Monday, March 31, 2014

Quick and Easy Tips To Make Your ESOL Students Love You: Part Two

Do you teach ESOL students in a mainstream setting?  Are you an ESOL teacher looking for tools to add to your teacher tookit?  Here is the second installment in my series Quick and Easy Tips to Make Your ESOL Students Love You.

We Are Family: Family is a central part of my students' lives.  As families work together to make it in America, my students keep the family intact by taking on roles such as caretaker, cook, and translator. Chances are, your students come from similar situations and you can use this experience as an asset and recreate the family environment in your classroom.  This starts with you being the firm and guiding head of the class while the students take on various roles to keep the class functioning (homework collector, record keeper, book captain, etc.).  The theme of family combined with a warm and nurturing learning environment will turn your classroom into a home away from home.

Don't Take it Personal: ESOL students come from around the world.  In some cases what is acceptable in their country is unacceptable in the United States.  This extends to ideas about race, gender, and religion.  If a student says or does something that you deem to be inappropriate, be willing to step back and talk it out with him rather than immediately react.  You may just be able to turn it into a valuable learning opportunity.

Always Have a Learning Opportunity: Depending on the proficiency level of your ESOL students, adjustments will have to be made to your lesson in order to be inclusive.  Try to find resources that will make your content accessible to ESOL students.  This could mean providing a video or leveled reading assignment that explains the content in simpler English.  It could also mean providing a set of visual aids or a computer/student generate simulation.  Carol Tomlinson from the University of Virginia is an expert on differentiation.  Check out her website for more ideas:

Allow Equal Opportunity to Demonstrate Mastery: Chances are your ESOL students are soaking up your content thanks to your differentiated lessons.  Depending on your students' proficiency level, it may be difficult for them to demonstrate this mastery through reading and writing.  Consider assigning project based assessments with choices that cover a variety of proficiency levels.  Project ideas include drawing, re-enacting, and completing CLOZE sentences.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Case Against iPads

A couple of years ago, my middle school was bitten by the iPad bug.  This was still considered to be the "Dark Ages" for 1:1 technology, so this announcement was made with promises of being "innovative", "cutting edge", and "one of the first".  As promised, my school was among the first in the state to adopt a 1:1 initiative.  However, now that other schools are beginning to catch up and making important technology decisions, I would like to dedicate this post to making the case against iPads.

No (Adobe) Flash: My biggest complaint about the iPad is its limitations to access educational websites.  iPads are equipped to access HTML 5 websites.  While Apple feels that this is a noble cause against the "propriety" Flash, many free websites have not made the investment to switch over, thus making them inaccessible to students with iPads.  So, the readwritethink interactives (  that would help my students organize their writing?  We'll stick to paper and pencil for now.  My plan to have the students independently practice plot elements through Annenberg Learner (  That was scrapped in favor of a whole-class activity (helpful, by not personalized).  Even the course online textbook, which includes features such as background videos and audio is useless for the time being.

No Keyboards: Prior to receiving implementing this initiative, we received training by certified Apple educators.  I brought up the issue of students typing long essays without a keyboard.  Many other teachers nodded in agreement.  The trainer's response?  I must be "old" (disclosure: I am in my early thirties) because "kids love typing on their phones and their love for texting will transfer to iPads."  Well, my students do love to text, but this does not mean that they love tapping out a five-paragraph essay on an iPad.  While some students will complete longer assignments electronically, most take the paper option.

No File Management System: Since I brought up the issue of typing assignments, I should mention the lack of a file management system.  Prior to this year, students would complete assignments via Google Drive and share or e-mail them to me.  While this helped make them proficient with Google Drive, it was a task on my end to keep everything organized once it landed in my inbox, especially since I back up all of my work files to my Google Drive.  My attempt to organize student work by setting up a DropItToMe account through Dropbox (  was hijacked by the lack of a file management system meaning that students could not upload files.  My workaround for this year has been MobyMax (, which not only allows me to set up writing assignments, but also allows students to practice critical math, language, and reading skills (for $79 a year).

Management:  Each class at my school has an iPad cart that holds 30 iPads.  Each of the carts is assigned a MacBook, which is used to install apps and other controls (such as restricting iTunes and the camera).  While the process seems simple, I've actually spent hours setting up a cart of iPads.  The efforts are worth it until the students figure out how to reset their iPads and install the apps they want.

Apps=$: Part of what makes the iPads so difficult to use is that fact that after purchasing the iPads, my school did not allocate any money for apps.  Although schools do get a discount on bulk purchases of apps, there is still a cost factor involved (at my school, it's the cost of the app x 1,000).  Yes, there are free apps, but many of the apps that make the iPad functional (ex: Pages, Notes, iMovie) come at an additional cost.  Keep this in mind when creating a technology budget.

Middle Schoolers vs Gorilla Glass: While iPads look pretty, they are not particularly durable without a heavy-duty case.  Like apps, this will be an additional cost ($50-$80 per iPad) to factor into your budget.

As far as alternatives to the iPad, I highly recommend Google's Chromebook, especially if your school is already affiliated with Gmail.  These devices are gateways to the Internet and are half the cost of iPads without the limitations.  If your school is set on tablets, check out Andriod-based tablets (such as the Nexus One) as while they lack a keyboard, they will allow you to access Flash-based sites.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Quick and Easy Tips To Make Your ESOL Students Love You

I know that our job is to be effective, not popular.  However, as Rita Pierson so eloquently stated in her recent TED Talk (, the simple truth is that "kids don't learn from people they don't like."  When ESOL students enter your classroom they most likely have feelings of confusion, fear, and sometimes apathy based on prior experiences with school.  Here are a few strategies I've used in the classroom with success.  I will include additional strategies in future posts.

Learn the Language: I admit that my Spanish is terrible.  My Arabic is even worse.  However, the students and parents appreciate my efforts and it breaks down immediate barriers.  I started off by learning a few phrases from the Internet and my classroom community has been eager to help me expand my vocabulary over the years.  When students are initially reluctant to participate in class, they are often reassured by their peers "don't worry, your English can't be worse than Ms. Ninja's Spanish."

Learn the Food: One of the easiest ways to share culture is through food.  When I first became an ESOL ninja, my students were appalled that I had never tried a pupusa (it's a corn tortilla stuffed with items such as cheese, pork, chicken, or beef).  I challenged them to bring some in and it started a year-long food exchange throughout the class.  The only effort that it required on my part was a willingness to learn, allocating some class time to this activity, and bringing in challah and rugaluch on Jewish Day.

Be Open to Communication: Some would claim that I have an unhealthy obsession with my smartphone and made matters worse by linking it with my work e-mail.  However, the students and parents appreciate the effort that I make to clarify class assignments and expectations after school hours.  I have even handled some of the run of the mill middle school drama that can be easily solved, but impacts learning if not dealt with in a timely fashion.  I also use Edmodo (see previous post) and am currently experimenting with a text messaging app.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Paperless Classroom

The new copiers finally arrived at school today.  The teachers at my school have been experiencing a love-hate relationship with the copiers all year.  While the year started off well, the copiers began to jam, streak, and in some cases flat-out refused to turn on by the middle of September.  As my colleagues' relationships with the copy machines began to fizzle, it was interesting to watch the coping strategies that they employed.  Many complained to the principal, while others befriended the repair man in hopes that their  good relationship would turn into positive copier karma.  I felt the most for my colleagues that spent hundreds of dollars purchasing copies at office supply stores.

To be honest, while I kept abreast of the latest copier news (it was a big topic in the teachers' lounge), for the most part it did not impact my instruction or cost me any money.  Three years ago my district implemented a 1:1 technology initiative and purchased iPads for all students and staff.  Rather than spend my time fixing the copier, I researched ways to turn my classroom into a paperless haven.  I found my solution in Edmodo, a free online management system.  Edmodo has a student-friendly interface, similar to Facebook.  Once signed up, students can access class assignments, updates, and handouts through the group page.  They can also view and participate in online class discussions and polls.  Parents can sign up for access to the group page if they wish to keep track of announcements and assignments.  

Used as a last resort, Edmodo has changed my classroom in unexpected ways.  Since the majority of the classwork and homework assignments are posted on Edmodo, students no longer ask me to provide make-up work.  I even currently have a student participating in class assignments and discussions with the assistance of a home and hospital teacher.  The classic "I don't have a pencil" excuse has been eliminated as assignments are accessed and submitted with the swipe of a finger.  The lack of paper also makes it easier to grade assignments as I do not have to carry papers back and forth to and from school.  Students also use the site to communicate with me before and after school hours to ask homework questions, seek clarification, and wish me a Happy Birthday.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ninja's Guide to Novels

One of my biggest responsibilities as an ESOL ninja is to help my students develop a love (or at least a tolerance) for literacy.  Since there is often a mismatch between my students' interests/reading levels and the materials available in the storage room, I have invested a significant amount of my own hard-earned money in this endeavor over the years.  Here are some ways I have learned to cut costs as I continue to add to my classroom collection.

Jeff Kinney is an example of an author that has managed to hook in reluctant readers.  While I believe in exposing students to a variety of literature, I have found that my students' initial willingness to complete at-home reading logs directly correlates to how many Diary of a Wimpy Kid books I happen to have available in my classroom library. Aware that I was looking for books to add to my classroom stash, my friend Pittsburgh convinced me that bargains could be found at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale.  Since Pittsburgh always finds such good deals on hotel rooms at the beach, I took her word for it and canceled my afternoon plans to sit by the pool.  Lo and behold, I purchased multiple Jeff Kinney books as well as close to twenty other recommended titles for around $75.00.  I even allowed Pittsburgh to have me added to the mailing list.

As expected, I have experienced luck with purchasing used books on Ebay and its sister site  In addition to purchasing several classroom libraries (use the search term "lot of books"), I have found that with patience, it is possible to purchase a class set of novels.  In fact after purchasing several copies of a novel this past summer, I took a chance and contacted the seller.  He turned out to be a fellow educator and sold me the additional copies I needed for $1 each.  He even honored my request to bundle all of my orders into one, so I saved on shipping.  My latest find has been 18 copies of Gary Soto's Local News for $25.00. offers brand-new books to teachers in qualifying districts at a fraction of the cost.  The list of qualifying districts is pretty extensive and let's face it, if you're purchasing your own teaching materials out of pocket, your district is probably on the list.  The material available through this website is constantly updated and they even take title requests.  My biggest bargain of the year has been a class set (35 copies) of novels for under $50.00.

If you are unable to find a full set of novels for your class at a bargain price, your local library may be able to help fill in the gap.  The county library systems in my area offer bundling services for teachers. In general, a friendly librarian will seize every copy of a particular title within the library system for teachers with a valid ID.  It's worth a shot and the cost is a teacher-friendly free.

Monday, March 24, 2014

What is an ESOL Ninja?

I discovered the world of English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) while student teaching in New York City.  I grew up in a small New England town where almost everyone has a wicked thick accent so until this point in my life, it did not dawn on me that there are special programs for non-native English speakers in our public school system.  In need of a job after I graduated in an area that I could actually afford on a teacher's salary, I headed south and haven't looked back since (especially in the winter).  Upon finishing graduate school in one year while teaching full time (not recommended), I transferred over  to a position teaching middle school ESOL.

While in the process of transitioning to a new area of education, I discovered that ESOL is considered to be a shortage area in many states.  Not only does this make me employable during a recession, it makes me popular in a building where a third of the students are still in the process of learning English.  The nation's ESOL population is growing and the education world is in desperate need of ESOL ninjas.  This blog will share teaching tips, advice, and personal anecdotes from a real-life ESOL ninja in the trenches.