Saturday, September 29, 2012

Digesting 450 Teaching Strategies

Remember The Little Prince? Remember the picture that all the adults thought was a hat but was really a boa constrictor that had just swallowed an elephant? That’s been me this week after last Thursday and Friday’s workshop on helping English language learners in the regular classroom. At first I wished I could just crawl away somewhere and digest, but I’ve come to realize that this sort of meal is only digested with exercise.

So one thing I learned was simply vocabulary (and the supporting scholarship) to keep talking to my students about their language learning: working to prevent their becoming semi-bilingual with no dominant language, encouraging appropriate choice of language for learning, recognizing tier 2 words (especially multiple meaning words) and clarifying them as soon as possible. 

This week I’ve told the students that if they can’t express a concept in English, they should by all means do it in Japanese or Korean (“I think what the author is saying about the connection between love and power is...”), and then ask someone to teach them how to say it in English. But they don’t need to practice a mixture of the three languages that will limit their future to a very small international community rather than giving them freedom to operate in any of the three parent communities. 

That conversation did birth some unwanted side-effects: in the midst of group work, one student suddenly jumped out of her chair, dashed around the perimeter of the room, and returned to her seat. All discussions were derailed. It turned out her small group had taken it upon themselves to impose an embarrassing punishment on whoever mixed non-English social language into an academic discussion. But that itself gave us the chance to talk about the need to steward the learning opportunities of the rest of the class as well as our own and our small groups.

I’ve also been able to encourage language learners when I catch them in a mistake, like “satisfy-cation.” That’s excellent! You know that -ation is a noun ending, and you took a risk to try it in a new situation! Those are practices that make you a very good language learner. In this situation, the noun form comes out a little different: satisfaction. But keep up the good work! You are growing in your language acquisition! 

And I’ve realized that my class’s current 20-word vocabulary list has A LOT of double meaning words: in addition to execution, which I’d picked on purpose to teach the additional meaning of “performance,” there was clutch, brood, riddled, and hamper. Not including indisposition, which is the slight illness that makes you not interested in doing something, as well as just simply the disinclination with no physical basis. And I didn’t worry about the student who passed on wrong information about hamper, because I knew I’d correct it later, and I’d learned in the workshop that when something is first learned wrong and then corrected, it goes more directly into long-term memory.

As I have become more aware of words, I have found students becoming more aware of words. One student asked me about “bucket list” and “kick the bucket”--“Are those the same bucket?” Another pointed out the word “hanged” in the novel we’re reading, sure that is was supposed to be “hung.” I looked it up and we learned together that “hanged” is only proper past tense in the special meaning of a style of execution. 

This increased word awareness has resulted from both this workshop and a determination at the very beginning of this year to increase the frequency of vocabulary lists from 1 per unit (which could be anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks) to 1 every 2 weeks. Sound like a step back in time, increasing testing? Except that if I’m feeling responsible to teach, model, and have kids process word learning, then the testing is holding me responsible as much as the students. 

This week I used a strategy adapted from the workshop to introduce the vocabulary, and another one that I’d used last week, but was also used in the workshop, to review before the quiz. And, as all of us focus more, I’m finding myself naturally doing what I’ve always tried to do and failed miserably at--incorporating the vocabulary into classroom dialogue. And, kids’ scores are rising. Perhaps as they figure out my testing strategies. Perhaps as they figure out study strategies. Perhaps as they actually learn vocabulary.

It’s amazing that I have to relearn this truth several times every year: students focus on what I focus them on. Like language learning. It’s my job, so that’s a good thing.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Not Your Average Review

Review, inference, empathy, creative writing, and prediction all rolled into one 10-minute exercise that gives students choice, two different sized groups to work in, and a chance to process in both written and oral language. Wow--I didn’t even know the exercise was that good! It was an idea I came across a couple of years ago (in Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christiansen), never got around to using somehow, and pulled it out of the bag on Monday. Thursday and Friday Dr. Virginia Rojas ran a workshop for my school’s faculty on supporting English language learners, and that’s what enabled me to articulate why Monday’s exercise worked so well! 

Here’s how it went: I listed on the board four characters from the novel we are in the midst of right now, Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. Each student in a group of four was to pick one character and quick write either a diary entry or a letter in the persona of that character. Students had to consider what they knew about the character, infer what that means about what the character is thinking or feeling, put themselves into that point of view, and include some plan or prediction or considered choice for the future. Students worked furiously and were eager to share with their groups. I heard conversations about why a character would pick that format, that addressee, that form of address; conversations about voice and style; and some misunderstandings uncovered and cleared up. 

I had modeled out loud a sample diary entry from Gertrude: “I’m so relieved Stephen showed up rescued me from that awful situation. It’s peaceful and orderly living here with Mrs. Lithebe. But what will it be like going back to Ndotsheni? And everyone will know me and know what I’ve done. They’ll talk, I know it. They’ll look sideways at me. Everyone. How long will it take them to get over it and act normal with me? a year? five years? ten? a lifetime? oh, dear, I don’t know if I can take it.” Just that off-the-top-of-my-head speech gave me a new insight into the character: She’s not just weak-willed, but really facing the possibility of an insurmountable wall of small village gossip. Made me cold in the pit of my stomach. 

If the students got a fraction of that, it was worth it. 

Meanwhile, in addition to helping me understand why this exercise worked so well, the Thursday-Friday workshop also gave me so many other amazing strategies that I’m feeling (1) I’ve been failing students terribly by not knowing and doing more of them and (2) too paralyzed by the sheer number of possibilities that I’m incapable of picking which tool is the best one to use on Monday. With that, I’m going to quit thinking about school and go play volleyball for a while, but tune in next weekend to see what I ended up picking.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Of Straws and Oaks

What’s the positive equivalent of “the straw that broke the camel’s back”? That one small, almost insignificant thing you need to tweak in your classroom. Any one else have one?

For me it was making a plan for calling on each student, assuring that all students speak in class. Last spring I wrote it into a goal after my triennial observation interview. And I failed to do it. This fall, I succeeded. 

It was so simple. On my seating chart (students are in groups of 4-5, reassigned by the unit), I simply make a check mark by the name of the student I call on. 

How does it work? Most days we have at least one small group discussion. At the end of it, each small group must share one question or idea from their discussion with the entire class. I will randomly call on one student from each group. Students do not have to share their own idea--they are free to share the idea of anyone in their group. 

I’ve used the small group to whole group progression for years because more people get more participation in small groups, but everyone still gets to hear each group’s best insight. Before, I’d allowed any group member to volunteer. That put no one on the spot, but it also reinforced the usual pattern of passivity and participation on the whole-class stage.

What works better now?
  1. All students know they need to pay enough attention to the small group discussion to be able to contribute something to the large group when called upon.
  2. I have made explicit that this whole-group sharing is also a low-stakes opportunity to practice presentation skills of voice projection and avoiding verbal filler.
Todays contributions ranged from the exploration Why does Kumalo think despair is a sin? to the connection When they assumed the murderers were natives, it reminded me of when stuff disappeared at my school in Hawaii, and people assumed the thieves were Hawaiians, but it turned out they were white.

“Little strokes fell great oaks.” Was that the aphorism I was looking for?

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Week in the Life of a Teacher/Learner

Each week of teaching, one thing that I’d learned, unlearned, or relearned. After 20-plus years of teaching, could I find that many? When I committed to continuing this blog in the school year, I wondered, but I figured it would be a good challenge. Well, this week there was at least one thing daily.

Monday: The students have been in their groups of 4-5 for a week so they should be feeling comfortable. I introduce the day's reading (pretty tech-savy, I must say, with a clip of the author doing a TED Talk to prove Isabel Allende is a real, living, breathing person), assign group roles, post the 3 big questions they’re looking to answer, and turn them loose. Chaos and confusion. Luckily, teaching has do-overs. The next period I model reading the first paragraph, performing all 4 roles myself. Perfect understanding as students smoothly take over the roles. (And HOW long have I given lip-service to the importance of modeling?)

Tuesday: Implementing a new idea from my summer reading: a revised paper draft is due for editing today, and I’m going to lead students in looking at narratives we read last week to extrapolate rules for punctuating dialogue. They are engaged, dredging up rules with no additional prompting, asking questions like, “Aren’t you supposed to start a new paragraph when a new person speaks?” So we discuss the reason for rules (clear communication) and the license for breaking them (to communicate something that couldn’t be communicated within the rules).

Wednesday: After 2 days of discussion with assigned roles, today was just supposed to be a brief wrap-up following the vocabulary quiz, so I didn’t assign roles. I’m rather ambivalent about assigning roles in high school anyway. It does multiply the discussion’s productiveness. But nobody assigns roles in life--at some point, people need to figure out how to assume them on their own. And I am humbled and gratified to overhear the least focused student in the class say, “Here’s the question we have to answer. Come on, guys, I’m the facilitator.” Wish I could say I’d planned that gradual release of responsibility.

Thursday: I am secretly surprised at how well using mentoring texts has gone--both on Tuesday for editing and on the previous Friday for revising--looking at examples of uses of specifics: sensory details and description of action as well as exact words for dialogue or internal monologue. I’ve always looked at the literature textbook's selection-specific blurbs and exercises about appositives or compound sentences with a mixture of awe--“If only I could integrate grammar like that”--and of embarrassment--“How terribly awkward!” This year, somehow, it felt natural. I really got the reading-writing connection, so I could pass it on. At least, that's the view from my perspective.  How about the students' perspective? From a student reflection on the final draft: “I had a hard time starting this narrative, but looking at the literature book really helped.” I promise I did not pay her.

FridayUsed a new reading to introduce a unit. In one period, the discussion took off. There were great questions (what does "shalom is energetic dynamism" mean? so then IS it a sin if I do a bad thing for a good reason?) and observations (one group liked that restoring shalom isn't just for missionaries--but it takes  Christians in every profession doing their job well; another group had talked about the pitfalls of translation--starting with what's lost in translating “shalom” simply as “peace,” going through Japanese examples, and ending with wondering what else gets lost in translating the Bible). In the other period, most of the students weren’t prepared for the discussion. Back to the drawing board on that one.

When I started out teaching, I supposed that after a certain number of years I’d know it all and never make mistakes. Well, where is the fun in that! The “aha” experiences are the maraschino cherries on the sundae of life, the failures drive invention, and the most encouraging sign is that I recognize and correct my mistakes more quickly--not that I don’t make them. 

Now there’s a life lesson.