Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday Musings: Learning about History

“Study the past, if you would divine the future.”
I like this quotation not only because it’s from a Chinese philosopher and I am fascinated by Chinese history and culture, but also because teaching ancient, world and American history to my middle school students in content-based ESL classes was loads of fun and some of my most enjoyable moments of teaching happened in those classes.

So many students think history is boring or don’t see the need for learning about what happened so long ago but I think that is because there is so much information to cover and not enough time in which to teach it.  Plus, many elementary and middle school teachers do not have a strong background in history themselves and so have a harder time making it accessible to their students.  And nowadays many school districts in the U.S. are even eliminating Social Studies as a separate subject altogether--such was the case in a district I used to teach in--which only reinforces the idea in students' minds that history is not important.

But cutting Social Studies as a separate course from the curriculum does a definite disservice to students.  While it is certainly possible to incorporate social studies concepts and historical events into language arts lessons and, in fact, the ELA Common Core State Standards do just that, the focus is different.  It’s my opinion that students need a dedicated course to learn civics and geography and economics and about civilizations of the past.  Without such knowledge, students will not grow up to be informed citizens or able to make knowledgeable decisions about world events.

Studying the past provides numerous opportunities for analysis and discussion, both in writing and in speaking.  Determining why something happened in the past can help us understand similar events in the present and be prepared for the future.  Thinking like a historian gives students skills which are useful in whatever career they pursue.

As others have said, if you don’t know history and learn from it, you may be doomed to repeat it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Teaching about Holidays

There’s a phrase from the 1970s that goes: Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.  It was used as an advertising slogan by an automobile company but has its origin is World War II when soldiers said they were fighting “for Mom and apple pie.”  Regardless of where they came from, the phrases are now used to refer to something that is considered typically American.
Holidays are a important part of every culture and there are a number of holidays that are considered typically American, such as Flag Day and Thanksgiving.  Others are unique to the United States, such as Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day.  Many of these holidays are observed by schools. 

But ELLs who are immigrants often do not know how and why some American holidays are celebrated.  Explicitly teaching about American culture may not be a priority for schools but can be incorporated into language arts and social studies lessons by reading and discussing informational texts that provide information about holidays.  Helping ELLs acquire this kind of background cultural information is essential to helping these students feel a part of their classroom and community and adjusting to living in the U.S.

To that end, I just created a series of posters about American holidays that is designed to teach not just ELLs but students in general about the history and customs of major non-religious holidays that are celebrated in the U.S.  A few writing and grammar activities are included in the product to extend the learning opportunities.  To give an idea of what the posters are like, the one for Earth Day is a free sampler.

Available at: Acrostic Holiday Posters
Available at: Free Earth Day Poster
As someone who majored in anthropology in college and has lived and worked abroad, I have always enjoyed learning about holidays in other countries and teaching about American culture.  Now, I am happy to share my knowledge of American holidays with K-12 students in the U.S.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Monday Musings #1: Shakespeare and Teaching

With this blog entry, I am launching a series of posts I’m calling “Monday Musings.”  Each post will begin with a quotation.  I’ll make a connection of some sort to education, and on occasion to relevant personal events as well, to help illustrate my thoughts.  Each Monday, I’ll post a new entry. 

All the world's a stage.
-- Shakespeare, As You Like It
It’s often said that a teacher needs to entertain students to hold their interest in the content being taught.  If true, then I envision the classroom as a theater in the round with the cast of students and teacher making optimum use of the entire space rather than just sitting in static rows.
Globe Theatre; source: Wikimedia Commons
Otherwise, the room resembles the “sage on a stage” with the teacher as a font of knowledge standing at the front lecturing to students. 

I prefer the second half of that phrase, the teacher as “guide on the side” because I like to facilitate learning and let my students discover knowledge for themselves.  (Alison King first wrote about these two approaches in a 1993 article in College Teaching; see a preview here.)  Besides, I find it more fun to teach that way.  However, with ELLs, I recognize that it is sometimes necessary to provide direct instruction; for example, to pre-teach new vocabulary or to provide background information in order to expedite a lesson. 

But even when I was the sage, my classroom was still a stage and I was the director of the show.
My former classroom; source: The ESL Nexus
Every lesson I produced had the potential to be a drama, comedy or tragedy.  Certainly my students brought their own drama into my room--particularly the middle school girls who were the ultimate drama queens.  On occasion, I felt that a lesson was a tragedy because nothing went right and time was wasted, such as when I had an Internet-based lesson planned and we spent way too long trying to get online instead of doing the intended work.
Tragedy and Comedy masks; source: Pixabay
Fortunately, however, comedy was more prevalent because I was usually able to find ways to infuse my lessons with humor.  My students felt comfortable when they were in my class and they weren’t afraid to speak out, something that didn’t happen all the time in their other classes.  Sometimes students were so relaxed that they called me mami, which everyone found humorous.

I’ve only taught Shakespeare once, when a class of fourth graders and I read a version of Romeo and Juliet adapted for younger readers.
Book I used to teach Shakespeare; source: The ESL Nexus
In that class, the play actually was the (main) thing and then, my classroom really was a stage.  It was a lot of fun.
A page in the vocab book that was created by a Japanese student; source: The ESL Nexus
And I still have the class vocabulary book the students created.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spring Has Sprung!

The vernal equinox was on March 20th; in order words, Spring has sprung to life.
Spring flowers; source: Pixabay
Considering the winter weather much of the US endured, it isn’t surprising that spring fever set in months ago, especially when kids couldn’t go outside for recess for such a long time.  What springs to mind is that students especially need to get outside now because they really need an unstructured break from all the standardized tests that are administered in March.  Teachers need a break, too, even if they aren’t spring chickens and have pretty much seen and done it all.  It would be great if school administrators would spring for lunch for the staff in March.  Ah well, hope springs eternal!

ELLs, especially those at lower proficiency levels, are very concrete in their thinking in English and need to have idioms explained.  Drawing the meanings of idioms—the literal as well the abstract definitions--helps them better understand this figurative language.
It's raining cats and dogs; source: Pixabay

Here are some free online resources to help teach idioms:
* ReadWriteThink: Lesson plans on idioms
* The Phrase Finder: Find the meanings of idioms
* The Idiom Connection: Alphabetical and topic lists of idioms
* English Vocabulary Building Games: Games to learn idioms

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Finding the Good

“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.” 
-- Steven Hawking, theoretical physicist
Stephen Hawking; source: Wikipedia
Today was the first time I saw this quotation (at MiddleWeb SmartBrief) and it really resonated with me, from both the personal and professional perspectives.

Last summer, I moved 2,500 miles across the country and bought a home, which needed some remodeling work.  Three months after the construction began and seven months after moving, the work was completed.  There were a few major and several minor glitches as the work progressed, as is usually the case with these projects.  But now that everything is done and I’m finally able to unpack all my stuff and put it away, I’m noticing some things I wish had been done differently.  But it occurred to me just last night that instead of focusing on what’s wrong, I should instead be looking at what is right.  So for example, while I’m not keen on the interior layout of the new dishwasher, it is much quieter than the one in my previous house.  And while the freezer section of my new fridge seems smaller than what I used to have, I’m sure it uses much less electricity than that other 14-year old one.  And while the new dark laminate flooring shows all the dust and isn’t as comfortable to walk on as the floor in my prior house with carpeting throughout was, everyone who sees my new floor thinks it’s hardwood and says how beautiful it is.  I could go on—and in my mind I did—but then I realized: Why bother?  Why make myself annoyed and upset when the positives far outweigh the negatives?

Likewise, when I was teaching back in Massachusetts, there were a lot of things I could complain about.  I had to move classrooms eight times in five years.  Yes, for two years in a row I had to move during the school year; and for one of those years and another year as well, I had to share a room with bilingual classes--not the optimum context for kids learning English as an additional language.  But the final room I moved to was by far the best room and I ended up having it for seven years.  (Good things come to those who wait!)  When I was hired, it was to teach ESL in kindergarten through 8th grades; I had no idea how much work that would entail!  But when another ESL teacher was hired many years later and I got to teach “only” Grades 5 – 8, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, the workload was so much lighter. I could even go home at 6:30pm instead of 9:30pm!  (Good things come to those who wait!)  However, that only lasted one year and in my final year at that school, I was teaching Grades 3 – 8.  Which wasn’t ideal—and I said so but primarily to my colleagues, not my supervisors—but by the end of that school year, I’d gotten to really enjoy working with those younger students.  (Good classes come to those who persevere!) Of course, there were a multitude of general school issues to complain about, and many people did.  Vociferously and repeatedly.  Sometimes positive changes were made as a result, though not often and not for issues that were beyond the principals’ control.  But if I made a conscious effort and tried hard enough, I could usually find something good about my work to sustain me.  And when I couldn’t, well, that’s when I was glad to have colleagues who were also good friends! 

Which brings me to the point I want to make: Constant complaining about things you can’t control and being angry all the time is counter-productive, especially nowadays in education.  Whether it’s in your personal life or your professional life, I’ve learned to look for the bright side of everything and to look for the good in every situation—the things that will make me happy wherever I am and in whatever I am doing.  It’s not always easy but it sure does make life easier.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Vocabulary and Testing

As the annual testing season gets underway, I’d like to emphasize the importance of vocabulary.  Increasing students' knowledge of the meanings of common and specialized vocabulary words across the curriculum increases their chances of being successful on these annual standardized tests.
Judie Haynes, a long-time and well-known ELL educator, offers four ways to scaffold vocabulary for ELLs in a recent blog post:
    * By activating schema
    * By explicitly teaching new academic vocabulary words
    * By using graphic organizers
    * By using sentence frames
Here’s the link to the complete article, which very clearly explains the rationale for using each strategy: "4 Strategies for Scaffolding Instruction for Els".

If you are wondering which academic words are most useful for ELLs to know, you might be interested in one of my products--lists of the most important content vocabulary words by grade and by subject, as determined by a group of middle school teachers:

And if you are looking for sentence frames to help students who are writing summaries of texts, you might be interested in the product below.  It not only includes sentence frames but also information on how to write summaries, which even if that's not included on the PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests, certainly is something that is part of the ELA Common Core State Standards:

All students, not just ELLs, will benefit from vocabulary instruction that incorporates the four strategies explained in Judie Haynes' blog post.  Good luck to everyone administering or taking these annual assessments!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th is considered an especially unlucky day by people who are superstitious.  Explaining American superstitions to English Language Learners can help them better understand American culture.  Plus, it’s fun to learn about superstitions in other cultures so explaining them provides good opportunities for productive discussions and speaking practice. You can use this cartoon to explain even more superstitions!

Here is some background information about Friday the 13th:
* In 2015, there will be three Friday the 13th days, the most that can occur in one year.
* In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that Friday was an unlucky day.
* Numerous references to Friday being a day of bad luck occur in 17th century Western literature.
* The word Friday comes from the name of the Norse goddess Frigga and dagr, which means day in Old Norse.
* The number 13 has been considered unlucky since ancient times, when Judas was the 13th guest at the Last Supper and betrayed Jesus and Loki was the 13th guest at a Norse feast of gods and created chaos among them.
* It wasn’t until the 19th century A.D. that the combination of Friday and 13 together became associated with bad luck.
* The scientific name for being afraid of Friday the 13th is Friggatriskaidekaphobia, which translates to Friday + three + and + ten + fear.
* The next Friday the 13th will be in November 2015.