Teachers Can Connect From a Different Angle
Teachers each have a passion beyond working with young people. Sometimes they may choose to focus on that passion and connect from a different angle. In this episode, JoDee and Ali explore one teacher's jump to authorship, professional development, and how your teacher brain can help you connect from a different angle.
Teacher Turned Award Winning Author
Ali, we made it to our 10th episode. Thank goodness for all of our teacher hats, because we've been covering a lot of roles as podcasters. So I think we can definitely say we've been trained very well. Anyways, I will let you kick off numero diez.
I would like to introduce you to our special guest, Andrea Olatunji. She is a former teacher turned award winning author, and leader in education professional development.
Hi, ladies. Thank you. It's an honor to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Oh, you're welcome. And I'm really excited for you to be here and for our listeners. But I'm also really glad to connect you with Jodi, as she's someone I've wanted to introduce you to for a long time,
Andrea, it is really great to connect with you, myself, and many of our listeners are aspiring authors. And this type of career support from you, I think will benefit many of us and give us the appropriate roadmap to authorship.
Awesome. It's great to meet you.
In talking with JoDee, we were sharing about the skills that have transitioned really well into our current roles in our careers. And I was wondering if you could talk to us today about what part of being a teacher helped you become an author and a professional development leader?
The Importance of Storytelling: Language, Literacy, and Diversity in Children's Books
Okay, well, that's a good question. It's pretty interesting, because everything is kind of like interlinked. As a teacher, I'm a Spanish teacher. So my main mission, aside from teaching the language was to validate my students to empower them, I wanted them to be proud of who they are, where they come from, I was fortunate enough to work in schools that were very diverse. So I had a very diverse population of students. So I wanted my students you know, to seek for answers by themselves, and express themselves without fear without shame. And in my 20, plus years of teaching, I always tried, you know, different techniques, different approaches. But I can say that books have been, above all, my best resource, my best tool, I always use books to, you know, start conversations, to help my students find information. So books, when they're well written, they are authentic, and diverse, right? There can be great vehicles to accomplish this. The thing was, it wasn't always that easy to find the books I wanted to use in my class. You know, looking here, well, I'm talking about 20 years ago, you know, now you have a little bit more variety of books. But then the books were mostly translated from English originals, the translations were not really well done, or they didn't reflect elements of the whole diversity of culture that we have as Hispanics. So it was really, really a challenge. I was going to, I'm from Uruguay originally. So I will go to my country and try to bring books, but they were too advanced for my students levels. So I was always, you know, in that in that challenge. So I said to myself, Okay, this is the time to start publishing my own books. And that's how I became an author. I also wanted to contribute to the Latino literature, I think we need more representation in literature, especially children's literature. And right before the pandemic began, I had decided to take a sabbatical. So I wanted to I was working on my second book, I wanted to put all my energy into that. And then the pandemic began, I found myself working at home with my son partially at home, partially at school. So I also started hearing from teachers, you know, teachers that I knew, and you know, like, Andrea, I have to teach online, I have to teach four or five year olds, I have no idea what to do. What can I do? So I started using my books. My books also have educators guides with lesson plans and activities. So I started providing those resources to teachers that led to me doing some webinars and workshops on how to use storytelling to teach language. And that's how, you know, I started helping these teachers and it's been an amazing journey.
I have such a connection with the storytelling part that you're saying, because my last year teaching was, it was my favorite year of teaching reading, because we went from teaching fourth graders who were coming to guided reading every Do you know guided reading books can be pretty bland in the storytelling, there's not a lot of fantasy and excitement in those experiences. And so we transitioned to literature circles, which I loved literature circles, I loved getting those, those books that have opportunity for deep discourse and arguments and debates. And, you know, character analysis. And so when you say storytelling, that makes me really excited that you can go into schools, and show how when you have a really rich text that's not just like, rich in ideas, but culture, and it's authentic. Those are the kinds of things that make me want to go grab a book and head down to, you know, my daughter's school or another school and read because a really wonderful reading experience can really transform what reading is in comparison to like guided reading, which is pretty structured, which is valuable. But how you can pick up a book and have a really remarkable experience with it.
I think storytelling is fantastic, not only through reading, but when you empower children to tell stories, like at some point, I was teaching kindergarten and Monday mornings was like, my favorite time, it was great for me, because I would stand by the door and see the kids coming in. And they were like, good morning, good morning. You know what, and they will come with all these stories of what happened during the weekend. And it was just like, fascinating. And I would just sit down and listen for hours, you know. So when we enable kids, you know, when we give them the freedom to just grab a book and read it for the fun of it, or just tell me the story, you know, as a Spanish teacher, like don't concentrate on, oh, he's using the wrong word or mispronounced and just just let it flow.
Inspiring the Love of Reading
Reading for enjoyment. I love it. But Andrea, you seem to have those special qualities of a teacher, you're innovative, personable, and quick on your feet to solve problems. And in this case, you were seeking to solve a problem in children's literature. So I guess my question is, why did you decide to go full time as an author and PD leader, instead of staying in that traditional classroom role?
I had to you know, take that time out of the classroom. I mean, I've been teaching for, again, 20 plus years, and I always enjoyed working with my students. But it came to a point when I wasn't feeling that excitement. And at the same time, you know, I was working with my books, I was like, Okay, well, this is the time to step back a little bit and connect from a different angle.
Connect from a different angle. That is that is every conversation Ali and I have maybe our title isn't teacher, but I am a teacher, like being a teacher is a part of your DNA.
Once you're a teacher, you are always a teacher, whether you're creating materials, like you are like teachers, guides and literature for children and helping teachers or, like I volunteer a lot at my children's school as much as I can or in my community. I'm really involved in the education department at my synagogue, for example. Because we have these skills as educators that not everybody has, and we still want to use them. Because I think we all went into teaching because we were passionate about it, because we loved it.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think you know, that, especially now in these times, we need to, if we can, you know, to be in a position where we can help educators we can work together as teams, I think is very, very important. As we all know, you know, this past two years have been very tough on teachers and teaching sometimes, I felt, I don't know if you ladies had the same feeling. But I felt teaching sometimes can be very isolating. You can you know, walk, walk into your classroom, and you're there with your students. If you're lucky, you might have your principles of administration, come observe your class every now and then. But most of the time, teachers don't have this opportunity. I mean, many times I was the only Spanish teacher in the school where I worked. So you don't have this opportunity to sit as a team and say, Hey, let's throw ideas or let's work on this project together. Especially now with the pandemic. I think teachers have been going through a ton of stress. They have the paradigm of teaching has changed completely because we've been teaching, you know, like virtually in person, like the whole thing had to change. And I think right now is yeah, it's crucial that we reach out to each other and we support each other.
The Pandemic Changed Our Perspectives on Teaching and Learning
Yeah, that's actually how Andrea and I first met was our children were in kindergarten together. And so we were kind of talking about that or no commiserating about that it was a challenge to keep a kindergartener engaged in virtual learning. And so I felt like understanding developmentally where kids are at that age because I was an educator, I knew that sometimes there were unrealistic expectations of my child, and, you know, being in front of the screen that much and so it was I was able to really utilize that teacher brain that we talked about and say, Okay, these are the things you have to do. These are the priorities, but sometimes it's okay to not be able to do all the things.
Oh, yeah, it was challenging for sure. It's hard to see a five year old, you know, having to sit down four or five times a day in front of a computer, and, and pay attention and be engaged. And on top of that, you know, I mean, I take my hat off to all teachers, but many teachers again, didn't know how to teach virtually. And many schools thought that, okay, we're gonna be virtual, so they just transplanted the whole life on campus, you know, to the computer. And it's impossible. We don't teach the same way. We're teaching virtually them when you're teaching in a classroom with the kids sitting in front of you. So I thought the expectations were a little bit unrealistic many times. And, and definitely, yeah, it was a challenge. I find myself at some point saying, Well, you know, talking to my son, so Okay, now let's go outside and play, we just need to be in the sun we need to relax, you know.
Like, just yeah, we're gonna stop whatever is planned and get off the screen. And we're gonna meet at the park.
Yeah. And just consider that we are teachers, so we can see things differently. Can you imagine those parents or those grandmas that were taking care of the kids all day and had to be there with the children, making sure that they were doing what they had to be doing? And they had no clue what was happening. I mean, yeah,
I agree. And that was where I think having that background in education, I say this a lot. But it's helped me so much in everything else that I've done in my life, including being a parent, and just knowing what that I had the confidence to say, Yeah, we're going to turn off the computer for today and go outside. And knowing that, that that wasn't going to ruin my child for the rest of their educational career. Like it's okay, if you do if you miss one hour today, because you can't sit still or you, you need to get out of the house. And so I think that gives us a lot of confidence when it comes to these unique situations that we've been put in for the last two years of either being at home or having to quarantine. And I you know, one thing I think about a lot about being a teacher, because I wasn't a teacher during the pandemic I also had exited teaching before this happened is the resources that teachers needed. And one of the things that I love about your work is that you have these educator guides, these teacher guides to your materials. And as a teacher, you have so much put on you right you want. So you find a great children's book, and you want to use it in the classroom. But if there's no guide or no materials available, then you have to create that from scratch. And thank you so much for doing that for teachers.
It's hard many times, you know, like observing classes, I've seen that there is a corner where the storybooks are there on the shelves, and asking the teacher okay, how do you use the books, mostly the books are there for reading, you know, they can read as a group or the kids and read independently in a corner in the morning. And that's the end of the book. And I feel like Ouch. I mean, there's so many different layers to a story you know, exploring and as a language teacher Well, there's a great opportunity to is a window to the culture, you know, let's explore the author the illustrator. Are they from from the same country? No. Okay, how do you think they made the book together? If you don't live in the same country? Or? Or let's explore the illustrations, what kind of art you think it is? So my books he does? Somebody told me one time they were interviewing me, he said, your books have different layers, because they illustrations have layers, the book itself, the story has layers. And I think it's a very good description for my type of stories, because you can use them you know, even though the target audience I would say is between four to six, eight years old. I use my one of my books with my middle school students. You know, we did a whole project on the Amazon forest and the jaguars and you know, so it depends on the creativity of the teacher, but definitely Alexandra, yeah, if you have resources already made as a teacher, it's a plus. We are always happy, like yeah, please send me the PDF worksheet.
Creating Resources that are Standards Based
That is so true. Yeah, I know teachers spend a lot of time planning so if something can be packaged for them, that allows them time in the morning to go get a coffee or have their weekends free. When you have something as great as what you have. It allows teachers to do things that they enjoy outside of the classroom.
Definitely and it is my hope just to give them a little bit of an inspiration and insight into all the possibilities you know, so when I created my educators guide, it's like everything that came to mind went in there you know, their lesson plans they're based on standards on the ACTFL standards, American Council on the Teachers of Foreign Languages a very long name, but anyway the national standards so the lessons are based on that but I also put you know, like guiding questions that you can you know, use with the story or activities, projects. I love using products with my students, I'm not the typical traditional teacher, as you might think, like, I usually do walk into my classroom, you would always see my students moving around sitting on the floor recording under the tables. I mean, it was like a, like a nice organized chaos in in my room. So I like using, you know, opportunities to, to, to teach without the worksheet and the whiteboard, you know,
When you're talking about the standards part. So I'm in a writing group, and I have the the teacher perspective in my writing group, you know, I'm, I'm editing a manuscript, I, I always have connections to the classroom. This would connect with this topic, this actually connects with this standard, because that's how my brain is wired. And it's a perspective that no one in my group has. So I wondered, when I started my writing group, like, what can I bring to the table and I realized quickly, it's my teacher brain. And other other than my quirkiness that I like, it's my teacher brain.
And I love how you use the ACTFL standards, because I've taught in four different states. And so sometimes I find this awesome material in a textbook that's written just for Florida. And so I want to use that later on, or I you know, find another resource, but then I have to change the standards to a different state which don't match up but ACTFL, which for foreign language teachers, that's like the end all be all, perfect that you aligned that your life educators guide. Yeah, use the manual. Yes, yes. So that's awesome. And, you know, I really think sometimes we read textbooks, we read materials, and we wonder, like, did a teacher really make this? And when I read your stuff, I know that that you made it. And it's apparent to me that you were in the classroom, because you're thinking about project based learning, you're thinking about ways for kids to get out of their seat, and from where I'm sitting, I don't think that would have been possible without your 20 years of experience in the classroom.
Yeah, I also like, you know, the, the idea of teaching the language through in a context. You know, when you use stories, kids are basically grasping here, I read my first book, Omar is very, you know, the, each page has like one sentence or two, you know, and it's very repetitive. It's very simple story. So I read it to children like preschoolers, you know, and it was fascinating to see them one time I was visiting a school. And then after I visited the class, the principal just took me around to show me, and then we pass by the gym, and these kids were in the gym, and they say, "hola" and they were repeating phrases from the book, like, hey, "quieres jugar", "buenos dias". I'm like, Oh, my goodness, like, like, five minutes I go. The simplicity, you know, it's like a song when you listen to a song, and then it sticks in your head. So I have found, you know, the storytelling is wonderful for for teaching languages in that sense, you know, it just embeds all these, these, this content. And when I write my stories, I do it purposefully, you know, I just to embed content that teachers can use and create units, you know, of, of lessons for a month or longer. So, it's yeah, it's pretty nice. When kids just learning that way, you know, they're playing or they're singing, and oh, I actually know how to say it. And you know, and they started repeating it, and that's how they, they learn the language is way less stressful stories have that innate quality, you know, lowering the stress. They're always appealing. I thought, everybody in K-12. And I never sat in front of a classroom and say, Okay, kids, I have a story to tell you. And they told me, Oh, no, I'm not interested. Everybody likes his stories like food, great great response.
Connecting with Your Local Community
And also, one of the things I really enjoy about you as like an author and a person is that you're always out in the community Que Pasa Fest I saw you there with your table, and the books and engaging children in storytelling and reading. I know you just participated in the New Orleans Book Festival, as well. And that's just a really important, I think part of what you you do is you're engaging the community, not just students in classrooms. Could you tell us a little bit about how you how you were able to do that, and what connections you've built through doing that?
Yeah, I'm super excited now because the doors are opening and we can come back to doing some more in person events. I've been doing a lot of virtual, which is amazing, because I can visit you know, five, six schools in a day from my home. But the in person connection to me is always special. I mean, so seeing the kids faces, the interactions, the frowning, you know how to, you know, as a teacher, again, I use my teaching skills there and you know, I'm in front of kids and I start reading my book and I immediately can read the interaction, okay? They these kids are tired of sitting, they need to move so I just bring the story into another level and ask them to stand up and walk like jaguars or whatever, you know. But yeah, they been out there in the communities a great way of what not only promote my books and then you know, putting my face out there but also to I teach people a little bit about Spanish language and the culture. Yeah, it's always fun. Always fun to be out there.
Well, Andrea, it was really wonderful for us all to connect about this commonality we have as as teachers. If you want to keep up with Andrea. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and her website cuentacuento.com.