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Posts tagged ‘drama’

Academic Skills: Sorting with a twist

In my class in mid-April, we were working on a skill that is inherent to us as humans: sorting.

We are taught formally how to do this in kindergarten, and we build on it throughout our lives, particularly in the school setting.

Sorting, or categorizing, is essentially the work we do when we write paragraphs, grouping similar ideas. It’s what we do in math when we look for patterns, learning how to determine odd and even numbers, primes and composites. It’s how we classify animals in science. And it’s how we approach the world: This person is like me or not.

One researcher, John Anderson of Carnegie Mellon University, posited decades ago that there are three reasons humans categorize: Creating a linguistic label that we can all learn; Recognizing feature overlap; and Denoting similar functions. In a more recent article in Scientific American, researchers at Harvard found that we are hard-wired to categorize what we see. 

So it’s an important skill to learn for students in a Western teaching environment. My students have been learning about how to label items, so that they can later build on the meta-awareness of categorizing.

For some projects, the task is open.

How do you want to sort these things? (Buttons, shells, rocks…)


For others, there is a right and wrong way:


On this particular day, after I shared with Flynn artist Susan Palmer that we were working on sorting, she came up with a way we could work on sorting things in the environment. Susan’s specialty is movement and drama/storytelling.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 6.54.57 PM

In looking at the elements of drama, we’ve been working on many of these elements all year. This was about creating (one of our school’s Graduation Expectations), imitation (an element of Drama, see left), and presentation (one of my department’s standards).

So the main activity focused on these questions:

What do you see on the land? What do you see in the air? What do you see in the water?

We brainstormed lists and then our job was to create movements and sounds for the words we came up with that fit into these physical environments. You can see the results of our group performances below. We had to choose one of the items we had brainstormed for each environment and create a picture as a group.

We were fortunate to have with us on this day Gina Haddock, director of development at the Flynn, and Kitty Coppak, representing the Oakland Foundation, which supports our work with the Flynn.

Doing such performances allows students in a low-stakes environment to get up in front of peers, which builds self-esteem in using the language.

Do we look silly? Yes. But it’s silly with a purpose.

As part of the class we also worked on handshakes:

We also worked on performance through a game called 1-10. The purpose of this is to work together with a partner to build a picture while counting. Again, it’s low-stakes and demands creativity from both partners:

Although the activities may seem deceptively simple, what we are building is (hopefully) something that students can use in years to come as they grow linguistically and academically.

I am overjoyed that Gina and Kitty were able to join us. I love letting people in our classroom to play with us!

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.


Facing Down Fears with a Friendly Face

Photo Apr 11, 3 53 37 PM

Rita tells her story while I stand by. Flynn artist Susan Palmer and Evelyn Glennie, along with bassists who comprised the rest of the trio. We participated through generosity of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts educational program and the Community Engagement Lab.

A little over a week ago, two of my students took to the stage of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

I needed to be there as a crutch. I did very little. Other than stand there. These young women are very strong. And very brave.

They didn’t quite understand why we would want them to tell their stories in Nepali and Somali.

They knew we wouldn’t understand.

But that was kind of the point.

Dame Evelyn Glennie, deaf since age 12, worked with my students on finding a new way of listening. I wrote about their work with her (on a day that I, unfortunately was out of town) in the post What happens when I’m gone…

They were all so brave. They all took a trip outside their comfort zones.

If you look at the videos attached to the above post, you will see body language that SCREAMS discomfort. They were with a substitute teacher who they knew, but they didn’t really know. They were in a new space. New learning. But there was nothing to hang their hat on. No place to feel really comfortable.

And this is what is really so hard with ELL students with interrupted schooling. They need a place that feels like home, otherwise it’s all so terrifying that there is no room left in their brains for learning.

It’s why we can’t just continue with business as usual as we try to move these square pegs into the round holes of rigor and proficiency-based learning and Common Core State Standards and, well, just life. We need to make sure that these students, who are the most fragile of all, are well considered as we work to make education better. They need connections. And sometimes they need school to be much more than school.

Yesterday I made a doctor’s appointment for one of my students. I’ve taken them to the hospital, to funerals, to court. I’ve sat and held their hands. I’ve doled out tough love and sometimes just a quiet presence. I’ve bought phone repair kits and purses and jackets for them because they had no credit card to order online.

They need more than just the normal approach to keep them engaged. To keep them at all. Their lives are so much more difficult than most. They face a lot of things alone that I do for and with my own children, bringing my cultural capital with me to fend off the enemy.

It’s a lot to do when you are a teen or twenty-something who doesn’t speak the language with absolute fluency. My students don’t have cultural capital to keep the fears at bay. No parent to jump in and help them fight their battles. My students often are taking care of their parents, who more often than not speak little to no English, or are here on their own, trying to go it alone.

We can’t leave these students behind. But “business as usual” does just that.

Please listen to their stories.

They are truly amazing. Even if you don’t understand them.

Soon, I’ll be posting video from the actual show, where these stories, their translations and the improvised music that was created to accompany them, will be available.

And thanks for listening.

Sometimes I really miss NYC

I have been doing a lot of theater work in my classes for the past three years. It always comes down to money with how much support we will get, how many visits by our artists…

It is the way it is.

But today, I saw this on a flier for an immigrant resource fair next Wednesday at NYC Public Library: After a training on how to protect the immigrant community from fraud, there will be a performance by the People’s Theatre Project.

art-716928_640I get these emails because I subscribe to the listservs from the TESOL affiliates and state ESL listservs nearest us here in Vermont. I’m a member of Massachusetts TESOL (MATSOL) because I often present there, and it’s cheaper to be a member. I get notifications from our NNETESOL sister states–Maine and New Hampshire–occasionally getting an email reminding me of the cool things they do. And I get NYS TESOL’s notifications.

I have always wanted to go to their conference, but they often have theirs on the same weekend NNETESOL stages its conference. And as a board member, I can hardly make the choice not to go to my own conference.

Some states do such cool things.

Maine for a while was advertising distance learning for ELL teachers in its state. It’s necessary because of the distance northernmost teachers have to travel to get to some kind of professional development.

NH has regional meetings to support their teachers; not sure if these are directed from the state or just a few very involved teacher leaders. I just got a notification from New Hampshire that they are looking for a full time teacher for next school year in Londonderry, just in case you need to know that.

Vermont is a small state; we don’t do much to provide professional development to teachers of English Language Learners. So I’ve always been a little jealous of the TESOL affiliates that somehow seem to be there for everybody. And the connections those affiliates make in their communities.

The People’s Theatre Project is one affiliate connection that I’m particularly jealous of. Could you imagine? A free program that gets students talking, acting and out of their shells? The past couple of years, I’ve been bringing my students to our school plays, in the hopes that this could be a door in, to help them become more fully involved in their high school community.

Most kids who start U.S. schools in high school don’t enjoy the same kind of idealistic view of high school that the rest of us grew up with. For most American-born students, school is our social, emotional and educational realm, all wrapped up in one package, dotted by games and dances, senior pictures and yearbooks.

My students, however, know nothing of that. They don’t go to the dances, for the most part. Most are not involved in sports. They don’t really have a social circle that extends outside the English learning classroom, unless it’s through P.E. or art classes. They don’t participate in theater. Or chorus. Or band. Or clubs. You can lead a horse to water…

I miss those kinds of opportunities like the People’s Theatre Project. I miss them for my students.

While working as a full time teacher in the Bronx, I once helped bring 100 students from my school (at the time, the 8th worst high school in the city, according to the New York Times) to Lincoln Center to watch musicals. My babies at that time were scared to order their burgers from the white clerks at the Manhattan McDonald’s we passed, afraid they would not be understood by non-Spanish speaking people. We had to rehearse how to order, stand a few feet away to answer questions just in case… They just had never traveled out of the barrio.

And it was scary.

Burlington mostly is not that scary. But the opportunities to get students into the community, supported by the community, also are not really there.

It’s sad.

In my next post, get a glimpse of the rehearsal almost two weeks ago that brought my students out of their shells. A little bit.

Here’s what I’m doing tomorrow night…

The embed code is not working, but the Burlington Free Press has a video of what my students got to experience on Wednesday.

My kiddos learned a lot while I was gone. And tomorrow night, Monday, we all get to go to the Flynn and do it for real. SO EXCITED!

I can’t wait.

Thanks, Evelyn Glennie, for taking the time to work with my babies!

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