Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Just Do It

A number of experiences lately have brought me back to one of my fundamental principles of understanding (not just teaching or learning):  do it yourself.

There is simply no better way that I know of learning, of understanding, of developing empathy, or of evaluating.

I often find holes in my homework or materials when I attempt to do it.  I find other realms of inquiry, new areas of vocabulary, grammar that might be necessary, and examples that might be helpful by trying it myself.  I discover issues in timing--homework that is too long or assignments that fail to provoke a long enough contemplation of the point to be useful.  And perhaps most important, I find problems of unfairness.  I find bias.  I find areas in which I ask questions that my students lack the skill to answer or cannot answer due to social constraints that I hadn't thought about before I did it myself.

And maybe the most effective (not most important) consequence of doing it myself is providing modeling and earning the respect of my students.  If I learn another language in the same way I teach English to my students, that carries weight with them.  If they see me write the same essay that they do and then pick apart my own work in editing (and I do this because I largely doubt the effectiveness of peer review at the lower levels until the students have really been trained BOTH EXPLICITLY AND BY EXAMPLE how to edit), then I have convinced them that I am not wasting their time on busy work.  Furthermore, for young students, it is the beginning of teaching them to be colleagues, and for adult students, it is an innate acknowledgment that I know that they are intelligent even if they can't communicate what they know in my language.

And I have found that this level of respect flings open the doors to learning faster than anything else that I have seen with the exception of bodily care.  People want to be seen and heard.  We can better do that when we take a few moments, stand in their place, and do what they do.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stuff That Works 1

Okay, so I have a bunch of ideas about how things "ought" to go, but none of that really matters unless you can see it working.

So here is one of those lessons that I have pulled out in Korea from time to time that just goes really well every time.

Lesson title:  When You're Slidin'

Age of students: elementary school - preferably 2nd-5th grades

Size of class:  2 or more students.  For larger classes, separate the class into groups of 3 or 4.

Student level: high beginner and above

Equipment/supplies needed: tape recorder, CD player, or computer with internet access and speakers

Objectives:  Introduce age appropriate vocabulary (baseball and potty talk), reinforcement of the rhythm of English through the rhythm of the song, (in the Korean context) differentiation between when/if, guided application of rhythm and grammar.

Length of lesson: Approximately 45 minutes.

Warnings: This lesson is an appropriate lesson for a free day or a relaxing moment after a test.  The topic of the lesson is something parents hate but kids love, making it risky to do by itself but very effective in terms of student motivation, long term recall, and real life application.

Activity 1:  Fill in the blank listening.
Time:  Approximately 7-8 minutes

Take the lyrics from "The Diarrhea Song" from "Parenthood" and type them out, leaving some blanks.  Make enough copies for every student and distribute them to the class.

 Be careful which words you choose to eliminate.  What have you been working on in class?  If it's rhymes, then eliminate the words at the ends of the lines--but provide a word bank because the words are obscure.  If it's potty talk (unlikely, but...), then eliminate the words of the bodily functions.  If sports, eliminate baseball words.  If noun markers, eliminate possessive pronouns, etc.

Play the song, which can be found on Youtube here.

Have students fill in the blanks.  Repeat listening as necessary--I usually give two to three opportunities, but it will depend on the number of eliminated words and the level of your students.

Activity 2:  Singing/Role Playing
Time:  Approximately 10-15 minutes

Discuss the meaning of the text.  Allow students to translate if needed.  Trust me, at this age, once the words have been translated, they will use the English and never resort to the home language again.

Allow the kids to sing and/or act out the song.  The actual singing is important because it reinforces the rhythm, which is one of the problems with the acquisition of English by speakers of several other languages.

Allowing role playing as well adds an entirely new dimension to the work.  Now, we have not only engaged linguistic and musical intelligences, we are also adding bodiy kinesthetic and the personal intelligences.  It puts the kids in touch with their feelings and their bodies and relates them to the words.

This is HUGE.

First, this group is in the concrete-operational stage of thinking.  The doing is just incredibly important for the recall, and it is actually equating this meaning with this grammar--which is generally acquired either through memorization (needing far more practice than is usually allotted) or through logic (which is a formal-operational function--something our 2nd to 5th graders are not entirely ready to do).

Secondly, the vocabulary is age appropriate.  Since 2nd to 5th graders care VERY MUCH about potty language and the more grotesque functions of the body, the MEANING carried with the grammar will make learning the grammar attractive to them.

Thirdly, this is a moment of connection and belonging.  We are talking the second tier of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and this is especially problematic in ESL/EFL classes because there is a lot of alienation between students and teacher.  Two things allow bonding here.  First, the teacher has shown true interest in a something dear to the students and has given them free reign (or at least limited reign) to pursue this interest, and, secondly, the students are tapping into their own emotions.  This is very rare in early EFL/ESL classrooms because the cognitive energy required to translate/formulate what they want to say often buries their affect.  You can't bond with someone when you're always wearing a mask.  The goofiness of this role play allows that mask to come off.

Finally, back to the grammar, in a Korean context, it is very difficult to break the when/if translation.  Koreans will usually translate "if" for future or imaginary hypothetical situations in which Westerners primarily use "when."  Through the use of something as memorable and entertaining as "The Diarrhea Song," you can break the translation by providing a pattern.  Koreans, in particular, will use these patterns in formulating their thoughts in English.

Activity 3:  Rewriting
Time: 20-30 minutes

In their groups, students rewrite the song using their own games/problems.  For example, they can still use diarrhea, but maybe they set it up in their hagwon ("When you're on the hagwon bus and you feel a big warm rush, diarrhea...diarrhea") or they could use a different problem like being out of their allowance ("When you're picking up the phone but you hear no dial tone, out of money...out of money.  When your stomach starts to growl but you can't buy kimbap now, out of money...out of money.").

Have the groups perform for each other.

This provides both practice and relevance, both of which are necessary for the acquisition of the grammar and the vocabulary.  It also makes the song and its content the students' own.  It doesn't just belong to English class any more.  This is about them and their problems (and jokes).

In addition, it straddles Eastern and Western cultural differences.  Presenting your work for the others is often considered arrogant showmanship in Asian cultures, BUT working together is perfectly normal and making your classmates laugh is improving everyone's mood--something many Asians, and Koreans at least, are taught to do from birth. Therefore, this simple activity helps Korean students in particular begin to overcome cultural barriers which often stand in the way of success in Western situations, and it does so in such a way that the students do not have to compromise their own cultural beliefs.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Just Sayin'... Part 2

Just FYI - I do realize that one of the major responses to my example of the blind kindergartner/mental health diagnoses is that these children might benefit from separate schooling outside of the mainstream classroom.  I have deliberately not engaged this portion of the argument because inclusion/exclusion is peripheral to my point which is twofold:

1. If it ain't workin', it ain't workin' no matter who developed the plan or how good it looked on paper.

2.  If you are facing the failure of point 1, then a new plan is needed--not more of the same plan.

On point 1--that's why data collection is so important.  I am a big fan of cold, hard numbers AS WELL AS a list of confounding factors WITH MORE cold, hard numbers (i.e., I don't care if your indicators say the child can't read.  If I routinely see him get books that he's never seen off the shelf and read them to other children, then I know that for some reason, your indicators are not measuring what they say they are.  But that isn't the same as throwing out the numbers entirely.  That is saying that in X testing situation, the subject is not displaying mastery of Y knowledge that he/she IS displaying in Z situation).  Do you see the difference?

Also, it doesn't matter if the best practices have worked in 8,000,000 other situations.  If they continually do not work (and I'm talking about 3-4 PROLONGED attempts with different teachers and in different settings) for the 8,000,001st child, then they are NOT the best practices for THAT child.  Period.

On point 2-- This is at the heart of NCLB, even though most school systems have found many ways to outwit it.  But this is also my point about creativity and actually what Ross Greene talks about in his books The Explosive Child and Lost at School.  You have options.  Your new plan can say X is not optional in our school and therefore we expel the child from our environment (not a belief I hold, but one that is still an option).  You can attack the problem from a new direction--a form of compromise (in which, it would be helpful if all parties were involved in the planning process).  Or you can re-evaluate and decide that it really isn't that big a deal and let it go.  These are all options.  YOU have to make a decision, but insisting on the same course of action is probably not going to yield better results.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Just Sayin'...

Recently, I have repeatedly stumbled across the idea of accommodations and/or changing teaching strategies.  As any of you who have met me know, I am no fan of blind conformity and view best practices with a grain of salt until I see them work.  I am all for changing up my strategies and trying new things when it's my idea, but even I have balked in the past at being told to add something when I didn't think it was possible and, especially, when it's SOMEONE ELSE's idea.

But let me say to all of you out there who feel this exact same way: I was wrong.  Every time.  To my shame, it has always been possible.

We tend not to like change, particularly when we aren't given a choice.  But honestly, how much faster would we succeed and adapt if we put our energy and creativity into finding ways to solve the problem and adapting things to work instead of finagling ways to escape them?

Try it.  Collect the data.  If it really doesn't work, you have proof both that you tried and that it failed.  This goes a long way in changing what will be done in the future.  But I'll tell you this.  I have never tried something and failed to learn something else.  I've never incorporated something into my teaching to reject it wholesale.  There has always been an element of good worth keeping.

But back on accommodations.  Consider the following situation:

A blind child is enrolled in kindergarten.  The school wants to hold her back because she can't read the textbooks they have and she doesn't know her colors.

Would we stand for that?

NO!  Obviously, we would want to introduce her to adaptive technologies--braille or a computer reader, and waive the requirement that she know her colors because no amount of teaching will ever accomplish this goal.

We would not repeatedly thrust the same materials at her and give her three remedial courses in color identification.

But this is exactly what we are doing for many children with mental health diagnoses, learning disabilities, and other non-physical issues.

It doesn't make any sense.

Then consider what is possible when you teach accommodations.  I have a second-grade boy with ADHD (as well as other issues).  Last year, he did not score above a low C (72%) on any test 3 pages or longer.  We have been working solidly on coping skills for boredom and inattention--fidgeting if it helps you pay attention, watching the teacher's mouth, underlining the words as you go, etc.  Last week, he got a high B on a long reading test.  (Update one year later--he is now testing a full grade level above his own in reading fluency and got an A on a long social studies test.  WOW!)  Change and progress are possible, but only if you are willing to look at the situation and make changes.

Consider again.  When I first began teaching EFL, someone told me you just can't teach articles/noun markers to Asians.  They will simply never learn them.  I took it as a challenge in both reading comprehension and practical grammar.  After six months of work identifying meaning in poems by the articles used (short poems on topics of their interests were presented with all the articles and noun markers whited out. Students needed to identify what they felt the noun markers were and then use them to decode the meaning of the poem), I had a class get all of them correct.  The key was rethinking the situation (how had the information been presented in the past?--by grammatical rule--and why wasn't it working?--it hadn't been shown to have meaning to the students), correcting the problems of the past (demonstrating practical usage and creating meaning), and giving an outlet in which those skills would be useful (allowing students to continue talking/writing on the topic with their own experiences/needs).

Now, this isn't an example of accommodation, but it's one of those cases in which people think something is impossible only because they haven't rethought the process.

So my challenge is: what is the difference we want to see in our teaching, our world?


What if we thought it MUST happen and it MUST start with us?

What is our plan?

I am convinced it CAN happen.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Listening Part 2: Listening Failures

Here are some listening failures from my own experience. After each are a few perceived causes of the failures followed by an approach that seems to open channels of communication a little more.

Case 1
Teacher (T): Kid, why didn’t you finish this?
Student (S): I couldn’t.
T: Why not?
S: Because of the cherry marker.
T: Are you serious? Finish it.

You might chalk this up as one of those crazy excuses kids make, or you might better chalk it up as someone not listening. In this case, one of my own, I clearly was not listening to my student, and, get this, HE WAS TELLING THE TRUTH. This was a case of sensory overload, and it is far more common than you might expect.

Cause: I am too certain I am right that I am not actually listening and validating my student's point of view.

Solution: Listen, and take into account the student's suggested solution. On a subsequent day when the student was again struggling, I removed the smelly markers, and the student was able to complete the assignment immediately.

Case 2

S: I go dinner with senior.
T: I went to dinner with some friends.
S: No, I go dinner with senior.
T: I went to dinner with some friends.
S: Not friend.
T: Okay. But you went to dinner.
S: Yes.

Okay, this is better and again based on my own experience, but again, I have totally missed the point as well as the teachable moment. What was important to the student was not the when or the how many; it was with whom. And implicit in this whom is a cultural connotation not carried in English.  I did nothing to help him communicate that cultural connotation at all.  All I have done is show my student that English is irrelevant to his communication needs.

Cause: I am too focused on my own goal and not the goal of my student nor the more important information in the student's culture.

Suggestion: I don't have an exact solution for this problem, but I have found that starting class by explaining my objectives (and occasionally how I will measure them) and inviting students to share their own goals for the class has made students more aggressive in verbalize what they really want to know as well as making them more cooperative in listening to my correcting grammar in accordance with my previously stated goal.  I may have been able to teach prepositional phrases functioning as adjectives or dependent adjective clauses ("some friends from the year ahead of me" or "some friends, who mentor me"), but if I had had their input on what they wanted, I may have gleaned this.
Case 3

S: I didn’t think much of this piece.
T: I don’t care what you thought of it. Why did the people of the time like it?
S: This piece has been used in foreign film to show how foreign influence has driven the people who act within to impotent madness.
T: But that wasn’t what the author was getting at.

As a writer as well as a teacher these last examples are particularly troubling because the thing a writer loves about writing is that its influence may wax and wane, but it always has the potential to influence each person who reads it anew each time it is read. Each influence is valid, whether or not it was intended or the influence has changed.

Cause: Narrow vision in accordance with a perceived correct answer and an unwillingness to allow the canonical to be practical/living.

Suggestion: Share the goal that before new applications or nontraditional views can be shared, you as a teacher must ensure that students understand the traditional attitude toward the piece.

Case 4

S1: Y bit me!
T: Are you serious? Y, did you bite him?
Y: Yes.
T: You are eight-years-old. Babies bite. Time out. In the baby playground. Hustle.
Y (tears in his eyes): But we were playing vampires!
S3 (to teacher a few minutes later): You’re proud of yourself, aren’t you?

This is one of my most troubling recollections of teaching. Yes, the student was wrong to bite, but he was simply taking an age-appropriate game too far (a common problem for this student), and the cause of the misbehavior was not at all the same cause of the same behavior in young children, so the student was inappropriately shamed, even though the punishment was more creative and effectively extinguished the behavior among all of the students for the entire time that I remained their teacher.

Cause: Simply not listening and pride--there were other teachers present, and I wanted to act swiftly and decisively.

Solution: Ask more before dictating punishment. Once immediate danger has been averted, there is no reason not to ask for both sides of the story.

Multiple Choice Fallacy

I have recently read a whole bunch about the problems of multiple choice tests, and I just want to throw out there that perhaps we live in a multiple choice world.

Let me explain.

We are not always the expert. In fact, we are more often NOT the expert. Instead of really having the opportunity to create an open-ended answer to the questions of life, we are more frequently asked to make a choice between several common options. We need to be able to weigh these options, recognize how our situation differs from other similar situations, discern how our logic is likely to be misled, and make an appropriate choice. This realm of choice-making extends to most everything from purchasing food at the grocery store (unless you really ARE raising everything yourself, this is multiple choice) to deciding on an appropriate course of treatment for a life-threatening illness.

Perhaps the multiple choice test does NOT best indicate how well we will understand “MacBeth” (most probably not), but it can and should teach us how to make informed decisions later on, to recognize the tricks most often played, and to flag those questions without any truly good answers. This decision-making process is far more important in the long run than understanding “MacBeth” ever will be to most of us.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Calvin Coolidge once said, "No man ever listened himself out of a job."

I find this especially true in teaching...and especially hard to do.

1.  Listening requires halting one's own agenda and truly taking in the moment as it is.
2.  Listening may mean abandoning one's plans and adjusting one's course, perhaps rather significantly.
3.  Convention: Teachers are trained to teach, not listen, and students are taught to listen, not teach.

If it's so difficult, why do it?
1.  Because there's no better way to gauge where your students are.  Indicators can be wrong or biased.  Secondhand accounts are not complete.  And your students are TRYING to tell you.  Why not listen?
2.  Because it establishes a sense of worth, rapport, and belonging.  Someone who is listened to is someone who is valued.  We want to be valued, and we do better when we feel we belong.

So how do you do it?
Ahhhh.... This is where I fail a lot.

1.  Slow down your own feedback.  I come from an area with rapid-fire conversation.  This doesn't always work in the classroom.  Sure, it's fun for drilling and can be good for joking, but it doesn't help for listening. 

So to do this:
a.  Stop.  After you have asked your question, don't explain. Shut your mouth.
b.  Engage your student with your eyes.  Don't break eye contact. 
c.  Count to five after your student stops speaking to make certain he or she is truly finished.
d.  Resist the urge to make an evaluative comment and ask a follow up question.  This is really hard, and at first, students will want reassurance.  I sometimes say, "I really want to know what you think" or "I really like hearing your thoughts."  This is less evaluative than my gut response but still indicates my pleasure in the continued conversation.

2.  Check for nonverbal cues.  Are your students fidgeting? Are they leaning forward engaged? How do they participate?  Who talks to whom?  What makes them laugh?  Does one laugh and not another?

3.  Put yourself out there, especially if you want negative feedback.  Positive feedback is needed, but sometimes you need to get at the negative emotions to reach the positive ones.  Start with your own example, e.g., "When I was in school, I hated when...," or even start with yourself, e.g., "I really hate when I ______ in class."  Identifying the problem is the first step to finding a solution!

4.  Incorporate what you heard into what you do.  If you listen to what was said and then throw it out the window, then you have actually made the situation worse.  Act on what you have heard.  Even if you don't completely follow the students' advice, you can incorporate pieces of it into your plans--and draw their attention to it!  Besides, seeing their own plans in action and watching how they work is a step in becoming self-determining and self-sufficient--the end goal of all education.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Teaching Beyond the Test

Any teacher who says they don't teach to the test either doesn't have tests or is lying.

We are judged by how well our students do, and tests are the conventional method of measuring that.

Yes, we teach to the test, and there are also good reasons for doing so:
  1. A bunch of really smart people worked a really long time to come up with this test.
  2. These smart people gave this test to a lot of other students along with other measures to make sure that this test is both reliable and valid.
  3. Somebody had a (good) reason for thinking that mastery of the topics on this test would predict future success.
In short, the tests that are out there, like them or not, have been well-researched and, well, well-tested.

But we all know people who do well on the test and can't. do. anything. else.

And, I'm pretty sure that the problem is this:  we have taught to the test and not beyond it.

Teaching beyond the test means taking the skills from the test and finding where they are used in real life.  Once this has been pinpointed.  BRING BACK the real life experience and teach something truly authentic IN YOUR CLASS.

Yeah, I know.  Somehow we are supposed to supply the knowledge and eventually the kids will just move right on up Bloom's Taxonomy.  Sure, there are some interventions like worksheets on "critical thinking skills."

Let me just say anecdotally that I am not seeing how our current method of teaching higher level skills is outstripping the Asians who teach by rote memorization--and I have spent the bulk of the last 12 years of my life looking at this.

However, I will say that one thing that makes a difference in both places appears to be the use of these newly acquired skills in TRULY authentic learning situations (i.e., something more than the "learning in real life" section of your textbook).

So how would you go about teaching beyond the test?

Here are some things that have worked for me:
  1. Look at the test.  It has been well-researched and widely tested.  It has been assessed for reliability and validity.  What are its questions like?  What is it trying to test and how does it attempt to do so?
  2. Read about who the test is for.  Does your student fit that group?  Does your student WANT to belong to that group?  How can you help your student succeed? Consider cultural/age barriers.
  3. How does this test correlate to real life activities that your student would feasibly be expected to achieve in the future?
  4. How can you feasibly bring this real life experience into your classroom?
And here would be some examples of what you might do:

1. For a DIBELS type (or other phonics) test of nonsense words.  Goal: Teaching sounding our nonsense words. Bring in (or print) a bunch of flyers from a different locale.  Also provide a map of the area with a school and the stores located clearly on it.  Give students an amount to spend and have them write directions of how to get there.  They must then read them to the teacher/other student successfully to get their prize.  Obviously, all of the place names will be nonsense to them.

2.  For a TOEFL type listening/reading response.  Goal: Given previous knowledge, to respond in mixed media and in real time to a problem. Play a brief segment from Oprah or some other self help talk show.  Follow this with an email or question to Dear Abby/Ann Landers on a similar topic.  Students should write or speak a response.

3. For EFL/ESL students preparing for school interviews.  Goal: Expressing themselves clearly despite the interference of electronic devices.  Make them successfully use a video/taped speech to direct their fellow students to find or do something in the class. 
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