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.


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