E is for English Language Learners

Yare

For most of my career, I have taught in independent schools. At my previous school, being an independent school teacher meant that I didn’t have English language learners in my classroom. In the eight years I taught at my previous school, I had one student who was learning English when she entered my classroom. Unfortunately for her, we were in the midst of studying Romeo and Juliet. She spent hours and and hours every day learning English and used an electronic translator in class (I didn’t mind). By the time she graduated, she spoke and wrote well and was inducted in the National Honor Society. We are still in touch.

I know learning English was hard for her, but she was dedicated, and she had been admitted to the school with the condition that the school not be responsible for helping her learn English—she needed to gain proficiency and perform at the level of the other students. It was harsh. I didn’t agree with it, and I was inclined to help her along as much as I could as well as evaluate her writing with the thought in mind that she was still learning the language. And let’s face it—English is a tough language to learn.

My current school has many international boarding students from all over the world. We have English classes for English language learners. These classes help students learn conversational and written English and include high-interest/low-level reading that is accessible and engaging. These students typically do well and move into regular English classes within a year or two.

I have noticed several things about teaching international students: 1) they typically work very hard to achieve the same results as their native-speaking peers; 2) they are often quiet in class discussion, leading to the familiar refrain on progress reports—”Student X needs to participate more in class discussion”; 3) they have difficulty with verbs, agreement, and prepositions; 4) they sometimes struggle with directions.

I am not sure there is anything you can do about the first issue. There is no way around the fact that learning in a second (or third, and so on) language is more difficult. However, there are some things you can do that will make it easier.

One tip I learned from the ELL teachers at my school is to give an ELL student a question I want them to answer in class the next day at the end of a class period. It gives them time to process and think so that they can participate. Often, these students have much to say, but they are translating and thinking, and by the time they want to contribute, we have moved on to the next topic. Another way to give ELL students time to think is to engage the whole class in a Socratic seminar and give all students the questions in advance. The international students still have trouble jumping into these discussions at times, but they are prepared with written comments and often do better in these kinds of discussions than in typical class discussions, when they don’t know the questions in advance. Another great way to engage these students in discussion is to leverage technology. If your school has a learning management system or online course with discussion forums, you can ask them questions online, and allow them to respond online, which gives them time to process and think about a response to the question.

Language issues in writing are often best dealt with on and individual basis. You can point students in the direction of resources. If a learning management system allows you to individually assign practice assignments, you can try that as well, but one of the best tools for working on writing issues of any stripe is writing workshop. The more students are exposed to models of writing and work through drafts, they better they will write.

Struggling with directions is a problem certainly not limited to English language learners, but I have noticed they sometimes are not sure what they are being asked to do. You can help by making directions as explicit as possible (clear, no ambiguous language, direct vocabulary). It also helps to hear directions aloud and see them in print. It helps to allow students to ask questions. English language learners sometimes hesitate to ask questions either because of cultural reasons or because they don’t want to look like they don’t understand. Some cultures believe it is insulting to ask teachers questions because it insinuates the teacher didn’t explain well enough. Students from these cultures should be encouraged not to look at asking questions in this way, but it can still be difficult for them to overcome. They sometimes feel more comfortable asking questions in private, so making time to meet with students (office hours, help sessions, email) can go a long way toward helping students feel more comfortable asking questions.

I don’t have all the answers, especially given my limited experience with English language learners in my classroom. What tips would you add? What issues do you see arise?

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New Opportunities

'The Long and Winding Road', United States, New York, Catskill Mountains, Kaaterskil Valley

I am excited to announce the next chapter in my life. I will not be returning to my present school after this current year, and I am actively searching for opportunities elsewhere. I have a strong background in technology integration and English and am seeking opportunities in either or both areas. One of the things I can bring to a school looking for a technology integration specialist (or similar position) is my patience and ability to work with teachers at all levels of proficiency with and investment in integrating technology. I do first-tier troubleshooting with a variety of devices, also, and I am willing to pursue advanced training in order to meet a school’s needs. I keep abreast of trends in educational technology and can help teachers use technology to make their jobs easier and engage their students. My background as a classroom teacher enables me to help teachers integrate technology in thoughtful ways. You can see a self-directed course I designed for my colleagues who wished to learn how to create websites and podcasts here. You can also see my portfolio from my instructional technology masters program here.

As an English teacher, I bring fourteen years of experience teaching students at every level and grade from 6th to 12th. I have a great deal of experience with 9th grade, American literature, and British literature. I have designed a popular elective course based on the hero’s journey. I am active in both the National Council of Teachers of English and the Georgia Council of Teachers of English. I serve on the Georgia Council of Teachers of English’s executive board as SLATE representative. I have presented at conferences hosted by both organizations, and I have also presented at the Georgia Independent School Association’s conference several times. You can see my reflections and ideas in archives of this blog, which span over six years.

Another component I bring to a school is a strong background in backward design as described by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design. Inspired by this book, I created the UbD Educators wiki, which now has well over 300 members from all over the world.

I am looking for a school with a strong, collegial atmosphere, where the faculty lounge is a place where teachers brainstorm and exchange ideas. I am looking for a school that has a vision regarding its plans for technology and has expectations that teachers will integrate technology and offers support for teachers wishing to integrate technology both through encouragement and professional development. I am looking for a school that values professional learning and encourages teachers to blog, use Twitter, and otherwise network to connect with both the community and their peers. I am looking for a school that values professional memberships and conferences and is willing to send me to conferences so that I can continue to present my learning to others and can continue to learn from my peers both in English and in technology.

If you feel that these qualities interest you, or if you are looking for someone like me, please take a look at my online resume and feel free to request a PDF copy with my contact information and references.

Update, 2/15: I should mention that my family is willing to relocate for the right position. My two younger children are on the autism spectrum, and the school system in the area where I teach will need to have a strong special education system. Thus far, they have received a great education, and I would want that to continue.

Creative Commons License photo credit: WanderingtheWorld (www.LostManProject.com)

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Stuff for English Teachers

I recently started using StumbleUpon (here’s my profile) in my Firefox browser to discover new sites, and I feel stupid for not trying it before now. Poking around the Internet for the last week or so, I have “stumbled” upon some good sites (and found some on my own):

  • Read Print has online books. I like the Shakespeare section. I did notice a few typos on the site (Hamnet Shakespeare died in 1596, not 1896), but the articles were interesting.
  • I’ve probably mentioned DailyLit before, but it merits mention alongside Read Print. I don’t think I could have finished Moby Dick if not for DailyLit. I am currently reading Emma. All of us have five minutes for a book each day.
  • Guide to Grammar and Writing has some interesting grammar activities; I found it via SMART’s English/Language Arts Resources.
  • NCTE Inbox is now a blog! I missed the inception when I let my NCTE membership lapse.
  • What Should I Read Next? looks like a great tool for teachers to recommend to students who are looking for books similar to ones they already like.
  • BookMooch enables users to swap books.  It’s free (except for postage).
  • Here’s a huge collection of writing resources.

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Teaching Homer’s Odyssey

For those of you looking for a few good resources for teaching Homer’s Odyssey, you might want to check out the following:

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Best Practices for Teaching Writing

I want to thank everyone who commented on my previous post, “Writing: Best Practices.” I said I would share my own thoughts, but wanted to hear what you all had to say first.

First of all, I am a firm believer in teaching students how to write using the process model. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve worked with who tried to turn in first drafts that had not only not been edited, but hadn’t even been outlined or planned first, and it always shows. Their writing tended to be disorganized and weak on development. I think, however, that we have to help students find a prewriting format that works for them. One student of mine never did prewriting until I showed him how to organize his papers using webbing. He mentioned offhand some time very much later that he found it very helpful and used it all the time. I utilize peer editing, and I have to give credit to the Reflective Teacher who comes up with great peer editing activities. I found great success with peer editing in my class last year.

Depending on the assignment, I like to try to book the computer lab so that we can write the essays in class. Conversations that happen between the students and me as I look over their writing are invaluable. They can catch it if they’re way off track early on. Also, if they are on the right track, they feel more confident continuing if I can tell them so. They can ask me questions about something they’re just having trouble with. I think writing in class is especially valuable if you are dealing with younger writers or weaker writers. I teach a writing seminar course, and last year, our class became quite close as we shared our writing and helped each other improve. It was a wonderful teaching experience.

One thing I am still working on is an effective way to deliver feedback. I would like to do more conferencing, but I also think having written feedback so that when the students walk away to do revisions and forget what we said (which happens to the best of us), they have written suggestions. I admit I usually write comments in cursive, which many of my students have trouble reading. It’s not that my handwriting is bad, but I am finding that my students are arriving at high school in increasing numbers without being able to read or write cursive. I suppose it’s going the way of the dinosaur, but it frustrates me that a mode of communication I have successfully used so often in the past is now becoming closed to me. One thing I do occasionally — not with each essay — is type comments and attach them to the essay. These comments are usually quite long — anywhere from a half a page to a page single-spaced. I’m a very fast typist, so sometimes these comments take me about as much time as handwriting about a paragraph’s worth of comments on a student essay.

One thing I have found extremely effective is to use models or pull samples from students’ own writing to share. In a recent class, my students who had read A Lesson Before Dying wrote persuasive essays about whether or not we should abolish the death penalty. I pulled example paragraphs from three student essays (with their permission, of course) using statistics and the Torah to develop arguments. I think it really helped the students to see what a really good paragraph written by one of their peers looks like. I showed the same paragraphs to another class with students who have more writing problems before they began their essays. It will be interesting to see what effect seeing the models beforehand has on the student writers. What I don’t do well and need to improve is saving examples like this from year to year so I have a repository of examples. Frankly, now that I have a SMART Board, I have no excuse for not saving these samples from year to year. There’s nothing like seeing a model to help a student realize how they can improve.

I like to ask students to reflect, which I admit I don’t do often enough. I think portfolios are valuable. Something I am trying this year is to allow students to revise one graded essay each nine weeks for a higher grade. I will ask them to attach a reflection to these pieces, although I haven’t yet determined what sorts of questions I will want them to answer for the reflection. I do think using guiding questions will be important.

Basically, I was just curious to see what others are or were doing. I knew I was getting good results based on what I was doing, so I wasn’t worried about my practices. I suppose I just wanted to collect some data. Thanks for sharing if you did, and if you didn’t, feel free to chime in.

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