My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the tag “teaching”

Today’s Education Reform Rant Brought to You by the Letter “C”

I was once sitting among some colleagues who were discussing the difficulties our ELL students have with spelling – like kids who write “whase” for “was”. Teaching spelling is even trickier when your population’s first language has different sounds, and different sounds represented by letters that differ from English (if they have any experience with letter alphabets or writing at all).

We use Words Their Way, which is essentially a phonics program that encourages deductive reasoning, and uses pictures or word cards, all of which have proven problematic for classes such as mine. Firstly because when doing sound sorts with word cards usually kids just look and see that “mat” looks like “sat” and not “set”, and group them by letters rather than sounds, which they’re supposed to be noticing. While this might be useful for students if you’re teaching them the letters in the English language, but the usefulness even then is limited. Secondly, the picture cards, where they match pictures by the sounds in the words they represent, require vocabulary knowledge! You have to know the picture you are looking at is of a “hen” to see how it fits with “pen”.

Add to this the fact that spelling is arbitrary. There is no inherent logic that the squiggle that looks like a “c” should make the /k/ sound rather than the letter “g”. I know kids don’t need to know that, but teachers and curriculum authors ought to! Besides, spelling in English is so irregular that teaching rules has never proven too helpful (in my experience) because there is also a “however…” tacked onto the end if it.

So, it really struck me as such a surprise when I overheard a fellow teacher say, “No matter how many times I remind them, they still spell ‘excited’ as ‘exited'”. I responded by saying, (in the positive scenario, assuming the kid doesn’t have other problems or difficulties), “There’s a similar word in Spanish but spelled “exitoso”, and maybe that’s why.” And this person paused and replied emphatically, “But you can hear the c,” and then pronounced the word slowly.

What made me really stop in this comment is that despite knowing that ‘c’ can make more than 1 sound, what she didn’t know was that letters don’t actually “make” sounds. They are just representations of sound, and often they represent very different ones (between and within languages), which can reinforce confusion by ELLs and likely not just ELLs.

For example, if I’m thinking of something to say in Spanish or Italian that has the letters “ch” in it, which is pronounced differently in the two languages, I first think to myself how “Che” is said in Spanish, and then I know which sound I need to make. The Italian pronunciation for “ch”, is represented in English by the letters k, c, and also ch (think character). And both Spanish and Italian have their trilled “r” sounds that most people think English doesn’t have. We have one of them. Just say the word ladder out loud and compare what your tongue does to either the Spanish pero, if you know it, to see the similarities, or to the English “made” to see how our “d” at the end of a word differs when “d” is in the middle. Now do you want to teach kids how to pronounce words in English, or how to spell that way? A little trickier, isn’t it, when you think of all the sounds we actually make.

But I digress.

This is NOT a dig at this person, or at teachers — because many of us have not had the experience of really learning a foreign language, or of taking a linguistics class that really invite us to rethink the written language differently from its sound system, or phonetics. And perhaps the way we teach spelling would be different if teachers were encouraged to reflect on their teaching and their particular population’s needs in deeper ways, instead of just being given a book they are required to use three times a week.

I’d like you to consider: this is someone who actually has years of experience with ELLs and still doesn’t understand some key aspects of their learning. So imagine the true value of someone with no experience with ELLs — and I don’t mean the teachers now, but the politicians and others who actually write policy and determine teacher training and curricula — imagine them having the impact they do on our education system.

And we’re just talking about spelling here.

If this question of English orthography and phonetics interests you, I suggest reading this.

Really, Every Day Math?!


Dear creators of Every Day Math,

You have clearly never taught ELLs, because you give the most useless suggestions EVER. How about not creating a curriculum that assumes all child the world over learn the same math the world over at the same time?

A Teacher of actual ELLs

Brainstorming and Re-imagining

Few things are better than a fresh start. To come at something with new eyes, new lessons learned, and a chance to do things differently than before. It’s reinvigorating. And teachers get one every September; a chance to re-imagine everything from how you teach, to how to decorate the room. The opportunities can be endless, if you look at the things you hope to do differently with an open mind. Not many professions offer that.

Tomorrow I return to the school I left in June to set up my classroom and start anew. To psych myself up, I spend weeks visualizing the space and how I want to do it differently, make it more efficient, etc.

Ever year I have a different kind of class, not just different students, and this really demands that I be open to fresh starts (as well as some degree of chaos!). Some years it’s been filled with struggling long-term ELLs while other times it’s been filled with newcomers and students with significant gaps in their school history. This coming year, I am starting with nearly 30 students coming out of the bilingual classes, and it will be a bridge class that combines two grades.

Some of what I plan to do differently incorporates what I found to be good practices from previous years and, especially, my plans stem from learning from my mistakes or weaknesses, and books I am reading.

For one, rather than class rules, we will create class goals. I feel this allows for more positive discussions each day about whether we are meeting our goals and how to do so better, rather than checking who is following the rules.

Next, being an ESL class, there are two central items that determine it’s success: academic language acquisition and strong partner work. Students need time to talk but they need to know what language is useful to discuss in class. (I will soon post more on this for those who are looking for some guidance on how to do it). They also need to work well together so that sharing and re-teaching is beneficial and not random and haphazard with lots of reminders of how to be nice to each other. I feel projects that require partner work can make or break a class. So, I plan to do more daily partner work that incorporates academic language from day one. Set the standards really high and show the students what they are capable of from the get-go. My classes have always been very student-centered, with a lot of time for student talk, and choice, but it has not been as regimented as I’d like it to be so that it is, ideally, possible for prep teachers to be able to rely on that.

And finally, I’m going even more paperless than before. In addition to keeping my conference notes in google docs, I am going to use planbookedu for my schedule and plans (though I am such a furiously-write-ideas-in-the-margins kind of person, so typing will take getting used to for that). Anything to address the paper overload that comes with the profession.

So, while I am trying to delay the loss of summer, and the priceless time I have been allowed to spend with my new daughter, I am psyched. Ready to meet the new challenges. Re-imagining the mini-world I get to create with my students, and preparing myself mentally for what is always a bumpy, messy ride.

Two Blogs Better Than One?

Just a few short months ago, after my daughter was born, I had started a blog where I could bring together my new adventures as a mom raising a bilingual daughter, and my thoughts and experiences as an ESL teacher eager to help my colleagues who might not have easy access to seeing ESL methods and practices at work.

My daughter is my number one passion, love, and priority, and all my free time goes to her. So I had changed my mind about that blog, and didn’t really see myself blogging or tweeting much at all anymore because, well, my time is no longer mine alone. And between work, a husband in school, and an infant, who has time to write?

Then, a few things started to happen that compelled me to make some changes here to protect my identity and the students I teach (you’ll note some password protected posts now. Regular readers can contact me for it).

Anyway, instead of giving up blogging, I have decided to give new life to it instead by utilizing both blogs in their own way.

So, the new blog will be much more personal and practical, too. I will be offering whatever lessons and modifications I do for public consumption and, hopefully, public improvement :). This blog will remain my go-to spot for my rants, political opinions, and other commentary related to my job.

So, soon, there will be not just one but two of me ;). Any new parent knows how much I wish that were true!

Refuse and Resist, Alabama

Update: ELL Advocacy Group Files A Suit — August 8, 2011

The state whose backward educational policies made Ruby Bridges famous, Alabama has returned to their former infamous approach to schooling. Now, “public schools are required to report the status of each student to the state department of education. When doing this, schools will code each child a “0” or a “1”.

In the spirit of 7-year-old Ruby, who had more of a sense of justice than far too many adults (then and now), parents who are citizens and other people of conscience need to stand with the children now being targeted and resist these measures by refusing to hand over their own child’s birth certificate , and encourage others to do the same. Hopefully there are people already considering such actions.

If you look at these steps the government is taking and think it’s no big deal, you are naive. I’m sorry but this should be seen as just the beginning. My students are scared enough about being separated from their parents and deported. This law will only ratchet up that feeling of terror.

The people of Denmark during WWII did not know where the policy of “just” having Jews wear yellow stars was headed. But they refused anyway. I’m not drawing wild comparisons to Nazis here and I’m not trying to infer that the lawmakers in AL are fascists but, rather, to I’m inviting us to consider the sometimes seemingly insignificant ways certain minority groups get singled out and the potential that lies in the majority to take a stand and lead history in a different direction.

Alabama, it’s your turn to make a choice.

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