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Testing is never fun.

We are in the midst of a testing window, where we have to test every English Learner in all four domains: reading, writing, speaking and listening.

And for speaking, we can’t do more than 4 or 5 at a time, because otherwise the microphones will pick up the other voices in the room.

It’s a pain for us and a pain for our students.

But last week, Ms. Susan, our Flynn artist, came to play with us while my colleague Kevin was testing his class. He’d send the ones who weren’t testing to me while he grabbed a handful and put them through their paces.

Kevin’s kiddos, with very few exceptions, used to be mine. But their fluency improved and I sent them on to greener pastures.

The object of my class is to get students used to school and to bring them to a speaking/listening level where they can actively participate in a beginning class. They know basic directions. They know how to have the beginnings of a conversation with memorized phrases. They don’t look at you with that “deer in headlights” stare. When they are ready to leave my class, I know, because when the teacher says, “close the door,” they get it. When directed to turn to page 52, they know to grab their books. When they are asked to open their Chromebooks and check their email, they know what to do.

When they leave me, they go to Kevin, who begins focusing intensely on getting them to write, whereas my whole goal is speaking and listening.

All I can say is that I am so happy that we had a little time to play, to break through that frustration that comes with testing that is relentless.

We got to giggle a bit because some students (who were not with me, or not with me for long) have not figured out how to be silly in English. It all seems to be more than a little strange to dance and move and repeat words like “smooth” and “rough” or “fast” and “slow.” They get there, but in order to learn a language, you really have to be ready to let go of all those things that make you self-conscious.

And the same is true for drama in the classroom. If you can let yourself do things you normally don’t do, you can be brave.

Laughter lowers what is known in ESL circles as the “affective filter”: that barrier that gets in the way of learning. When the filter is high, it manifests itself in the need to close up your ears and run away. And that’s what we’re fighting.

Be brave, my young friends! Be brave by being silly!

final-bhs-ges-graphicHaving this big group back in my room was so delightful. We supported each other in making shapes, in putting movements with voice, in moving in silly ways. We reviewed the five senses and we talked about our emotions. Sort of.

This is really what the Flynn involvement means to me: It’s a bridge to loosen up the tongue. It’s learning to fail and try again. It’s supporting strangers in a room who quickly become friends as they work to complete silly tasks. It’s being creative. It’s being brave.

When we look at graduation expectations (or GXs), pretty much everything we do helps move this group along the path. I should be sharing these videos with them as artifacts that they can show for meeting expectations:

  • EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION: We all have to talk to each other as we complete dramatic tasks, even if that task is as simple as a handshake or an introduction.
  • CURIOSITY & CREATIVITY: Students try to come up with their own ways to do a handshake or put movements with their names. They have to be different than those that came before. Just like in language learning, we start by copying, just instead of words and phrases, we copy movements. But eventually, we make it our own.
  • PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT: With bravery comes fluency. You just can’t help but be more comfortable after playing with the same people week after week.
  • CRITICAL THINKING & PROBLEM SOLVING: On this day, we had to make groups build shapes. How would your group build a shape? Who would be the leader? Does this really look like the shape we’re trying to make?
  • CROSS-CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING & CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: There are so many languages and cultures going on in that room at any one time. And there is always the issue of us doing some movement or saying some word that means something a little randy in another language… We are building understanding in the classroom so we can carry it over into the cafeteria. What could be more beautiful than that?

Check out the video below. I invite you to look for evidence of the graduation expectations I’ve noted above. The faces will change, but the activities remain the same. And the movements change, even if only slightly. Every change is leading to something that is uniquely their own.

It’s all about the baby steps.

The key to helping students with interrupted or limited formal education (SLIFE) move forward is to take what they know and add to the complexity. And that’s what we do.

The most beautiful part of this whole afternoon is how students resisted going to testing because they didn’t want to stop what they were doing. They really wanted to be there. Even if this doesn’t look like school to them. Even if it seems a little silly a lot of the time.

I’m grateful every time for the opportunity to make this magic happen!

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During the last week in January, students from Vermont Commons School came to visit my class of beginning English learners.

They came on Monday to meet us. And then they came back on Thursday to share how they envisioned learning could be facilitated with drama and movement.

We learned about shapes, colors, prepositions of place, transportation…

And it was really kind of fun.

I think that outsiders are always amazed at how much repetition it takes to get words to stick. But it’s also hard for teens to envision how to teach elementary topics to peers. They have great ideas. I can tell they put a lot of thought into what they did…

What I do has to be presented simply. But what I do is not simplistic. These are (almost) all grown adults, who have a lifetime of experiences on their own. And so the lessons cannot be simplistic…

The issue with having visitors into one’s room, especially when they want to take on the role of teacher, is when does one jump in? When do I fix the issues? When do I intensify what was done? When do I add my particular brand of craziness to the mix?

I agonized a bit.

Sometimes what they did was just perfect. The language, topic, engagement hit the mark.

Sometimes the content was just right, but the affect was not. Students who don’t speak English well can’t pay attention to students talking to them for an hour if the hype is missing. It’s all about the salesmanship. They are game to try whatever it is you are selling, but if you don’t bring what it takes, they aren’t buying.

And sometimes it was about the prep. How can you teach a lesson when you don’t bring what you need? I see pre-service teachers do this, too. Someone comes in with an idea–and it’s not necessarily a bad idea–but it’s not fully baked and not ready to roll out. Questions I have fielded: Do you have a box? Do you have this thing I can use? Do you have magnets, markers, a box, a toy…

It’s likely I do have that stuff…somewhere. But, honestly, I’m not the best teacher to ask to give you something on the fly. Happy to give it to you if I know in advance. But with an office in one building and my classroom in another, I’m just not that organized. I have all kinds of stuff, but it takes me a while to lay my hands on it.

For being teen teachers, they did an awesome job. Like I said, I see the same issues with student teachers, who should definitely know better, as it is their profession they are training for. And these  students were just trying it on.

I’m curious about the students’ take on my class. It looks as though they had a great time during their week of exploring how drama can be used outside the stage.

winter-2017-eweek-slides-work-in-progress

I find, however, that unless you steep yourself in this population, oftentimes one’s class and privilege get in the way of seeing who they really are and where they come from and the absolute courage it takes to even come to school.

I so much welcome people to come in. Because until we actually make contact, the strangers remain strange. I’d rather be friends.

Two weeks ago, we had two separate visits by a bunch of students from the Vermont Commons School, a private school that focuses on global immersion and planetary interdependence. They were taking a week to investigate “Performance Art for Social Change.”

Students who visited us ranged in age from grade 6 to grade 11, I believe. Their task for the week was to investigate different ways of using movement, other than just being on stage.

But our realms of experiences, our orbits of reality, were worlds apart.

When we talked about what we did this weekend, my students offered “work,” “sleep,” “visit family.” Among their offerings: snowboarding, skiing, brushing my horse, playing my saxophone/piano/etc.

In other words, the typical activities for these private school students was not of the same nouveau as the students I teach.

Life of a newly resettled former refugee is so much more about survival. There is neither time nor money for many extracurriculars, whereas our playmates for the week plan their days around them.

I so much appreciate the opportunity for my students to share space with these other students, to have a time to play and rub elbows a bit, even if they didn’t quite understand why these other students were there. Left to their own devices, the whole crowd would have just shrugged and walked away from each other, each in a different direction.

My students had nothing to tell them. And the VT Commons students did not know where to start with kids who really couldn’t speak to them. These boys and girls were incredibly articulate. But my school, with its bells and hallway traffic, seemed a bit foreign to them.

One of my colleagues stopped by and asked if I was hosting foreign exchange students. He noticed how wide-eyed they seemed, kind of lost.

No. They are just from less than six miles away. But they are worlds apart.

So the VTCommons kids came on Monday and then came back on a Thursday, ready to try to lead some activities with us, based on what they saw and observed. They came a little early and asked questions:

  • How do I teach them if I don’t know their languages?
  • Where are they from?
  • What languages do they speak?

And then they stayed later to see what they could do to help me. What kinds of things do we need to learn? Well… everything. Colors. Daily activities. Prepositions of place. Clothing. Comparatives. Superlatives. Speaking in general. You name it, they have to learn it. But the trick is getting it to stick.

The crash course I give to visitors is overly simplistic. There is no way I can convey the deep compassion I have for these heroic students who are heroes just by existing in the world. In their short lifetimes, they have had to make much more difficult decisions than I face. When I chose to go overseas–twice as a foreign exchange student and once in Peace Corps–I knew I was coming home. I had that privilege. I own that.

But I cannot even imagine what it must feel like to leave everything forever: Friends. Family. Places. Routines. Everything familiar is gone. And then they walk into my class where I make them do silly things. They don’t want to say no, because I am the teacher. I deserve respect just because of the job I do. But they do want to say no, because it’s silly.

So here, I’ll just share some of the pictures from that first day, and then tomorrow, I’ll share some of the activities we did together.

I’m glad they came.

I would like to think we all learned a little bit more about the world, just by coming together.

img_5025Last year, I wrote a DonorsChoose.org grant for MinecraftEDU.

I spent a week planning how to roll this out to my new students. I spent more than a month trying to figure out how to get it on our computers. I then ran out of time as our school year wound down.

New year, new administration.

I spent more than a month figuring out how to get people to let me have my club.

I spent another month trying to figure out how to make it work on the computers and with my students.

And then they hated it.

They didn’t have enough English to figure out how to run the game. And when you don’t understand, you quickly reach frustrational level, and you quit. And that’s what happened.

Now, it’s February. Nearly a year has passed since I fulfilled the grant. I feel like I’ve been taking baby steps, but I finally have a small group of dedicated gamers meeting me weekly to hang out in our world. It’s not always perfect, but I’ve found that the goal is being met. I got the grant to show that the game could help boost soft skills, those skills employers desire yet are rarely taught by schools. You have them or you don’t. Your family network taught you, or they didn’t. Employers want, nay, need these skills.

So in the new world of proficiency-based learning, our district has developed the following graduation expectations, which we are asking students to meet:

final-bhs-ges-graphic

http://partnershipvt.org/assets/Final-BHS-GEs-graphic.jpg?f6f2f1

In our school, this is what that means:

  • Cross-Cultural Understanding and Engagement

I actively seek to learn about and to understand peoples, cultures, and perspectives. I engage in the life of my community and the greater world.

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

I ask challenging questions, examine authentic problems, and analyze possible solutions.

  • Effective Communication

I use a variety of methods to express, receive, and respond to information and ideas.

  • Personal Development

I identify my strengths and weaknesses, advocate for my health and well-being, make positive choices, and take intentional steps to grow.

  • Curiosity and Creativity

I explore ideas with an open mind and try new and different ways to approach life and learning.

So what does this look like in Minecraft?

Cross-cultural understanding is furthered by the diverse group of gamers I’ve collected in my club. They shout to each other across the room and try to understand where the others are coming from. One of my boys ducked out of the game and started playing by himself last week. “They were all busy doing something. I just wanted to create.” A little later, one of the girls who was playing stopped and asked what he was doing and served up some praise for his building that he was working on. It was not just crossing cultures (she was American-born; he came to the United States a few years ago), but rather the extrovert was reaching out to someone with a few more introverted tendencies. Really, it was so beautiful to see!

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving develops in unexpected ways. The world we created had us starting the game on an island. They ran out of raw materials. So they asked me for the power to fly. They call out to me and ask that I, the benevolent runner of the game, gift them the tools they need. When I found a village for them, they decided they wanted to inhabit and expand the houses. Great! I thought they would build something that would help the game’s villagers multiply and be happy. And instead, the bloodthirsty group of teens killed them all. “They were annoying.” “We wanted their houses.” My heart broke a little, but they did solve their problems…in unexpected ways.

Effective Communication happens when they ask for peers to come help protect the houses or to help kill off the horde. They chatter constantly. And they also come to me with their needs. I feel a little like mom, but I think they’d make it work even without me. When they don’t know how to do something, they talk to each other to figure it out: “How do I tame a horse?” “How can I put the saddle on?” “Do you have any food? Can I have some?” “Who keeps leaving my door open?” (I just neglect to say that was me…)

Personal Development (within the game) comes with learning how to build or how to move past something difficult. A student showed me how to build a better roof one afternoon. Another brought a friend deep into a mine and together they discussed ways to build a house. They are gaining proficiency in the game, particularly those who were not so savvy the first time out. How does this translate into real life? They can see how the “how” in communicating matters. They can see that skill-building is a necessary tool to be successful. They set their own goals. They combine forces to determine what they should do next, such as determining how to get a horse/cow/sheep to a neighboring island. Could we build a spawner? Would that help us move forward? Maybe next week…

Curiosity and Creativity is built into the whole experience. What can you make? Where will your decisions take you?

My next steps are to create movies in simple English to help my newest arrivals become just as fascinated with this game as I am. I started out by teaching them such directional words as “left,” “right,” “forward,” “backward,” and I can envision getting them to take shots of their avatars demonstrating prepositions of location. But first I have to get them to feel comfortable moving and building. I think it’s a long-term investment of time. But I’m willing to do what it takes to get us there.

 

Let me in

Such a powerful video. It helps show why we need to be human. Maybe people need to see it from their own perspective in order for it to be real…

 

 

Part of getting one’s message across is using gestures, eye contact and facial expressions. And that’s what we’ve been working on in my class, with a little help from Ms. Susan.

The game below, called “Do you know your neighbor?” is an awesome way to have my English learners use non-verbal communication in a non-threatening situation. But how is that learning English? Because gaining confidence (“willingness to communicate” or WTC in the research world) helps break down what language teachers call the affective filter. Researcher Stephen Krashen was the first to name negative emotions associated with language learning and production with that term.

Here’s more explanation from a site called ELD Strategies:

When the affective filter is high, individuals may experience stress, anxiety, and lack of self-confidence that may inhibit success in acquiring a second language. On the other hand, a low affective filter facilitates risk-taking behavior in regards to practicing and learning a second language.

In this game, there are one fewer chairs than people. The person in the middle asks, “Do you know your neighbor?” The response is always, “Yes, I know my neighbor.” While this exchange is happening, others sitting in the circle exchange glances, nods, waves–whatever it takes–to exchange seats without the person in the middle noticing. If s/he does notice, the person who is “it” tries to intervene and steal a chair from the two trying to exchange.

Simple, right?

But to play, the people sitting have to be brave and take risks–exactly what teachers want to see from their students who are learning a new language.

It was hard to get my students to speak in complete sentences. It’s something we’re still working on. But it’s getting better. And these kiddos need to laugh.

A lot of teaching English is just getting people comfortable in their own skins. My voice is foreign to me when I speak in German or Chinese. I had to work to make it sound like my own. And these are the battles my students are fighting as well… So anything we can do to just make them interact with each other and feel comfortable in the group is helpful, such as creating a handshake:

…Or doing silly things to teach opposites, such as dancing HIGH and LOW.  Teaching them movement in this way not only teaches language, but elements of dance and movement.

We also have been working on using ordinal numbers. We learned that when giving the date, we have to use them. And they are tricky to say. So Ms. Susan brought an idea for us to sequence three events in our mornings. Again, full sentences are called for. So it’s an exercise in remembering patterns.

Next week, we’ll be playing with Susan and friends from Vermont Commons School.

Where is the compassion?

I cannot understand how this isolationist move can possibly help make us “great again.”

http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-trump-refugees-20170127-story.html

In the words of my friend, Rai, is what I really want to say:

 

(Trigger Warning: Not Kind) Vermont had 100 Syrian refugee families set to arrive in 2017. Two made it in before Cheeto’s mental health disappeared. Now 98 *families* are back in limbo after 3-5 years in waiting, after being vetted (picked apart), going through rigorous security screenings, and being cleared for US resettlement. Dreams and hopes of mothers, fathers, and children dashed – because some Americans and the man they elected are misguided, misinformed, scared xenophobic, Islamophobic bigots.

Statement of Steven Goldstein, Executive Director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, the U.S. civil and human rights organization among Anne Frank organizations worldwide:

As President Trump prepares orders to wall out Mexicans and shut out refugees from America, today marks one of the most hateful days in our nation’s history. Donald Trump is retracting the promise of American freedom to an extent we have not seen from a President since Franklin Roosevelt forced Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. Today the Statue of Liberty weeps over President Trump’s discrimination.

President Trump is beyond the wrong side of history. He is driving our nation off a moral cliff.

When President Trump uses national security as a guise for racism, he doesn’t strengthen our national security. He compromises our national security by engendering disrespect for America by people around the world.

Make no mistake, suspending visas for citizens of Middle Eastern and African countries is not called national security. It’s called prejudice.

President Trump is now exacerbating the largest global refugee crisis in history. His slamming America’s doors on the starving, the wounded and the abused is a grotesque blot on our nation’s history of freedom. The President’s actions are an embarrassment to the timeless vision of America as inscribed by Emma Lazarus to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Demonizing refugees and immigrants, and spending billions of taxpayer dollars to keep them out of our nation, will go down in American history as one of the most tragic deviations from our national conscience.

 

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