Tag Archives: SLIFE

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.

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!

Biggest giggles

Today was a “Lida Day,” a day that Flynn artist Lida Winfield comes in to work with us.

We’ve been working in our class on learning coins and on trying to foster creativity, to provide opportunities for students to make choices that are not just copying what someone else does.


This is such an essential part of being successful in the U.S. educational system. The graphic here from a presentation by researcher Andrea DeCapua shows what we’re up against.

SLIFE stands for Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education. It’s an acronym that is gaining attention nationwide as schools are starting to realize that they can’t just treat these learners the same as they would a foreign exchange student who comes to the United States with a solid educational background.

Even if our students had uninterrupted schooling, children of former refugees are experiencing potentially traumatic shifts when they come to the U.S. They have left everything they know behind. And then they jump in here and know that they are struggling. It’s really hard. And it’s really tough on teens.

So back to SLIFE… The left side is where they come from: lessons connect with their life as they know it. They work together toward a common goal. In classrooms literally stuffed with children, they may not have had ready access to writing materials. The language of instruction may not have been their first language, and in this case, most meaning is made through oral transmission, as they negotiate meaning between classroom language and the language they speak at home. To keep the students’ attention, the tasks are meaningful to them and their everyday lives. But in the U.S., we have a much more context-reduced education….

You may walk into a classroom and read about nuclear reactors. Does that translate to real life? Is it relevant to now? And when the math teacher is trying to give real-life examples as to why one might want to know how to estimate doesn’t reflect your reality (going to a restaurant, double-checking your paycheck stub), why should you care?

And that’s where Lida comes in. We play and we’re a little silly. And that makes it learning in the now. We reviewed coins. We talked about comparative and superlative forms of big and small. We tapped into our creativity as we tried to remember movement sequences that we practiced the week before and changed things up a bit. We didn’t change the movement, but we did change the delivery.

And isn’t that what all artists do? Study the experts to learn the techniques and then change the WHAT, not the HOW?