Tag Archives: growth

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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EdCamp: a PD oasis in a desert of duds

BAM, consonance on D and S!

More importantly, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the strange creature that is professional development. I distinctly remember being a student teacher and looking so forward to my first PD experience. I thought, “Oh WOW am I ever ready to be professionally developed! This is going to be so great and.. developing! And.. professional!”

Fast forward a handful of years and that naïve enthusiasm has pretty much vanished like a bag of potato chips during PMS week.

PD is perhaps one of the biggest enigmas in my field of work. It’s called professional development and yet, when you go, you often leave feeling irritable and tired. You feel kind of like you’ve wasted your time. Like the stuff the people were presenting about was exactly the same stuff you heard about last year. And the year before that. Catch words/phrases like “21st-Century Learning,” and “differentiation,” and “inquiry” sort of get tossed about like the daily weather report. Everyone’s already heard about it but we’re going to talk about it anyway. Turn around, see someone you haven’t mentioned it to yet. Discuss ad nauseum. Feel developed yet?

Don’t get me wrong. Much of PD is like this but once in a while, you go to a session that restores your faith in good PD. I HAVE had worthwhile, enlightening, brilliant PD sessions. I would be remiss to write any kind of post about PD without mentioning Kelly Gallagher at least once. You might have already read my post about my first-ever (and so far, only) Twitter #engchat experience, but I joined in that day solely because he was facilitating the discussion(s). His books are on my wishlists and his website is a gem of a resource. If you teach English Language Arts/literacy, you definitely want to peruse that site. Other than Kelly’s PDs, I’ve attended some other great sessions on adolescent writers, film studies, teen cognitive development, differentiation, and assessment.

That said, I’ve definitely found myself in more bad PD than good, and have occasionally been embarrassed by my own “Oops I fell asleep” head bob. I use the desert analogy in my post title not simply for the alliterative delightfulness, but also because when we think about deserts, we think about… well, I think about camels. But generally, we think about thirst. And I thirst for good PD. I thirst for PD that is meaningful, worthwhile, relevant. PD that is real. PD that does what I think PD is supposed to do.

What I think PD is supposed to do is present something new. We keep saying, “Oh, let’s talk about differentiation in a new, exciting way!” but then we default to “What is differentiation?” and “What are learning styles?” and the same stuff we did last year. I’m not interested in talking about theoretical stuff anymore. I want something concrete. I want teaching ideas. I want cues. I want what Kelly Gallagher calls “ways in.” I want fresh perspectives that are coming directly from the front lines — from educators who, like me, face the joys/fears/excitement/self-loathing that comes with being in the classroom every day with young people, hoping to make a difference.

And there is a lot of PD that is led by people who are no longer actively working in a school setting. I don’t know how to feel about those sessions. And what I’m about to say may be more ignorant than anything else… But the truth is that when push comes to shove, and I’m faced with a choice of “Hear from someone who is teaching/working in schools TODAY” and “Hear from someone who has worked in a downtown office for five years,” I’m going to pick the former. Not because I think the second person has nothing to offer, but because I think teaching is one of those professions that evolves on a daily basis (and that strangely/paradoxically/maddeningly/[insertadverbhere] also never changes.. hmm).

I also think it’s somewhere between hysterically funny and horribly tragic that we’ll actually go to PDs on inquiry- or discovery-based learning and have a person LECTURE us for two hours straight. What? Did I miss something?

I’m lucky to have made friends and worked with some pretty fantastic professionals in my first real teaching job. The ladies in my department were (and still are) just utterly fabulous human beings, and I really learned to be more vocal about my work and to share my ideas because of my friendships with them. One day, one of my English Department colleagues, Erin, started talking about something called EdCamp. It’s supposed to be an “unconference” and is essentially PD that is organized and facilitated and attended by teachers. EdCamp is for people who want to talk about what they want to talk about. There are some driving concepts behind EdCamp: 1) EdCamp is generally free or low-cost. 2) EdCamp topics are decided THAT day by the people in attendance so that they can discuss what matters to them. 3) EdCamp strives to provide opportunities for people to ditch the theoretical nonsense and get to the practical application of teaching principles/ideologies in their classrooms. 4) EdCamp is collaborative and it is centered around professional sharing. 5) EdCamp is awesome.

Erin and some others assembled an EdCamp Edmonton organization team and put on the first EdCamp Edmonton last November. It was everything I hoped it would be. My best friend (French Immersion, 1ère année) even came with me to soak everything up. I invited my friend Megan to join in, too. Megan, by the by, has the greatest teacher Tumblr ever, and is a forward-thinking, ingenious, incredibly-well-dressed woman who I admired even when we were Ed students together. I continue to be fascinated by her ideas and vision and frankness about everything she does.

We were joined by a bunch of other wonderful, inspiring people, who helped to make EdCamp 1.0 a success (Click that link to check out our Google Doc from the day!), so I was looking forward to this year’s EdCamp with great zeal. And rightfully so.

Some highlights of this year’s EdCamp for me included meeting new people and finding inspiring Tweeps to follow, as well as seeing some familiar faces from last year. I was also super stoked to contribute to a wickedly amazing Google Doc that became yet another invaluable piece of PD documentation. I loved eating a predictably delicious lunch made with love by Erin’s parents. I felt enriched and challenged and hopeful while talking about Project/Problem-Based Learning, Poetry, Reading Comprehension and all things ELA, awesome websites for educational use, and current events in the classroom. We did a particularly fun activity towards the end of lunch hour that was named, “Things that Suck,” wherein some contentious educational topics were presented and we physically moved to place ourselves on a continuum of “for” or “against” and debate back and forth. We debated grades, technology, homework, and… something else. It was so. much. fun.

And throughout all of this, perhaps the one thing that was the BEST part of EdCamp was this: I felt, as I did at the last EdCamp, that I’m not alone in the way I feel about my job. Here you had a passionate group of educators who got together on a Saturday to discuss their craft, to bemoan the obstacles and policies that hinder us from doing what we’d like to do, and to celebrate the things we have been able to do. We were a group of people who see that rigorous, standardized testing is killing our kids (and us); who see that assessment practices need to change; and who realize that in the most paradoxical way, the best way we can teach is by stepping aside (sometimes) and giving our students the space they need so they can actually learn. I can’t tell you how amazing that felt. It makes me laugh to think that schools spend hundreds of dollars per teacher annually to send us to PD and yet, some of the most meaningful PD I’ll get all year was for free.

EdCamp came at just the right time, especially while I’m nearing the first report card and really coming to terms with this whole new world of teaching challenges and with the room for growth in my professional practice. EdCamp and the fantastic, beautiful people who attended it reminded me to keep trying to do things differently, not to let myself be jaded, and to keep pushing myself to do what’s best for my students rather than what’s easiest for me.

Hope I’ll see you at the next one.

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Why am I here?

This question could take on literal and metaphorical implications, so I’ll address them both.

Literally, why am I here? I originally started blogging at Blogspot but my blog was sort of a mess. I intended it as a dual-focus blog, dealing with aspects of my professional and personal life, and it kind of didn’t make sense. I found myself wanting to begin a post but then feeling overwhelmed with the sheer volume of things swimming about in my brain that I wanted to pour out in writing. So I’d procrastinate and procrastinate, and eventually do what most procrastinators do with things they habitually put off — I just gave up on it. In the meantime, I decided that I wanted to write about other things, too. So I started up my personal blog, Barefoot Panda, here at WordPress. Turned out that I really enjoyed writing about my life, my people, yoga, food, travelling, and dancing, so a few dozen posts later, I found a pretty decent level of comfort with the site. So in a nutshell, I’m here, blogging at WordPress, because it’s easier to keep my two blogs on the same platform.

Figuratively speaking, why I’m here is a bit trickier. As I mentioned, I basically gave up on my teaching blog last Spring. I wanted to keep doing it, but always found reasons not to do it. I guess it’s how people deal with stuff they don’t really want to deal with. I came back in the late Spring to post about a pretty lame situation: I’d been displaced in the staffing shuffle. I was coming to expect it, simply because there was a lot of movement among English Language Arts teachers this past year and I knew that my job was pretty cushy. As a teacher without her continuous contract, my job is always in danger. So I packed up all my things and, with a stroke of luck, found myself in a full time position at a junior high for the new school year.

Moving to junior high was, for lack of a better word, a complete culture shock. I knew, basically, what to expect from the kids. I didn’t know what to expect now that I was no longer an English teacher, but rather a Social Studies teacher for the most part. I have no experience with Social Studies. I’m an English person at heart and the ELA classroom is what makes my heart go pitter-pat (Does anyone’s healthy heart actually go pitter-pat?). And I’ll admit, I do have a class of ELA 7, but along with that and the four Social Studies classes I teach, I also have Science 7 and Health 7. This isn’t the worst “bowl of M&Ms” schedule I’ve ever seen or had, but it’s given me pause.

Within the first two weeks, I felt paralyzed. It was like an out-of-body experience as I watched my hands passing out worksheets, I heard my voice delivering history lectures and reminding students to “write this down,” and I felt my face frown disapprovingly a half dozen times per day. None of these things were part of what I believed is my teaching approach. And yet, whenever I’d try something even a little bit freeform or open-ended, my grade sevens would invariably implode. They can’t handle it. It’s almost like worksheets are how they function because they need strict parameters in place to be productive. Some of my kids hand in their work on lined paper that is backwards and upside down. Some of my kids can’t speak English. At all. Some of my kids don’t know that sentences begin with capital letters. So I kind of found myself going back to square one.

I made worksheets. I made the heck out of those worksheets. They’re beautiful. And I feel ashamed for making them. I’m not saying that worksheets are without merit, but I certainly don’t think they do anything worthwhile for anyone except give kids something to work on while their teacher sits around. That’s not what I want, nor is it what I like. But I felt stuck. Everyone else is doing it in my school. The kids respond well to it. I couldn’t think of anything else.

Why couldn’t I think of anything else?

At the high school from whence I came (“From whence I came?” Ha. That’s such a stupid phrase, but it is also deliciously nerdy), I taught English. Just English. It was basically my dream job, save for all the marking… even then, I guess you could say the marking was a nightmare. I spent two years really focusing on providing opportunities for my students to branch out and choose their own paths of interest. I tried to give them choice in everything they did, I tried to emphasize collaboration, I introduced new ways of doing or thinking about things. I wanted their education to be dynamic, so I tried to be dynamic. And for the last month that I’ve been doing junior high, somehow I lost track of that. It’s not like it disappeared from my teaching philosophy. It’s just that suddenly, I was a Social teacher and I didn’t know what to do with the skills I’d cultivated in the English classroom. You’d think it would be easy to make the switch, but it really wasn’t.

I routinely felt anxiety over my work. I fretted that I wasn’t a good teacher. I have one class that drives me insane some days and I found myself yelling at them one day, and actively thinking, “My God, is that my voice? When did I ever become a yeller? What have I become?” I’d go through presentation slides and patiently wait for my young charges to scrawl the points down in their notes. And yeah, I consider myself to be a pretty skilled and engaging lecturer, but who wants to lecture all the time?! It’s like saying you’re good at making potato salad. Sure, maybe your potato salad is the best potato salad ever. But at its best, it’s still just a nice side dish. Sometimes it’s the perfect thing to have. But it’s not ever the main course, and no one wants to eat potato salad every meal, every day. Lecturing, for me, is like potato salad. In my classroom, student learning is the main course. Lecturing is just something that gets plopped in there sometimes to make the facilitation of learning a little better rounded/balanced/structured. But really, if I had my way, the main course should be primarily student-driven. I don’t want my voice to be the main component of any lesson. I want to hear my students talk. I want to hear their questions, their answers, their comments, their opinions, and their stories.

And yet, there I was, talking up a storm for forty-seven-minute blocks.

You can see how the problems began for me and why I ended every single day feeling drained and unsettled. This wasn’t me. Was I doomed to squish myself into the worksheet-happy, lecture-addicted teacher mold that I rejected so early into my career? Was I going to lose my skills from teaching high school? Would this experience be a setback rather than a growing opportunity? Would I allow the limitations of my students to hinder my progress as a teacher? I just didn’t know what to think anymore. Wrestling with these questions is what brought me here. I felt that having somewhere to work through these ideas, having a place to document my thoughts and triumphs and failures would keep me humble and serve as a sort of record of my journey as I renegotiate my teaching identity.

I’ve had a few breakthroughs and have arrived at a couple important conclusions. They are conclusions that I basically already knew on an intellectual level, but I think I’m now coming to understand more fully what the deep-rooted implications are.

1) That last question I posed two paragraphs ago — “Would I allow the limitations of my students to hinder my progress as a teacher?” — was stupid. For the first few weeks, I was so busy thinking, “My kids can’t do this, my kids can’t do that. My kids are limited, so I can’t do as much for them,” that I almost tricked myself into believing that I was the disadvantaged one. The truth that I’ve known deep in my heart this whole time is that it’s not my students who are limited — it’s me. My students are exactly as they should be. They’re twelve-year-olds, for Pete’s sake. They are obnoxiously loud, they are painfully quiet, they are earnest and apathetic, combative and resigned. They span the gamut. Some are reading To Kill a Mockingbird for fun while others can hardly read books meant for seven-year-olds. It’s not their job to be strong for me. It’s my job to be strong for them. My progress as a teacher is hindered only by my own limitations, not theirs. I’ve embraced this with intense sincerity especially in the last week and am trying to remember that they aren’t the only ones with a lot of learning and growing to do this year.

2) The second thing I’ve concluded is that I only stand to lose my “high school skills” if I don’t use them, which is ultimately my choice. And on that note, “high school skills” is basically a misnomer. It has nothing to do with high school. The methods I used in high school were the same methods used in kindergarten. Give students room to explore on their own. Set up centers. Let them puzzle over things. Let them create. Talk to them about their lives. Treat lecture as a side dish rather than a main course.

I’m afraid that I do tend to be long-winded and although I will honestly try to keep my posts briefer in the future, I guess for now, you know why I’m  here.

I’m here to write about teaching, to worry about teaching, to celebrate, to mourn, to be honest, to reflect, and hopefully, to be a better teacher because of it.

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