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.

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