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A beautiful day for a walk

Thursday was our next-to-last day of regular classes and our next-to-last day with Susan Palmer, our Flynn artist.

When we were talking about what would make sense to cover a couple of weeks ago, I just kept coming back to time. But when it’s so hot outside (93 degrees! It’s not even summer yet!), it’s just not prudent to stay indoors.

So I ran to the store and got water and food, and Susan brought some chips, and we were ready to go.

We did have Susanna Olson with us, another Flynn artist who I worked with many years ago at the Integrated Arts Academy. She told me at the end of our walk that she had been meaning to come by, and it suddenly was the end of the year. And now we were finishing. So my students got to play a little name game/greeting stuff before we took off.

At the classroom, we prepared for our outing, talking about what students could see in a field, in the forest and at the beach. We brainstormed and made movements (which I sadly did not catch on video) to reflect items that we might see. How many different ways are there to show “forest,” for example?

We had spent a third of our time getting ready (in addition to the name games and brainstorming, we also were assigning photos so that all would be walking with a purpose). It all felt kind of last minute, making it up a bit as we went along, because although we were planning, we were both kind of planning past each other. I brought a list of a scavenger hunt; she had in mind something that came more from the students. Two different ways to deal with the same issue of keeping students’ heads in the game.

That’s the drawback of not really having that face-to-face time and of making up lessons week by week. Maybe next time I have the chance to develop a project with the Flynn, we need to build in some google hangout space so we can see each others’ faces outside of that five minutes at the end. Even just a few minutes to get our thoughts together the night before or over the weekend would be so helpful. Email just isn’t sufficient for getting the job done.

Soon I’ll post all the photos students took. They each had an ipad and an assignment. The boys were all going a bit crazy with finding every single flower in existence to photograph, which led to me needing to herd the group every once in awhile.

The rain we’ve been experiencing of late, along with the heat of Wednesday and Thursday, brought a few swarms of mosquitos our direction. It also brought up the chance for Susan to explain to students about ticks, a pretty big concern in the area at this time of year.

We ran out of time to eat, but we did see a snake and we collected artifacts on our walk. Susanna got the opportunity to meet a few of my students, and we reconnected a bit. It was overall a lovely day, and a nice way to begin ending our time with Susan for the year.

 

 

 

Beginning-Middle-End

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What makes you happy?

What makes you sad?

These were the questions we started with when we met with Susan Palmer on May 8. The idea was to build on the work we had done during the previous meeting, when we read a book and talked about the beginning, middle and end of the story and how the characters’ moods changed throughout.

We this time asked students to create their own movement piece and have the other student follow those movements, then to add all six movements together to make a finished piece. Performance. Creativity. I should really be tagging these blog posts to the Graduate Expectations they are bringing to students… But on with the story.

The focus was on beginning-middle-end, and then creating a collaborative sequence.

We expanded from pairs to triads:

After working with groups, we were ready to move on to something that was a step harder. What we didn’t realize was how big that step actually was.

We returned to the imaginary box, but this time, we each took an animal that Susan introduced, held it, and made the sound that it made. For this, we started to get a little pushback. It was odd. They had been brave for so long, taking what we were asking them to do and performing with gusto. But this time, the mood was a little off. Even though everybody claimed, yet again, to be feeling “OK” or “fine”.

Ugh.

We then took these characters and tried to make a simple story in groups, the boys in one group and the girls in another. You added one sentence to the story to make the next part and added a sound effect to make it come alive.

And this, I think because of where we are with English language development, did not go as planned. It was hard and answers had to be pulled out of students. It happened, but in the end, it was a difficult activity for this level. Not one we’d try like this again.

It’s hard to be original in another language. And it’s even harder to keep lists of original ideas in your head when they are not your own. Here are our results:


For the girls’ story, we found out afterwords, the most proficient student created it, and then they all just took their roles.

Just goes to show that there’s more than one way to skin (or in this case, sting) a cat…

Another visitor! And a book!

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Today, Susan Palmer floated a different idea: Let’s connect beginning-middle-end with the curriculum. We talked briefly about what would make sense: A story? A painting? A photograph?

final-bhs-ges-graphicShe mentioned that she knew a lovely picture book, but it was probably too young for this group.

Picture books however, particularly wordless ones, make sense for beginning English Learners. They open the door to having meaning come from the page. And wordless means that you don’t have to find meaning in someone else’s words. You make it up. Creativity. One of the Graduation Expectations for our school.

Although this could have worked with almost any medium, including video, that we would choose to bring in, a book is kind of magical.

On the day of our meeting, Susan brought Jenny Norris with her. She is another Flynn artist who is doing work with Parent University, a district-supported initiative to get new American parents involved in their children’s schools. She came to watch our work to get some guidance on how to teach students who were beginning English learners.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 9.06.27 PM.pngThe book Susan chose was this one, Flora and the Peacocks by Molly Idle.

We were able to focus on our own feelings and on what we do that makes us happy.  We talked about before and after: What do you do before school? What do you do after school? We acted out what our partners did before and after school. And adding in that element of time really messed with some people’s concept of what we were doing. Time is just such a hard concept in another language:

And then we looked at the book. As we explored, our conversation required a deeper vocabulary to look at the issues. We introduced the words jealous and curious. And then we created with our bodies still pictures of what happened at the beginning, middle and end of the book.

It was a very simple, yet rich, conversation that I would have never brought to these students. The key is always trying something. Even when it falls flat, it’s important to try. I would love to grab some important paintings and have them do the same kind of activity: what happened just before the artist painted this scene? What do you think will happen next?

We focus on these shifts in time every day when we look at the calendar. What is the date today? What will be the date tomorrow? What was the date yesterday?

Our final activity was to reinforce giving an opinion before we practiced again IMG_5982expressing an opinion about the lesson (which, of course, ends up being focused on what students liked. It’s fine, but I’d really love to find out what they really think. For that, we may have to work in their first language. They are always a bit reluctant to criticize…).

When I worked with Lida Winfield in my classroom a few years ago,  We did an activity after talking about my wedding in which we tried to discover what students did at celebrations in their home countries. For example, we eat cake after a wedding. Do you eat cake at a wedding? To respond to the prompt, students would choose the “yes” side of the room or the “no” side. And then we would ask students to tell us how they celebrated and ask if others did the same.

We had also used this same kind of response with expressing opinions. I had told Susan about it, and we tried a game in which students got to ask questions, and we all responded by running to different sides of the room: Do you like winter? Do you like rain? Do you like dogs? Do you like sweet? Do you like spicy?

We asked the first dozen or so questions, and then the students took over. It was amazing and beautiful as they started jumping over each other trying to ask the next question. And then the questions moved to areas that I would rather have taken more time with, for example: Do you like God?

I was left alone on the “no” side of the room as I had to explain that as an atheist I have no god. And that was a little weird. And then the same student wanted to know if we liked Judas, but he didn’t say “Judas”, he said “Juda,” which left the Westerners in the room confused. And then I had to explain that not everybody knew Judas because not everybody was Christian.

Do you like the United States? Most students said yes. One said no. (Telling. I’d love to have that conversation, too.) But all three of the English-speaking teachers went to the middle, undecided part of the room.

So when we got to the part about expressing opinions, there was no confusion. The answer was echoed across the room:

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Working with a partner: Mirror me!

One of the most tried and true theater games is mirror, where one person leads and the other follows, with the object being to be so in sync with one’s partner that an outsider cannot tell who is leading. A lesson plan for it can be found here. This game calls for concentration, focus and body awareness.

We’re still working on this, as you can see from the mirror game we played:

This day’s focus was varied. We did so many things, such: color tag, where the students had to touch a color in the room before being tagged by whoever was “it”; mirror; invisible ball, in which we threw a pretend ball to each other demonstrating size and weight; invisible box with invisible clothes, for which we pantomimed putting on while naming; and shake-out, where we shake our limbs to get us warmed up or to get our blood flowing again in a low point.

Activities Ms. Susan brings into the classroom reflect the content that I am trying to teach. They need to know clothes to be able to describe themselves and others. They need to know colors to help describe the clothes. They need to know opposites to help describe the world and people around them. So many things in such a short time.

For What Did You Do This Weekend?, we shared one activity and then found a way to show that activity to a partner. Then, to make things a little more difficult, we introduced using pronouns he and she to describe what our partner did (past tense). We’re still working on using complete sentences, so this was a much needed activity:

At the end of class, we worked on stating opinions, a skill that is reflected throughout the common core, but is not normally a skill for beginning speakers. My goal is to build this into “because” statements to help provide the beginning workings for eventually defending a theory, a skill needed across the curriculum. The sentence frames, shown in the picture above, were to help students choose what activity of the day that they enjoyed most.

Although I always introduce the negative, we never hear the negative. I can count on the fact that everybody in the class is good/OK/fine every day. Even though I model my own varied moods, which seem to follow weather patterns.

The sweetest thing happened, though, and I’m not sure you will see it in the first short video, but one student was helping another with recording his video. He is brand-new and just didn’t understand the concept. So he got directions in Nepali and then she demonstrated:

I just love it when my students take care of each other. Oftentimes it shows up within a language subgroup, but through my work with Flynn artists, we are building a caring community that crosses language subgroups.

It makes me so unbelievably happy to work with these students when I see this kind of empathy in action!

Academic Skills: Sorting with a twist

In my class in mid-April, we were working on a skill that is inherent to us as humans: sorting.

We are taught formally how to do this in kindergarten, and we build on it throughout our lives, particularly in the school setting.

Sorting, or categorizing, is essentially the work we do when we write paragraphs, grouping similar ideas. It’s what we do in math when we look for patterns, learning how to determine odd and even numbers, primes and composites. It’s how we classify animals in science. And it’s how we approach the world: This person is like me or not.

One researcher, John Anderson of Carnegie Mellon University, posited decades ago that there are three reasons humans categorize: Creating a linguistic label that we can all learn; Recognizing feature overlap; and Denoting similar functions. In a more recent article in Scientific American, researchers at Harvard found that we are hard-wired to categorize what we see. 

So it’s an important skill to learn for students in a Western teaching environment. My students have been learning about how to label items, so that they can later build on the meta-awareness of categorizing.

For some projects, the task is open.

How do you want to sort these things? (Buttons, shells, rocks…)

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For others, there is a right and wrong way:

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On this particular day, after I shared with Flynn artist Susan Palmer that we were working on sorting, she came up with a way we could work on sorting things in the environment. Susan’s specialty is movement and drama/storytelling.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 6.54.57 PM

In looking at the elements of drama, we’ve been working on many of these elements all year. This was about creating (one of our school’s Graduation Expectations), imitation (an element of Drama, see left), and presentation (one of my department’s standards).

So the main activity focused on these questions:

What do you see on the land? What do you see in the air? What do you see in the water?

We brainstormed lists and then our job was to create movements and sounds for the words we came up with that fit into these physical environments. You can see the results of our group performances below. We had to choose one of the items we had brainstormed for each environment and create a picture as a group.

We were fortunate to have with us on this day Gina Haddock, director of development at the Flynn, and Kitty Coppak, representing the Oakland Foundation, which supports our work with the Flynn.

Doing such performances allows students in a low-stakes environment to get up in front of peers, which builds self-esteem in using the language.

Do we look silly? Yes. But it’s silly with a purpose.

As part of the class we also worked on handshakes:

We also worked on performance through a game called 1-10. The purpose of this is to work together with a partner to build a picture while counting. Again, it’s low-stakes and demands creativity from both partners:

Although the activities may seem deceptively simple, what we are building is (hopefully) something that students can use in years to come as they grow linguistically and academically.

I am overjoyed that Gina and Kitty were able to join us. I love letting people in our classroom to play with us!

Spring brings a revival of sorts

Last week, after more than a month hiatus, our Flynn performing artist came back. And it happened to coincide with one of the most beautiful days our little Vermont town had seen in a long time.

The sun was shining.

And we all needed to get outside.

Susan had a list of plans, but she had sent a last-minute email. And I was so antsy to have the sun on my face after a week of clouds…

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So I handed out the stress balls to everybody and told them to grab an iPad and we were heading outdoors with Ms. Susan.

It was a nice opportunity to ease back into using theater games in the classroom and also to re-introduce the idea of cooperative fun.

We looked for signs of spring on our way down to the shore of Lake Champlain, a 10-minute walk from school. But because most of these students have never seen spring spring here before, they didn’t quite know what to look for.

Susan and I found ourselves trying to show them: See? The tree is budding. The snow is melting. The mud is here now. There are birds. Do you hear them?

But if you’ve never missed it before, you don’t know what is new and what is returning. And so we went to the beach and played.

We threw balls to each other (though sometimes it felt as though it was at each other), calling out names, making eye contact, and pushing all to keep everyone involved. When one would wander off, another would bring that student back.

Even on the way back we were continuing to break off and chat and play.

It was so beautiful to see these students from such disparate cultures reaching out to each other to enjoy an hour in the sun.

Even if it was a little chilly.

A reunion to facilitate testing

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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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