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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.


Waiting for my groove

Man, this has been a tough year. And we’re not even halfway through.395513826

Teachers in my district voted to go on strike. It lasted for four days. And that created a huge work stoppage in my class.

We hadn’t even finished a full week of school when this hit. And I’ve been struggling ever since.

My students are primarily former refugees, who now are trying to make their way in the U.S. school system. The problem is that most were not fully literate in their own languages when they came here. The theory of transfer has a tough time taking hold in our school.

So the secret disguised goal of my introduction to computers class–which I’m teaching for the first time ever to offset the great inequity of a lack of training for late arrivers subjected to a 1:1 program (what Alan November refers to as a “$1000 pencil” initiative)–is to teach what the my department lovingly calls “schooliness.”

Schooliness is the package of behaviors that help students succeed. These skills include:

  • showing up on time and attending regularly.
  • taking notes.
  • using English when possible while still taking risks to expand academic capabilities.
  • relying on first languages to negotiate meaning, then returning to the target language.
  • advocating for themselves in social and academic situations.
  • understanding how to find meanings of unknown words.
  • doing homework.
  • being self-sufficient and self-driven.

And I’ve been working with my little group to do this. Yet when I had to go home sick yesterday, I could tell they, for the most part, had done little to nothing relating to classwork.

So it’s time to put on my hard hat (heart hat) and start handing out invitations to stay after school, because I love them so much and don’t want them to fall behind.

At the end of last year, my colleagues and I talked about handing out heart-shaped detention slips. Not because we want to be punitive, but because we want them to succeed.

I’m to present on my experiment at #TESOL18, on an intersection panel. I wish I had great things to report about upending student apathy. I feel as though I have learned a lot from this experience of taking on this new class and new challenge, I also feel like I’m not quite there…


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.



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.

Teach with tech? Here’s something for you…

I was named a PBS Digital Innovator for the 2014-15 school year. I did not use it to the best of my ability. I tried. But I just am not much of a firebrand sometimes. I got a one-year subscription to PBS LearningMedia for both of my schools. But only six people took me up on it.

screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-8-10-32-pmSuch a shame. See? Not a firebrand. Can’t get people to follow me even when I’m giving stuff away.

I have only 47 followers on my blog, for example. I’ve been keeping this blog for a really long time.

But perhaps I might be reaching the right people to spread the word about the Digital Innovator gig. It is getting better.

PBS chooses one person from each state to participate in professional development and to give free stuff to. And next year, they will take all of the state representatives to San Antonio to go to the ISTE conference. Now that’s something. Much more than I was offered.

So if you are an innovator in your classroom, I urge you to try.  What have you got to lose?


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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Resurrecting life from a forgotten fire

The Collinwood Fire from The Collinwood Fire on Vimeo.

Remember learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? We all learn about this 1911 New York City tragedy as a turning point in history for unions and safety. But a Middlebury professor and his team recently launched a website–just a couple of months ago–to talk about a different fire, an earlier fire.

The fire the Middlebury website talks about is the Collinwood Elementary School fire, in which 171 people died, in much the same way: doorways were blocked, doors were locked, and the building itself did not lend itself architecturally to providing easy egress for the children it housed.

I learned about this site at the VASS conference last week, where I presented on the Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program, to which I’ll dedicate a blog post soon. But taking a look at this award-winning film and the interactive website that accompanies it is well worth any educator’s time.

The site mixes history and animation, bringing newspaper relics along with commentary into the mix. It also takes a hard look at the journalistic efforts of the time, and also why this fire, though more deadly and earlier, takes a back seat to the Triangle fire.

I think my favorite part by far is a section in which Professor Michael Newbury narrates a clip of the animated short, showing where symbolism is used to convey meaning, helping the viewer to go deeper into the tale. Directly below this clip is another, designed for students to download and try to narrate themselves. Brilliant!

I just find myself wanting to bury myself in this site.

Could you imagine the beautiful projects you could create? And they want students to become an active part of building the site. From the contact page:

Michael Newbury (Fletcher Proctor Professor of American History) and Daniel Houghton (Arts Technology Specialist)  led the team at Middlebury College that made The Collinwood Fire, 1908. We’re happy to hear from any user of the site and, schedules permitting, to speak remotely with  high-school or college classes engaging the material.

We welcome additions to the Teaching Resources section of the site and hope to make galleries of student work about the Collinwood fire.  Please let us know if you have examples to share.  We look forward to seeing them.

How is that for validation of one’s work?

I encourage you to take a look at this magnificent site. I promise you won’t be disappointed.




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