Under Discussion: Getting Them to Talk

FullSizeRender (1)A teacher asked me the other day, “How do you get them to talk?”

I had just seen the same kids who wouldn’t raise their hands and answer her questions about the bell work they had just completed come into the room talking like crazy at the start of the hour. I’d seen them turn in their seats and continue to talk to each other—until class started. They did have voices.

But of course, the questions about the bell work were posed by the teacher, the topic was academic, and too much was riding on raising their hands.

  • Some didn’t know the answer and didn’t want to look “dumb.”
  • Some had the answer but didn’t want to be branded as “smart.”
  • Some had an idea—but didn’t want to risk being wrong.
  • Some knew the answer but just weren’t saying. Lots of reasons why.
  • Some were shy and not yet comfortable in the class. It is still the start of the year.

I remember learning to break icy silences like this, so here is what I told the teacher. It’s what I learned over the years about getting the kids to talk.

To start with, some conditions promote participation and, eventually, real discussion, better than others.

The seating arrangements: When desks are in rows, the student answering the question speaks to one person only—the teacher.  If recitation—simple Q and A—is what you expect, rows are okay; but if the goal is dialogue among the students, sitting in rows discourages that.

Even setting up the room so that two banks of desks face each other or are at least on a diagonal—a herringbone design—can help. Now they’re not talking to the backs of heads.

Circles, of course, are wonderful, but a circle is difficult if there are many students, big desks, and a small room.  Plus, there’s all that space gone to waste in the middle.

For years, I arranged my room in a U—two of them, to be precise. One had 19 chairs and inside that U was another, with 11 chairs. (I taught the students how to quickly rearrange the desks in rows for tests. For that matter, I taught them, too, how to rearrange the desks into pods for group work.) The U shape allowed the students to see the faces of a good many of their peers, so when we moved beyond recitation to real discussion, they were more likely to address each other, not me. Which is what I wanted.

My dream-come-true happened in my last years in the classroom when my room had 6 tables that broke apart into single desks. The students had swivel chairs. (Yes, I had to stop a few “spinners” from distracting others—and making me dizzy just watching them!—but that was quickly and easily halted.) The tables were perfect for group work and because they broke apart, the students could easily set them up for tests—and put them back again when a test was over.

The teacher’s position: Sometimes you want to be the “sage on the stage,” standing above the students and posing questions to a seated audience. In that case, rows are traditional and can work. But for discussion, a subtle change in your position makes a big change in audience response. Try sitting among the students in an empty student desk. Or, if the conversation you are looking for is to be strictly among the kids, sit off to the side. If you sit down—not at your desk, but in a student desk—you’ve changed the climate dramatically.

When my desks were in that U-shaped configuration, I sat in a student desk at the top of the U—in the gap between the two ends.  I could see everyone, direct traffic, keep track of who was participating and who wasn’t, and even write things down (which is much harder to do when you’re standing).

Wait time: This is an old piece of advice, but still so important. You have to give the students a few seconds to think before they speak. Not only will they provide better answers—more reflective, more detailed—but you’ve signaled that you value reflection first and open mouth second. Every prospective teacher learns about “wait time” in preparation for teaching, but that wait time is easier said than done. As a culture, we are uncomfortable with pauses, distressed by silence. That partly explains the vocalized pauses teachers of speech and debate struggle to eliminate—those ums and ahs that unconsciously creep into our speech.

In his book, Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov suggests what he calls “Narrated Wait Time.” That is, when the room is silent and you are waiting for an answer, throw out a comment that will help the students monitor the time (“I’m waiting for 10 more seconds before I call on someone”) or even guide them down the right path (“Think of a character in another book we’ve read who has had this same kind of problem”). Then wait a few more seconds.

Related to this is another strategy: Let them take a minute to write down an answer so they feel prepared. Sometimes when students don’t respond it’s because they’re tongue-tied. Having a prepared response builds confidence.

Your questions:

Avoid yes/no questions. What else is left to say after the answer is given?

Be explicit about what you are looking for.

Explain the similarities between these two characters. (If you just say “How are these two characters alike?” the answers will be short. Requiring students to explain provokes a more detailed response.)

Why do Russians think Stalingrad, not D-Day, was the turning point in WWII? Explain their point of view. (This is a complex question. It requires students not only to know what happened at Stalingrad as well as on D-Day, but to compare and contrast the two events and step outside the comfort zone of the conventional American point of view.)

What evidence do we have that climate change is happening? (Notice that asking for evidence avoids nebulous and unsupported answers that begin with “I feel that…” or “I think that…”, demanding, instead, that students present pertinent facts, not unsubstantiated opinions.

Here’s a source for great questions: www.edutopia.org/blog/rethinking-whole-class-discussion-todd-finley

Your responses:

Just as you will expect the students to be courteous to each other, you need to be careful about your responses to them. “Can you tell me a little more about that” sounds better than “Is that all?”  “You’re on the right track. Can anyone else add to that?” is nicer, too.  You don’t want to accept wrong answers, but you have to be supportive of attempts—otherwise, students will shut down. Whoever volunteers to be humiliated?

Teach them how to respond: Consider posting sentence stems as reminders when you’re first getting started.

  • I agree with James, but I want to add this…
  • I don’t agree, James, because…
  • That’s an interesting (unusual/thoughtful/surprising/etc.) way to look at the situation, but here’s my take:
  • I’d like to add to what Sally said.
  • I didn’t understand it that way. What I got out of it was…

An excellent list of sentence stems—that teachers can use as well as students—appears on Te@chThought: http://www.teachthought.com/learning/sentence-stems-higher-level-conversation-classroom/

Collaboration helps:

Think/Pair/Share is another confidence-building strategy for discussion. You may have used this for reinforcing concepts, but it can also be used for developing ideas. Two people seated next to each other turn in their seats and for a brief amount of time, discuss the question and come up with an answer. Keep the time short—very short—or the talk will deteriorate into social conversation. And, be explicit about how they share—especially important if the students have never done this before. Model the exchange of ideas for them so they have the language of collaboration.

Group Share is essentially the same thing, but three or four people work together to come up with an answer. Usually the question is more complex, the time allotted is longer, and the discussion afterward is extended. Again, keep to a strict time limit, model the process, and instruct the students to choose a spokesperson who will deliver the consensus response. After each group has reported out, a fuller discussion starts spontaneously because the groups don’t always agree.

If all else fails, try this:

I’m by and large not a believer in extra credit, but many teachers, for good reasons, are. Many people award participation points—or expect students to earn them. Also for good reasons.

One year I came up with this strategy for a class who wouldn’t talk. We were reading Field of Dreams (This was before it became a movie). I took a great big sheet of white construction paper, used a water glass as a template, and drew around the glass to make circles on the paper. Using my amazing artistic skills, I turned each circle into a baseball, wrote the students’ names on the baseballs, and laminated the sheets.

When they entered the room, I’d hand them their baseballs. (The leftover baseballs told me who was absent: Presto! Attendance taken!) Then, as I explained on the first day, my expectation was that everyone would speak at least once a period. They had to raise their hands, I called on them, and as they spoke, I collected their cards.

This strategy really worked for me. I did get them talking because that extra point (In the beginning, I did count their contributions as extra credit) was a huge motivator. After a while, I dropped the extra credit, moved to participation points, and eventually got rid of all points—but by then we were done with the book, too. But, the students had opened up. The ice was broken and they were no longer so hesitant to speak.

This strategy is similar to the one elementary teachers frequently use: calling on a student whose name is on a Popsicle stick or drawing a name from a fishbowl. The difference is, with the baseball, the student has the choice of when to speak—a powerful bit of control for someone in high school.

Of course it wasn’t a perfect strategy. A student could use his card right away and then sit back and relax. A student who wanted to contribute more than once still could, but only when the others had all had a chance. But the baseball card strategy wasn’t a permanent solution anyway. It was a device to, so to speak, get the ball rolling.

How to get them to talk: The question is under discussion, and I’d be interested to know how you do it.

Posted in English Language Arts, Instructional Coaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Attitude Shift

Spanish IV chart picture (2)For teachers, August means the excitement of new students, new classes, new lesson plans–and the end of long mornings, lazy afternoons, and late nights.  For teachers in many school districts, August also means developing goals for the coming year–and then working all year to achieve them. In many districts, such goal-setting is a part of the evaluation process. To be successful, teachers must show not just that they did what they said they’d do, but that their goals had a positive impact on student learning. They need to demonstrate with data that students learned or that what the teacher did had a positive impact on student learning.

Sometimes, the goal is to change students’ attitudes. Quantifying an attitude shift–in a simple and direct way–is harder than, say, reporting the average percentage increase on vocabulary tests. This post is an update on a strategy I developed for documenting such attitude shifts. The update comes at the end and describes a speaking goal that a Spanish IV teacher in my district set and achieved.

A couple of years ago, in my capacity as an instructional coach for teachers in my district, I hit upon a use for Post-it Notes that involves measuring shifts in attitude. I wanted to know, originally, where the secondary teachers I was working with stood vis-à-vis implementation of the Common Core, and then, after I had finished with my professional development presentations on the subject, whether what I’d said and had the teachers do had had an impact. I wanted to know if what I was doing was changing attitudes.

How do you measure an attitude shift?

Furthermore, I wanted to share that information with the teachers.

Instantly.

How could I do that?

Somehow, I hit upon the idea, at the start of my Common Care presentations, of giving everyone in attendance a Post-it note (all the same color) and asking them to array their notes along a spectrum from left to right. I drew a line across the whiteboard at the front of the room and at strategic points along the line, I wrote the following summations of opinion:

  • Far Left: This is just one. more. thing.  It’s all going to go away, so why should I change?
  • Left: You’re kidding? Really? Okay, but where do I start? I’ve got a lot to learn.
  • Center: I’m on the fence.
  • Right: I’m just over being on the fence. I have some reservations, but all right.
  • Far Right: Let’s go! I’m excited! I’ve read a ton, know the standards, tried out a few things. I’m ready to jump in!

The teachers had no idea that I planned to ask the same question again at the end of my sessions. They assumed my visual survey was just a way to assess prior knowledge (which it was) and take a reading on staff opinion (which it also was). They did not write their names on the Post-its and I didn’t watch while they affixed theirs to the wall.

When the workshop was finished, several hours later, I gave everyone another Post-it—this time in a different color—and asked them to do the same thing: Place their Post-it on the wall somewhere along the same spectrum. I deliberately turned my back so I couldn’t see who put theirs where.

P1030326Here’s what the Post-its revealed. (Pink is “before”; blue is “after.”) Of course, the response wasn’t universally enthusiastic—I didn’t expect that—but I was gratified to see that the overall shift was from left to right, proving, above all, that understanding something goes a long way towards supporting it. Or put another way: Education matters.

P1030328Since then, I’ve shown teachers who are trying to measure an attitude shift in their classes this same (quick and non-scientific) strategy, and it has worked for them, too.

For example, here’s one from a business teacher who wanted to know if her financial literacy course had made an impact on her students’ spending habits. She extended the concept to measure the shift in two classes simultaneously.

At the start of the term, the five points on her line were these:

  • Far left: Spend every cent I can get my hands on—and more.
  • Left: Hmmm. Maybe I should save some.
  • Center: Save half (if I can). Spend half.
  • Right: Budget for expenses. Save all I can.
  • Far Right: Invest so my money can make money.

Freeeland 2In this picture, you see the results from two classes: one pink, the other yellow.  The spread on the bottom is the beginning of the semester; the one on top, the end. Notice the movement to the right in both classes–although the two yellow Post-its on the left represent the same two students, before and after. (Ah, well. Some people never learn.)

Because these Post-its would be up on the wall for the whole semester, we both assumed students would forget where they’d placed theirs. So the teacher had her students write their names on the backs of those little pieces of paper. That way, by turning them over at the end and finding their names, the students could see how far they’d come individually.Freeland 1

Last year, another colleague, a high school Spanish teacher,used the strategy to measure the development of her students’ comfort level with speaking Spanish. The purpose of learning a language is to be able to communicate in that language, but developing speaking skills is usually a challenge—for both the teacher and the students. Adults (and I’m counting high school students as grown-ups here) often feel inadequate when they open their mouths to speak in a foreign language. They know the words they use are basic, and the grammatical mistakes they make are embarrassing—because they wouldn’t make those same mistakes in their native language. So my colleague and I brainstormed a long list of opportunities, first just to hear spoken Spanish outside the classroom and then to interact with fluent Spanish speakers—a list of possibilities that grows progressively more interactive and engaging as the year goes along. Of course, the activities were a requirement of the course because her hope was that through authentic speaking experiences, students would become more comfortable—and ultimately more fluent.

To measure the students’ growth, here is the 4-point continuum my colleague used:

  • Far left: Silencio! I’m scared to open my mouth!
  • Left: I’ll speak if I have to, but I don’t like it.
  • Right: Comfortable—as long as it’s memorized conversation!
  • Far Right: It makes me nervous, but it’s fun at the same time!

She planned to have the students chart their progress three times during the year: in August, in January, and in May. That meant three colors of Post-it Notes. Except that a good idea just got better! Fearful that after a whole year the Post-its would lose their sticky and flutter to the floor, my colleague wrote the attitude points on pieces of construction paper, laminated the paper, and had the students use large Avery dots to mark their progress.

The first time she had the students place their Avery dots on the continuum, we both experienced a minor panic. So many were already on the right hand side! Room for growth was minimal. Perhaps the problem could have been avoided by having a 5-point continuum. Perhaps it was something in the wording that yielded so many “3s.”

A little nervous about what a mid-year reading might yield, my colleague decided not to take a reading again until the end of the year. By the time she did, the students had forgotten all about the tally in the fall. During class, she sent her students, one at a time, outside the classroom where, they posted their new blue Avery dots. At the end of the class, when she looked at the results, she saw that every one of the students’ attitudes had shifted farther to the right. The goal had been achieved; the students had developed the confidence they needed to be, not just comfortable, but enthusiastic about speaking Spanish with native speakers.

This year, my colleague is expanding her list of activities and recruiting Spanish-speaking adults in the community–many, the parents of students in our school–to be the language partners for her students.

So here is my question: What attitude shift would you like to effect that the Post-it Note strategy could help you document?

Spanish IV chart picture (2)

Posted in Instructional Coaching | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Traveling Companions

Was there ever a trip I took that didn’t involve a book—or a stack of books?

I don’t think so.

When I was a child, my family journeyed every summer from our home in Illinois to our grandparents’ summer cottage in northern Wisconsin—loaned to us by them for six weeks in June and July. We traveled in two cars—my mother and father driving, and we four children and our two Springer spaniels distributed evenly between them—on a journey that took (in those years before interstate highways) all day. Each of us kids brought along treasures to help the time pass. I brought books—as many as I could fit into a small brown cosmetic case that belonged to my grandmother. Stacked there neatly, and cushioned by a sack of anise candy, the books kept me company all day long and well into the weeks ahead.

During my elementary school years, most of my vacation reading material came from the last Scholastic Book Club order of the school year. A few of the books I brought were old favorites from my bookcase—The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Understood Betsy—and sometimes my grandmother gave me a new book as an early birthday present just before the trip got underway. When I was a little older, the books were fatter and there weren’t so many of them—Little Women and Jane Eyre lasted longer than the car trip—but they, too, traveled with me in the little brown cosmetic case.

I remember deliberating for weeks about those books. If they were to be new ones, I had to be sure I would like them—I didn’t want to waste space on something that would lose its appeal within a few pages. That meant a series book, or an author I already knew, or at least a topic that I knew would hold my interest. So yes to Betsy Ray and Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. Yes to Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott. Yes to books about children with problems and the teachers and therapists who helped them, yes to books about children in other countries, and yes to biographies of writers and pioneers of all kinds.

I kept that up every summer—selecting books to accompany me on my travels—never suspecting that my choices were doing anything more than sweetening my days.

Later in life (as an English teacher, of course), when I traveled to Russia with my students, I carried along books I intended to leave behind. I suggested to my students that they do the same. The books had to be ones I could part with (The DaVinci Code) because the space they occupied in my carry-on would be given over on the return trip to my purchases. The books had to be intriguing enough to compete with the novelty of living in a foreign country (Year of Wonders), but universal enough that my Russian friends would want them (Harry Potter).

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: left in a Moscow hotel.  The History of Love: left in a cardboard box filled with books in English that to this day circulates among young women working for NGOs in Rwanda. Something else, not so memorable, left in the airport in Lima. Another quick read, swapped out for The Human Comedy in a coffee shop in Colorado. I’ve left books behind all over the country and in places around the world. I see now that what I have done is leave bits of myself behind as well.

I still deliberate about the books I’ll read in the summer. These days when I travel, it’s often to a place where internet technology isn’t available and cell phones don’t work: it’s just the books I’ve selected and me, together for a stretch.  Of course, I’ve got a Kindle now, but not the ability to order a title from my living room or (yes) my bed.  So even the electronic library I amass each summer is carefully chosen ahead of time, and the same constraints apply: no set-asides if I can help it, yes to familiar authors and new information that I’ll happily anticipate settling in with, yes to long-time favorites.  That means that Maisie Dobbs and V. I. Warshawski can come along any time, as can anything by Barbara Kingsolver or Colum McCann. This year I’ve stacked up the audio tape of All the Things We Cannot See (my favorite read of the past winter), a reflective piece on health care called God’s Hotel (recommended by friends), Archangel (a National Book Award winner), and a classic I haven’t read in years: A Tale of Two Cities. And about mid-July, I am expecting a literary guest to arrive: Miss Jean Louise Finch.  Yes, I am anxiously awaiting To Set a Watchman. For good or bad or somewhere in between, it’s going to be wonderful to spend time with Scout again.

But as I was selecting my companions for this summer, I was struck not only by the longevity of this ritual, but by the impact of my choices. The books I selected in the summers when I was a child and the ones I choose today have done much more than help me pass time in a pleasant way. They’ve been formative, exerting on my personality the power and influence of theirs.

When books end, we don’t ever really set them aside. Oh, they take up space on our shelves, but they also take up residency in our minds. They are a part of who we are, remembered fondly as old friends, embraced as traveling companions on the trip through our lives.

Maybe that is why, when I encounter titles I know at a used book sale, or on a shelf in a coffee house, or in a collection set aside for hotel guests, they are immediately recognizable to me, dressed as they often are in tattered covers and battered spines. I can’t resist snatching them up, as if responding to a call:  “Remember me? Here I am!”

So yes, I quite often say. Let’s travel together again. You’ll be very good company indeed!

A version of this post appeared last summer in the online site Nerdy Book Club.

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Engineers Ourselves

Problem: The spare tire installation process on the assembly line at Subaru takes too long. How can we cut the time?

Solution: Put the high school students from the Engineering Design and Development class on the problem.

The students from McCutcheon High School watched the team at Subaru struggle with the tool they were using to bolt the spare tire to its housing in cars coming off the line. The wrench twisted, making the lock insecure and the process unreliable. The boys thought they had the answer: Redesign the tool.

They created a prototype of polymer plastic with metal pins that clamped the bolt securely and cut the time it was taking to install the spare tire in half. The problem was solved and the tool was fabricated and put into testing.

The two young men who solved the spare tire installation problem were at Subaru under the auspices of their Engineering Design and Development (EDD) course, the last in the STEM/Project Lead the Way (PLTW)  sequence offered at our high school. The class is a 2-hour block class offered to seniors who have completed the prerequisite PLTW courses. The students travel to one of two major manufacturing companies in Lafayette, Caterpillar and Subaru, two-three afternoons a week. There, they are assigned to a project engineer who guides them through the process of solving real problems that confront the company—on the assembly line or on the floor, even in quality control.

Nineteen students participated in the EDD program this year. Last week, singly or in pairs

Madison holds the prototype of a manifold caliper she created on the job at Caterpillar.

Madison holds the prototype of a manifold caliper she created on the job at Caterpillar.

or trios, they presented a summary of their activities—the problems they dealt with and the solutions they found—to an assembly of project engineers and executives from Caterpillar and Subaru; their teacher, Mr. Gary Werner; and other school personnel, including Central Office personnel and the Career and Technical Education coordinator.

“We liked seeing the real-world process,” the boys who redesigned the wrench said at the conclusion of their presentation. “We became engineers ourselves.”

It wasn’t the only problem these and other students worked on during their semester at Subaru. Nine students in all worked on In Process Control (IPC) issues with uniformity of paint color, reliability of welds, pacesetting for processes on the line, and safety monitoring. The daily routine for Logan  was to investigate a problem and assign it to an area that could resolve the issue. Loose or missing parts. A rear gate that wouldn’t close properly. A defective air flow sensor. “It was detective work,” he said, “and it gave me practice in auditing, investigation, and problem-solving—skills I’ll use all my life.”

John shows us the Engineering Notebook he was required to keep while at Caterpillar--a preview of what will be expected in college classes and in the field.

John shows us the Engineering Notebook he was required to keep while at Caterpillar–a preview of what will be expected in college classes and in the field.

Another ten students were assigned to project engineers at Caterpillar. This is Caterpillar’s 6th year working with students from McCutcheon.  This year’s crop worked on a variety of problems, including:

  • Creating a level to make sure that the turbo air tubes are all uniform in degree
  • Designing a suitable cover for the engine block so that stray items don’t drop through during assembly
  • Creating a lever that applies pressure evenly to the air manifold on the engine
  • Redesigning the layout of the line desk
  • Designing a fixture to hold a water block
  • Designing a dowel that will prevent people from hammering their fingers
  • Creating a shadow board to keep tools orderly and easily accessible
  • Redesigning the employees’ entrance
  • Redesigning the system for tagging items at lock out/tag out points

Notice the verbs I’ve used to list these projects: as every educator will recognize, they’re words used to designate upper level thinking skills.  Students applied ingenuity and expertise to real world problems, developing in the process solutions that are in active play at Caterpillar and Subaru today.

The skills they learned involve math, computer applications, and presentation. Critical thinking. Problem-solving. They learned to work in teams and to follow company protocols. To take direction, but to think independently to resolve issues.

“We learned a lot,” said James and CJ at the conclusion of their talk. “We learned responsibility. Other employees depended upon us. And creativity. We learned how important that is in problem-solving.”

This school year was the first time Subaru had teamed with the high school. The engineers liked the program, liked working with the students. “It’s a pipeline for us,” they said, and indeed it will be, judging by the newly announced college interns at Caterpillar. Two of those interns, from Purdue University, are graduates of McCutcheon’s Project Lead the Way program who did their EDD work at Caterpillar.

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you’ll recall the piece I wrote about the middle school STEM class, Anything but Random.  That was the exploratory STEM class. EDD is the culminating course. It’s a path worth following for students with an interest in engineering, for students who value hands-on learning, for creative and critical thinkers who want to solve real-world problems.

My colleague Gary Werner had the idea seven years ago to approach Caterpillar and arrange these min-internships for the EDD class.  A year of planning and curriculum writing followed. The partnership with Caterpillar that my colleague forged goes beyond the national EDD curriculum by putting kids in a real-world situation where they can “see it, feel it, touch it, breath it,” or as Mr. Werner loves to say, in a “hands-on, minds-on experience.”  The course has been a success all around, and compliments were extended by the students to their project engineers as well as to their teacher. In their presentation, seniors John, Michael, and Adrian thanked their Caterpillar mentors and commented that “School only goes so far.”  It’s been good, they said, “to see their projects in use.”

Indeed, thanks to this STEM program that has partnered successfully with local industry, nineteen  more students became engineers themselves this year.

 

Posted in Career and Technical Education | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Taming the Beast: ELLS and the Five-Paragraph Theme

P1040079The question came from an English teacher at the conclusion of an after-school workshop I’d conducted at one of the high schools I serve: Why do my ELL students have trouble writing essays in English (besides having a limited vocabulary)?

One of our students from Mexico, who had just spoken to my colleagues about the ways in which teachers can help English Language Learners navigate the culture of an American high school, unlock the English language, and facilitate learning the content of their classes, attempted to describe the difference between writing an essay in school in Mexico and writing an essay in English class here in America. “Well,” she said, “we have more like summary.” Considering her current limitations in English, she did pretty well, but had she known the term “five-paragraph theme,” she might have been more precise.

The question rang a bell with me, though, and I remembered a session I’d attended in 2004 at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in San Francisco where the message from the speaker was this: The written discourse pattern in Mexican Spanish is different from English. We need to explicitly teach our ELLs the organizational pattern of written English.

A few days after my workshop was over, I went on an internet search to find the scholarly work behind that 2004 statement, and aided by our high school librarian, whose help was indispensable, uncovered the research that informed it. I’d tucked the information away 11 years ago because, unlike the states on the edges of our country, my district in rural Indiana had a tiny ELL population in 2004 and no program at all for these students. I myself had no ELL students at that time. I had attended the ELL  sessions at NCTE because I wanted to help my district establish such a program.

What I learned from reading the research was this: Patterns of language and the expectations for written discourse differ from country to country. That seems obvious, of course, and broadly speaking, we know it intuitively because of any cross-cultural experiences we may have had and academically because of the linguistics classes we took in college.

However, what I wanted to know were the practicalities: the precise differences between written discourse in English and written discourse as learned in school in Mexico—or, even deeper, in the pattern of social discourse generally in Mexico. The author of the article is explicit about those differences but cautions that the study is limited to Mexican Spanish and studies in secondary schools in Mexico. Puerto Rican Spanish, for example, shares some characteristics with Mexican Spanish language patterns but is not entirely the same. Furthermore, the characteristics of written Spanish demonstrated by Hispanic students born, raised, and schooled here in the States are not the same. The research article addresses the discourse patterns of secondary students in Mexico. But that’s entirely relevant to my colleagues: In my district, few of our ELL students are from anywhere else but Mexico, and many of them come to us as high-schoolers or middle schoolers. Thus, the findings reported by the researcher are pertinent to my district and my colleagues.

 So here’s what I learned. (If I spoke Spanish myself, perhaps I’d have known all this, but I don’t, so the specifics were revelatory.) In written Mexican Spanish, the vocabulary tends to be “fancy” and “flowery”; the tone, “formal.” Sentences are generally longer than English sentences, often characterized by what English teachers would mark as run-ons—that is, two sentences joined by a comma (i.e., comma splices). The long sentences these students produce in English may seem like a jumble of compound-complex constructions, the word order may seem unusual to an English teacher, and the ideas, repetitious. That’s because an acceptable sentence pattern in written Mexican Spanish is to state an idea, follow it with a comma, and then repeat the idea using synonyms. There may be frequent or lengthy deliberate digressions, following which, the writer brings the reader back to the main topic. English teachers would mark such a digression as “off-topic.” It doesn’t adhere to the organizational pattern we teach in most American schools—introduction, three supports, and a conclusion (in short, the five-paragraph theme), pictured here in my favorite, definitely irreverent, graphic by Boynton. I call it “The Beast.”

Boynton's Beast

Boynton’s Beast

Such an essay would be unusual in written Spanish in Mexico because the writer’s mission is more likely explanation than an evidence-based essay in which the writer enumerates his points. In essays in secondary schools in Mexico, according to the research, students rarely use enumeration (e.g., 1, 2, 3; first, second, third; at first, then, finally) as an organizational strategy. In short, what constitutes a logical essay is different in Mexican Spanish than it is in English.

On top of all that, English speakers tend to be blunt and to the point. We are linear in our presentation of information.  Spanish-speakers, not so much. In fact, following a straight-line way of organizing information can be interpreted by Spanish speakers as rude. So, a Spanish-speaking student writing in English could be struggling not to offend—especially difficult if you have a limited vocabulary and little understanding that the five-paragraph theme approach is the preferable style in English. Furthermore, the researcher pointed out, direct and unelaborated prose in Spanish can be dull; such a writer can even sound childish. Having internalized that, Spanish-speaking students from Mexico could be struggling not to be boring or sound juvenile. They might not realize that their English teachers would applaud brevity and welcome direct statements.

For English teachers, the message is straightforward: It is extremely important to explicitly teach the structure of English composition to our ELL students: i.e, the five-paragraph theme format–or, if they are younger, the five-sentence paragraph. Scaffolds for this format abound, and providing a simple worksheet for organizing information might be more powerful than one might think in terms of supporting ELL students.

Of course, English teachers have been offering graphic organizers and outlines for this kind of writing for as long as I’ve been in the classroom and probably for years before that. It’s nothing new. What we may not know, especially if we don’t speak Spanish, have never been to Mexico, or haven’t thought about it, is how important it is to be explicit. To compare and contrast the written discourse conventions of English and Mexican Spanish for our ELLs, to be clear about our expectations, and to analyze their written work, looking (if they are from Mexico) for these particular differences and pointing them out. Not because the five paragraph theme is better or that it is always the best way to express ideas, but because the ability of ELLs to communicate in the format that is widely taught and widely expected in this country is paramount for their success.

Our ELLs may not be from Mexico. We may not know the precise variations from English that their language conventions dictate. Nevertheless, just as we know that there are cultural differences from country to country, we need to recognize that differences exist in discourse patterns, too. We need to remember that it takes a long time to unlearn a pattern you’ve been taught from an early age. If a student doesn’t “get it,” even after several tries, the problem is not a deficiency. The problem is unlearning what’s been second nature. Writing reveals patterns of thought; those don’t change overnight.

So, no matter how you feel about the five-paragraph theme (and English teachers either love it or hate it–in both cases, for good reasons), it’s a scaffold for writing that will help non-native English speakers understand the way written discourse is structured in English. Like all scaffolds, it can gradually be removed, but for beginners and for ELLs with low English proficiency, it can be the support that enables success.

Help your students tame the “Beast.” Here are some links to useful graphics and outlines that you can use to scaffold the five-paragraph theme:

https://goo.gl/mNiYK3  (Many graphics)

https://goo.gl/2MQN47 (Many worksheets and outlines)

Read the original research:

Montano-Harmon, M. 1991. Discourse Features of Written Mexican Spanish: Current Research in Contrastive Rhetoric and Its Implications. Fullerton, CA: California State University.

http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra-visor/hispania–14/html/p0000013.htm

Posted in English Language Arts, Instructional Coaching, International Education | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

National Treasure

To and for all the amazing teachers I know during this, Teacher Appreciation Week: Our world is better and our students’ lives are richer because you have been a classroom teacher. Thank you for all you do every single day.

It’s fashionable right now to blast educators, to focus on data-specific measures of effectiveness, and to prescribe corporate take-overs for failing schools. The critics say “failing schools,” but that’s code for failing teachers. The critics ought to come with me when I am in a school in my role as an instructional coach.

When I enter my colleagues’ classrooms, I am quickly swept up by the lesson—enthralled by the teacher, captivated by the content, and excited to be on the other side of the desk, learning.

In the past month, here are some of the places these fabulous teachers have taken me:

  • To Austria in 1877 when two men stole Haydn’s head from his grave for analysis by phrenologists. Indeed, pseudo-scientists found the “music bump” was significantly developed—but it was nearly another century before Haydn’s head was reunited with his body.
  • Out on the open seas with the commander of the Pequod, Captain Ahab, in mad pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white whale who had taken his leg.
  • To a 1940s wedding, where the bride wore a dress she had made of parachute silk: the tight-fitting sleeves  were pleated at the elbow so she could move her arms, and the neckline was high, as modest as the times.
  • To Versailles with Wilson, Clemenceau, Orlando, and David Lloyd George, hammering out the Treaty that ended WWI but set the stage for so many more 20th century conflicts.
  • To the Middle East—via computer and a stunning visual from the LondonTimes—to learn about the Arab Spring.

Here are some other things I have learned—or relearned, as the case may be:

  • How to figure percents (6th grade math)
  • How to make a coiled basket (7th grade art)
  • How airbags work (a high school chemistry lesson in stoiciometry and the gas laws)
  • The seven characteristics of a folk tale (6th grade English)
  • Why artists make still life drawings—and how to do it (8th grade art)
  • How to make ice cream in a plastic bag (8th grade science)
  • How the metric system works (7th grade science)

Over and over and over again, I am impressed by the good teaching I see—and the more I see, the more frustrated I become with the voices of people who haven’t been in a classroom in a very long time—or perhaps haven’t even taught a day in their lives. Some of the best teachers in the world are at the front of the classrooms I’ve visited.

Every good lesson has a story arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Some teachers pique their students’ interest with a question: When will the force of the water from a fire hose be stronger? When it’s on the up side of the parabola or the down?

Some do it with a demonstration: An art teacher I recently watched gathered her students around her to demonstrate still life drawing. She talked out loud throughout her demo, questioning her kids about why she was doing what she was, reminding them of what they already knew, and prepping them for what they soon would do that was new.  Then they set off to do a still life on their own.

Others tell a story (like the one about Haydn’s head), or read aloud (These aren’t always English teachers—reading aloud is how the airbag class started!). They hook their kids and then jump into the lesson.

Sometimes they use “props”—like several teachers I’ve seen who have individual whiteboards for writing down answers and holding them up so the teacher can gauge the class’s understanding—or popsicle sticks and clay to make prototype chairs and tables—or crazy assortments of objects all spray-painted white (in the case of the still life drawings).  Sometimes they send students to the Internet to find a specific answer or just to find out what they can about a particular topic.

In a Family and Consumer Science class (FACS), girls AND boys were dressing models in the fashions of the decades. They were using figures and clothing that reminded me of the paper dolls I played with as a child—except that these dolls were figures on one side of a computer screen and the students “dragged and dropped” clothing from the other side onto the models, making the equivalent of dressing room changes until they had the dolls attired as they liked.

Sometimes the interactive whiteboard facilitates instruction—like the American history teacher who used it to show the students the map of Europe pre- and post-WWI—or the world history teacher who showed the class a virtual timeline of the conflicts in the Middle East.  English teachers dissect essays right before the students’ eyes or use the screen to show a timely YouTube video.

But technology isn’t all. There are old-fashioned storytellers among us—like the teacher whose students were enthralled with the story of Wilson’s 14 Points and how the Big Four at Versailles—or the Big Three, once Orlando left—hammered out the agreement that brought an end to WWI. She captured the personalities of these four men and brought them together as if they were characters in a book—and brought the story of the Versailles Treaty to life.

A middle school world history teacher has his students capture the essence of a country’s culture in haiku; the students in a middle school English class create a collective self-portrait with “I Am From” poems.  Another English teacher directs graduating 8th graders to produce “The Soundtrack of my Life”: Each student writes about key events in his or her life and records it all on a CD. I’ve watched an extraordinary music teacher inspire her students to write essays about the reciprocal relationship between music and culture and listened as another music teacher led his students in a discussion of an NPR piece on tempo.

Sometimes, of course, the ending is a homework assignment, but in the best classrooms, that assignment is tied directly to the main idea of the day or to a point in the lesson—if it’s a two-day or three-day lesson—that will help the students  transition to the next day’s focus. Sometimes homework comes in the form of a paper, a project, or a short reflection. Sometimes it’s problems to work or issues to resolve, an article to read or pieces to practice. Sometimes it’s reading on in a book, and sometimes there is no homework at all. There isn’t a formula for the ending: The teacher needs to know whether the students understood the lesson of the day and where she should pick up the next day, and there’s more than one way to find that out and move instruction forward. Sometimes closure is accomplished with those individual whiteboards or with exit passes or with questions the students submit. But there’s always a “wrap.” A good teacher doesn’t let the kids just drift out the door without a finish.

They’re ingenious, these teachers I’ve seen. They’re thoughtful, funny, clever, compassionate, kind. They challenge their students, to whom they are devoted, and they’re earnest about learning new skills and expanding their expertise. They’re dedicated to their task.  I know math teachers who are concerned about reading comprehension and differentiating instruction and collaborative learning.  I know special education teachers who attend high school workshops about strategies they’ll probably never use and courses their students will probably never take—but the teachers want to stay current with mainstream teaching.  Even veteran teachers continue to learn. The English teacher who swept me up in the story of Moby-Dick has been teaching for over 40 years—but she still comes to my after-school workshops on reading comprehension just in case I have something new to teach her

Of course there are teachers who don’t yet have all the skills they need—I wouldn’t have a job if everyone knew everything and no one needed anything.  Sure we all can learn more—none of us teaches a perfect lesson every single day.  It’s true that every field is changing and that, as a group and as individuals, we need to make changes.  The knowledge base in every field is rapidly increasing, too, and the range of skills our kids need is expanding. The technology we are privileged to use is constantly evolving.  But so many amazing educators are committed to making the necessary changes because they are committed to serving their students well.

I wish our critics would pay attention for a change to the extraordinary teaching happening in our schools. I wish they would not lump us all together, call us collectively the equivalent of a bad apple. I wish they would recognize that educators are, quite to the contrary, our national treasure.

Posted in Instructional Coaching, Reflection | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Dining In at School

The busboy: “I can feel it in my back.”

The plater: “My feet hurt! Our teacher told us to wear comfortable shoes.”

The restaurant manager: “I’ve been under high stress all day…”

On-the-scene remarks from students in Mrs. Laura Cole’s Advanced Nutrition and Wellness class, spoken by students who had just finished serving full course meals to 70 people in the space of two hours in a restaurant they’d created from scratch. Another class would repeat the experience two days later—this group preparing meals for 65. Teachers, secretaries, principals, aides–all building staff and even district office personnel receive the menus in advance, make reservations, and on the days of the restaurant, enjoy a thirty-minute lunch period in a setting very different from the usual brown bag, microwave, and cafeteria tray ambience.

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McCutcheon teachers enjoy lunch prepared and served by students.

These student-operated restaurant days have been a tradition at McCutcheon High School for at least thirty years. The program has spread to Harrison High School, too, and the staff  at both high schools have the chance each semester to enjoy a relaxing lunch with colleagues and observe proud, though nervous, students in a completely different setting. For the students, it’s an opportunity to discover the many challenging aspects of operating a restaurant and to apply the culinary skills they’ve learned in class.

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Mrs. Jami Mosley and teachers at Harrison High School enjoy lunch served by students.

I’ve enjoyed these lunches for years and I’ve often wondered how my colleagues, Mrs. Laura Cole at McCutcheon and Mrs. Jami Mosley at Harrison High School, do it. How do they take students from objectives projected on the whiteboard to a full service restaurant?

To find out, I asked to be a fly on the wall during the instructional phase of Mrs. Cole’s class and then take pictures in the kitchen on the days the restaurant was in operation.

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Students folded construction paper to make these floral centerpieces.

When Mrs. Cole introduced the project,  I learned along with the students that they would find recipes online, propose a menu, cost out the meals, and then make final choices based on selections that could be prepared economically and in volume in a short amount of time, meals whose artful arrangement on the plate and utter deliciousness would be irresistible. Mrs. Cole explained that the students would select a theme for the restaurant and transform a classroom area in the FACS department into a welcoming space with soft lighting and themed wall and table decorations. They’d learn to work as a team and see the absolute necessity for each person to responsibly carry out his or her role: managers, servers, expediters, platers, bussers, and dishwashers.

My colleague showed the students sample menus that went back thirty years—I remembered some of those earlier lunches—and opened her closets to reveal centerpieces, vases, and decorative objects that could be used again if students were interested.  She talked about some of the problems and successes of the past, warning students of the necessity to plan ahead and think large-scale–larger than they’re used to anyway.

On the day of the restaurant, she continued, everyone would be involved in food preparation from 7:30 until 10:30. Then they’d diversify, each student carrying out the responsibilities of the role to which they’d been assigned. The students told me, when I interviewed them on the day the restaurant was open, that they had had some choice in this: They indicated their top three preferences and then Mrs. Cole took it from there. One of the students, the busboy, confided, “I’m the only one who wanted to do this job, so I got it.”

In the meantime, they watched an episode of Top Chef, viewed a video called Restaurant Nightmares, looked up restaurants online to get ideas, and did the math for a number of different menus.

I was there the day of the Great Dessert Cook-off.  Working in teams, the students chose a dessert, prepared it, plated a sample, and shared the remainder with the rest of the class. Afterwards, students evaluated the desserts on cost, appearance on the plate, taste, and ease of preparation in high volume  in a small amount of time. One of the best desserts, Crème Brulee, didn’t make the cut—not a practical offering on a large-scale basis. In the end, two of the many chocolate desserts won out: Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle and Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball with Graham Crackers.

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I was struck, on the day of the restaurant, by the efficiency and calm in the kitchen. The atmosphere was harmonious and focused. No hanging out, no hanging back, and certainly not any hanging on. Everyone was concentrated on making the teachers’ dining experience perfect in every way, but no one seemed frantic, even the manager, who did confess to being stressed. He told me that he has a job in a carry-out pizza establishment. “They don’t have a dining room,” he explained. “I’m used to the back-of-the-house, but this front-of-the-house part is stressful!”

The entrée was chicken quesadillas. At one station, a team of cooks prepared them on anIMG_7372 array of electric griddles. The cooks even asked to try an innovation they’d seen in a cooking show: melting cheese on the griddle so it formed a tasty crust on the outside of the tortilla. Delicious!

IMG_7385Another girl— a tiny girl who wants to be a professional chef, the one whose feet hurt—wielded the chef’s knife, cutting each quesadilla into perfect triangles.

The others at her station added Spanish rice and chips and salsa to the plate, and then the expediter delivered the plates to a side table where the servers picked them up. The manager hovered over them all, taking his job very seriously:

“A little more lettuce there!”

“Don’t forget the chips on that plate!”

“Watch the sour cream!”  Someone appeared with a wet paper towel to wipe a smear on the side of a plate.IMG_7370

Servers rushed into the kitchen: “We need five more desserts!” Instantly, the platers went to work, the expediter picked up the desserts and passed them to the servers, and the waitresses were out the door.

The second day—with her second section of Advanced Nutrition and Wellness—Mrs. Cole repeated the process. This time the menu was loaded potato soup, garden salad, a cheddar bay biscuit, and for dessert, that Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle.

For teachers, restaurant day has always been an event to look forward to, especially during the gloomy days of winter. It’s a chance to see the students shine and a chance for them to impress us. But there’s always a cost: The food is  so delicious we leave nothing on the plate…and that means extra walks in the days ahead to burn the calories away. That’s okay. These lunches are worth every bite.

At the end of her meal, one of the teachers asked her waitress: “Is the manager coming out?”  In the “back of the house,” I witnessed just a moment of panic when the message was relayed. The manager stepped into the dining room to discover not a disgruntled customer, but one who wanted, of course, to compliment the chefs and all the other restaurant workers, too.

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Mrs. Cole directs the student restaurant project at McCutcheon.

Mrs. Cole has been orchestrating this project-based learning experience for several years. The restaurant project means hours of grocery shopping for her and a great deal of planning, but it’s worth the extra time, she says. “While the restaurant project can be stressful, it is very rewarding.  Students work hard to plan their restaurant and menus.  Since students have so much freedom of creativity, they really take ownership of this project.  It is amazing how well they come together to be an effective team to carry out their vision.  While most are exhausted by the end of the day, they are also very proud.”

Indeed, the whole production is a recipe for success for her students: an impressive blend of content knowledge and culinary skill mixed together with math, literacy and problem-solving, flavored with creativity, and topped off with teamwork. Five stars!

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