Category Archives: education

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.


Please Mr. Postman: Christmas in April

Every year, we order Christmas cards. And every year, we order too many. And we have a good dozen or so that sit, undelivered, collecting dust.Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.25.15 PM

But this year, it’s Christmas in April.

We’ve been working at writing addresses, remembering phone numbers… And I really thought we should figure out WHY we needed to know our addresses. So I took all these cards to school and we’ve been practicing on a worksheet, getting us ready for the real thing.

And the day finally came.


All of the students were instructed to follow a model I drew on the whiteboard. They had to copy my address from the board onto the envelope, and in the addressee spot, they had to write their own address, including ZIP code.

If you never send a letter, why would you ever need a ZIP code???

I had intended to go to the post office after school and to buy stamps. I was going to take pictures of putting them on and sliding the envelopes into the slot. But another partner teacher who was observing just happened to have poinsettia Forever stamps.

What’s a letter without a stamp? You have to know where the stamp goes.

So amazing, the questions that came up, needing to know where the stamps go and which way, how high up to write their own addresses, whether or not they could use lines… So cute, the whole thing.

So they got them ready, slid the cards into their envelopes and sealed them. That was a whole thing. Do we really have to lick them??? One student tried to use his water bottle so he wouldn’t have to lick the glue!

And now we wait.

Did it work?

Will the post office be able to decipher their writing?  … anticipation!

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    • I can say hello and goodbye in a polite way
    • I can introduce myself and others
    • I can fill out a form with my name, address, phone number and birth date
    • I can complete a simple online form (job application info)
    • I am able to give personal identification information

Post-It Note Body Parts

Face, Girl, Smile, View


That’s all we’re looking for.

Joy in learning.

And it can happen.

So as part of our learning with body parts–mostly so students can have the vocabulary they need to be able to go to the nurse’s office and say what’s wrong and how much it hurts–we decided to spend a little more time teaching the names of body parts.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.05.27 PMWe did this recently, asking students to draw themselves and label the parts. This was all heavily scaffolded. Then we came back to the pictures a couple of days later and asked them to write the words (if they knew them) in another language. I did one in German. I learned German ages ago, when I was in high school and then became a foreign exchange student. But it’s been decades since I’ve really used it. Nice party trick, though.

But we needed something to reinforce those words. And we fell upon sticky notes. What can bring more joy, more smiles, than seeing your teacher covered in sticky notes?

Repetition = retention.

And joy.

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My Body, My Health 

    • Able to express a minimum of 8 feelings (happy, sad, angry, cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, sick…)
    • Able to express some medical situations (headache, stomachache, period, sore throat)
    • Identify major body parts

Connecting over distances


While we were at a conference to learn about Students with Limited or Interrupted Schooling (SLIFE), our students were working on opposites, connecting with us via email and messaging, and describing selves and family members.

They didn’t quite get to families, but we are well on our way. And the fact that we got anything while a sub was there–our first real sub of the year, where neither of us was in the room–is quite impressive.

Kudos to Carolyn for pulling it off, honestly.

Opposites are so important when learning how to describe. We so often describe ourselves by not only physical features but how we separate ourselves from others. We did this using a framing app. Not the best I’ve ever used. So I’ll keep looking for one that is easy to navigate.

He is tall; I am short. I am big; she is little…

We’re so good at categorizing in English, putting things into boxes…

We’re going to start using Animoto as we move forward. It’s a fun website and app, and it’s easy to use. With students just beginning to learn English, it’s well-suited for using sentence frames and gives enough choice that students can create slideshows that look vastly different, even if they are all using the same sentences. It helps us meet that graduate expectation of creativity, which is so hard at this level. Since they are limited by the words they know, they have to be given other avenues for choice and voice.

The one here is an example of an Animoto video.

And now… VACATION!

We LOVE Multilingualism!

IMG_1933We’ve been learning the names for body parts in our class. We drew silly pictures of ourselves (I drew Ms. King… Can you see the IMG_2923resemblance???) And we labeled all the major body parts in English.

School board member Brian Cina came to visit that day. His picture was really life-like!

To reinforce, we used sticky notes and labeled each other. I don’t have those pictures yet, but if I get them, you can bet I’ll post.

And then, a few days later, we took those same posters and connected them back to native languages.

For English Language Learners, it’s imperative that we help to make those connections from what they know to what they need to know. That’s called scaffolding. I’ve been reading an amazing book–Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain by Janet Nay Zadina–and she says that one way to learn new material is recognizing patterns, repeating until it’s just known. And recognizing patterns releases dopamine (!), the feel-good chemical.

So we asked our students to repeat the names again and again, label the pictures, label each other, and then, just to bring it home, asked them to bring it back to the familiar.

And we made a DISPLAY!!! (Cue trumpets!) And the students really took pride in their work (something else that Zadina says brings the learning home).

So take a look! (We were also still playing with the new math manipulatives that we got recently… Fun in and out of the classroom!)

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We get by with a little help…

I’m going to start by saying thank you. Thank you to my sister and to my two sweet friends without whom I would not have the tools I desire to teach.

DonorsChoose is an AMAZING tool for teachers that allows us to ask for what we want and for people who love us to help us get it.

And we just got toys.

Yep. Toys.

Money, paper and plastic coins.


Fraction circles.



TONS of math manipulatives. And we let our students play.

What must it be like to grow up where school is memorization? Where 60 students in a room is not unusual?

And we get to change it.

In the words of my mother, also in her time a glorious supporter of my hairbrained projects, “Isn’t it just grand?”

Yeah, Mama. It is!

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The rich get richer: 4 kinds of Capital

Jeff Zwiers, in his recent book Building Academic Language, talks about how there are different kinds of capital that we bring to the classroom setting: social, cultural, knowledge, and linguistic. And some of us are a bit richer in some areas than others…

In social capital, think of how pragmatics–or the how and when and where of polite speech–figures into your life. My co-teacher and I have been talking about this a lot lately, about how social norms could potentially get you into trouble if you don’t know the right way to behave. There is a great short course on pragmatics here, from UT Austin. And we’re thinking that an after-school club that teaches students how to navigate cultural norms could be quite helpful to some of our students.

I remember when I was an exchange student in Germany and had picked up the colloquialisms my host siblings were using. It turned out that asking my host father the equivalent of “are you seriously insane” (likely with an expletive or two thrown in) was not socially acceptable, even if he was being a bit crass in letting me know that I came across as being a bit daft in my German skills. Conversation stopper, right there.

We live and we learn…

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To determine your level of cultural capital, try your hand a geoguessr, an online geography game that asks you to place a picture on the globe. You score points by getting geographically close to your goal. For me today, I zoomed in on the sign here that said “Florestal.” I thought that sounded Spanish or Portuguese to me. And I saw the deciduous trees lining the road. I made a quick guess and was not incredibly far off. Got the right general vacinity.

But to know that, I had to bring a load of background knowledge to my game. And those students who grew up in refugee camps, likely never got much chance to study or move outside their own realms very much before being resettled here. And now the lack of monetary capital keeps them from even taking trips up to the Green Mountains or into the Adirondacks, either one less than an hour away from where our classroom sits.

Knowledge capital is how I know that Leonard Nimoy just died. Or that the election in our fair city is on Tuesday. Or that I really don’t want to spend any of my break in Boston because it has way too much snow right now. Or that school starts at 8 for students on Wednesday. My partner teacher and I went for a walk yesterday to the Mardi Gras parade (we play that game a bit later than the actual fete here), and we met no less than three students on the street, none of whom knew what day to go back to school or what time school would start. We usually start almost an hour later on Wednesdays.

And for linguistic capital, well, for my students–primarily children who grew up in refugee camps–they generally come up a bit short here. At least for starters. How well you can acclimate to the U.S. educational system depends a lot on how you were educated elsewhere. How many skills can you transfer over? How close is the language you speak at home and the language we use at school?

For many students, this chasm is really wide. They don’t talk about math terminology. They don’t talk about grammar or politics or science or social studies or the problems of the world at home over coffee or juice.

And so we need to teach explicitly. It’s a monumental task. But if we want to hear words coming out of our students’ mouths, if we want them to be able to succeed on Common Core State Standard assessments, we need to be teaching academic language to them daily. We can’t assume they will just “get it,” which is what my teachers thought in the 1970s in rural Kansas.

We live in a world where knowing how to talk can help you get places.

So we need to teach. With a vengeance.

More on the “how” of this later.