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!

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!

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?