Making Grammar Fun for Our Students

In college I had to take, for my major, a class on linguistics, in which all we did for an hour and thirty minutes, twice a week, was diagram sentences.  The teacher, in her dry and quiet monotone voice, helped us to understand the correct part of speech for every word, in every sentence she had written on the chalkboard.  Yes, that’s correct, I was in a class with a chalk board.  On top of being the most boring class I was forced to take in college, it also came with the sound of chalk screeching across a board.  It was a horrible, perfect storm of sorts that made me hate grammar.  While I never really liked learning about grammar in middle school, this college course firmly solidified my stance on the subject.  Grammar is useless and boring.  There are very few jobs on Earth that require a knowledge of grammar and parts of speech, and so, I thought, why do I need to know this stuff?  College definitely turned me off to grammar.

What I didn’t realize at the time, though, is that it wasn’t that grammar is an unnecessary topic to know, it’s that my teachers never found a relevant and engaging way to teach the subject to me and my classmates.  Grammar is, let’s be honest here, a somewhat boring topic.  Who really wants to define the major parts of speech and identify them in sentences?  No one, ever.  So, when teaching grammar, educators need to employ fun tactics to make the material interesting and novel, which my teachers were never able to do.  Teaching grammar at face value is like trying to sell a boat to villagers living in the middle of a desert, pointless.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate and love grammar.  Without grammar, we wouldn’t have exciting sentences filled with loving and beautiful words.  Without grammar, no one could curse.  Living in a world without proper grammar would be like only communicating with people via texting.  Have you ever texted a teenager?  Not only is their spelling atrocious, but they use abbreviations and shorthand for everything.  There is no possible way that everything I say makes my son laugh out loud, yet he starts almost every text to me that way.  Texting language makes me crazy.  Why can’t you take the time to write out the words?  With autofill and autocorrect, it doesn’t even take that long to type out complete words and sentences.  I would never want to live in a world where the only form of communication is texting.  I just can’t take emojis anymore.  What’s the difference between a smiley face and a bigger smiley face?  Don’t they both mean happy?  Why can’t people just type happy?  I feel as though as a society we are reverting back to our cave-drawing ancestors.  I say, let’s bring back proper grammar.

I’m off my soap box now, don’t worry.  Sorry, I can get a little carried away by things, and texting is one of those things that set me off.  Anyway, where was I again?  Oh yeah, grammar.  It’s super important for students to understand the parts of speech and how to properly utilize them in their writing so that they don’t turn into texting zombie-cave-people.  The problem is, the methods with which teachers instruct or cover grammar.  Students need to be interested in the material, and so presentation is everything.

After doing some research this past summer on the importance of teaching grammar to students in a fun and engaging way, I wanted to make sure that I provide my students with a strong foundation of grammar knowledge so that when they get into the eighth grade and spend much time completing numerous grammar worksheets, they will feel prepared and ready for the challenges in front of them.  Prior to Thanksgiving Break, our grammar study began with a short, five minute, review of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  We then spent seven minutes, once a week, playing a fun and engaging Word Slap game, in which two students stood in front of a whiteboard with the three major parts of speech listed, holding fly swatters, and slapped the appropriate part of speech for the word shouted out by one of their peers.  We played this game thrice times in class over three weeks.  Following the turkey day break, I had the students complete a check-in assessment regarding the three major parts of speech reviewed prior to break and three new grammar terms that some of the students may have learned previously at their former schools.  I wanted to be sure that I was structuring my instruction in a meaningful and relevant way based on what my students know.  While some students had been exposed to the new terms, no student had a firm grasp of adverb, preposition, or conjunction.

Following last week’s ungraded pre-test, I completed the first of three mini-lessons on the three new parts of speech.  Last week we started with adverbs.  I introduced these new vocabulary terms as members of the grammar gang that I had met over Thanksgiving Break.  I told a short story about my interactions with Mr. Adverb and how he talked slowly and moved carefully.  I then asked student volunteers to define the term adverb.  They provided a basic definition, which I then built upon to be sure the boys understood what this part of speech was really all about.  I then had the students, working with their table partner, create a story using only five complete sentences and five adverbs.  They had to underline the five adverbs.  I then had students share their stories and adverbs with the class.  I had the boys help their peers fix any adverbs problems.  This short but effective mini-lesson seemed to work because today when I reviewed adverbs, every student was able to explain what an adverb is and provide examples.  I was very impressed.

Following this review of adverbs, I then introduced the next member of our grammar gang, Ms. Preposition.  She is a superhero who loves to fly high around things.  I then I asked a volunteer to define the term preposition.  One student provided a brief explanation of the term that I elaborated on so that the boys could all make sense of this often confused part of speech.  I then asked the students, “What can Ms. Preposition do to the clouds as she flies high in the sky saving the world?”  I called on students to provide preposition examples.  The boys did a fine job providing creative and specific examples.  Once I felt as though every student had a firm comprehension of the newest member of our grammar gang, I had the students begin the short partner task, in which they had to make a list of every adverb they could think of using a chair as the noun.  They worked with their partner to generate a list of adverbs.  One student wrote the list while the other student practiced doing things to the chair such as going over it, under it, below it, and etc.  It was very entertaining watching them move around the chair and discuss different prepositions.  One student said, “Mr. Holt, my partner says you can go through a chair.  Tell him that’s wrong.”  I asked the partner to explain why he said that it was possible to go through the chair.  He was unable to support his original claim with a demonstration.  Then I asked him if it was possible to put his arm through the top hole in the chair, and sure enough it was.  His partner seemed very surprised when he realized that it was possible to put one’s hand through the chair.  The boys seemed to have a lot of fun with this short activity.  I gave them three minutes to work.  The group that had the longest, correct list of adverbs received a special treat.  This activity seemed to really make learning prepositions fun and meaningful for the boys.

Thanks to this unique method of teaching grammar, not only do my students now think of the parts of speech as superheroes, but they also realize how much fun learning about the somewhat boring and complex subject of grammar can be.  Grammar shouldn’t be taught over a long period of time or through the use of mundane worksheets.  Grammar should be taught through fun, hands on activities that get the students working together and moving.  I don’t want my students to dislike grammar the way I did in college and school.  Grammar should be fun for our students, and it’s our job as educators to make it that way.


How Can I Inspire Students to Use a Growth Mindset and Persevere Through Struggles?

Giving up was my mantra when I was younger.  If something was too difficult, I’d just stop, claiming that I couldn’t do it.  I gave up on a lot of things in life.  I gave up on clarinet lessons in the fifth grade because I thought I’d never get any better at playing the notes.  I gave up playing basketball in sixth grade because I thought I was no good.  I gave up playing the guitar in seventh grade because it was too challenging for me.  I gave up trying to improve upon my grades from Bs to As in high school because I didn’t think I could do the work.  In retrospect, I wish I had made use of a growth mindset when I was in school so that I could have grown and learned to do a lot more.  Perhaps if I hadn’t stopped playing the guitar, I’d be on tour with a band right now.  If I had worked hard to earn better grades in school, maybe I would have been able to go to a more challenging university.  My life would be a lot different right now if I had given up on my fixed mindset.  Instead though, I gave up on using a growth mindset.  I gave up on learning.

As a teacher, I want to be sure that my students don’t end up like me in 20 years or so, filled with regret that they didn’t make use of a growth mindset in school.  I want my students to see the value in effort, failure, and hard work.  I want my students to appreciate challenges and tackle them with an open mind.  To do this, I have my students constantly reflecting on their growth and development.  They maintain an ePortfolio to document their learning progress.  They receive constant feedback from my co-teacher and I on their progress in our classes.  They must redo work that does not meet the graded objectives.  I tell my students on an almost weekly basis how important failure is to the learning process.  “I want you to fail this year so that you can learn new ways to solve your problems.”  We foster an atmosphere of effort, risk-taking, failure, critical thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork within the classroom so that our students will leave sixth grade understanding the importance of making use of a growth mindset.

While many of our students, this year, seem to be off to a great start to their journey towards having and using a growth mindset, one of our ELLs seems to be very stuck in his thinking.  He feels as though he is using a growth mindset, when in fact he is using a fixed mindset.  His perception doesn’t agree with the reality.  Despite providing him with much feedback on his challenges and strengths, he has made very little academic progress this year.  He looks at his work as being finished once he is done working on it.  He does not apply feedback or suggestions provided by his teachers or peers.  He believes that everything he does is A quality work and exceeds the objectives.  When we try to explain to him how his work is not meeting our objectives and expectations, he argues or refuses to think critically in order to understand what we are saying.  Although his English proficiency is getting better, he is still not making progress in his major classes because he is not willing to effectively utilize a growth mindset.

So, what can I do to help inspire this student to take risks, try new things, incorporate feedback, put forth more effort, redo work, and learn from his mistakes?  How can I help him see the value in using a growth mindset?  How can I help him see that he will not grow or develop as a student this year if he continues to make use of a fixed mindset?  How else can I support this student?  I’ve tried every trick in my educational book to assist him, and nothing seems to be working.  He is the only student who is regressing and not progressing this year.  What am I not doing that could help?  I use positive reinforcement, regularly, with him, and this helps at moments, but not consistently.  I’ve tried explaining to him how valuable applying the feedback provided by others is to his learning process.  I’ve explained these concerns to his parents and they’ve spoken to him about this issue as well, but still there has been no change in the classroom from him.  How can I best support and help this one student grow and develop if he refuses to allow himself to grow and develop?  Will it come in time?  Is this developmental?  He is a 13-year-old sixth grader; shouldn’t he have figured out that hard work leads to progress by now?  I’m not sure what I should be doing to help him that I haven’t already tried.  For now, I will continue reinforcing the positive choices he makes that help him progress towards using a growth mindset, provide him with ample feedback on what he can do to improve, and show him that I care about him and want to see him be successful; hopefully, all of this will help him begin to see the power in having a growth mindset.

Struggling to Challenge and Support ALL of My Students

Imagine a world in which teachers design their curriculum and lessons for the average-level student in their classroom.  They use one lesson plan to teach all of their students, regardless of the various levels of the students in their class.  They have very little prep time since they are teaching to the middle.  During their free time though, they are forced to research classroom management techniques since the advanced students in their class are often bored and distract the low functioning students in the room.  This then causes chaos and prevents real learning from happening in the classroom.  These teachers tryout the new class management strategies they read about in professional development texts and online resources, but find no change in the overall atmosphere of the class during their lessons and activities.  The students continue to be distracted and distracting while these teachers are teaching.  Nothing seems to work, and the vicious cycle continues and repeats until the end of the academic year.

Now, while we all know that this is a highly ineffective teaching practice, many teachers in public schools around the world, utilized this model of teaching many years ago.  I am a product of this model of teaching in the elementary grades.  It didn’t work for me, which is what caused many of the behavioral issues I had in the classroom as a student.  I was bored or confused on an almost daily basis.  Despite asking questions or seeking help, I continued to struggle as the teacher viewed herself as the sage on the stage and lectured at us from the front of the classroom during most of the academic day.  This model did not work for me and does not work for a majority of our students.  In education, there is no middle.  There are individual students who all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Great teachers meet each of their students where they are and support and challenge them accordingly. Effective teaching includes differentiation, group work, one-on-one sessions, student conferences, small group instruction, and partner activities.  This model of teaching is truly challenging as it requires separate lesson plans for each student, a creative use of time and space, and much work outside of the class day.  Great teachers spend much of their free time designing unique, creative, and innovative curricula that will help and support every student in their classroom.  Great teachers don’t need to worry about classroom management issues as they are engaging each and every student in their class.  This teaching practice isn’t easy and can be quite cumbersome at times, but is really the only effective way to teach and educate students.  We need to treat our students as individuals and not a whole group.  There is no middle in the classroom, there are only students.

While I have made great strides towards effectively using this model of teaching in the classroom over my 17 years of experience, I still struggle with it at times.  Today was one of those challenging moments.  As I realized last year that I was not properly providing my Humanities students with a foundation of understanding in the area of English grammar, this summer, I brainstormed ways to inject grammar into my classes on a weekly basis.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve reviewed the three basic parts of speech with my students: Noun, verb, adjective.  I briefly discussed each vocabulary term and made sure that they understood what they meant.

Today, I wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to apply this grammar knowledge.  I began class by reviewing the three major parts of speech we already discussed earlier in the year by having the students define each of the words and offer examples.  The boys were able to do this quite easily, which should be the case at this point in their school journey.  A student then explained to the class how he learned this information in third grade and seemed baffled by why we were talking about it in the sixth grade.  So, I explained to him the process we’ll be using to discuss and learn about grammar this year.  “We’re beginning our grammar journey with the three basic parts of speech as a review.  We will then move into grammar workouts in which you will have to fix grammar errors in writing.  This will then bleed into learning about the more challenging parts of speech.  We will end our discussion of grammar in May by diagramming sentences and identifying the various parts of speech.”  This response didn’t seem to help him feel any better or more engaged in what was being discussed.  I also reminded him that in order to move forward with the level of difficulty in the content covered, I need to be sure that all of the students are able to meet the assessed objectives.  I wanted him to realize that today’s discussion is merely a review and introduction into our year-long grammar adventure so that we are all building on the same foundation of knowledge, moving forward.  While I don’t know if this helped him feel any better, I wanted to be transparent with him while also respecting his emotions and thoughts.

This discussion of the three major parts of speech led into an interactive and fun activity in which I was able to informally assess all of my students on their comprehension of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  I had the students play a fun game of Word Slappers.  Two students came to the board, armed with a word swatter, AKA a fly swatter, and stood next to each other.  On the board were the words Noun, Verb, and Adjective.  I called on individual students to shout out examples of one of the major parts of speech.  The first contestant to slap the correct part of speech with their word slapper, won a point.  The first person to score three points wins the round.  This activity allowed me to know which students struggle with understanding the parts of speech and provided me an opportunity to correct any incorrect prior knowledge the students had regarding the topic of grammar.  I was able to instruct through the use of an engaging, exciting, and educational game.  The students loved it.  They were so into it.  The audience members worked hard to brainstorm difficult examples for the contestants at the board while the student judge watched the two boys at the board very carefully to ensure that our class norms and core values were being followed at every turn.  I closed the activity, reminding them that we will continue this game for a few more weeks before we move into the more challenging grammar workouts.  The boys seemed happy with this.

Although the class discussion portion of this grammar activity seemed wasted on some of the students, I did need to be sure that every student has the same common knowledge regarding these important key vocabulary terms.  Could I have completed this exercise differently?  Perhaps, but it would have probably taken more time had I found a more individualized way to do it.  The discussion portion of the activity only took about 3-4 minutes.  Was it worth it?  Yes, I think so because I now know that all of my students know the difference between nouns, verbs, and adjectives, which means that I can move onto teaching them the more challenging parts of speech.  I do wonder though, moving forward, is there a way to better engage all of my students in this content?  How can I effectively differentiate my instruction to challenge the native English speakers in my class while supporting the ELLs?  I could easily create separate grammar workouts for each student in my class, based on their ability level.  I could also have different levels of the Word Slappers game going on at once in various parts of the classroom.  I could have the advanced students playing a game using adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions while the ELLs could be playing the version of the game we used in class today.  I could also assess each student individually during our next Reader’s Workshop block to be sure that I know the various levels of grammar understanding present in my class.  Perhaps I will try all three of these strategies to make sure that I am challenging and supporting all of the learners in my class.

Growing and Learning as a Teacher and Person

Two summers ago, I taught myself how to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  After weeks of practice, failing, video viewing, and more practice, I was finally was able to solve it.  I only needed to look at the guide sheet for help with the last few steps.  It was quite the accomplishment for me as I struggle, at times, to learn new skills outside of the realm of teaching.  While I did teach myself this new skill to grow as a STEM teacher, I also wanted to challenge myself to grow and learn as a person.  I wanted to prove to myself that even though I am growing a bit older and grayer every day, I’ve still got the magic inside that makes me feel like I’m 17 again.

As an individual, I make sure to attend at least one concert a year to remind myself that I still haven’t lost my groove thang.  In fact, I’m going to see The Used on November 7 in Boston, MA.  I can’t wait.  Their new album Canyon is phenomenal.  I also collect sportscards and play old video games from my youth to make sure my life is plenty full of fun and excitement.  As a teacher, I make use of feedback from my colleagues and students to keep my teaching fresh and fun.  I want to make sure that I never turn into one of those teachers who still uses the same worksheets and lessons they created 20 years ago.  I stay current with new teaching practices and am always looking to try new things in the classroom.  I’m all about staying on the cutting edge of education to be sure that I am the best possible teacher for my students.

A colleague of mine recently observed one of my Humanities lessons and then provided me with some useful feedback on what he noticed.  While he gave me much praise for the lesson and execution of it, he did give me two little things to think about:

  • My cadence.  He noted that when I’m excited about something while teaching, I tend to speak very quickly.  He said that I had a cadence of about 220 words per minute, which is too fast for the ELLs in my class.  The typical ELL student can handle a cadence of about 140 words per minute.  He suggested that I try to think about how quickly I’m speaking while teaching so that all of my students can get the most out of every word that flows freely from my mouth.
  • Student movement.  He noted that I didn’t have the students move or be physically active at all during the 40 minute period.  He suggested that I try to incorporate some physical activities or simple movements into each class period so that I can be sure I’m actively engaging all of my students in the learning process.

Over the short break I had from school last week, I thought long and hard about this constructive and useful feedback.  How could I better challenge and support all of the students in my class?  What can I do to work at slowing my cadence while instructing the class?  How can I be sure that I am actively engaging my all of my students?  What techniques could I utilize in the classroom to get my students to be more physically active?  I brainstormed a solution so simple that it might actually work.  I need to be more mindful while I teach.  If I’m more self-aware while I’m talking to my students, I will be able to remember to talk more slowly so that I am reaching all of the students in my class.  If I’m more present in the moment, I can take the time needed to be sure that my students have a chance to move and be active at least once during every class period.  While this solution to my many questions seemed so easy, I felt like it would actually work.  I can so be more mindful when I’m teaching in the moment.

In class on Saturday, I made it a point during my study skills class to talk more slowly so that I could be sure my ELLs were able to follow what I was saying and process the information I needed them to understand and grab hold of.  Every time I began to get excited about what I was saying, which was quite frequently since I love talking about how students can help themselves learn to be more mindful and self-aware in the classroom, I made sure to slow my cadence.  Instead of spewing out information at a rate of 200+ words a minute, I tried to make sure that I was talking at a cadence of about 150 words per minute.  While that cadence is still a bit fast for the average ESL student, it is still a manageable rate for them to be able to comprehend the majority of what I was saying.  I also made sure to simplify my language and explain new concepts, terms, and vocabulary words in a more easily accessible manner.  Instead of using convoluted English, I kept it basic and simple.  While I’m not quite sure how effective it was as I had no assessment tool for which to collect data during class, the students seemed more aware and focused on what I was saying.  The ELLs in my class who usually ask many questions during class discussions, asked no questions in class on Saturday while we talked about how stress affects the brain and what the students can do to help regulate their stress levels.  This seemed like a very positive sign to me.  I do believe that because I slowed my cadence while talking to the class, all of my students were better able to comprehend and process what I was saying.  Because I made sure to be mindful and present in the moment of teaching, I was able to stay clued into my cadence in class on Saturday.  I’m hopeful that I will be able to continue working on the speed of my speech while teaching, moving forward.

During my Humanities class on Saturday, I made sure to provide my students with an opportunity for physical movement.  To begin the introduction of our new unit on the foundations of government, I wanted to be sure that all of my students understood what the term Government actually means.  As this is a somewhat abstract term and challenging word for non-native English speakers, I wanted to make sure that all of my students left class feeling as though they have a strong understanding of what the word means.  I had the students stand up, think about someone in the class, other than their current table partner, who they believe knows what the word government means, go and stand next to that person, and discuss what the vocabulary term means.  I gave the boys about two minutes to complete this task.  They moved swiftly and safely about the room as the tried to find someone who they believed knew what the word meant.  Then the conversations began.  They spoke to each other about the word government and what it means.  They provided each other with simple definitions of the term and their thoughts on what it means to them.  It was interesting to listen to them all discuss this new and difficult word.  This short activity allowed the students to be physically active as they began contemplating the new word that would be driving our new unit.  Once the students all returned to their seats, they seemed super engaged and were able to all add their thoughts to our discussion on what the word Government means.  I did not need to add anything to the definition my students generated as it was very complete and detailed.  I was so amazed.  Was this result due to the fact that I had them get a bit physical in class prior to our discussion?  Did our unit introduction go so well because they all had a chance to individually play with the word before we discussed it as a class?  I’d like to believe that it was a bit of both.  Providing the students with the opportunity to become physical and interact with their peers helped to actively engage them in the topic and lesson.  My students extracted more from Saturday’s lesson on the Foundations of Government than they had in many previous lessons and activities because I allowed them to move and chat with their classmates.  This engagement factor exponentially increased the mental productivity of my students.  How was I able to do this?  I was mindful of the feedback I received from my colleague and made sure to implement into my class.  I will continue to work on making sure that my students are somehow physically active during each class period, during the remainder of this academic year.

Thanks to the feedback I received from a fellow educator as well as my growth mindset of ensuring I’m best helping and challenging all of my students, I was able to foster some very engaging and thoughtful learning on my classroom on Saturday.  I made sure to remain mindful throughout the academic day so that I could stay focused on my goals of cadence and movement.  Because I want to stay mentally active and young on a daily basis, I will continue to grow and develop as an educator and person despite how old my driver’s license may state that I am physically.  Changing and growing keeps the mind and body young while stagnation leads to death and decay.  As I’ve made it a personal goal of mine to live long enough so that I can say to my son when he calls me in 25 years or so talking about how difficult it is to raise a teenager, “I told you so.  This is karma for all the bad choices you made while growing up and interacting with your mom and I.”  I know it’s a bit evil and vindictive, but it’s the simple things in life that keep me motivated.

What’s the Best Way to Engage All Students During Class Read-Alouds?

When I taught second grade many eons ago, I would read aloud to my students following their lunch recess.  As they were all usually so tired and exhausted from running around, they sat in their chairs and listened intently as I read from our current read aloud novel.  They were captivated by the stories and hung on my every word.  You would have thought I had stolen their prized puppy when I finished reading each day as they were so sad to pause the story and move onto the next activity.

While I realize that sixth graders are very different than second graders, I’m struggling to engage this year’s group of sixth graders.  The classes from year’s past have all thoroughly loved the class read-alouds and ranked them as one of their favorite parts of Humanities class every year.  So, why is this year’s group not as engaged.  They don’t seem to be liking the novel or trying to listen in any sort of active or appropriate manner.  During every read-aloud this year I’ve had to redirect students who were making distracting or distracted choices, remind students not to speak to their peers, and refocus students who were moving around the reading area or playing with various toys or gadgets.  Instead of focusing on the story and getting lost in it, they are getting lost in each other.  This is the first year that I’ve struggled with engaging students during this weekly activity.  So, what’s the issue?  What’s causing the students to not engage during class read-alouds?  Is it the book?  Do they not like Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman?  Is it no longer a great choice for our community unit?  Should I choose something different?  Perhaps.  Or is it the language issue?  I do have four ESL students in my class who struggle to comprehend English orally.  Could this be impacting their focus and in turn affecting their classmates?  Maybe.  Regardless of the reasons why, I am now focused on solutions.  How can I best engage my students during the class read-alouds?

  1. After I noticed many of the students exhibiting distracting and unfocused behaviors during our first read-aloud, I decided to share my concerns with the students and brainstorm possible solutions.  While no big ideas came out of the discussion, one student suggested using his chair in which to sit in the reading area and another student asked about standing during the read-aloud.  So as to be open-minded, I accepted and permitted both of their ideas from taking place during read-alouds.  Unfortunately, their ideas did not make much of a difference in keeping students focused during class read-alouds.  Therefore, I went back to the drawing board.
  2. As I do realize that some students do need to fidget to stay focused, I wondered how many of my “distracted” students were actually paying attention and focused on what was being read and discussed.  So, to test my theory, I created a check-in assessment for my students to take today in class.  Most of the students did very well and seemed to fully comprehend what is happening in our read-aloud novel.  The only students who struggled are our ELLs, which is to be expected as auditory processing of a new language can be much more challenging than speaking or reading the new language.  Then, what does this data mean?  Does it mean that even though the students seem distracted and unfocused they are actually paying attention and fully engaged?  Perhaps.  To test this hypothesis, I need an outside perspective.
  3. On Tuesday of next week, during a class read-aloud, my co-teacher will be observing me and the students.  What are the boys really doing while I’m reading aloud to them?  What am I missing or not seeing?  Am I most effectively supporting all of my students during this activity?  Could I be doing anything else to keep the students focused and engaged?  I’m looking forward to receiving some specific feedback on what I might not be seeing.  I’m hopeful that it will shed some light on how I can best engage all of the students during the class read-alouds.

I clearly don’t have any answers to the question I’m posing in my blog title today.  I’m curious and want to learn how best to support my students as they learn and grow as readers.  How can I best engage the students during class read-alouds?  Why is this group not buying into the read-alouds like every other sixth grade class I’ve had?  Am I doing something differently?  So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to be analyzing these questions as I look for new ways to engage all of the learners in my classroom during class read-alouds.

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.

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.

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.