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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…)


For others, there is a right and wrong way:


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!


You eat what? Why?

sheep-1684536_640So many things come up when a lesson is going on.

I am glad I love teachable moments.

My life is full of them.

For example, would you guess that none of my students could find where they used to live on a map? Or that “of the world” to my students sounds a lot like “on the wall”? Or that in teaching “lamb” we could get into a whole discussion about religion? Or hair?

While learning how to do multiple choice tests WHILE listening WHILE trying to remember what we had just seen in a VOA Learning English video (the one where Anna takes everything out of her bag, including a lamp), we found reason to talk about bar graphs. Over and over again.

First, we polled the room to see who was a coffee drinker (Anna was going out to drink coffee with her friends.)


We found out that many people in the room liked coffee. (By the way, if you’re looking for an easy place to teach students about how to make bar graphs, try this site!)

And then  we had to see how many people ate LAMB when that was one of the item distractors for LAMP.

We had to first search up a photo, because my bleating in class was getting me nowhere. And then it was important to find out who eats lambs. It seemed like a logical question. You have to find out what it is, then you have to find out who eats it. lambeaters

We found out that most people didn’t like lamb.

“Why?” my Muslim student asks.

“Because we all eat different things. Many of our Nepali students don’t eat cow.”

“No cow? I like cow.”

“Yes. But do you eat pig?”

pigs-1507208_640.jpg“PIG? NO!”

So we had to do that poll too. After we got a picture of a pig, because my snorts were not getting us very far in understanding.

Thank goodness for the internet. I wouldn’t get half the teaching done I need to do without being able to pull up a picture every time I need it.

Our new pig eaters graph looked pretty much the opposite of the lamb eaters graph.

But we got a chance to talk about how even though we ate different things, we could still all like each other.

I explained that I’m pescaterian. But I still like my pork-eating friend Ann, who was there helping me out today. And even though I don’t eat lamb, I still like my lamb-eating friends. So we can still get along and help each other out.

But now, I need to explain why I don’t eat animals I can pet.

I just love what I do!


Resources come up short for deaf Bhutanese


Last year, partner teacher Suzy and I met up with a lot of Bhutanese parents who, we were told, were deaf. We wondered why. Nobody could tell us.

Turns out, nobody knows. Some were sick. Some were born deaf. This quote from a recent Seven Days article is just fascinating:

Among the population of 16,000 Bhutanese refugees still living in camps in Nepal, nearly 5 percent have a disability of some kind, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Half of those disabilities are classified as hearing or speech impairments. Untreated ear infections may be a factor, but no scientific study has been conducted to validate this or other possible causes, said Deepesh Das Shrestha, an assistant external relations officer with UNHCR in Kathmandu.

The article describes American Sign Language classes that are being offered through the Howard Center. I’m so excited that Madhu Neupane got this started. He used to be a liaison for the school district. We truly missed out when he moved on to the Howard Center.

He has brought so much good to the Bhutanese community. I miss him.

Anyway, this article is amazing. I really wish I could meet Stephanie Cramer, who is cooking with these women and teaches both ASL and Nepali sign language. And, Seven Days says, she’s the only one in Vermont who has that skill.

We have so many students whose houses we have gone to who have caregivers who have been described to us as “disabled.” Nothing else. Just “disabled.” But that doesn’t help us as teachers.

Do they not hear us? Do they not understand? Are they unable to understand in any language? How can we bring parents in when even the guardian doesn’t really talk to the biological parents while we are in the room?

When we pressed at the beginning for clarification, we met with resistance. It seemed to be an uncomfortable question to ask.

Research tells us that parent involvement is critical when dealing with at-risk students, which is what all of our students are, honestly. I have so much still to learn about my students… Communicating with parents is critical if we are to really help these new Americans move ahead.

We may be in for a tough journey.

Math Minded…

Getting ready to collaborate with my good friend Shelly. We’re doing a presentation about math at MATSOL in May.

That’s a mouthful…

AND, we’re cutting it close.

There are lots of things people can do to make math more manageable for English Language Learners. Things like…

  • word walls (my favorite)
  • anchor charts crediting students’ thinking
  • connecting with students’ lives…
  • Sentence frames

Here is a lovely page I found on sentence frames by Angela Stockman:


This particular flier talks about sentence frames that go across content areas. And they may be a bit too grammatically complex for people who are worried about ELLs, but the idea remains the same.

Whatever you want to hear coming out of their mouths, you have to give them. They need to see it, practice it and have an opportunity to make it their own.



Behind the Mask

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Feelings are weird in a different language. How do you get people to really see what it is you are experiencing when the world is not reflecting your own cultural context?

It’s not easy.

In just a few weeks, the Flynn Center is hosting Evelyn Glennie. She’s a percussionist. And she just happens to be deaf.

My Flynn Center friends came to me a couple of months ago and asked if we could get our students to play in conjunction with this concert and the Community Engagement Lab.  According to their website,

The Community Engagement Lab (CEL) provides leadership to design bold school-based projects that activate students’ creativity while deepening their engagement with their community.

When the opportunity was first proposed, Stacy Raphael at the Flynn originally suggested working with the ExcELL class. But I said no to that.

This year, we’ve had remarkably few beginning level students enter our school. Usually, I test about 40 students who are new to the country. This year, it’s been about half that. If that. I don’t know where all the refugees are going. But it’s not here. We now have 3 students. Nothing compared to our top number of 19 last year.

In addition, the topic of Evelyn Glennie’s presentations generally have to do with listening. Stacy and friends at CEL were interested in how New Americans felt they were heard, or about challenges of being listened to.

Frankly, that’s a challenge for every teen. Everywhere. From the dawn of time. But for real beginning level students, the language to express the frustration that goes with being a teenager who is not heard, and then complicating that issue by adding a language barrier on top… well, it’s just not going to happen.

Instead, I invited them to come play with students who have been in country for a while, but are really at an intermediate level.

My Reading 3 students never really got a chance to work with teaching artists since we started this venture three years ago. And they have opinions. And they do not feel heard.

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 12.27.07 PMSo we started just this past week. Susan Palmer is our teaching artist. She’s been in a different class at our school this year. And now she’s stepping into this role. (You can find out more about her on this website.)

After warming students up and getting them into the idea of playing–this always takes some work in the ELL classroom for a couple of reasons–she brought out neutral masks, which you can see above. I was amazed at how quickly students took to these (partner teacher Suzy was a bit freaked out). But the students thought they were amazing.

One even asked if he could take one home.

We talked about how we use our faces to show our emotions.

And that’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to talk on the phone in another language. There’s no context. No expressions. Far less input from which to glean information.

But our voices and our bodies can be yet another tool. The masks were to show how the body can come into play.

She confided in me that she was unsure about working with these students. It’s a new arena for her. But I think we’re off to a fantastic start.



Innovate? Sign up!

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 1.17.07 PMLast year, I became a PBS Digital Innovator.

I still have a few months to go, but I’ve found it difficult to get people who are not already on board to jump into integrating technology.

Perhaps it’s all the initiatives teachers have to deal with that makes them so busy.

I offered professional development at both my schools, and the ripples that I got in response were truly minimal.

But particularly for ELL students, integration can mean the difference between participation and isolation. Providing pictures, visual models, articles with reduced context… it’s so helpful.

So I encourage you, if you are already a bit tech included to apply to be your state’s next PBS Digital Innovator. Deadlines are fast approaching. And you get some very cool support from PBS.

Idioms muddy the water

Do you understand that headline?


How about this:

I wanted to buy my partner a gift, but it cost an arm and a leg, so planned to mull it over with a friend. We got our signals crossed and ended up at different coffee shops, so I’m just ready to throw in the towel.

How’s that for concrete language?

I once observed a math class in which the teacher, in an attempt to clarify the need for estimating in real-life situations, found no less than five different ways to name the concept, all within a twenty-minute mini-lesson. His heart was in the right place in trying to illustrate what he wanted them to understand, but for low-level English Language Learners, our tendency in English to seek multiple ways to say what we mean is incredibly confusing.

So how can we fix this?


Teachers need to deliver comprehensible input. Students need to comprehend. So if you’re going to talk in idioms, name them. Teach them. Un-muddy the waters.

And then the sky’s the limit.

One way you could do this is simply to record yourself and review your language. Find out what is coming out of your mouth. We often don’t even notice what we are saying.

Another is to ask a colleague to observe with the specific instruction to listen for idiomatic language. I don’t think we ask often enough for colleagues to observe us. Isn’t it our job to work on perfecting our practice? And yet, it’s easy not to do anything.

After all, we have things to do. We’re busy people.

But taking a few minutes to simplify your language, to make the abstract a little more concrete, could have big payoffs in the end.


Beth Evans

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