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Kate Blair: M.Ed Reading Specialist, ELL teacher, passionate believer in social justice through increasing educational opportunities for children and families. I teach in an underperforming school in an urban setting in western Massachusetts. I work with kids who start with less in an effort to show them that life can be more. It hurts sometimes, but I love it. Connect on twitter @katrocada.
“Yo, Miss, I don’t like reading, so save that crappy book for someone else.” This was both an exact quotation and the general consensus on day one in my ELA 8 class. To be precise, this is not “my” class per se; I am a middle school ELL (English Language Learners) teacher in an underperforming school in Massachusetts, and my role in this class is to provide ELL support to students with intermediate English skills.
I recall looking at the book in my hand that I was attempting to pawn off on the class. In a way, this kid who declared this a “crappy” book had me over a barrel. This text looked pathetic. Were I still in 8th grade, I would turn up my nose at it the same way he did. In fact, every single book in the classroom stack of Walter Dean Myers’ 145th Street: Short Stories was in seriously sad shape. Pages were missing. Most of the covers were ripped. I remember glancing up at my co-teacher, who returned my look with a “oh-well-what’re-you-gonna-do” shrug.
This is typical of the experience in an underperforming school. My school does not have automatic funds to replace worn materials at the drop of a hat. We usually make do with what we’ve got – and what we’ve got seems to diminish in number and quality by the day. What’s more, students here don’t come to school with freshly scrubbed faces and newly sharpened pencils, ready to just eat up every single lesson plan that their teachers have put countless hours into crafting. They tend to have issues and problems that make learning difficult. In the setting where I teach, my students are tough, hardscrabble kids, most of whom are refugees from harder lives in Puerto Rico. They are English Language Learners. They come from broken families. They live in poverty. They are hungry. Many are homeless. Yet my students are fiercely proud – and they should be. They are as deserving of healthy lives and better opportunities as any other person on the planet
I teach in what is called a Gateway City in Massachusetts. My school has been deemed “underperforming” by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. We are in a school turnaround plan, a three-year endeavor that has required an all-hands-on-deck approach to reform. We are faced with what feels like an insurmountable task–but our resolve to succeed is unshakable. Giving these kids a chance at an education is the most valuable gift I can offer. The gangs and the streets wait outside the doors of our school every day. In spite of all economic and social obstacles, my job—my mission—is to convince the students I work with that learning and literacy are the ticket to a better path.
Oh well. What are you going to do?
My co-teacher and I forged ahead. We modeled fluent reading and guided students through comprehension exercises as we read 145th Street: Short Stories as a class. Class discussions began to get more lively. Kids asked questions about the characters in each story, making meaningful connections and writing insightful journal entries. By the time we finished 145th Street, every copy had fallen apart completely. Ceremoniously, we took the pages and made annotated murals as a final group project. The kids were visibly proud. It was beautiful.
Knowing that it would be tough to replicate this experience for future classes, I thought about ways to raise funds to purchase a new set of books. A colleague in my ELL teaching community on Twitter had suggested writing a proposal on Donors Choose some time ago. I sat down at my computer one recent weekend and wrote. And wrote. I submitted a proposal on a Saturday evening, and by Monday morning I got word of its approval. I sent the link to my project at the Donors Choose website to everyone I know. Within 6 hours, my project was completely funded. I was overjoyed!
Since the completion of this project, I have successfully submitted and funded another one, and I am now working on a proposal for materials to use in my role as an after school tutor. Tutoring is as vital as classroom instruction in the setting in which I work, possibly in all teaching and learning communities. There are ways to succeed even when circumstances are challenging, I have learned. Opportunities are everywhere, if we simply allow ourselves to see them.