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?