Using TIME to Engage in Learning

This summer I decided to take a different approach to teaching the G9 English Language Arts class. A huge part of this was connected to the Creating Cultures of Thinking book by Ron Ritchhart I had read and am currently doing the online course from Harvard School of Education. The results of this new acquired knowledge are already showing their fruits in my classes.

The first unit covered literary devices and persuasion incorporated the novel by George Orwell, Animal Farm (AF) as the main bulk. A challenging unit to say the least with plenty of options on how to go about it. In this blog I will focus specifically on the novel section as this in itself could have easily been a separate unit. I deliberately choose to not teach the novel in a conventional/traditional way but to use my new knowledge of thinking routines, aspects of creating cultures of thinking (Cultural Forces like time) and discussion to see where the outcomes would take the students and myself.

To use class time efficiently, I decided to get the students to read chapters at home. At first I checked their understanding through standard comprehension questions although I soon engaged the schools Moodle system (Schoology) to get students to respond to novel themes in discussion assignments (See previous blogs). They were short homework tasks (10-15 minutes) and nicely documented understanding of the novel. This worked well as ALL the students needed to respond but could do so without the pressures of open classroom discussions where only some students participate. From an EAL perspective this tool is outstanding! Animal Farm is full of rich vocabulary, so I decided early on to give vocabulary quizzes, students created and revised on Quizlets and Kahoot quizzes before the actual formative assessments. They enjoyed this and the results were positive. It also allowed class time to be used on student centered activities going beyond simple worksheets or novel comprehension activities.

What really proved to be the outcome of meaningful learning was when the students started to dig into the novel discussion activity used a lot in high school called fishbowl discussions. To prepare these I would use thinking routines like: Think/Pair/Share, Headlines, Sentence/Phrase/Word, See/Think/Wonder, What Makes you Say That amongst others, depending on what expectations/objectives/outcomes I had.  The routines, now to some extent “normal” in my classes, allowed students to clarify their thinking, focus it and direct their thinking into the right direction successfully. Considerable time was dedicated to providing feedback from both peers and myself after these discussions. This proved to be extremely powerful and resourceful. The fishbowl discussions forced students to be engaged if not in the actual discussion and the expectation of providing feedback on peers really set high expectations amongst students. By providing feedback throughout most of the activities and guiding or redirecting them, they understood where Animal Farm was taking them, they were engaged, interested and expressing ideas and areas they would like to learn more about.

All this took time to do with the G9s although from the early stages I realized it was creating curiosity and interest. Since the start of the school year there have been many long weekends and other (positive) disturbances breaking the daily routines at school which caused classes to be cancelled and planning to be delayed. I often questioned if I was going too slow, seeing what other teachers do who somehow stick to their tight timeline no matter what. However, though pressured, I continued by justifying to myself that these circumstances where beyond my control and I was on the right track.  Towards the end of the novel I did a thinking routine: Connect/Extend/Challenge (CEC) linked to showing students how questioning can help define one’s thinking. As a result the documentation of CEC proved again to display strong evidence of understandings related to the novel and the world today.

The summative assessment linked to the novel is a creative project where students choose a “life lesson” connected to Animal Farm and the world today.
Options varied from writing an essay, a letter to Orwell, rewriting/writing another chapter or more artistically making a voice-over video/PP or a collage/canvas, a poem, etc. Under guidance I gave the students the freedom to express themselves freely as long as they followed the criteria and rubric.
Those who chose more artistic approaches where clearly explained they needed to include a written aspect explaining their ideas, planning and so on. Once again the results were extremely positive and students who were not as strong in writing were able to demonstrate their understanding in other ways. The assessment was broken down a series of stages which allowed me to check and discuss progress with students and question or guide their thinking.

The point of this blog being that by focusing more on specific skills and learning objectives which went above simple knowledge or content of a novel, students demonstrated far deeper understanding which they were able to connect to the real world. Skills were developed that students need to as life-long learners, which they can develop further over the years, but above all the process had more meaning for everybody. It made me realize I would rather do any unit slowly and meaningfully than rush through a years curriculum and achieve considerably less as a teacher and  with the students. Use your time wisely! It did not create more “work” for me but only a different perspective. Above all, it gave the time with G9s together value.

“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

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.