If only I’d been told…

For most of my life, I was told by parents, teachers and others that I should be a lawyer (presumably because I like to argue and defend), or a writer (presumably because I loved to write since a very early age). But if someone had introduced science to me this way, or if I had learned about anthropology or linguistics early on in life, I know I would have chosen to be a scientist. Because, when I think about it now, scientists do all that and more:

Yet, for any scientific purpose there are different sides, contrasting analyses, theories and predictions. Choosing between them and justifying one’s choices are what being a scientist is all about. And we select our theories in part using data.”

—Daniel Everett, Language: The Cultural Tool, p. 205 (2012)

All I remember is biology and chemistry in high school.

But let’s keep reducing what students learn, rather than expanding. As long as it’s all testable.

Don’t Just Keep It Simple

This post is the first in a new series to address the question of teaching academic language to ELLs. This was inspired by the fact that many readers who find my blog are searching for “juicy sentences”, a term often used to refer to complex sentence structures.

Also, I was inspired to dig more into this topic now because of a recent workshop I attended regarding the language demands in math and science, especially with its emphasis throughout the new Common Core standards. At this conference, the confusion and surprise shared by most of the middle school and high school content area (non-ESL) teachers attending told me that this is not the common focus of all the supports schools are giving teachers, or not enough. Given the questions many had by the end, I don’t feel the workshop really clarified the different levels of challenges for ELLs when accessing academic content. One new teacher whose subject is math even refused to participate in the last activity because she “doesn’t teach language” because the kids don’t write in her class. I know that often times schools can start setting expectations without the proper supports or training since, like the students we teach, we often need multiple exposures to and different ways of examining and trying something new before we can really make it our own. Otherwise, just telling people to do something can engender resistance. Hopefully, this is will be a useful resource for those curious or wanting to teach it.

I must caution you though: there are some in the field who see this as the “magic bullet” to pull ELLs toward proficiency. It isn’t. It is, however, a necessary skill they need for accessing academic texts. And as long as reading complex writing is a part of school, then learning the language involved will be crucial.

I will address looking at texts for “juicy sentences”, choosing the words to teach, and the kind of work kids can do to put it all into practice. Some of my suggestions will be most useful for elementary classroom teachers, but most will have broad application. Please feel free to share your experiences, questions, and concerns below or via email.

For example, today I’m going to share something that I imagine many elementary teachers already do but maybe don’t consider it academic language, don’t know the term to describe what they are doing, or don’t think it’s appropriate for beginner* ELLs.


Specifically, Tier 2 words that are synonyms of more common words ELLs pick up more readily. Tier 2 are words that involve more depth and require more context or description when explaining, and can even represent shades of a similar meaning (like surprised vs amazed), or they are polysemous (words with multiple meanings like words with different meanings depending on context like the word “even”), homonyms, homophones, words with prefixes/suffixes, or words that I’d say play pivotal roles in a paragraph like “except” or “although”, etc., and are not technical words students will rarely encounter outside the subject area (like hydroponic or submarine or equilateral). Those are Tier 3. Tier 1 are basic, everyday words.

Teaching synonyms allow you to use words students know already (mad, angry), and build on it. We act out the words, discuss different contexts in which these words work, draw pictures or write comics for the kids to refer to. Then the kids are on the lookout for them as they read or are read to. The Frayer model works well here (though for non-example, I prefer “sentence with the word”). I have had kids write the word on one side of an index card and then do the Frayer boxes on the back, or they can do it in their notebooks.

When time is short, having a chart like this that you refer to, or that you use as a reminder to use these words yourself, even if you can’t teach into them right away.

You can take a week, a month or more to teach them; it depends on your kids.


*The term beginner, just like the term ELL, covers a vast and diverse area of language comprehension. One teacher’s idea of beginner is different from another’s. I will address this throughout subsequent posts, in terms of how I teach academic language for the multiple levels, but for the sake of clarity, when I say beginner I am not referring to newcomers who arrived yesterday from their country. They, too, can be taught to use academic language, but when I use the term beginners, I am referring to students who have a very basic understanding of English (struggle with past tense, possessives, personal pronouns, and writing beyond the most basic of sentences; subject/verb/object).

I don’t want to be in a hurry


Five minutes before I had to leave for work, my daughter woke, crying, likely because she didn’t find me next to her. I am always in a hurry in the morning. Yet, although I didn’t have much time, I went into the bedroom; my husband waved me away, but I wanted to nurse her to see if she’d go back to sleep.

Normally, I would have been keeping one eye on my watch, worried I’d miss my bus, but today I had a realization. My daughter was going to miss me while I was at work, just as I miss her. This moment was a gift.

She won’t always need me. She won’t always miss cuddling with me or cry when I leave for work. But here and now she does.

These are not epiphanies, I know, but my grasp on them are deeper than before. See, like most new parents, my partner and I have different approaches and disagree at times, primarily about how she goes to sleep. These disagreements weren’t always there. In the beginning, she would only fall asleep if we rocked her and patted her on the back (not lightly either), and then would stay asleep longest while on our shoulder or chests. So we took turns sleeping with her in our reclining sofa.

Neither of us questioned this routine. Put her in a crib to cry? If my husband considered this, he never hinted. It wasn’t a case of Dr. Ferber in a crib one corner of a dark room, screaming to no response and Dr. Sears in another part of the room, being nursed to sleep in a giant family bed. Although it may have felt like this at times. Overall, we were/are pragmatic, and doing what we thought was best for her. I mean, when I was pregnant, I had always imagined her going to sleep in the crib or cosleeper we bought. The circumstances and her strong personality just didn’t fit. I often tell my husband, if she slept through the night, or went to bed easily, she’d be the perfect child, and perfection doesn’t exist.

Weeks and months passed, and she goes to sleep more easily, in our bed and not on our shoulders, but still likes being rocked if she is having a hard time falling asleep. With teething and her ambitions, it’s no surprise to me she is a toss-n-turner. Experts in the field often say when a baby is about to make leaps, their sleep is interrupted, and my little simcha has been doing cartwheels.

But, her sleep is still a topic. It’s still something one of us is trying to deal with each night. We have tried, at my husband’s request, getting her to sleep parts of the night in a crib. It doesn’t make her sleep through the night or fall asleep on her own, but it does give her a place to wind down until she tells me she’s ready to be nursed to sleep (yes, she cues me).

And then yesterday in the car, she was crying, wanting to fall asleep but wanting or needing to nurse to do so. And the remark was made that this was a “sleep association”. Yes, nursing is. But must that automatically have a negative connotation? Must my daughter who is so independent during the day also be fully independent at night? Should the “association” of sleep and nursing equate crutch? Can it not signify love, comfort, cuddling and our relationship ushering her into dream time? Why shouldn’t she want her mom there? I’m happy to “parent” her to sleep, as some put it. Yes, it’s exhausting. Yes, I miss the days of sleeping through the night (although I didn’t have that during pregnancy either). But there were days when I gladly gave up sleep to a good novel, movie, concert, or all-nighter. Why shouldn’t I do the same for her? Should I worry she will need me to sneak into her dorm room to nurse her to sleep then too?

It seems to me that the concept of sleep associations is only negative when a child needs us, as if reliance on others for something like sleep is a bad skill and a sign of weakness because it impedes my life. It makes me wonder if this was a big concern for early man. It’s laughable to imagine the scenarios. Of course not. It’s only in cultures like ours. I don’t criticize anyone who places their child in a crib, or even let’s them cry a tiny bit. Everyone has their own values. But I also want to be understood as someone who is choosing to do this for benefits I see, not simply because I couldn’t find a better solution.

So, I choose instead to see these moments as gifts. As extra time I get to be there for her, because I won’t always have that option. My daughter will sleep through the night unassisted, just like I did, eventually. I’m not in a hurry.

A little late, Mr. Duncan

In today’s Edweek, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying,

“Do you need to publish every single teacher’s rating in the paper? I don’t think you do,” he said. “There’s not much of an upside there, and there’s a tremendous downside for teachers. We’re at a time where morale is at a record low. … We need to be sort of strengthening teachers, and elevating and supporting them.”

Your vague “sort of” does not go unnoticed. There’s a reason why you are conveniently late with this and aggravatingly mute on what you mean by “sort of” strengthening, elevating, and supporting teachers. I presume that perhaps after supporting the onslaught for so long it’s hard to change the party line on a dime? Have you been hearing a louder buzz of disapproval and disgust this time? I hope so. I hope the sound is deafening.

You can’t have a policy of undermining teachers as a method for promoting your new education agenda and then realize too late that you can’t pull it off without them. I think there’s this idea that as long as teachers are desperate enough, or their ranks overwhelmed by newbies or alternatively-certified-non-traditional types (like me), they will remain complacent and unable to oppose what is done to their professions.

I am beginning to believe you are wrong.

No “Mock”ing this United Nations

So, I have often joked about how my classroom is like the 21st century version of the little red schoolhouse with the multi-grade level needs of my students, and how it’s like a mini United Nations because of all the countries and languages it often represents.

This year, as a class project that needed to touch on two themes, countries and careers, we learned about the United Nations. Together, they wrote and performed a speech as if they were ambassadors about an area of concern (deforestation and pollution). I used this video to inspire them and introduce the project.

There is not a lot of material available to the students that is at their reading level about the UN, so we studied the organization in two ways: first, we went together to the UN’s website for kids (which, frankly, needs a ton of work), and discussed and played one of the games there about disaster relief. The kids got to work in small groups discussing what resources they’d choose to purchase if they needed to protect their small island nation from a tsunami. We then discussed some of the different areas the UN works within and they chose the topic that interested them most and the career they’d like (for example, peace education and translator).

It was honesty done far too quickly and I would have liked to have made it a bigger part of my curriculum. The students I had this year are very aware of things like environmental issues; it seems to come up often as a connection or reference they make.

This all made me imagine both how terribly exciting and difficult it’d be to do a model United Nations curriculum with the kids. I can see them choosing and studying a country, learning to research, to collect relevant information, organize, present, and argue for ideas; all of which are higher-order thinking skills and would allow them to apply their gained knowledge, as outlined by the Common Core standards. It could even have the added benefit of creating teachable moments on conflict resolution, cultural awareness and respect which are often so needed in a class like mine.

Have any of you ever done a model UN with beginner ELLs, or elementary students? Or a similar meaty project? If so, what was it like?

Ms. D. Mac (@teachdmac):

How inspiring and unexpected, but it is the Lonestar State after all!

Originally posted on From the Desk of Mr. Foteah:

Deep in the heart of Texas, it seems the delicious taste of a people’s revolution is hanging in the air. Indeed, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott is firing salvos against testing that someday might earn him the distinction of being, “The Scott Heard ‘Round the World.”

His army is responding. According to the Washington Post, “more than 100 districts” have passed a resolution condemning an “over reliance” on standardized testing.

It is wonderful to imagine what adults can accomplish when they put aside their selfish greed and instead, act in the best interests of students (who are our future, after all). Let’s hope Texas becomes a model for other states – including my own – on how to stand up and demand an end to the insanity of forcing students to take tests that are essentially meaningless. Let them be the model for demanding students have rich, meaningful learning experiences…

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Baby Benchmarks and Scantron Sheets

two months

Who will know her best? A test, or her teachers and parents?

She loves Elmo and Barney. She will waddle-run into the t.v. room if she hears them.

She bounces on her tippy toes, dancing to the theme song, and smiling at whoever is there with her.

She plays peek-a-boo, knows what her tongue and nose are, and loves to show you, whether you ask in English or Spanish.

She claps her hands, and if you try to take her from my arms after I get home from work, –watch out!– she will slap you.

My daughter is nearly 11 months old and already brimming with so much more personality than I had previously thought possible. I don’t have younger siblings and didn’t grow up around babies, so this is all really knew for me.

I had read all kinds of books while I was pregnant, learning about brain development, language learning, milestones and stages—not because I planned on pushing her to achieve any of those things, but simply out of curiosity and a love of non-fiction books I can read with a purpose.

But none of those books taught me about how silly a 10-month-old could be. They didn’t tell me I’d get glimpses of her personality and what it would be like even at 4 months. It didn’t tell me how eager she’d be to do tummy time or practice walking by cruising, even before she had mastered crawling!

These books and research couldn’t even attempt to predict who my daughter is or, now, who she will be. They can’t tell me her strengths and weaknesses. Her loves. That she would hate the consistency of puréed string beans, love sweet potatoes, or insist always on cuddling as soon as I get home.

So when an “expert” thinks they can prescribe the singular method for teaching her, or try to persuade me to believe that one test will determine her intelligence or predict her potential, you will have to excuse me as I roll my eyes. I think they’ve read too many books and don’t know enough children.

I will feel the same way if she chooses to become a teacher and someone tries to assess her in the same paltry manner.

What about the “bad” teachers?

Recently, a reader made a comment here raising a very common concern that is out there in the public:

That all said, everyone who has been to school or worked in a school knows very well that there are teachers who do little more than draw a check or worse. When my wife taught there was a teacher who yelled at her students so loud that my wife had to close her room’s windows and the neighbors complained of the noise. Then the was the teacher who got his kicks by tripping 2nd graders. I’m sure that you can add your examples.

What of the students they teach? What of the teachers, like you, who put their all into their job and whose efforts and profession are demeaned by these teachers? Can we say that it is too hard to figure it out who is doing a good job and who isn’t so we shouldn’t try thus leaving them in the classroom?

He goes on to point out the benefits of having teacher evaluations being much more cohered now than before and the need this is addressing while acknowledging that current methods leave much to be desired.

It was such a substantive comment and raises the issue in a way that really invites engagement, that I wanted to give it a more thoughtful reply. To me, this gets at a much bigger, more essential question — how will we develop the teaching profession into one that is much more widely reflective and where teachers are given constant, genuine opportunities to evolve, grow, learn, share, and improve? How should weak teachers be defined and their needs addressed, even if that includes being told the profession may not be for them (sometimes even after a MA degree has been earned)?

A lot of what will define your approach to this depends on your philosophy of education and learning. If you see being a “learned” person as knowing a static set of specific skills, then you might prefer a “give them a test a year and if they don’t pass, get rid of them” approach. However, if you see education— and elementary schools in particular— as the place that shapes how a person learns to learn, and develops as an individual with their own moral identity, are exposed to different ideas and taught to analyze them critically before passing judgment (ironically), and you see it teaching a specific skill set that can’t ever be static—unless we still want children learning to write with a quill and not learning how to type—then you probably see how a standardized test, developed by a for-profit vendor who doesn’t know the child or what their educational needs or goals were for the year (which is always in addition to whatever is defined as needed for the grade), is an absurd way to assess a student or their teacher.

So, how do we do it then? How do we define, determine, and even weed out bad teachers? While there are those who spend their days researching, writing, and speaking on this question, I do feel that teachers who specialize in subgroups like ELLs and Special Education have a particularly important role to play in this conversation, which is why I’d like to address it, and welcome more teachers to do the same. Empirical evidence is relevant here.

Assessment That Doesn’t Just Determine but Encourages Growth

Well, I think the process and needs are much more complicated than, for example, relying even a little bit on statewide standardized tests. You can’t analyze and assess a teacher in a vacuum. No teacher is an island. A teacher’s skills and success are not simply defined by her own actions. It’s rare that I hear an elementary teacher say she/he creates her own curriculum. At least in NYC, I almost never hear it. In fact, the only time I have ever heard it was this week from a teacher at a small, progressive private school. Teachers are typically not deciding what math program they use, if the approach is textbook or project-based, or what pacing to use (ie., how quickly to transition between the units of study), etc. These are things decided on at much higher levels than even principals, usually. I don’t necessarily find this problematic, per se, but it is an element that shouldn’t be ignored when determining a teacher’s strengths: would she teach differently if she were planning the curriculum?

There are many other factors that feed into creating a teacher; what college program did she have? What pre-service experience was he given? Was he assigned to a great veteran teacher or a mediocre one? Is he teaching the grade that best suits his personality? The list is really immense, but I want to address one that is most directly related to using one annual test to assess a teacher: his students.

What Do You Teach?

I have heard principals say that when they interview a job candidate, they hope the reply will be “students”, not simply, “science”. This means they want to know if you’re going to be attuned to the unique strengths and needs of your students and if your teaching is going to reflect that, or do you plan out how you will teach based solely on standards. This is where teaching becomes much more nuanced and challenging, because a teacher might think to herself, “Most of my students are still not grasping addition but the grade standards require they know multiplication by now, and they will need to divide double-digit dividends by single-digit divisors for next month, and if I go deeper into addition, taking time from those two areas, then they may not be ready for the state test in June.” She may want to teach to those children’s needs, but ultimately if she wants to be in line with the curriculum and state standards, etc., she will need to move on. So, like it or not, she is not just responsible for meeting the needs of the children in front of her. (Yes, she can teach some of this through small group instruction, but that would be redundant if all the children needed the extra instruction time.)

And then what about students who are English language learners, or require special education services, or who fit in both those subgroups? What about students who come to you in fourth or ninth grade and haven’t been to school since first grade in their country? These are just the largest, most common variables. There are many more that include home life, personality, success in previous grades, cultural values, illness and related absenteeism, etc. (and multiply this by 30+ per classroom).

We aren’t just teaching a static skill set to a waiting, sponge-like crowd.

Why must ESL and Special Ed teachers be at the heart of this discussion?

Since we teach subgroups which might be a minority in some places, we are often a second thought when it comes to curriculum planning for a grade or when those in power are determining how to assess teachers. But it is exactly because our experiences are often the exception to the rule that we should be part of defining it.

Take this scenario: You teach at a school where about 40% of the population are ELLs, about a third of whom are receiving special education services and 10% are SIFE (students with at least two years of interrupted formal education). Your school has to determine the grade-wide priorities, goals, curriculum and purchase materials that meet the needs of the majority. Your class is specialized in comparison because you teach a transitional bilingual 6th grade where about 5 of your students only went to school up to third grade before coming to you. You think two of your newcomers may have learning disabilities but they cannot be assessed because they are too new. If you are not included in the curriculum planning, have no co-teacher in your grade, and there is only a literacy or math coach at your school (if you are lucky), then it is solely on you to seek out supports that other teachers have readily available to them. So, I should also mention there is scant research addressing things such as teaching beginner ELLs how to read in their new language when they can’t read in their first, and there are no courses that I know of that you could take to learn how to address the needs of SIFE students.

So, should your experience be measured and valued in identical ways to the others? Are your needs being sufficiently met and should that be entirely on your shoulders? Your students who have been in the country for exactly one year (and not necessarily one whole school year, mind you) will be taking the ELA test. Should those scores be used to assess you at all? What would you need and what would you want others to use to assess your students’ progress and your own?

Find me an algorithm that can account for all that and I will shush. This is why these teachers should be a central part of the discussion. The percentage of ELLs in our classrooms are only increasing (and please don’t misinterpret that as a complaint, it isn’t).

So, what then?

In my opinion, given the complexity of teaching, assessing teaching ought to be informed and holistic. In NYC, the Danielson Framework being piloted is definitely a comprehensive resource because of the many elements it involves and its emphasis on improving teachers, but even Ms. Danielson herself has commented that how her Framework is applied is important as well (I am inferring here a little).

So, this is an area of concern for me: not just what we use to assess teachers, but the manner in which we do it, and what epistemology informs the approach. If we are after a true understanding of the problem, we need evidence and while there appears to be a lot of conflicting research on the best ways to address teacher evaluation, what’s missing, in my opinion, is teachers themselves engaging in research; not simply as subjects but researchers themselves. How can we expect to teach higher-order thinking and problem solving if we aren’t encouraged and allowed to do it ourselves for the improvement of our profession?

The underlying bias we need to upend is this misconception out there I mentioned earlier that elementary schools teach (or should) teach static skills, but this is no longer true. With an increased emphasis on academic rigor and higher-order thinking skills, elementary school is no longer your grandma’s grammar school. It’s not even mine. (This fact reinforces for me the importance of tenure, but that is for another post).

This kind of teaching requires increased intellectual capacity and rigor within the teaching staff itself. Much of this already exists untapped. In my experience, there are many teachers who would even volunteer to share their expert knowledge in different areas, and mentor new and veteran teachers to improve the practice and culture of teaching.

I recently watched this TED video examining a weakness in math education: simple problems that require applying a memorized formula to answer them. His analysis is itself a metaphor for all teaching but also for this conversation on teaching.

So my suggestion? Involve teachers. Place the values of rigor and the responsibilities of evaluation onto teachers themselves (not alone but in conjunction with others). Stop pretending this is a simple problem.

This is academia, is it not?

Ms. D. Mac (@teachdmac):

Here is my colleague’s reply to my letter.

Originally posted on From the Desk of Mr. Foteah:

This is my response to the letter I recently received from a colleague, with whom I am exchanging letters on various education-related issues. The original text of her letter can be found on her blog.

Dear Donna,

Long time, no write! I was very happy to read your letter and look forward to using this space to debunking the myth of data that has been perpetrated upon teachers.

There are two types of data.

You have data, which, when properly interpreted and used, encourages individualized, relevant, and urgent teaching. This is the kind of data we should all – reformers, traditionalists, principals, and parents – embrace. Here, “data” is a term that ought to frighten us on the scale of words like “puppy,” “kitten,” and “rainbow.”

The other type of data has become so important, and its use so encouraged, that its status can only be expressed thusly:…

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Negative Comments = Teachable Moments

While I believe in the importance of debate and the discovery of understanding and hidden truths in disagreement, I believe two things are often required: civility and facts. Should a person comment on this blog without meeting those requirements, I don’t see the value in publicizing their comment.

Unless, of course, it provides me with a teachable moment.

I love the logic that public school teachers constantly apply:

-There is no objective way to judge our performance
-Ergo, give us 100k salaries and iron-clad job security and unsustainable benefits!

You know who decides the value you add? The tax payers who pay your salary. It’s that whole “price discovery” thing – the value of a service is exactly equal to what the provider and recipient agree it is.

When I decide that my lawyer or doctor is charging too much or providing inadequate service, you know what I do? I find another one. It’s just that easy. There’s no “Rubber Room” that they sit in and still receive payment while the negotiations with the union goes through. You serve the taxpayers, they do NOT serve you – we’re not your peasants, and we don’t owe you any tithes.

Before I reply, I want to make clear that I do not blame your teachers for your lack of reading or critical thinking skills. You would have failed the ELA for providing no evidence of your claims and for not using any details in the article above.

With that said, I will address your points very simply:
Tax payers actually don’t determine my worth, given that, here, the term worth is being used to refer to as the quality of my teaching, and not my salary. Polysemous words are also an area of difficulty for ELLs. The ability to decode the context of a text, a key part of understanding such words is a skill that must be explicitly taught.

Secondly, a close reading of my piece will show no mention of my opposition to the existence of an “objective” way to assess teachers. In fact, I think I make pretty clear one main idea on this, that standardized tests and value-added assessments, specifically, are not only not objective but unscientific, inaccurate and missing the point. Inferencing and drawing conclusions from main ideas and details are an area where many students, not just ELLs, also struggle. I speak more to the question of teacher evaluations in a coming post.

Also, salary is not even spoken of metaphorically in my post, but your use of you as a peasant will cost you some points for being a nonsensical metaphor. A more apropos metaphor would be for you to treat teachers as your serfs, since you “pay their salary”, as a landlord did in medieval times. Oh, wait, your tone does that for you.

So, you see, while you may come across as disagreeing with me, a careful reading of my text would show you that you, too, would benefit from a different approach to education, as described briefly in the piece published after this one.

Finally, there is also no longer a rubber room in NYC. Wonderful, I think.

Now, just as with teachable moments with students, we will move on. But first, a final lesson: I think all who care about this topic are tired of illogical, nasty comments that not only miss the point but don’t really raise anything new, well thought out, or of much value. If only we could apply “accountable talk” to the public.