Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Spin-Off of Write Around

Vocabulary development, parts of speech review, creative writing and a few laughs along the way! That's the "write around" strategy. If you've never tried it, read on and see if this perks your interest.

Here's how it goes.  First, divide your class into small groups of 4-6 and give each student a sheet of writing paper. In my small ESL classes, the entire class is a small group of 4-6. Give them a writing prompt, topic or term and ask each student to write a topic sentence only. The students pass their papers to the right. Next, they read the sentence that is there and add just one sentence. They again, pass their papers to the right and repeat the process until each student has had the opportunity to write at least one sentence. Ideally, the original writer - the student who wrote the topic sentence - also writes the conclusion. Once the piece is completed, each group member reads their story aloud and writing pieces are collaboratively edited and revised, which can be done one of two ways. I prefer to subdivide the groups into pairs and they will choose one of their papers to edit and revise.  However, when I first learned of the strategy I was instructed to have the entire group work together on editing and revising. I find the former to be more effective because with a larger group one or two dominant members will take over the task while the others sit back and passively observe.

Although designed to be a writing strategy, it's ideal for vocabulary development. After all, a strong vocabulary is essential in developing writing skills. Moreover, this strategy requires creativity and deep thought, which will prove challenging for many learners, but it's a cognitive workout that will further enhance their writing practice. I used a word wheel (see screenshot below) using the "Random Name Picker" from classtools.net. I spin the wheel as we pass papers to the right and the selected term must be used in the sentence. Because I teach English in context, the words are related to a story or unit of study and therefore, the prompts and vocabulary are connected to what was covered in class. As I call out the words, we also review parts of speech and I check for understanding. This is not a quiz, so if a student is unsure of the definition or context, they can certainly ask a peer or their teacher. And because my classes are small, I join in the fun and participate in the writing activity, giving me the opportunity to model.

I learned of "Write Around" at an Exc-ELL Training with Dr. Margarita Calderon a few years ago. While this activity works very well with English learners, it is by no means an ESL strategy and can be adapted to any student population and used in any content area.

If you decide to implement "Write Around" strategy in any form or have used it in the past, I would love to hear from you. It can certainly be a stretch for students but in today's digital world, it's an essential skill they must develop.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Import, Export and Personalize Vocabulary

Image Credit: Pixabay.com
Whether you are attempting to personalize instruction or are simply looking for a time-saving shortcut, here's a way to quickly and easily use Google forms, Quizlet and Quizalize to help students review and develop academic vocabulary.

Last December I wrote "Personalizing Vocabulary Development with Quizlet and Quizalize" where I shared how I had been exporting Quizlet study sets and importing them into Quizalize to create personalized formative assessments. Well, I recently learned how to import into Quizlet, quickly and easily creating study sets. So to piggyback on December's post, I'd like to add a few easy steps to what I shared a few months ago.

First, students create a personalized vocabulary list by entering their selected words and other related information into a Google form; the results subsequently stored on a Google sheet. I then copy the words and their definitions from the spreadsheet and import them into Quizlet. Once students have studied the words on Quizlet, I export the study set and develop a quiz on Quizalize. This is personalized learning at it's best - not to mention it's quick, easy and painless for their teacher.

Check out the screencast below where I take you through the entire process.

These activities are certainly supplemental to learning the terms in context, but they provide extra study tools that have proven invaluable to my students' vocabulary acquisition.

If personalizing vocabulary instruction is not on your radar, this combination of tools is still perfect for vocabulary review as users can copy terms and definitions from any document and create the study set and formative assessments. But you can also personalize larger classes by dividing the class into groups and having students collaboratively develop their word lists. Moreover, if you feel personalizing vocabulary isn't necessary or appropriate for the entire class, these tools may provide a way to scaffold instruction for English learners or other special populations.

I hope you will find this helpful and if so, please email me or enter comments below and let me know how you've used it. I would love the feedback, but most importantly, I'm always looking for new ideas.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Rethinking My 21st Century Classroom

So, what exactly makes a 21st-century classroom?

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning identified a set of four essential skills they call the "4Cs": critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. In the late 1990's, 21st-century teaching and learning was all the buzz. We were on the cusp of a new millennium and the term was synonymous with cutting edge technology and pedagogy. Now, 17 years into the 21st century, the four C's have become the norm and no longer about the latest trends.

Or have they really?

Although seating arrangements and instructional deliveries in many classrooms have changed, I frankly question whether we are really reinforcing the four C's or if, in fact, our learners are still doing nothing more than memorizing information just like learners of the past.

Based on what I've observed in both my own classroom as well while visiting other classrooms, I've compiled a list of common assumptions that are causing me to rethink 21st-century teaching and learning.

Critical Thinking
Assumption: Because today's learners have increased access to information via the internet, they are thinking more critically and making more informed decisions.
Reality: Today's young people are bombarded with information but they aren't necessarily thinking critically about all the information that's available to them. It's essential for learners to be able to compare and evaluate resources, distinguish between fact and opinion, discern between fake news and accurate news, and make informed decisions based on careful analysis not just on what is perceived to be true. It's interesting that after all the mini-lessons I've taught on digital citizenship, many still cite "google.com" as a source for information and images. Sadly, many of my learners are quick to believe and share fake new stories circulated on social media without checking for accuracy and often times reading nothing more than the headline. We may have access to the internet in nearly 100% of classrooms in America, but are students thinking critically about all the information accessible to them?

Assumption: Creativity is a talent and some students just aren't creative. And because it's difficult to measure, why bother? 
Reality: Webster defines creativity as "the ability to make new things or think of new ideas."  Creativity is more about creating, than it is about a talent. Many people associate creativity with art or design and yet it's really about newness and risk. In my experience, I have found that when we foster an atmosphere of safety and security, students will feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone and thinking outside the box. Creativity cannot only be developed, but it must be modeled and coached.  When I give students the time and freedom to think their ideas through even the most uninspired will blossom. It's an essential skill that helps students adopt a new perspective on innovation, problem-solving and adapting to change. And while it may be difficult to objectively quantify, we have to remember that not everything that counts can be counted.

Assumption: When students work in partners or small groups they are collaborating.
Reality: First, let's distinguish between cooperation and collaboration.  I'll again refer to Webster for clarification. In terms of group work, cooperation is "a situation in which people work together to do something."  Inarguably, anytime my students work with other students whether it be brainstorming, problem-solving, reviewing for a test or just answering questions after reading a passage, cooperation is occurring.  Conversely, collaboration is defined as "to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something." That something is a common goal, not an individual goal.  Furthermore, when one person carries most of the weight while the others watch, there's no collaboration. This certainly is not a new phenomenon and rather just human nature, but if collaboration is an essential 21st-century skill, as a facilitator of learning, I must ensure that students are collaborating not merely cooperating, much less being passive spectators. This will only happen if I plan activities and lessons that require every participant to have an essential part and of course, when I hold each group member accountable.

Assumption: Communication is not a problem for my students. And thanks to digital media, they can communicate with anyone anytime and in many different forms. 
Reality: Despite the ubiquity of social media and other communication technologies, I find that many of my students are lacking effective oral presentation and interpersonal skills. They share their life story with the world on social media, but they stand in front of class and freeze, or much worse they want to read straight from the screen. And when it comes to interpersonal communication, many of them feel very awkward - and I'm not just referring to English learners. Interestingly, many of my students have expressed an interest in pursuing careers in service-oriented industries where communication skills are vitally important. Additionally, in today's global marketplace, students must be able to communicate both linguistically as well as culturally. Technology has given rise to global work teams that span time zones, nations and cultures, which may translate (pun intended) into multilingual communication. This is where skyping with students in another part of the world or field experts would greatly benefit our learners.

So what's the solution? There's no one-size-fits-all answer, but I wrote this post in the hopes that we all reflect on what is happening in our classes and see how well we are equipping our kids to thrive in the real world. While I may be officially charged with the responsibility of teaching English to speakers of other languages, I am essentially responsible for preparing them to be successful, productive members of a technology-rich global society.  Their success (and mine) may mostly be measured by English language proficiency growth,  however, if I fail to weave the 4C's into my instruction I'm doing my learners and society at large a huge disservice.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Image Credit: Eric Patnoudes @noapp4pedagogy

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Translation Tools For Newcomer English Learners

Webster's definitions of a newcomer include (1) one recently arrived, or (2) a beginner, rookie. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Education defines a newcomer as a foreign-born student who has recently arrived in the United States (USDOE, Newcomer Tool Kit).  I'm not a beginning teacher nor am I a recent immigrant or new language learner, however, I am now a newcomer.

Last week, I made a lateral move to a neighboring district closer to home and as I reflect on my first week, I relate well to newcomer English learners who often feel lost and anxious. While I may be a fluent English speaker and an experienced educator, I'm still a newcomer to the culture, lingo, and nuances of a new and larger school district.  However, in order to thrive, not just merely survive, I must focus on that which I do well and not allow the unknown aspects of my new position to cause me to lose momentum.  I can't let what I cannot do, interfere with what I can do.

I share John Wooden's words pictured above with my newcomer English learners almost daily and I also share them with content area teachers who feel as overwhelmed about teaching newcomers as are the students about learning. Language barriers make teaching and learning appear to be a monumental task, but we must focus on what they can do, rather than what they can't. We can find ways to make content comprehensible so they can learn which is why they attend school in the first place.

One simple way to help learners comprehend the course content is to use translation tools. Even if they may have a helpful classroom buddy, technology tools help our newcomers help themselves. Here are a few favorites that many of my students have found tremendously helpful.
  • iTools Translate Web
    • Powered by Google Translate, iTools will translate web pages to and from more than 20 languages. If a web resource is not available in the student's native language, this tool will quickly and easily translate the entire webpage. 
  • Lingro
    • Lingro enables users to instantly look up the translation and play the pronunciation for any word on any given webpage by simply clicking on the word. It also provides definitions in English. Webpages will not look much different until users click on a word.
  • Linguee
    • This unique tool is a dictionary with a search engine that enables newcomers to search for bilingual texts, words and expressions to check meanings and contextual translations. Many learners use it in conjunction with Google Images.
  • Google Translate
    • Last, but not least. A go-to app for many travelers, Google Translate translates words and phrases between more than 50 languages. While it's unrealistic for newcomers to translate pages and pages of documents, it certainly is helpful for translating sentences or even short passages. I also highly recommend it for communicating with learners. I've used it on many occassions to communicate basic instructions to newcomers who speak a language other than English or Spanish and find it to be nearly as accurate as a human translator. 
While using these tools is generally not permitted during standardized tests, they can certainly be beneficial in helping students complete classroom and homework assignments, increasing comprehensiblity and productive engagement. Also, keep in mind that these tools are simply a scaffold and are not to be used indefinitely.  They are like training wheels to help them get started. As they develop English language proficiency, and are no longer newcomers, they will eventually wean themselves off of translation tools.

Furthermore, lessons and assessments must be adapted and modified to meet learners' needs. Check out Teachers First's resource: Adapt-A-Strategy - Adjusting Lessons ESL/ELL Students. It's also crucial to implement strategies that will enhance and accelerate both content and language learning.  I recommend reading "Seven Teaching Strategies for Classroom Teachers of ELLs". I think you'll find those strategies helpful to all students, not just English learners. Also, be sure to reach out to your building's ESL teacher for tips and strategies for reaching those newcomer students in your classes. If your state is a member of the WIDA Consortium, request to obtain a copy of your newcomers' "Can-Do Descriptors" if you don't have them already.

Just because newcomers don't speak English doesn't mean they can't learn and just because you may not share a common language doesn't mean you can't teach them. While overcoming a language barrier may appear to be a daunting task, it certainly is not impossible to overcome and technology makes it just a little easier.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My New 3 R's - Reading, Writing & Recapping

Image Source: Pixabay.com
Ever since I can remember, the foundation of education has been the 3 R's - reading, writing and 'rithmetic.  But as education evolves so have the new three R's. Furthermore, as we evolve professionally, we identify and develop a foundation of basic skills for our own practice which brings me to today's topic.

This fall after discovering a powerful video reflection tool. I came up with my own version of the 3 R's - Reading, Writing, and Recapping using Newsela, Blogger and Recap. My students read, blog and record. These three have really stepped up literacy instruction and deepened learning, most especially reading comprehension and vocabulary development.

Here they are:

Reading - Newsela.com
I teach all English lessons in context and are usually based on nonfiction reading selections. Newsela has long been one of my favorites for informational text. Why Newsela? (1) Articles are relevant and interesting to teens but also aligned to curricular standards. (2) Stories are scaled at different reading levels, making differentiation a breeze. (3) It has a nifty annotation feature that helps readers interact with the text without having to print. (4) Most of its offerings are FREE.

This year, my district purchased the premium version, Newsela Pro. And while I've always found the free version to be more than adequate, the added data features of the Pro version have made this tool a staple in my classroom. Furthermore, as many social studies and language arts use the tool as well, I not only use it as a reading tool, but I also help English learners navigate the site and use it to its full potential. Here's a comparison of Newsela vs. Newsela Pro, in case you are considering it.

Writing - Blogger.com
My students have been blogging since 2014 and I often use blogging to check for understanding as students reflect on their learning. Newsela's interesting articles gives students lots of food for thought and lots to write about.  Students' writings are original as the share their views and opinion on a given topic. However, as they express their views, they also write about the main idea and other points that provide evidence of reading comprehension and vocabulary gain.  It's a much better assessment than any multiple choice quiz.

Why Blogger?  For me, it's simply because we are a Google school and it's easier for students to use a Google tool.  There's a plethora of blogging tools out there to consider.  I say that so long as students are writing to an audience of more than the teacher, use the tool that works best for you and your kids.

Recapping - Letsrecap.com
Recap is a free, multiplatform student video response tool that lets teachers see how students learn. While it offers English learners invaluable speaking practice, it can be effective with any student population and any content area. At first, I thought my students would cringe when videotaping themselves, yet they loved it. Furthermore, teachers have the option of providing video prompts/instructions, which for me is a must - do as I do, not just as I say.

I have to admit that when I was first introduced to Recap by a colleague last summer I was not very impressed. After all, there a few video tools on our MacBooks that offer speaking practice without having to log in to one more website. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try and my students were very enthused.  So much so that they asked to use it more often and so it became part of my weekly routine - hence the 3 R's.

How does it help with reading? For me, it's the icing on the cake and enhances reading by getting students to think beyond what they read. I always give them questions that draw on their personal experience or viewpoints, but we have also had fun with some "would you rather" questions. Students record a concise summary of what they gained from the article.

As we move forward to a new year, I encourage you to try these tools, if you haven't already.  And if your students have Internet access at home, these activities can be completed at home, although a simple guided practice at school may be helpful.

Most importantly, once you implement these 3 R's, I would love to hear from you and your experience.

Happy 2017!