Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Few of My Favorite Things

Image Credit: Pixabay.com
As 2016 draws to a close, I contemplated writing a reflective piece about my favorite things of the year.  Rather than writing about my own accomplishments as I have in previous years, I decided that I would write about my favorite tech tools of 2016. As I pondered, the song "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music got stuck in my head.  If you've never watched this classic musical film, here's a clip of it where Julie Andrews performs the song.

And since I can't seem to shake that song out of my mind, I'm going to attempt to write a parody of that lovely song about my favorite ed tech tools.

Here we go....

My Favorite Things


MacBooks and Google Drive for every student
Limitless resources for more than amusement
Tech integration made seamlessly
These are a few of my favorite things

ESL Bistro is the learning venue
Choice of assignments listed on a menu
Voice and choice give students wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Make presentations that gain our approval
Then we use Recap for reflecting
These are a few of my favorite things

When Internet's slow, when the site's down
MacBook tools like Pages come through
I simply remember these favorite things
And I don't feel so blue

Study on Quizlet and play Quizlet Live
Export the flashcards to Quizalize
Kahoot and Quizizz also interesting.
These are a few of my favorite things.

Skype and Appear.in for global connections
Peace and politics made great conversations
Also use Blogger for connecting
These are a few of my favorite things

Grammar practice with No Red Ink
Newsela reading makes all students think
Listenwise helps with listening
These are a few of my favorite things

When Internet's slow, when the site's down
MacBook tools like Quicktime come through
I simply remember these favorite things
And I don't feel so blue


Hopefully my readers aren't cringing too badly. It sure has been fun writing it.

Most importantly, check out these tools and you may find them on your list of favorites too.  And be sure to keep checking my blog for tidbits on how I use these great tools. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to email me or enter a comment below.

I wish everyone a most blessed holiday season and may 2017 be the #BestYearEver!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Personalizing Vocabulary Development with Quizlet and Quizalize

Image Credit:  Pixabay.com
If personalizing vocabulary development seems unrealistic because of the workload it would create, I'd like to share some tools that can help make it a reality.

After reading this article on Quizalize's blog, I soon realized that personalizing vocabulary development and assessing understanding had been made much easier thanks to Quizlet and Quizalize. These two tools work together beautifully as they enable users to import Quizlet study sets into Quizalize to create formative quizzes. The export/import process is relatively quick and simple, facilitating personalized vocabulary development and allowing me to better meet my students' vocabulary needs. Since I generally involve students in creating their own word list and Quizlet study set, importing into Quizalize was just the icing on the cake.  

Quizlet has long been my favorite online tool for developing and reviewing vocabulary.  The multi-platform tool enables users to create digital flashcards and engage in various study modes including tests and games. Learners are able to add graphics to every flashcard and its audio component helps to ensure that students are not only learning spelling and definitions but also accurate pronunciation. And last spring, after adding the collaborative gaming feature, Quizlet Live, it quickly became my one of my favorite tools. Read more about how I use Quizlet in my recent contribution to Larry Ferlazzo's Q&A column on ed tech tools.

I'm also a fan of competitive, game style, formative assessment tools. I like them not only because they're fun and engaging for students, but I love the data they provide. Last summer I discovered Quizalize and found it very useful for both formative assessments and student review.  Soon after I learned that users can export Quizlet study sets and import them into Quizalize enabling teachers to check for understanding relatively quickly and easily.

So, here's how I'm using these tools, usually with informational reading selections.  After the initial reading (which I read aloud to class), students select 12 new or relatively unknown words from their reading material and create a Quizlet study set.  These can be in addition to or in lieu of a provided word bank. I find it much more effective to give students a voice in developing their vocabulary list rather than providing a predetermined list. Students share their Quizlet sets with me and I review them for accuracy. I then export the study set and import it to Quizalize, creating a personalized quiz. Aside from checking understanding, quizzes can be offered as a review tool and teachers can choose to have students complete the quizzes in class as a competitive game and/or on their own time as classwork or homework.

Why 12 words you may ask? In order to play Quizlet Live, sets must contain at least 12 words. While I would not suggest more than 12 words with English learners or special populations, you can certainly include as many terms as appropriate for the unit of study.  And if you haven't tried Quizlet Live, I highly recommend you resolve to try it in 2017.

In terms of the wow-factor, my students have not found Quizalize to be as fun as other competitive tools. However, the ability to quickly import from Quizlet facilitates personalized instruction and assessment and I think it will win any teacher over, just as it did me. And if creating a quiz for every learner may be a bit overwhelming because of class sizes, consider dividing classes into small groups where group members collaborate on creating a list instead of each individual student. The possibilities are endless!

I created the screencast below to demonstrate how easy the process is.


So if you're looking for an easy way to personalize and/or differentiate vocabulary development, I encourage you to try Quizlet and Quizalize.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Teaching Is Like a Sushi Roll

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Two of my high school English learners graduated last June, and we had a "Sushi Party" to celebrate their rite of passage. The students are originally from Laos, and while sushi is Japanese, it happens to be their favorite food...and mine. Sushi was often a topic of conversation whenever we discussed food in class, so when a classmate suggested a sushi party, she didn't exactly need to twist my arm.

As I looked back on this delightful evening with my students, I began pondering the many ways teaching is like a sushi roll.  Here are just a few:

Raw - Though there are endless varieties of sushi rolls, most of them contain raw seafood. Webster defines raw as "being in or nearly in a natural state."  The most effective teachers are authentic and natural - not afraid to admit when they are wrong or when they've failed.  Kids see right through us anyway, so why not be upfront and "raw".
Fresh - Teaching, like raw seafood, is best when it's fresh. Teaching is continually changing, and we can't be effective teachers if we recycle our lessons and strategies year after year.  Just like sushi, we must keep our instruction fresh or it will go bad and therefore, stifle growth (ours as well as our students'). From emerging research to shifting perspectives to innovative technologies, change is constant despite the perception that many areas remain relatively unchanged.

Not For Everyone - To some, sushi is a delicious delicacy, while others find it nothing short of repulsive. Teaching is about heart and soul, not paycheck or prestige. Despite it being a difficult, draining, and often thankless job, most teachers can't imagine themselves doing anything else, while many outside the profession wouldn't do it for a million dollars.

Sticky - You can't have a good sushi roll without sticky rice. From classroom management to grading policies to parental conflicts, teachers can potentially find themselves in some really sticky situations. While we dread being in an uncomfortable spot, these tough situations are essential to our personal and professional growth. It's important that we handle issues with diplomacy and grace, always asking ourselves what we can learn from these circumstances. Hopefully, one day we can look back at those times and laugh. 
Image source: Pixabay.com

Chopsticks - Most sushi eaters I know use chopsticks. Rather than using silverware, chopsticks are the utensils of choice because sushi pieces are intended to be consumed in 
one bite, and chopsticks help keep the pieces from falling apart. Like chopsticks, the best teaching tools are those that enable us to keep our instructional delivery from falling apart, helping our learners take in knowledge piece by piece. Furthermore, learning to use them can be tricky, especially at first, but they are fun to use. While some people are natural at using the utensils, it takes practice for most of us to master the art. Same goes with teaching tools. The most effective tools and strategies can be tricky to implement but when utilized effectively they can add lots of fun to our practice.

Expensive.  Sushi rolls are expensive, and you don't get a lot of food for the money, but to a sushi lover, there's lots to appreciate. Teaching is no different. We spend countless hours planning, grading, reflecting, in spite of the fact that it's not exactly a lucrative field. But if we love it, just like sushi, we will savor every bit.

Roll - A good teacher has to roll with punches and not get discouraged when things don't turn out exactly as planned. We can't stress too much, especially about the aspects of our job that we cannot control. Quick thinking and an optimistic outlook are as invaluable as sharp pedagogical skills.

Like a good sushi roll, I find teaching to be enormously fulfilling and satisfying. Having the opportunity to inspire young people and make a positive impact on their lives and their choices is truly an honor and a privilege. Sure, some days are grueling and exhausting, but most days I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Below are some photos of our sushi party at Fusion Bowl.





#BestYearEver

Friday, June 10, 2016

Old, New, Borrowed & Blue

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Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.   A popular American wedding ritual. No, I'm not planning a wedding or have any invitations to attend one anytime soon.

Like many teachers, summer is a time to catch up on the 3 R's - relax, reflect and read.  Old, new, borrowed and blue describes my summer reading selections.  As I laid out my books and considered writing about my summer reading plans, I realized I had old books, new books, borrowed books and blue books.  Hence the inspiration for the title. Some of them are for professional development, and some are purely recreational, but they are all of great interest, and I look forward to reading them.

Below is a brief description of each book, as well as a little background on how each made my list.

SOMETHING OLD:
A few months ago I stopped at a used bookstore in Sparta, NC and found these two bargains at the $1 table. Legal drama is my genre of choice, and back in the 90s, I binged on John Grisham's novels as their popularity peaked. However, I never read either one of these two books nor did I watch the movies, so these were quite the deal and a great addition to my library.

The Chamber  - Like many of his novels, this story is set in the south and features a young lawyer. The defendant in this story is a former Klansman and unrepentant racist on death row for a fatal bombing in the 1960s. After many lessons on the Civil Rights Movement, I'm intrigued by this realistic fictional story.

The Client -  Also, a legal thriller involving secrets, the mob, and a young lawyer.  It appears to be similar to some of the Grisham's other works and full of suspense.  I'm sure they will keep me at the end of my seat (or my pool chair).

SOMETHING NEW:  
At the end of July, I'm excited to have the opportunity to offer a 3-day digital tools training for ESL Teachers at NCDPI's ELL Support Conference in Greensboro,  NC.  I will be reading these two new books in preparation for the training as each of the training participants will receive a copy of these books, courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Ditch That Textbook -  After subscribing to Matt Miller's newsletter and following him on Twitter, I knew I needed to share this book with the session attendees. Many thanks to Matt Miller for my treasured review copy so I can be well prepared for the session. This book not only provides ideas on technology integration, but it's mostly about adopting a more progressive instructional approach to engage and captivate 21st-century learners.

50 Things You Can Do With Google Classroom - Along with #DitchBook, this book will provide a valuable resource to session attendees. Whether a Google novice or a veteran, there's a wealth of tips and techniques on making the most of Google tools.  As I prepare for my session, I'll be planning new tools to implement for the next school year.  Many thanks to Dave Burgess Consulting for my review copy.

SOMETHING BORROWED:
Fair Isn't Always Equal - I was very close to buying this a few months ago but thought I would first ask one of our school's media specialists if it was available to check out from the professional reading collection. Although it was not, she agreed to order it and let me borrow it for the summer.  After watching a few of Author Rick Wormeli's videos on YouTube, I am looking forward to digging into this great read on differentiated instruction.  This may actually make an interesting book study for next year.


Untangling the Web - Another resource for the digital tools training, this book will be provided to
ELL session participants as an e-book.  Much of the tech tools covered in the book I'm familiar with, but there are some interesting tools included in the book that I've never experimented with. I'm always on the lookout for something new to share with my students and fellow teachers, and I think this will give me some to new tools to spice up my lessons next year.

SOMETHING BLUE:
Girl In The Blue Coat - I picked up this book at my son's recent BOGO Free book fair.  Taking advantage of the freebie offer, I always look for something for me to read.  This story is set during World War II in Nazi-occupied Germany. No one has recommended it, but the Amazon reviews look pretty good, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Judge & Jury - This book has been on my bookshelf for a few years, but this summer I'm determined to get to more of my unread selections.  It's about a juror on trial against a notorious mob boss. I've never read any of this author's works although many of my friends rave about his legal thrillers, so I'm expecting to enjoy this blue oldie but goodie.

Whether on the beach, by the pool or on my couch at home, summer reading mentally transports me and helps to recharge my batteries. While many of these selections are professional reads, I anticipate there will be some inspiration from my old books and my blue books.  From new insights to new perspectives to new cool tools, summer reading helps me grow at my own pace and on my own terms.

Please share what you are reading this summer and how it has helped you (or will help you) grow professionally and personally.  I look forward to hearing from you.


#TheBestIsYetToCome 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Climbing Out of a Blogging Funk

Image source: Pixabay.com
This is the first post I've published since early April.  It's not that my ideas weren't flowing. I just couldn't seem to develop them into a post worthy of publishing.

It's not uncommon for me to have one or two drafts going at any given time.  As with any creative endeavor, I feel a rush of inspiration and park my ideas until I can complete my thoughts, fine tune them and share them with my professional learning network. But this time, it wasn't just one or two, I started seven posts and was stumped soon after starting each one.

And then it hit me.  I was in a blogging funk.

Coming to that realization was liberating. My ailment was diagnosed and this diagnosis was the CPR I needed to resuscitate my blogging practice.  Most importantly, identifying the issue caused me to consider why I found myself in this black hole in the first place.  The more I pondered, the more I recognized that it's perfectly normal to go through phases of feeling uninspired, tired, stressed or perhaps just a little bored.  But as a reflective practitioner, committed to sharing my reflections via blogging, I'm going to take this as a learning opportunity in the hopes of minimizing its reoccurrence.

So for any of my fellow educators out there who may need help getting back to blogging, below are some questions that facilitated my reflection on this rut and helped bring back the blogger in me.
  • Why do I blog?  This is an important question to continually ask myself because the reason I started blogging is not the reason I continue to blog.  Am I just keeping up with the Joneses or do I find any personal and/or professional benefits?  When I first became interested in blogging, it was a little bit of both.  I was intrigued by the practice because so many educators were blogging and I wanted to give it a try.  However, I also felt that sharing my reflections publicly would hold me accountable and would help me reflect more deeply and purposefully - and I was right.  Two years later, my PLN has grown, my career goals are evolving and while I'm not exactly keeping up with my peers, it does help me grow my professional learning network and stay connected.  Yet, it's the reflective practice that for me is the most beneficial because it keeps me grounded - a form of self-therapy.
  • Who do you blog for?  First and foremost, I blog for myself.  However, I have to say that after having my first post published in Education Week last year, I am much more cautious about what I write and how I write. Having a writing coach review and edit my piece helped me grow as a writer but it also impacted my approach to writing. As a novice blogger, I would whip out a post in an hour, proofread it myself and fearlessly take the plunge. Since then, my audience has expanded and I second guess myself a whole lot more than I did early on. Now I usually ask a friend to proofread my work before publishing and/or tweeting it (which is the right thing to do anyways) but I find myself mulling over my writing before I muster the courage to publish.   While I certainly don't want to be impulsive and careless about what I publish, it's important to strike a balance in order that I may write more freely. Otherwise, I will drown in my writing insecurity.
  • How often do I really need to blog?  It all depends on what I'm trying to accomplish.  If blogging is truly for me, how important is it for me to be consistent?  On the other hand, as my career goals evolve, my blog is now part of my professional portfolio and a reflection of my personal brand.  During my early blogging days, I participated in blogging challenges which had me posting anywhere from once a day to once a week.  I quickly realized that blogging so frequently was unsustainable so I set out to post at least once a month.  The idea is to have some sort of consistency that holds me accountable for writing. Perhaps I need to add blogging to my calendar (not sure why I hadn't thought of it before).
  • Are they posts or are they articles? I've always said that I enjoy blogs that read more like a conversation than an article.  However, I found that as I progressed in my blogging practice, my blog posts became more like articles than personal reflections.  Though they have my voice, I don't think it's as warm and personal as it was at the start.  And while I don't want to regress in my blogging skills, I do want my posts to reflect a little bit more of my personality.
  • How long do my posts need to be?  Am I sounding like a typical student?  As I tell my learners, "it's not about quantity, it's about quality. " My first writings were not nearly as long as my recent ones.  During my daily blogging challenges, some were even just two or three paragraphs.  As I became more comfortable blogging, my posts have become more lengthy and the lengthier my posts the longer they take to write and edit.  Furthermore, I want my entire post to be worthy of reading.  When I read others' blogs,  I find myself skimming through lengthy posts, while I read every word when they are around 500 words or less - and I'm thinking my readers are probably doing the same thing. Perhaps if I write less I will publish more often.
There are numerous other questions running through my head, but I think I'll end there. Throughout this time, I've learned some valuable lessons.  I learned that I will be a better blogger - and certainly a better person - if I remain true to myself.  I must live life to the fullest and seize every moment. Sure, I want to capture special moments, write about them and share them with the world, but I must fully enjoy the experiences first.  The writing will naturally flow from those experiences.  I must also embrace my perspective and feel free to be myself, allowing creative juices to flow.

So, if you are stuck in a blogging funk or are considering starting a blog and can't seem to get going, I hope these questions will get you started on your journey or help you pick up speed.

If you have found yourself unable to blog for a period of time, please share how you were able to climb out and get back into blogging.  I look forward to learning from you.

#BestYearEver

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Question-Driven Learning

Image Credit: Pixabay.com
"Some questions might be easy for you, and others might be hard.  It is important that you do the best you can." I can almost recite those words in my sleep.

We recently wrapped up ACCESS testing season in North Carolina. For eight weeks, I administered 2-3 tests daily, and the phrase cited above was the opening line of every test administration script.  For those unfamiliar with ESL Testing, ACCESS for ELLs is an annual language assessment given to students in WIDA states who have been identified as Limited English Proficient. In North Carolina, ACCESS test results determine the level of ESL service and exit status. As with any standardized testing administration, I am required to circulate around the room, carefully observing students as they quietly take their tests. Except for the speaking tests, there is a deafening silence during the testing sessions, giving me plenty of time to ponder and reflect.

From preschoolers to seniors, our role as 21st-century educators is to lay a strong foundation for subsequent learning. Developing young people who are truly "future-ready" means that we need to equip them to take ownership of their learning and growth, and most notably, master the art of asking questions.  Indeed, some questions may be easy, and some questions may be hard, but it is important that students do the best they can and never stop asking questions.


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In a traditional classroom setting, students take on the role of consumers rather than producers. However, thriving in today's global marketplace necessitates a shift in mindset and roles.  We are no longer merely imparting knowledge.  Instead, we are facilitating it. When questions drive learning, students are piloting their destinies and are no longer passengers along for the ride.

In a language classroom, questions are an integral part of the curriculum.  From basic social language to higher level academic discourse, questions drive conversations and affect outcomes. I teach my students how to state their questions so they can be understood, but I also work to instill their confidence to use questions as a form of self-advocacy.  This confidence will empower them to take risks and create opportunities for themselves.  Students who routinely struggle academically are generally not inclined to think outside the box so, therefore, developing an inquisitive mind can be a game changer.

Here are some strategies I have been implementing to foster question-driven learning:

Students write questions after reading a passage or chapter.
Instead of responding to questions, I have students write them. Developing questions requires students to ponder more deeply than searching for responses. Furthermore, it helps me gauge the depth of their understanding more than answers ever will.  For ELLs, stating or writing questions properly is an essential language skill, but it's also an effective reading strategy as it promotes deep thinking and increases comprehension. Also, generating multiple choice answer selections can sharpen their study skills.  I even encourage students to write questions they are not able to answer themselves.  While I would suggest this as a collaborative activity, it can also be done individually.

State feedback as a question.
This is especially effective when assessing writing if the syntax or semantic errors are blurring the message or if the writing needs elaboration. Instead of assuming what they meant, ask students to explain their thinking as they wrote. This provides an opportunity to check for understanding and/or provide remediation.


Questions as peer review. 
During student presentations, I expect the audience to engage by asking questions of their peers because it makes them listen more intently. But most importantly, it sparks curiosity and keeps them asking for more than what is presented. For those not comfortable verbalizing their questions, they have the option to use a backchannel tool. And for peer editing and review, I have students pose questions as they critique each other's work, rather than simply making corrections.
Student developed review games.
Review games such as Kahoot have become a staple in my classes.  At first, I created the review questions, but I soon realized that by having students create the Kahoots, I was not only checking for understanding, but I was also helping them review the material while practicing their writing skills.

Inarguably, discovery and innovation result from sparks of curiosity - from questions.  Whereas answers are an ending, questions symbolize a beginning. The more we ask, the more questions we will have. I have found that using questions as a learning tool develops proactive, forward-thinking mindsets. While it’s not easy to break old habits - and we are still a work in progress - I believe we are moving in the right direction.  Again, some questions might be easy, and others might be hard, but it is important that we do the best we can to continue asking questions and seeking knowledge.
#BestYearEver

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Why Aren't My Kids Doing Homework?

Image Credit:  Pixabay.com
What should we do when students aren't turning in their homework? Should we just enter a zero in
the grade book and move on?

Mark Barnes (@markbarnes19) recently published "5 Reasons Homework Destroys Learning". Reading his post caused me to ponder on the many conversations I have with my kids at school and my kids at home about homework.  I will tell you upfront that I do not believe we should abolish the practice, but I do feel very strongly as both an educator and as a parent that we need to be more intentional and purposeful with homework assignments and we must personalize and differentiate as we do with classroom work.

My kids at school are middle and high school ELLs.  Many of them find homework to be overwhelming, primarily due to their limited English proficiency coupled with a lack of available help at home. And rather than asking for help from teachers or peers, they simply throw in the towel.  Long term ELLs are notorious for this, more so than newcomers. Recent immigrants naturally become utterly frustrated with their language barriers, but their language needs are more obvious and their work is significantly modified. Conversely, long-term ELLs' language deficiencies are much more disguised  - not only to their teachers but also to themselves. They have mastered social English, but still have academic language gaps which cause them to stumble in their classes.  And so it generally goes like this.  They are challenged and confused, feeling incompetent and not comfortable soliciting help because they think they should be performing as well as their classmates. After all, they speak as fluently as their native English-speaking peers. And so, their grade book begins to accumulate zeros for unsubmitted work. Most my students are eligible for extra time but if teachers are unaware of their struggles, their actions are interpreted as apathy or laziness.

I have two kids at home; my son is 10 and my daughter is 12. Both are assigned reasonable amounts of homework on a regular basis. In the last few months, I've been getting weekly emails from my son's teacher about math homework not being turned in. Math homework assignments are not lengthy and the word problems are relevant real-world scenarios, but they are generally a stretch.  Some are completed on the computer, but most of them are worksheets. Although they have usually been within his reach, he always finds them grueling and procrastinates tremendously on getting started. Unlike my kids at school, my son is not an ELL. He happens to be identified as academically and intellectually gifted (AIG) and math is his strongest subject.  However, he has also been diagnosed with ADHD and by late afternoon, the effects of his medicine have worn off.  To say that homework time is challenging is a profound understatement. Fortunately for him, he has college-educated parents who are proficient in English and lots of help at home. But sometimes, just like my kids at school, he throws in the towel instead of asking for help.  By contrast, my middle schooler is not AIG but is quite the overachiever.  She's is much more compliant about doing her work and meeting deadlines, but she's also very quick to ask for help.  When facing a difficult task, she has no qualms about seeking help from me as well as her teachers and, therefore, homework is uneventful.

Webster's simple definitions of homework include (1) "work that a student is given to do at home" or (2) "research or reading done in order to prepare for something."  If students are assigned homework that is unable to be completed without (or with minimal) help, one could argue it is not good homework, has no academic benefit.  But let's not throw in the towel ourselves.  Homework can be beneficial so long as we find a way for it to be.

Here are some points to consider when assigning homework:

1.  Know Your Students
With increasing class sizes, personalizing homework may be a daunting task.  However, we don't teach curriculum we teach students and it's crucial to know our target in order to reach it.  From special education to English language learners to attention issues, it's important to know about any special needs or situations, which may be camouflaged. Apathy and defiance are often a cover for underlying issues.

2.  Offer Choice
One size does not fit all. Letting students choose their homework produces ownership.  From tools to materials to formats, give students control over how they will practice their skills. Bottom line, if kids are not buying in, they're not doing the work and therefore, nothing is really getting accomplished.

3. Flip Lessons
If homework, as Webster's definition suggests, is preparation for something then by all means, ask them to read ahead or watch a videotaped lecture.  However, be sure to provide a scaffold for their notetaking. All students could benefit from this, but especially diverse learners and special education students.

4. Be Flexible
Some kids will need chunks of daily work while others can be given a list of tasks due at the end of the week. Others may need a little flexibility and grace.  Bottom line, grades should reflect learning. A zero for missed work or a low score because of a late submission tells nothing about what they have acquired. Quite the contrary and the message to the student is that it's all about a grade, not about learning.

5.  Ask Questions
Homework should be about extra practice or preparation and if they aren't doing the work, neither is happening. We all have those students that can ace the class without ever doing a bit of homework, but that's not the norm.  If a student is not submitting assignments, pull him or her aside and investigate what's keeping them from submitting work and let them know you are available to help. Encourage students to be open and honest when they can't assimilate the material.  If they are not comfortable expressing themselves in class, perhaps they can stay after school, email questions or meet virtually via a video conference tool or a shared Google document if such technology is available.

Let's not let homework become one more obstacle in our relationship with our students. Homework or any other assignment for that matter should be about their growth and improvement, not our pride and accomplishment.  It must be perceived by students as purposeful and doable, but we must also keep communication lines open so that learners can feel comfortable approaching others when they don't understand a task, not fearing they will be ridiculed or penalized.

Most importantly, homework must never make a student feel defeated.  If homework is knocking learners down without a way to help them back up, it's time to rethink the practice.

#BestYearEver

Monday, February 29, 2016

Our Visit to India

Image Credit:  pixabay.com
This morning, during 1st block, my students and I had the exciting opportunity to travel to India. Virtually that is.

Last week two of my ELLs unexpectedly returned to their homeland due to an illness in the family.  I saw their hiatus as an opportunity to enhance learning for both my travelling students as well as those staying behind. Before they left I spoke with the brothers and their mother about the possibility of skyping with our class so long as it was not an imposition on their family. They were amicable to the idea and shortly after they arrived their mother emailed me to let me know that they were eager to connect with us.

One of these young men is in my first block ESL class and the other one has World History during the same block, conveniently located next door to the ESL classroom.  When I asked the history teacher about joining us on a Skype call, he jumped at the opportunity as they had recently covered a unit on India.

During today's conversation, our students and their family opened up their home to us, offering a virtual tour both inside and out.  They spoke to us about their culture, including marriage and family traditions, foods, studies and recreation.  I do have to admit that initially the interaction was a bit awkward on the students' part and it took the mother's involvement to jumpstart the conversation. Regardless of the engagement level, students in the classroom were captivated by discussion.

This is not the first time my class engages in a Skype session, but it was the first time we had a video conference opportunity where non-ELLs were present in the classroom.  I found it interesting that while my ELLs have been extremely social on other videoconferencing sessions, they froze today when presented with the chance to speak in front of the screen.  They were curious and attentive, but engaged in very little conversation and questions were channeled through me.

While the visit was social in nature, today's session gave our students a taste of the global marketplace they are entering. Thanks to emerging technologies, video conferencing has become ubiquitous in many organizational settings.  From halfway across town to halfway across the world, collaborating with individuals at a remote location is now somewhat routine. Moreover, 21st-century interactions, professional as well as personal, are increasingly filtered through some sort of technology device.  Today's conversation on Skype was nothing short of a "real-world" experience.

If you are interested in video conferencing with my middle or high school ELLs, or my middle school Skype club who are not English Language Learners, please contact me.  I am always seeking opportunities to tear my classroom walls down and travel the world. Won't you join us?

I look forward to hearing from you.

#BestYearEver

Sunday, February 21, 2016

10 Things You May Not Know

Image Credit: Pixabay.com
I love to teach because I love to learn. And it's that love of learning that anchors me in my role. In every unit I teach, there's always something new for me. It's not uncommon for me to plan a lesson or unit, only for it prompt a blog post or a presentation idea - which is precisely what I'm sharing today.
Some of my high school ELLs recently read a passage from ReadWorks.org titled "Ten Things You May Not Know About Martin Luther King Jr."  The passage jumpstarted a unit that helped my students develop not only reading skills but also listening, speaking and writing as it culminated with an oral presentation.  And for me, it sparked my own  "10 Things You May Not Know" presentation idea about ELLs.
Here's how it went. First, students read the passage in small groups. The more proficient learners engaged in academic conversations as they reviewed a few multiple choice and short answer questions while I worked directly with emergent readers. Reading comprehension was assessed with a 3-2-1 summary. Students were asked to write three things they learned, two things they found especially interesting, and one thing they didn't understand or had a question about.  I have used that simple summarizing strategy often and find it very effective in assessing comprehension, simple enough for even a beginner to complete. They also used Quizlet for learning and reviewing new vocabulary.
For the "10 Things You May Not Know" project, students were asked to present on the topic of their choice, using the presentation tool of their choice. Most of them used emaze.com, as I had recently introduced the tool in class. One of them created a Kahoot and another used Keynote. Topics ranged from themselves to their native country and other random topics, but they all tied in nicely with the reading passage about Dr. King.

As I graded their work, I was prompted to create my own "10 Things You May Not Know" project on commonly held myths and stereotypes about ELLs, and created the Emaze presentation embedded below. The points are based on frequent comments and questions from fellow educators as well as the community at large.


Powered by emaze


I invite you to share this presentation if you feel so inclined and encourage you to join me in debunking widely held beliefs about English Language Learners, particularly if you are privileged to have them in your classroom.

Whether working with ELLs or any other student population, we must avoid making stereotypical assumptions at all cost.  In order to meet our students' needs, we must ask questions and listen closely in order to learn about their individual needs.  Not only does one size not fit all, in many cases one size does not fit most.

Bottom line...keep an open mind and an open heart. Those ELLs in your care are precious gems. Some may be diamonds in the rough right now, yet with a little support and understanding, they will soon shine brightly.

#BestYearEver

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Oh, For The Love of Reading

Image Credit: pixabay.com

Last weekend I had the distinct honor of attending ECET2 in San Diego, California.  ECET2 - Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teachers - is an annual convening of teacher leaders from across the United States sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The event was beyond words and I will blog about it more extensively in a subsequent post; however, today I want to reflect on one of the most enriching moments of the convening - my colleague circle time.  

At ECET2, colleague circles are groups of teachers that meet together to discuss problems of practice.  We each have an opportunity to confidentially identify a problem we are grappling with and then we consense on one issue to focus in on.  By no means was this a whining session.- quite the contrary. The objective was to think creatively and find solutions that can be carried back to the classroom.

Our circle chose to focus on rekindling the love of reading. After the adoption of a reading program, one elementary school teacher shared that she fears the constant reading of informational text passages, skills-based instruction, and multiple choice questions (in an effort to prepare for state-mandated testing) is leaving no room for reading pleasure. Together we pondered and discussed the issue; most of us expressing the same concern in our classrooms as this is happening in virtually every school in America.

Reading comprehension is often assessed through answering multiple choice or short-answer questions about the main ideas of a passage.  While this may work well to prepare students for standardized testing, many teachers will argue that it kills the love of reading as it does not engage students in their own learning.  Furthermore, for readers who are not good test takers it may not accurately assess their skills.
Giving students freedom and choice in demonstrating understanding will get their creative juices flowing and allow for differentiation for readers with various learning styles, abilities and/or language proficiency levels.  Informational reading passages and questions that mirror state tests are undoubtedly of some value, but supplementing a student’s reading experience can not only provide us more data but also more deeply engage the learner.
Below are some methods I have used to successfully assess students’ comprehension:
  • Poetry. Poems about the central idea or the main characters in a passage can tell a great deal about what they have assimilated.
  • Readers’ Theatre Script Writing. Students retell the story in a way that can be expressed through two or more characters. This is generally a cooperative activity, but it can also be completed individually.
  • 3-2-1 Summaries. Students write three things they learned, two things they found interesting and one thing they still do not understand or have a question about. While this is not super exciting, I have found this to be very effective with my ELLs.
  • Writing Alternate Endings. Whether a fictional story or informational text, in rewriting an ending, conclusion or historical event, students will need to review central ideas and develop hypothetical and strategic thinking.
  • Illustrations. Reading comprehension occurs only if there are pictures in our minds.  This is great for our visual learners, especially ELLs who have difficulty expressing their thoughts in writing. Illustrations can include drawing, paintings, cartoons or three-dimensional creations of what they are picturing after reading the text.
  • Questions. Instead of answering questions, why not have the students craft the questions. We can assess how much a student has grasped by the type of questions posed. This will require higher order thinking skills and scaffolding may be necessary with some student populations. Nonetheless, I highly recommend it.  It can also be done with partners or in small groups.
  • Debates. Reading about a controversial topic? Start a mini-debate.  From uniforms to capital punishment, getting students to list the pros and cons and then take a side will teach them new skills while increasing their comprehension.

During our colleague circle time,  I shared some of the ways I mentioned above and encouraged her to bring enjoyment into the activities by adding her own personality to the lessons. While I was not implying that she defy her administration's directive and drop the costly reading program, enhancing a reading passage - which perhaps could integrate nicely with another subject - may help better assess comprehension while making reading more enjoyable.

Sadly, in our pervasive testing culture, reading passages have become the norm in many classrooms. And while this may not be changing anytime soon, whenever possible we can enhance and spice up what's cooking already.  

Oh and for the love of reading, if you have other suggestions, opinions or methods that have proven to be beneficial to your learners, I invite you to share them in the comments below.

#BestYearEver

Thursday, January 14, 2016

From Musings to Tidbits

Image Credit: photosforclass.com
As the Bob Dylan song goes, "The Times They Are A-Changing.”

I first heard this song back in 2003 while I was teaching at Alleghany High School in Sparta, North Carolina. My principal at the time appointed me as chair of the high school graduation planning committee and the class leaders selected it as their theme song. I can't say it is a favorite, but I like using the phrase whenever I feel a necessity for some sort of change.

Change is inevitable. Change is growth, and if we don't grow, we die. Small changes or huge changes. Some people fear change and so they avoid it. Others, like me, thrive in it and embrace the newness and the challenges it brings.  Even tiny changes that may seem rather insignificant can be refreshing and stimulating.

No,  I'm not leaving my school district or moving into a new role.  My students and my schools are stuck with me, at least until the end of the year. We are no longer tenured in North Carolina so we only have job security for a year, although I do expect to be invited back for next year and many more to come.

Here's my change: I'm renaming my blog!

As I've stated on many occasions, I initially joined Twitter in order to connect with other ESL educators, which I consequently found and also encountered so much more.  In fact, my PLN spans a wide spectrum of education professionals. Furthermore, my professional interests include numerous topics, in addition to English language acquisition.

Last December, as I was reflecting on 2015 and planning ahead for 2016, I stumbled upon, "How to Build Your Teacher Brand" by Kerry Gallagher (@kerryhawk02).  As she stated in her post, I, like most teachers, never associated branding with teaching, but more with a business or a product line. However, I do believe that as we grow, we evolve.  And as a result of becoming a globally connected educator, my focus, and my interests have evolved.  As I pondered on this idea of branding myself, I thought I would begin by renaming my blog; after all, my musings are about so much more than ESL.

And so ESL Musings became "Teaching Tidbits."  Why tidbits?  Because it's the tidbits that make it all grand. That delicious cookie is so much more enjoyable when we take small bites and savor each morsel.  Same goes with our journey of learning: we take our time, enjoying every moment, celebrating even the smallest gains, focusing on our goals and aspirations, but never losing sight of what we may discover along the way - discoveries that can either generate momentum or lead us to new avenues.

I'm a hopeless optimist who believes (and preaches) that we need to celebrate the tidbits.  It is in those little morsels that we find the real treats - the tiny sparks that can light up a forest.

So where am I going with this? I've lived long enough to learn that curve balls and blessings come out of nowhere.  So I'm keeping my options opened. Forever learning and growing. Celebrating the minute as well as the grandiose. Living every moment to the fullest and sharing my reflections as I travel on this journey of teaching and learning, in the hopes that I may offer a tidbit of inspiration to those who read my pages.

#BestYearEver