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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!

Movement to bridge the social/language/education gap

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.

Turning our Monday Around

This past Monday, everybody was dragging. The weather in Vermont this time of year just keeps getting more wintery. And that has a bit of a deleterious effect on students whose homelands are a bit more tropical.

Monday last week was just one of those days.

I was EXHAUSTED. It’s a new word I’m trying to teach them. But all of my students report that they are “fine.” “OK.” “Good.” Even though I can tell from their body language and lack of energy that they are not.

But Susan came in ready to play. And she really turned our day around. She had likely two hours worth of stuff to do planned. But we followed our hearts, and our draggy bodies were dancing at the end.

Such great stuff!

It’s kind of funny how teens are so reticent to use their imaginations. I think we kill imaginations in school. We teach kids that often there is only one right answer and one right way to get there, and that they need to fit in. That’s not only the behavior we expect in the classroom, but also the behavior they expect from each other. You act differently from the herd and you are ostracised.

We’ve all been there.

So getting kids to use their imaginations and pretend that this ball we are holding and yet not holding is really big or really heavy or really light seems very strange. So strange, in fact, that one of my girls went to the board to hand me an eraser so we could actually throw things. I think she was trying to show me that we didn’t have to pretend. We could actually throw something.

How do you explain that in simple English? Here’s what I wanted to say: “The entire point of this exercise is to get you to use your imaginations and your bodies to show opposite concepts. Your job is to show me that you understand what it looks like when something is heavy or light. And you need to work together with your peers to make this happen.”

But here’s the translation: “Thanks, but I want you to use your brain and SHOW ME. No erasers. PRETEND.”

Eventually we get the concepts. And eventually they play along, even if they think it’s silly:

  • Dancing emphasizing legs, elbows, arms and knees. But after we dance, those terms are a little more solid in their minds.
  • Playing the mirror game to build observational and teamwork skills.
  • Do you know your neighbor? A game that teaches the pattern of question and answer while people behind the questioner’s back make eye contact to work together to secretly switch places.

And in the midst of all this, conversations arise. One student needed to tell me that she was gone because she had to get “this thing” as she pantomimed getting a shot in her arm. Another student talked about what she had done on the weekend. All important stuff in a class where I’m asking students to take risks and put themselves out into the world.

Thank you, Susan, for playing along! And thank you to the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts teaching program for helping me bring this exciting work to our students.

We have one more week with Susan before my class gets a lot smaller. Some of my students have worked to develop their English skills enough to move on. I’m conflicted because I always miss them when they leave, but I’m so proud when they can move forward with their educational goals.

Today’s the day to play!

I can’t wait.

 

Local girls make the Huff Post!

poets

I used to teach one of these girls.

But she and her group of poets have moved on. And up.

I wrote a post about them a few months back when I got a chance to hear them do their thing.

And now they are making national news: The Huffington Post wrote a piece called 17 Muslim American Women Who Made America Great in 2016. 

Nice going, girls! You’re making a name for yourself!

So awesome!

 

Kudos for Curtains, and for Clare

curtains-with-curtain-colorThank you, Clare, for making it happen.

Tonight, Kevin Cross and I took our students to Burlington High School’s production of Curtains.

So lovely, for many reasons.

The cast, crew, production were all wonderful. But the most wonderful thing was seeing my students smile and laugh.

They didn’t have any idea what was happening.

None.

But they enjoyed going out at night with us to watch a show and to see some students they normally see in street clothes at school.

And some of them might just someday find their way to the stage. They enjoyed seeing these people on stage. “Maybe when my English is better.” “Yes! Is good!” “I like it.”

So awesome.

There were a couple of students who were just too tired to stay awake and alert. They had to be admonished for taking out phones. But for the most part, they liked it. We’ll do a bar chart tomorrow to measure success.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks to all of you, cast, crew, directors, musicians, and financial supporters and offerers, for helping us bring this night to our students. I love you all.

 

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