Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Getting Students to Speak English Outside of School

Not so long ago when teaching newcomers, I discovered that it was easy to get my students to practice their reading, writing, and listening skills at home.  They eagerly completed the writing prompts, filled out their reading logs, and shared reviews of English television shows that they watched over the weekend.  Finding a way to ensure that they practiced speaking English while living in non-English speaking households was another task-until I discovered Google Voice.  I signed up for a (free) local number and assigned weekly speaking prompts for my students to record on the voicemail (note: the service can be set up so that the students can simply leave a voicemail and no telephone actually rings).  While nervous at first, the students grew to enjoy the assignment and it quickly became my favorite one to grade. Here are some tips to help you get set up:
  • Research and select the best service for you.  The two most popular services are Google Voice (www.google.com/voice) and Microsoft's Skype (www.skype.com).  Both services can be linked to your e-mail account.
  • Survey the students to find out how often they have access to a telephone.  In my case, the majority of the students had one parent with a cell phone that served as the family's sole means of communication.  Although that parent worked odd hours, we agreed that a week was sufficient time to complete the assignment.
  • Choose a local number if available.  A long distance number may cause some of the parents to question who their child is actually calling.  It will also ensure that a student who has access to a landline phone is able to complete the assignment without the family incurring long-distance charges.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Bad Teacher: A Real Teacher's First Impression

I don't watch a lot of television.  In fact, I cancelled cable television two years ago.  However, I recently heard about CBS's new TV show, Bad Teacher and decided to give it a try.  The TV show is based on a 2011 movie of the same name.  To summarize, Bad Teacher Meredith Davis (played by Ari Graynor) fudges her resume and enters the teaching profession after going through a nasty divorce. Motivated by the thought of using her position to seduce the students' rich, single fathers, she becomes a social studies teacher at an upper-class middle school. At the school, she joins a set of colleagues that includes blasts from the past such as the school's principal played by David Alan Grier (In Living Color, aka Homey D. Clown) and a fellow teacher played by Sara Gilbert (Roseanne, aka Darlene) .

I only watched the pilot episode (you can too, here's the link: http://www.cbs.com/shows/bad-teacher/video/), but I'm not sure whether or not this show will become a weekly event for me.  I was initially drawn to the show because I thought that watching teachers on television would relieve some of the stress of the actual daily grind.  I was disappointed to find that in an attempt to draw laughs, the show portrays teachers as being self-serving individuals who enter the profession based on ulterior motives.  While Ms. Davis does eventually become a hero by helping the safety patrol stand up to the school's clique of mean girls, she does so only after flaunting her disdain for the teaching profession and putting together a career day in an attempt to snag a date.  I realize that sitcoms are not supposed to reflect reality, but with all of the criticism directed towards the teaching profession by politicians, I wonder if a show of this nature is what we need piped into America's living rooms right now.  If this show does gain traction (it does have a great cast), I hope that some of the actors will at least use their role as television teacher to speak out in support of America's educators.  I invite you to judge for yourself.  The next episode airs Thursday at 9:30.


Friday, April 25, 2014

Return from Break Wrap Up

I returned to work this week after a much needed ten day break.  While it was only a four day week, a lot of events happened to go down.  Here are the highlights:
  • The majority of the students completed their project, which was to write an original play.  This not only reinforced skills, it provided me with some morning entertainment all week while I corrected them.
  • I had the opportunity to visit the local feeder high school with my eighth grade students.  While on the tour, I ran into several former students. As always, I was pleased to find out that they're doing well and planning the next stages in their lives (college and the Army).
  • While I was on my high school tour, Mrs. T took over third period.  She spent the week before break observing this loquacious group and decided that my absence was the perfect opportunity to implement a new seating chart.  She created student groups that I never considered.  Having two sets of eyes (and two different perspectives) is definitely an asset, especially with a large class.
  • My eighth graders viewed La Cosecha (The Harvest) this week to gain insight on the lives of migrant workers before they begin reading Francisco Jimenez's autobiographical novel Breaking Through next week.  If it fits your curriculum, I highly recommend it as my students found it powerful.  I streamed it through Netflix.
  • I learned that my classroom will be visited by the state department of education next week.  They also want me to carve out time to sit down for an interview about my curriculum and classroom practices.  I'm not completely sure how I ended up in this situation, but it's guaranteed to be professionally enriching.  
  • Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

One Month Blogoversary

The ESOL Ninja celebrates its one month blogoversary today.  When I first started this blog, I was not fully convinced that anyone besides my mother or sisters would actually take the time to read this. According to statistics provided to me by Google, this blog has drawn readers from six out of seven of the world's continents (Antarctica, Where are you?).  I thank you for taking the time to read and invite you to help me learn from you.  I am looking to add ELL, ESL, ESOL, EFL, and education related links to Ninja's Recommended Blogs.  Please submit your suggestions by either commenting to this post or completing the contact form.  I also look forward to connecting with you through Twitter (@TheESOLNinja), Facebook, and Pintrest.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Getting Through the Homestretch

Well spring break was relaxing while it lasted.  Like many of you, I now going through the homestretch of April and May without a single day off until Memorial Day.  Here's how I plan to get through it.

1. Review Routines and Expectations-Due to the snow and cold, my students had a total of eight weather-related days off.  Combine that with testing (WIDA ACCESS as well as the state math, reading, and science assessments) and it's been difficult to gain momentum. The classroom routines that went so smoothly during the fall and winter have begun to fall apart a bit and there has been no time to reinforce them.  Reviewing and enforcing the established routines and expectations is going to be my number one priority.

2. Keep Teaching-The fact that state assessments are over does not mean that learning stops.  Year after year I am amazed by the fact that students are surprised that I would dare continue teaching despite the fact that they have already taken The Test.  They must have picked that up somewhere.  All of my students will spend at least the next month participating in an author study.  In past years this has been a student favorite as we focus on Hispanic authors: the seventh graders read works by Gary Soto and the eighth graders study Francisco Jimenez.

3. Utilize My Co-Teacher-As I stated in a prior blog entry, I now have a co-teacher for part of the day.  Mrs. T has a strong elementary school background and spent the week before break helping plan some new ideas for our classes.  I can't wait to try them.

4. Treasure Every Moment-I am a big believer in looping and have been teaching many of my current eighth graders for two to three years.  It has been a pleasure to watch them grow and mature.  Since they are leaving me in a few short months to venture on to high school, I am going to make sure that I spend this time celebrating their accomplishments with them before they begin the next big stage in their lives.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Creating a Student-Centered Classroom

The student-centered classroom was the focus of a recent middle school Twitter chat. There are many interpretations of what a student-centered classroom should look like, but it generally means that the students do more work than the teacher.  The thought of moving towards a student-centered classroom is scary to many teachers.  It means handing over the role of chief instructor and some classroom control to, well in my case, twelve and thirteen year old students.  For those of you considering moving towards a student-centered classroom, I recommend starting off with some of the following activities.

Question Stations
Before or after reading a story or introducing a concept, create a series of open-ended questions.  Write each question on a piece of chart paper and post the papers around your room.  Pair off or group students and assign each student a question and a different color marker.  After giving each pair/group ample time to discuss and answer the question, tell the class to rotate to the next question.  After all pairs/groups rotate, repeat the rotation by having the students review the answers to the questions and notate what they think the best answer is with a symbol.  This should lead a to fruitful class discussion lead by either you or a student (students can take turns leading the discussion around a particular question).

Cross the Line
Place a piece of tape (or other point of demarcation) down the center of your classroom.  Ask questions related to your content (example: Do you think that the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood was strategic or evil?) and ask students to choose a side as well as be prepared to defend their answer. Allow students to change sides if a classmate provides a piece of information that makes them reconsider their original answer.  If you want the students to take total control of this activity, allow them to write their own questions and volunteer to serve as facilitator. Like Question Stations, Cross the Line has the added benefit of getting the students out of their seats and can be used as either a pre or post teaching activity.

Student Facilitated Warm-Ups
My students complete a daily grammar and vocabulary warm-up.  While the expectation is that the students complete this activity quietly upon entering the room, my third period class (with 33 students) is a particularly chatty group and showed early signs of having difficulty following this expectation to my standards.  Rather than tear my hair out, I decided to allow the students to take ownership of this portion of the class.  A rotating pair of student facilitators is in charge of completing the warm-up, checking it with me, and then reviewing it with their classmates who must also quietly complete it and be ready to be called on by the student facilitators.  Since all students take turns facilitating, they know what it's like to be in front of the room with the fear that no one will be ready to participate, so they take the warm-up seriously.  The added bonus is that the class is quiet by the time I am ready to begin explicit instruction.

Do You Have Anything to Add?
OK, so this one was created in my classroom a few years ago during a formal observation.  I had assigned my students to complete a project on their iPad using a specific app and the plan was for the students to comply and complete the assignment while exhibiting outstanding student behavior and knowledge of the topic that was previously taught.  Since he had the audience of the vice-principal, one student decided to raise his hand and ask if he could use a different app.  When I responded that I was unfamiliar with the app, he offered to hook his iPad up to the LCD projector and show me and the rest of the class how to use it.  It was a hit and since then, I've allowed students to add to the list of approved apps, programs, and websites as long as they are willing to show me and their classmates how to use them.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Helpful Ninja

I may be on break this week, but I am never far from work thanks to my e-mail and Internet capable smartphone.  I received an e-mail from a student this morning who asked a question on behalf of her mother.  This has happened to me several times over the years, but this morning it made me think and realize that I am more than just a teacher, I am a gateway to the American way of life.  Over my career as an ESOL ninja, I have helped my students' families navigate areas that we all take for granted and most likely never stop to think twice about.  For example, I have:
  • Helped families book airline tickets
  • Helped a student (and her mother) order a quinceanera party dress from amazon.com
  • Helped families obtain library cards
  • Helped families locate low-cost health clinics
  • Helped a family make a vet appointment at a local humane society
  • Helped a family compare cell phone plans
  • Helped families write letters and fill out applications
  • Helped families obtain low-cost broadband Internet (via http://www.internetessentials.com/)
While time consuming, I have enjoyed helping every one of these families and even feel a bit honored that they would think to turn to me.  Since I often teach students for multiple years and then go on to teach siblings and other family members, it pays to have an established positive relationship with families as I continue my career.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lessons From an Extreme Couponer

Since I have the week off for spring break, I decided to visit my family for a few days.  While visiting my family is always rewarding, it has become even more so in recent years as my sister is married to an extreme couponer and every visit is met with goodies.  Like the contestants on TLC's show, my brother-in-law  (BIL) spends part of each day clipping coupons and surfing bargain websites.  He even keeps track of everything on categorized Excel spreadsheets.  Unlike many of the show's competitors, BIL has expanded his bargain hunting horizons to school supplies.

I work at a high-poverty school where things are often in short supply, so BIL's findings are always welcome.  Summer is usually the best season to secure bargains and he always sends me off to start the school year with hundreds of dollars worth of supplies that he gets for free after reward dollars and rebates.  Although BIL shops at all office supply stores offering a bargain, he favors Staples.  He recently found out that Staples allows people to link their reward dollars to another account.  He has linked his account to my Teachers Rewards Card, which allows me to buy supplies that I need throughout the year at my local store.  BIL claims that people often earn reward dollars and then forget about them, so consider asking your friends, loved ones, or school PTA to do the same for you or another teacher in need.  Click on the link for more information: http://www.staples.com/sbd/cre/marketing/back-to-school/resources-for-teachers/reward-a-classroom.html

These supplies will come in handy as I
wrap up the school year
You can never have enough cleaning supplies (or toiletries)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Teaching Common Core and ELD Standards (at the same time)

The new Common Core State Standards have impacted my instructional approach this year. One of the biggest challenges that I continue face is ensuring that all lessons not only meet the new content standards, but the English language development standards as well .  I had been wondering if I was doing a good job merging the standards, when I came across this rubric, created by Colorincolorado.  Here's a copy: http://ccweta.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/common-core-and-ell-curriculum-rubric1.pdf.   For more information, go to http://blog.colorincolorado.org/2014/02/27/common-core-curriculum-rubric-meeting-the-needs-of-ells/

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Write Stuff

This week I hit a double winner: the realization that spring break is just a few short days away and news that the results from the year-long (once per quarter) writing benchmarks are in and over 95% of my students have improved by at least one level.  While spring break did kind of creep up on me, the news of my students' improvement pleased me, but did not shock me.  I spent last year honing my students' narrative writing skills, but left the academic writing skills up to their content teachers.  By the end of the year, my students were able to craft entertaining narratives such as "How Ms. Ninja Found a Rich and Exotic Husband" and "A Day in the Life of Ms. Ninja's Dog" (complete with illustrations).  I chuckled over their narratives and marveled at their drawing skills (the dog in the story did strongly resemble my pug/beagle mix), but left for the summer knowing that I had in some way failed my students as their academic writing skills remained in need of improvement.

Determined to do something, I vowed to change things this year and created weekly academic writing tasks given in the form of homework assignments.  Much to my surprise, the majority of my students not only completed these assignments each week (even if they sometimes left the reading log portion of the assignment blank), when the writing task called on them to answer, Should Ms. Ninja continue to give writing assignments as homework?, the answer was an overwhelming yes.  The students backed up their opinions with reasons such as "I now find my social studies/math/science assignments easier to complete" and "I will need these types of writing skills when I become a nurse."  Here are some other writing tasks that students have completed this year:

  • Explain how to solve a math problem (using words).
  • Look at this diagram (the inside section) of a human body.  Use it to explain what happened to the pupusa that Ms. Ninja stole out of Jose's lunch bag and and ate for lunch.
  • Explain the step-by-step process involved in cooking your favorite food.  Remember to include a list of ingredients.  
  • Compare and contrast the qualities of two types of family pets
  • Think of a new activity that your school should offer.  Write a letter to your principal outlining your reasons for permitting this activity at school.
  • Look at this diagram of the water cycle and explain what happens to water at each stage.
  • Pretend that you are running for President of the United States.  Write a campaign speech outlining your top priorities.
  • The Ninja family earns $2,000 a month.  Analyze the list of potential monthly expenses and create a budget.  Remember to include reasons to justify your monetary decisions.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Please Slow Down Miss and Explain What a "Cah" Is

If you talk to me for more than five minutes, you may find it hard to believe that I haven't lived in New England full time in over fifteen years.  I may have left the extreme cold and snow behind, but my accent and tendency to speak quickly (or as I prefer to think of it, efficiently) has followed me south of the Mason-Dixon.  ESOL ninjas are supposed to be models of the English language.  I guess models really do come in all shapes and sizes.

To be fair, when I taught newcomer and beginner ESOL students, I made a conscious effort to slow down my speech and drop my accent as much as possible.  Now that I teach intermediate and advanced students, I rationalize that in order to be fluent in English, students must be able to comprehend various dialects of the language.  It turns out that my fast-paced approach to talking prepares my students to ace the listening portion of the annual language proficiency exam with little preparation.  My students often remark that this was the first time in years that they've been able to keep up with the speaker on the CD.

I recently received an ESOL superstar in my class.  This student arrived to the United States in August and has already advanced to the intermediate level.  She is able to keep up and shine in all reading and writing assignments, but recently confided that she's having trouble understanding me.   I will make more of an effort to slow down with that class, but will also suggest some listening sites for her to practice at home.  Here are some of my favorites:




Sunday, April 6, 2014

This One Time At Edcamp...

I spent part of my weekend at my local Edcamp.  The Edcamp movement has been growing over the past few years and if you aren't familiar with the concept, it's an "unconference" for individuals in the education sector.  Traditional conferences are usually several days, cost money, have a set agenda (with vetted and approved presenters), and can require extensive travel.  Edcamp "unconferences" are one day, local, and free.  The conference agenda is created by the participants that day and anyone with an idea is welcome to lead a session, no PowerPoint needed.  If participants find that the session is not meeting their professional needs, they are encouraged to employ "the law of two feet" and find a different session.  This was my first Edcamp and I came away with several thoughts.

I've attended several multi-day conferences.  The first day is usually exciting, the second day is tolerable, and by the third day, I'm usually hatching an escape plan.  Edcamp offers four sessions in one day, which is plenty to soak up and digest by Monday.  Since it was offered on a Saturday and only about an hour away from my house, there were no leave forms or expense reports to fill out.

The Edcamp sessions were unstructured and were more of a discussion around an established topic as opposed to a presentation by an "expert".  There was a time limit, but since there was no pre-made presentation, there was no pressure to get through a certain number of slides.  This allowed participants to learn from and interact with each other.  Like many educators, I attended this conference alone, so the interaction allowed me to meet other educators and ensured that I had people to eat lunch with.

The sessions were also led by teachers.  Since there was no official corporate presence (there was subtle advertising present since the "free" conference did incur expenses), all of the information presented was authentic and not some highly engaging sales pitch.

The word is still spreading about Edcamp, so for the time being, it appears that the workshops are reaching some groups of educators over others.  I've heard about Edcamps in my area that were mainly attended by Teach for America participants.  In this case, the majority of the attendees were teachers at upscale private schools.  While I enjoyed learning about the diversity of the area's educational options, it was a little difficult to imagine implementing some of the ideas I heard in my Title 1 (majority low income) school.

One disadvantage to Edcamp's approach to setting the agenda on the day of the conference is that there is not time to ensure that there is a diversity of topics.  This past Edcamp focused mainly on technology.  While I understand that this is a hot topic, sessions on areas such as differentiation, classroom management, and Common Core are more applicable to the day-to-day tasks of a teacher.

All in all, I will be on the lookout for future Edcamps in my area. I hope that the concept moves to school districts as a professional development option as well.  One of the most powerful aspects of Edcamp is teacher choice.  Too often school officials sit around an office and determine which areas teachers need help with and then go out and fly in the most expensive expert they can find.  Teachers are mandated to attend these sessions regardless of whether or not they meet their professional needs. By going the Edcamp route, districts will not only save money, they will give their teachers a voice. They will help develop home-grown talent in their district and give their teachers a reason to be wake up excited on professional development days.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Co-Teaching: Setting the Stage for Success

I recently found out that my school will be adding a teacher to the ESOL department.  Although it is late in the school year, we were lucky enough to find a good candidate and had money in the budget to bring her on now as opposed to risk losing her by telling her to come back in August  Since students have already been assigned to classes for the semester, the new teacher and I will spend part of the day co-teaching.

Co-teaching (sometimes referred to as "plug in") has been around the special education world for a while.  It was recently introduced to the ESOL world and in my opinion has been implemented with varying degrees of success.  My experiences with co-teaching have been a mixed bag as my co-teachers have ranged from brand-new educators (with five weeks of summer training) to teachers that have more experience teaching than I do living and breathing.  Regardless of who I've been assigned to co-teach with, I've learned some things along the way, especially in the area of starting off the relationship:

Be Willing to Plan: One of the most difficult parts about co-teaching is finding time to plan with each other to review data and determine instructional priorities.  Be creative and think outside the box.  While I try to be flexible as far as my willingness to stay after school (I favor getting to school early over staying late), there have been many times when co-planning has occurred over Sunday afternoon Gchat sessions.  If you're going to go the online route, consider setting up a shared document folder such as Google Drive or Dropbox so that you can both easily access class files.

Be Willing to Let Some Things Go: Every teacher has her preferred routines and procedures. Enforcing the routines and procedures in a single teacher classroom is realistic, but it can become difficult to focus on instruction if the list gets too long.  Agree on a mutual list of desirable routines and procedures and move on.  For example, I do not require students to head their paper in a particular way.  To be honest, I do a happy dance in the morning when I am able to correct over one hundred papers without playing amateur handwriting detective.  However, one of my co-teachers insisted on spending the first week of school teaching (and quizzing) the students on the proper way to head a paper.  While my remaining three classes spent the week focusing on other routines and procedures, time was carved out for my co-teacher to hone in on this particular area during the remaining class.

Choose Which Models Work For You: There are many co-teaching models and choosing the right ones for you is usually a case of trial and error.  Here are some of the models that I've employed in my classroom.

One Teach, One Assist: Each teacher has her own strengths and this model allows a co-teaching team to harness those strengths.  For example, last year's co-teacher was strong in reading instruction.  On days that we focused on reading, she conducted the explicit instruction portion of the lesson while I assisted with manipulating the technology, helping her answer students' questions, and focused on classroom management.  

Ping-Pong: When employing ping-pong both teachers take turns leading instruction.  You'll know that you're meant to be when you begin to complete each other's sentences.

Station Teaching: Both teachers lead the students through a series of teacher-led, peer-assisted, and independent learning stations.

Parallel Teaching: This is when both teachers present identical information to two groups of students using different instructional strategies.  For example, one teacher may present to a strong audio-visual group using pictures and discussion techniques while the other teacher focuses on the kinesthetic students and teaches through movement  This can also be an opportunity to work intensely with your less-proficient students while the other teacher focuses on the rest of the class.  I've found this to be most successful in a larger classroom as it requires additional space.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Classroom Fitness

It looks like winter is finally ready to make its exit for another year.  Like most of the country, my area experienced an abnormally cold winter.  Between the weather and the fact that I got home most days after dark, I was not very motivated to work out during the week.  A few weeks ago I decided to re-evaluate my fitness goals and purchased a Fitbit Flex.  A Fitbit is a very fancy pedometer.  It tracks how many steps you take each day and equates that to calories burned.  The Fitbit sets your minimum daily goal at 10,000 steps and awards virtual badges for meeting this goal as well as going above and beyond. The FItbit also buzzes and lights up when the minimum daily goal is met.  Sometimes I meet my daily goal when I happen to have students in the room.  This gives us all a reason to celebrate (confession: some students are confused about why we're celebrating, but roll with it anyway).

Since I am a competitive person by nature, I find the challenge of reaching at least 10,000 steps to be very motivating.  Like many of you, I spend the majority of my day at school, so I work towards meeting my goal during the day.  So far I've been doing a pretty good job.  Of course I've had some unexpected help as after taking up my new fitness routine, my (brand new) classroom phone malfunctioned, forcing me to walk to visit my colleagues and the office when I had questions and concerns.  I also rearranged my classroom so that I can move around the room more freely.  My re-commitment to exercise had made a difference.  I feel better and have more energy.  Now that the weather is finally turning warmer and the days are getting longer, I am looking forward to maintaining and adding to this routine.
                                           The Fitbit Flex comes in different colors