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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!

VT Commons students come back!

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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.


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.

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.

Comfortable with Getting Visual

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.

Beginning our Flynn journey!


This year, I have started working with Susan Palmer, a teaching artist from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. I had tried to get a grant to fund a yearlong residency, even though my class rosters are constantly changing. It’s a tough gig for a teaching artist.

But my grant failed.

So I’m taking a class. The class guarantees me at least seven sessions. And seven is far better than none.

My students generally move from my class, where the focus is on listening and speaking English (essentially gaining self-confidence and vocabulary, memorizing phrases and learning how to communicate in this new culture), to English 1, where the focus turns to writing, the toughest domain for language learners.

My theory is if you can say it, we can teach you to write it. But it’s really hard to write it if you don’t know what you’re saying.

And I think drama and movement is the best way to get students to that point, where they can say what they want to say and can get started on expressing themselves with purpose and confidence.

We will be meeting for seven weeks, and the first happened recently. At the top, you can see one of my volunteers playing a movement game with one of my students. The game is called 1-10. The idea is to create a static picture. Each person takes one turn while saying the next number in the sequence, and the idea is to create a picture, like a statue, that is aesthetically pleasing. Here’s what it looks like in practice:

Sometimes it’s incredibly hard to be an audience member, as you might have seen in this video.

We’ve put new technology in the hands of young people who have never had the chance to take selfies before. And even though these students are not NEW new, they are still relatively new to the school and to this culture. And so sometimes, we need to set firmer boundaries.

Another way to do this would be to have the student who is not watching become the documentarian, which is what needs to happen next.

Another activity we tried was to show what we did this weekend. The language points in this were to use past tense and to communicate meaning.

We had to act out what we did during the weekend without saying it, and then others had to guess. Like a simple game of charades.

Although this may not seem like academic work, expressing these ideas for these students is more difficult than you can imagine. It’s simple to say in their own language, but words escape them often. Even phrases we’ve practiced over and over again become lost in the weekend or even in the course of a day.

Here’s what that activity looked like:

It doesn’t seem like much, but even these simple forays will be essential as we work to build confidence in English learning.

We will be meeting Mondays through February. I can’t wait to see where life takes us!

Every year that we take this plunge, I feel like I’m getting better and better at helping my students push themselves to be a little braver in their English acquisition.

My hope is they will be brave enough to ask the hard questions when they need help. And who doesn’t want a student who can self-advocate?

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.


MONDAY! Time to play again!

flynn2Susan Palmer is coming to my class again! I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us this week.

It’s so fascinating to watch what happens with these encounters.

We asked students to make their own handshakes, but they all came out looking a lot like the handshake Susan and I made up together. So I think we need to work a bit on creativity.

And Susan brought a game in which we had to introduce the names and sounds of animals. One person would leave the room and “unfreeze” people to find the desired pet. But the idea of “freeze” and “unfreeze” are still a little unclear.

I love doing this work because it lets me know how much farther we have to go with having students find themselves in this new language and culture.

I also find myself being a little melancholy because we’ve just started, and soon it will be time for five of my fledglings to move on: The purpose of my class is to move students as quickly as possible toward credit-bearing classes and, ultimately, on a path toward high school graduation.

I grimace because I’m just not done with them yet. I want to teach them so much more. But the end of the semester, and their departure, is coming soon. We’ll have to see how far we get in the next couple of weeks.

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