Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Perception Is Not Necessarily Reality

We know that appearances can be deceiving and this certainly applies to English Language Learners.  We all have those ELLs in our class that can socially converse, but are underperforming academically.  Many classroom teachers erroneously label them as lazy or uninterested, when in fact they simply have not the developed the academic vocabulary needed to perform at grade level.  If you are an ESL teacher, you know that it takes 1-2 years to become fluent in social and instructional language.  However, it takes 5-7 years to develop academic language.  Unfortunately, many educators judge the students’ language abilities based on their social language and expect them to perform academically alongside their native English speaking peers when in fact they are well below them.  Conversely, we have other students that develop their listening, reading and sometimes even their writing skills, but are paralyzed with fear of speaking and stuck in the silent period.  Silent period in language acquisition is a period of time during which learners are unable or unwilling to communicate orally in the new language.  For most it may be weeks or months, but for some (especially if their native language is widely spoken) it could take much longer.  

Let me tell you about a new student I had this year named Rosa (it's not her real name-actually it is my mother’s name).  She has intermediate/advanced listening, reading and writing skills, but is deathly afraid to speak in English.  Her native language is Spanish and when she arrived in the U.S., she lived in Texas where Hispanics abound.  Even though she had excellent ESL instruction, she was able to converse in Spanish most of the day.  In January, she moved to North Carolina and enrolled in my beginner class.  At first glance, she appeared to be a beginner all the way around, but the work she produced is of a much more proficient English learner.  Teachers have been pleasantly surprised at her academic performance.  As an ESL teacher, I  know that she suffers from an extended silent period.  Because I speak Spanish, I had to lay the ground rule early on that during the class period, we would be speaking English and would only use Spanish when translation is absolutely necessary.  She is in a diverse ESL class and Spanish is not the predominant language.  Therefore, not only is it a matter of courtesy, it is imperative that she develop her English speaking skills.   She made a great deal of progress this year and I believe next year she will be a shining star. 

So whether you are teaching long term ELLs who are lagging behind their native English speaking peers or are teaching a student who is stuck in silent mode, let's make no assumptions.  Just like we don’t judge a book by its cover, we must not judge a student’s English speaking skills by their ability (or inability) to fluently converse socially.  Everything is not what it seems and our perception is not always reality.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Show & Tell

When most of us think about “show & tell”, we probably revert back to our days in Kindergarten or 1st Grade.  I personally don’t remember having show & tell activities in my early elementary years, but I certainly remember how excited my own kids were on their show & tell days.  They carefully picked out the items they were going to share with their classmates and for them it was the best day of the week.  

This year, we began doing show & tell every Friday in my high school beginner ESL class....yes high school.  These are teenagers - ages ranging from 14 - 18.  Just like my own children, students have eagerly participated and seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed it.  

Show & Tell in the ESL classroom affords learners a wonderful opportunity to grow their public speaking and listening skills.  Public speaking is nerve wrecking for most of us, but it is especially challenging for English learners.  While S&T in my class is very relaxed and comfortable, it is also structured and guided.  The focus is on developing their speaking and listening skills.   Topics are announced early in the week and often relate to the unit of study or the week’s reading assignment.  Most of the time, it is tied in to their culture or native country.  In fact, I try to assign topics that they are comfortable with so they are not presenting material that is totally new to them.  Again, the focus is not so much on the content, but on improving their communication skills. Also, with several different countries and cultures represented, there are lots of questions and lots of contrasting and comparing.  But how is it relaxed and comfortable? Well, my approach to class is that we are family.  It’s a safe zone, where they can ask any question and make mistakes without feeling humiliated.  While the expectations for preparation are high, it is clear that we learn together, laugh together, celebrate one another’s differences and support one another as we grow.  Also, although I am not consistent, I participate myself.  Just like I love learning about them, they like to know about me.  

Some of the topics covered this year include foods, flags, currency, President’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, New Year’s.  For example, early in the year, we studied the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.  S&T culminated the unit with presentations of their native country’s flag and the significance of its colors and/or any graphics on their flag.  Back in February around President’s Day, we studied the history of the holiday and related vocabulary.  The S&T topic for that week was-you guessed it-President’s Day (or a similar type of holiday) in their native country and included in their presentation was a picture and information on their president.  When we learned about U.S. currency, they brought in their native country’s currency (some just printed pictures from the Internet) and they also had to figure out currency exchange rates.  Some weeks were more relaxed with topics such as “bring something old” or “bring something in a box”.  The latter was lots of fun because the contents were to be a surprise.  One student really got me when he arrived at class claiming to have left his laptop at home.  When it was his turn to speak, he had a shoe box in hand and voila, his laptop was in there.  

Students are graded using a rubric. Rubric is consistent, but may change if appropriate to the topic.  Grading categories always include preparedness, posture, eye contact, volume, enthusiasm and listens/asks questions. Each student is expected to ask at least one question (or make an appropriate comment) of each presenter.  They are never penalized for stumbling on a word, although as part of their preparation, they should try to know how to pronounce most of the content.  Some of the speaking is spontaneous, particularly when answering questions, so they may get a little stuck, but as I stated it’s all good.  Even though they took off pretty quickly, by now, they are very comfortable and are actually disappointed when he have to skip a week (which is rare). The hardest part was getting them to ask questions, and for some this has been huge, but by now, they are doing well.  After everyone presents, they reflect and write about their experience in their blog.

So if you teach adolescent or adult English learners, I encourage you to try it.  It really is lots of fun, but most of all they will gain some invaluable skills. And on the flipside, you will gain some invaluable knowledge about their background, culture and family.  It’s a win-win situation for all.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

To Blog or Not To Blog....That Is the Question

Last January, as I began the second semester with my high school beginner ESL class, my students were asked to create and maintain a blog.  This was designed as a low pressured journaling project where students keep track of “good things” in their life.  

At MGSD, we follow the “Capturing Kids Hearts” program by the Flippen Group.  Teachers begin their classes by asking students to share “good things.”  This year, rather than just orally sharing good things, I had students write about them.  First of all, it was an opportunity for them to practice their English writing skills and be able to see their improvement over time.    I also wanted them to be able to look back at their posts and hopefully be encouraged on a bad day.  In the fall, they simply kept a table of their good things for the day, but by the spring, most of their skills had improved and so they were ready to blog, and blog they did.   This is a free writing exercise and I make very few corrections, if any.  The more conscientious students often ask me to check their work before posting, but for the most part, I only read their posts after class is over and then I enter comments.

While students usually write about good things, some days they reflect on a project, presentation or other work.  Their blogging has been so successful, that I started to think about blogging myself.  After all, I’m a firm believer that students should not only do as I say, but do as I do.  I thought about it for some time but hesitated.  First,  I wasn’t sure what I would write about and also,  I don’t really consider myself a prolific writer.  Nonetheless, I decided to take the plunge and here I am.  Like my students’ blogs, this is will be a place of celebration and reflection.  A place to share my successes and learn from my challenges, so I can grow as a teacher and a person.  I love to teach and love to learn.  My students come to me to learn English, but there is so much I learn from them every day.  I’m not sure who all will read it or follow it, or even if the audience will only be me.  Regardless, I think I will enjoy blogging as much as my students have and hopefully, just like them, I will be able to look back and see some professional and personal growth. 

So,  here I am and the answer to the question is .....To Blog!