Mountains in Many Languages

How do you say that in your language?

As more of our students move away from the “Entering” level of WIDA’s English Language Development scale and move toward “Developing,” we need to up the ante.

Our class is all about oral proficiency.

IMG_0487When students can start to express themselves in English, they can start to make use of something we in the ELL world call transfer–when they are able to move knowledge gained in their first language to knowledge in the new language.

It’s not something that always happens automatically; if it did, we could all be able to quickly move from babbling on like children to having academic conversations in a second language as soon as we had the words and grammar structures to express ourselves fully. Yet we see it all the time: well-educated students who start school in the United States and find everything–EVERYTHING–so hard to do.

And many of us have experienced it ourselves: I may know all the words for buying tickets in another language, but every time I go to a country where I’m not relying on English, I get a little confused and nervous about the transactions. Even going to Great Britain or Canada can put one off a bit: The circumstance, the currency, the math, the geography, the background knowledge we have around purchasing tickets–all that cannot be trusted anymore and makes the task that much harder.

So what we can do as teachers is to show students that they do have that language base, and that by practicing, the task will get easier.

We are now in quarter 4, and it’s a bit late to try to transfer students into new classes, even if there were room in the courses where we would put them. We only have five days each left of blue and white days on the block schedule. This is a time for wrapping up the year rather than to start afresh.

But these students have grown beyond our survival English class. They are ready to take on the world NOW. So we’ve decided to launch into a geography unit to prepare them for one of their classes next year. The social studies teacher says one of the most difficult parts of the course is to get them to memorize landforms and biomes.

Two weeks ago, my partner teacher and I went to a SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education) conference with Helaine Marshall and Andrea DeCapua in Massachusetts. There, we learned about the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm, or MALP.  At the link here, you can download a copy of the checklist. But basically it comes down to this:

  • Making the lesson relevant
  • Maintaining interconnectedness
  • Incorporating Shared and Individual accountability
  • Scaffolding written word through oral interaction
  • Incorporating tasks that require academic thinking
  • Making tasks accessible through familiar language

Because our class is oral, I’ve focused on that to begin with. And this has backing from the realm of brain-based learning as well. Janet Zadina cautions teachers against focusing on lecture alone:

Too often we study just by repeating the receptive pathway; firing and wiring it, by having students see or hear the material repeatedly. That is not very effective. We want students to activate their neural network and recreate, reassemble, and retrieve the information.–Dr. Janet Zadina

So here’s the plan:

We’ve been asking our class to find pictures of words on their ipads. Then we ask them to find that in their own countries and share that picture in a file. The ones below were the ones the shared with me of “mountains.”

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As soon as we got those photos together, we asked for an artist to make a picture of a IMG_0488mountain and for everybody else to write–if they knew–the word for “mountain” in their own language.

Here’s what we got.

Not bad, huh?

So the one thing that’s missing from this is the academic task. We will learn  how to define terms in English. Categorizing. Such a huge skill. Then, I think I’m going to ask them to create their own flashcards or their own display, perhaps using Animoto, Thinglink or Explain Everything.

The coolest thing about this unit, though, is that students are chatting each other up. The boat picture at the top of the post? The one in the lake? They had to ask me what that was, then they shared words for that. There are some languages in our classroom, Burmese and Karen, for example, that are very close and share words. And sometimes Arabic and Somali can have some similarities in how the words are pronounced.

It’s so wonderful to see them stretching themselves, but most of all, to see them reaching across language subgroups.

It’s a beautiful thing.

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