Lessons from behind the scenes of ESL

ELL students are a unique challenge for many teachers. The older the student, the bigger the challenge it seems. Young students pick up a new language quickly the more they are immersed in the language. As many of their peers are also learning and experimenting with language and meaning, the have the opportunity to practice in a safe and differentiated environment.  When you reach high school, content is key and process is focused. There isn’t time for students to learn a language and curriculum.

The question then becomes how to best support those students. When I first started in my role this year, I searched for the magic solution to support my students and my colleagues. After many frustrations, I realized the answer isn’t so simple.

Key factors to student success seem to be:

  • Instructional organization
    • Not just small class sizes or pullout groups but a multi-faceted and flexible collaborative environment tailored to the different needs of the individuals.
  • Teacher Knowledge
    • Teachers don’t have all the answers but they need to be open to learning and trying new things. They also need to be open to being wrong. Solutions are rarely straight forward and I have yet to see the same strategies work for multiple students.
  • Patience
    • Research shows that students first need to develop the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills that lead to socialization before they can develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. It is also found that students take 5-7 years to develop these skills and can often appear to be “stuck” in different phases of their development.
  • Relationships
    • Students need to know that you care, that you understand, and they need to know they can trust you. This MUST come before they are willing to take the risk of learning a new language.

So what do we do? Well, there is no magic answer. This year I developed a pyramid of interventions and strategies for my colleagues to help support them with this journey. I offer my colleagues support and mini-workshops on using the benchmarks, and I read – A LOT! Still, I do not have all the answers. The ESL gurus (such as Larry Ferlazzo) are always learning and growing in their practice. In one of his latest posts, he writes “We’ll see for how long it’s effective, but it certainly can’t hurt….”

Patience, always learning, trying new things, and tenacity are my super secret tips I can share with you for now. Context is key and adaptability is a necessity.

How do you support ELL students in your classroom?

Numeracy: a foundation to learning

Lately, I’ve had a chance to reflect on numeracy as I have been sorting my resources from my studies, teaching and classroom support. I strongly believe that numeracy is an encompassing foundation to learning, much like literacy. Numeracy goes beyond the basics of arithmetic and brings in the ability to acquire, manage, create, connect information that allows one to communicate understanding. Numeracy looks at the multi-facets of knowledge: Facts, Concepts, and Procedures. This brings in the skills and competencies that we, as teachers in Alberta, are mandated to instruct.

With the proper resources, creativity, and focus on inquiry, students are given the opportunity to find value in their learning and apply it to their everyday lives. Students are presented with information that needs to be interpreted and used to help them make sense of the world around them. Their need for numeracy skills evolves over time and build throughout their academic careers.

What does numeracy mean to you?

What does it mean to fail?

Lately, I have been asking myself what it means to fail. Have I failed my students if they struggle in class? Have I failed them if they aren’t interested in my class? Have I failed them if they aren’t prepared to deal with the “real world”?

Our school’s philosophy for our students is to “get real world ready, ” but lately I have been asking myself what that means in relation to education and inclusion. So many think your high school diploma is your mark of success. Our success as educators is directly tied to their ability to achieve a standard set by the government.

If that is the measure we are going to choose, then I would like to introduce myself as a failure. I do not have a high school diploma. I am okay with that. I figured out my own path to get into university and did better than if I had been forced to take the class I was missing from my graduation requirements.

Better yet, I was also required to withdraw from university. Yep! I learned a lot from that experience, however. I learned the kinds of classes I was suited to best learn from, how to study, and more importantly when to admit it wasn’t something I was good at. The amount of Ws on my transcript will prove that I am definitely not successful at memorizing theory but when given the opportunity to make something tangible, I excelled.

Fast forward to now. I am not the best teacher in the world, but I’m a great teacher because I am aware of my strengths but more importantly my weaknesses. I can teach my kids how to recognize and build off theirs but there comes the point I am forced to face the fact that despite ability, goal, and strengths of students sometimes as professionals, teachers forget that there are more options than a traditional path to a high school diploma to get them where they need to go.

Real world ready for me involved learning to fail, learning to figure out a solution and most importantly, learning to accept who I am and what I am capable of doing. A lesson I have learned over again this year. I have high expectations of myself. Rarely have I met them this year.

Others may see my achievements this year as success, growth, and perseverance. I see them a stack of “fails” that I have built off of to find a solution that is currently working – maybe not the way I intended when I set my goal/expectation.

I challenge my colleagues to look at a path that works for students, that celebrates them as learners and gives them the tools they need to see success at their own level, not if they can graduate or not. If they find success their own way, let’s build around that. Not 3 years of learning and a piece of paper but a way that gives them the opportunity to become real world ready. Be it more than 3 years, courses and opportunities outside of school, the ability to fail, repeat and learn, or even just the opportunity to say “this isn’t for me, how can I show my knowledge in a way that will prove my understanding?”

“Where’s your teacher?” On the floor with her students!

Teaching both High School and Elementary in the same day opens your eyes to a lot of things. Teaching in your own room and teaching in a room you share with others opens your eyes even more.

My classrooms have always had more of a home-like vibe to them. There are comfy armchairs, couches, pillows and different types of tables. There is a choice for every student. Students quickly figure out what works best for them and become comfortable where they are. The classroom gets split into zones of learning – those working through something hands-on, those working on basic skills, those working with others, and those who just need a bit of quiet or independent space to work. It is a busy place but everyone finds their place.

I personally don’t have a desk. I hated my desk in my office and got rid of it to replace it with a large table and a couch so I can move based on my needs. I also generally end up in walking around the school with my phone or iPad (or sometimes my computer) to find a space that works for me at that time. What this means is my kids and I often end up sitting on the floor, on the couch or sometimes walking around the hall together when I have an EA to supervise the rest of the happenings in the class.

When I had my own homeroom/learning community, my students had slippers they could put on in case they didn’t want to wear shoes. They had blankets they could wrap up in to keep them warm and focused. Sometimes they would sit under tables or on tables (against the wall) to give them a place to focus that suited their needs. I simply met them where they were.

This year my high school kids moved into a room with desks because we needed more space with almost 30 of us. That feeling of comfort and choice is gone. I no longer feel like I have the same connection with them because I am always standing next to their desks.

My elementary kids no longer have any cozy furniture either because my classroom is being shared with another class and we were borrowing our furniture from another teacher. We still have zones in our classroom but we no longer have the same vibe. The learning is more formal. I miss it and they do too. Time to get back at least a little bit of comfort in the room.

Finding my way

A lot has changed for me this year. I used to blog to sort my thoughts out, to share my ideas, to use this space for documenting my professional growth. This year, I don’t feel the same as I used to.

I am no longer the new teacher. I am no longer inexperienced. Most importantly, I am in a very different role.  That doesn’t mean that my need to sort out my thoughts or documenting my personal growth isn’t the same anymore, it has just shifted to a new form. I see my growth through the work I accomplish. I sort out my thoughts through conversation with staff members I would never have sought out previously.  Most importantly, the majority of my day revolves around confidential information so I don’t have the luxury of necessarily publishing all of my thoughts.

As I shift my perspective and look back, this is still a very valuable tool for myself, however, it has simply become less visible to the public the growth I make.

First couple days of school – reflection

This week was a very new experience for me. I am only teaching two classes – my ESL class and my English class for Grade 5; however, I am busier than I was last year. My new role has me walking many kilometers a day and thinking about things on a different level than before. I am mentally exhausted but at the same time, I am excited. I see teachers who are excited about making new lessons and activities to engage their students and fit the competencies handed down from a ministerial order now three years ago.

I also moved into a new house. I don’t love the layout or certain things about it, however, every time I get to add something new, change something or by painting something, I make it my space. One of our teachers was locked out of the school this year and had her students set up her classroom. The students decorated the room and moved things around to make it their classroom. She was so excited to share and express the change in their attitudes and the ownership the students showed. I am so excited to see how this class grows as a learning community, and I am excited to see how this teacher fosters their voice.

This is just one of the examples that I saw this week of things that made me happy to take on this job.  Seeing the circles that teacher were holding with their students, seeing our teachers look for exciting ways to make connections with their students and their curriculum and having the opportunity to talk to our all our teachers, I am excited for this year and very proud to be a part of the growth our school is going through this year.

Getting feedback from your students on your practice as a teacher

I have been meaning to post this for a while but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to summarize my experience for getting feedback on my own practice. I made myself vulnerable to my students. I was worried at first, not what their answers were but if I had missed something that I should have addressed earlier in the year. Alas, other than a student who was having a bad day with their friends, I was impressed with their answers and how much thought went into a lot of the answers.  When I proposed the idea to my students, they were hesitant at first. I explained that to them that it is their chance to give me a report card. They fell in love with the idea. Some took it as an opportunity to complain about things outside of my control, others gave some very valuable feedback. There were also a few “I like grade 5” and “I don’t like writing” type comments but it was great for me to see this range. None of them seemed to care that it was anonymous but I chose to let them say who it was from if they wanted to or if they wanted to talk to me about it. No one wanted to talk to me but a number wrote their name in the box anyways.

The idea came as I was talking to my mom about the course she teaches at the local university, she mentioned her course evaluations and how even though it comes at the end of the year, she loves them. I decided it was time that I gave my students my own course evaluation. I decided to do so digitally because paper is not my friend. The great thing about Google Forms is that it will put the answers into a spreadsheet for you if you want, show all answers to each question, or you can see each individual response. It can be anonymous or you can also require them to be signed in and log their username. I chose anonymous to get some very honest feedback – I was feeling brave.

Here is a link to a copy of the form I used if you’d like to see the questions.

The themes I pulled from their questions didn’t actually surprise me that much because a lot of it are my own personal beliefs about education and how I felt as a student.

The loved the following:

  • Projects (of all sorts)!!! (this came up with very specific examples)
  • Field Trips that related to their learning but also the ones that were just fun!
  • Hands on and building activities
  • Modeling and being allowed to then go and try it
  • Multiple rounds of feedback not only from their teacher but also their peers
  • Having choice in how they showed their knowledge
  • Variety of seating choices in a “soft” classroom.

The would have liked to see:

  • More nature stuff
  • More focus on Skills and Competencies (This one surprised me but made me happy because I wasn’t very explicit with this as I felt I was overwhelming them at times – apparently not so.)
  • More chance to co-create criteria.
  • More mixing of the subjects (cross-curricular projects, YES please!)

Some things they learned about themselves this year:

  • “I learned that every time I try and don’t give up I feel like I want to do it again.”
  • “That working hard will make feel you accomplished something and you will earn something good if you really really worked hard.”
  • “I learned that if i put a lot effort into it and i try to to do good i do good.”
  • “That I am a more you tell me what to do then I will understand better. That is what I figure.”
  • “i usually need music because it helps me concentrate.(better)”
  • “need activity”

What they had to say about me or advice for me for next year:

  • “To always have comfy chairs. But she is not going to be teaching so go teach other teachers. Come to my class!!!”
  • “shes pretty good and knows her stuff”
  • “get a class pet” (sorry, buddy! I’ll get a fish for my office and you can visit)
  • “Make all the work in to projects.”
  • “Music helps people”
  • “This year was really fun. I will miss you Miss.A.”
  • “i wish I could get the same teacher again”
  • “she was tough on me but I need it”
  • “more hugs” (admittedly, I  am not a touchy feely person)
  • “One of the best school years of my life and i learned so much and i had so much fun learning because we had fun activities to help us learn like amazing race and i had an awesome teacher who had things like yoga balls, comfy chairs, couch. thanks”

I am really glad I did this. I was nervous at first but it reallyI’d like to do smaller scale ones each reporting period and at the beginning of the year to really get to know the things my students are thinking so I can make changes along the way.

Would you be willing to let your students give you feedback? How do you think they would feel about your class? Have you ever done so? I’d love to hear!