Strong tools for deeper understanding

The Scholars
“Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?”
― W.B. YeatsThe Wild Swans at Coole

A continuous challenge with the students I teach as ELLs or not has been to find ways in which to deepen their understanding about what they are learning. Words like”shallow” and “depth“, “digging deeper” are common in my conversations with students. But how do you get students to find this depth of understanding? Two teaching strategies that I find useful are peer assessment feedback and annotation.

By implementing the 8 forces of a thinking culture into the classroom I have noticed positive results but also resistance from students. Taking responsibility for your own learning is challenging, requires effort and discipline that teenagers do not always feel they are prepared to take on. Creating curiosity and inspiring students is a very challenging task for any educator, principally when it’s not happening across the school. Being “spoonfed” content is comfortable!

Nevertheless, peer assessment is one tool that helps learners to understand how they can improve in something or see what went wrong. All feedback is important and helpful but not all students really digest it unless time is made to sit down one on one and discuss it in detail. Hearing or reading feedback from peers adds a different perspective which makes it valuable because it’s not the same. Hearing it from an adult or a classmate is simply different. Therefore it’s a powerful tool that that can really help students.

While doing an activity annotating a text the power of peer feedback really came out in class, explicitly because the feedback was given by groups, not individually. As all the students had done the same annotation activity and had been given feedback from me on a rubric, including comments, all the students had a good idea of what the expectations were. The same text was photocopied bigger and students were asked to annotate it in small groups a second time, sharing their initial findings and putting them all together. I then told them that students from the other class (there are two groups/classes) would peer assess the work. By doing so, I created curiosity amongst the two classes as the students were keen to see what the other groups were achieving. During the activity I listened in on the conversations and was impressed by some of the things students were discussing. Conversations were pointing out aspects of shallowness that I had been noticing.

The annotation task was supported by a simple yet clear rubric that clearly stated what was expected under each grade boundary. This again is a vital detail as everyone is clear on the requirements of the task. For example, a common disregard was to identify literary devices in the text but not comment on the effect on the reader. The rubric also requires questions to be made which some students also choose to ignore. Then having discussed how to deconstruct the text with me and later giving it a second attempt and seeing from peers  how they assessed the task had positive results. Students started identifying their own areas of improvement.

Text annotation is a useful skill for many subject areas and also for ELLs. Texts at any grade level can be annotated for language purposes as well as content or literary purposes. Younger students should do more of this to learn a skill that will help organize and provide evidence, plan tasks for texts that they need to study in secondary or beyond. Using highlighted markers and colour codes are basic skills that should really be second nature by the time you enter high school. Most importantly, annotation is finding evidence in a text for whatever it is a student is learning about. ELLs could be identifying adjectives, in science it may help to identify a process or theory, and in humanities it could be used to highlight key events. The possibilities are endless.

Attached the annotation rubric (courtesy of Mrs C. Mkinsi, a truly talented english teacher and IB coordinator at RAS). The simplicity and clarity make this an excellent example of what a rubric should look like. I mention this as it made assessing simple, quick and most importantly very clear.

Differentiating, summaries and identifying learning abilities and language needs

My G9 ELA are ready to start their next unit based around a Memoir by E.Wiesel, Night. As I did not want to start the novel before the winter break, I decided to create a non-fiction summary activity to introduce the dark theme of Holocaust and Genocide, coincidentally linking it to their Social Studies unit on Syria.

With the help of our secondary librarian I planned this activity to some detail, selecting 3 texts related to Genocide and/or Syria, creating a Summary Rubric assessing Communication Skills as well as providing a lesson on how to write a good summary step by step which included a sample text and example summaries. Incidentally, librarians are valuable resources for teachers and I strongly recommend you use them, planning with another educator is also beneficial as a different viewpoint comes out; my experience being that I often find a second person points out details that I may overlook!

To introduce the topic we had selected an article on Samoa that discussed some of the challenges the Island faces in the twenty-first century. After initial discussions on what a “good” summary should include, students were explained that 4 crucial steps should be taken to write a summary: Read – Annotate – Take notes – Write summary & Check work. Students were provided with a Summary Checklist. In small groups they then read and annotated the text. Before sharing I asked students to complete a worksheet on Colour/Symbol/Image with the intention of them firstly having thought deeper about the text and secondly provide some details to share in their discussions. In small groups students then shared their key points and by the end of the lesson they were able to compare them with the ones I had prepared. This assured them they were on the right track (or not). Pretty standard lesson using Think/Pair/Share and gave students thinking time before discussions. The task got really interesting at this point; for homework I had prepared a discussion task on Schoology (Moodle type platform). I had uploaded 2 summaries, one being weak and another that was very strong and students were asked to read these, use the summary checklist to analyze them and write a comment using: Claim/Support/Question. Students are familiar with this routine and mostly provided meaningful evaluations of the summary. What I like most about this routine is the question part because it pushes them to think further. The homework gave me insight into who was understanding what we were doing. Most students wrote meaningful claims that were supported although there were a few students who were totally off track.

It was in the following class that the element of differentiation came into play. The librarian had selected a number of articles of different lengths and language complexity of which we selected three. The first being the shortest and simplest and the third being the longest and most complex from a language perspective. All three articles were either about Syria, Genocide and/or the Holocaust. Together with the Social Studies teacher and a Learning Support colleague we selected which student would summarize each article. I did not explain to the students in detail why they were all given different articles but needed to do so after the assignment as some questioned it as they are not used to this type of approach. At RAS unfortunately most teachers differentiate little and seem to think it is the responsibility of the support teachers, EAL or LS. This in itself is a point I strongly disagree with simply because in a classroom with students each individual learns at their own pace, is able to achieve to the best of his/her abilities and are not all at the same stage in the learning process; no one ever is. Support teachers can adapt tasks for specific learning needs but it is the subject teachers who should also play an important role in differentiating for all their students and not just provide one task for all.

After assessing the summaries, what surprised me most were two trends I observed. The first being that on the lower end students were not using their own words but copying from the text to different degrees, something that was discussed besides being in the rubric which they had read and checked for understanding earlier. The second trend was that on the higher end, even with a more challenging article the students mostly wrote outstanding summaries only forgetting minor details. The main one being to start the summary by mentioning what is being summarized, in this case an article of some type.

So what are the next steps? Clearly about half the G9s need practice and the others can move on to more challenging written assignments. How I go about this will require some thought and discussion with the students, the librarian and hopefully other staff apart from fusing it with the current unit. One of the things I really liked about this task is that it identifies which route you need to take with each student. To create a true learning culture, you can plan your units but must be prepared to adapt them over and over to the needs of the individual students. To me this is what makes teaching diverse, fun, challenging and creative!



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!”.


ATL document and performance rubric.


Differentiating with technology

In my last blog I mentioned limiting teacher talk and as a result a colleague shared an interesting article on 4 Strategies to Model Literacy which also stresses the importance of limiting the amount of time teachers speak. Although this may seem logical, it is in fact very challenging; as a support teacher going into other classrooms as well as having my own classes, I understand why teachers often explain instructions far too detailed and go on and on. They are concerned students won’t do things right or feel things need to be explained further, so its out of concern rather than enjoying lecturing. I am constantly questioning the time I speak to my students as a whole class but have noticed I now explain things only once, use aids (board/projector) to support what I am saying and go round checking and answering individuals concerns, those who did not get it from the first moment. A great way to manage time better and keeping students engaged!

This method of limiting my  talking time is also a form of differentiating as the second action of going around the class and checking or assisting the students who are not quite getting it provides them with the attention they need to get on with it. There are many ways to differentiate, many great books and links explaining ways but it is still something I believe many teachers struggle with. Conversations I sometimes have with colleagues are justifying the lack of differentiation by claiming limited preparation time, pressure to get through curriculum or that it is the job of the support teachers. Generally fair arguments but what is learning all about for each individual student if we don’t differentiate? Is it fair to just expect all students to perform at a given level? Should we only differentiate for the Learning Support or EAL students? Studies clearly suggest not and a simple Google Search on “differentiating in the classroom” can get you started.

In my grade 9 English Language Arts classes I need to differentiate a lot, so I am constantly searching for ways to do so besides reflecting on what worked or didn’t. Introducing thinking routines has also taught me to learn from my failures just as I expect my students to, and I happily share with students what I think worked or didn’t, just like I want them to share their ideas with me. Thinking routines create food for thought and discussion besides visualizing student thinking. However, not all students feel comfortable discussing openly in the classroom, even if I do my best to create a culture in the classroom where they should feel safe enough. Part of the problem is also some students still not being “educated” sufficiently to be able to discuss fairly and in a well mannered fashion which goes at the cost of others not sharing their thoughts comfortably. So while I am training my classes to discuss in a more educated form, I have started using technology to hold discussions silently.

Whilst supporting in grade 10 classes, I realized my fellow teacher was posting discussions on the course Schoology (a type of Moodle system for schools) page and getting students to comment and reply to poetry. I thought this was a truely great way to differentiate and discuss because students can take their time, prepare their comments and post them when ready. Setting time limits is important here. The pace is much slower than a open classroom discussion which may go way over the heads of Learning Support, unengaged or EAL students due to it’s speed. Grammarly is another useful tool here because some students can write their comments on it first and them copy and paste onto the course platform, avoiding language errors (spelling, punctuation, grammar). Here the cyber discussion allows everybody to discuss at their pace, while monitored by the teacher. By adding some criteria to the discussion and telling the class it is a formative assessment it also forces the less engaged students to take it seriously. All in all an easy yet great way to differentiate.



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!

The 4 C’s routine

I am excited to be starting a PD course on “Making Thinking Visible”, ( based aroundMaking Thinking Visible a fascinating book with the same title from R.Ritchhart, M.Church and K.Morrison. Ironically I found the book in the Elementary library where they told me it was about to be given away as nobody ever borrowed it.

One of the “thinking routines” I came across in the book is called the 4C’s: Connections, Challenge, Concepts and Changes.

“This routine provides learners with a structure for a text-based discussion built around making connections, asking questions, identifying key ideas, and considering application.” (R.Ritchhart, M.Church and K.Morrison, Making Thinking Visible, p140)

The 4C’s fit in well with G10 English who are completing Othello and preparing to write an essay as a final summative on this part of the TRAGEDY unit. The 4C’s routine appealed to me because it asks the students 4 questions. One of the keys to teaching and learning is asking the right question using the right words and listening to the answer. This activity does precisely that. To get a better idea, here are the questions:

The 4C’s routine (R.Ritchhart, M.Church and K.Morrison, Making Thinking Visible, p140):

  1. Connections: What connections do you draw between the text (Othello) and your own life or your other learning?
  2. Challenge: What ideas, positions, or assumptions do you want to challenge or argue with in the text (Othello)?
  3. Concepts: What key concepts or ideas do you think are important and worth holding on to from the text (Othello)?
  4. Changes: What changes in attitudes, thinking, or action are suggested by the text (Othello), either for you or others?

IMG_4274 While preparing the activity I was a little concerned with the students responses being “shallow”, a point also mentioned in the book. I was also imagining some small group work to be involved but wasn’t quite sure where to do this during the activity and did not need to do it during the first two questions. The activity flowed well, students were given about 5 minutes to write their answers down. Next students reported to the class and IMG_4273discussions arose, points were made, other questions raised and some real critical thinking was being done. Despite only getting through half of the activity in one class the results were great and the objective was met; getting the students to reflect meaningfully before planning, drafting and writing their final essay.

I specifically asked students to give meaning to theirIMG_4276 answers, explain and justify their ideas which most of them did. Both questions (1 & 2) allowed for some brilliant conversations and ideas to be shared in the class. Students shared some personal experiences and views on racism, sexism which could have been elaborated more if time permitted. The “challengeIMG_4271” question really showed students understanding of the novel and what had frustrated them, Emilia’s death being a popular theme or Iago finally being caught out, stabbed and imprisoned. It was interesting to see how students enjoyed challenging the play too, most students had a clear grudge against something or someone in the play, even Shakespeare himself!

The images of student notes show some variety in language and thought levels besides giving me some indication of their deeper understanding of the play.


Particularly for EAL students, Othello is quite challenging, so it was important for them to have the play broken down, discussed and analyzed. It was good to see that most students had got something out of the play. Curiously I had expected to have to ask “And what makes you say that?” a couple of times to get students to justify their ideas but it wasn’t needed, another indication that students generally got the deeper themes and ideas in the play.

Related and inspirational blogs:

Visual Literacy: understanding the world through imagery – Dana Carney

Talk Cue Cards to facilitate discussion – Chelsea Woods

The role of discussion in engagement – Chelsea Woods

Developing Notes


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!