Friday, January 22, 2021

Visualizing Images: Google Images Partnership in Reading Strategies


"Oh, THAT'S what they were doing!"

A student epiphany blossomed from the back of the darkened room when I showed a 2-minute video clip at the beginning of 6th and 7th grade English class Thursday morning. The homework reading had been the chapter from A Long Walk to Water where the refugees build reed boats to cross the White Nile in Sudan. I had sketched it out in my reading notes, figuring most of the students would have trouble visualizing what exactly was happening. Looking at them with a critical eye, my sketches were not that helpful, given my lack of visual artistic talent and training. So I searched for images and found something even better—the video.

We know reading builds background knowledge. We know that envisioning images is something that effective readers do. We know that students need background knowledge to be effective readers. And I want to expand my students’ knowledge of the world with their reading. This all becomes a big circuitous swirl that we just have to grab some place to switch from vicious to virtual. Google Image is good for something. 

Another student called out, “Did you find out what sorghum looks like yet?” “Yes!” I replied. “I have that image cued up next!” Students had been asking questions over the last several days: What is sorghum? What is an antelope? I’d responded with words, but not with images. And, as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand of those. They’d asked, “What is ‘ritual,’” but not “What is ‘ritual scarring’?” so I’d also decided it was time to search for an image of a traditional Dinka face and a traditional Nuer face. I asked, “What would Salva have felt if he saw this face? What would Nya have felt if she saw this face?” (I’d also cued an image of the particular type of antelope referred to—a topi.)

Thursday we started with an image fest. First the video of building a reed boat. Then some sorghum—both cooked and growing in a field. Then antelope in general and topi in particular Then a Dinka face and a Nuer face with their ritual scarring. We referred back to the map in the front of the book, and realized how early in the trek we still were. A student made a spontaneous prediction of what would happen along the rest of the way. We used Google Maps to put it all in the larger perspective.

A little voice of doubt in the back of my head whispers, “Why aren’t THEY searching for the answers to their questions?” Yes, that’s the next step. But at least, for now, they’re ASKING their questions. I’ll show them how satisfying (and easy!) it is to find the answers. 

And I have a couple more images cued for Monday because of the questions students asked me while they did a close reading of a nonfiction background article on Friday: “hump-backed cattle” and “AK-47.” 

Note to self: When using reading to broaden students’ background knowledge, make generous use of Google images. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is probably worth ten-thousand.  

Friday, January 15, 2021

ELL Reading Comprehension: Mixing It Up

Mansion, not manshon: Photo by Nick Romanov on Unsplash

When mansion made the leap from English to Japanese, it somehow came to mean an apartment
—though a little higher class than an apaato apartment, which is rented and
 generally less high quality than a manshon which is purchased. 

This week in EFL class, we read a story that included a mansion and a luxury car with chauffeur. The first time I asked students to draw a picture summary of what we’d read, even though we’d discussed this semantic difference and I’d shown them Google images of the American understanding of “mansion,” the majority of students drew high rise buildings. Also cute little cars, though I’m not sure of the reason for this, other than the Japanese middle school penchant for cuteness. 

So I showed off one drawing of a true American mansion, and I drew my own limousine on the whiteboard. (My drawings always cause a good deal of hilarity--but that's all to the good where learning is concerned!) The next day when we continued the story and the drawing, I noted, “Oh, good! More people are drawing American mansions!” When I pointed out to one student that she’d drawn a Japanese mansion again, she heatedly denied it, and quickly added 2-story wings on each side of the narrow, several-storied building. Actually, quite an effective transformation!

Drawings, I discovered, are a great way to check comprehension, taking all the hesitancy about vocabulary and grammar out of the equation and cutting straight to what the student is actually envisioning. 

My EFL middle schoolers have been plodding through their reading and looking at me blankly when I ask them to summarize. We needed some revitalizing. I take responsibility—I’d had a Ferlazzo strategy in the lesson plan, and then I didn’t look carefully and half forgot to do it, and what I did do, I did all wrong. So back to the drawing board--but getting familiar enough with some of The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox strategies that I could piece them together in different ways. Here are some I used this week:

  1. Don’t have EFL students read out loud. At first this puzzled me. I thought I needed to hear and address their hesitancies and errors. But actually, they need to hear a good model. but in that case, how do I ensure they focus on the model and practice? After I read a sentence out loud with students following along in the book, I call on a student to look up and repeat the sentence I just read. Not all the time. Maybe for 1 paragraph. Or to review a paragraph from the previous day. Or 1 sentence from each paragraph. I haven’t yet tried cold calling. What I’ve done is alert the student before I read the sentence, so they’re paying special attention. 
  2. As an alternative to verbal summary, draw a picture. This week I had students fold a blank page into quarters—8 frames, front and back. Then, at the end of each chunk of text, after taking questions, I’d say, “One-minute picture!” and set the timer on my phone while students sketched a summary of the chunk.
  3. At the end of the whole reading, students acted out the story in groups of 4. No papers allowed. (One tried that.) We reviewed. We talked. We laughed. And I knew that they’d understood the reading.

Adding tools to my toolbox one micro-strategy at a time! 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Processing Current Events Through Literature

This week my combined 6th and 7th grade English language arts class started studying the book A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Set in southern Sudan, the narration alternates between an 11-year-old Dinka boy in 1985 and an 11-year-old Nuer girl in 2008. On Wednesday we were discussing a background article on the civil war leading up to the creation of South Sudan, and the resurfacing of ethnic conflict in the new country afterwards. One student asked, “Why did they go so quickly to violence instead of using words?” I said, “That’s a good question. I wonder that, too.”

Thursday morning I woke up to the news of an armed mob storming the US Capitol. 

If you find the timeline confusing, it’s because I’m in Japan, many time zones and an International Date Line away from the events unfolding in Washington, D.C. It was surreal to watch  the kinds of actions that have always happened in other places happening in my home country. It's different for my students, though. They hold an assortment of passports, but none from the US. To them, it’s still one of those other places. 

“Why did they go so quickly to violence instead of using words? The middle schooler's inquiry from the day before about Sudan became a burning question for me about my own country. I turned to BBC News, a good source for explaining the US to people outside the US, and read the article “US election 2020: The people who still believe Trump won.” I realized they believed that words had already failed. And they’re afraid. Like the characters in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” that we’d read in 6th and 7th grade right before Christmas break, showing how quickly fear breeds suspicion, prejudice, and violence. That fear triggers herd behavior, which we’d read an article on in response to the bullying in Wonder, which we’d studied earlier in the fall. Who knew that the 6th and 7th grade English curriculum would help the teacher process current events?

Arriving in 1st period, I asked if any of the students had heard about the violence in the US Capitol. A handful looked like they were vaguely aware of something. I supplied a brief outline of events and referred to the student’s question from the previous day: “Why did they go so quickly to violence instead of using words?” I said, “I think I have the beginning of an answer,” and I shared my string of connections to what we’d read earlier in the year.

“We’re learning political science in English class!” one student burst out.

“Political science involves human nature, and literature involves human nature, and we are all human, learning about how to live with and for each other,” I answered.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Becoming a Globally Competent Teacher

Good thing I was in the middle of reading Becoming a Globally Competent Teacher or I might have missed the simplest of opportunities to be one... 

A couple of days ago I was thinking about a January back-to-school mini-unit for a middle school ESL class. I’d used some really great materials from the ESL/EFL teachers’ resource website TeachThis last term (totally worth the membership after I tried the free stuff!), so I searched the site for “New Years” and came up with a worksheet for making New Years’ resolutions. Minimal guidance, though. Then I remembered a NewsELA article I’d seen on making and keeping New Years’ goals. Perfect! Leveled reading practice together with a great chance to review last term’s goals, pre-holiday exam results, an American tradition, and to set some new goals. 

I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me until I was lying in bed that night that I’d completely forgotten to make a very easy global connection: in addition to a traditions from the US (like resolutions) and from Japan (where I teach), what are other traditions? I make a firm mental note, and when I got to my desk the next morning, I quickly found a BBC article “How Do People Celebrate New Years around the World?” 

I’m still shaking my head at the whole oversight, because I think of myself as a pretty globally aware educator. After all, I’m an American living and teaching in Japan. Most of my students are bilingual. Last term my high school class watched Sheryl WuDunn’s TED Talk “Our Century’s Greatest Injustice” and developed a line of inquiry from it to make their own presentation on. Next term a middle school class is reading A Long Walk to Water. And I’ve spent many years as a world lit teacher reading as widely as I can to expand from my mostly American/British lit training to find books that my international students can see themselves and their cultures in. 

We hear those catch phrases a lot—“global citizens,” and the like. Who’s against that? The pandemic of 2020 has shown us again just how interconnected we are. And yet, what exactly does a globally aware education look like? So I snatched up this book when I saw it and read it over the Christmas vacation. I’ll be coming back to it again for a slower, more interactive read, and some of the categories were more distinct and helpful than others, but I found it really helpful for some kind of traction to have some kind of set of discrete elements. These authors come up with 12 elements grouped into 3 sets: dispositions, knowledge, and skills. Here's a quick list:   

  • Empathy and Valuing Multiple Perspectives
  • Commitment to Equity
  • Global Conditions and Current Events
  • Global Interconnectedness
  • Experiential Understanding of Diverse Cultures
  • Intercultural Communication
  • Communicating in Multiple Languages
  • Creating a Classroom Environment that Values Diversity and Global Engagement
  • Integrating Global Learning Experiences
  • Facilitating Intercultural Conversations
  • Developing Glocal Partnerships
  • Assessing Students’ Global Competence Development
I gleaned a number of things from my initial cursory reading. It confirmed for me that I am moving in the right direction. It also reminded to—duh—add that global dimension to my New Year’s lesson! It prompted me to continue to articulate to my students the why of bilingual and global education—just like I continually articulate to them of the why of reading! (“The Benefits of a Bilingual Brain” 5-minute  TED-Ed) And it motivated me to finally take advantage of that Japan Times introductory subscription offer that’s been showing up everywhere in my Facebook feed—6 months for $6. After all, to connect the local and the global, I have to have more local knowledge than BBC gives me for Japan. 

Happy New Year, one and all! I know that whatever else 2021 may bring, it will be a year of challenge and growth. I’m curious to see where we all end up this time next year, and I’m content to take it one week, one day, at a time. 

Saturday, December 26, 2020

What Blogging in 2020 Taught Me

2020: The record high teaching anxiety of the year somehow transmuted into blog posts with record high views.
No joke. In 8-1/2 years of blogging, 4 of my top 10 are now from 2020, including the #1: “7 Things I Learned Starting a School Year Online.” That was the most remarkable bit of data that emerged from my traditional review of the year’s blogging. (Here are the links for reviews of 2019, 2018, and 2017.) As I continued to reflect, I found that while my reasons for blogging have stayed the same, everything has taken on new dimensions in this strangest of years. 

Over those last 8-1/2 years, I’ve become almost addicted to weekly blogging. Sitting down on a Saturday afternoon to really hash through with myself something that’s gone on during the week has become core to what I do as a teacher. 
  • For myself: It’s an opportunity to articulate what did or didn’t go well and why, or simply to hold myself accountable to having done something during each week worth reflecting on. 
  • For my students: It has solidified my own identity as a writer, so that when I teach writing, I’m speaking from experience. 
  • For community: I need a place to share my teaching attempts, successes, struggles, growth, a place I can offer and receive help and encouragement.
However, 2020 scooted me way out of my comfort zone, challenging me to grow not only in a new mode of teaching (online), but also in new grade levels (middle school) and new field (adding ESL to English language arts). March and April were anxious months (the blog evidence: I only wrote 2 posts each month), but looking back over the top 6 posts of 2020, I can see how I’ve grown. Here they are: 
  1. “7 Things I Learned Starting a School Year Online” (July 24; 2,338 views) Having moved to Japan to start a new school year in April, and starting it online, I’d already been through what American teachers were dreading. I was delighted that what I was able to share apparently filled a need!
  2. “Hexagons Spur Creative and Collaborative Thinking!” (October 3; 570 views) “Hexagonal thinking” has been featured on 2 blogs I follow and used widely in the Creative High School English Facebook group. That encouraged me to try this excellent way of showing and promoting the thinking skill of making connections. And I could fold my blog back into the discussion. If you haven’t tried this in a class, I highly recommend it.
  3. “Resources for Teaching News/Media Literacy and Current Events”  (August 14; 455 views) This has been a growing interest of mine over the last 5 years, and the pandemic-election conjunction brought the need into sharp focus. I curated a list of resources over the summer, and saw many opportunities to share the post. What I really got a kick out of, though, was seeing someone I didn’t even know sharing it in answer to a question in the Creative High School English Facebook group. When somebody has found something I made helpful enough to pass on… 
  4. “One Easy Exercise for Paying Attention to Language” (November 14; 423 views) Though I’ve always had ESL students in my English classes, targeting English language learners in a school setting has been a new experience. I want to really help them thrive—not just survive. Larry Ferlazzo’s book The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox has been an amazing resource. I’ve committed to trying one new strategy from it per week. When I blog on it, I share it in ESL teachers K-12 Facebook group. It’s been great to be able to glean ideas from this community and to finally have something to also give back! 
  5. “Creating Classroom Community Remotely: My Best Practice” (May 9; 375 views) Another post relative to online learning. NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) asked permission to share it on their blog. I’m thankful for the little successes in the steep learning curve on online teaching, and for the ability to plough back into the connected educators’ community a little of the value I’ve gotten from it. 
  6. “Prompting Fluency in Writing for ESL Students” (October 30; 274 views) Another idea from Larry Ferlazzo’s book. The really fun thing here was that a teacher I’ve never met from the ESL teachers K-12 Facebook group asked to use a blog post I’d written in a Youtube video she was doing. I find that kind of educator synergy so energizing!

The long and the short of it? 2020 has grown my online community, and grown my teaching repertoire. Thanks especially to all the members of the Facebook groups ESL teachers K-12 and Creative High School English. Those communities helped immensely. And it’s okay with me if I don’t have to grow quite as much in 2021, but it’s good to know it was possible.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Fueling the Brain with Independent Reading

Reading is essential because it fuels the brain. —middle school student on exam

One experiment I've run this year is giving 6th and 7th graders 10 minutes per class for independent reading. (Except while reading the whole class novel Wonder, when reading time was devoted to that book.) As a part of the exam before Christmas, I asked students to reflect on the reading they’d done (questions taken from Larry Ferlazzo’s book The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox—Strategy 1 Independent Reading, Figure 1.1 End-of-Quarter Reading Reflection). Through that reflection, I was reminded what a good practice it is, I learned some things about my students, they set some goals for themselves.

First, what we did: Students brought a book of their choice and read for the first 10 minutes of the period. Most of the time I read with them. This has been shown to correlate highly with the success of independent reading—whether the teacher demonstrates her own value for the activity. Sometimes I gave a quick book ad for one I’d finished, and sometimes I gave a quick reminder of the value of reading and why we were spending this time "just reading": growth in vocabulary, knowledge of the world, writing skill, empathy, focus, enjoyment… 

Once a week I circulated and recorded the book and page number for each student. We could have a conversation if a student isn’t making much progress (or are on an earlier page than last week!). Sometimes I suggested a change of book if it was too difficult or not interesting. I have a classroom library, and I always had a couple of recommendations on hand when I saw a student was nearing the end of a book. 

Sometimes we made connections between independent reading books and what we were studying in class. We finished the term with students each giving a book ad for one of the books they had read.

Frindle by Andrew Clements was very popular with the boys. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo with the girls. Auggie and Me with everyone when we had finished Wonder by Patricia Palaccio. One boy will read anything by Alan Gratz. A couple discovered Percy Jackson and are racing through the series. One loves A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, one Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and another Genius: The Game by Leopoldo Gout. 

I learned that students have read an average of 5 books each this fall trimester. That's a pace that would mean 15 books in a year! I think they surprised themselves. I was also surprised to learn that one student reads voraciously in another language. 

Here are a few more of the questions and student answers:
How do you feel about your progress in reading? 
  • I feel like I’m getting faster at reading, able to zip through sentences in a matter of seconds. 
  • I think I’m improving in focusing on the book. 
  • When I used to read, I would read the same line twice, but now I don’t do it as often. 

What strategies are you using to help you understand your book?
  • Summarizing chapters into a long sentence. 
  • Looking up words I don’t know. 
  • First I read the front and back. 
  • I would visualize what’s going on and re-read the sentence until I understand. 
  • Ask questions to people who have read the book.

What changes will you make as a reader next term? 
  • I will read longer, more challenging books. 
  • I think I will try to make time to read every day. 
  • I want to read more books than I read this term.  
  • After finishing The Famous Five series, I’d like to read books that are thicker.

What do you need to become an even better reader? 
  • I need a place where it’s quiet and I can focus on my book more. 
  • Ask for more book recommendations.
  • Partner to talk about my book with.

Finally, here are some of the ways students filled in the sentence "Reading is ___ because ___":
  • Reading is essential because it helps improve your vocabulary and focus.
  • Reading is hard because there are words I don’t understand.
  • Reading is soothing because it reduces my daily stress.
  • Reading is important because by reading a book you can get knowledge and can be a better writer. Unlike the internet it is more likely for the information you got from a book to remain in your brain. And obviously it is fun.
Love that last one. Especially the way all that information about reading had to be crammed into a 1-1/2 inch blank! 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Making Learning Meaningful with Article Choice Sets

  • I realized that I always buy stuff that I don’t need. In this article, it said “Ask yourself if you really want something before you buy it.” When I saw this sentence, I thought that I should take that advice. (from student response to “How to save money as a kid”)
  • What interested me the most was Michael was diagnosed with epilepsy and he needed to stop gymnastics, climbing trees and diving—all of the things that he loved. If I were Michael I would be really sad. I think that’s why he thought more strongly to help the other people. (from student response to “This 10-year-old opened a bakery; for every cupcake he sells, he gives one to the homeless”)
  • I was surprised because he actually created a bank for children. Usually we end up only thinking about it and don’t take any action, but he actually created a bank. I noticed that it’s a very good thing to take action rather than just thinking about it. (from student response to "Teen entrepreneur in Peru runs a bank for kids, helps environment")
I love it when students really engage with the class material, not just because it is assigned, but because something in it piques their curiosity or grabs their attention. That happened recently in an 8th grade EFL class, and I want to replicate this activity in future units. The magic fairy dust, I think, was student choice, practical application or real-life models, and an ethical dimension—all while practicing reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening in English.

I took the “article of the week” idea and married it to student choice based on the unit topic, which was money, to go with the grammar focus of quantifiers. NewsELA is a great source of articles for students learning English because the articles are available at 5 different lexiles. A quick search of the topic “money” turned up 3 articles that had variety, relevance, an ethical dimension, and a global component:
I made copies to pass around and gave students one minute to scan and then pass, deciding at the end which of the three articles they were interested in reading. I was delighted when I had some takers for every article.

The assignment I adapted from a free article of the week template on Teachers Pay Teachers. There are several pages of thorough explanation, expectations, sample articles and reflection questions, and a grading sheet—grab the packet if you’re interested. Here’s briefly what students did with their chosen article:
  1. Close read and annotation: Highlight or underline at least 3 words/phrases you find important, interesting, confusing, and write a note in the margin for each about why you selected that bit. This is your brain on paper, showing me your thinking about what you’re reading as you read (see above). 
  2. Summary statement: Title, summary verb, and approximately 50 words
  3. Vocabulary journal form (4 entries): These are 1/2-page forms including places for the word, part of speech, definition, context sentence, visual representation, synonyms, and antonyms (see below).
  4. Reflection: I used a list of sentence stems, out of which students were to pick 3 and complete each with 2-3 sentences. (I noticed…, I wonder why…, I can relate to this because…, etc.) 
Vocabulary journal form

We took it slowly because this was the first time through for an 8th grade EFL class: one day each for reading, vocabulary, summary, response. After each step
 except reading, students shared with the class in some way: teaching one of their vocabulary words to classmates, reading aloud their summary, and presenting the combined summary and response for a question/answer time. I'd love to do this with my 6th/7th grade ELA class as well as my high school EFL class. In a future use, I'd also wrap up with a discussion of the ethical aspects of money. This time I tried introducing the articles that way, and it was a little slower going. So much potential here!