Prancing through Poland: Just because it’s scary, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it (or why Skype gives me anxiety)

Making things work comes with the territory of being a teacher. Sometimes things don’t work out and we have to quickly shift. This program has been making sure I practice that skill well and reminds me that I am good at that skill. I’ve been more empowered to plan things that I am almost positive will fail, only to be excited when it goes well!

One thing that had been rescheduled several times was my tour of the public library. When staying in a small town, not everyone speaks English and I had to make sure I came at a time when there was someone who spoke English working. We had some miscommunications in terms of time, but when we finally connected, I was so happy to see that they have a vibrant library program. To me, it felt like a mix of a public and an academic library. The library is very new and modern, because it’s only 8 years old. When the library opened, they reached out to embassies around the world for rocks from all over the world. Because of this, they have several rocks from around the world, including a rock from the Alexandria, Egypt. They do a lot of programming for kids and teens, have a variety of special collections, and do a lot of traditional library programming. I was surprised that it had a section of closed stacks. I’m used to public libraries not having the space or staffing for that.

Tuesday had a variety of challenges. I had my students write and “I poem” or a “Bio-poem” about themselves using a template. Some of my groups could barely handle the template, whereas other groups moved onto the final copy and made beautiful poems. Every group has a very specific set of needs, so I feel like we were adjusting ourselves constantly.

For my oldest group, I knew that their attention spans wouldn’t handle to final copy, so we ended up going to a room that had a computer and played Geoguessr. I loved hearing their thought process about which state they thought we were in. Then we went to 360 cities and I let them look at 360 views from the cities and states of their choice.

We also Skyped with students from my American school district. It was a little tricky because it was the end of the day (so my kids were tired), and we were having 90 kids on my end speak to 20 kids on the American end, but since we organized it well, it went really smoothly. We made sure to pre-select the questions so we had participation from each group and had a variety of questions. Each kid asking a question had a post-it note with their name, question, and number. This was the only thing about my Poland trip that I was stressed about (and I was going by myself to a country where I don’t speak the language!). Doing Skype events terrify me because you have to

  • put your faith in the other person that they aren’t going to have tech issues
  • put your faith in the tech people/tech that they aren’t going to do something to sabotage you
  • recognize that not everything is in your control and there are kids watching you.
  • Something ALWAYS goes wrong.

Even though Skype/Google Hangout scares the living daylights out of me, I do it because I see that value. I go through this anxiety with Skype/Google Hangouts even when I do these in my home district. I think every teacher has some program or technology or something that scares them and they don’t trust, but they do it because it’s good for kids.

Today we practiced clothing words by having some fun! We had a fashion show and when the model finished going down the runway, we described what they wore. The kids LOVED it! They had so much fun dancing along the runway and posing. They got so excited that we had to do some line dancing just to get them all doing the same thing and start paying attention. One group was SO excited, that we finally went back to the room and color pictures of outfits and described the types of clothing. This was another day when every class, we did something different, and I appreciate my TA for rolling with me as I switched plans really quickly depending on our needs.



Prancing through Poland: Sometimes lesson plans fail…

Well…I’ve missed a few days of reflection, so this one may be a long one. Friday started out relatively normal. It was Polish day, so my group was dressed up in red and white. In the morning we did classes as normal. I was doing a “pre-Skype” activity to make sure that they Skype event I have planned on Tuesday goes smoothly. I sent my TA into the hall and had her facetime me. This way, we could discuss taking turns when talking, asking questions. We then brainstormed questions to ask the American students, and looked on a map to see where these students are located and looked at some pictures from the school. The Skype event happening on Tuesday will have all 90+ kids at camp participating at once, so I want everything to be clear.

After the Skype prep, I had my homeroom do a game to stretch their creative muscles. I had them draw a scribble on a piece of paper and pass it to the right. That person added another scribble, it got passed to the right a third time and then that person had to create an animal from the scribble. We then went around the room and shared our animal.

For my other classes, I had the students choose a postcard from a pile I had collected over the past few months, and they had to write a letter in English home about what they’ve learned at camp.

In the afternoon, the students put on a pageant for Polish Day. We were treated to traditional folk music and dancing and each class put on a skit or song. I was so proud of their creativity and hard work. I was also so impressed with the TAs for putting on such a great show.

On Monday, I was a little hesitant to embrace this day. This was a day when I was working with the younger kids, and my lessons were writing heavy. Even though the goals of this camp are academic, I’m trying to keep things as fun and interactive as possible. We started with doing postcards with my homeroom. I ran into some issues, because I tried to be brave on Friday afternoon and start the activity without 2 of my TAs in to translate. That was a bad idea. We had several hiccups and confusion, but the kids did really well.

I was told when I started this program to be prepared for lessons to blow up in your face, and to be prepared to throw away plans because of the specific needs of the student. Last week I was very lucky with activities that I was 50% sure that they would go badly, and instead they were really well received. It’s sometimes nice to be reminded that some lessons flop. Some lessons don’t go well, but we pick ourselves back up and move forward.

Especially since my group was having trouble with postcards, we decided to create our own version of “Simon Says” with Uno cards to play after the pre-Skype activity. Each student was given a Uno card, and we had them stand if they had the color we were calling out, and then we went around and shared what numbers they had. We then went into the hallway and used those colors and numbers to tell the students what to do. (ex. If you have a 5 come give me a high five, if you have a yellow card, touch your head). That then transitioned into a game of “duck, duck, goose.”

Prancing through Poland: Making adjustments

I am so appreciative that I started out with lessons that can stay the same for each group, but be adapted up or down quickly. Today is day 2 of doing body mazes, which means we get the younger groups. I made sure to do a lesson in the hall where we all moved left, right, forward, backward, up, down and make a big step. We ended up having teams of students help the blindfolded student through the body maze so they could help each other with their English. I noticed most of my younger kids in 3 classes had issues with the “eh” sound in “step” and instead pronounced it as “stop.” I tried to correct it, but I know that’s a speech pattern that I’ll have to keep an eye out for.

Each group had to have the activity with a different variation. One group needed a strong lesson before the activity and we could break into 2 groups and create 2 mazes. One group needed a strong lesson, and I wasn’t confident to have the kids go through the maze, so I had them guide my TA through the maze. Two  groups had one big maze with several students guiding their peers through.

Some groups I had finish early for one reason or another. While we waited for class to end, I gave them bookmarks with facts about Pennsylvania, and asked them if they recognized any English words on the bookmark.

I handed out Reece’s to my homeroom today and I was interested to see how they took their time eating the candy. And during snack time, we were given Grzeski candy bars. They reminded me of my childhood when my parents would always buy vanilla wafers.

During the afternoon, I helped in the movie room. We had a little hiccup when the power went out for a few minutes, but I gathered some coloring books and the power came back quickly. We were watching American movies on Netflix with Polish subtitles. I appreciated the Polish subtitles, because I could try and pick up a few more words. We were watching Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, so I was able to point out the setting on a map and talk a little about the time period to help out the kids.

I think the biggest thing that the teachers and TAs keep sharing is that kids are kids no matter the culture. Yes, we have learned about some cultural differences, but these kids are great at trying and love to have fun! I know right now, I’m checking my lessons to make sure they are engaging enough and will help them enjoy this experience!

Tomorrow is Polish day, and I can’t wait to listen to them share their culture with me!

Prancing through Poland: Mad Libs and Maple Syrup

Sometimes it’s just fun to share a part of yourself with someone else. I grew up in Western New York, and my parents make maple syrup from the handful of trees in their front yard.  Because of that, the theme for homeroom was “Mad Libs and Maple Syrup.”  I downloaded the Mad Lib app (thank goodness, it’s free!) and had my students give me different words to help generate the story. I then told the story, one sentence at a time and then had my Polish TAs translate it. I was so proud of the work my TAs did translating the story. The students enjoyed it. Then, I found a video on CBC about different ways to make maple syrup. I then showed them photos from my parent’s house and then we enjoyed some maple favored cotton candy. The students really seemed to enjoy it!

Then, I started working with the other groups. My big idea based on the theme for the camp was, “Can you be a good friend?” and my big idea that was content based was “can you use directional words in context?” The students had to build a human maze (with bridges, tunnels, and paths that their peers would go around), and lead a peer through the maze. They could touch the person and could only use their words. Some groups struggled and needed a mini lesson to refresh words they could use. In this situation, we lined up and practiced going left, right, forward, and backward while saying the words. The groups loved working together to build the maze and were very good about helping their peers steer through the maze.

In the afternoon, I helped with the friendship bracelets station. Another teacher put on American Pop music, and a Polish TA and I were dancing and doing bad karaoke (well…mine was bad, his was pretty good) while helping the kids. I was amazed how many kids sang along. I ended up helping kids make beaded snakes, and the kids were very good at practicing their English. I had one kid that sat with me for a while, so I figured I’d let him play teacher. I went and tried to say the colors in Polish and he told me if I was right or wrong.

After our small groups, I did a practice Skype call to make sure we are all set for next week.

After school, I had asked a TA to help me find the library. Not only did he and his girlfriend walk me there and we had a chance to talk about Polish school and Polish books, he asked the staff if anyone spoke English so I can have a chance to talk with a Polish Librarian to learn how they do things! I’m excited for that tomorrow!

As you notice, I mention how much I am grateful for TAs. I have a memory from when I did the Philadelphia Urban Seminar in a bilingual school that made me nervous about coming here. I know that it can be very hard when your students speak a different language than you. When I was in Philly, we had a parent volunteer to help translate for the bilingual classes. Even still, I remember small children coming up to me and saying “He said a bad word in Spanish” and not knowing the best way to handle it. I have had very little discipline issues with the kids in this camp, but the TAs are very good at encouraging students to stretch their English skills and filling us in if there is an issue.


Prancing through Poland: Reflecting on Communication

A new day means a new start. Today, I started by watching the TAs work with my homeroom group. The challenge from the Polish Staff was for the students to write 10 sentences about an anteater as a group. This was a chance for a role reversal between myself and the TAs. Most of the time, I explain and then they translate/rephrase. This time I had the opportunity to suggest ideas to steer the story and keep it manageable. My TAs are very thoughtful about encouraging students to have correct grammar and spelling, so they were able to use me as a spelling and grammar editor as they generated their story.

We then went to homeroom. To continue the theme of “getting to know you,” I had them play “2 Truths and a Lie.” They wrote down 2 true facts about themselves in English and 1 fact that was not true. The class then guessed which the lie was. After we finished, I had some coloring books given to me by my state representative.  I was amazed how excited they were about the coloring books. It was also special because both my TAs had been to Pennsylvania this year and this was a way for them to share their experience with the kids. We looked at some Pennsylvania landmarks in the coloring book and then I distributed a second coloring book on Pennsylvania animals. We took some time and talked about our favorite animal from the book.

Then we switched classes. Today was my day to work with the younger students. I was grateful that I have a postcard activity planned later in the week, so I had a variety of postcards to use instead of my “character words” to sort students into groups. Every student was given a postcard and they had to find the person with the matching postcard. Every student did incredibly well with the partner poster project. I added a little broken Polish to help make students understand and generate ideas. I know that the program discourages talking in Polish, but I think that my Polish is so basic that it reassures the students that languages are hard and that trying is the most important. The students are very good at helping and reassuring me, and I hope that my positive words and tone are encouraging them.

One thing that I am trying to rely on is non verbal communication. I know that sometimes when there is a language barrier, tone can be misinterpreted. I once did one-on-one peer tutoring with a young student from South America. When she would make a mistake, I would call her a “silly goose.” Halfway through the program, the mom let me know that that was really upsetting her. I felt horrible. I didn’t realize that I had upset the student. Because of this, I am really trying to be aware of how I redirect behavior, so not only am I doing positive reinforcement and being subtle, but I want to make sure that I am not hurting any feelings or making students feel upset.



Prancing through Poland: TEIP Program

Sometimes it’s good to break out of your comfort zone. One program that I’ve had my eye on for a long time has been the Kosciuszko Foundation’s Teaching English in Poland Program. I had heard great things about it from friends who participated in it several years ago. I also like that it is a short term program. It doesn’t require sacrificing a whole summer to participate. This program has its challenges, but it’s designed so that both the teacher and the student benefit.

As I go through this program, I thought it would be helpful to reflect every few days to share what I’ve learned. I am not a certified ESL teacher, so working in a country where I don’t speak the language will have a unique set of challenges. But, as we know in the library, I get the chance to work with every student, so sharpening my skills of working with ESL students will be a benefit to my own students as well.

On Saturday, we slept in to recover from the travel and met with Polish Staff and Polish Teaching Assistants. We played a quick game to learn names and broken into groups to make sure we were ready for the upcoming week. I have spoken to several people who have done this program before and due to that, I was prepared to throw out my lesson plans and start fresh if the situation required it. This is a program where it is easy to either plan too advanced or too simple. I went in with a menu of several lessons that I was excited about because:

  • They were set up in a way that I could adjust the directions/change the level of the activity without changing anything big
  • They were planned with the “Teach like a PIRATE” philosophy in mind. I know that this program is a tricky mix of school and summer camp. There are designated “lesson” times, but the students are here because they want to be. They want lessons that are engaging, fun, and make them want to be there. I wanted my activities to have parts that would be memorable. (even if it was just because I brought chocolate)
  • We ended up setting up a “cycle” lesson schedules because we had so many groups. This means that I was not going to have every group every day and I had too many lessons planned, so I could pick what I thought would be the best fit.
  • I was talking about this program with an American teacher running a summer camp and we were able to coordinate a Skype. (hopefully it goes well!)

On Sunday we went to the Warsaw Resistance Museum and had a little time to walk around Old Town Warsaw. Our Polish Staff were great hosts in helping us navigate public transportation.

Monday, classes started. We had a short opening ceremony with both National Anthems and introduced Polish and American Staff. Then we started teaching. We broke the students into pairs by giving them post-it notes with character traits on them (Brave, Strong, Hardworking, Kind, Thoughtful). We then had them explain the words and reflect if they think they exhibit this character trait. For the second and third groups, I knew that the station in front of me was being run by someone with military background and I could connect those traits to what they talked about with the previous teacher.

My first activity was one that borrowed from a teacher who works with my school’s Success at 6th program. It’s a “partner poster.” Students have to interview their partner (in English) and create a poster about their partner and present it to the class. The first class did really well. The only adjustment we made was to give a list of examples for them to use in their questions. I am REALLY, REALLY grateful that I have been working on Polish on Duolingo for a year and knew a few words and could throw them in to help the kids generate questions. The Polish TAs were excellent at translating us and helping us make sure the kids were doing well.  After that, we had the students add an English word to our word wall. I’m really excited to see what our word wall looks like at the end of camp! We then finished with a silly “brain break” activity to have them move a little.

Overall, I’m really excited with how the day went. Tomorrow, my TA and I will work with some of the younger groups, so we’ll see how it goes.

Quotable Quotes: The Way to Bea

I’m a reader who loves to mark quotes, whether it’s bookmarking, taking a picture of, or *gasp* dog earring the pages. When I read “The Way to Bea,” I loved so many of the quotes. (And the fact that the main character loved Jerry Spinelli’s “Stargirl” which is one of the books that helped me make it through middle school.) Instead of doing a review, I just wanted to share Kat Yeh’s beautiful language with you.


“Whatever you feel on the inside is what you put into the universe.” (p. 19)

“Because even invisible things deserve to have a little hope.” (p. 21)

“invisible ink

is only invisible

till you bring your light.” (p. 115)

“Messages need to be heard.” (p. 131)

“If you don’t share what’s inside you, how will other people ever get to see how wonderful you are? Wouldn’t you rather put yourself out there and risk it? Especially if it means a chance to connect with the people who really get you? (p. 141)

“This is the same path that I know so well, that I’ve walked hundreds of times, but today, all I can think is that the more you walk down a path, the more you start to feel that you can probably handle whatever it is you find at the end.” (p. 312)

*Page numbers were pulled from an ARC that I got at BEA last year, so they may have changed. (but if you are on a budget, this book is available with Scholastic Credit from the Book Fair Chariperson Toolkit…I was so pumped to see it there!)