Meaningful learning through translation

Fantastic writing in English is kind of disreputable, but fantastic writing in translation is the summit – Jonathoan Lethem

There’s a lot of pros and cons for getting language learners to translate, though I question how much is learned from a standard translation task. imagesHowever, in my IB Diploma Spanish Ab initio course I recently prepared a nice little activity which involved translating a text about bullying. Moreover, what made it successful was the peer correcting and reflecting at the end of the task thus making it well rounded. Ab initio courses are special in that it’s not simply a matter of teaching the language, the IB have constructed a SL course where teachers must prepare students to do specific tasks in the target language based on a set of 20 topics. Students should be able to describe pictures and discuss themes, write short paragraphs related to the topics and answer comprehension and language questions on texts. There is also a researched based individual written assignment to top off the challenge. All these must be achieved in less than 2 years making it vigorous, particularly to those who have no prior knowledge of the target language.

When I started last year with my G11’s they were not independent learners and wanted to be spoon fed. It took considerable time explaining the exam criteria and assignments as well as getting them to accept my approach of learning the language through a series of topics and expecting students to self study grammar and vocabulary with my guidance. After covering the basics, I slowly started introducing more independent approaches to learning pushing the responsibility onto the learners. Babbel and Duolingo are useful tools for students to pick up the basics alone, although my students didn’t take to it. Duolingo even allows you to set up groups for teachers.

Now in the second year of the course, as any teacher with G12 students, I worry too much about their progress and am pushing them to be able to achieve at their best in the final exam. I have noticed that this year most of my students have achieved a fairly good level Spanish where the work done in the first year somehow all starts to advance. We still have a long way to go, but my constant identifying areas of study for each individual and pushing them seems to be paying off. Recently we read some articles about bullying, one of the more complex themes related to the topic of education. From the texts read and Paper 1 preparation I prepared a simple vocabulary quiz (formative assessment) to confirm the students were studying the vocabulary.

To take it a step further I came across a short summary written by a English Ab initio student on a similar text on bullying. Mr Fernando and Antonio Luna provide very complete resources for this course. It seemed like a nice little task to round of the theme. My students are unfortunately very google translate (or any other translator) orientated.

Final translation
Final translation

I have been decreasing the use translators by demonstrating the limitations from our course perspective and reminding them they will not be allowed to use it in the final exam. It’s a useful tool for specific moments. Rather than simply asking students to translate the text and correct it, I approached it as follows. In pairs I asked students to to translate the text with a good old dictionary as their only external tool. I then mixed pairs allowing them to compare one translation with another. Next, students were asked to compare these and make a third translation which was fused from the first attempts. This forces to students to discuss and examine the language they used and also requires them to collaborate and think at higher levels. Finally, I projected my translation and got the students to copy it and compare differences with their texts. We discussed specific grammar structures, vocabulary and reflected on differences between English and Spanish. The sensation I got after the class is that students had successfully learned from this activity, worked collaboratively and my role was guiding and facilitating rather than spoon feeding content.

Mind mapping and jigsaw puzzles

mind-mapping

My last blog looked at some aspects of team-teaching from a theoretical point of view which led me to reflect on some of the basic strategies I use when supporting in Social Studies or English Literature classes, where I tend to do most of my EAL support with grade 8 and 10.mind-map-oedipus-themes
This year I started thinking about how I can make myself useful when my role as an EAL specialist puts me in the backseat so to speak. Basically, the subject teacher is running the show and I work in the background, keeping students on task, moving around or simply listening and observing. As a result it became fairly clear that only a few students were taking notes or annotating texts during readings and discussions. At first I moved around and asked why individuals weren’t doing this. Sometimes I even wrote down the notes with the intent of giving them a sample of what could be jotted down. Many students just need a push to get started but different strategies work better with some than others. I started searching for visible learning strategies and reviewing the ATL skills (see attachment) to try different approaches and see if students would start to get the importance of having good note-taking skills. The result being that this week more students have started to take notes without being reminded!

Most of the colleagues I have worked with over the years showed me something useful, so I started with something I picked up from a dear colleague at a previous teaching position. My friend mastered the skill of mind mapping and this was the perfect way to help groups to develop my students note-taking skills.  mind-map-tragedyMost upper secondary students seem to be familiar with mind mapping so I just reminded them it was a different way to take notes and they understood the principle strategy. We briefly talked about mind mapping websites and there are plenty around.

One of the areas my students fail in note-taking is writing points, not full sentences, particularly weaker students. In class, it was in these moments when I was in the back seat that I grabbed a board marker and started mind-mapping the elements of the class discussion. A grade 10 unit on short stories and literary elements like setting, characterization, and symbolism gave me the opportunity to mind map on the board while students tried it themselves at their desks. To take things a little further in a later class I invited students to the board to take the notes while there was a “fish tank/goldfish bowl” discussionmind-map-tvotw going on. (An activity where four students sit in the middle of the classroom and discuss elements of short stories they have studied. Around them, as an audience sit the rest of the class, listening and taking notes). What my colleagues and I noticed immediately was how each individual gives it a personal touch or some just invent a new form of mind mapping altogether. I hope to indulge more into developing note-taking skills and maybe even try doodling and drawing as an option to see which students really would prefer using alternatives to words.

 screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-2-24-13-pmoedipus-rubric-cut-up

The second strategy I want to mention is old but great because we all like a little jigsaw puzzle now and again (also popular with curriculum development workshop leaders). Rubrics are the best thing ever to cut up and hand out to individuals or groups to get them reading, puzzling, and thinking. Making it into a bit of a competition to see who fixes the rubric first can add some friendly competition if needed. Mostly it forces the students to read the descriptors carefully, then, once finished the rubric can be discussed together with the assessment task in a more meaningful way. Students should have a clear idea of the criterion so that in the lesson(s) building up to the assessment regular reminders of specific criterion will make more sense to them. Teacher talk explaining this type of bigger assessment task like an essay shouldn’t be only explained verbally with a handout as not everybody in the class will get it, specially in classes with mixed abilities. Soon I plan to try similar strategies to get students to understand their rubrics better which is fundamental if they are expected to achieve well.

Two is better than one

idiom-two-heads-are-better-than-one-two-people-who-work-together

Inclusion, team-teaching, planning & EAL

Aren’t two teachers better than one? As an EAL specialist in secondary education where we are striving to achieve good team-teaching, I often find myself wondering why co-teaching in elementary is far more normal than in secondary. Some reasons are obvious like the students age or the curriculum, but others require further research. I believe all classes could use a support teacher or specialist, be it for language support, learning support or general. In international education and keeping in mind  twenty first century educational philosophies, inquiry based approaches to teaching and learning, and a focus on skills more than content, there should be more co-teaching and planning time in a teachers schedule. At my current teaching position as an EAL support teacher in secondary my job goes well beyond supporting EAL students, I help all the students and the team-teaching is developing nicely, even with limited planning.

Two interesting articles (EAL specialist teachers and support staff; Together we are better) I recently read about secondary inclusion and co-teaching clearly argued some factors that I had already discovered but needed to have confirmed. They can be summed up as: “bonding” or building a positive and open relationship with subject teacher, planning efficiently and teamwork. Most importantly team-teaching can only succeed if both teachers consider themselves as equals and understand their professional role, i.e. one is subject-based while the other is a specialist in EAL, Learning Support or other. In such a way both run and observe the class from a different perspective and so supporting students with their learning collectively as well as individually.

When I first started at RAS the EAL teachers were mostly new to the school and an EAL inclusion model. At first my colleagues mentioned feeling more like assistants than teachers and it was probably true. I explained they needed to find ways to become part of the class and build a relationship with the teacher as this is key to any team building. All this takes time, can be frustrating but also depends on the personality and character of the people involved. Ideally a school can set time aside at the start of the year for teachers to prepare and establish a good teaching relationship by planning, discussing and setting their individual roles. I was not given that privilege and even though the EAL department made some common agreements to our work method, subject teachers were not really involved. We had one short meeting with all the teachers to explain the basic ideas of EAL inclusion.

Another point that struck me while reading the articles was the fact that they took into consideration that many teachers team-teaching did not have sufficient planning time. Nearly everyone who works at a school is in someway dependent on planning as there are always so many things to plan during a school year. For teachers, no matter how they plan, they all need to plan for there to be continuous meaningful learning taking place in the classroom. In teachhub.com I came across an article that describes a range of co-teaching approaches based on the amount of planning time available. It also takes into consideration factors to be aware of if either or both teachers are not well-prepared for their role in the classroom. Quite useful stuff to know for a team-teacher!

In Marcela Houterman’s video about the EAL model at ISPP, the importance of planning is shown in the first scenes where two teachers are collaboratively preparing classes. In almost all of the video we can see that the learning outcomes are a result of teachers knowing their roles and having thought things through well. Planning can be done just about anywhere, it doesn’t need to be time consuming and technology is a tremendous asset. In most places I have worked planning time was insufficient and rushed and usually not teachers managing their time badly. As a consequence teachers were not getting any quality long term planning in and even though learning was going on in the classroom, the outcomes were not as successful as they could have been with more efficient planning. Students also sense the difference in a classroom where teachers, structures and routines are set in stone. It provides stability, stimulates the learning, and should make the learning meaningful. Short briefings before and after classes or at other times can help a lot, and regular communication by any means will increase the learning in any co-teaching environment.

All the articles referred to in this blog mention the importance of subject teachers and specialist teachers building an open professional relationship, they should be equals. Easier said than done in some cases as humans are complex, being professional is the key alongside clear communication and honesty. Teachers should not allow areas of frustration to build up and cause unpleasant situations to arise in the long run.

Lastly, I came across a brilliant document called “Go-to-strategies: Scaffolding Options for teachers of English Language Learners, K-12” which suggests 78 teaching strategies. Many of them I have already used and some are well known like “Think, pair, share” or a classic “dictation”. What I liked about the document is the way the strategies are clearly listed and explained and thus easy to refer to with co-teachers in planning time. Moreover, they provided me as a specialist teacher with a bridge to teaching in the classes. All the teachers I work with are busy, some started this year so the curriculum is new, and I found my suggestions to activities and strategies were welcomed with open arms. It has even allowed me to run activities and classes, reversing roles therefore creating an environment where both teachers are really team-teaching from all perspectives.

Finally I do believe that the specialist teacher is in a unique position where they must take the initiative to develop a team-teaching environment by any means possible. After all, we are the ones walking into someone else’s classroom and want to be treated as equals. It would also take time to walk into someone’s house and demand to be part of the family, right?

Learning walls to inspire active learning

I discovered SPELTAC at the same time as I was doing some in house PD on visual learning. Somehow a series of articles, one of which: Teaching students to think, making thinking visible, R.Ritchhart/D.Perkins, Educational Leadership, 2008, and a workshop inspired me to create a learning wall. Nothing new, nothing experimental but a great tool for a support teacher facing the challenges of team-teaching and students who struggle with the pace of mainstream classes. One of the first SPELTAC blogs I came across supported an idea from my PD day: Visualizing Learning. The article and PD sessions made me look at the classroom walls at RAS and question whether what I saw was influencing or stimulating our students.

In a SPELTAC blog by Ethel Wolfe: “The importance of background information”, she points out how effective it can be to provide students with background information on the literature being covered in class by visualizing it. My grade 10 language arts class, where I co-teach as an EAL support teacher, was clearly showing signs of students who were missing the point and not reading between the lines and getting the authors insights or deeper meanings from the story. The first unit and summative assessment clearly displayed what the class weaknesses were, not just for the EAL students. The real question for this classes was how to get them more involved in their learning, get them to share responsibility in it.

And so a set of articles and circumstances led me to suggest to my colleagues, I support two grade 10 English classes that work parallel but have a different teacher. Both teachers welcomed the idea of creating a space in the classroom which would become a “learning wall”, a display that is continuously growing and changing related to the unit being studied. Once I had the idea I slowly started working out details and discussing it with my co-teachers and even some other staff (planning time does not always mean official meetings, a chat, an e-mail can work too). Then I asked myself: “What should be on the wall?”, “How can I make sure students are regularly contributing to it?”, “How can it help student learner skills?”. Again many of the answers were given to me once I started discussing the idea with teachers and students.

Our next unit is Tragedy and covers a range of texts including Oedipus Rex, Othello and some shorter stories. Starting with the Greeks, I explained the idea of a learning wall to the class and asked students to write a TRAGEDY title. Curiously, in one class a student immediately looked up the word “tragedy” in Greek and thus made a contribution before anything else was stuck on the wall. After a week students have included questions, thoughts, words to start the wall. This week I have suggested they come up with images of Thebes, Greek gods, Freud and other background related themes. All these simple little things create a way to involve grade 10’s more in their literature studies. The students were told the wall is a mere extension of their notes, but the collaborative approach as a class seems to make it more fun and interesting. Classes are now starting and ending with engaging discussions that come from the wall.

It is early days yet to see whether or not the learning wall will be a success. Nevertheless, I feel it already provided the students with an opportunity to contribute to their learning, be active and force them to think about things they are reading and asked to write essays about. From my perspective as a co-teacher it simply opened up a world of opportunities to develop team teaching and simply make units more meaningful to students. Although I am not present in every class, when I am, about 5 minutes are spent discussing questions and things on the wall, a great warm up activity which sets the pace for the class.

Visual learning Displays
Visual learning
Displays

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