Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back at 2015

I recently read Life After the Storm by Jan Harrison (@JanMHarrison77).  The book was a gift to my husband, who's not exactly fond of reading and so it landed on my reading stack.  It is an account of the author's emotional and spiritual healing experience after the death of her son. While I don't have any real connection to it at this time, there were lots of good points presented and I found it very uplifting and enlightening.  There was one line in the book that really resonated with me and it is pictured below.

Although reflection is crucial to personal or professional growth, one must be careful not to dwell on the past. Whether we are building on successes or learning from our failures, it's important to focus on the road ahead in order to stay on track. 

As I reflect on 2015, I feel it was a year of sowing - a year of investment and risk.  If you regularly read my blog you know that I am continually reflecting. Whether reflecting on a lesson, a new tool, a setback or a celebration, I'm on a quest to learn from my experiences.  In recent posts, I've been deliberately sharing strategies and tools that have worked well (or sometimes not so well) in my classroom.  As I read other educators' blogs, I find myself learning from their travels and therefore, I want to reciprocate by sharing my journey as well.

At the end of the school year in June, I wrote "I've Been Wowed" after experimenting with the Wowed app and through it I reflected on all those who have contributed to my professional growth.  Back in November, I wrote a post titled "What Have You Done For Me Lately" and again reflected on how my PLN has built me up.

In December, I had an accomplishment that frankly I had only dreamed of. I had the privilege of being published in Education Week.  Thanks to my involvement with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), I was asked to contribute and share some insight and therefore wrote "Tips For Connecting With Non-English Speaking Parents".  The experience was incredible in many ways. While I am passionate about advocating for ELLs and their families, I love having the opportunity to take my experience from working with this student population and share what I've learned with all teachers. I also have fallen in love with writing and this experience has helped me to hone my skill. Subsequently, I was asked to contribute to other publications. I will be sure to share those as they are published.

Also resulting from my writing experience with the CTQ was the nomination to attend the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) Conference in San Diego, California at the end of January 2016.  Although the conference is still about four weeks away, I have already connected with some amazing educators at my school, as well as through Twitter and Voxer, who are active in this network of teachers.  Stay tuned for an exciting post in early February 2016.

One more celebration was the acceptance of a Student Showcase proposal at NCTIES.  On March 3, 2016, several of my high school ELLs and I will take our show on the road as we'll travel to Raleigh, NC. My students will have the opportunity to present their English language accomplishments through blogging to educators across North Carolina and beyond. This is very exciting for my ELLs as it will provide a tremendous leadership opportunity.  I look forward to sharing a celebratory post in March.

As I move forward to 2016, I feel that now is the time to reap.  I have planted much and will naturally continue to do so, but I feel this a time of harvest.  Frankly, I have no idea what the future holds, but I feel some changes are in store.  These may be changes in attitude and approach. There may be continued opportunities to share. Changes may be minimal or they may be huge, but I am keeping my options open. Regardless of how it all plays out, I feel that some of the seeds I have planted are ready to bear fruit and I choose to have an optimistic outlook.

In spite of having a fantastic year, I am counting on 2016 being extraordinarily eventful.

Wishing everyone who reads this the #BestYearEver.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Gift of Affirmation

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A couple of weeks before Winter Break some of my high school ELLs asked about having a Christmas gift exchange.  This particular bunch is a pretty close-knit group, but they are also culturally heterogeneous and some of them don't celebrate Christmas. Interestingly enough, the most vocal proponent of the gift exchange idea was a non-Christian student who wholeheartedly embraces the festive and gift-giving aspect of Christmas.  While everyone agreed on the exchange, I had some concerns that this may present a burden to some students and simply told the class that I needed to give it some thought.  A few days later, I brought it up again for class discussion and the idea evolved into a class project that positively launched us into our break.

First, I gave them the quote pictured here and asked them to think about good, intangible things. As they brainstormed, words like love, feelings, help, smile, friendliness and life came up. Next, I asked them to write their names on a small sticky note and toss it into a small bucket.  They drew names for the person they were to exchange a gift with.  Finally, I asked them to create a gift that would require neither an expenditure nor a shopping trip.  Although they were free to use the tool of their choice to create their gift, I introduced them to Buncee and all them chose to go with this tool. And so they created online holiday cards containing words of affirmation.

Buncee is an interesting presentation tool that allows users to create anything from digital stories to slide shows to greeting cards. It is cloud-based and projects are shareable.  Students drafted their messages on a Google doc, which was to contain at least five positive attributes of the recipient.  Before creating the digital card, they shared the doc with me in order to have the messages checked for syntax error and content.  A few of my students use a translator and it's important that messages read well in English so they translate well into their native language.  Afterward, students used Buncee's holiday greeting card templates to share the affirming words.  They personalized the cards by adding clipart, animations, photos and more. When finished they emailed them to one another and copied me in.  The activity went so well, I took the idea to my middle schoolers and they also enjoyed it very much.

My high schoolers topped off the celebration with a food party. From homemade dishes to store bought items, each brought something to share with their classmates.  We had so much food that many of my colleagues were able to join in the festivity.  Because my schedule is not as consistent at the middle school, I bought some red velvet cake bits, so the feasting continued.

As expected, it was heartwarming to see students' reactions when they opened up their digital cards and read those edifying messages. However, I believe the most impactful part of this project was in composing those messages.  Although this is a close group, some relationships are tighter than others. For a few of them, it was not easy to compose a list of five good things.  I found it very gratifying to help students see each other in a positive light and discover good things in those whose virtues tend to be rather disguised.  It really brought the group closer together and I believe will help them start 2016 on a favorable note.

My middle schoolers had an alternate schedule on the last day, so they didn't have a chance to open their cards in class.  Most of them don't check their school email when class is not in session and
therefore, I will make it a point to go through these with them during the first week of school.

At the end of the activity, students learned about a new tech tool, they learned about one another and they were affirmed.  It was a wonderful gift exchange although they did not spend a dime. Echoing the words of Art Buchwald, "the best things in life aren't things".

In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, let's take the time to give the gift that keeps on giving - the gift of love, kindness, and affirmation - a gift that knows no race, ethnicity or religious affiliation - nor does it need an occasion or reason.  Affirmation is eagerly accepted and appreciated by all people, all year long.

I also encourage you to check out Buncee and let me know what you think.  Please share how your learners have used it, especially if you use it to uplift and affirm one another.

Wishing everyone the happiest of holidays!


Monday, December 7, 2015

Bird In A Cage

Many of my students routinely ask me to proofread their written work for other classes. My newcomers are especially notorious because most of them compose their writing in their native language and then use a tool, such as Google Translate, to translate the content to English. Translation tools work relatively well and generally capture the gist of the message, but they are not perfect and it usually requires some cleanup

Last Friday, as I've done on many occasions, one of my newcomers asked me to look over a piece she had written for her English class. The class had just finished reading My Forbidden Face, which is the true story of a teenage, Afghan girl and her personal account of her life as the Taliban seized power in 1996. Below is a screenshot of her assignment.  

Like many newcomers, she first translated the instructions, then composed the writing piece for her project in Spanish and finally translated her composition to English. While I did some editing, her message for the most part was left intact. I was very touched by her thoughts and felt compelled to share them here on my blog. Although I'm not releasing her identity, I did have her permission to share. The italicized text below has been copied and pasted directly from her Google doc.

"I remember the times I spent at my old school. They were the best and I will never forget those days. The teacher asked us to talk about a situation in which we personally have felt trapped by society or oppressed by our peers. I chose the option of writing about feeling oppressed because I thought it will be easier to relate to my current situation.

I always enjoy being at a new school because I am very social and like having many friends. A new school gave me the opportunity to make new friends. I remember the first day at this school when I was so eager to start and meet new people. I think my dreams were shattered because of a few people who didn’t even know me and judged me based on my lack of English language skills.  People who think that because I don’t speak or write in English, I am not capable of achieving my dreams.  This the most unhappy I have ever felt.  I felt left out in a world that was not for me, encountering more obstacles than I ever imagined. I'm not afraid to meet and get to know others, even if we don’t speak the same language. Not knowing English is so difficult for me now.  I feel like a helpless animal that just wants to be free, spread abroad his wings to fly and travel the world.  I see only iron bars that are keeping me from fulfilling my dreams. As far as those silly people who mock me or ignore me I have no other words to describe them than the iron bars that have kept me locked in a cage without being able to spread my wings and fly. I have also felt scoffed when trying to talk to others who don’t even try to understand or reach out to me, but I will not let these obstacles get in my way.  

There is a difference between a defenseless bird who cannot stay in the cage and one that is willing to fight to be free. I do not have to stay in this cage. I have to extend my wings and fly, no matter what they say. I learned the first time that I cannot sit and expect someone to me help me out of this cage. I have to move forward and I will."

A language barrier is most definitely a constraint, and just like a cage, it traps individuals, limiting their activities and potentially stifling dreams. What I most enjoyed about reading this passage was the fact that she is keeping herself at the wheel, as she "cannot sit and expect someone to help her out of this cage." This young lady moved to Mooresville from Mexico in November 2014, knowing no English whatsoever- not even her colors or numbers. Yet, she enrolled in drama class and was on stage a few months later performing in front of a crowd. Her roles were minor, but she gave it her all and was successful. She later tried out for color guard and made it, despite the fact that there was not a single Spanish speaker on the team. Frankly, I was concerned at first, but she was not. She wanted to dance and is good at it. Therefore, she felt that her talent would pull her through and she was right.

She is still struggling but is not afraid of risk. This young lady has proven time and time again that no one but her has ownership of life, and she will not let anyone dictate her future. The future looks bright for her if she stays on this course and does not lose momentum. Her cage door is open, and soon she will fly away and reach new heights. She is immensely inspirational to me - as are most of my ELLs - and I hope her story will inspire you as well.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

They Think Therefore They Write

I recently viewed a Periscope broadcast of Sarah Brown Wessling (@sarahwessling) conferring with one of her high school English students about a writing piece. Although I wasn't able to view it in its entirety, there was one statement she made that profoundly resonated with me - "good writing comes from good thinking."

One of the most difficult language skills for an ELL to master is writing, and it's often what keeps them from exiting LEP (Limited English Proficient) status.  In January 2014, in an effort to help my learners overcome this roadblock (and inspired by the movie Freedom Writers), I ventured on a quest to get my ELLs to write more often.  And so I asked my high schoolers to create a blog and start writing daily. It started as free writing exercise (as in the movie) and I made very few corrections if any. The following fall, my middle schoolers followed suit. Due to scheduling issues, my middle schoolers blog about once a week, but my high schoolers continue to write daily. By the end of last year, I observed significant growth in most students' writing skills. Yet, I would argue that while it may seem that writing practice is what contributed to their gains, it's the thinking that occurs before they write that has generated momentum.  They think. Therefore they write.

And this is the same for all of us.  I thought long and hard about Sarah's comment before writing this post.  But how do I get students to think so they will write? As we go through the five steps of the writing process - (1) prewriting, (2) drafting, (3) revising, (4) editing and (5) publishing - I emphasize the prewriting stage.  It is in that prewriting stage that we brainstorm and organize ideas in order to write, i.e. we think.  While most students may express their displeasure over writing, it's the thinking process that stumps them. Once those wheels start turning, they are on a roll.

Thankfully there are some great and resources on the web to help us get started, and best of all, they are FREE for the most part.  Here are a few of my favorites.
  • 100 Word Challenge (@100wc) and Night ZooKeeper (@nightzookeeper
    • A weekly 100-word creative writing challenge targeted at students under 16. A weekly prompt is posted on the website every Sunday. I use it with my middle schoolers (grades 7-8) since last year.  Students are challenged to write their stories but are also encouraged to comment on other entries, thereby enabling global connections.  Most of the participating schools are in England, so the connections are indeed global.  Last year, students followed the prompts from and wrote on their individual blogs.  Now that they have teamed up with the Night Zookeeper, they write directly on their site. Frankly, I think the interface is a tad bit infantile for middle school but I have yet to hear students echoing my comments, and they appear to be drawn to it.  They provide a prompt as well as a short word bank and a counter to keep them from going too far under or over the 100 words.  Overall, it's very cool and engaging.  If you teach elementary or middle grades, I encourage you to check it out. 
  • Listen  Current (@listencurrent)
    • This site is about current events and is targeted at middle and high school science, social studies and English language arts.  However, I have only used it with my high school ELLs.  The topics are relevant to teens and thought provoking, perfect for blogging or any other form of writing.  While they emphasize the listening skill (hence the name), their lesson plans provide opportunities for reading, vocabulary enhancements, and academic conversations.  It's not designed for ELLs - and it has been quite a stretch for my bunch - but they do offer ELL supports with the premium subscription.  I highly recommend it for any secondary subject area.
  • Write About
    • A digital writing community offering visual writing ideas to spark creativity. This site can be used individually as well as privately in collaboration with other classes within the school or across the globe. Writings can also be made publicly available to any registered user. I would caution you, however. The selection is so extensive and incredibly interesting that I suggest that you create a group and narrow down student choices a bit for time management's sake.  It's targeted at grades K-12, but prompts are appropriately categorized in grade clusters.  I also highly recommend it.
  • Brainy Quote
    • If you are into quotes, you may have already visited this website.  I use motivational quotes to teach idioms, vocabulary and certainly to motivate and inspire my ELLs.  At one point, I used quotes simply as a warm-up.  Once they started blogging, they blog after the warm-up.  I use these mostly with my high schoolers, but I would say they are appropriate for upper elementary grades and above. Read one of my students' blog posts here.
There are numerous other sites that offer writing prompts; however, those are my favorites because they enable me to incorporate listening, reading, speaking (class discussions) and most importantly, thinking, making their writing practice much more productive.  At a minimum, we discuss as a class or in partners and exchange ideas about the topics.

Many of my beginner ELLs use translation as a scaffold. They gather their thoughts in their native language and use a translator as they compose. As they gather their thoughts,  the translation tool helps them in their thinking process and assists in transferring those thoughts into English. Again, good writing starts with good thinking.

One can often hear me tell my learners that their blogging practice is not as much about writing in English, but about thinking in English.  As they practice their writing, they are thinking.  Even if they start thinking in the mother tongue, they eventually think in English as they draft, revise and edit their work.  In addition to writing practice, blogging serves as an exit ticket, formative assessment, a reflective piece.  However, what I find most valuable is that is a window into their mind.  While their blogs help me gauge their areas of weakness in their English language skills, it also provides a glimpse into their world.  It tells me about their interests, priorities, family dynamics and most importantly, how they think.  Reading their blogs helps me personalize learning, most notably by shedding some light into their language needs, yet it's what I read between the lines that enable me to truly capture their hearts and minds.

If you have a favorite resource for writing prompts, kindly share them in the comments section, or reach out to me via Twitter or email. I'm always seeking more ideas.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

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Last Wednesday's #BFC530 chat topic was "Fear" and it was a topic I suggested after writing a blog post on it.  I  had the honor of moderating the chat, although my tweets had to be scheduled; otherwise, I would not have made it to school on time.  Thanks to TweetDeck, I was able to participate in the chat without it affecting my morning routine and duties.

The leading questions on the topic were: "What would you do if you had no fear? What would you do/do differently?" As I read through the tweets, I couldn't help but reflect on my own fears as well my personal and professional growth.  First and foremost, I have to give Twitter the most credit.  My growth since entering Twitter-verse has been exponential.  Looking back, I once thought Twitter would be a complete waste of time and was baffled by the fact that some educators considered it professional development. Thankfully, I decided to try it and here I am.  

If you are a Twitter veteran and/or have already discovered its purpose and power, this post will only confirm your beliefs. However, if you are new to Twitter or are still on the fence, read on and let me share what it's done for me and the places it has taken me.  
  • Global Connections
    • Before joining Twitter, I was pretty much a lone ranger and my PLN was virtually nonexistent (no pun intended).  I have no counterpart in my small district as I am the only Secondary ESL teacher. While I am still currently in the same role and no additional ESL teachers have been hired at the secondary level, I now have joined forces with countless others across the globe and am therefore no longer alone.  Moreover, while I first sought to connect with other ESL teachers, my PLN includes educators in a wide variety of roles from superintendents to student teachers.
  • Growth Mindset
    • My perspective on growth, my own as well as student growth, has made a 180-degree turn.  I have learned to embrace failure, flaws, and challenges as part of the growth process enabling me to take risks and explore new horizons.  Barriers that I had previously self-imposed have been removed.  Best of all, I have passed on this mindset to my students as they tackle the challenges of language acquisition in the teenage years. Therefore, my ESL classes are about much more than language acquisition. They are preparation for life - a life that for ELLs may include overcoming huge obstacles because of their language limitations. 
  • Blogging
    • Before joining Twitter, I didn't remotely think about blogging.  Once I got connected and began reading teacher blogs, I felt compelled to keep up with the Joneses and began to consider it. It took months before I mustered the courage but I did and here I am.  Check out my very first blog post here.
  • Presentations
    • I have to say that I'm not terribly afraid to speak in public. However, I didn't exactly look for opportunities to present.  When I would receive an email about calls for proposals, I quickly deleted them because like any teacher, I have plenty on my plate and didn't think I had anything significant to contribute.  That's now changed.  For the last couple of summers, I have presented sessions at my district's Summer Institute.  Last week, I submitted two proposal's to NCTIES 2016 Conference and I'm in the process of developing a Student Showcase proposal.  If accepted, my high school ELLs will travel to Raleigh, NC to showcase their blogs.  I hope all three will be accepted, but at a minimum, I would really like for my students to have the opportunity to show off their work to educators.
  • Skype/Google Hangout
    • I'm pretty techy, but skyping has never been my thing.  That is until now. Video conferencing has not only enabled my students and me to connect with folks in other states and countries but when there is a time conflict, it has allowed me to virtually sit in meetings and join workshops without having to leave my classroom. It has really opened up my world. If you are wondering about which of the tools to use, here's my two cents. They have both worked equally well for me. However, if you have Google Chromebook, you may encounter some issues with Skype.  Here's an article that compares the two.
  • Voxer
    • After hearing all the buzz on Twitter about Voxer, I finally asked about it and was invited to a conversation. Voxer is a walkie-talkie-like app for your mobile device that lets you connect with other educators without having to give out your personal phone number or even location.  It enables voice, text, graphics and video. There are lots of education groups having great conversations on it.  There are times when you need more than 140 characters or you just need to have a verbal conversation.  I especially like the fact that someone can park a question or comment and I can respond at a convenient time.  If you would like to check it out, email me or tweet me and I'll get you connected to some great groups.  
  • Periscope
    • Sarah Thomas (@sarahdateechur) - who I have only met virtually - introduced me to this awesome tool.  Periscope is a live video broadcasting tool that allows users to bring the world into their classroom or setting. I must say that it must be used with caution and I personally never show a student's face because one never knows who may be lurking.  It would also make an awesome virtual field trip tool although I haven't used it that way. I could write lots about how I use Periscope, but here's a resource that may give you some ideas. 
  • #Read4Fun
    • Last December as I reflected on the 2014 calendar year, I realized that I had been slacking off on reading.  Lo and behold soon thereafter I found #read4fun and joined in. Although I don't join the chat regularly, I do chat with the group on Voxer and most importantly, I have immersed myself in reading for pleasure.
  • #GoodCallsHome
    • Rik Rowe (@RoweRikW), another virtual friend, started the #goodcallshome movement in the summer of 2014.  Incidentally, as I reflected on the 2013-14 school year I realized that I needed to make more proactive calls to my ELLs' parents and so when I saw the new hashtag I jumped at the opportunity for accountability. Consequently in January 2015, the #gchchat was born with Rik and I moderating it the first Monday of every month.  We encourage and enlighten educators to make those positive calls and watch the magic unfold as we strengthen relationships with parents and students - not to mention the motivation we experience with all the positivity it generates.  Copy the graphic on the right to your desktop and please join us next time. 
  • Moving Forward
    • Last but not least, on the topic of fear, this hunger for growth generated some thinking and reflection in the direction of my career.  I LOVE my ELLs and am so blessed and privileged to work with some amazing young people.  However, as I collaborate with colleagues and explore all the possibilities that technology affords us, I have been giving some serious thought to moving into an instructional coach role.  At this point, I have no serious prospects and no definite plans, but I have turned my radar on and am keeping my options open.  Back in 2001, I earned an MA in Instructional Technology and while I have taught several professional development sessions, I have never officially been in that role.  Who really knows what the future holds, but I am feeling led to follow that path at some point in the future. Although I feel safe and comfortable in my classroom, I am no longer afraid of pursuing a challenging, ever changing position. 
I really could go on and on.  While we need to be careful to not immerse ourselves in social media to the extent that it isolates us from our friends and family, Twitter is a resourceful tool that will not only enhance instruction but also enrich our lives.  It's all about balance, so fear not,  move forward and find those treasures if you haven't already.

If you grew up in the 80s, the title of this post might have gotten Janet Jackson's song playing in your head.  In case you are too young to have heard the song, don't remember it or just want to hear it again, click here to check out the video.

So what has Twitter done for you lately?


Monday, October 5, 2015


Recently on my way to school, the DJ on one of my favorite radio stations was talking about the acronym fear.  She said F.E.A.R. stands for False Evidence Appearing Real.  Perhaps you've heard it before, but it was a first for me and it caused me to ponder on how fear affects our lives, both personally and professionally, and especially how it impacts the choices and decisions we make.

What is fear anyways? Fear is both a noun (idea) and a verb (action) According to Webster, the noun form of fear is an unpleasant emotion, an anxious concern, a reason for alarm.  In a religious sense, fear is a profound reverence and awe toward God.  I would add it is also profound respect and admiration toward someone in authority or leadership role, such as a school superintendent or a political leader.  Moreover, when we act in fear, we are worried, afraid and/or expecting something unpleasant to occur.  While fear generally starts as an unpleasant, stressful or perhaps even frightening emotion that's often crippling, it is our response to fear that determines the course of our lives.  Fear often brings issues to the surface that we may be oblivious to or have chosen to deny, finding ourselves at a crossroad or a dead end where a decision is inevitable.

Perhaps a better question is not what is fear, but what are we fearful of? What is fear keeping us from? As I ponder over these questions, I reflect on areas of my own life where fear has kept me from taking risks or reaching a lifelong dream.
  • New Role or Position.  Many teachers stay in the classroom for their entire professional career despite having personal aspirations of venturing into administration or educational support roles.  While financial barriers and family obligations are often cited as legitimate concerns, more likely than not, we often stay put because we would have to leave our comfort zone.
  • Speaking Our Mind.  Rather than huddling with our peers, scheduling a meeting with an administrator or joining a committee could not only have a positive impact on our students and our schools, but also ourselves - and may even open up career opportunities.
  • New Strategies, Methods or Tech Tools.  For some of us, our content doesn't change much over the years, however, our student population does and if our lesson delivery remains unchanged we are doing a disservice to our students.  Moreover, if we expect our learners to take risks in learning, we must model risk taking ourselves. Most importantly, we must teach them to embrace the growth process and as they embark on a lifetime of learning.  
  • Failure. Every great invention has started out with failure before it's been a success.  When we learn to see failure as a beginning rather than an end, the opportunities for growth are endless. We never set out to fail, but rather than fear it and shy away from it, we should embrace it. Once I realized that my flaws and my shortcomings can be a strength rather than a weakness, my instruction turned around and my students and my own children have been my greatest benefactors.
As I was searching for an appropriate graphic to add to this post, I found the acronym below and it found it aligns perfectly with my thoughts on this topic.
Image Credit:
So, what do you fear and what would you do if you were not afraid? As you go out and face the world, identify your fear (face it), explore the possibilities of overcoming it, accept what you cannot change and most importantly, respond accordingly.  What we really need to fear is inaction. So resolve to act upon these fears and start making those dreams a reality.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Pictures In Our Minds

Last week, I overheard two of my high school students as they commented that they hated to read, but yet they loved to read the Bible and they can't get enough of it. These two young ladies happen to be very committed Christians and are actively involved in their church, so I was not surprised to hear them say they were Bible readers.  However, their comment about their disliking reading really struck me and made me rethink my approach to reading instruction.

This comment is rather typical among English Language Learners.  Newcomers struggle with reading as their English proficiency is low and their vocabulary is limited.  However, most of my students are long-term ELLs, which means they have been in the program (and/or the country) more than seven years. The latter were labeled LEP (Limited English Proficient) often upon entering Kindergarten with little to no knowledge of English, and despite being fluent in social and instructional English, their academic language is still weak and thus are identified as such. This language deficiency causes them to be clearly overwhelmed by all the unknown words they are continually exposed to and naturally will be turned off to reading.  Add the short attention span of a typical teenager and you know reading is not likely to be on their list of hobbies and interests.  And this hostility toward reading is not solely an ELL issue, but it's actually an epidemic aggravated by the multimedia overload brought about by the Information Age.

Now let's be clear that I am certainly no foe of technology. Quite the contrary, I embrace it wholeheartedly and seamlessly integrate it into all areas of my curriculum.  There are days that my English language lessons strongly resemble my Business Education days.  I'm always teaching students about a new website or a new shortcut to a familiar tool.  Nevertheless, it is imperative for all students, ELLs or native speakers, to have strong reading skills. 

So back to the comment about reading.  As I reflect on the how to engage students in reading and instill in them a love of reading, I thought to myself, "what is reading anyways" and with that, I turned to dictionary.comAs I reviewed all seven definitions of the word reading, I was struck by the fact that the word "book" is never mentioned.  However, when we teach and/or assign reading, particularly in English Language Arts, it's usually book reading.  Likewise, when we think of liking (or disliking) reading, most of us think of books.  Interesting.  Next, I analyze the various definitions of the word and made the following observations for each one.
  1. The action of a person who reads.  Most teens (and some adults) think of reading as a boring, passive activity when in fact it isn't, or at least it shouldn't be.
  2. Speech, oral interpretation of written language. Speech is not silent, so why should reading be?
  3. Interpretation of a dramatic part or musical composition.  Drama and music do indeed complement literacy, but the connection is seldom there.  Perhaps adding drama and/or music to reading time will spice up things.
  4. The extent to which a person has read; literary knowledge.  Reading should not be about the amount of time per day or how quickly we read, but about the knowledge we soak up.  
  5. Matter read. It's about substance, not skill.  In other words, "content". 
  6. The form or version of a given passage.  This brings me to think about interpretation and application of what we read, not to mention how the reading selection impacts us.  It makes me think that perhaps if there's no impact, then it really is an exercise in futility.
  7. An instance or occasion.  A moment in time.  When we are highly engaged in our selection, the world around us can crumble and it wouldn't even faze us.  We mentally travel with the content.
Bottom line, reading is not about a skill, but rather about an experience.  It's not about books, novels, literary elements or vocabulary. While those are all valuable as we progress in life, in order to create lifelong readers we need to generate a feeling.  In the words of the great Maya Angelou, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel".  How do we get students to love reading, we need them to be involved in their reading and "feel" the love.

I'd like to end by adding #8 to the list of definitions: "Creating pictures in our minds".  As I read with my students, I often ask, "what are you picturing in your minds?"  We all know that if a picture isn't playing, they are just looking at words and therefore, they aren't reading.  Which is perhaps why they dislike it.

Read on.....#BestYearEver

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Future's So Bright

Image Source:
If you grew up in the 80s, you might remember Timbuk3's one-hit wonder, "Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades."  Even though I grew up in the 80s myself, I actually first learned of the song in 2011 when my daughter's third-grade teacher used the phrase to decorate the class door, along with a photo of each student wearing sunglasses.  The following year I took the idea and pictured my own students on my website wearing shades.

Well, it's now 2015, and most of those students have exited the ESL program and/or have graduated so I decided to recycle the idea.  This time, however, I've made it my theme for the year in an effort to remain positive and encouraging to my ELLs - many of whom struggle greatly in school because of their language deficiencies.  Instead of publishing their photo on my website, I developed a getting-acquainted type of project for the first week of school.

The project was titled "Selfie Portrait" and they were asked to create a flyer using the tool of their choice which would include the following:
  • Selfie wearing sunglasses 
  • Name as an alliteration
    • Example: Jovial Jonathan
    • Adjective must be positive
  • Birthday
  • Birthplace
  • Favorites list
    • Five or more
  • Attractive layout 
  • Balanced white space and font sizes
Students were given access to this Google doc where they obtained instructions for the project including a simple example featuring my son. While they were free to use the tool of their choice, most of the students used Pages, Keynote, Google Doc or Google Presentation.  This project gave me the chance to cover the concept of analogies that for many ELLs is quite challenging.  I played the song, which most didn't really care for but they did find the analogy interesting.  They especially enjoyed taking selfies, as most teenagers do.   The flyers are hung in my room, and whenever their lights start to dim, I pull out a set of shades and remind them to keep their future bright.  Pictured here are some snapshots of some of their products.

This activity can easily be implemented in an elementary classroom and can be adapted for a regular secondary class.  Regardless of age or English proficiency level, students will thoroughly enjoy taking selfies and getting acquainted with their peers.  For those that need a little encouragement, I find the positive adjectives affirm them and help them see themselves in a more positive light.

This started out as a getting-acquainted type of project for the first week of school, but I'm planning on keeping the flyers up all year long. I'm also planning to create a Kahoot game so we can have a little fun with the selfies and see how much they've learned about their peers.

I'm striving for the #BestYearEver.  Until next time, keep your shades on!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I've Been Wowed

I'm always on the lookout for the latest educational tools and gadgets so when I came across a tweet  about 10 New Educational Tools today, I quickly emailed myself the link and checked out the tools later in the day. All the tools look pretty promising, most of which are free, but there was one that really "Wowed" me.

Wowed is an iPhone app that enables users to create word clouds from tweets, webpages and more.  If you stick to the free version you won't have a great deal of creative choices, but I think it's pretty neat nonetheless.

You might be wondering what is so special about yet another word cloud tool.  Well, it's not the tool itself that wowed me, but rather the content it generated. It created from my Twitter stream and what I find so interesting and noteworthy is that it describes me to a tee. It portrays the educator I have evolved into after a year of tweeting and connecting with education professionals across the globe.  As with any word cloud, the larger the text, the more frequent the mention. I'll go over my top 10.
  • #reflectiveteacher Thanks to the #reflectiveteacher community I am pleased to say I am a blogger, but most importantly a reflective blogger.  I took on their first daily blogging challenge in September, then a weekly challenge in October and another daily challenge in November.  From that point on, I was hooked and I generally blog about once a week. While I'm still perfecting my craft, I sure have come a long way and I am both proud and grateful.
  • #ellchat  This was the chat that lured me into Twitter-land.  I was seeking to connect with fellow ESL teachers and found them.  This chat opened a door for me and put me on the road to connectedness, discovery and growth.  I still try to make the chat every Monday night at 9:00 p.m. ET but there are many other chats I chime into as well and it all started there.  Next week, I get to co-moderate it with Shaeley Santiago (@hseslteacher).  As an ESL teacher, this is at the heart of my professional growth and so naturally it made second place.
  • #GCHchat, #goodcallshome and @WHSRowe  Last summer, I learned about the #goodcallshome movement started by Rik Rowe (@WHSRowe).  Coincidentally, I had already set a professional goal of increasing parent contact and so this movement was very timely. Best of all, my PLN would keep me accountable.  Consequently, in January 2015 #GCHchat made its debut with Rik and I co-moderating the monthly 30-minute chat.  The chat serves as both a point of celebration and encouragement as we attempt to encourage and recruit teachers to start the practice of making #goodcallshome. There are no words to express the motivation we experience as we focus on the good and communicate that to parents.  It's a win-win situation.  Parents are pleased (often shocked) which improves parent-child relationship.  Kids are happy and encouraged.  Bottom line, our classroom culture improves. 
  • Students This should have been number one because they are the reason why I get up every morning, go on Twitter, write this blog and hunt for new tools and techniques. They make my world go round.
  • #Edchat I use Twitter strictly for professional development and therefore, I add the #edchat hashtag often, especially when the tweet may not appear directly related to education. Often times I add it at the end of a motivational quote.
  • Join, Good, Great By itself, these words may seem meaningless, lame, cliche.  However, in the grand scheme of things, they are pretty significant.  They reveal the enormous amount of positivity, growth and empowerment we generate when we grow our PLN.  You see, by "joining" Twitter I have connected with "good" people who are seeking "greatness" in students, colleagues and the world at large.
It's been an amazing year and the best is yet to come! I encourage you to check out the @wowedapp and see what it reveals about you. 


Friday, May 29, 2015

Cause for Celebration

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and as multiculturally-inclined as I am, I fully
embraced it and made it my theme for the month of May.  At the beginning of the school year as I was planning lessons for Hispanic Heritage Month, I wondered if there was a commemorative month for Asian Americans.  So I turned to Google and sure enough I discovered that May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.  While Hispanics make up the majority of my ELLs, I do have a handful of Asians and recognizing their ethnic group's culture as well as their contributions to our country is definitely cause for celebration.  Most of us think of celebrations as parties, foods, games, shows or assemblies. All that's great and there's place for it, but honoring a heritage is so much more than that.

As we seek to address the needs of the whole child, it's crucial to acknowledge and celebrate our students' culture and ethnicity, as for many of them it is at the heart of their identity.  We honor our students by being culturally aware as we go about planning units of study, crafting questions, selecting reading materials and planning projects.  While dropping a foreign sounding name in a math word problem or by reading about Rosa Parks during Black History Month is great, that's surely not enough. When using analogies to explain a concept, make sure it is something they have been exposed to. Better yet, provide examples of situations they can relate to and that honor them and their heritage. And this isn't solely done during one month of the year, this must happen year round. For example, when reading about the new year, read about traditions around the world and give everyone a chance to share.  Their input in invaluable and not only to them, but to all of us.  Furthermore, we must avoid stereotypes at all cost. Cultural, linguistic and religious differences exist not only among ethnic groups, but also among individuals of the same nationality.  So, never assume anything but instead take a back seat by asking questions and letting kids share. This not only engages our learners in constructive conversations, but it also celebrates and validates cultural differences.  Like a great salad, it's so much better when it's more than just lettuce and tomato.

So back to Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.  On Friday, May 1st, I announced the commemoration to my ESL classes and took them to the Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month's website.  Not a single one of my students knew about it.  While the celebration was purely academic in nature, I can still call it a celebration because it generated a great deal of engagement, positivity and validation in all students, not just those of Asian heritage.  Here's some of what we did in class this past month.
  • Famous Asian Americans.  Who doesn't like reading a success story.'s list of famous Asian Americans was a hit and created some interesting conversations.  Many of those listed are of mixed-race, such as Bruno Mars, who is both Hispanic and Asian.  Students partnered up with a peer and together they selected a person to read about.  What was most fascinating is that while my Asian students were thrilled to read about fellow Asian Americans, the non-Asians were just as engaged as they found numerous connections to folks who seemed so different from them.  As they read their selections, they gathered basic facts and answered questions about the individual including connections and surprises.  I like using the 3-2-1 method - three things they learned, two things that surprised them and one thing they don't understand or are confused about. Those responses were gathered on a Google form.
  •  After they completed the Google form, they created an Avatar of that person and recorded a message in their own voice. This took a little time as some students had never visited this website. They really enjoyed creating the graphic part, but most were really excited to using their cell phone to add voice to the avatar.  Using cell phone in class is not generally allowed unless it has an obvious academic purpose.  They later embedded the Voki on their blogs and blogged about that experience.  See sample here.
  • Japanese-American Internment.  We had a mini Social Studies unit on the Japanese Internment. Many of them were familiar with Jim Crow Laws, Jewish Holocaust and slavery, but had no idea about Asian concentration camps.  The idea of such a tragedy on American soil was a shocker, especially when the captives were American born.  Many of Hispanics voiced concerns about this ever happening to Mexican-Americans.  I think we've come a long way since World War II, but the connection was there and again, students were highly engaged in some interesting conversation.  
  • 10 Creepy Asian Urban Legends.  At the request of one of my Vietnamese students who loves to read scary stories, we read about some pretty creepy tales.  Even the most apathetic student was captivated by this topic (probably just scared half to death).  I usually save urban legends for the end of year as it does indeed capture their attention, and so this topic tied in nicely with the APAHM.  However, I must say that these tales where much more intriguing than some of the others we've read in the past like the Chupacabra and La Llorona
As May comes to a close and I reflect on this month, I think next year I need to add some food to the mix.  After all, a celebration is not complete without the eating component. However, my aim this time around was to simply acknowledge and validate the Asian ethnicity and the huge contributions they have made to this great country.  As I have stated many times, it is in learning about one another that we discover more about ourselves and we realize that we are so much more similar than we are different.  

We are less than two weeks away from the end of year and crazy at it seems, I'm already looking forward to next year. 

#FinishStrong #BestYearEver

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Eat and Be Merry

We are not quite at the end of the year yet, but one of my high schoolers returned to his homeland last weekend and so last Thursday was his last day in ESL class. In preparing for his last week, I had planned to make #FoodFriday the topic of our weekly Show & Tell, but when I got word that he would not be in class on Friday, we moved it up.  There was no way that I was going to give up an opportunity to present food, and most importantly eat.  I love to, I live to eat.  I will try anything that's edible and unfortunately have the figure to show for it. 

You may have heard the line "a way to a man's heart is through his stomach".  In reality, it's a way to anyone's heart and certainly works wonders for students.  Eating isn't merely nutritional intake, but it is certainly a profoundly social activity.  Generally speaking, food is shared.  We have family mealtimes, we gather with friends and coworkers for lunch and/or dinner. When a neighbor stops in, we offer them something to eat or drink.  Food is therefore symbolic of friendship and belonging. Likewise, school is extremely social.  In order for students to excel academically, we cannot ignore the social aspect of the school experience and since food brings people together, why limit it to the cafeteria.  Snacks, even candy, serve as a wonderful extrinsic motivator. Sharing a meal as part of a lesson will not only motivate, but it will capture their hearts and minds. Now I'm fully aware of the sanitary reasons why it's better to eat in the cafeteria. Nevertheless, food encourages peer interaction and builds camaraderie, all the while covering essential academic standards.

In a culturally and linguistically diverse class as ESL, food can also serve to unite the students. As we sent our student off, each class member was asked to bring a typical food to share with class. Because it was our weekly Show & Tell activity, learners stood up and presented the item/dish, ingredients, preparation and any other relevant fun facts.  I often make my presentation a day or two prior in order to model what is expected, but for this one, I waited until the day of.  As in other presentations, students were expected to ask questions-and there were quite a few-but they were very eager to eat, so most of the questions came during and after the food consumption.

In sharing our favorite dishes and tasting new ones, we learned much about one another and also ourselves. In learning about the ingredients, spices and preparation, we ventured into the unknown only to discover the familiar in what appears so utterly different.  Tasting foods we ordinarily would have never tasted enabled us to find many common threads. For example, as different as Laotian, Indian and Mexican foods appear, many of their dishes are very spicy and some of the ingredients are the same.

I brought in some delicious guava and cream cheese Cuban pastries which were perfect for an early morning snack.  I don't eat those much anymore and sharing them with my students, brought back childhood memories of grandfather's visits on Sundays with a box of pastries in hand.

This was one of the best days this year and I can't wait to do it again. Lesson learned: the way to a student's heart is through his or her stomach.  So let's eat and be merry!


Friday, May 1, 2015

What If

I've recently started to make every Wednesday #WhatIfWednesday, thanks to an idea I took from Sean Farrum (@magicpantsjones) and others in my PLN. I think most of you will agree that real growth lies in asking the right questions rather than obtaining the right answers.  Rote memorization and passive learning may result in a passing score, but life is much more than a grade.

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, I'm feeling inspired.  First, I'm inspired by my ELLs who so eloquently expressed their thoughts through poetry all month long. Poetry writing was a huge stretch for them and despite some of the whining, I would say most, if not all, are very proud of their work.  I am also utterly inspired by my PLN on Twitter and Voxer.  Being a connected educator is very time-consuming, but every comment I listen to and every post I read cause me to reflect on my own teaching and learning, challenging me to explore new horizons and reach new heights both professionally and personally.

For this week's #WhatIfWednesday, my middle school students wrote "What If" poems (with the help of one of the forms on the Instant Poetry Forms website) and they inspired me to write my own.  Here it goes. Enjoy!

What If

What if the world saw kids through our eyes?
Will they see successes in disguise?
What if they saw diamonds in the rough?
Will they know capturing their hearts is not just fluff?

What if the focus was not on the test?
Would it be enough to just do our best?
What if there was really nothing to measure?
Will we ever find that hidden treasure?

What if we could tear down classroom walls?
Would we teach at the beach or at the mall?
What if the computer could take the lead?
Would it make teachers obsolete?

What if we stop trying to find fault?
Would we find a remedy and stop the verbal assault?
What if differing viewpoints we could try to see?
Would we agree to disagree?

What if we taught kids to care for the least of these?
Would it be as important as learning ABC's?
What if we stopped asking the hard questions?
Will we address the issues of education?

What if we stopped asking why?
Would we really turn a blind eye?
What if everyone could catch a glimpse into our world?
Will they be able to see that precious pearl?

What If?


Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Poet In All Of Us

April is National Poetry Month and as a poetry lover, I've intertwined poetry into almost every lesson this month. Poetry presents a tremendous opportunity for students to grow their language skills. It gives learners the chance to expand vocabulary knowledge as they analyze and experiment with language choice. Reading poetry requires us to not only attempt to understand the meaning of poems, but to also look closely at the poet's words and the feelings intended to provoke, all the while covering literary devices, figurative language, inferences and analogies - just to name a few. Poetry writing strengthens composition skills by removing boundaries and developing creativity, paving the way for many other forms of writing. Reading poetry aloud emphasizes speaking and listening skills which are often neglected despite the implementation of CCSS.  Granted, these skills are essential for everyone but for English Language Learners, they are paramount.  Some teachers dread covering poetry, however, I embrace it - making April my favorite month of the school year.

This year, I've stepped up my poetry instruction a bit. I was determined to instill a love and appreciation for poetry in the hopes of making a poets of my ELLs.  Some of my most reluctant writers embraced poetry, discovering a creativity within them that they never knew existed.  Like an athletic trainer developing physical strength, I've heard quite a bit of moaning and complaining, yet they completed their tasks and I witnessed their growth. Some were quick to express their pride, some simply showed it through their gleaming eyes and bright smiles.

As in prior years, I have used this wonderful website recommended by one of our middle school Language Arts teachers.  It provides interactive poetry forms offering structure and sentence starters - a creativity push that is a much needed scaffold for most learners, but especially ELLs.  Some of my students used the site all month, but a few were able to write from scratch after a few times. In prior years, poems were read and interpreted as a class and they also wrote poems about themselves and/or characters in a book.  This year, I had students read their poems aloud and even recorded one group in front of a green screen which they later used to create videos of themselves.  This was helpful in developing reading fluency as well as listening skills. After writing their poems, they published them on their blogs for all the world to see. Their blog addresses were shared with some of my PLN and their posts were read and commented on by teachers and students across the country.

One thing I really want to brag on is my integration of Poetry and Informational  Text.  In lieu of reading informational text and answering questions, students were asked to write poetry in response to an article they read and discussed with their peers. Not only did I search high interest articles, I intentionally chose topics that would stir their thinking and facilitate the writing process. Topics ranged from cyborg cockroaches to stories of the Jim  Crow South to cross dressers of the Civil War.  At first thought, informational text may appear grossly unrelated to poetry, but this odd couple quickly became a perfect match.  Students were more engaged in their writing those days than they had been all year. I am very pleased with my integration of poetry and informational text - a strategy that I will fine tune and perfect for the coming year.

I will have to reluctantly admit that I probably overdid it this year and may have burned out a few, so I learn from my mistakes and build on my successes.  I will certainly continue to integrate poetry into my units during April, but I realize that I will need to introduce it earlier in the year and perhaps bring in a little more drama and fun during April, making it more of a celebration of National Poetry Month.

My goal this month was not only to teach poetic elements and all that goes with it, but to also instill a love of poetry and generate some unorthodox thinking and writing. Some enjoyed the unit, some did not, but they all wrote great poems.  Some required more scaffolding than others, but they got their creative juices flowing and I'm immensely proud of every single one of them. Was my mission accomplished? For the most part, yes.  I set out to help them discover the poet in themselves and I did. While some of my ELLs don't yet fully appreciate the beauty and opportunity of poetry, I certainly planted a seed. Regardless, they will all agree that there is a poet in each of us waiting to be exposed.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Back From The Future

One of my favorite movies of all time is Back To The Future, especially the first one. I remember going to see it with some friends, not having any idea what the movie was about and being at the edge of my seat the entire showing.  All that time traveling was very entertaining, but I especially loved how having visited the future and changed the present day.

The quote pictured here is one I posted on my board at both schools this week and it generated some wonderful reflection and conversation.  I intended the discussions to be inspirational for my students, but in the end I found myself inspired and motivated not only by the quote, but also by their responses. My high schoolers' as usual were right on target.  They are great group of young people who embrace reflection and dig deep into every quote we discuss. My middle schoolers, on the other hand, usually need a great deal of scaffolding and are not so eager to reflect, but I must say that this week many of them dove right in.

Back in September, I asked each of my middle schoolers to develop a goal plan.  I provided them with sentence starters to help stir their thinking and coached them along the way as they identified a specific goal for the school year and developed a plan for achieving it.  Even for my advanced ELLs, it was challenging as they were not accustomed to all that deep thinking.  When they finished their plans, they published them on their blogs and I let them know we would revisit these plans mid-year to ensure they were staying on track. Well, midyear came and with ACCESS testing underway, we didn't get to them.  None of the students brought up the goal plan - perhaps wishing I had forgotten which I certainly did not.

We are now at the end of the 3rd quarter and I thought this would be an appropriate time to look back.  Because of an adjusted schedule, ESL classes were shortened so it took us two periods to complete the reflections.  First, we read the quote aloud and I asked them the following two questions: (1) How does your past influence your future? (2) How does your future influence your present.  The first question was easy, but number two puzzled them a bit. Some quickly expressed their confusion, while others interpreted it as the present influencing your future. Middle schoolers are not often abstract thinkers - especially when their language skills are lacking - so I was not surprised at their responses. Naturally, since this was their reflection I kept asking questions, answering their questions with more questions until their came to their own answers.  I was also pleased to hear some of them acknowledge how much their writing skills had improved since September. They are still not there but there's certainly evidence of growth.

So, this week as we analyzed and interpreted a quote and applied it to their goals, my students and I embarked on a time machine that took us from the past to the present, then to the future and back to the present.  All that travel made them a little dizzy at times, but in the end we all realized that it's not only the past that affects our present, but it's our future that has the greater impact.  None of them had ever given their goals that much thought up to this point, viewing it as merely an assignment for ESL class. After our discussions, they went "back to the future" and reviewed the goal plans.  Some made a few adjustments, others left the goals as is, but they all realized the importance of goal setting and how those goals influence the choices we make in the present.  

As my students reflected on their goals and aspirations, so did I.  The past is gone and unlike the movie, we cannot travel backward and forward in time.  While we are inevitably impacted by where we've been, it's where we are headed that determines where we are right now.  It's not about where we went but about where we are going.   In order to reach our intended destination, we need to take the right road.  Many of us may get distracted along the way and miss an exit or take the wrong road, but as in any road trip, we can always make a u-turn and get back on track.  Others may need to speed up or slow down, while some will just change their mind and decide to head somewhere else. Regardless of where you choose to go, I think we can all agree that it's our future that indeed has the greatest influence.  It is that destination (our future) that will influence the actions and choices of today. I reflect and learn from my past, but knowing that I have a hope and a future is what makes today and everyday worthwhile.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Immigration Stories

One of my high school ESL classes recently read the book New Kids in Town: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens.  I've raved about this little paperback on an earlier post and perhaps you've already checked it out. If you haven't, please do - especially if you are an ESL teacher and/or have ELLs in your classroom or schools, which essentially includes all of you. It's a short read, leaving time for some constructive conversation. Last year, I read the book with one of my intermediate level ELLs at the high school and he enjoyed it very much.  This is an oldie but goodie, written back in the 1980s. It's no longer in print, but plenty used copies are available for a nominal cost, so I bought a few for my classroom library.

This year I wanted to the read the book with a group of high beginner/intermediate level high school ELLs. Instead of having all students read the entire book, I asked each student to read the story of a young person from their native country or from a country that's geographically close to theirs.  The group that read it represents six different countries and some of them had an exact match.  Students from Mexico, India and Dominican Republic each read about a teen from their country. My students from Guatemala, Turkey and Laos read about a teenager from El Salvador, Afghanistan and China, respectively. There was even a story about a young man from Cuba, which we read as a class and I made my own personal connections. Even though I didn't immigrate as a teen, I grew up hearing similar stories from my parents and other family members so I had lots to share as well.  After they read their story, they teamed up with a classmate for some comparing and contrasting.  They later created a Kahoot game with their partner and they each created a Fakebook page of their character. The Fakebook pages were really cool because they brought their imaginations to life as they were to find a photo of someone that looked like how they pictured their character to look like. Then they easily added other characters in the book as "friends" using their classmates' photo selections.  We had lots of fun with this little unit.  They each read one story independently and we read one story as a class, but with all the sharing we read almost the entire book.

The unit culminated with Show & Tell presentations consisting of their own immigration stories. They all did an amazing job and while they each represented a different country, their stories were strikingly similar.  All students agree that they are now glad they live here, but none of them moved willingly. All of them are longing to return for a visit, but all of them intend to remain in the U.S. permanently.  Some of them came after their parents and while some immigrated with their parents.   I must say that while no tears were shed, the mood in the classroom was very nostalgic. These students have been in the U.S. anywhere from six months to three years and they all greatly miss their homeland and friends. Some families were brought here by an employment opportunity while others came for the hope of obtaining employment, but they all came to the United States seeking a better life.

I felt very proud of my students-their improved speaking skills, their courage to openly share their stories and their willingness to listen and learn from one another. With this unit, they learned new vocabulary words, new reading strategies, new tech tools, but most of all they learned about one another and also themselves. These stories brought this group closer because despite the apparent differences they are essentially very much the same.

And aren't we all. No matter what your stance is on this country's current immigration policies, I hope you will not fail to recognize that this is a nation of immigrants.  Unless you are a full-blooded Native American, you are either an immigrant or a descendant of one.  Call it a melting pot, a stew or even a salad, we are all different, but we are so much better together.

Before my students presented, I shared my own immigration story. That picture up at the top - that was me at 17 months. It was the first photo I took after arriving in the United States.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tell Me As Many Details As You Can

I'm approaching the end of ACCESS testing season and while I'm thankful it's gone very well, I'm so 
ready to be done.  For those of you outside the ESL world, ACCESS for ELLs, an acronym for Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners, is an annual language assessment given to ELLs in WIDA states.  In North Carolina, ACCESS determines the level of ESL service and exit status.  It is offered around February 1-March 15 every year to students who have been identified as LEP (Limited English Proficient).  Students dread the test, as they do all assessments, and although I'm not happy about any sort of standardized test the fact that my students' service is interrupted while my schedule is turned upside down drives me nuts. Since my classes are small, my students usually sit in the office or the media center during their regularly scheduled ESL period and work on individual assignments. While I try to make the most of their time, it's certainly not the same level of instruction and support they receive when they are with me. But, oh well, it is what it is. We accept what we cannot change and make the best of it.

ACCESS tests for the most part are administered in groups based on tier and grade level, however, speaking tests are individually administered.  As with any other standardized test, we have an administration script that we must not deviate from.  During the speaking test, students are given stories and/or scenarios and asked follow up questions.  Most of the questions end with the statement, "tell me as many details as you can."  I've said that so often in the last month that I probably recite it in my sleep, but it has also stirred my thinking about writing instruction and prompted this blog post.

Writing is especially challenging for ELLs and for many of them it is the skill that keeps them from exiting the program.  Many of the transitional students have excellent listening, speaking and reading skills and may no longer even be eligible to receive testing accommodations, but the writing gets them year after year. That's why this year I've stepped up my writing instruction and implemented blogging for all students, even beginners.  Some of them take great pride in their blogging and I've seen impressive gains, but others put forth very little effort and only do what's least expected - which kills me because it's not reflective of what they are capable of producing.  One area that I drill in them is the need for details. Just like fine print on a contract, it's those details that keep getting them, but many of them don't quite get it.  

I recently found this wonderful and free lesson on Teacher Created Resources titled "Show Don't Tell".  This lesson brought to life the importance of details by teaching the art of elaborating using vivid adjectives and specific verbs. While I found it a little too close to ACCESS testing to perhaps make a difference in this year's scores, I will keep this handy for future use and want to encourage my readers to use it as well. It's not an ESL lesson, but I found it ideal for my ELLs at both high school and middle school and it can be easily adapted for any grade level. If you teach writing, whether it be in English Language Arts, ESL or any other content area, I encourage you to check it out. 

Aside from syntax errors, much of their writing is simply weak because it's lacking details.  "The devil is in the details", I tell them.  They cringe when I say that, even after explaining dozens of times that it's just an idiom and am in no way insinuating that the devil is in their mistakes.  They don't say that but the looks I get from some of them seem to give me that message.  As I googled the saying so I could prove it to one of my students, I learned that there's also the idiom,  "God is in the details".   According to, it's older and slightly more common, but until now I had never heard of it and neither had any of the colleagues I've asked. It means that small details can have big rewards and are therefore significant. Just as I've been preaching all year long, rather than being bogged down by details, we are redeemed by them (no pun intended).  

I now feel challenged to take a positive twist to my writing instruction and am determined to find ways to engage my students in their writing so that instead of producing the bare minimum, they will be motivated to go above and beyond.  Perhaps I might hear them asking "can I write more?"  Okay, maybe they won't utter those words, but it doesn't hurt to dream a little. I'm sure that no matter how exciting my writing instruction will be and  how engaged they become, they will likely continue to ask, "How long does it have to be?" to which I will simply reply as I do on the ACCESS speaking test, "Tell me as many details as you can".

Until next time.....#BestYearEver

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Compassion: What It's Not

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To piggyback off my last post about creating a culture of charity in our schools by teaching compassion and respect for our fellow man, perhaps we need to consider if and how compassion can be taught.

Sometimes the best way to comprehend a term or idea is to identify what is it not.  I find myself doing this all the time in ESL class.  As I teach my English learners new words and phrases, I also illustrate and explain the antonyms so that they gain a richer understanding and learn them in context. Just like a rubric describes the expectations of a final product, it also clearly illustrates the levels of quality from excellent to poor so we understand what it is and what it isn't. Back when I was a business education teacher, I gave both good and bad examples of a finished project, so students were clear on what they should avoid doing. It also saved me from having to explain to a young person that what they thought was really cool was actually, well, tacky.

So what is compassion not? According to the antonym that best helps define compassion is "indifference".Just as I teach definitions by providing synonyms and antonyms, I think we need to learn what we need not to do, in order to be compassionate human beings.  It's pretty clear that animosity, ill will, cruelty, meanness and hatred are all polar opposites of compassion, but one might perceive indifference as rather neutral.  That one word has made me rethink compassion altogether.  I consider myself a pretty loving and caring person, but there are so many times when I have turned a blind eye and/or a deaf ear to someone in need because I'm busy fulfilling my essential duties. How often have I missed an opportunity to stop and lend a listening ear to someone who's having a miserable day simply because I'm focused on my planned activities or just don't think I have the time.

So, can compassion be taught? Well, I think so, but what we must learn is what it is not. We can't be compassionate if we are disconnected and disengaged from our surroundings. By teaching our young people (and ourselves) to slow down and not be indifferent, we are teaching compassion and it is then that we will make a difference in our world.