Peer Observation in Claire’s Classroom

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Teachers have various attitudes towards walkthroughs and at times find it challenging to put up with the presence of another educator in the classroom. I guess it is different for EAL specialists and classroom teachers as we are always working in a team and being in someone’s classroom is our every day reality. EAL teachers have this daily privilege of expanding their opportunities to learn from our colleagues as we collaborate with several classroom teachers every day. Our opportunities to seek new methods, test those methods and cooperatively reflect on the results are multiple and are weaved into our daily teaching routines.

This week I was co-teaching and observing in Claire Webster’s room, and was so impressed with one of her classes that I decided to write about it here to illustrate how inquiry can support and inspire language learning.

Claire feels very passionate about developing her students’ writing skills and this lesson was all about painting with words and using descriptive language.

To begin with, our students watched a Brain POP video about what is an adjective.

The video provided additional opportunities for ELLs to understand what adjectives are and why and how we use them. I thought Claire made a good choice of an instructional scaffold and an engaging beginning to the lesson.

After the video the students had a chance to practice using adjectives. Claire had created a slide show (another instructional scaffold) with engaging assignments that activated students’ prior knowledge, set off their connection making and were in the students’ zone of proximal development. One of the tasks was to look at a red sports car, try to remember the special features and then describe this car to the police officer, wearing the hat of an accident witness. Another task was to look at the slide with an autumn tree and describe it using our five senses. Each slide provided enough scaffolding and each student had the opportunity to write his/her description in a journal and then share it with the rest of us. All the students were highly motivated and the interaction between the students was maximized. Claire was adaptable but maintained high expectations.

Students’ identities as learners were affirmed as they could carry out the task independently and all of them were very enthusiastic. Some EAL students, and even a student with behavioral issues, were so engaged and confident that they tried on the leader’s and educator’s hats.

All Claire’s language learners had an opportunity to extend their vocabulary, as when we discussed the sports car some Tier 2 and even Tier 3 words were added to the conversation by Claire and the native speaking students. When we described the autumn tree cultural dialogue took place and yet another opportunity was provided for our ELLs and the children who did not experience the 4 seasons to become more knowledgeable and in control of their language means.

That is how in 45 minutes our students explored the world of describing words, were able to practice applying their knowledge in various engaging contexts and enjoy sharing thinking and learning with peers.

How Can Inquiry Support and Inspire Language Learning?

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During our PD session in September our Inquiry Group discussed certain questions that we would like to find the answers to. One of them was – How can inquiry support and inspire language learning?

Inquiry-based teaching is a pedagogical approach that invites students to explore academic content by posing, investigating, and answering questions. Inquiry puts students’ questions at the center of the curriculum, and places just as much value on the component skills of research as it does on knowledge and understanding of content.

How do we make sure that all our ELLs benefit from this approach? This is a crucial question for many educators.

The role of the teacher in an inquiry-based classroom is not to provide direct instruction to students, but to support students in their efforts to generate their own content-related questions and guide the investigation that follows.

“When teachers choose to use an inquiry-based approach, they commit to provide rich experiences that provoke students’ thinking and curiosity; to plan carefully-constructed questioning sequences; to manage multiple student investigations at the same time; to continuously assess the progress of each student as they work toward their solution or final product; and to respond in-the-moment to students’ emerging queries and discoveries.” (2008, Center for Inspired Teaching. • 1436 U St NW, Suite 400 • Washington, DC 20009 • www.inspiredteaching.org)

The bad news is that our new ELLs may not have enough language to undertake the necessary research and effectively participate in learning experiences. To remedy the lack of language, EAL and mainstream teachers have to provide lots of scaffolding for each activity.

However, the good news is that the inquiry approach awakens natural curiosity in the children and triggers the intuitive process of discovering the world around them, provides an authentic and meaningful context for learning languages. Curiosity motivates our students, and the most challenging task of inspiring and turning them into explorers and knowledge seekers is half accomplished. Now that the flame has been sparked we as teachers need to keep it burning.

According to Jim Cummins, in order to be successful in engaging the ELLs in developing literacy, communication, thinking and transdisciplinary skills, teachers should focus on four main goals:

  • Support the students throughout their learning journey and develop their ability to understand and use academic language through specific instructional strategies (scaffolding) and cooperative learning;
  • Activate their prior experience and current knowledge;
  • Affirm their identities;
  • Extend across the curriculum their knowledge of, and control over, language .

Scaffold meaning and cooperative learning

In ISPP we are lucky to have all the strategies that V. Rojas and K. Murdoch shared with us. Plus we all collaborate with experienced colleagues and are constantly exchanging ideas, strategies and engagements. We use visual, demonstration, dramatization, acting out meaning, interactive and collaborative tasks and the explicit explanation of words, linguistic structures and discourse patterns, various visible thinking routines and complex instruction strategies.

Activate prior experience/build background knowledge

There are numerous activities and visible thinking routines that we all use to help our students make connections to their previous experiences and existing knowledge. Google Translate and Google Earth are being actively used to facilitate discussions, create understanding maps, and activate students’ prior knowledge.

Affirm Identity

Jim Cummins says that affirming identity is crucial for literacy development. “Teacher’s instructional philosophy: everything has to relate to the identity of the students, children have to see themselves in every aspect of their work at school.” (Jim Cummins)

It seems that in this area we could still do more for our ELLs. We should give all our students more opportunities to popularize their cultures, be proud of their languages, share unique valued experiences and promote identities of competence among our students. A collaborative process of working in a team allows the EAL students to explore the role of being an educator and lead certain activities.

Extend language

During our planning sessions with the classroom teachers we discuss unpacking difficult concepts, technical words, sophisticated grammatical constructions. I also use my EFL classes to revise or find another way of explaining the challenging material. With the help of educational videos and Google translate we are often able to focus on the academic subject of the unit and begin to understand and use the meta-language. I carefully choose the strategies and scaffolds (summary frames, substitution maps, various sentence starters, etc) that will make it possible for the student with limited language means to participate in learning engagement and be part of cooperative learning and extend control over language.