Thursday, May 28, 2015

Summer Vacation Time

As the school year in the U.S. winds down, it's natural to be thinking about summer vacation and how you will enjoy sleeping in...
Source: Wikimedia Commons
dressing even more casually than usual...  going to the beach or lazing around a pool or in front of a TV...
A summer day at the beach; source: Pixabay
Oh, wait; I forgot: A teacher's work is never done!  Many teachers enroll in professional development courses, work on curriculum projects for their districts, teach in summer programs, read up on new technology, and do other kinds of work to develop their skills as educators.
Source: Montgomery County Public Schools staff bulletin
I'm no longer in the classroom teaching students but I remember taking a week or so right after the end of school to decompress and then jumping in to whatever I had planned for the summer, whether it was creating a new curriculum, taking courses that interested me, studying for an additional teaching license, or traveling and learning about a country or region I had to teach about in my classes.  For many years, I also was a member of the team of teachers who did language testing for newly-enrolled students to determine if they needed ESL support.
Source: The World Factbook
Then, at the end of summer, I reserved the last week before school resumed for myself, just to get in the right frame of mind and prepare myself mentally for going back to work.  I loved my summer vacations but when the end of the summer break came around, I was rejuvenated and looking forward to the new school year.

If you still have some weeks to go: The end is in sight!
If you have already finished teaching for the year: Happy Vacation!
And however you spend it: Enjoy the time away from your students in your classroom!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Monday Musings: On Encouragement

"Nine tenths of education is encouragement."
-- Anatole France
Anatole France; source: Wikimedia Commons
While it is true that students need to put effort into their work, they will do so far more readily when they receive positive feedback.  Providing positive encouragement is, nowadays, generally accepted to be good teaching practice.

But when I was a graduate student learning about different approaches to teaching English to speakers of other languages, one of the approaches we studied was The Silent Way.  Developed by Caleb Gattegno in the early 1960s, it teaches pronunciation by using charts that display the English sound system in colors.
Sound/Color Chart for The Silent Way; source: Humanising Language Teaching
The Silent Way also uses Cuisinaire rods to teach grammar.  In fact, this was how I first learned about using Cuisinaire rods for teaching.  I had no idea they were commonly used to teach math until I began working in a public school years later.
Why students need praise of their work | The ESL Connection
Cuisinaire rods; source: Discovering the Silent Way
However, the aspect of The Silent Way that made the most impression on me was the idea that students did not need to be verbally rewarded with praise when they did something right.  Instead, students knew when they were doing something correct and that in itself was supposed to be reward enough.  I wasn’t sure if I agreed with this idea but I liked it in theory.  I mean, why should it be necessary for me to tell students they did good when the fact that they did something successfully should give them sufficient satisfaction?

Then reality interfered with theory, as is often does.  A few years after beginning my public school teaching career, I found myself teaching English Language Arts to a class of sixth grade ELLs.  Even though there were only six students, two of whom were identical twin boys, it was difficult keeping control of the class.  Then I attended a workshop and got some advice on how to handle the situation.  What was the solution?  Praise the students when they did something well and focus on the positive instead of harp on the negative.  I starting giving compliments to the students, who earned prizes when they reached a certain number of points on the behavior chart that I created.
Why students need praise of their work | The ESL Connection
Use of behavior chart in my classroom; source: The ESL Nexus
What a revelation!  Things began to change for the better fairly quickly.  While this probably seems obvious to most people, to me, with a background in teaching adults at Asian universities, it wasn’t.  It was directly opposite of the premise of The Silent Way, as I’d been taught its core understandings. 

But it worked and ever since then, I have made sure to encourage my students by giving them praise whenever it was warrented.  I have since read up on the importance of motivation and the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, which I believe are intertwined with encouragement.
Why students need praise of their work | The ESL Connection
Suggestions for intrinsically motivating students; source: Te@chthought
With ELLs, positive encouragement is especially valuable.  Because they are not fully fluent in English and don’t always understand what is going on, ELLs can often feel as if they are not completely in control during the school day.  Letting ELLs know when they have done something well helps motivate them and encourages them to keep trying to do their best.  A little encouragement will go a long way!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Giveaway by The Colorado Classroom

Brittany from The Colorado Classroom has just launched a giveaway to celebrate reaching 200 followers at her TeachersPayTeachers store and I have contributed one of my products to her giveaway!  I am pleased to help Brittany celebrate her achievement.
Click here to enter the Giveaway
The product that I have donated is Ancient India: Indus Valley Vocabulary with Language Practice Activities.  This is a set of 26 vocabulary words related to the Indus River Valley Civilization of Ancient India.  Each word is accompanied by a definition that I wrote that makes the word accessible to ELLs and other students.  Thirteen suggested ways to use these vocab words are included in the product.
Click here for more information about this product
A companion product, Ancient India: Aryan, Hindu & Buddhist Vocabulary, is also available and can be purchased at my TpT store. You can read about it here.

The Colorado Classroom’s Giveaway runs for one week, starting today.  There are two prize packs available, one for Grades K – 5 and one for Grades 6 – 12.  Each includes a $25 gift certificate to TpT plus more than $40 of resources donated by other TpT sellers.  Select Prize Pack 2 for your chance to win my product.  Click here to go to her blog and enter.
Click here to enter the Giveaway
I wish you good luck!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Monday Musings: On Motivation

"Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and diligence."
 -- Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams upon getting married; source: Wikimedia Commons
I admire Abigail Adams, a woman ahead of her time in many ways.  What I know of her I learned mostly by watching The Adams Chronicles, a decades-old TV miniseries that was, at the time, riveting. 

If I were still teaching in a classroom, I would make a banner of this quotation and hang it someplace where every student could easily see it.  I would ask them to do a quick-write on what they think it means and then we’d discuss their responses.  Although a few of my ELLs might know the meaning of diligence, I would most likely have to define it plus attained, sought, and ardor for the majority of students, especially those in elementary grades.  But after they understood what the words meant, they could certainly reflect on what the sentence meant to them.

Unfortunately, not all students are willing to put effort and time into their work. And it shows.  I have had students who were very driven to succeed—one just finished her freshman year at an Ivy League university, the only student in her high school class who got accepted to one of the Ivies.  Another student wanted to be a doctor and came every morning to my before-school homework help program to review her homework, study for tests, and get help whenever she didn’t understand something.  But I had another student who never did homework, although he could at least do the homework for my class; he got absolutely no support from parents and that was a huge problem.  Other students just didn’t seem to care one way or the other—they showed up, did the minimum needed to pass, and were perfectly happy with the Cs, Ds, and occasional E or F they received on their report cards.  I’ve often wondered what happened to those students who were clearly not going to graduate at the top of their high school class and who, in fact, might not even graduate at all.

I really enjoyed working with the students who were motivated and interested in school.  But I also enjoyed working with the students who weren’t: They were a challenge and the less they did, the more I wanted to help them succeed.
Abigail Adams later in life; source: Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes I saw little tiny pieces of progress.  Often, I saw no change.  While discouraging, I don’t think I ever gave up on a kid.  Even as the end of the school year approached and all the standardized testing was completed, I continued to introduce new ideas and tried to make my lessons engaging so my students would be focused on learning until the very last day.
Actually, this quotation by Abigail Adams would be just as meaningful if it were revised to read as follows :   
Success is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and diligence.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Teachings of Kung Fu

I’ve been watching episodes of the 1970s TV show Kung Fu lately.  I remember watching the show as a kid but I had no idea then that I would someday live in China or that I would eventually become a teacher.
DVD cover; source: Netflix DVD
Aside from the kung fu itself which, as a kid, seemed exotic and novel but now strikes me as extremely basic in comparison to what I’ve seen in other martial arts shows, what I am impressed with is the teaching that occurred at the Shaolin monastery when Kwai Chang Caine was a young boy.

“As quickly as you can, snatch the pebble from my hand.  When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.”  
Scene at Shaolin monastery; source: Netflix DVD
This is one of the most famous scenes of the entire TV show.  To me, the words spoken by Master Kan to Grasshopper in the opening credits are still relevant forty years later.  They illustrate the idea of continually striving to do one’s best, that repeated practice is necessary to learn how to do something, that learning by doing is an effective teaching approach.  That sitting in a room and listening to lectures and memorizing texts are not the only ways to acquire knowledge and skill.

In Kung Fu, physical exercise is just as important as mental exercise.  Training the body as well as the mind creates a well-rounded person.  This approach to learning connects with the current idea of educating the “whole child.”  In my opinion, it’s a shame that so many schools have eliminated physical education classes and recess to devote more time to test prep.
Scene at Shaolin monastery; source: Netflix DVD
Kung Fu is filled with aphorisms.  Here’s one from the first season episode Sun and Cloud Shadow.  Master Po says:

“In the pond there are some lotuses, which stand above the water.  And though their roots feed, they are themselves untouched by it.  Some others have risen only to the water’s level.  And others...are still underwater.”
Scene in Sun and Cloud Shadow; source: Netflix DVD
The conversation continues between the master and his disciple, with Grasshopper asking:

“Shall I seek to measure these differences, master, that I may treat them differently, each according to his growth?”

“Examine the flower.  Is not the flower, in each position, yet a flower?”

“Shall I then...treat each man the same?”

“As far as possible, without surrender.  Be on good terms with all.”


Riddled throughout the show are similar pithy sayings.  What’s the point, besides being good TV?  In hindsight and from the perspective of an educator, I see these exchanges as techniques for teaching critical thinking.  Masters Po and Kan are trying to equip Kwai Chang Caine with analytical skills so he will be able to fend for himself in the outside world.  Just as good teachers nowadays try to instill in their students the ability to think for themselves, to examine and evaluate the world around them and, in consequence, make informed decisions about their world and themselves.

I will be watching more episodes of Kung Fu to see what else it can teach me!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Monday Musings: The ESL "Profession"?

"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."
-- Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope; source: Wikimedia Commons
I was familiar with the first line of this famous quotation but not the second; indeed, I had never read the poem from which these lines come until yesterday.  I had no idea, either, what a Pierian spring was until I looked it up.

It turns out that Pierian spring refers not to a season but to a source of water in Macedonia that was sacred to the Greek Muses.  The ancients believed that if you drank from the spring, you became full of knowledge and learning.  However, you had to take a deep drink to benefit from the properties of the water.  If you drank only a little, you’d acquire only a superficial amount of knowledge, yet think you had learned a lot.
The Greek Muses; source: Classical Muses
This idea connects to my earlier post about education reformers who think they know how to “fix” schools because they once were students themselves.  It also ties in to a common misunderstanding that many people have about teaching English to speakers of other languages: that if you know English, you can teach English.  This was a prevalent thought among a lot of foreigners I met when I was teaching overseas.  They were not professional teachers but rather people who wanted to visit foreign countries and thought that by teaching English, they could earn some money that would enable them to spend more time traveling.  There were plenty of schools that were only too happy to hire these untrained “teachers” because they could pay them lower salaries.  That their students were not receiving quality lessons apparently was not a huge concern.  What made this practice all the more frustrating for professional teachers was that the lower standards meant that qualified teachers of English often had a harder time finding decent jobs and were not paid as well as they should have been due to the abundant supply of people willing to work for less.
From a blog by an untrained teacher; Source: LASeoulGuy
Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion among ESL teachers in professional organizations about whether teaching English to speakers of other languages is indeed a profession.  Obviously, I think it is.  Given the huge increases U.S. states have seen and are continuing to see in the numbers of ELLs enrolled in public schools, it is gratifying to see that the needs of these students have garnered more attention, especially since NCLB and its provision for accountability in the teaching of various sub-groups such as ELLs and special education students. 
NCLB logo; source: HomeRoom: The Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education
I took issue with many aspects of NCLB but that was not one of them.  Now that the law is being rewritten, I hope the same level of attention will be given to the needs of English Language Learners, who still lag academically behind other students.  It would be great if policymakers at state and national levels, and administrators at district levels, drank deep from the Pierian spring and then provided enough financial and other support to hire trained ESL teachers to implement them.  This hasn’t happened everywhere but ELLs deserve no less.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

End of the Year?!?!

Moving from Massachusetts to Arizona has been an eye-opener in many ways!  Of course, the weather is different—while my former town was shoveling out from under eight feet of snow, I was walking around in T-shirts and sandals in Tucson.  It also takes a lot longer to get from one place to another because distances are farther in Arizona; if it took 20 minutes to drive somewhere in MA, that was kind of far, whereas here in AZ, I now consider that close.  And the land just looks different—green grass and woods compared to desert sand and cacti.
Massachusetts; source: The ESL Nexus
Arizona; source: The ESL Nexus
But what has really struck me is the difference in the school calendar.  Tucson students get days off for the Rodeo in February.  Massachusetts students get the third week of April off, to celebrate Patriots Day that Monday, when the Revolutionary War began (and the Boston Marathon is run).
Team roping at the Tucson Rodeo; source: Wikimedia Commons
Old North Bridge, site of the first shots fired in the Battle Concord in 1775; source: The ESL Nexus
I knew that other states did not start and end at the same time as Massachusetts school districts, especially in the South.  But in Tucson, Arizona, school for students started on July 31, 2014.  That is the middle of summer for MA students and teachers!  Massachusetts students don’t typically start until right before or just after Labor Day, in September.  In Tucson, the last day of the school year is May 21, 2015.  That’s less than three weeks away!  In the Massachusetts district I used to work in, school won’t be over until the very end of June.  That’s a difference of five weeks!

To be thinking about the end of the school year at the beginning of May is something new for me.  So to help me get in the mood, I created a couple of products that give students an opportunity to review what they learned in their Social Studies classes by doing a fun writing assignment.
World History & US History products by The ESL Nexus
Each writing task is in the form of a RAFTS prompt (Role, Audience, Format, Topic, Strong verb).  The length of time for the lesson will vary depending on how much of it is done in class and how much at home.  I plan to create similar types of end-of-the-year products for Science and English Language Arts classes as well.  If you get a chance, please take a look at these World History and U.S. History products during the TpT Teacher Appreciation sale on May 5 and May 6, 2015.  Here are the links to each one:
World History product: The World is Ending!
US History product: And the Winner Is...
All my products are on sale for 20% off and by using the coupon code Thank You, you'll receive an additional 10% off!  Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Monday Musings: Respect...Or Lack Thereof...For Teachers

"I don't get no respect."
--Rodney Dangerfield
Rodney Dangerfield; source: Wikipedia
Do you feel like you're in one of Rodney Dangerfield's jokes: Teachers don't get no respect?  Well, it isn't a joke. All the teachers I know feel under attack and overwhelmed by the demands placed upon them.  Many have told me they don't know how they can hold out until they are able to retire.

Foremost among the issues creating the most angst is standardized testing.  But onerous teacher evaluation systems rank right up there, too.  If states wanted Race to the Top money--and most did, considering the economic difficulties they were facing at the time--they were forced to implement new, stricter methods for evaluating educators.  For example, in the district in Massachusetts where I most recently taught, teachers with professional status (i.e. tenure) went from being observed two or three times every other year to being observed every year and over the course of two years, seven times in total.  

In addition, under the new state-wide system, teachers have to prove they are proficient at meeting four standards about teaching.  That doesn't sound like much but each standard has between three and six indicators and subsumed under those indicators are between one and four elements.  (See photo below.)  That makes for a total of 33 criteria upon which teachers will be judged exemplary, proficient, needs improvement, or unsatisfactory.  Not only that, teachers also have to develop goals for students and professional goals for themselves; that is, they are required to do action research every year.  But wait, there's more!  Teachers' evaluations also have to factor in the results of students' standardized tests and the results of district-determined measures.  I get tired and anxious just thinking about it all.
MA Evaluation Rubric; source: The ESL Nexus
These and similar kinds of evaluation systems underscore the attitude many policy-makers have about teachers.  When Andrew Cuomo says there's a problem if 96% percent of the teachers in New York are rated satisfactory, the problem is not the teachers--the problem is Cuomo and his lack of respect for teachers.  Why shouldn't most teachers receive positive evaluations?  What research-based study says there can only be a certain number of teachers performing at a satisfactory level of achievement?  That's just setting up teachers for failure.

Demeaning teachers as Cuomo, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and far too many other politicians and ed-reform "experts" have done recently makes it a no-brainer that many of the best teachers can't wait to leave the profession.  And when they do, where will that leave the students--the ones they profess to care so much about?

If teachers got more respect, they wouldn't be subject to such burdensome rating systems.  If teachers got more respect, the powers-that-be would institute changes that actually benefit students, not their own careers.  If teachers got more respect, the good teachers wouldn't be leaving the K - 12 teaching sector at the earliest possible moment they can.  If teachers got more respect, students might actually learn more because teachers would actually have time to teach.