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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!

Student Voice in Changing Images


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The following is a press release from the International Club at Burlington High School:

The recent national election brought fear to many immigrant families in Vermont. With the increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric, new Americans–refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers–were distressed about their future in Burlington, Vermont, and the United States.

What was going to happen to them? Would they be safe in America? Would they have to leave?

Driven by the real fear she witnessed in her pediatric practice, Dr Andrea
Green reached out to Burlington High School to see if she could support the students in
feeling safe and welcome. The students of the International Club of Burlington High School were also worried and wanted to do something.

The students met together with Dr. Green to talk about these fears and ways to communicate that Vermont is a place where all are welcome. During these meetings and the design process the students strengthened their voice and power to stand up against hurtful rhetoric. They were able to share how Burlington has been a welcoming community. Something they wanted to make visible to all.


The pictures above were taken in downtown Burlington, Vt., on Friday, as students distributed posters to businesses and pins to passersby. The artists took a detour to Senator Bernie Sanders’ office to spread the word.

Burlington is a fairly welcoming community for refugees. Many businesses have a “Refugees are Welcome Here” poster that was distributed by Jewish Voice for Peace.

I’m so excited about this movement with student voice at the center.

It’s what is supposed to happen. I’m so proud of them.

Nepalis on my mind…

img_995920rations20distribution20wfpThe last couple of days while I’ve been walking my dog, I’ve been listening to some NPR.

Lately, the Syrians have been in the news. We are all waiting with bated breath to see whether the new administration will let the scheduled resettlements continue, even as they threaten “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. We have no choice… we have no choice.

But in the past couple of days, I’ve listened to two stories from Beldangi 2, a refugee camp in Nepal. It focuses on Teacher Day, which is really in the fall, but the reason the stories are coming now is because the camps are scheduled to close.

There was a deadline in November for people to apply to leave:

The Bhutanese refugees were given until Nov. 15 of this year to apply to go abroad. By the end of the year, UNHCR will stop forwarding applications for resettlement.

The reporter says there are predictions of 10,000 people who will be left behind in the end. Most of my students are from this camp. Most were born there. I wonder how many of their relatives or neighbors will be among those left behind?

When things wind down in a camp, it causes a little havoc; this PRI story profiles a woman who is teaching math, even though she is not a math teacher. For her $7 a month, she studies at home so she can bring the knowledge back to her students. Those with the most education leave camps first. Those left now, according to a Nepali friend I was talking to last year, are there because they are old and sick and don’t want to leave or there is an issue with intermarrying which hangs up paperwork.

The stories this reporter tells are heart-rending. How do you leave when a parent says that they will not make a change to a new language and climate? They don’t want to leave truly everything they ever knew behind. At least when these refugees moved from Bhutan to Nepal, the language and climate stayed the same. But leaving to the United States is something completely different.

One story is of a man who is refusing to go, whose family has been waiting to apply, hoping he’d change his mind, but to no avail. He knows that his illiteracy, age and lack of marketable skills will hold him back. But staying also is not a great option. Nepal does not allow integration at this point, although UNHCR is working with both Nepal and Bhutan to try to come to an equitable solution.

What happens to the children when the camps close? Will they be allowed to matriculate into Nepali schools? What happens to health care? What happens to those who are old or sick? Addicted to alcohol or drugs?

The high rate of suicides in the camps are well-documented. As the camps empty out in this last push, as rations are cut and friends, neighbors and family leave, will those numbers jump even higher?

For men, stressors related to employment and providing for their families were related to feeling burdensome and/or alienated from family and friends, whereas for women, stressors such as illiteracy, family conflict, and being separated from family members were more associated.

It’s difficult to forecast positive change for these stressors that were documented among former refugees resettled in the United States. They surely will intensify for those left in the camps.

I see more and more uneducated families settling here. And it takes a lot of hutzpah to tackle those huge barriers when one loses everything one knows.

What has life been like for these people for the past quarter century, having lost everything they had in Bhutan: land, property, stability, jobs, and a sense of home? They will most assuredly lose all these things again, or any semblance they had of “home”, by coming to the United States. These families may gain indoor plumbing and free education for their children, but what kind of jobs await illiterate adults who don’t speak English? And yet the bills continue to mount. They must repay their travel expenses. A person has to eat.

Even more difficult to imagine is how my students, who grew up in the tropics, in a place where elephants knocking down your house was part of reality, are coping with suddenly living in snow. It may not seem like much, but it’s huge going from wearing shorts and flip-flops every day to dressing for the cold. My high schoolers fight wearing hats (they mess up their hair) and gloves (they get in the way and are itchy); the little ones try to slip in line without putting on snow pants to keep them warm on the icy playground. And in a state where the windchill has been known to slip into dangerous territory more than a few times in an average winter, the battle never ends.

So I open 2017 with my eye on trying to stand in another’s shoes. It’s only by doing the research that teachers can have a tiny inkling of where students came from and maybe glean an idea of where to go from here.

One of the best stories I found was one from a couple of years ago from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Video, photos and stories make this a powerful place to start: http://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/longform/stories/refugees/   I encourage everyone to take even a passing glance at this, just to imagine where your new students and neighbors come from.

And this travelogue from 2015 gives an unflinching look at attitudes prevailing in the camp at that time.

And thanks for listening.



Local girls make the Huff Post!


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!


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.

Perseverance with Hour of Code

Hour of Code is a push to get students to try coding, to build bridges for regular kids to enter a world of computer programming.

And for my students, coding is nothing they’ve ever tried, nor is it anything they ever knew about.

And I was out to change that today.

I was fortunate to have the assistance of

  • Ryan, whose last name I forget but who is studying to be a teacher of English learners (He just came by to observe today and I sent him to work. I met him yesterday at lunch, and he already knew who I was. “Your name kind of circulates at St. Mike’s.” Really??!!??);
  • Rich Downing, a senior analyst and programmer at University of Vermont (who answered a last minute call in the waning hours of the evening to show up at my class without knowing anything about me other than what I dashed off in an email);
  • and Vitaliy Kulapin, technology specialist at our school.

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 8.01.17 PM.pngWith the help of these three, we dove in with nine students who have pretty low English proficiency, to tackle Disney’s Hour of Code, which made us captain a boat in search of fish and then lead the hero/heroine through a battle against little coconut-covered villains.

I had seen the movie last week with my family, and I found myself wishing I had enough money and room in my car to take my students to see it on the big screen. I thought they would be able to comprehend the story without too much trouble. I’m always looking for experiences like that. But I don’t have access to an account that would allow me to afford to take them. None have been to a movie theater.

So this was the next best thing.

I have been trying SO HARD for the past month to get them to play Minecraft with me, but it’s hard to do when the teacher doesn’t exactly know what she’s doing. And this was a much more doable task. Especially with three other people to help me.

Teaching students at this level is particularly challenging because they just don’t feel heard. Imagine sitting next to your favorite 6-year-old while trying to have an adult conversation with another loved one. Do you hear the “excuse me” call over and over again? That’s pretty much what my class is like: “Ms. Evans! Ms. Evans! Ms. Evans!” Over and over and over. Till I think that I’m not in a high school classroom.

They are not six. But they don’t feel heard. So they call out or come and tap your shoulder or make annoyed sounds that only teen-agers can produce.


They will learn how not to do this.

But in the meantime, I tackle GIANT CHALLENGES with three extra people, so everyone can feel heard.

We did have a couple try to duck out near the end. So we had quick conversations about how one of our school’s graduate expectations is tenacity. I didn’t use those words, but I was able to say that we can’t quit just because things get hard. We have to keep trying. Because everything about learning a new language and culture is hard. But giving up is easy. And if you take the easy way, you will not learn.

Learning from failure is hard. And that little musical rift that played each time the code did not quite hit the mark sounded out around the room pretty much constantly.

But I’m so proud of my crew! They did an awesome job. And they greeted a member of the community who was so excited to come into my room even though he knew nothing about me or them. And a soon-to-be teacher who just came to watch but got a lot more than he bargained for. And for a tech-ed colleague who took time out of his day to lend a hand.

And for that, I’m eternally grateful.

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Just. Wow. What we don’t see…

A friend posted this on facebook.

You just have to watch it.

Here’s the article it was posted with.

So well done. I wonder if my students would be more or less distracted than I was…

The Brokedown Pamphlet

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