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Perceptions or Deceptions?

My daughter really wants me to participate in a research project at UVM. I agreed to do my part. For the first task, I had to do an online survey that asked me my perceptions on how I treat people.

I always worry that I gave the wrong answer. Even though it’s asking for my feelings about what I do right now. I should know, right?

But here’s the catch. It had to do with whether I thought I was racist or not. It also asked questions about honesty. So have I ever let someone take the fall for me? Yes. Would I refuse now to have someone be blamed for something I did? I want to say yes. But under the right conditions, would I really refuse? So by contemplating these questions, I gave researchers insight into how parent of family No. whatever says he/she answers questions untruthfully, and then goes on to perception.

And then they asked me to do the matching game where good is on one side and bad is on the other, and you are supposed to click the right button as fast as you can. Then it’s matched up with race. Then they switch the race and the qualifier. And you can’t help but mess up.

Have no clue what I’m talking about? Here’s a blog that explains it better than I can. And here’s a Washington Post article that links you to the same kind of test.

Bowling AloneThe ultimate survey has to do with how my child interacts with others different from herself.

It hurts to think this way.

What did I teach my child? What kind of example am I setting? Was Avenue Q more than just a little right?

My husband got a book a couple of years ago (that he confesses he still hasn’t read) called Bowling Alone, about how we are as a society becoming more disconnected with our community. You can read an excerpt at that link.

But this cultural collapse does not reflect the life of most of my students. They are way heavily involved in their own communities and families.

And yet I spend a lot of time worrying about them because they are not becoming involved in the school community.

Research shows that kids who are involved in school socially tend to have reasons to stay. Those who are not don’t have so many reasons. Check out this survey. How many of these reasons can be traced back to not being involved socially.

And yet on this stupid survey that I just took, I was asked to come up with a list of 10 of my closest friends.

That’s the thing.

Very few people count in that “closest friends” ring. So I was supposed to list initials of 10. If I couldn’t think of any more, I was supposed to put XX. And then in the next part, the survey asked me to look at the initials and mark whether any of my friends I listed was black, bi-racial, obese or disabled. But because I had only listed 3… Best I could do is bi-racial.

I know more than 10 people I would call friends.

But not “closest friends.”

Am I being too discrete on my definitions?

And then I look at myself and what I hope for my students and I see that my social involvement does not reflect what I’m trying to magically make happen for recent immigrants who don’t speak English.

But the whole system is set up for those native English speakers. And if you don’t fit in that group, you miss out on a lot.

Dances. Plays. Sports. Clubs. Prom. Yearbook. School newspaper. And even advisories and our Year End Studies program that we started to mix up the population so we could bring more school spirit and community back into school.

But the thing is that just because you bring all those little horses to water, it doesn’t mean they will drink. We can plan whatever grand schemes we want to to mix up our populations, but it doesn’t mean they can cross those great social divides.

School has traditionally been the place where American students live and learn. Not just learn.

But school belongs at school. And home belongs at home. Teachers don’t regularly come to your house and check on you.

But that’s not the way it was for most of my students in refugee camps.

This system is weird. And daily I feel we are trying to put square pegs in round holes.

Finally, Guidance for ELLs and CCSS

It’s about time.

I’m reading a book co-authored by one of my favorite bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo. He chronicles tons of resources for all levels of English . (The most recent entry has to do with Ramadan, which begins Monday.)

And I say, “It’s about time,” because so much of what is in the Common Core State Standards is just unreachable for high school students who immigrate come to the United States. With this resource, I can see some light.

Don’t get me wrong… others have been focusing on how to meet CCSS standards, Like Kenji Hakuta through Understanding Language. There are some really nice things out there.

But I’ve never really thought they’ve spoken to me.

I teach mostly very recent immigrants who belong to the refugee community. Many of them are Students with Limited or Interrupted Schooling (SLIFE, or in some states, SIFE).

And when I read in the CCSS that you should not pre-teach vocabulary, I just kind of wonder how students with limited to no background knowledge about the United States or its history could potentially understand without some frontloading of vocabulary and concepts…

Just last week, I read a book with student that had to do with the automobile. It was a fiction book from the point of view of a young boy whose father was the first in his town to get a horseless carriage.

Now I ask you, how is a third-grader who spent most of his short life in a refugee camp in Nepal supposed to understand anything about that? He read the piece nearly flawlessly, but he had no concept of what an automobile was (had the piece said “car,” he’d have been able to get by just fine) or insight into U.S. history and our particular national affinity with horses and the idealized image of cowboys on the range.

I don’t know that in the Nepali refugee camps that there was much talk about cars. I imagine not many people owned or had access to cars, much less thought about how they affected horses and changed the way of life for millions of people.

So what Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski are doing is being CCSS interpreters. I had, for example, never heard that the CCSS writers had “dialed back” the emphasis on not preteaching vocabulary, but rather gleaning meaning from context.

And they seem to “get” where I’m coming from. If a student comes to me in 9th grade with very low literacy skills in any language, I can’t see the goal of “college and career ready,” the mantra of the CCSS movement.

We are all for having our students be “college and career ready,” but we’re not sure that the socioeconomic infrastructure is there yet to support student, teachers, and schools in meeting the Common Core standard’s definition of that state of readiness (p8).


So the setup of most chapters is actually quite predictable, and therefore quite digestible for the average teacher. I don’t know about you, but I tend to skim rather than read deeply, which is what we are supposed to be teaching our students. Because the format’s always the same, I know I can go back and read the information that I know I didn’t absorb before.

First, they give an overview of the CCSS and then “Creating the Conditions for English Language Learners to Be Successful in the Common Core Standards.”

That’s what I’ve been looking for all along. How do I take a student who is not literate in any language in 9th grade and get them to think deeply in a topic in English? These authors get this. This chapter focuses on socio-emotional skills that students need to learn to really play the game of student well, such as goal-setting, meta-cognitive thinking, and asking questions, to name a few. Each of these has lessons and resources to teach these across the continuum of English Language Development.

They split the rest of the book up by domains (reading, writing, speaking/listening) and then go into Language, another focus of the CCSS, as well as content areas, presented by others who know more about it: Math, Social Studies and Science.

Each of the chapters starts with the Anchor Standards, the ones considered to be the most important for all teachers to focus on to help students reach that college and career-ready standard. And then it gives explanations, what it means in the classroom, tech tools, example lessons and tons of resources.

The lessons are well scripted and innovative, beyond the regular stuff.

This book serves a guide to help teachers navigate this course with a special eye on those learners who need that extra support and need to learn how to do it without the scaffolding. And it’s a guide that we’ve needed for a long time.

Some states do a great job making sure all teachers are aware of the CCSS and how it should be affecting our teaching and students’ learning, but here in Vermont, I feel like teachers think this is just the next fad. I heard from the beginning that people thought our Vermont State Standards were so much more rigorous than the Common Core. “Take these rocks from this place and restack them over there.” Just another lens through which we do what we’ve always been doing.

But still, I have to wonder who is holding our feet to the fire. And if we were so much better than the Common Core, why were students still falling through the cracks? Especially the New American students that we expect to conform without really adjusting our teaching?

Teaching is more than standards. And I’m grateful to hear from people who have been in my shoes how I can help hone my practice so I can be a better teacher than I was yesterday, meeting the needs of those kiddos in front of me.

At the end of the year, I always find myself getting very excited about next year. Clean slate and all. And I know this book will help me think about it more deeply.


Beauty of Selfie in Age of Common Core


Today’s photo on the Spirit of Ethan Allen.

For those of us old fogies who came of age before smart phones and iPads, the selfie can be quite confusing.

Why, why, why would you want to go to beautiful places and then just take pictures of your crazy faces. And nothing else. No cows. No farm. No carousels. No boats. No water. No YMCA. No beach, really.

Just faces. And bodies.

To me, it feels more than just a bit narcissistic. But I think I’m just old.

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 8.30.58 PM

I had to search for this… It’s just too dead-on.

It’s just what kids do, I think.

And maybe I’m just cynical.

Students who have never held cameras are given these fancy things and take dozens and dozens of pictures. I think I must have done that with my first digital camera, just to see how it works. Not to mention to see how I looked in pictures.

It was immediate feedback.

We could take pictures, and if it wasn’t just outstanding, we could try it again. How fun is that?

  • Self-motivation. (What is more motivating than my beautiful face–beautiful if only for the fact that it is the familiar in a sea of unknowns?)
  • Risk-taking. (It’s just hard to put yourself out there, especially when you feel crappy. But everybody’s doing it.)
  • Immediate feedback and correction. Writing and revising. (If at first you don’t succeed, take pictures till you run out of space on your device.)

How much more Common-Core-y can you get? This is what we want. Enjoyment factor. No fear of errors. Trying until you get it right.

Maybe I ought to make peace with the selfie. For at least the next week. Till all this is finally over and summer comes and I can start planning for next year.

Here’s a rough draft of what will be our final projects. Take it away, superstar:



Headaches and more headaches…

2teaching_and_learningYou know it’s the end of the term when the trees get leaves overnight, everything has a dusting of pollen on it, sneezes and itchy eyes greet you each morning, your throat closes up…

Oh, and then there’s the grading.

And the students needing help RIGHT NOW.

I wish there were a way to get my mainstream colleagues to see how our students function on immediate relevancy. And how giving them a month’s notice doesn’t really help them on their journey toward graduation.

That’s a hallmark of Students with Limited or Interrupted Education–or SLIFE. It’s a new catchphrase. I just wrote about it last week at the training.

At one session at MATSOL, I heard that Massachusetts is moving toward not just making sure that these students get a suitable education, but also naming them as SLIFE. Not just EL (English Learners) or LEP (Limited English Proficient, the unfortunate federal code for our students). But SLIFE.

What makes a student SLIFE? Here’s what WIDA has to say in a recent focus bulletin:

SLIFE usually are new to the U.S. school system and have had interrupted or limited schooling opportunities in their native country. They have limited backgrounds in reading and writing in their native language(s) and are below grade level in most academic skills (Freeman & Freeman, 2002). Students who have these characteristics could be refugees, migrant students, or any student who experienced limited or interrupted access to school for a variety of reasons, such as poverty, isolated geographic locales, limited transportation options, societal expectations for school attendance, a need to enter the workforce and contribute to the family income, natural disasters, war, or civil strife.

So I’ve been helping bunches of students hurry up and get stuff done before classes end on Monday. It’s been exhausting. And headachy.

And what’s worse is that we could avoid this end of term rush, if we were all addressing these students needs in a culturally appropriate way. What we call procrastination in students who grew up here and should be able to respond to forward thinking assignments is really an inevitable thing for these students.

It has to be relevant. Now. Tomorrow will come tomorrow.

It’s all about the relationship. If you know me and I know you, I’ll work for you.

It’s all about moving them from the oral to the written, from the collective to the individual.

These students all come from collectivist societies. I just read last week that 85% of all societies are collectivist. Only North America and Europe are not. And Australia. Can’t forget Australia.

We are individualistic. We all need to fight our own way. It’s a dog eat dog world. If you want something done right, do it yourself. We all need to earn our own grade. We simply have not been taught to sink or swim together, whereas our students might have to miss school if there is something more pressing at home.

I’m going to be working toward becoming a MALP trainer in the fall. That’s Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm, a plan created to move these students more toward our version of academic thinking.

Maybe then I’ll make some headway in helping people bridge this gap. Instead of spending every free moment of my spring sneezing and talking students through assignments that mean nothing to them.

A plug for my group…

I am the incoming president for NNETESOL, an affiliate organization of TESOL International.

We have our annual conference in November, and it would be great to see you there!

Click on the picture below for more details. Margarita Calderon will be there… We’d love to have you there, too!


Resources come up short for deaf Bhutanese


Last year, partner teacher Suzy and I met up with a lot of Bhutanese parents who, we were told, were deaf. We wondered why. Nobody could tell us.

Turns out, nobody knows. Some were sick. Some were born deaf. This quote from a recent Seven Days article is just fascinating:

Among the population of 16,000 Bhutanese refugees still living in camps in Nepal, nearly 5 percent have a disability of some kind, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Half of those disabilities are classified as hearing or speech impairments. Untreated ear infections may be a factor, but no scientific study has been conducted to validate this or other possible causes, said Deepesh Das Shrestha, an assistant external relations officer with UNHCR in Kathmandu.

The article describes American Sign Language classes that are being offered through the Howard Center. I’m so excited that Madhu Neupane got this started. He used to be a liaison for the school district. We truly missed out when he moved on to the Howard Center.

He has brought so much good to the Bhutanese community. I miss him.

Anyway, this article is amazing. I really wish I could meet Stephanie Cramer, who is cooking with these women and teaches both ASL and Nepali sign language. And, Seven Days says, she’s the only one in Vermont who has that skill.

We have so many students whose houses we have gone to who have caregivers who have been described to us as “disabled.” Nothing else. Just “disabled.” But that doesn’t help us as teachers.

Do they not hear us? Do they not understand? Are they unable to understand in any language? How can we bring parents in when even the guardian doesn’t really talk to the biological parents while we are in the room?

When we pressed at the beginning for clarification, we met with resistance. It seemed to be an uncomfortable question to ask.

Research tells us that parent involvement is critical when dealing with at-risk students, which is what all of our students are, honestly. I have so much still to learn about my students… Communicating with parents is critical if we are to really help these new Americans move ahead.

We may be in for a tough journey.

It’s great to get a little love…

I just love presenting.

It’s so much fun being able to share with people what I’ve been doing and to have them talk to me about what they are doing and puzzling through…

Today I did two presentations at MATSOL.

One, with my good friend Shelly, was on bringing academic talk in mathematics to the classroom. More than 50 people crowded into the room and played our reindeer games. I made them do some Whole Brain Teaching stuff from Chris Biffle. It was nice to think back on the days when I used to use those in ExcELL, when we had enough students. Such a nice way to get kids to repeat words again and again, and to get the class to have joy in followiIMG_0252.JPGng directions. I just love that stuff…

And it’s great to have dedicated time to talk to colleagues about professional experiences. I was able to share what I did eons ago with my students at the elementary school, the year I was teaching math to try to cover two years in one. That was interesting…

The girl on the left is now a sophomore in high school. It’s been a while…

We shared a room and were able to talk about our math experiences. It gets me hungry to work on next year, since this one is almost over.

seesaw-script-icon-comboAnd then I presented on SeeSaw, software that works across platforms to create digital portfolios. I just found this app this year, and I am in love with the possibilities.
It’s very simple to use but not simplistic. And it could be so powerful if we let ELLs create the kinds of assignments that would get them to see their learning in context.

The greatest part about today was that I felt like an educational superstar.

About half a dozen people followed me from the math presentation to the apps presentation. I was glad I had not scared them away. When I said as much, I was told that they were fans. How great is that to hear?

I had one woman start this conversation with me: “I don’t know if you remember me, but I went to your session on dance and movement last year at this conference.” She told me that the session made such an impression that she was running into others at the conference who had attended the same session and they recognized each other, just from that one encounter.

Another woman who was eating lunch at the same table told me that she was in a WIDA class that I did about four years ago. She reminded me that she had sent me multiple emails about an activity that we had done because she wanted to do it with her colleagues.

It’s just nice to be remembered. And appreciated. And to have those rich, rich conversations that make us all better teachers.

So happy to be a teacher. And happy that I get these opportunities.


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