I Want My Students to Ignore Me

*updated 11/11/12

It doesn’t take much to get my students talking to each other, whether it be in their first language or English, and of course there are the inappropriate “off-task” conversations. But they are talkers, and this is a great asset I am learning to unleash for the good of learning.

To do this, right now, I’m focusing on training them to pose questions to each other, without looking to me for answers, and to listen and respond to each other with ideas or more questions. Having them feel a sense of agency with their own learning, especially grasping what kinds of questions they can ask to deepen their understanding of a topic, is quite challenging. I’m excited to be doing it.

Our school is working on raising the level of questions teachers ask during lessons, among other things, and I feel this is very important. But if the goal is for my students to take more ownership over their learning and do higher-order thinking themselves, then my job isn’t just to get better at asking such questions, but to get them to ask them.

Part of the hurdle is in modeling the importance of open ended questions, or simply questioning without wanting an answer; just the simple practice of reveling in their own sense of wonder and hypothesizing. As much as I love when my students ask engaging questions like, “why don’t we fall off Earth?” or, “what was here before the dinosaurs?”‘ I much rather they ask each other; let them engage, explore and learn that there is much to be enjoyed in discussion.

I started by showing them a video of a group of students discussing an article about jellyfish. I model all the time, but i felt it was important fir them to see peers model. Together, we noticed how they each listened while looking at the student talking, how they took turns, and used the article to generate ideas. After the video, I sat my class in three small circles of 7-8 kids, with one student per group responsible for making sure each person had a chance to talk. I chose groups of this size because each group has 2-3 students who are not yet verbal in English; if the groups were smaller, it’d put undue pressure on them when they can’t yet participate in a discussion like this.

We have been reading an article about salamanders, and I got the ball rolling by saying, I find it interesting that they are born being able to breathe underwater and then air, and they basically live on land. I wonder what would be different for them if they never were able to breathe air.

I purposely chose a question where students did not have the answer in the text, so that they would have to discuss it. I walked around, listening in, and would interject “and what do you think about that?”, or “what other questions does that make you wonder about?” In future lessons, I will focus on students asking responding questions (as an avid boxing fan, it reminds me of the transition of learning to throw punches and then learning the ever more valuable skill of counter punching; while related, they are actually uniquely different skills).

It was far more successful than I had anticipated, though when we opened our circles into our bigger share circle, it was not an easy transition**. Students didn’t want to share what was discussed, they acted more reserved and embarrassed, and spoke quietly. They were more concerned about the reactions or corrections they’d get. We are on our way though!

I wish I could find ways to involve my beginners, but that may be expecting too much. So, I have to decide if I want to give them a separate activity, to translate the question for discussion, or just let them sit and listen and watch, which can be valuable if they see it as a real responsibility. That is the challenge of the multilevel ESL class: finding authentic, worthwhile activities that meet the needs of students with whom you have no common language.

***More recently, we tried the big circle, and I had them pose questions to each other after looking at a picture of an elephant in a wetland, and discussing how some wetlands dry up. I asked them to think of questions that could help us understand these animals’ experiences. While they didn’t respond to each other, they did ask questions politely, without raising their hands or looking at me!

Soon, I plan on re-watching the video with them to have them make connections about how they are doing, in reference to these other students.

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Native Language Overload

My position as an ESL teacher has always been much more like a transitional bilingual teacher with the idea of dual language education in the back of my brain. I always shuddered at the concept of English only, and didn’t want to approach my class that way. At the same time, I’ve also always believed that the more practice a student gets in the target language, the better.

But then two years ago, I taught a class filled with about 7 different languages, and the task of supporting them all was quite daunting. Most of the students were intermediate, though, so they knew a sufficient amount of English and many, sadly, had already forgotten their first language. Not my chinese students, though.

The same is true again this year. I have 5, soon to be 4, chinese-speaking ELLs. Aside from the mediocre tool that is Google translate, I would have no real method for communicating academic content to them. But I cannot teach by translating everything. I need to be able to create a tandem curriculum that meets their needs in learning English while teaching a larger class of more advanced Beginners.

Lately I have been relying on website resources from @larryferlazzo and @judiehaynes, which have helped quite a bit.

Great Books for “Juicy” Sentence Writing

If your school is incorporating Dr. Lily Wong Fillmore’s juicy sentence approach to teaching, or if you just want a content-rich, fun way to teach your students to be better writers, I recommend these two books by the same author:

Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage and Style into the Writer’s Workshop and Everyday Editing.

You can also check out the website of the author, Jeff Anderson, here. You can also follow him on Twitter, no surprises there.

Because It’s Simply Not About Me.

The first thing I notice is her little mouth, open toward me, with her eyes still squeezed tight with the remnants of sleep. Even in the dark room, I can still see. Her little body rocks, having grown stronger with the ability to turn over, eagerly awaiting la leche. Every morning, somewhere between 2 and 4 am, this is our ritual. She begins to stir, just slightly, so I know she needs to be fed. And although I haven’t slept for more than two consecutive hours in 5 months, I cherish these moments. I look forward to these quiet times, just the two of us, as the world outside our window continues to slumber.

I’m tired all the time. I have the worst memory ever. But my life has never been richer, my emotions never deeper, and my hopes never stronger and more vulnerable since having my daughter.

In many ways, this is also how I feel as a teacher; hopeful and seeing life in new ways with each child I interact with, and eager to continue, despite the bottomless exhaustion. And I wouldn’t be the teacher I am if I weren’t connected, through blogging, to other educators; educators from as close as NJ and as far as Europe, whom I have come to admire. Blogging has changed my world because of the people I have come to know; people who have taught me ways to be better in my craft, but also ways to recognize when what I’m doing is worthy of repeating and writing about.

Although I have been blogging for years, I began my first teacher blog the moment I joined the profession. I was leaving a treasured profession behind, as well as a decade of work as a too passionate “serve the people” activist, and I thought there was nothing more valuable I could do if I wasn’t protesting or organizing people to act in the interest of humanity. I was entering teaching hoping it would fill that void for me. It was about me, and blogging was my way of making sense of it all, and it was the blogging community of educators who gave me a sense of belonging to something much bigger than myself, and made me see that teaching and being a good teacher was meaningful, and ultimately not about me.

I was able to see beyond myself, beyond my school’s walls and place this new “job” of educating children into a much bigger, more complex and vivd picture. Since I came to teaching via a nontraditional route, it made sense that my “education” was nontraditional too. I learned from you: readers and edubloggers the world over.

It is luck, really, that led me into teaching, with the low percentage of people who make it into the NYCTF, and it was luck that got me my job when other principals didn’t seem willing to take a chance on a career-changing journalist who wanted to teach ESL. But it was blogging, and not luck, that led me to value what it means to teach children, what it means to be part of a union of professionals, and to be in the oldest and often least respected jobs.

It is too easy to lose sight of our importance in this world, and lose ourselves in the vast needs we see in front of us, without each other. Blogging has changed my world by both making it bigger and bringing it in closer. In those wee morning hours, when I lay my daughter back down to sleep and get dressed in total darkness, I know I am getting ready to do something important. I don’t feel part of a daily grind, even while some would like us to just be abiding cogs in a wheel.

As a teacher, and now as a mother, I am inspired knowing that my life simply isn’t about me anymore. It’s about the faces I see in front of me, whether it be at 3am, or 8am, and it’s about the world they so desperately need to understand so that, one day, they can indeed change it.

This post was inspired by Matt Ray and the Rockstar Meme— how blogging rocked your world. Now I’d love to hear from: @used2bprincipal, a former principal whose opinion I value greatly and who taught me self-respect as a teacher, jd2718, a teacher blogger who influences and inspires me, @naomishema, a blogger I like to read, @KKSorrell, who I have interacted with ao my laflecha blog, and who I enjoy reading, and Mike Harrison, an EFL teacher across the pond who helped make Twitter a welcoming place for newbies like me, and helped me realize my colleagues span the globe 🙂

Welcome, Parents

On Wednesday, one of my students, “Jacob”, had a big surprise at lunch time: his father had just gotten out of jail and had come to school to say hi before having to return to his halfway house. Jacob often looks sad in class, and I always assumed it was because of all the medication he is on. He is sweet, focused, helpful, and an amazing artist for his age, despite all of that. But never had I seen him smile like he did when he introduced me to his father. So, it made me decide that I will send out an invitation to parents to come during Math or Readers or Writers workshop, to see what their child is learning and to give their child a chance to “show off” in a place where they get to be special and appreciated in ways their parents don’t otherwise get to see. It may not get an overwhelming response, since the parent volunteer letter didn’t seem to go over well, but it’s at least another way to show parents they are welcome in our space.