that one day soon everybody in the US will learn a second language starting in elementary school and become, if not bilingual, at least more knowledgeable of how other languages work. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

The Death of the Written Word

I love writing. I have always loved writing. Anytime I go down memory lane all the way to when I was a little kid in elementary school I see myself writing. I can’t imagine a life without a pen and paper in my hand. Even though I don’t write much on actual paper anymore, I still have a huge collection of pretty and interesting notebooks and journals. Just having them around makes me happy. So, imagine my heartache when I realized (not for the first time) that the written word is in danger of dying. It’s not being taught in school anymore. Not really. Yes, we still teach the kids that d-o-g together spells dog and we still teach them how to form their letters and then their words but we don’t go much farther than that anymore. Children are going into middle school not being able to put two sentences together in a way that makes much sense.  Students are going off to college not being able to write a cohesive short research paper.

Some years ago when I decided to go back to school and take a second degree (because you know, you can never have enough of those) I was shocked to read some of my fellow students’ papers. These were native English speakers (unlike me) who apparently had never quite learned how to write. It is scary and it is tragic. The educational world is putting so much emphasis on reading and math (especially at an elementary level) that the students are expected to learn how to write by osmosis. If you are a linguist like me you know that writing is not a natural skill; it is not something you pick up from reading. It is true that people who are good writers are normally also good readers but I have known many “good” readers who were absolute disasters when it came to writing.

Not only does writing need to be taught (as in the mechanics of it) but the LOVE for writing needs to be cultivated. Most kids (hell, most grown-ups) absolutely hate writing. When I tell my students they are going to write something I get groans and moans and lots of, “How many sentences?” and “Do I have to?” However some of my best experiences as a teacher have been connected to teaching writing, both at the elementary level and college. When made to see the magic of writing, children (and adults) take to it like fish to water. I have had students who struggle with reading and math and who are terrible spellers just come to life when given the right opportunity to write for fun. Unfortunately because most adults also hate writing (and that includes a lot of teachers) children are made to believe that writing is just plain boring.

People! We are killing the written word. Demand that writing makes a return to school curricula, encourage your children and/or students to keep journals, to make up stories, to use their imagination through words. Writing is magic and we all need a little magic in our lives. Let’s keep that magic alive.