Friday, February 27, 2015

Spock and ESL

The second time I went to China it was as a teacher trainer and one of the courses I taught to the Chinese teachers of English at the university where I worked was about intercultural communication.  I thought: What better way to start than by showing an episode of Star Trek?

One of my favorite episodes is Devil in the Dark, the one where Spock does a mind-meld with the horta.  I had to provide a lot of background knowledge so these teachers, who'd never even heard of Star Trek before, would be able to appreciate the plot as it unfolded.  I implemented the lesson and at the end of the class, everyone understood how unfamiliarity creates fear of "the other" and can easily lead people to jump to incorrect conclusions that can have negative consequences in the classroom as well as in general.

Years later, when I was teaching an in-service course to teachers in my school district about our diverse student population, I used a variation of that Star Trek lesson to show how stereotyping students based on their ethnic background can have deleterious effects on teacher-student interaction.  This time, I didn't have to give any background information because everyone was familiar with the show.  After watching the episode, we discussed the implications for classroom teaching and how important it is to gather as much information as possible before reaching conclusions about students' behavior, because what we think is going on may in fact have a completely different explanation.

Thank you, Mr. Spock, for inspiring my teaching and for helping other teachers understand human behavior a little better.
Photo by Zennie Abraham; source: Flickr
Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy.  LLAP.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Everyone Loves a Sale!

Most people enjoy sales and appreciate knowing they got a good deal on things.

Many years ago, one of my students was a boy from Turkey who arrived in the U.S. with his family.  None of the them knew any English; in fact, his mother was illiterate in her own language, which was Kurdish.  When the boy was in 4th grade, I worked with him one-on-one every day.  I also had his sister, who was in kindergarten.  The boy was smart and learned enough English to communicate fairly quickly.  I’ll never forget the day he came in to school, wide-eyed, and told me his favorite place in America was Wal-Mart!  He’d gone to the store in town with his family and couldn’t get over the variety of products available and how inexpensive everything was.

Several years before that, I worked in a summer program in Florida teaching ESL to high school students from the former Soviet Union who had come to the U.S. as exchange students for the year and would be living with host families and going to local high schools around the country.  I had a class of about 12 students and we met for five hours daily.  Teachers were free to design their lessons however they liked and field trips were arranged on a regular basis to introduce the students to American culture.  One time, we went to a local supermarket.  One of my students, an ethnic Russian boy living in one of the Central Asian republics, was overwhelmed by all the choices.  He told me there were too many things to choose from and he couldn’t decide what to buy as a result.  But when we went to the store another time, he had no difficulty picking out items—clearly he was well on the way to adjusting to living in America!
Supermarket sale; source: Pixabay
And when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone many, many years ago, whenever I went to the market to buy food or other items, it was the custom to bargain the price.  There was a definite protocol to bargaining and eventually, I got really good at it.  I can still remember the thrill of knowing I had gotten a good price for something but also knowing that I was interacting with the local people appropriately.  I got more respect from the vendors when I bargained well and everyone had fun with the give-and-take process.

So if you enjoy sales, too, and are looking for educational products at a discount, I hope you’ll stop by my TeachersPayTeachers store on Wednesday, February 25, and Thursday, February 26, 2015.  I’m having a sale and all my products are 20% off.  And when you use the promo code “HEROES” you can save even more, up to 28%.  I just added a bundle of three writing products, which includes one of my bestsellers:
I have lots of different kinds of products available so please take a look if you get a chance.  Just click HERE to go to my store.  Happy shopping!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

It's Chinese New Year -- What Year Is It In English?

Happy Chinese New Year!  Today begins the Year of the Sheep!  No, wait, it’s the Year of the Goat!  Er, no, it’s the Year of the Ram!   Um...which one is it, exactly???

Well, that depends on which language you are speaking.  In Chinese, it’s the Year of the Yáng.  The word yáng refers to all three of those animals and Chinese speakers differentiate among them by using qualifying words with yáng.  But English has three distinct words for each animal and that is how the confusion arises because yáng can be translated as sheep, goat or ram.

When I was newly-arrived in China, I found it very puzzling because some people would translate it one way into English and other people would translate it with a different word.  I didn’t understand what people meant until it was explicitly explained to me that yáng meant both sheep and goat.  Here’s an article in today’s New York Times about what people in China feel about the issue: A New Year With a Name That’s a Matter of Opinion.  You can also view this one-minute video from the BBC about it: Chinese Lunar New Year Confusion Over Sheep.

I don't really know what the fact that one word in Chinese means three words in English says about Chinese culture, but it’s useful and important for teachers to be aware that words in other languages do not always have clear translations into English.  Knowing that a word in a foreign language may have more than one translation may prevent confusion in the classroom when teaching ELLs who are not yet proficient enough to make such distinctions.

And if you are looking for some Chinese New Year-themed products, please check out the items below, which will be on sale for 50% off starting February 19th at 10:00am Mountain Standard Time through February 20th at 10:00am MST:
You can find C is for China here and The Chinese Zodiac here.
Xīn Nián Kuài Le!  Which does mean Happy New Year in English!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Rocks, Gems, Fossils, and ELLs

Kids are like rocks.  As the saying goes: A diamond in the rough.  With some kids, it’s easy to figure them out; they are extroverts and their personalities shine for everyone to see at first glance.  With other kids, though, including many ELLs, you have to dig beneath the surface to find the gem inside.  

Teachers need to unearth the precious gems that are the English Language Learners in their classes. | The ESL Connection
Tucson Gem Show; source: The ESL Nexus
I was reminded of this as I wandered around the Tucson Gem Show, which is billed as the world’s largest gathering of buyers and sellers of precious stones and all things related to rocks.  I went twice this year and had a great time looking and learning about fossils, gems, jewelry and other objects for sale, such as 2,000 year old shards of Roman glass and maps from 19th century schoolbooks.

ELLs need special attention and care to thrive. Fossilized attitudes like “My grandparents came to America and they didn’t need any special help” or “S/he just needs to work harder and then they’ll get it” or “It’s not my job to teach them English—it’s the ESL teacher’s responsibility” -- those are outdated and hopefully will soon be as extinct as the animals shown below. 
Teachers need to unearth the precious gems that are the English Language Learners in their classes. | The ESL Connection
Tucson Gem Show; source: The ESL Nexus
The kinds of jobs that didn't require advanced proficiency in English aren't available anymore and academically, the stakes are much higher now.  Parents from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds want their children to succeed in school but frequently do not have the means to help them.  It’s often not a question of the students not trying hard enough but rather that they just don’t comprehend the material or they think they do, until they have to apply it on their own and discover they didn’t actually get it.  Nowadays, ELLs are everyone’s kids and all teachers have a responsibility to ensure the students in front of them in the classroom are as successful as possible.

As I visited some of the venues of the Gem Show, I saw all different kinds of rocks.  Some were rough and uncut gems, still attached to the rocks with which they had been dug out of the ground.  Some were semi-precious stones, cut into small pieces of varying shapes, ready to be used to make jewelry.
Teachers need to unearth the precious gems that are the English Language Learners in their classes. | The ESL Connection
Tucson Gem Show; source: The ESL Nexus
A few were huge geodes, worth thousands and thousands of dollars, cut open to reveal the sparkling beauty within.  And some of the rocks had been polished to a fine shine, all the rough edges smoothed over, glistening in the afternoon light.

Likewise, ELLs come in all shapes and sizes.  Some may look rough and unfinished at first glance, but look more closely and you will likely find a diamond in the rough.  Or, if not actually a diamond, another precious gem.
Teachers need to unearth the precious gems that are the English Language Learners in their classes. | The ESL Connection
Tucson Gem Show: source: The ESL Nexus
As educators, we need to dig into our ELLs’ backgrounds and find the gems, however uncut they are.  We need to get the students in shape, so they are ready to learn and can find joy in learning.  We need to find the hidden beauty in all the students, however hard it may be to cut open their façades.  We need to respect and honor the differences they bring to our classrooms because each individual element, when joined with all the others, creates a beautiful whole.  When we do this, when we get to know our students, and we examine their foibles and analyze their strengths, when we recognize and celebrate what they have in common instead of focusing on how they are different, we will find, more often than not, that with our support and understanding, they too will shine.  And then, like diamonds, their brilliance will be admired, desired, and valued.