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