Thursday, August 16, 2012

New Year Renewed Teacher

Wednesday Afternoon Post 08-15-12 Beginning a new school year is a job experience wherein teachers are granted a rare experience. We stand at the perspective of reviewing our own past job performance with the ability to change, renew, and enhance our upcoming year. Every school year is a new beginning and opportunity to become better teachers. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of dusting off lesson plans and recycling them for yet another year. We grow stale when our minds are bored and sameness breeds boredom. Unfortunately for our students, boredom is contagious. Twenty-five years ago I was a new teacher entering my first classroom. I remember how excited I was to see “my” desks waiting in rows for instruction. I spent several days putting up posters and bulletin boards, keeping stacks of index cards and working on those all important lesson plans. I was too excited to sleep the night before that all important first day. I like to remember that feeling of so many years ago and bring some of the anticipation and excitement of new beginnings with me to the first day of a new school year. Like the elementary school child, I shop for a few new school supplies to add to my cabinet. I seek new ways to present lessons that work. How can I make them work better? What goals will I focus on for my students this year? What one new strategy will I try this year? When we give ourselves new start up challenges, we are stretched to invent new paradigms to frame our teaching styles and skill levels. This in itself is renewing and the excited anticipation we bring to our students is fortunately also contagious.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Recommended Reading

The Outsiders S.E. Hinton Three brother attempt to stay together after their parent’s death.

Holes Louis Sachar A young man is sent to a youth camp and encounters a number of adventures.

Ella Enchanted Gail Carson Levine Cinderella type story. Young girl is cursed and must do whatever she is told.

Golden Compass Philip Pullman Fantasy land where one’s soul takes the form of a daemon and walks with you. A young girl must rescue children kidnapped by evil forces.

Redwall Brian Jacques Fantasy set in medieval times. All the characters are mice and rats which take on human characteristics.

Inkheart Cornelia Funk A man discovers he is a “silvertongue” and characters come alive when he reads about them.

Because of Winn-Dixie Kate DiCamillo A young girl and her big, ugly dog.

Where the Red Fern Grows Wilson Rawls A boy and his prize winning dogs must face tragedy, but the red fern will give him hope.

The Thief Lord Cornelia Funk Orphan boys unwilling to be split apart encounter magic on the streets of Venice.

Hatchet Gary Paulson A boy is the lone survivor of a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness. His only possession is a hatchet.

The Hobbit J.R. Tolkien Fantasy story of Middle Kingdom. Prequel to Lord of the Rings Trilogy

The Diary of Anne Frank Anne Frank True story, diary entries of Jewish girl hiding in an attic in Germany during World War II.

I am the Cheese Robert Cormier A boy tries to find out about the mysterious past of his family.

Into Thin Air Jon Krakauer True Story. The author relates his climb on Mt Everest and the tragedy that took several lives.

Indian in the Cupboard Lynne Reid Banks A young boy’s plastic cowboys and Indian figures come to life.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 Christopher Paul Curtis A black family moves to Alabama in the middle of civil rights uprising. Humorous moments.

Julie of the Wolves Jan Craighead George A young Eskimo girl leaves an unhappy marriage and finds refuge with a wolf pack.

A Day No Pigs Would Die Robert Peck A Shaker family must face difficult economic times

The Giver Lois Lowry In a future society, people are asked to make unthinkable choices

The Westing Game Ellen Raskin Engrossing mystery will keep you guessing

Crispin Avi A boy in medieval England is wrongly accused of a crime and must flee for his life.

Number the Stars Lois Lowry A Jewish girl and her friend are terrified by events in World War II Germany

Eragon Christopher Paolini Story of a boy and his Dragon

Island of the Blue Dolphins Scott O’Dell An Indian girl is separated from her people and marooned on an island

Esperanza Rising Pam Muñoz Ryan A girl who has immigrated from Mexico has many problems adjusting to her new culture.

The Pearl John Steinbeck A simple Mexican family in need of money and medical care discover a valuable pearl.

The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Story of the future when students must compete in games and try to kill their competitors.

A Drowned Mermaids Hair Laura Amy Shlitz An orphan is adopted so that she may take part in some unsavory family business, 1890’s

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Highlights of CATESOL

This year’s CATESOL conference held at the SDOE was in my estimation one of the best I have attended. From the keynote speaker and discussion groups, lunch time raps and of course the breakout sessions there was something for everyone. Generally I am not fond of keynote speakers. In the past I have found them to speak on general or esoteric topics which while appealed to my intellectual self, offered me nothing to take into my classroom. To my delight, our keynote speaker, Marian Thacher gave us a well spent hour on using the internet as a tool and how to integrate lessons, portfolios and bookmarks “in the cloud.” She also talked about using social networking sites. Her materials were very informative and included many lists of websites to surf and gather materials. She asked an interesting question, how many of us store our bookmarks for websites exclusively on our home computer. I believe everyone in the room agreed that is exactly what we did. She then told us that by joining we could store our bookmarks and have access to them on any computer. This would be very handy if you teach at more than one campus and would like to show your students that one perfect website you have marked at home.
The first session I attended was given by Suzanne Woodward from MiraCosta college. She showed us how to teach verb tenses with games and activities. Most of the activities she explained came from her book, Fun with Grammar, and I of course immediately ordered a copy for my classroom. One of her activities is played like musical chairs and practices the simple past. The teacher stands in the middle with students occupying chairs around her. She makes a factual statement about something she did in the past, “ I ate breakfast this morning,” If anyone didn’t, they must say, “I didn’t,” and give up their chair. The teacher then takes their chair and they are in the middle. Students learn to be crafty, girls saying, “I washed my new dress yesterday.” Of course, the young men can’t very well stay seated in agreement, so must say “I didn’t,” and give up their chairs. It seems a very lively game and one that would help past tense practice. The other idea she gave us that looked like a lot of fun was the Wanted Poster. This could be past or present perfect exercise. It is very easy to find online programs that will convert your photos into wanted posters. Students in groups must name their gang, then come up with several misdeeds they are guilty of. Although the teacher had some misgivings about putting students in roles of thieves and criminals, it seems her students really enjoyed the activity and got into the spirit of the crime. People feeling squeamish about this part of it could use lessor “crimes” like parking in the teacher parking, or thowing away a perfectly good sheet of paper. The posters can then be presented perhaps in a powerpoint for the whole class perusal and explanations by each “gang.” Suzanne then gave us a great list of songs that use different tenses. They would be good for cloze activities as well as having the class sing along for oral practice. There were so many good ideas, I’ll save the rest to share for next week.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Forever Student

As we progress through our careers guiding the lives of those entrusted to our knowledge and expertise, it seems to me that there is an inherent obligation for teachers to also remain a forever student. Aside from the obvious research methods and ever changing legislation we must remain current on, there is an intrinsic reward in keeping the learning fires burning. If my lesson plans aren’t fresh, I am not fresh in presenting them. When I taught middle school I sometimes repeated the same lesson as many as five times in one day. As the day progressed I learned what worked well and what adjustments might make it better. By the end of the day the lesson I was teaching barely resembled the lesson I taught first period. In the teaching profession we have a vast treasure trove of materials at our fingertips if we wish to sample them. There are journals, professional development opportunities, conferences and the ubiquitous internet to name a few. Teaching is an exhausting profession, but I learned from Harry Wong, The First Days of School, that with a few procedures in place it ceases to be the sole domain of the teacher, and the students assume much of the day to day minutiae that can consume many instructional minutes. For an excellent example of a teacher handing over responsibilities and students thriving, look at Tim Bedley’s video at:
Remembering myself as a new teacher, I couldn’t wait to put my lessons into action in my classroom. The sparkle of enthusiasm a teacher brings to a class is very contagious. If you love a subject or an activity, it is almost guaranteed that your students will love it too. Some years ago I began teaching Tom Sawyer to my 7th graders. I personally adore this book. I knew that if we just tried to plow through it from page one, my students would quickly get bogged down by the vocabulary and tune out quickly. How many of us could define adamantine or ambuscade ? These were common words in the 19 century, but have fallen into disuse in our modern times. They perfectly described an unbending Aunt Polly lying in wait for an unsuspecting Tom. Mark Twain had originally written this novel as a play, and that is exactly how I worked with my students to read it and act out the parts. They were enthusiastic because I was, and they could see the humor and timeless values Twain portrayed so well. To remain enthusiastic we can’t be content to rest on our laurels with lessons we have done so many times we can practically sleep walk through them. Students all know if a teacher is only half there and it greatly compromises their willingness to invest themselves and their time if they suspect this to be the case in their class. As I write this I am greatly looking forward to an upcoming TESOL conference. It is on a Saturday, so I will lose a day of my precious weekend, but I know I will gain new ideas and insights that I will use for years to come. I’ve been attending conferences for the past twenty years and always come away with something new I can perhaps change a little, or use part of, or in many cases take into my classroom exactly as presented. This has impacted my teaching in that I am always changing and trying to improve. I remain curious as to why some lessons are so successful and some less so. I am always open to something that might help my students understand a concept that has been elusive and frustrating. I love to hear how other teachers have tackled a problem that I haven’t been able to solve. So bring on the teachers, this student is ready to learn!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All About Me

One of my favorite activities to engage students in lively conversations with each other is very easy and calls for almost no preparation. Students are placed in groups of four and asked to each take out one clean sheet of paper and a pencil. They now fold their paper twice so they have four equal divisions of space or boxes to work with. For ease in explanation, I also have them number each square. Top left number one, top right number two, bottom left three and bottom right four. I explain that they will be given some easy (and fun) instructions on what to put into each box. They don’t have to worry about spelling because they are not permitted to write anything. All the instructions they will be given will be for them to draw. It can be a concrete image, a symbol, or an idea. I always find it necessary to stress that this isn’t about evaluating art, but is very much about communication. If you want to draw a person, we won’t expect some competition for the Mona Lisa. A stick figure or a lollypop outline is all we will need for the activity. In the upper left corner they are instructed to depict the people in their family. Stick figures, round balls, squiggles are all just fine as long as they mean something to the artist. Do allow a few minutes for this as some students are genuinely perplexed at being asked to draw and need time to get in the right mood. Next in the upper right block students should draw a hobby or sport they especially enjoy. They might draw a tennis racket, a horse, or a book. Whatever they depict should be something they truly like to do in their spare time. The lower left block is for something students have done that they are really proud of. I usually have to explain pride. I ask them to think of something that they have accomplished that makes them happy and warm inside like an excellent play in a ballgame or passing a very difficult course. It might be sitting with a sick relative or giving something up that you really wanted. Now in the lower right block students can put down symbols for their hopes and dreams. Do they want to get married and have children? Do they dream of a new car, an advanced degree? Have them put their dreams symbolically into the last box. If there is time I now direct them to the middle of the paper and have them draw a picture of the one place in the world they would like to visit. Now that they each have a finished sketch of things that are meaningful to them they should exchange papers with the person next to them. They now tell their partner the story of his life from the pictures. There will be many interruptions and corrections which is the purpose of this exercise. By giving students things to talk about that are very personal and in which they are highly invested, they become very motivated and open to share them with others. While these topics are of a personal nature, they are not intrusive and the student is always in the position to choose how much he or she wishes to share. When the noise level indicates that most of the productive interaction has taken place, I ask for a few students to share some interesting insights they learned about their neighbors. This activity promotes conversation, builds community and strengthens student willingness to take risks. If you wish to have a copy of this activity on a step by step power point, please email me.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Put a Word on Your Keychain

Without a doubt the most important thing an L2 can do to build on his language skills is to enlarge his vocabulary. One neat way of keeping track of new words and watching progress, is to keep index cards. Many years ago I started assigning my younger students the task of keeping each new vocabulary word on a separate card. The new word would be printed on the front of the card. The back of the card would be divided into four parts. In the upper left students would write a pronunciation key with accent marks and any notes they might want to make. In the upper right I asked them to make a simple sketch of what the word meant or symbolized to them. In the lower left would be two synonyms and two antonyms. Finally in the lower right would be a sentence in which the meaning of the target word could easily be understood from context. Holes were punched in the upper left hand side of the cards and then kept on a key chain or metal circle clamp. As we studied new words, they would be added to the stack and students would become very proud of their visible progress. Interestingly when I mentioned this to one of my evening ESL classes, the students eagerly said that they too wanted to keep track of their words on cards. We now use these as flashcards for test review and for a few simple games. One quick and easy game we play is one minute password and it is similar to the standard password game played on TV and in many American homes. Students sit in groups of four. They may each choose five cards from their own collection, but must not tell their group mates which cards they have chosen. There should be about 20 cards in the playing stack. All the cards are shuffled and put into a pile face down in front of the student who will begin. The teacher then signals all groups to start. The “it” person in each group now takes the top card and turns it over, carefully not allowing others in the group to see. It is a good idea to have a blank card to put behind the cards as they are drawn, as students have been instructed to put much writing on the back. The person holding the card must now try to get his teammates to say the word on the card. He may not say the word himself, nor any part of it. He must think of clues in the way of synonyms, antonyms, sentences in context etc. (Much body language seems to also take place.) If his teammates do guess correctly, the card is placed face up on the table and equals one point for the group. If his teammates cannot guess after a reasonable length of time, the card goes back to the bottom of the deck. The player giving clues has one minute to elicit responses. He may give clues to as many cards as he can in one minute. When the teacher calls time, the student on the left of the last one who was it, now has one minute to get fellow students to guess the next vocabulary word. Play should go on at least until all players have had a turn. The winning team will have accrued the most points. I have found this to be a high energy fast paced way to raise the overall level of student involvement. Another plus is that the students love it. So get your students to put some vocabulary on their keychains!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Many Faces of the Learner

On one end of the spectrum there may be one or two students in a class who to the teacher's delight have an energy and charisma that sweeps the class along in its wake. These students add to the positive chemistry of the learning environment and encourage the shyer student to risk taking a more active role. When these students are absent, a tangible change takes place in the class almost as if someone had punctured a balloon. But when they are present they invite light hearted joking, competition for answering questions, and provide added help for a struggling classmate. The other side of the coin, of course, is that this chatty student may monopolize all the Q and A time, or rush in with answers before his fellows have a chance to formulate the right word order for the answer they may readily know. A remedy that can be useful is the "five elephant" rule. I use this for many situations from discipline to ensuring I allow enough wait time for students to think of an answer. It's quite simple. If you silently think, "one elephant, two elephants, three elephants, four elephants, five elephants," you have effectively waited for five seconds. By teaching an overly exuberant student to count five or seven or ten elephants, you give other students a more level playing field. They also feel less in competition with the stronger student. This should be explained to the elephant student so they also feel appreciated and needed. It is wise to remember that the school experiences we offer this population might be their first beyond a few years of elementary school. The opportunities for them to be recognized and receive kudos may only exist within the four walls of our ESL classrooms.
The opposite side of the spectrum is the painfully shy student who looks as though he or she is getting ready to bolt at any given second. They may shrink into the woodwork if they think they might be called upon. The teacher can be very comforting and nurturing, but if the student walks in the door with a lot of excess baggage, our greatest allies are going to be kindness and time. I like to build an atmosphere of trust and some minor risk taking for the first few weeks of classes. I often tell my students that the best audience they will ever have in their lives is surrounding them at that very moment. When I ask questions, I use a failsafe method of stress relief I learned from a presenter some years ago. In the TV show, "Who wants to be a Millionaire," contestants are asked questions and given options if they don't know the answers. They may phone a friend, survey the audience, or have two of the possible answers removed. The first two work very well in a classroom. If a student can't answer, he can ask a classmate. If that isn't satisfactory, we can poll the rest of the class. It becomes a more of a game and the spotlight isn't focused brightly on an uncomfortable deer in the headlights student.
The most worrisome group I find in my classes are those I call the "invisible students." I can easily learn the names of the class clowns and the shrinking violets by the end of the first week. They stand out and have obvious needs. But what about the students who turn in the work, cooperate nicely in groups, then fade into the background out of sight and out of mind? It is very easy to allow them to continue on, passing quizzes, contributing to class, and not giving the teacher grief. But I wonder if they are receiving equal access to English learning. We tend to call on the people we are familiar with and the names we know. The invisible students are usually the last ones I commit to memory. A small solution has been to keep an index card printed with each students name. As I circulate around the room, I can call students equally as I go through the pack. I have learned from experience to shuffle the cards often as student anticipate the location of their name and pay attention accordinly. Another way of providing equal access to everyone is to hand out our trusty index cards (do invest in shares of this company) with the names of fruit or animals on matching pairs. As students enter, I hand out the cards and they must find their matching partner. Too often when students choose their own partners, they keep picking the same ones. By mixing the pot we equalize learning opportunities and afford a richer conversational experience for every student.