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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!

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.

Turning our Monday Around

This past Monday, everybody was dragging. The weather in Vermont this time of year just keeps getting more wintery. And that has a bit of a deleterious effect on students whose homelands are a bit more tropical.

Monday last week was just one of those days.

I was EXHAUSTED. It’s a new word I’m trying to teach them. But all of my students report that they are “fine.” “OK.” “Good.” Even though I can tell from their body language and lack of energy that they are not.

But Susan came in ready to play. And she really turned our day around. She had likely two hours worth of stuff to do planned. But we followed our hearts, and our draggy bodies were dancing at the end.

Such great stuff!

It’s kind of funny how teens are so reticent to use their imaginations. I think we kill imaginations in school. We teach kids that often there is only one right answer and one right way to get there, and that they need to fit in. That’s not only the behavior we expect in the classroom, but also the behavior they expect from each other. You act differently from the herd and you are ostracised.

We’ve all been there.

So getting kids to use their imaginations and pretend that this ball we are holding and yet not holding is really big or really heavy or really light seems very strange. So strange, in fact, that one of my girls went to the board to hand me an eraser so we could actually throw things. I think she was trying to show me that we didn’t have to pretend. We could actually throw something.

How do you explain that in simple English? Here’s what I wanted to say: “The entire point of this exercise is to get you to use your imaginations and your bodies to show opposite concepts. Your job is to show me that you understand what it looks like when something is heavy or light. And you need to work together with your peers to make this happen.”

But here’s the translation: “Thanks, but I want you to use your brain and SHOW ME. No erasers. PRETEND.”

Eventually we get the concepts. And eventually they play along, even if they think it’s silly:

  • Dancing emphasizing legs, elbows, arms and knees. But after we dance, those terms are a little more solid in their minds.
  • Playing the mirror game to build observational and teamwork skills.
  • Do you know your neighbor? A game that teaches the pattern of question and answer while people behind the questioner’s back make eye contact to work together to secretly switch places.

And in the midst of all this, conversations arise. One student needed to tell me that she was gone because she had to get “this thing” as she pantomimed getting a shot in her arm. Another student talked about what she had done on the weekend. All important stuff in a class where I’m asking students to take risks and put themselves out into the world.

Thank you, Susan, for playing along! And thank you to the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts teaching program for helping me bring this exciting work to our students.

We have one more week with Susan before my class gets a lot smaller. Some of my students have worked to develop their English skills enough to move on. I’m conflicted because I always miss them when they leave, but I’m so proud when they can move forward with their educational goals.

Today’s the day to play!

I can’t wait.


Just a Saturday with Friends

We were so lucky today to have about 20 people join most of the Vermont Northern New England TESOL board members.

It was great to see some familiar faces, and good to make connections with some new ones.

For two hours, some Vermonters who went to TESOL in Baltimore last month talked about what we saw, and one of our board members talked about taking part in the WIDA item review meeting in Washington, D.C.  I went over my Meaning in Movement presentation once again. It’s always fun to dance with friends.

One of the things that came out of the meeting was that people wanted maybe to meet more and to share what we are learning on a more regular basis. I would personally love that. Teachers too often close the door and teach alone.

We all work better when we steal ideas from each other.


SRO at my 1st TESOL session!


I just got back from TESOL, and at my very first accepted presentation (other than a couple of dips into the Electronic Village–which, don’t get me wrong, are super fun ways to connect person to person), I had STANDING ROOM ONLY!

It didn’t hurt that I was one of only three sessions that focused on art. People like art. And this is a great way to experience it.

But I had been rejected–and then accepted! I thought it was a mistake. Turns out, it wasn’t. I was scheduled opposite some thing where the TESOL leadership dressed up like the characters from the Wizard of Oz, but enough people didn’t feel like doing that that I had people standing in the corners.


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The most amazing part was that people were smiling at me for the next few days. People I didn’t know. People I only marginally remember meeting. And now that I’m looking at the pictures again, I see them! I see them again!

There were so many people who knew what I was talking about, who have the same kids I have, and who get that we need to find new ways to get past undiagnosed trauma that our students carry with them wherever they go.

And we talked about the kids who just don’t want to dance. And Jose, who took the giant selfie above, was the one I chose to be my disinterested student. He took pictures until my iPad filled up. Just what he was supposed to do.

I wish I would have had more than 45 minutes. I had so much more to share.

One woman came up and asked if I were presenting more at TESOL. Oh, I wish! But my presentations tend to be practice focused. The focus at TESOL is, more often than not, research-based. And for next year’s conference in Seattle, they are looking for the intersection between classroom and research.

I kind of wish I were planning on going.


Counting the Days

tesol16-presenter-bannerI’m going to Baltimore soon.

And I’m excited.

It’s the first time that I will be presenting at TESOL outside of the Electronic Village! (I’ll be presenting there, too, but this is the first time I’ve submitted a proposal to big TESOL and got accepted!) There are not enough exclamation points in the world to show how jazzed I am.

I will be presenting on the work I’ve done with Lida Winfield around dance and learning English. I did this presentation at MATSOL and at NNETESOL, and Lida and I presented together at the Flynn Center’s training for teachers incorporating the arts, so I know what I’ll be saying. But I’m still incredibly nervous.

I must say, though, that I have become a true believer in using dance and movement to learn a language. When refugee students come here, they go through shock. That shock makes them not very social. And what are we looking for as teachers? For them to be social beings. To talk. To learn the language. To get to know people. To feel comfortable.

And sometimes, you just can’t.


When I was a foreign exchange student (twice) and when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, we were shown a graphic very similar to this one. Just to let us know that what we were going through was “normal.” But for us, even if we had a couple of years spreading out in front of us, we knew that we were going home. In the end, it didn’t matter if we ever truly adjusted to the culture we were visiting; we were going home eventually.

My kids don’t get that luxury.

And so, I feel, that we need to be accommodating and make things as comfortable as possible, as quickly as we can. And Lida helped us do that in our classrooms.

Theater and dance open doors where everybody is being a little silly together. It helps build community. And brings joy–something that is often lacking when you’ve left everything you’ve ever known, including the comfort of a language, behind.

It may seem to those of us who are welcoming these refugees into our communities that they really have it good here. Many people think they get public assistance, they are given a place to stay, they have it so good.

But they really don’t.

Refugees have to repay the government for the cost of coming here. It’s not a free ride. They get assistance for three months, then they have to get a job. If you are 19, whether you get to go to school or not depends on household income. Housing isn’t free; you have to earn that yourself. And in Burlington, where I live, it can take years to get into subsidized housing. The difference between subsidized and unsubsidized housing is tremendous.

It’s not so fun being a refugee. Or even a former refugee.

But dance can make that go away, even if it’s just temporarily.

So if you happen to be going to the TESOL conference, I encourage you to come see my presentation and see if this is something that you can build into your curriculum. I certainly will be looking for money to build it into mine.

The smiles and laughter and joy that students experience is priceless.

Thurs AM

9:30 –10:15

Hilton Baltimore, Latrobe President-Elect Beth Evans presents on Meaning in Movement: Dance Gets Students Talking

One more note: I’ll also be presenting in the Electronic Village! You can see me here:


Fri AM


Electronic Village, Technology Fair: Classroom Tools President-Elect Beth Evans presents on Apps Help Teachers Document Student Growth in All Domains

A Little Outing

Last week, we had an amazing opportunity.

Lida Winfield, who had been working in my beginners class, was giving a free performance of In Search of Air, an excerpt of which you can see below. It’s an amazing story about how Lida, who is dyslexic, was able to face her obstacles and move forward. It’s a story of struggle and hope, anger and joy.

Winooski School District, which is right across the river from us, invited her to work with them for an artist-in-residence project, part of which was to show her work to parents after having shared it with middle-schoolers. And the show was free and open to the public.

Many of our students have never gotten a chance to play with Lida in our classroom. Many of them have never been to a dance performance. And so this was our chance.

My partner teacher Suzy and I put the word out, and we both got a carload of students and showed up.

I think that part of teaching is really about shared experiences, about opening students’ eyes to things they’ve never seen before.

Reactions to the show reflected the language proficiency that students possess; some said, “It’s good, Miss.” And others were able to talk about how they could really feel her feelings.

It’s hard to read.

But in the end, every new experience, every new opportunity to help students get access to things they have never seen before, it’s grand, as my mother would say.

Just grand.



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