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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.


Just found my opening video for class

This video was outstanding.

I wonder if  can get my creators to start thinking about social justice…

YES Day 7: Spirit of Ethan Allen & ECHO

#SoGrateful #bhsyes2017

The Spirit of Ethan Allen is usually a highlight of our YES program. However, though it was sunny, the morning cruise was awfully cold. Nobody dressed for weather on the high seas…

Afterwards, we walked to the skateboard park to meet a community partner, but because of calendar snafus, we didn’t connect. The girls got hot and started walking toward ECHO, our next destination. The boys got someone to loan them a skateboard while I was on the phone with the community partner. I asked them to finish up, but they weren’t finished. And I was left with two students.

What do you do when you lose a class?

I needed to head back to feed the meter. And it was lunchtime. The girls said they didn’t want to eat, but then, when I circled back around, they did. So it was back to the car. And then I tried one more time to get the boys, who were on their way back when I found them. I asked the boys to move to the girls and have them meet us at ECHO (THANK YOU, ECHO, FOR THE DISCOUNTED TICKETS!!!), but the message didn’t get through…

After herding cats for what seemed like an eternity, we finally ended up at ECHO to see butterflies and fish and to play with sand. When the time came, most took off to find their own way home, but I ended up with four students in the Champlain Lake Basin library, on the second floor of ECHO. There, they encountered puzzles for the first time.

And then, I couldn’t get them to leave.

Lovely when learning takes over!


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My thanks to Erik Oliver from ECHO for making it possible for us to come. And to the woman whose card I’ve lost, who worked so hard to keep things interesting in the Lake Champlain Basin research room. Her name might be Laura. Thanks too, to the unknown skaters who made my students’ day. That was the first time they tried skateboarding. They just might be hooked! The day would not have been the same without you. I’m grateful! #SoGrateful #YES@BHS

YES Day 6: Shelburne Museum

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Shelburne Museum is such a cool place. But it’s really hit-or-miss with our students. They either really dig it, or they think that it’s the most boring thing ever.

And we had a little of both.

The museum, for those of you who’ve not been, is a spot where old buildings have been gathered together to show a bit of the past. There is a carousel that one can ride (now for a fee), a building featuring old-time circuses, an old jail house, a train station, a boat that used to cruise up and down Lake Champlain, a one-room schoolhouse, a sawmill, a collection of toys, a printer, a weaver, a blacksmith, lovely gardens…

It’s a pretty cool place to check out history.

But on a hot day where these things look like just more things, some of our students just wanted to chill under the shade of the trees. The whole Nepali-speaking contingency brought a picnic, as the turkey sandwiches just weren’t cutting it, dietary-wise. They need their hot peppers. Our food tastes like nothing.

But the watermelon I offered up was at least a bit of a bright spot.

After we left a bunch of the girls sitting on picnic tables, we continued to wander around, getting a glimpse of things from the past. For some, it was boring. Walk and look. Walk and look.  But for at least one of our students, it was so interesting. She didn’t want to leave. She was ready to volunteer and stay there the rest of the summer, if we’d let her.

The little rays of sunshine…

Another visitor! And a book!


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:


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!

Combatting fear with subversive tactics

This week, our multilingual liaison asked if students were reporting incidents of harassment or expressing fear. How were we dealing with that in our classrooms.

I do have to say that I’ve not heard of any harassment at our school directly related to the election this week.

But students are fearful.

I teach students with the lowest level of English Language Proficiency at our school. And I had three of them use their best words to ask if they needed to start packing their bags.


I thought that this blog post and the comic it pointed me to by a woman named Maeril provides a much-needed tool for people to combat the hate they may be seeing.

The comic pushes people to focus on the target rather than the harasser. It’s a non-confrontational way to move the conversation, alter the focus. I think many of us freeze because we want to stop the pain at its source, but we’re afraid. So we do nothing.

It’s so important to not be a bystander in a time when fear and hate prevail.

So jump in. Start a conversation with the person being targeted. Talk about anything: How you chose chicken salad at lunch over tuna salad; how you really think that people should recycle more; how your mom just called and just brightened your day.

The topic doesn’t matter. Dissolving the targeted hatred does.

It’s like my daughter said, “You could use this any time somebody’s being bullied.”

Yep. You could.

Let’s all be problem-solvers!








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