What about English Language Learners?

*dusts cobwebs*

Jeez Louise. I swear, I didn’t forget about this blog. Things have just been incredibly hectic over here… which, I mean, for any fellow teachers reading this blog, you already know. I don’t have to tell you what January is like.

So I’ll begin with some good news: Since EdCamp, I’ve been to more good PD! Shocking, I know. I’ve also been to some lame PD. But you can’t win ’em all, and the fact that I’m going to a Writing PD with Penny Kittle (@pennykittle) next month pretty much means that my PD score for the 2012-2013 year is still chalking up to more good than bad. By the way, Edmonton folks, you really want to register for that PD! Then we can hang out and be nerdy together!

Yesterday, I attended a webinar with Dr. Deborah Short (one of the creators of the SIOP educational model) on how to support literacy with English Language Learners (ELLs), and although I found some things about the layout of the PD to be a little confusing or disjointed, I definitely enjoyed thinking about various strategies I could use in my own classroom. I have to say that although it is only January and although we still have half a year left in which I can start using these strategies, I’m already excited about beginning a new school year with these strategies and routines firmly in place from the get-go.

On a semi-related note, can we take a moment to talk about the fact that it is super lame when you end up going to really good PD in April or May? There’s hardly any time left! I guess it gives you a lot of extra prep time to get it ready for September.

Anyway, there were a lot of cool PD sessions available yesterday that I could have attended (like watercolour painting at one of our local botanical conservatories), but since literacy is my passion, I pretty much saw no other option but the one I went to. Besides, it certainly was a PD that would be immediately relevant in my teaching, because at my school, we have a lot of ELLs.

Working with ELLs is not something I’m unfamiliar with. In my first year of teaching, I ended up doing a short temporary contract at a junior high wherein I was actually teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to some grade nines. Then, at the high school where I taught for the following two years, I found myself teaching many ELLs as well. Being an “academically focused” school, the demographics of that particular student body skewed toward Asian. Despite being skilled mathematicians, some of my students there struggled to form coherent sentences. I have distinct memories of reading passages from some student work aloud just to try to make sense of it, then laughing at the hopelessness of the situation.

This year, I find myself in a junior high school whose student population comprises something like 80-85% ELLs and only 15-20% native English speakers. Although I’ve dealt with ELL support before, I never had to face the challenges I face at this new school. Trying to figure out ways to reach all the kids in an effective way while still providing adequate challenges for my Pre-AP kids has been extremely trying at times. When it works, things are really exciting, but when I find myself at the occasional crossroads where twenty-two of my kids are good to go and only one kid finds himself stuck and unable to continue with the task I’ve presented, I feel lost, anxious, and to be frank, rather weary. It is tiring trying to keep up with all the different levels of language learning happening in my classroom. I have ELLs who speak better English than some high school students I know. I have ELLs who read, write, and converse fluently, but sometimes get stumped on trickier, more nuanced words/concepts like “reluctant” or “controversy.” I have ELLs who are still in such a formative stage of their language acquisition that they cannot tell me why they are late to class. How do we plan for all these young people? And how can we support the ELLs who are newest to English, who arguably need us most (but who, let’s face it, are often ignored in favour of keeping the others “on schedule”)?

First of all, we need to think like an ELL. I watched a webinar a few months ago that opened with an exercise that I’ll not soon forget. The speaker told us that she was going to show us an image. We could think whatever we wanted about it. Then we’d have to describe it. Okay, simple enough. This is basically what came up on the screen:

Easy enough, right? “Where’s the challenge in this?” I wondered.

“Now, here’s the catch,” the speaker said, “When you describe this object, you cannot use any words that contain the letter N.”

Huh. Let’s think about that. You can’t say line. You can’t say point. You can’t say triangle. You can’t say intersect. You certainly can’t say polygon. Think about what you would say! Personally, I didn’t get much farther than “three-sided shape,” and even though I think that accurately describes a triangle, you can imagine that it would be a heck of a lot easier to visualize it if I could use words like line and point. This brain-crunching process that I experienced in this short exercise was meant to acquaint me with what it’s like to be an ELL. You know what that stupid thing is. You have words you want to use, but you can’t use those ones. You are limited to only a few other words that would never really be your first choice and you really have to ponder for a while before you can spit out your thoughts.

What I liked about the session with Deb yesterday is that she didn’t just theorize about teaching ELLs. She presented us with some concrete ideas and strategies that we could carry forward and implement immediately in our teaching, regardless of the subject being taught. There were definitely a bunch of strategies she discussed that are already in place in my classroom, but there were other ideas that, although being pretty simple and intuitive, I’d never really thought much about before! More importantly, perhaps, some of the things she talked about provoked further thought processes about pedagogy and best practices for me. When my brain gets all tickly like that during PD, it’s almost like I can feel the potential growth taking root. That might be really nerdy to say, but hey, I love my job. Nerding out over literacy is what I do.

I took pretty detailed notes during this session — probably much to the chagrin of my tablemates who had to endure the irritating sound of my nails clicking away incessantly on my keyboard — and now I’m very excited to share the document with you! In my typically-OCD manner, I got a little cray-cray over the formatting of this document; I’m hoping that you find it to be a reasonably well-structured resource that you can take and peruse for ideas and perhaps reshare with your teaching friends! You’ll notice, now and again, that there are italicized comments written in violet. Those are my own personal, random thoughts about teaching and pedagogy that I inserted along the way. 🙂 Enjoy!

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about my February PD session with Penny  Kittle (Squee!), my experiences using learning centers in a high school English class, and a general reflection about some of the emotional challenges I’ve faced in this profession.

Happy weekend!


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