Friday, June 2, 2017

Advice to My First-Year Self

If I only knew then what I know now.  Famous last words.

The Common Sense community of educators recently posed the following question to their Facebook group: "What advice would you give your first-year self?" I could probably write a book, but there are a few points that quickly came to mind as I think back to that adventurous year.


I always say that I didn't find my calling, but rather it was my calling that found me. I embarked on my teaching career in 1996 as a Lateral Entry Business Education teacher in the small, rural town of Sparta, North Carolina - population 10,000.  Two months prior, I lived in Miami, Florida - population 2 million - where I had lived from the age of 18 months and never left until my husband and I had this romantic idea of moving to a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  My first degree is in Business Administration and I worked in sales and marketing for a  commercial health insurance company. I had not stepped foot in a high school classroom since I graduated in the 1980s. Shortly after arriving in Sparta, I decided to substitute teach until I found a permanent job in the insurance field. That "permanent" job ended up being my vocation. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be a teacher and now I can't imagine doing anything else.

That first year was almost a blur. Because I came in mid-year, I wasn't assigned an official mentor until my second year. Thankfully, there were a few angels God sent to help me survive as I was flying off the seat of my pants most of the time, especially the first couple of months. Reflecting back, because I drew from my corporate experience, I not only survived but thrived. Furthermore, since I regularly presented in front of large groups, I was comfortable presenting to my new "clients". Nonetheless, if it wasn't for my unofficial mentors, I'm not sure I would have lived to tell this story.




If I could go back and talk to my first-year self, this is what I would tell her:
  • One size does not fit all. Differentiation may appear monumental but it's crucial to ensuring that all students learn and it's really very doable. School is not about you, it's about your students. Remain flexible and find what works so that students meet their learning objectives. It's more than fair to modify a strategy, assignment, or even deadlines. For some students, differentiation is required, but you may find that others simply need a little grace. So long as the students are meeting the learning targets, it's important to remain flexible. In doing so, you will find that you are not only capturing their minds but also their hearts. 
  • A.S.K. (Always Seek Knowledge). Listen more than speak and ask lots and lots of questions. Seek knowledge from colleagues and also from students. Fellow teachers may seem busy but we all remember that first year and no one will deny you a helping hand, but you will usually have to ask. Students, especially teenagers, may seem uninterested in talking to their teachers, but give them a listening ear and they will tell you all you need to know (and often more than you want to hear). It's imperative that you know your students, so you best know how to reach them.

  • Teach, don't just give grades. With ever-increasing class sizes, teaching duties can be quite overwhelming, but remember that our primary duty is to help young people learn. Our mission is to empower, edify and prepare young people for a lifetime of learning and growing. We are so much more than grade givers. When students don't submit work, find out why before entering a zero in the grade book. Chances are they need help and are too afraid to ask. What may appear as laziness or apathy, may actually be a cry for help.
  • View mistakes as stepping stones not as stumbling blocks. Remember that failure is not an end but merely a beginning. We are all works in progress. And don't be afraid to share this message with students. They really need to hear it, especially if you teach at the secondary level.  
What advice would you give your first-year self? I look forward to hearing from you.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Small Changes for the Final Stretch of the School Year

Image Credit: photosforclass.com
As we enter this final stretch of the school year, spring fever is in the air and everyone is eager for summer vacation. Warm and sunny days make for beautiful weather, but the classroom climate can be quite tempestuous as students are ready for the school year to be over. They slouch in their seats, slack on their work and whine about anything that's remotely rigorous. And those, of course, are the easy problems - other more challenging students may step up their rebellion a tad bit putting discipline issues on the rise. Like a tired runner on her last lap of the race, it's very easy for teachers to lose momentum, but this is a critical time to pick up speed to ensure we finish strong. For many of us, this may mean making a few small changes. After all, we can't lose momentum as it's the last lap that determines the outcome. We may feel tempted to slow down or drop out, but we can't achieve a win unless we persevere until the very end.

As we near the finish line, we want to be creative, spontaneous and engaging, but also consistent and focused. However, we can't disregard the human factor. It's easy to become frustrated at the disengagement, yet in order to win them over, I may need to adjust my own approaches and shift my attitude.  If we are not excited and positive, much less will our students be.


Here are some small changes that I have found help stir up some positivity and brighten up the remaining school days.
  • Increase positive recognition. I'm usually pretty good about pointing out the good in my students, but I've been trying to dig a little deeper.  And I don't want to just tell them individually, I want to make sure the entire class knows about the treasures I find.
  • Ignore the small stuff.  I'm picking my battles carefully and so I can stay focused on the learning targets.
  • Share myself.  Be open and honest, willing to share joys, successes, and setbacks.  As I tell students about my own stumbling blocks and how I turn them into stepping stones, many may find connections and hopefully be encouraged. 
  • Take time to laugh.  A little amusement can do a lot of good. Happy teachers will make happy students.  Learning and laughing are not mutually exclusive.
  • End the class with a joke.  I try to end my class periods on a positive note by sharing a little motivation or encouragement as they are launched from my room.  This last quarter I'm ending the class period with a riddle or joke.
I believe these small changes, can reap great rewards. Bottom line, kids won't care about learning, if they don't know that we care about them, the learner.

Image Source: photosforclass.com

Monday, May 1, 2017

Kahoot as a Presentation Tool


It all started when one of my classes read an article on digital.readworks.org titled "Ten Things You May Not Know About Martin Luther King Jr." As a follow-up, students were asked to present "Ten Things You May Not Know" on the topic of their choice using the presentation tool of their choice. Topics ranged from themselves, their native country, favorite sport or a popular celebrity. Most of them used presentation tools such as Google Slides, Keynote or Emaze. Interestingly, one of my learners asked if he could create a Kahoot game in order to make his presentation more engaging and it was a hit! That's when I discovered that Kahoot was not just a formative assessment tool, but it was also a very effective presentation tool for students.

Now that I am at a different high school, I decided to recycle the idea with my current group of English learners, but instead of asking them to just make a presentation, I asked them to present using a Kahoot game as a presentation tool. While I'm all about "voice and choice", this particular group of learners had never used Kahoot as a presentation tool - actually most of them had never created a Kahoot game at all - so I seized the opportunity to teach them a new way to present.

But how is it a presentation when it's simply a game you may ask?  Using a Kahoot as a student presentation tool is similar to a teacher using a Blind Kahoot to introduce a new concept. However, after every question students are expected to expand on the answer by giving an explanation prior to moving on to the next question. Therefore, students must prepare just as they would using any other presentation format.

It's about much more than competition, engagement, and wow-factor. Rather than a sit-and-get slide show of facts that are often uninteresting to both the audience and the presenter, the game-style presentation requires the audience to be alert and engaged. And that engagement is invaluable to the presenter. The more attentive the audience, the more confident, relaxed will the presenters be and they will generally much more effective.  It's a win-win situation.

I used this primarily to help my students develop their English speaking skills, yet there are numerous ways this can be implemented to cover our state standards. Moreover, while I used this for individual presentations, they are ideal for group presentations as well.

If you haven't used Kahoot in this way, I highly encourage you to try it - especially in this last stretch of the school year. It just may be what you need to add a little fun and ensure a strong finish.

Below are links to some of the games my students created last week.  I welcome your feedback or suggestions.

Ecuador - https://play.kahoot.it/#/k/381167f5-f45f-468f-a247-b06bd36be068
Italy - https://play.kahoot.it/#/k/470799ae-93f0-4de8-ad42-8b28a2b62bcb
Dominican Republic -  https://play.kahoot.it/#/k/3d25e4db-4edc-40c9-8708-9f4d6132f790


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Spin-Off of Write Around


Vocabulary development, parts of speech review, creative writing and a few laughs along the way! That's the "write around" strategy. If you've never tried it, read on and see if this perks your interest.

Here's how it goes.  First, divide your class into small groups of 4-6 and give each student a sheet of writing paper. In my small ESL classes, the entire class is a small group of 4-6. Give them a writing prompt, topic or term and ask each student to write a topic sentence only. The students pass their papers to the right. Next, they read the sentence that is there and add just one sentence. They again, pass their papers to the right and repeat the process until each student has had the opportunity to write at least one sentence. Ideally, the original writer - the student who wrote the topic sentence - also writes the conclusion. Once the piece is completed, each group member reads their story aloud and writing pieces are collaboratively edited and revised, which can be done one of two ways. I prefer to subdivide the groups into pairs and they will choose one of their papers to edit and revise.  However, when I first learned of the strategy I was instructed to have the entire group work together on editing and revising. I find the former to be more effective because with a larger group one or two dominant members will take over the task while the others sit back and passively observe.

Although designed to be a writing strategy, it's ideal for vocabulary development. After all, a strong vocabulary is essential in developing writing skills. Moreover, this strategy requires creativity and deep thought, which will prove challenging for many learners, but it's a cognitive workout that will further enhance their writing practice. I used a word wheel (see screenshot below) using the "Random Name Picker" from classtools.net. I spin the wheel as we pass papers to the right and the selected term must be used in the sentence. Because I teach English in context, the words are related to a story or unit of study and therefore, the prompts and vocabulary are connected to what was covered in class. As I call out the words, we also review parts of speech and I check for understanding. This is not a quiz, so if a student is unsure of the definition or context, they can certainly ask a peer or their teacher. And because my classes are small, I join in the fun and participate in the writing activity, giving me the opportunity to model.

I learned of "Write Around" at an Exc-ELL Training with Dr. Margarita Calderon a few years ago. While this activity works very well with English learners, it is by no means an ESL strategy and can be adapted to any student population and used in any content area.

If you decide to implement "Write Around" strategy in any form or have used it in the past, I would love to hear from you. It can certainly be a stretch for students but in today's digital world, it's an essential skill they must develop.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Import, Export and Personalize Vocabulary

Image Credit: Pixabay.com
Whether you are attempting to personalize instruction or are simply looking for a time-saving shortcut, here's a way to quickly and easily use Google forms, Quizlet and Quizalize to help students review and develop academic vocabulary.

Last December I wrote "Personalizing Vocabulary Development with Quizlet and Quizalize" where I shared how I had been exporting Quizlet study sets and importing them into Quizalize to create personalized formative assessments. Well, I recently learned how to import into Quizlet, quickly and easily creating study sets. So to piggyback on December's post, I'd like to add a few easy steps to what I shared a few months ago.

First, students create a personalized vocabulary list by entering their selected words and other related information into a Google form; the results subsequently stored on a Google sheet. I then copy the words and their definitions from the spreadsheet and import them into Quizlet. Once students have studied the words on Quizlet, I export the study set and develop a quiz on Quizalize. This is personalized learning at it's best - not to mention it's quick, easy and painless for their teacher.

Check out the screencast below where I take you through the entire process.


These activities are certainly supplemental to learning the terms in context, but they provide extra study tools that have proven invaluable to my students' vocabulary acquisition.

If personalizing vocabulary instruction is not on your radar, this combination of tools is still perfect for vocabulary review as users can copy terms and definitions from any document and create the study set and formative assessments. But you can also personalize larger classes by dividing the class into groups and having students collaboratively develop their word lists. Moreover, if you feel personalizing vocabulary isn't necessary or appropriate for the entire class, these tools may provide a way to scaffold instruction for English learners or other special populations.

I hope you will find this helpful and if so, please email me or enter comments below and let me know how you've used it. I would love the feedback, but most importantly, I'm always looking for new ideas.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Rethinking My 21st Century Classroom


So, what exactly makes a 21st-century classroom?

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning identified a set of four essential skills they call the "4Cs": critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. In the late 1990's, 21st-century teaching and learning was all the buzz. We were on the cusp of a new millennium and the term was synonymous with cutting edge technology and pedagogy. Now, 17 years into the 21st century, the four C's have become the norm and no longer about the latest trends.

Or have they really?

Although seating arrangements and instructional deliveries in many classrooms have changed, I frankly question whether we are really reinforcing the four C's or if, in fact, our learners are still doing nothing more than memorizing information just like learners of the past.

Based on what I've observed in both my own classroom as well while visiting other classrooms, I've compiled a list of common assumptions that are causing me to rethink 21st-century teaching and learning.

Critical Thinking
Assumption: Because today's learners have increased access to information via the internet, they are thinking more critically and making more informed decisions.
Reality: Today's young people are bombarded with information but they aren't necessarily thinking critically about all the information that's available to them. It's essential for learners to be able to compare and evaluate resources, distinguish between fact and opinion, discern between fake news and accurate news, and make informed decisions based on careful analysis not just on what is perceived to be true. It's interesting that after all the mini-lessons I've taught on digital citizenship, many still cite "google.com" as a source for information and images. Sadly, many of my learners are quick to believe and share fake new stories circulated on social media without checking for accuracy and often times reading nothing more than the headline. We may have access to the internet in nearly 100% of classrooms in America, but are students thinking critically about all the information accessible to them?

Creativity
Assumption: Creativity is a talent and some students just aren't creative. And because it's difficult to measure, why bother? 
Reality: Webster defines creativity as "the ability to make new things or think of new ideas."  Creativity is more about creating, than it is about a talent. Many people associate creativity with art or design and yet it's really about newness and risk. In my experience, I have found that when we foster an atmosphere of safety and security, students will feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone and thinking outside the box. Creativity cannot only be developed, but it must be modeled and coached.  When I give students the time and freedom to think their ideas through even the most uninspired will blossom. It's an essential skill that helps students adopt a new perspective on innovation, problem-solving and adapting to change. And while it may be difficult to objectively quantify, we have to remember that not everything that counts can be counted.

Collaboration
Assumption: When students work in partners or small groups they are collaborating.
Reality: First, let's distinguish between cooperation and collaboration.  I'll again refer to Webster for clarification. In terms of group work, cooperation is "a situation in which people work together to do something."  Inarguably, anytime my students work with other students whether it be brainstorming, problem-solving, reviewing for a test or just answering questions after reading a passage, cooperation is occurring.  Conversely, collaboration is defined as "to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something." That something is a common goal, not an individual goal.  Furthermore, when one person carries most of the weight while the others watch, there's no collaboration. This certainly is not a new phenomenon and rather just human nature, but if collaboration is an essential 21st-century skill, as a facilitator of learning, I must ensure that students are collaborating not merely cooperating, much less being passive spectators. This will only happen if I plan activities and lessons that require every participant to have an essential part and of course, when I hold each group member accountable.

Communication
Assumption: Communication is not a problem for my students. And thanks to digital media, they can communicate with anyone anytime and in many different forms. 
Reality: Despite the ubiquity of social media and other communication technologies, I find that many of my students are lacking effective oral presentation and interpersonal skills. They share their life story with the world on social media, but they stand in front of class and freeze, or much worse they want to read straight from the screen. And when it comes to interpersonal communication, many of them feel very awkward - and I'm not just referring to English learners. Interestingly, many of my students have expressed an interest in pursuing careers in service-oriented industries where communication skills are vitally important. Additionally, in today's global marketplace, students must be able to communicate both linguistically as well as culturally. Technology has given rise to global work teams that span time zones, nations and cultures, which may translate (pun intended) into multilingual communication. This is where skyping with students in another part of the world or field experts would greatly benefit our learners.

So what's the solution? There's no one-size-fits-all answer, but I wrote this post in the hopes that we all reflect on what is happening in our classes and see how well we are equipping our kids to thrive in the real world. While I may be officially charged with the responsibility of teaching English to speakers of other languages, I am essentially responsible for preparing them to be successful, productive members of a technology-rich global society.  Their success (and mine) may mostly be measured by English language proficiency growth,  however, if I fail to weave the 4C's into my instruction I'm doing my learners and society at large a huge disservice.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Image Credit: Eric Patnoudes @noapp4pedagogy

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Translation Tools For Newcomer English Learners


Webster's definitions of a newcomer include (1) one recently arrived, or (2) a beginner, rookie. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Education defines a newcomer as a foreign-born student who has recently arrived in the United States (USDOE, Newcomer Tool Kit).  I'm not a beginning teacher nor am I a recent immigrant or new language learner, however, I am now a newcomer.

Last week, I made a lateral move to a neighboring district closer to home and as I reflect on my first week, I relate well to newcomer English learners who often feel lost and anxious. While I may be a fluent English speaker and an experienced educator, I'm still a newcomer to the culture, lingo, and nuances of a new and larger school district.  However, in order to thrive, not just merely survive, I must focus on that which I do well and not allow the unknown aspects of my new position to cause me to lose momentum.  I can't let what I cannot do, interfere with what I can do.

I share John Wooden's words pictured above with my newcomer English learners almost daily and I also share them with content area teachers who feel as overwhelmed about teaching newcomers as are the students about learning. Language barriers make teaching and learning appear to be a monumental task, but we must focus on what they can do, rather than what they can't. We can find ways to make content comprehensible so they can learn which is why they attend school in the first place.

One simple way to help learners comprehend the course content is to use translation tools. Even if they may have a helpful classroom buddy, technology tools help our newcomers help themselves. Here are a few favorites that many of my students have found tremendously helpful.
  • iTools Translate Web
    • Powered by Google Translate, iTools will translate web pages to and from more than 20 languages. If a web resource is not available in the student's native language, this tool will quickly and easily translate the entire webpage. 
  • Lingro
    • Lingro enables users to instantly look up the translation and play the pronunciation for any word on any given webpage by simply clicking on the word. It also provides definitions in English. Webpages will not look much different until users click on a word.
  • Linguee
    • This unique tool is a dictionary with a search engine that enables newcomers to search for bilingual texts, words and expressions to check meanings and contextual translations. Many learners use it in conjunction with Google Images.
  • Google Translate
    • Last, but not least. A go-to app for many travelers, Google Translate translates words and phrases between more than 50 languages. While it's unrealistic for newcomers to translate pages and pages of documents, it certainly is helpful for translating sentences or even short passages. I also highly recommend it for communicating with learners. I've used it on many occassions to communicate basic instructions to newcomers who speak a language other than English or Spanish and find it to be nearly as accurate as a human translator. 
While using these tools is generally not permitted during standardized tests, they can certainly be beneficial in helping students complete classroom and homework assignments, increasing comprehensiblity and productive engagement. Also, keep in mind that these tools are simply a scaffold and are not to be used indefinitely.  They are like training wheels to help them get started. As they develop English language proficiency, and are no longer newcomers, they will eventually wean themselves off of translation tools.

Furthermore, lessons and assessments must be adapted and modified to meet learners' needs. Check out Teachers First's resource: Adapt-A-Strategy - Adjusting Lessons ESL/ELL Students. It's also crucial to implement strategies that will enhance and accelerate both content and language learning.  I recommend reading "Seven Teaching Strategies for Classroom Teachers of ELLs". I think you'll find those strategies helpful to all students, not just English learners. Also, be sure to reach out to your building's ESL teacher for tips and strategies for reaching those newcomer students in your classes. If your state is a member of the WIDA Consortium, request to obtain a copy of your newcomers' "Can-Do Descriptors" if you don't have them already.

Just because newcomers don't speak English doesn't mean they can't learn and just because you may not share a common language doesn't mean you can't teach them. While overcoming a language barrier may appear to be a daunting task, it certainly is not impossible to overcome and technology makes it just a little easier.