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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.



It’s time!

If you haven’t already enrolled for Electronic Village Online, do it now!

Here’s the scoop from the people who are running the show:

For five weeks in January and February, TESOL experts and participants from around the world engage in collaborative online discussions or hands-on virtual workshops of professional and scholarly benefit.

These sessions bring together participants for a longer period of time than is permitted by land-based professional development conventions and allow a fuller development of ideas than is otherwise possible.

Sessions are free and open to anyone around the globe. It is not necessary to be a TESOL or IATEFL member or to attend the TESOL Convention in order to participate. All you need is access to the Internet.

We invite you to choose a session from this year’s offerings, listed below.  And please inform your colleagues about this unparalleled professional development opportunity!

The EVO 2017 Coordination Team

Minecraft, gaming, Moodles, online assessment…there are a lot of offerings.

Check it out and sign up here.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect to people across the globe around teaching English Language Learners.

I am Syria

Happy New Year!

School starts again today.

And this month also marks the beginning of Syrian refugees coming to Vermont.

A weekly newsletter I get in my inbox posted a link to a page from the website “I AM SYRIA.” It’s a group that seeks to provide non-partisan information about the war in Syria, and it brings together a massive amount of resources. They’ve been on this since 2015.

The page the newsletter linked to brought me to a page of ready-made lesson plans. It’s the greatest thing after a break for a teacher to be able to walk in and without much thought provide connections to real-life happenings in the world. And this site does that. Here’s the link, if you want to check it out.


screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-12-00-51-pmThe VOX video above is also one of the resources provided, as is this link to a story sponsored by UNICEF about an underground playground for children of war. Who even knew that such a thing existed? But having raised two daughters myself, I can’t think of anything worse than being trapped in a home without an outlet of a playground. The link is included in a list of resources to teach elementary-aged children about the war.

These poor kids.

They haven’t been to school in years. They haven’t been children.

My heart hurts for them. And I think it’s time that we step up and ask children to learn about what’s going on in the world. The website also provides an opportunity for educators to issue a call to action, which is the best way through which children learn: give them a situation and then ask them to do something about it.

What better way is there to foster empathy? And isn’t that what we’re here to do? To raise thoughtful, informed, human beings with heart?

I urge you to check out this website today. You’ll be glad you did.

Seeking forgiveness

I’m resolving to try to be more empathetic this next year.

And I ran across this on Twitter:


I sometimes think the strongest thing I’ve got going for me is that I am a fierce advocate for my students.

But sometimes, I’m a little too fierce. And sometimes I get it wrong.

So I’m hoping this reminder will help me to stick with my resolution.

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.



Maybe it’s me…

Knowing when a student is really getting the language is not always as cut and dried as one may think…

book-1626072_640This morning while walking my dog, I realized that I’ve been guilty of not taking first language colloquialisms into account. I can’t do that with every language, simply because I don’t have knowledge of EVERY language my students speak.

But when the primary language is heavily influenced by French, I should be able to parse that out. And I didn’t.

I’ve been getting rather annoyed at a student who keeps saying “Me no like.” I’ve corrected her time and time again. “Me” is not a pronoun used as a subject. It’s the same in French. And, likely, in her native Lingala. Of that, I am not sure.

But I warned her that she would end up staying in my class forever if she couldn’t get that piece figured out. We can’t all go around talking like Tarzan. That certainly would not be the pathway to academic language I’m supposed to be setting her on.

I have no idea why my mind floated to this this at at 6 a.m. while walking my dog. (By the way: “The French do not speak of something “out of the blue”… they speak of something “that has nothing to do with sauerkraut” (Ca n’a rien à voir avec la choucroute).“) But I realized that French speakers have this quirky way of emphasising the speaker in a sentence by putting the object pronoun at the beginning of the sentence: Moi, je n’ai jamais parlé français. (I’ve never really spoken French, myself.)

Now I’m thinking about what a language geek I am while I’m simultaneously berating myself for not recognizing this speech pattern earlier.

So why is this little bit of language geekiness important right now? Because I just realized I am potentially shutting a student down by sternly telling her she can’t use this particular language construction in English when all she’s doing is trying to make a point.

Here I was, thinking this child just had no capacity to remember anything, and actually, the student is just translating and leaving a few things out. And that’s what we all do, particularly when we don’t think the other party is going to understand.

I had coffee with my friend Mary the other day, and we were both commiserating about how people don’t know how to talk to our students. I have people all the time–teachers, administrators, other students–have “conversations” with my students that are totally one-sided. They think that because they hear a few memorized phrases sometimes that the student speaks “enough to understand.” But really, there’s no there there. Words are said that have no meaning to the person who is on the receiving end.

For me recently, this happened when a colleague wanted to immediately debrief with a student about an altercation with another boy in the hallway. I told him he couldn’t have the conversation without a multilingual liaison because the student wouldn’t understand. My colleague pushed back: “I’ve had conversations with him,” my colleague said. “He gets me.” Yeah. No, he doesn’t. Not everything. And you certainly can’t have a meaningful conversation about disciplinary issues, or academic issues, for that matter, without someone there to make it crystal clear what you are trying to say.

It’s not fair to the student (particularly when you are talking consequences within a disciplinary discussion). And it’s aggravating for the speaker when it’s assumed that somebody “gets it,” and then later they do the same thing and get in bigger trouble for it because “we’ve talked about this before.”

For Mary, it was a well-meaning janitor who was telling her students why they couldn’t hit the window because it would break and hurt somebody. Mary walked up and said, placing her hand on the window: “Window–hit–no.” (Then shaking her head vigorously.)

For really low level students, sometimes just the essential words are essential.

It’s all about knowing your audience.

And now I’m guilt of not knowing my audience. I didn’t use the knowledge I have about a language to realize why Tarzan speak was coming out of my student’s mouth.

Live and learn, I guess.

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