A Community of Peers

Melissa Charette (Regional Teacher of the Year for the Olympia area) has created an environment unlike any other I’ve seen in a middle school, ever. I walked in early in the morning, after students were already settled into their first period classes. The hallways were quiet and I could hear the sounds of learning and engagement all around me. Washington Middle School is already a pleasant place to be, with bright hallways, and student artwork on the walls, but Melissa’s class makes it a truly amazing community.

Melissa teaches in a Designed Instruction Special Education classroom. Traditionally, that means students work with their classroom teacher, as well as, one-to-one with Paraeducators, who help them work through lessons and activities specifically designed for them, based on their cognitive and physical abilities. The difference in Melissa’s classroom is that learning happens, not only with instructors, but side-by-side with their mainstream peers. It is a wonder to behold.

When I first walked into her classroom, the room was bustling with activity. Special education students sat with one of their peers working through a variety of activities, from sorting items to reading instruction to counting items and categorizing them. The partnerships were fantastic to witness. In each pair, both students were engaged 100% with the activity and with one another.

As I watched, Melissa told me about several of the students in the room. Two stories stood out. One boy with autism, struggled to acclimate to middle school. He is nonverbal, so communication was difficult at first. He did not know how to communicate with his new teachers and his teachers did not yet know how to communicate with him. His story is amazing, in that he is so completely engaged now, after two years with Melissa, and because of the peer mentor program she has built. This student, who struggles still with communication and with social skills, works with his peer mentor and has developed friendships with his mainstream classmates. The peer mentor program helped this boy with autism find a safe place and new friends.

The second story is about one of the peer mentors. This student, tall for his age and a bit gangly, came in ready to work at the start of his period. He asked a couple of questions then went right to work with his special education peer. He was very engaged with the work and really seemed to enjoy himself as he helped his friend through his work for that period. I asked about the student and Melissa explained that he struggled with behavior and was often in trouble. Melissa heard about him and encouraged him to become a peer mentor for her special education classroom. After becoming a mentor, his behavior completely turned around. The peer mentor program gave him confidence, purpose, and he is more connected with his school.

My favorite part of the day was “Go Noodle.” During “Go Noodle” the entire class, peer mentors, and Paraeducators included, view a web program for getting kids moving and dance along to the silly songs. The characters and songs are wacky and the movements are even wackier and the kids love it. I loved it, too, and quietly schemed on ways I could get my high schoolers to do “Go Noodle.” Mostly, though, I marveled at this awesome community Melissa has built in her classroom.

Melissa’s peer mentor program is a model for the rest of us. In a time when school safety is a constant worry, connections are key. This classroom shows us the importance of helping our students build relationships across difference. As Melissa took me on a tour of the school, every ten feet or so, posters hung on the wall of Melissa’s students and their peer mentors. The peer mentors made the posters to introduce the students to the rest of the school. The faces of the students in the pictures say it all. Both of them have beaming smiles. Their connection is clear. They are not simply mentor and mentee, they are friends.

To learn more about implementing the peer mentor program in your school, check out Melissa’s blog. Also, check out my conversation with Melissa and hear about her experiences as an educator and her messages to other educators, students, and the community.


My Support System

I’m flying home from Washington, D.C., after spending the last three days there for a Teacher of the Year event. This is the second leg of a three-leg flight and this particular part is extra long for state-to-state flying at 3 hours and 47 minutes. Gives me uninterrupted time to think and work, unlike when I drive. I spent the first leg of the flight writing thank you notes to the various presenters and supporters at the National State Teacher of the Year Induction I attended at Google in Mountain View, California, at the beginning of this month.

As I sat in my seat, writing 26 thank you notes, recalling how much I learned and experienced, my hand aching from not being used to writing things by hand, it occurred to me that since being selected as the Washington State Teacher of the Year, I’ve spent on average three nights a week at home and the rest traveling. While it’s been an honor to represent my students, colleagues, and state, and rewarding both personally and professionally, being away from home is rough. I miss my family.

So, when I was writing those thank you notes, I realized I was spending hours thanking virtual strangers, when I should be thanking my amazing family, particularly my husband, Ryan. When he and I met nine years ago, I’m not sure either of us really knew what we were signing up for. He knew I loved adventure, and I knew he’d lived in the same place for his entire life. We were in for quite a journey together.

7C6DE0C3-AAE5-4DE9-98D8-83952ADF7B9FFrom the very beginning, Ryan was my champion, even when my many endeavors inconvenienced our life together. You see, I have a bit of a problem with timing. I completed my masters thesis while caring for our brand new baby boy in 2012. I signed up to pursue National Board Certification the year we were selling our house and moving to Spokane. And, I often mess up spring break to attend the Washington Education Association Representative Assembly. Nevertheless, Ryan supports me through it all. He loves me in spite of and because of my passion.

This, though, being Teacher of the Year, has kept me away from home far longer than anything in the past and we’ve completely rearranged our lives for it. The entire family, my mom included, has pitched in to make it all work. Still, I am away from home often.

Most recently, as a finalist for National Teacher of the Year, I had to prepare for the selection, which included a keynote speech. I fretted over what I would say, and my husband was there to listen to me. Just days before the selection, I asked if he would watch my speech. He sat down and helped me rearrange, remove, and add elements. He helped me make it into the story I wanted to tell. He did this, knowing that should I be selected, I will be gone even more.

This public acknowledgement of how very much I appreciate my truly amazing husband barely begins to express my feelings. He believes in me and he loves me for everything I am. My trajectory sometimes clashes with what either of us envisioned for our lives together, but through his unending support, we manage to grow together and our relationship grows stronger.

Thank you, Ryan David Brodwater, for believing in me. Thank you for being my champion. Thank you for doing the drop offs, making sure we FaceTime every night when I’m away, grocery shopping, and keeping our family running, all while do amazing things through your own work. But, mostly, thanks for loving me and being proud of me. I couldn’t do any of this without you. Thanks for being my partner through this crazy experience. I love you!

Denisha Saucedo: Making Connections

People Hands Love Romantic Couples Sign HeartAfter yet another school shooting, this one killing 17 of our young people, I already had a post written. I wrote it three months ago after a shooting at an elementary school in California. The week before that, there was a shooting at a church in Texas, and before that the mass murder at a concert in Las Vegas. And, less than a month before that the shooting happened in nearby Rockford, Washington, at Freeman High School. I already wrote about that one, too, for my first post on this site. That in itself is upsetting. In the first four months of my tenure as Teacher of the Year, I’ve already had occasion to write about these atrocities too many times. But, the most upsetting thing is that this keeps happening.

We closed 2017 with over 270 mass shootings, many of which occurred at our schools, and we’re working to break that record in 2018. When these horrors happen we focus on the things we think we can change. We want gun laws and regulations (which I agree we need), we want more armed security guards and metal detectors (which I do not agree we need), anything that allows us to believe we can control our environments. Walking through a metal detector is like taking cough syrup. It makes us feel better, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem, it only alleviates the symptoms, while the underlying condition gets worse.

We must look deeper. What makes a person take up arms and turn them on their fellow human beings? It’s disconnection. It’s feeling powerless. This is the root of the problem and much more complicated to fix than installing security devices or keeping our kids inside. It requires time and investment. People feel the most safe when they know they are connected to the people around them, they feel welcome, and they have a sense of empowerment, like they can affect change in their own lives.

IMG_4635I recently saw this in action in Denisha Saucedo’s classroom at Kent Elementary in Kent, Washington. Ironically, when I first arrived, the class was preparing for a lockdown drill (often referred to as an active shooter drill). I watched Denisha cover the windows and the kids find their places against the wall. The lights were turned off and the doors locked, then everyone was quiet for what felt like an eternity. After the all clear finally came over the loud speaker, class proceeded like any other day. I could dwell on this, the normalcy of lockdown drills. The fact that it’s just another part of students’ days. But, that’s already apparent and been discussed more eloquently elsewhere. Instead, I’ll focus on the community and the connections Denisha builds in her classroom to help her students see their own power, beauty, and potential and that of their classmates.

IMG_4615Denisha’s classroom is nothing short of inspiring. Her walls are covered with her students’ goals, both academic and personal, and inspirational messages, telling them that they are the leaders in their own lives. “Make it happen” and “If you believe you can you will!” She explained to me that the students in her class represent a wide range of abilities, but she has them all reading grade-level texts, by providing them appropriate access points, and strategies for comprehension. I see it in action and watch the class navigate a difficult text about California wildfires. Every student is working and engaged, and no student gives up, because they all believe they can do this work. Denisha circulates throughout the room, asking questions and empowering her students to find the answers for themselves. They feel supported, confident, and safe.


Later in the day, the STOMP team (Denisha is the advisor/coach) does an impromptu performance for me during their lunch hour. They are a little nervous, but after a couple of minutes they dance and stomp with confidence and excitement, so proud of their choreography and of their team.

After the room cleared, I got to see a bit of Denisha’s magic in connecting with students. A sullen boy had come in and sat at the back table. He was their to refocus after having insulted a classmate in another room. Denisha sat with him and gently helped him articulate what happened. I asked if I should leave the room, that maybe he’d be more comfortable if I wasn’t there. Denisha explained that she didn’t the know the student either and that I should stay, it’s part of the process. Here she was with a boy she didn’t know, building a connection. By the close of lunch, after opening up about what happened, and eating his lunch with an amazing Paraeductor, the student had processed and learned from his mistake, and made two new connections in that classroom.

Denisha Saucedo shows us how to help students feel safe in our schools. She creates an environment in which students feel welcome, and safe, and that they are wanted, that their voices matter, and that they belong. She encourages students to look beyond their own experiences, practice kindness, and get to know one another, to see the value in their classmates. It is only through connections, like Denisha makes with her students, that we will stop wanting to hurt one another. When we recognize that our differences make us interesting and that we all add beauty to the world, that is when our communities and our schools will feel and be safe. Thank you, Denisha, for showing us a safe and empowering classroom.

*See my interview with Denisha to hear about her strengths, lessons learners, and her message to educators, decision-makers, and the community.

Giving Students Voice in State Government

What happens when you take three outstanding former students to the state capital to speak on behalf of public education and English Language Learners? Pure magic! This is the story of how one teacher ended up taking three students to our state capital to meet with legislators.

It started with an idea. For two years I had been working to get my local legislators to visit my classroom. I called their offices and left messages and emailed regularly, but to no avail. It was at a National Board Hill Day in February 2017, that I decided to change my message. Instead of asking, I would entice my legislators by focusing on the great things happening in our public schools and, specifically in my school and in my classroom (read more about this here on Stories from School). This shift resulted in several visits from Spokane’s legislators.

One of the first was a visit from Mike Volz, a freshman Representative from the 6th district, in late May of 2017. After spending the afternoon in our class, Representative Volz was taken with the students and the experience and wanted to bring that back to the capital. So began the plan to bring my class to Olympia.

We stayed in touch over the summer, via my newsletters and intermittent email, then, in the fall, after being selected as the Teacher of the Year, things kicked into high gear. Mike asked to visit again and during that visit, we solidified plans for the visit to Olympia. Instead of bringing my class, as originally discussed, we decided it might be more beneficial for legislators to see students who started in the Newcomer Center, but have now gone on to post-secondary education and can talk about what barriers they faced and what helped them most during high school.

On January 22, 2018. I, along with three former students, hopped in the car and headed to the state capital. Philip Janz, Mike Volz’s aide, had an entire agenda planned, including a parking spot – which made us feel very important.

IMG_1093We started the day with a visit to Representative Linda Dolan. Linda is a former educator from Spokane. During our visit, we discovered that she was instrumental in starting the newcomer program in Spokane in the late 1990’s. She enjoyed meeting the students and knowing they started their education in the US in the Newcomer Center. Later when we spoke to the House K-12 committee, Representative Dolan commented o how wonderful it is to see the success of a program she helped to create.


IMG_0986We then visited Representative Marcus Riccelli. He represents the area in which all of us live in Spokane. He was so kind and welcoming and really listened to the students. He even wrote notes as he listened, explaining that while he was not on the education committee, he would pass along some of what he discovered in listening to the students stories and concerns. He also handed each one his card, explaining he is their representative and should they need assistance, they should reach out. This was a powerful message to the students, as they began to recognize their place and their potential impact on policy.

Our busy day next took us to visit both the House Republican and Democratic Caucuses. The caucus is where all of the discussion happens prior to heading out on the floor for debate and voting. While we did not get to witness any of the discussion, we did receive a warm welcome in each caucus and Representative Volz presented me with a resolution he sponsored concerning recognition of my selection as 2018 Washington State Teacher of the Year.

The students and I had the chance to speak about our experiences in front of the entire House body via the caucuses. It was really cool and made a huge impression on the students. I’m sure the students also made a huge impression on the members of the House of Representatives, as well. One legislator, Representative Lovick, from the 44th district, rushed out after our visit to the Democratic Caucus, to take a photo with us and give each of the students his cards, asking them to please reach out to him in the future, that he would love to hear more of their stories.


After a very quick visit to see Senator Billig, and an educational lunch in the legislative cafeteria with Representative Volz, we headed to the House K-12 and Senate K-12 Committee meetings. The students addressed both committees. The students shared their stories of starting their high school journeys in the Newcomer Center and where they all landed. Both Safa and Asraa are sophomores at Eastern Washington University. Safa is studying to become an elementary school teacher, and Asraa is studying Dental Hygiene. Jeff is an Act Six Scholar at Whitworth University. He is a junior and studying sociology. They went on to explain what helped them the most throughout high school (their English language teachers and college achievers programs), and the largest barriers they encountered (standardized testing and access to apprenticeships and mentoring). They provided legislators a unique look into the experiences of English language learners, and, hopefully, inspired them to make positive change for our immigrant and refugee students.

This is the impact students can have when we provide them an opportunity to have a voice. Sure, I could’ve visited the capital on my own as I have in the past, but the true impact on our legislators came through hearing directly from students about their experiences. This visit was also impactful for Jeff, Safa, and Asraa, as they learned they can speak for their communities and make a difference. Such an incredible experience and one I hope to make a tradition.

Reach out to legislators. Give your students the opportunity to share their stories. It really can impact policy and lead to positive changes in our public schools!


I am a math teacher!

25272262198_8ece1b2a2d_zI teach math. It’s true. I never thought I would be a math teacher, but here I am, seven years in. You’d think seven years would give me confidence, belief in myself that I am a math teacher, but it doesn’t. We’ve spent so many years in education focused on being highly qualified, meaning holding a specific certification and having the “right” set of college coursework under our belts, that we fail to recognize the knowledge and skill that comes with practice and actual experience. This was my problem. So, when Jesse Gilliam from Washington STEM* contacted me to speak at the Washington STEM Summit last November, my first response was, “Are you sure I’m the right person for this event?”

He responded that the Summit focus was on equity in STEM and he believed, based on my teaching context, I was exactly the right person for this event. This was enough of a push for me to go for it, but just barely. After all, if I’m going to encourage my colleagues, students, family, and anyone else who might listen, to be fearless, I better practice what I preach, right?

I teach math, yes, but not math in the traditional sense. I teach the language for math to high school English language learners who already have the skills, just not the English. I wasn’t so sure that qualified me as an expert, but it did make me think. Why didn’t I see myself as a math teacher? More importantly, why didn’t I see my class, in which we cover content from place value to Cartesian graphs, foundational elements of geometry and algebra to percentages and fractions, as a legitimate math class?

I spent the time between the request to speak and the actual day of the panel diving deeply into the rabbit hole of what equity in STEM means and how it all relates to my own practice in the Newcomer Center. All the while, trying to convince myself that I really do have something to share about this important topic. After weeks of fretting, I finally thought about the topic in terms which made sense to me. I thought about my students. How do my students fit within STEM?

I started with the students in my class, by looking at their interests, their academic strengths and weaknesses, and their goals for the future. Roughly 90% of my kids seek post-secondary education and careers in STEM fields, with 50% wanting careers in medicine. This led me to think about former students, those who went on to college and those who entered the job market or sought technical degrees. It was this train of thought that put me on my path – our view of STEM is quite narrow, traditional – STEM is simply that, science, technology, engineering, and math, and teaching STEM subjects is pretty straightforward. We fail to look at STEM from all angles, and provide all students the inroads they need to access STEM.

The long and short of it is, I am a math teacher. I simply don’t teach math in the traditional sense. I provide my students the approach and knowledge they need to become proficient. My students know math, but if we put them in a regular math class without the proper foundational language skills, they will not succeed. What I teach and how I teach them prepares them for what comes next. Because I have the latitude to meet my students where they are and instruct them in a manner and at a level that is appropriate, they are better equipped to achieve their goals. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we created space for alternative means through which to teach and learn STEM subjects? Imagine, all students would be STEM students, it might simply look different for each of them.

Watch my comments and the equity panel at the Washington STEM Summit here (my comments begin about 20 mins. into the video). Equity in STEM is a matter of access. How do you view STEM and your place in it?

* Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

In the aftermath…


At 7:26 AM this morning, I dropped my son at the bus stop. I waited with him for the bus then spent time chatting with a couple of other mothers after the bus departed for school.

Freeman High School in Rockford, Washington is just 13.6 miles southeast of my school, Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane. Every October, Rockford holds a county fair and hosts a children’s Halloween parade. Years ago we took my step-daughter and step-son to participate. It was cute.

My dad is visiting from New Mexico, so I took half a personal day to spend time with him. At 8:00 AM we headed downtown to eat breakfast at the Satellite. We both had scrambles and reminisced about my childhood.

It was a late start day today for Rockford schools. A week earlier, a young man wrote notes to a few friends that he planned to do “something stupid.”

After breakfast, at 9:30 AM, I recorded an interview with KIRO radio in Seattle via Skype. I spoke with Colleen and Dave about our public schools, and DACA, how there is beauty in all families, about seeing difference instead of deficit, and how we must be kind, committed, and caring first for our students. The interview ended at 10:00.

At around the same time, a 15 year old boy opened fire in the second floor hallway of Freeman High School. His school. He shot and killed his “friend,” Sam Strahan, and wounded three others. He carried the guns he used in a duffle bag on the school bus.

At 10:50 AM, I went to my son’s school to drop off a permission slip for him to run cross country. I was locked out. It was my son’s second week of Kindergarten and his school was on lockdown. At the time, I didn’t know why.

Spokane County Sheriff, Ozzie Knezovich, stated, “It sounds like a case of a bullying type situation.” A friend of the suspect said of the alleged shooter, whom he considered a “friend” that “He never really seemed like that person who had issues…was always nice and funny and weird.”

For Spokane Public Schools the lockdown ended at 11:25 AM. My son got to leave his classroom and head to lunch. I dropped off his papers, but, still reeling from the experience, the office staff wasn’t keen on me checking in with my son. I understood. They don’t know me yet and tensions were still high.

One dead and three injured. Rockford is a small community, with only 300 students in the high school. One resident said, “Not knowing who is affected is hard. It doesn’t matter who it is because it’s going to be someone we know.” She was referring to the victims, but the same can be said of the alleged shooter.

I called the Newcomer Center and talked with Luisa. I needed to check on our students before heading to a meeting for the rest of the afternoon. I was worried about them. Were the kids “ok?” I wanted to be there with them. To help them to not fear in the face of something so difficult to understand.

The community of Rockford hopes “everyone stays as positive as we can…and surrounds itself with a lot of love because we’re going to need it.” The healing and recovery will take a long time.

I arrived at my meeting at noon. Everyone there watched the news as the story unfolded. I thought about connections for the entire four hours I was there. When I finally got home, I hugged my little boy tightly and told him how much I love him.

Freeman High School marks the 19th school shooting since January, 2016. It is the 314th mass shooting in 2017 alone. Tomorrow we’ll focus on gun control and arming school resource officers, even though an unarmed school custodian stopped the shooter. There will be no mention of developing connections, reaching out, or really seeing one another.

We teach kids to call everyone a “friend.” We encourage them to report bullies and to not be bullies themselves, but we stop short of teaching kindness and giving them the language they need and the courage it takes to talk about their feelings honestly and openly without fear.

Supposedly there were warning signs. The alleged shooter was obsessed with school shooting documentaries, had acted out violent scenes with BB guns on YouTube, and wrote the notes about doing “something stupid.” We were obviously looking at him, but were we really seeing him?

It’s hard to navigate a world in which most of our connections are made online. We forget that relationships take practice. So many of us end up feeling isolated and alone and when “bullying type situations” occur, we don’t know how to address them.

Tomorrow, I’ll go back to my classroom. My students will be there, ready to learn, but a little bit of the hope will have left their eyes. It’s my job to empower them to be fearless, to show them the world is a beautiful place, and that they and their classmates are worthy of love. I’ll teach my content, but more importantly, I’ll teach them how to be human, how to be kind, and how to make connections with one another.

As we go out into the world tomorrow, into our communities and into our schools, I encourage everyone to make a new connection. Take out your earbuds, put away your phones, try not to look at your feet as you walk. Lift your head and look around. Make eye contact. Ask questions. Show all the people you meet that you are interested in them. See them. Show love. Be fearless.


*Information on Freeman High School Shooting from “One student dead, three in hospital after classmate opens fire at Freeman High School” in The Spokesman-Review, September 13, 2017.