Using content to focus on skills

One of the changes I have been making in my classes and as a EAL support teacher is putting more emphasis on the skills students need to learn. These are generally life-long tools students need to develop to succeed. I believe this skills set makes learning meaningful. Generally, under skills I am referring to what the IB calls Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATL) and include critical thinking, research, communication, self management and social skills. Once again this ties in nicely with achieving successful teaching and learning and Creating Cultures of thinking (R.Ritchhart). One of the best PD workshops I went to a couple of years ago covered the ATLs and attached is a very useful document for anyone who wishes to check what they are really teaching in class other than content. The document is a simple checklist of what you consider you cover in your classes from a student perspective as well as a teachers.

This week in my G9 English Language Arts class I prepared a two class activity focusing on one of these skills. We are currently reading Animal Farm by G.Orwell and I used this as a means to focus on presentation skills. Our current unit ends with an assessment of a persuasive speech, although Animal Farm is the bulk of the unit, we are actually looking at literary devices and persuasion, the power of words. The activity we did can be summed up as preparing a short speech  which was to be performed under criteria of a performance rubric I had prepared. Students where given a paragraph from the novel about the construction of a Windmill and had to either support Napoleon or Snowball’s point of view. At first the students gathered their ideas individually with the help of a worksheet, then they paired up and shared ideas (Think – Pair – Share). The pairs where then divided and groups of 3 to 4 students worked together to prepare a speech in each group.

This seems like a very typical activity occurring in many English classes but it wasn’t. Early on I received questions from individuals who thought this was an assessed piece of work. I had broken the activity down into steps and had given very clear instructions before we started. I am a firm believer of writing the purpose of the class on the board and often include questions based on this. As you can see in the photo, the essential questions were: “what’s my body language while presenting?” and “how should I use my body when presenting?” Clearly not really content orientated. Nevertheless what struck me most throughout the class was the number of students who thought it was assessed and who had a hard time comprehending the idea of focusing on skills. Throughout the two classes I had a number of conversations explaining these things again and again. (And yes, at my school students are very used to and comfortable with being spoon-fed!)

In the second lesson students completed their speeches whilst I told groups not to worry about format of speech and other details they were worrying about. I gave each group the performance rubric with highlighted criteria they would act out while performing the speech. They were given time to practice and by this stage the class was fully engaged in the activity, thinking of all kinds of ways to act out their speech. With all the groups I had selected criteria on the lower end of the rubric, in other words: “what NOT to do”. I also gave each group the opportunity to perform their speech normally if they wanted to, most did not and that was fine. All in all, the students enjoyed the activity and had a laugh too. I closed the class by asking them to reflect on this in their journals by creating a headline and justifying it. A beautiful 10 minutes of silent thinking and writing which ended with just a few students sharing their headlines and opinions on the activity before we all went home.

Finally I have to give credit to our secondary librarian who is a fantastic source of support and ideas. As we were briefly planning how some of the years units and assessments would link to skills, she immediately pulled a book from the shelf: Well Spoken, teaching to all students by Erik Palmer. It contained some great information but mostly I found the rubrics very useful because the language was student friendly. Of course the most satisfying result of this activity was the positive reactions students gave me from: “Awesome”, “fantastic”, “this was a really useful activity” to “that’s great, I have never done stuff like this before, it makes sense” and “I learned something useful today sir!”.

Attached:

ATL document and performance rubric.

 

Cultures of thinking

One of the things I really like about SPELTAC is that blogging is a great way to reflect on one’s teaching. Another school year has started with new students and classes. One of my objectives during this period is setting up the routines and culture of learning I want my students to be in. Walk around any school corridor at the beginning of semester 1 and you will see teachers setting rules and expectations for the years learning to be hopefully successful. To challenge myself a little, I set myself a speaking to the class or lecturing time limit of 8 minutes out of 65. This means that although I will speak to groups and individuals throughout the class, I want my explanations or whole class teacher talk to be no more than 8 minutes long. I asked my students to time this to make it a communal challenge. It will be interesting to see if I can achieve this regularly!

Following on from my “Making Thinking Visible” PD the group of teachers I did the course with decided to go a step further and do the course: “Creating Cultures of Thinking” by Ron Ritchhart, also a Project Zero related PD from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reading the book over the summer I discovered some great ideas to start of the year with 2 grade 9 English Literature classes I teach. Both classes have ELLs as well as Learning Support students and a wide range of levels form intermediate to native. The term differentiate comes to mind as some students will find “Animal farm”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “A midsummer nights dream” tough novels to read. How can I keep them all engaged at their varied levels of understanding?

Ron Ritchhart’s suggested 8 forces to master to truly transform our schools has been fascinating inspiration and motivated me to set some standards and ideas for my classes and thus slowly creating a culture of thinking from the very start of the year. I could waffle on endlessly about Ron and his forces but this blog is about how some principles, strategies and ideas mentioned in the book are helping me create a classroom where I facilitate and guide while we are all engaged in a journey of learning together. Sure, I lead (at times) and decide how the time is spent but what I choose for us to do is done together as a community to learn.

The school I am currently at would need to be totally redesigned from scratch if it was to model all the forces Ron Ritchhart suggests to create a 21st century learning environment. Just as he quite fairly argues, for most teachers and schools you have to start off small, let the culture grow and maybe, eventually we’ll get there, but it’s not something that changes overnight! My list of inconveniences would be quite long as the classroom as a learning environment is not perfect, neither are the desks, schedules, curriculum, and so on, but there are still many things I can do. If my students are engaged and challenged adequately, there is potential to learn positively.

In “Creating Cultures of Thinking” many ideas are explained through case studies and classroom observations. One of the ideas I loved and used in a first class with students (and which will also be repeated throughout the whole year) is the following short slide show which I combined with the Thinking Routine “See-Think-Wonder”. As mentioned in the case study, I showed a picture of a teacher lecturing and through a discussion of “Seeing”, then “Thinking and Wondering” the students came to the conclusion it represented “lecturing”; I told them I did not do that. Next there was an image of a spoon referring to “spoon feeding” which created another interesting discussion amongst students.  This is how I went through a bunch of slides which raised awareness in the group about how WE would spend time together and learn. Another image was a skydiver or the fairy-god-mother from The wizard of OZ. Discussing how these images related to our English literature class really got students thinking. The other objective with this activity was to present and introduce thinking routines as a tool for our learning.

Earlier on I mentioned “differentiating” being a massive must in the classes and thinking routines allow for students to think at their level. Using “we” to refer to the class rather than me and them is another minor detail that is extremely powerful. The first classes have been all about sending the message that we are one community. Harvard’s Project Zero team have many more suggestions as to how to communicate, also emphasizing on the importance of listening or phrasing questions or statements to engage or question rather than cut a students thinking. The most obvious and best example is: “What makes you say that?”

Finally as my liking for Connect-Extend-Challenge is growing, I also introduced this routine in a class where WE watched RSA Animate: Changing Education Paradigms . To my surprise it was ELL’s who shared more ideas and thoughts than some other “classic” high achievers, clearly because the environment and structure of the routine gave them the time to manage and process their thoughts better. Whereas one group of three boys, none of whom are EAL found “extend” and “challenge” very hard as the Thinking Routine had put them in unknown territory. Could it be they were used to being spoon fed? All in all for me the challenge of these first weeks is not to rush into content but set habits, routines and expectations in the classroom that invite students to feel comfortable, gain confidence and enjoy the journey through novels, poetry and literature that we have just started. The last activity students did was write a headline about the class, a great way to round off and get them to reflect.

And to complete a full circle, this blog allowed me to reflect on the first week of classes, students and my teaching. Thanks SPELTAC!

 

The power of Thinking Routines

 

Now that I am halfway through my “Making Thinking Visible”on-line PD, I am really starting to see notice how it is influencing my teaching. Modern education is taking a step back from content and trying to focus more on what skills students need to be prepared for our ever changing world. The thinking routines are one of those skills and come in such a simple, practical and flexible package, any teacher can quickly and easily incorporate them in their classroom. The ideal situation is to have students going through school encountering thinking routines across the curriculum, so when they are older they can apply the routines to real life situations and thus make the correct decisions (the idea in a nutshell).

As a language teacher the routines have benefits too. Specific questions and structures provide a perfect environment for ELLs to practice and focus on language from all aspects. Even in mixed ability groups it is easy to adapt frameworks and models that target students individual levels. The first routine I want to discuss is See-Think-Wonder (STW). Quite possible one of the core thinking routines, many educators will have come across this in workshops, conferences, meetings as well as in classrooms. It was the first routine I was expected to try out on a class as I started the PD and since then I have used it quite a few times in order to really understand how it works. Thinking routines have a purpose so they need to be used in the right context and at the right time. Ask yourself: “what do I want them to get out of this?” or”how does it fit in to the unit?” while planning a unit.

One of the latest STW I did was in a G10 language arts poetry unit. Students had been looking at poetry throughout the ages and now my co-teacher and I wanted students to write some poetry based on a set of images. We didn’t just want to project the image and let them get on with it as this would limit some students to write something constructive and straight from the heart!  was used with a table of three columns. As I projected the picture, first students were given a few minutes to write down what they say, using “I see…”. We then had a brief class conversation and moved on to “I think…”, sharing some ideas again before finishing with “I wonder…”. Doing it in steps is important as it slows the students down and forces them to think, I moved around the class, insisted on no discussions with neighbors and challenged those who tried to do the minimum. Once we were done I told the students to write a poem based on the image. The outcome was very positive because the poems deeper thought driven ideas. The final question I wrote at the bottom of the STW handout was: “How did this routine affect your thinking?” This is very important as with all the routines, if you want students to become aware or conscious of their thinking it needs to be discussed openly in class. I had not thought about that before doing the PD but it makes sense. On this occasion I asked students to write an answer but generally I find these mini reflections bring out great conversations with the class, either about the thinking or about the content. This link shows how the different routines are categorized 4_AT_Palette with Routines.

In many of my previous blogs I have referred to team-teaching as this is one of the challenges I have doing EAL support in secondary. Most teachers are not used to sharing a classroom in secondary, certainly not to the point of stepping back and letting the “support teacher” run the show! (This is a barrier I am breaking down at my current school slowly but surely). My point being that thinking routines are the perfect activity for team-teachers to split up and share the actual teaching. I usually lead the routines and my colleagues are happy to step back, observe or drift around and help individuals. Once you know a couple of routines and where they best fit in to a unit they are easy to apply. The reason I really like them is because the can make whatever you are teaching more meaningful to the students and making them more engaged in their learning.

Finally here are some useful thinking routines that many of you will already know but are worth revisiting on the web to remind yourself where and how to use them best. A great routine for reflecting is: I used to think….But now I think…; Think-pair-share is great for to combine with other routines or activities; Think-Puzzle-Explore is a routine for deeper inquiry; Circle of viewpoints and Compass points are two powerful routines for exploring diverse perspectives. There are many more but those really interested should go to the website and consider doing the online PD!

Developing Notes

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With a G8 Social Studies class we had recently finished a research project and came to the conclusion that note-taking was challenging to the class. As a result students were asked to make a short presentation on how to make good notes using a selection of youtube videos and/or prezi’s.
img_4039One of the most rewarding experiences for teachers has to be when learning has been achieved. This week the G8 class was sharing notes on a reading they had to do which had some astonishing results. The use of headings, keywords and colour codes clearly showed how some students had taken their notes to a higher level. In fact a couple of students had even managed to use codes that made the notes understandable to its author but not necessarily another students or reader. img_4041This led to some interesting discussions amongst the class too.
Jan Michael’s blog: “It’s good to be old-school” also mentions some positive feedback from students about note-taking in his classes. It also points out how his students found using pen and paper and traditional copying helped them learn better. I would like to believe we are starting the era where technology and pen/paper can be seen as equal learning tools rather than one trying to replace the other.

“Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning.” – Robert John Meehan

Visualizing content and language seems to have added some spice to the classes I teach. persuasive-sentence-startersThe Language Arts Learning Wall on tragedy in G10 has led my co-teachers and myself to experiment with alternative strategies to studying literature, mainly by finding ways to cover the unit activities by varying on different ways of learning. Alison Stanton’s blog Learning styles and EAL students mentions how she had positive results using different learning strategies too. Part of the key may be that variety keeps students more engaged in their learning, although principally it allows different types of learners to successfully discover how they best learn.

Most of the secondary EAL students I work with struggle in writing academic or formal styles, whilst verbally being fluent in English. Persuasive language, citing and analyzing quotes, justifying arguments are difficult and require higher levels of language. conjunctionstransition-posterOne of my most recent challenges has been to invent ways to support students who need more variety in their language usage. Whilst I was reflecting on common areas of difficulty in students writing (to some extent across all grades), I created a list of conjunctions and transition words. Next I printed copies on A3 paper, laminated them and shared them out amongst all the secondary English and Social Studies classrooms (these classrooms are the subjects where EAL do most of the inclusion support). Co-teachers welcomed the posters, as did the rest of the EAL department. Someone then suggested another poster with a variety of sentence starters would be useful too, so I made some. It then occurred to me that even though I was sharing the PDF of the posters with EAL students, it would be easier to print out a few more copies for each class, laminate them and have them as tools on the desks when students need them for specific writing tasks. Students have welcomed these lists and with practice they will develop ways of expressing ideas, arguments and opinions better. Time permitting it would be interesting to sort phrases into different levels of language complexity, just as James Schofield describes in his blog “Sorting persuasive phrases”.

evidence-support-text-sentence-startersMeaningful leaning requires a secure and inspiring environment where displays are therefore meaningful. Do classroom walls reflect a teacher or the whole class? Again, a re-occurring thought I have when I write these blogs is why do secondary classroom walls seem colder and less impressive to elementary? It seems like a wasted tool to me. This week I came across an article/study on “Usage of Multimedia Visual Aids in the English Language Classroom”, by M. Ramírez García. It covers most types of visual aids for learning, but I was particularly interested in the ideas it covered on displays as these were linked to the G10 Learning Walls.

Visual aids, when integrated into the lesson plan through media, attract students ‘attention to the topic presented in the class, enhance and facilitate comprehension of grammar and language, increase students’ motivation, as well as help students to memorize the new vocabulary and structures. (M.Ramírez, p.6)

Many of the classrooms at RAS do not have meaningful displays. Students spend a lot of time in classrooms and the chances are that they will drift off at some point and stare at what’s on the wall during the school year. Another article I came across mentioned “clutter walls”, something I realized I needed to avoid with the G10 Learning Walls. Studies suggest too much or chaotic displays can counter affect students performance.

“There are three ways to decorate your classroom to maximize learning: (1) Include posters which provide an opportunity for more passive absorption of material; (2) Provide an area where student work is displayed; (3) Include a section which develops a class sense of community such as an area where goals or objectives are posted.” (J.Lober)

On the learning walls, one can’t just keep adding on information but considerable things can be replaced as one moves through the unit. This is a great reflection activity as students can determine what needs to be removed and why. It could be a question, image or comment, in the case of the Tragedy Wall, we moved on from the Greeks to Shakespeare. The posters on sentence starters and persuasive language develop specific areas of writing and have a purpose, they are not simply decorating the classroom.

fullsizeoutput_8My final point elaborates the other side of my teaching. As a co-teacher and language teacher I find myself engaging further into developing students ATL skills. I would even be willing to suggest that ELLs with good ATL skills learn quicker than those who are weak in this area. Tommas Houterman refers to the Social Learning Diagram on one of his blogs. Learning becomes a lot more meaningful when you have the skills and guidance to do it efficiently. All of the EAL students I support progress according to their ATLs, those who are slower in progressing have difficulty organizing their workload and time, taking notes, doing homework and so forth. Incorporating ATLs into curriculum is just as important as the content, thus it’s not what you teach, but how you teach it.

SPELTACular progress

imgresAs with many things in life, you get out of it what you put in. In my second year of running the EAL department’s inclusion program, I decided one the objectives for this year would be to find new ways to progress and achieve better results. I now know the students and understand where their needs are in EAL or other. SPELTAC came along at the right time and one of the first blogs I read fit in nicely with some other research I had been doing.

I have to admit that the idea of blogging scared me a little at first, using Twitter, finding blogs from others and related articles seemed like time consuming and challenging. Never was I so wrong! All the pieces fit together smoothly in such a way that articles found me just like the blogs. Ideas sparked up and colleagues are supporting my strategies enthusiastically, just like the students. In a relatively short time period, some of my co-teachers have even been contributing to the learning wall activities without my presents. lwnotetaking-vThe VEN diagram is just one example of this. As I had hoped for, the learning wall has become part of the Tragedy unit, not just a display. Yes, students need to be reminded how they can contribute to it but the “learning” in learning wall refers precisely to the wall being part of conversations in class about tragedy in this case. This week I nipped into a class I couldn’t support for a whole block, made a few comments about the wall, listened to some students explaining why they had added something, gave feedback and left. It was nice 5 to 10 minute starter to get everybody focused and give the co-teachers a moment to observe and follow up or continue.

10-1vocabularyAfter a month we are starting to see some positive results with the students, particularly in developing ATL skills. There has been some time spent discussing how to take quality notes and mind-mapping has been used on the boards by students during activities and tasks. Currently plenty of attention is being given to Shakespeare’s vocabulary is Othello. Students with support needs (EAL or other) who often sit back are more attentive, showing a more enthusiasm and motivation.

For me, SPELTAC has helped me to reflect on my teaching as well as supporting me to approach it from different angles, read and research more besides improving communication. One of the harder challenges so far has been to communicate with SPELTAC bloggers. Rather than wait for someone to respond to my blogs, it is better to comment on blogs you have read. Making friends is also harder than on FB! I look forward to more global participation on SPELTAC. Each school is different and the diversity will cover more areas in education. Finally, as I work in secondary it would be great to see more teachers from higher education participating. EAL is not necessarily age orientated which makes the SPELTAC platform useful to me, though a High School biology teacher will be more limited until there are more science blogs. So variety is the spice of life! Come on teachers, join SPELTAC to make it a true global platform!

Thanks ISPP SPELTAC bloggers and of course Marcelle Houterman!

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.