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Calls home produce results, maybe

Earlier this week, I wrote Waiting for my groove, outlining my struggle with trying to open doors for my students as they struggle with “playing school.”

I’ve committed to presenting on exactly this topic on a panel at TESOL International Conference in Chicago this coming spring. I’ve been worried that I will have nothing to talk about. I will have to report that my action research yielded nothing. So I’m trying to figure out what to do next.

The liaison coordinator at our school–she’s a former refugee herself, who now coordinates multilingual liaisons who keep us in touch with parents in the community by facilitating interpretation–said she had read my post and found it interesting.


She agreed we don’t really know what to do to trigger internal motivation that will help these students work harder to change their current trajectory. And she said she agreed fully with the Alan November article I quoted about handing students technology that in actuality was nothing more than “$1,000 pencils.”

But in this one week of experimentation (of putting on my “heart hat”), I have found a new willingness–and I use that term loosely–to do work.

Here is the scheme:

I look to see if they have done the 10 minutes of typing homework I have assigned. If yes, everything is wonderful. If no, I publicly invite them (by listing names on the agenda, which I project daily on the screen at the front of the room) to stay for 10 minutes after class to do the homework with me while I sit with them.

“I cannot make you stay,” I say. “If you have something better to do, then do that. But know that I will call home. Not because I’m trying to cause trouble, but because I love you and I want you to succeed.”

The discomfort my students have with that sentence is palpable. They look at each other almost as if to check to see if I’m bluffing. This week, they found out I’m not. I issued through liaisons seven calls home when students chose not to stay with me, disappearing after the bell when they thought I would forget that I had listed their names.

The change has been overwhelming. It’s almost eerie.

If I hold them accountable to their parents and guardians, whom they don’t want to disappoint, it’s like sprinkling magic fairy dust and uncovering a dedicated individual who truly cares about what is happening in class.

Now, we all know that the change I’m experiencing is not a magical internal shift that happened overnight. It’s that they are not wanting to make waves at home.

When I taught in New York City, I had colleagues caution about calling home. Oftentimes this well-meaning outreach would result in the child getting beaten by the parents who were upset their child could not follow the rules. And not wanting to make this game of school be necessarily that kind of life lesson, I tended to resort to cajoling and pleading with the student, mostly to no avail.

So we are back to phone calls, just to see how it goes.

Not wanting to make waves at home has forced a sea change for my students. They are doing the 10 minutes of typing practice that I was using as an indicator of personal growth and responsibility. That indicator is produced and maintained this week by fear of negative consequences, but nonetheless, it’s a start.

This shift has also been a learning experience for me.

It afforded me learning opportunities in class, showing practical applications of skills we learned earlier but have not necessarily revisited. But now I could show them how, had they listened to me just a few short weeks ago, they would not have such problems now.

This is evident in the fact that one student whose home was called came to me and claimed that I was wrong, that he had done all the homework.

“My mom said you told her I didn’t do homework, but I do. All the time.”

I asked him to show me the work he has done on his computer.

He holds his screen in front of me and says: “Look. I was on lesson 12 yesterday, and now it’s back to lesson 1. I don’t know why. Every time. Lesson 1 again.”

It turns out that he was not logging into the site. It’s a painful experience. Everything he had done was for naught. I couldn’t see his efforts because every time he closed that tab on the computer, the past was erased. Along with his grade.at-a-loss-2773594_640

So we talked yet again about how bookmarking was important and how you needed to see your name in the corner of the website we are using to do typing. It’s a great site, by the way, called Typing Club. The school edition helps teachers track time on task as well as average speed and even speed of each finger, if they actually are doing touch typing instead of hunt-and-pecking. And if they are actually logged on to the school site and not the individual site.

When I explained about how important it was to sign in, at least two other students shouted out, “Oh, that’s why!”

Yep. A bunch of students were simply typing in “typingclub” in the search engine and starting as soon as they found the site. Not logging in, and certainly not accessing the site I had set up for them so I could track their work.

So maybe next week I’ll have 100% participation. Finally. This late in the term.

And none of this would have come to the fore had I not initiated calls home. That student would not have confronted me. He would have continued to get zeros on his assignments and silently wonder why. He would have continued to not understand why he could not move past lesson 12. I would not have been able to show him why it was important to bookmark the site and to sign in under the correct URL.

Granted, not every teacher has the luxury of doing what I do. I’m only teaching one class with 21 students. It’s not like when I taught in Orlando and saw 150 students daily. And, in addition, I now have an amazing cadre of multilingual liaisons to carry out my dirty work.

Before devising my evil plan of public humiliation accompanied by ratting out the laggards, I had tried using our Canvas platform to email students, sending gentle reminders that they were missing assignments.

Last week, a student asked me about an email she had gotten from me on Oct. 6, saying she needed to complete a test by the end of the week. I explained why she got that notification and then asked why she didn’t take care of it earlier. “Oh, Miss, I don’t check email.”

And then I explained how you don’t tell your computer teacher that you don’t check email…

In this switch to a technology-driven educational system, where we hand each student a computer without questioning whether they have the background knowledge to use it efficiently or effectively while we mindlessly trudge forward delivering content at what seems to these students to be a maddening pace–why, it’s insanity. At best.

Students don’t know how to check to see if assignments are missing. And showing them one time is not going to help. Even showing them six times or ten times is not going to help. Until it has become habitual-routine-automatic, it’s always going to be a struggle. And that automaticity takes a long time.

I forget that.

Just last week I was complaining to my classes with incredulity that this was the fifth time–the fifth time!–that I had showed them on this specific assignment how to upload a photo to the Canvas platform. We did the same assignment every week! Why was this so hard? I was dumbfounded.

I had to repeat directions time and time again, and what really burned me is that it was the really dedicated students who had no clue. And so I needed to look up how many times I need to repeat something to make it a habit.

James Clear, a blogger/weightlifter wrote an article in 2014 summarizing studies that examined how long people needed to adapt healthy lifestyle habits, and this is what he uncovered:

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In [Phillippa] Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. 

Clear also states in this article that many people propagate the myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. But it is a myth, based on one doctor’s observations that he was noticing patients adapting to losing a limb in approximately 21 days, and nothing more.

And then I wonder why I show a student how to do something five times, once each week (not the daily dose required to make a behavior habitual), and am frustrated that this multistep task is not committed to memory.

And we hand teenagers a Chromebook and expect them to be able to keep up with things and know how to log in and access and remember passwords and type when they  have never had encountered such technology in their lives.

We show their parents once when they come in for parent-teacher conferences how they, too, can keep up with their children’s homework assignments by logging on. They can tell if their child has turned in an assignment or what grade they have currently. Or what score they received on that last test.

And these are parents who are living in poverty, living paycheck to paycheck, who don’t necessarily have a great command of English, and in some cases, are illiterate in their first language as well. And we wonder why there is not a lot of home support, why parents are not checking up on children and holding them accountable.

Because, after all, we showed parents how to log in that one time. With first language support, even.

Maybe they just don’t care about education.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’re not understanding how our students’ brains work.


15 minutes of fame…

Source: https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/schools-see-declining-enrollment-in-ell-programs/Content?oid=7671279

I’m in the newspaper this week! Check it out!

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!

On vacation…

I’m in Hawaii.

But it’s raining.

So I’m posting instead of baking in the sun.

I haven’t played this game yet, but if I taught students who needed to understand the plight of refugees (instead of those who understand it far too well), I’d be jumping on this.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll make my own children play it so they can wallow in the guilt of their white privilege.

Check it out:

Mar 01, 2017

Digital Learning • Learning Support

Branched Storytelling Experience

The conflict in Syria has torn that country apart, leaving thousands dead and driving millions to flee their homes. Many seek refuge in neighboring countries, but others pay traffickers to take them to Europe—risking death, capture, and deportation. If students were fleeing Syria for Europe, what choices would they make for themselves and their families? BBC’s Syrian Journey: Choose Your Own Escape Route helps students to understand the real dilemmas that Syrian refugees face. This journey is based on extensive research and real stories of Syrians who have made the trek. Similar to the branched storytelling in the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books, Syrian Journey is a playable blog post with threaded endings. When they play Syrian Journey, students take notes on the decisions and choices made, and describe the difficulties and challenges faced. As Syrian refugees, students decide whether to deal with smugglers or take a dangerous raft ride across the Mediterranean Sea. The culminating activity involves the creation of a student journal that includes where, as refugees, they are headed and whether asylum is granted. It includes all the push and pull factors of immigration.

Want to see more resources like this? Check out Big Deal Media.  It’s an awesome resource.

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.

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…



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