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

“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!

Mind mapping and jigsaw puzzles


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.


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


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 I came across an article that describes a range of co-teaching approaches based on the amount of planning time available. It also takes into consideration factors to be aware of if either or both teachers are not well-prepared for their role in the classroom. Quite useful stuff to know for a team-teacher!

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

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

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

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

Learning walls to inspire active learning

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

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

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

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

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

Visual learning Displays
Visual learning