Posted in Education, Humanities, Language, Learning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Educating English Learners

After a lengthy hiatus brought on by the craziness that is teaching sixth grade at a boarding school, I jumped headfirst right back into Educating English Learners, by Nutta, Strebel, Mokhtari, Mihai, and Crevecoeur-Bryant, now that summer vacation has begun.  While it was quite dense and loaded with vocabulary more geared towards English as a Second Language Teachers, I learned a lot about how to better support and help the English language learners in my class.  I would not recommend this text for light reading as I found myself having to reread several passages because of the syntax and verbosity of the language used.  It’s a great resource for any teacher who works with non-native English students in their classroom.  Although the book doesn’t include neat and easy to use remedies and strategies, it provides the reader with much food for thought and fodder on how to create a caring and supportive environment for all students in the classroom.

My takeaways:

  • English language learners will struggle less when learning English if their native language literacy skills are strong.  While this seems quite simplistic and obvious, when I read this knowledge nugget, I felt as though someone had slung a bag of bricks at my head.  So, the stronger the EL student is in his or her native language, the better equipped he or she will be to tackle the intricacies of the English language.  Knowing this will help me better structure mini-lessons or plans for the ELs in my class.  Talking to parents and looking at student files ahead of time might provide me with the answers I need regarding this issue.
  • To help EL students feel more welcomed and safe at the start of the school year, labelling objects around the room in the native languages represented in the classroom is a good first step in setting up the classroom.  This will help the students know how much I care about them and want them to be successful.  It’s a little thing that is sure to go a long way.  It’s also great for vocabulary development for those EL students in my class.
  • Things that native English speakers take for granted are truly difficult for EL students to learn.  For example, native English speakers know the difference between words when they are used in social contexts or in academic settings.  A party is a social gathering when discussed amongst friends, but in the social studies classroom it refers to a group of people with similar beliefs.  Although the definitions are closely related, to non-native English students, how is it possible that one word can have more than one meaning?  The English language is full of rules, idiomatic expressions, and exceptions to every rule.  Being aware of these challenges will help us better empathize with and support the ESL students in our classroom.
  • If we know that most native English speakers don’t fully grasp why we say what we do and how we say things in English and our ELLs need much help understanding rules of grammar when learning English, why don’t we do more formal instruction in the classroom on the rules and structure of English?  Why don’t we teach the parts of speech and how to use them?  Why don’t we help students learn how to diagram sentences to understand the hows and whys of English?  Why don’t we teach the English language to all of our students?  As I’ve often wrestled with these questions over the years, I’ve suddenly realized that I don’t formally teach grammar and English to my sixth grade students.  Sure, I brush over it at various times when I’m conferencing with students in Writer’s Workshop or helping an ELL in my class; I don’t however, do any full-class instruction on this.  I need to bring back the formal grammar instruction, but I want to make sure I do so in a meaningful, relevant, and engaging way.  Having the students complete worksheets and underline verbs and nouns seems tedious and boring.  I want my students to truly learn English grammar.  I was thinking of starting my Humanities class twice a week with a brain opener activity I would call Grammar Gurus in which I would teach the students about English grammar through fun activities.  It wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and it would allow me be sure that my students understand the form and function of the English language.  This would also greatly benefit the ELLs in my classroom too.  Nice!
  • Acting out, visually, or through modelling, new or challenging vocabulary terms will better help the EL students in our classrooms understand what we are discussing or asking them to do.  I could use images or diagrams as instructions on worksheets or on our class website to help non-native English speakers better understand what is being asked of them.
  • Much like labelling objects in the classroom in various different languages, having a word wall in the classroom with new vocabulary terms and their definitions in simple English would also help struggling English language learners better understand the content being covered in class.  My co-teacher and I could use this strategy as an introductory lesson for each new unit.  We could introduce the new vocabulary terms that we will cover throughout the unit and help the students generate student-friendly and simplistic definitions for the new words.  Very cool idea!
  • Thematic units or PBLs help ELLs due to the longer exposure to the content and vocabulary terms covered.  If the students are learning about renewable energy in STEM class and also writing about it in Humanities class, the same ideas, concepts, and vocabulary terms will be used in both classes.  The English language learners in the classroom would then be provided with more time to practice understanding the content and processing the new words and concepts.  What a brilliant idea!  I’m going to talk to my co-teacher about crafting more thematic units throughout the year to better support and help the ESL students in our class.
  • While I’ve always known the power in partnering non-native English speakers with native English students, the book made a point to explain the power in pairing students with different languages together when working on a PBL activity that incorporates technology somehow.  The non-native English speaker can receive English support from the native speaker while they are both problem solving in English together.  Not only does this technique help to bridge cultural differences, it also helps both students grow and develop as English language learners.  I need to make sure I continue this tradition of pairing ELLs with native English speakers in the classroom as the evidence and research proves what I’ve known all along.
  • The text discusses the importance of correcting the English language learners in our class in their writing and oral speech.  This goes against my prior knowledge and what I currently do in the classroom.  Rather than correcting the oral speech of the ELLs in my classroom, I work with them one-on-one with their writing.  I provide them feedback on how to improve their written English.  I should do this more consistently and also correct their oral English as well.  The book highlights the importance of doing this so that the students will learn proper English.  If we cottle the ELLs in our classroom, they will not grow and develop as English language learners.  Although this seems like common sense, I’ve never realized the importance of doing so for the ESL students in my class.  I need to do this regularly in the classroom.
  • For ELLs to grow and develop, they need to be receiving direct instruction from an ESL instructor at least once a day along with inclusion in a mainstream class.  The combination of the two will help the students understand the rules and function of the language while also practicing the social and academic rules of English.  In the sixth grade, my ELLs only have ESL class twice a week.  They need to have it every day in order to be appropriately prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class.  I need to talk with my school’s director of studies to see if this can be changed for next year and beyond.  While ESL class is a regular course in the seventh through ninth grades, it is done differently in the sixth grade.  This needs to be changed.  Perhaps that’s why I see very slow progress from my ESL students over the course of the year.  As I am not a qualified ESL instructor, I can’t help them in all of the ways they need to be supported as they learn the English language.
  • Because my school has almost 50% non-native English speakers, we need more professional development for supporting ELLs in our classrooms.  We need specific strategies, tips, and tricks we can use when working with English language learners.  While reading this book has helped me understand the issue at hand, it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle of working with ELLs.  I’m sure my colleagues would agree when I say that we need much more help and support from our school in working with non-native English speakers.  We need to be taught about teaching ELLs in our classrooms.  We can’t effectively help all of our students if we don’t know how to do so.

While it took me a bit longer than I had hoped to complete this text, it was totally worth the wait and perseverance.  I now know that I need to be much more deliberate and purposeful in teaching the English language to all of my students, and especially to the English language learners in my class.  I feel as though I am much more prepared now to help support the ELLs in my classroom come September.  Yes, I do still need a lot more help in what specific strategies to use when working with the English language learners in my class, but at least I feel like I have some places to start and ideas for how to improve as an English teacher moving forward.

Posted in Challenges, Connections, Conversation, Education, Following Directions, Humanities, Language, Learning, Mistakes, New Ideas, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

When Students Understand Why We Do What We Do as Teachers

I remember, as a child, cartoon-esque drawings of characters or people having A-Ha moments: A lightbulb appeared over someone’s head as they worked or did something.  The simplicity of the pictures always amazed me.  The idea of a light being turned on when neurons fire and bridge mental connections is a great metaphor.  While it very much simplifies the process, the concept and idea behind what is going on in the brain is conveyed to the viewer.  A-Ha moments are actually very complex, neurological happenings that involve many different chemical reactions.  Genuine learning comes about through these type of grand realizations as connections are being made in one’s brain.  It’s almost like the idea of working through one’s frustration.  Perseverance and resiliency are two great concepts that, for me, lead to these A-Ha moments.  While for some people, new ideas or answers to problems seem to make sense and happen seamlessly, without much thought or struggling, some people need much processing time and practice to come to a conclusion or answer.  I am one of those people.  I need to really ponder something before I’m able to figure it out.  Usually, after much time playing or wrestling with the question or new concept, a solution or realization seems to just sort of pop into my mind.  Those are great experiences.  An easy way to see this process happen is by looking at one’s facial expressions.  The person might start out with a frown or upset face that slowly or quickly changes to a smile as the A-Ha moment occurs.  Learning makes people smile.  How great is that?

As a teacher, I love witnessing these A-Ha moments happen for my students.  After much time spent working with them or watching them struggle and attempt to solve a problem, it is quite rewarding and fulfilling to see them understand what they’ve been working towards.  It’s like finding that missing puzzle piece after minutes of searching for it.  I see it most frequently happen for our ELL students when learning new, to them, concepts in English.  Although they seem confused at first and can’t wrap their heads around what is expected of them or the concept being covered, after asking questions and processing the information, they just get it.  Those are fun moments.  “I get it now!” they usually exclaim with a smile on their face.  Persevering through challenging times is not an easy skill to teach.  It takes lots of practice and reminders.  Rather than jumping in and telling students how to solve problems, I find it much more beneficial to let them struggle through it and ask them probing questions to inspire neurological connections to be made when assistance is required.  For many students, this is all it takes for them to figure things out.

To help prepare our students for the increased level of critical thinking that will be required of them as well as the larger work load they will face next year, we have been working on challenging our students to rise above where they are, mentally, to be better able to solve problems on their own by utilizing the Habits of Learning practiced in the classroom all year.  During the past month, we have been asking students to challenge themselves to do more than just complete an assignment.  At this point in the year, many of the boys are capable of exceeding the requirements and graded objectives.  Rather than just write about their reading, we expect that most of our students will be able to analyze what they read and make inferences using examples from the text.  While we have been using this type of language with them for weeks now, a few of the boys are still struggling to realize why we are asking them to step up and challenge themselves.  They usually get frustrated and start over instead of adding to or altering the nucleus of their work.  While that is certainly one way to approach what we’re asking of them, it is generally not the most productive way to go about challenging themselves.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on crafting an original poem utilizing the poetic device of personification.  While a few of the students got right to work and crafted brilliant stanzas filled with metaphors and alliteration, a few of the students struggled to begin their poem or choose an object.  One student had his idea right away and wrote his first two lines with ease.  He was so excited about his work that he shared his poem with me.  While he was on the precipice of critical thinking, he was using vague words and simplistic lines to craft his poem.  So, I said, “I see what you are trying to do, but I challenge you to use more specific and carefully chosen words in a more complex manner.  I challenge you to create lines of poetry that don’t begin in the exact same manner.  I challenge you to think more critically about your object as you write your poem.”  While I could easily tell that he was a bit deflated after hearing my feedback, he didn’t give up.  He began erasing his lines as I conferenced with another student.  My co-teacher then approached him in the act of erasing and asked him what he was doing.  His response, “Mr. Holt is challenging me to think more critically about my object.  So, I’m going to start over and see if I can use more specific words to describe light in a personified way.”  I stopped working with the other student with whom I was conferencing and stood up for a brief moment when I heard him utter those words.  I almost began to weep.  Wow, I thought, he gets it.  He totally understood what I asked him to do.  He was challenging himself to grow and develop as a student and critical thinker.  Amazing!  So all of these weeks of reminding the students to put forth more effort into thinking critically and creatively about problems and the world around them totally paid off.  They now realize why we have been doing what we’ve been doing in the classroom as their teachers.  They too want to grow and learn more.  They want to be better able to solve problems and think about new topics or concepts.  I was blown away.

While it can be very easy to get caught up in the routine of teaching and not see the bright lighthouses littering the coasts of our classroom, they are there.  Our students are listening and growing and applying the skills we’ve been teaching them all year.  They are not solid bricks but moldable pieces of clay.  It can be frustrating at times when they come across as chunks of solid granite when in fact they are very soft shale sitting at the bottom of the pond that is our classroom waiting for knowledge to build up and push them closer to Earth’s mantle where they can metamorphize into slate or what we might see as able-bodied seventh graders.  It’s great to be able to take opportunities like this to reflect on the great work we and our students have done all year and celebrate it.  All is not for nothing.  They are learning and growing and changing.  Mission accomplished, for now, but our work as their teachers is far from done.

Posted in Language

The Language Conundrum

In college I needed to take a full year of a language per the requirements of my English/Elementary Education major.  In high school I had taken several years of Spanish and so I said, “Spanish it shall be.”  My first semester went well.  It was an introductory course and so it was rather easy.  The teacher spoke mostly in English and translated well when she spoke in Spanish.  This isn’t too bad, I thought.  Then came the second semester.  From day one, the teacher spoke nothing but Spanish in the class.  Oh man.  It was quite challenging, but I learned a lot in that class because I needed to.  The full immersion program worked well for me.  I needed to learn the language to survive.

At my school, we have several different languages and nationalities represented. This means that we have six students in the sixth grade whose native language is not English.  As a school, our stance is, one of the reasons you are here is to learn and master the English language and so during the academic day, English is the only language spoken with the exception of the World Language classes.  This works for us.  It can be challenging for our boys though.  The start of the year is particularly difficult because some of our students have very limited English skills.  However, with more practice and being reminded to speak English throughout the academic day, they make great strides over the course of one year.

Now, one interesting caveat to all this is that some faculty members at my school try to push the use of English all the time.  We used to have a rule, “Common space, common language.”  However, over the years, this saying was abused by the students quite a bit and lost its power, which is why we’ve changed to the method mentioned above.  But, like all changes, residue from the past still lingers.  So now, some teachers try to hold the English standard all of the time, even when students are not in a common space.  Why can’t they speak their native language when it’s just a group of students who all speak the same language?  Why do we have to force English upon them all the time.  It’s hard enough to think in English during the academic day, don’t they deserve a break?  Some teachers think not.

Our ELL students need a break from English every once in awhile.  They need to be able to speak with their friends who speak the same language.  It helps them feel comfortable and safe.  It must be very challenging to be in a foreign country having to speak a new language all day long.  Taking a few minutes off each day to speak in their native language will not hurt their English language acquisition.  As a school, we need to embrace the differences while also helping these boys grow and develop.  Yes, during the academic day, they need to use English to grow and develop as learners.  However, during their free time or transition times, they should be able to speak in their native language.  For me, it’s about empathy.  If I were in their shoes, I would want a taste of safety and freedom every once in awhile too.  It’s hard work listening, thinking, and speaking in a language that is not your first language.

So, what’s the solution?  What’s the best way to address the language conundrum?  Do we allow faculty members to police the issue as they see fit or do we need to all get on board?  If we all need to be on the same page, what is that page?  Do we need to push English all the time or just during the academic day?  Is there one solution that might work better than others?  As a school, we wrestle with this each new year.  On the playing fields, can the students speak in their native language?  What about in the dining hall?  What’s right and what’s best for the students are two different things, which need to be considered when addressing the language issue.