My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the category “ELLs”

Obama Admin Steps in Right Direction but DREAMs Still On Hold

Undocumented students and others now can worry less about deportation. The Obama Administration has announced that they will “suspend deportations” of undocumented youths who pose no threat to national security.

This means that all the students I have taught who didn’t have papers, will be able to go to high school and college with less fear of being “outed”.

The article doesn’t state, however, how the Administration will handle the youths’ parents deportations. That would still leave the children vulnerable to having their families split up, which has happened to three of my students over. Two had fathers and one had an uncle deported. One had been picked up for a traffic violation.

This also does not yet grant the undocumented youths any means to obtain a green card or citizenship. So the many who want to be legal still have no real recourse to adjust their status, effectively placing them in limbo. The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) is still unfulfilled.

Summer studies

So even though I still consider myself on maternity leave (my baby is now 2.5 months old), I always get inspired during the summer to “reinvent” myself as a teacher. I try to think about what i did the previous year that is worth repeating and what do I want to try out or fix in the coming year. I find that my three years in the classroom have taught me that I need to be flexible and creative while growing from my experiences and developing things that can be part of a more stable repertoire. The students will be different, so i need to be as well So I envision, I plan and I read.

So what books have I purchased so far this summer? Perhaps surprisingly none are directly related to ESL. This is because I have read most of them and they all either repeat what I already know or really don’t address the needs for me in my classroom. So I am reading:

Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop by Jeff Anderson

Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter H. Johnston.

If I learn anything useful, I will let you know. Assuming, of course, my infant lets me read them in time for September!!

If you’re reading anything good, or have a book (ESL-related or not),you’d recommend, I’d love to hear about it!

Where Are Student Needs In These National Standards?

In Response to the New York Times’ Article, “Panel Proposes Single Standard for All Schools”, many great letters to the Editor have been submitted. Here is a quote from one:

“While it’s true that eight of the 10 top-scoring countries have centralized education standards, so do nine of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in math and eight of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in science.”

-excerpt from letter by Alfie Kohn. Read the rest here.

Well said, Mr. Kohn.

I have written a bit now about how I feel standardized tests are a disservice to immigrant students and, well, sadly, the same can be said of standards that ignore their needs as well. Many people may think uniform national standards are a great, sensible thing. But show me two states that are identical in their student population, please.

Here is one comment in the article:

Another improvement over current state benchmarks, people involved in the initiative said, is that the proposed standards are what educators call vertically aligned, meaning that material students are to learn in early years builds a foundation for what is to come in the next grade.

This is an improvement for who? When teachers are given students who come from other countries with not only vastly different standards from ours, but also students who did not go to school regularly (if at all, thanks to such things as war and extreme poverty), what are those teachers expected to do? I’ll tell you: teach the grade standards and somehow find the ways and means to fill those giant gaps through “small groups”. It’s unfair to the students and teachers.

These standards, written without input from teachers like me, are an example of idealism at its worst.

Even standards that have been written by New York State, and likely most other states, that were written specifically for ELLs do not address the well-known research about their needs and the timeline they face in their development in a second language. Standards that don’t even address this research are meaningless, at best.

Building ownership as learners & making words meaningful, useful and playful

While Not Draining Me Or Driving Myself Crazy At the Same Time

A lot of times teachers, especially teachers of ELLs, worry that their students don’t know enough vocabulary; enough BICS or CALP words; enough academic language, etc. Whatever word you choose to refer to it, the concern is the same, and it’s very real. I have struggled this year with creating a culture of language appreciation in my room. Last year, it was much easier. In part, I credit the fact that I had far less students and my class size only grew toward the end of the year by 2 students. This year, my class size grew by 7 students within the first few weeks and kept growing. I feel I took it all in stride, but it wasn’t enough. I’m sure once I’m a seasoned veteran, I will have had enough of these sudden fluctuations to have developed a more systematic approach to them. Nevertheless, I now feel like i’m hitting a new stride that is re-grounding myself in what I did last year that was very successful. Not that things can simply be reproduced class to class, but I feel my students (and their teacher as well!) are now at a point where I can implement some of these things. Could I have done this sooner? Yes. But did I have a clear enough plan for it? No. Ok. Enough self-indulgent theorizing, let’s get to what the hell I’m talking about.

A word conscious classroom. Yes, there are books with the same or similar title, but I’m not so much referring to any specific book as I am talking about creating a culture of words. For example, last year I had my word wall right next to my meeting area, so it became a constant point of reference for the students and me. They were very conscious of their word choices and when doing things like turning and talking to a partner or jotting on a post-it, they would choose “cross” or “infuriated” over mad because it was a less common word and because we had acted out the difference. So, if their character was more than mad, they knew how to express it.

Ok, so acting out emotion ranges and using the word wall. A colleague helped me envision a better place for my word wall (finally! it’s now the third time I’ll have moved it!), so that it will be much easier to reference from the meeting area and their desks.

More synonyms. This was a hit last year with the emotions as I said above, as well as words we can use to describe characters (they were a separate color and had a sticker on them at the word wall). I also would have them act out the difference between different ways of walking: wander/meander, stomp, slouch, march, tiptoe, etc. Which I am going to do again starting now in a new way. When I call them to the meeting area, I will specify how I want them to walk. That’s a quick and easy way to make new words meaningful and memorable. You can do this with adverbs and idioms, as well (walk as if you were as tall as a tree, as shy as a mouse, etc… walk grumpily, respectfully… —after you have modeled, of course, or had someone model). It helps if the words can be raised in context. I remember last year I read the Ramona series to them, and Ramona is such a lively character that she allows for a lot of word work like this. (— Side note: They loved this series. It’s a Level O and, at the time, most of my students were level L and below, but oral comprehension is always higher. No one had wanted me to read such a “high” book with them, but I did it anyway).

I randomly use word webs, but I will start hanging them as charts around the room for things like this. Like, “Ways We Walk” and “Ways We  Talk”… etc.

Also, as I told the kids today, as they collect new words through their reading — words they find difficult or interesting — and write them in their word collector box (you’ve probably seen it — it’s a sheet of paper with a box for every letter in the alphabet — X and Y share a box), if I find some that are particularly good, I will add them to our word wall and write their name on the word’s card so they are responsible for explaining what the word means if other students want to know.

I’m also going to have just a “you asked me how to spell….” area where kids can write down words other kids ask them to spell. This happens all the time, as you know, and I think it’s a good way for kids to share both their word skills and word questions. Again, they sign their name to it. I feel, this way, it becomes like a real accomplishment board (unlike the lame accomplishment board we’re required to have).

I’ll let you know how it goes! And, please, if you’ve had similar experiences or difficulty making ideas like this work in practice, share them below! This is important because we can’t simply create a carbon copy of each teacher’s approach or method and hope it works in our classroom. Each student is different and each class is therefore different (this is what many administrators seriously miss or forget). And I know I have read ideas like the ones above on other ESL sites or in books like the ones I list below, but until you do it or envision it with your own students, it simply will never come to life. Our experiences as teachers are different as a result of all that, so it’s crucial we share them. And I think the more we share our unique approaches, struggles and successes, the more we popularize the idea that teachers are not automatons and we aren’t simply nightly-news anchors who just need to read the best prepared text and all will be dandy (i.e., remove the human to get results). Our successes are often because of what makes us *unique*. </soapbox>

While I said I wasn’t referring to any specific book, I have in fact been inspired by these (there are many-a journal articles on this topic, too, and these books lack in the ELL area, but helpful and enlightening still):

The Word-Conscious Classroom: Building the Vocabulary Readers and Writers Need

Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (my favorite).

And it’s follow-up text, Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions and Extended Examples (Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy).

New Book is Guide to Research on ELLs

Mary Ann Zehr of EdWeek’s Learning the Language (a favorite blog of mine, as evidenced by the rss feed below-right), just wrote a quick piece about a new book published by Corwin, called Promoting Academic Achievement Among English Language Learners by Claude Goldenberg (<– that links to his site at Stanford, which has links to other research, books, and articles he has written, if you want to look more into him before purchasing the book). NYC teachers may remember an article he published in the Summer 2008 issue of American Teacher magazine, which sounds like a precursor to his book, appropriately titled, Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does —and Does Not— Say.

This new title from Goldenberg examines the research that’s out there on ELLs and education, according to the article. I know teachers can feel like they’re always having new research thrown at them, so this book may be a welcome analysis tool, in a sense. I feel teachers really ought to be familiar with the research studies themselves because I am realizing there are so many different ways that research can be interpreted and turned into policy/approaches/curriculum in schools. Those of you who are using Dr. Lily Wong Fillmore’s “Juicy Sentences” approach, know that that is one such example.

Some of the new book’s chapters include the role of the home language (which spurred a recent post here just yesterday), literacy in the L2 (related to my own research for my MA), and social, cultural, and family influences. So, I’m definitely psyched. I wonder how it will compare with other books I’ve read on this topic such as Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners, by Nancy Cloud, et al (2009). I liked Cloud’s book, but many such books often leave me feeling like the authors water down (or oversimplify) the research for public consumption.

I recommend reading Zehr’s piece, as she appears to have read the book, and there are already two comments on her article, if you are interested in discussing it.

It definitely sounds like a worthwhile book and, as a book glutton, I’m guaranteed to read it. I will review it once I have. As an ESL teacher who’d like to pursue research as a full-time focus someday, reading books like this is both a professional adventure (as a teacher trying to both implement approaches based on recent research and still doing what my school requires), and an inspiration.

I’m crossing my fingers to get a review copy before I go and purchase it. Hey, I’ve got a new teacher salary! :)

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