Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Second Language Learning

Recently I spent about three hours visiting our Kindergarten Spanish immersion classes, listening in with what little Spanish I have, but mostly observing the teaching moves of the teachers and the engagement of the students. It was similar to watching a movie with the sound off - I noticed different things than if I'd completely understood what was going on.

Three things really stood out to me:

1) When I didn't understand the language, the importance of gestures took on a whole new meaning. If the teacher asked a question, she pointed at the chart to help the children see the source for the answer. When counting tens strips on the calendar, she exaggerated the counting motions. When reading aloud a book, she pointed at the part of the picture she was discussing and made "guitar-playing" motions when an unfamiliar instrument was mentioned. As a second language learner, I relied heavily on these clues to understand what was going on.

2) Repetition of concepts and terms took on a whole new level of importance. At one point the kids sang a song and I had no idea what the song was about. I did notice that at one verse the kids shouted, but otherwise it was a wall of sound to me. As a student I might have mimicked some of the words, but had very little understanding. However, after the song the teacher pulled up a small student and repeated words from the song while pointing between her short companion and her taller self, helping me to understand that the song was about opposites. She did this multiple times, asking the students to repeat after her. The same with the calendar pattern of small, medium, and large balls. The kids made small, medium and large circles with their fingers over and over, all while repeating the words after her. I began to understand the concept, and was even able to say the words, though I need more repetition because I can't recall them now.

3) Finally, being surrounded by an unfamiliar language was exhausting! I found I spent the first 10-15 minutes concentrating well, but after that I began tuning out, looking around the room for something I could more easily understand. As I spoke to the other observing teacher in English about what I was seeing, I realized I was doing exactly what we get frustrated with our ELL students for doing - mentally drifting, talking off-topic (or even on-topic, but just not listening to the lesson), and missing the intent of the lesson. No wonder students with very little English appear to have attention deficit problems - simply attending to what sounds like Charlie Brown's mom ("Whaa whaaaa whaaa whaa") is very tiring!

Not many of us get the chance to experience life as an ELL learner, and yet MANY of us have ELL students in our classrooms. If you have the chance, I'd urge you to put yourself in this position and then stand back and watch your own reactions. It's enlightening, and could have an immense impact on how we work with the second-language learners in our schools.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Creating Grade Level Inquiries

As teachers, we're constantly running into problems in the classroom. Problems that, unfortunately, can't always be solved in the same ways from year to year. Teaching is a constantly evolving art form requiring us to be flexible and creative as we figure out why Jose isn't learning letter sounds or why Suzanne always ends up with a stomach-ache at math time or why Itzel's handwriting is illegible despite weeks of interventions. It's what makes coming to work interesting and, by this time of year, intensely frustrating.

While in New York not long ago for the Teacher's College Coaching Institute, I attended a break-out session with Shanna Schwartz about creating grade level inquiries to help us solve these types of problems. She walked us through a 5-step inquiry that a grade level team at a NY elementary school had undertaken after they'd noticed the volume of writing in January was lower than it had been in December. Shanna's steps, and the NY teachers’ example, follow:

1) We observe - The second grade teachers looked at student work and put numbers to what they saw. Rather than just say, "They're not writing as much", they noticed that students were writing on average 3-4 sentences in January when in December they'd been writing 8-9 per day.

2) We raise questions - They asked, "Why did they write more last month than this month?

3) We come up with hypotheses - The teachers realized that they'd changed genres, from fiction to persuasive, and so hypothesized the students needed more knowledge of the genre. They also hypothesized that students needed higher level models of good persuasive writing to raise the quality of their writing.

4) We try something - To help with creating higher level persuasive writing models, the teachers found mentor texts in the real world, such as book reviews on Amazon and restaurant and movie reviews in the paper. They created exemplars (great examples of persuasive writing) for students to study, and kept them in front of students for the duration of the study. Finally, they intentionally demonstrated their own persuasive writing in front of students during mini-lessons. In addition to this creation of higher level models, they also had the students formulate volume goals by drawing a smiley face on the line of their paper where they planned to write to each day.

5) We reflect and adapt - After a period of "trying something", the teachers re-evaluated where their students were, again putting numbers to the results. They found a marked difference in the amount the students were writing. After discussion, they decided the results had more to do with creating better models of persuasive writing and less to do with the daily writing goals. Their conclusion: They needed to use better models with all future writing genres. The learning from this inquiry study needed to expand beyond just this writing unit.

In the future, with the rise of teacher accountability and Race To The Top, we'll be asked to reflect on potential solutions to issues as part of our yearly evaluations. This version of the scientific method is a simple yet effective way to solve the problems we so often experience as teachers.