Pictures Worth 1000 Words

Boss Tweed, a huge man in stature as well as impact, was the mayor of NYC and the engine that drove the Tammany Hall political machine.  He and his cohorts practiced graft on a giant scale, just like everything else he did.  Tweed didn’t worry much about his constituents squawking because most of them couldn’t read the newspapers.  He was brought low by one Thomas Nast, a cartoonist whose drawings appeared in Harper’s Magazine.  Nast exposed Tweed, and Tweed ended up in jail.  He escaped once to Spain, but was captured and returned to prison where he died in 1878. He famously said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles.  My constituents don’t know how to read.  But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures.”

Moral of the story: A picture is worth 1000 words.

So I am re-discovering.

Boss Tweed pixOne morning, not so many weeks ago, I was invited to attend an AP US History class where the topic was Boss Tweed.  I listened to the lecture and to the discussion that ensued and took notes the old-fashioned way: I wrote down words and numbers and dates and tried to capture the essence of the lecture in longhand.

That afternoon, not entirely by chance, I listened to a TedX Talk by Rachel Smith called “Drawing in Class.”  This blog is a shout-out to Rachel Smith.  She’s changed everything for me and, I hope, for a lot of people besides me.

I stumbled across her talk because I was looking for easy and/or effective note-taking strategies for a professional development presentation I was putting together for middle school teachers.  So far in my research, I’d  come across links to strategies I’d known about for years—like Cornell notes—and some clever ideas such as using highlighters to mark up texts in answer to a specific research question.  I’d learned that there’s no one right way to take notes (a big relief) and that some techniques—like trying to write down everything a speaker says—are largely ineffective.  Nothing new there.  And then I stumbled upon Rachel Smith’s TedX Talk.

When Rachel Smith was in school, she got in trouble for drawing in class.  She describes, in her talk, a scenario I remember from my own school days of teachers berating kids for doodling—when, in fact, they were creating graphic representations of what they were learning.  (A colleague—now an art teacher—told me she’d even been kicked out of Sunday school for drawing in class!)  Smith makes the point that drawing while she listened helped her focus—not to mention that her drawings captured the content in memorable images.

Now she makes a living drawing pictures of group discussions and collaborative proceedings.  I watched as she demonstrated how she draws words and images as people talk.  I wondered if 7th graders would be able to do this—listen and draw simultaneously—particularly if they aren’t “artistic” to begin with.

But maybe, I thought, even if they couldn’t draw fast enough to record a presentation as it was unfolding, maybe could they draw pictures after a presentation—as a way of summarizing the content.  I decided to try it myself.  I pulled out my lecture notes about Boss Tweed, and that’s what I drew.

The picture I created brings the story back for me in an instant—much faster than reading my original notes.  Could we teach kids to draw pictures as a summary exercise?  I’ve since made several presentations to my colleagues about Visual Notetaking, which (I’ve learned), is more common than I realized.

Since then, I’ve been drawing pictures in other classes I’ve attended.  Here’s a chemistry lesson on the heating curve, a biology lesson on karyotypes, and a visual summary of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles.

Ploss V-N


Cox V-N


Jordan Versailles








In the case of the two science classes, I recorded my visual notes as the class unfolded.  The WWI summary is an after-the-fact graphic.  Either way, I had to listen as the lesson unfolded, process the information on the spot, and then create an image that matched the content. Talk about focus!  No mental drifting possible.  And that is just the point.  Kids who doodle are likely processing—and learning in a mode that is natural for them.

You might notice that my people all look the same—except that Boss Tweed has a belly, the biology teacher has hair, and the people shaking hands at the Treaty of Versailles are standing sideways.  Rachel Smith makes the excellent point that novice artists like me need to develop a “library of images” that they can draw in an instant—and she ends her TedX Talk by teaching her audience how to draw a stylized “star person.”  Lesson learned.

All you need is a pencil and a blank sheet of paper.  Over time, you’ll develop that library of images.  Give this notetaking or summarizing strategy a try and teach it to your students.  I’d like to hear if you, too, rediscover that old truth: A picture is worth 1000 words.


If you’re new to visual notetaking, as I was, here is the link to Rachel Smith’s TedX Talk:

Here is a link to the Pinterest page I put together on various notetaking strategies.

Here is a link to a Scholastic article by Meghan Everette on visual notetaking with directions for teaching kids how to do it:

On Track to the End

You could tell it was the end of the 3rd quarter just from the daily announcements:

Tickets for the spring musical, awards from the art show, final competitions for dance team and Super Bowl.  Athletic awards banquets, FFA Dinners, state championships for speech and robotics and then the biggest finale of all: the March Madness of Indiana basketball.

And then we were released for Spring Break.  A week to go somewhere far away from school or to sleep in, catch up, and get ready for the last push: 4th quarter, the culmination of the academic year.

But more often than we like to admit, when we get back from Spring Break, a lot of us will come face-to-face with the equivalent in teaching of running out of money before you run out of month.

There’s way too much left to “cover” before the last bell rings in May.

If you find yourself in this predicament, here are five simple steps to solve the problem of too much curriculum and too few days.  And some advice for how to prevent this from happening next year.

1.  Make a list of the curriculum topics you have yet to cover.

2.  Decide which ones are “Imperative” and which ones merely “Important.” Use the chart below for your list.  Then ask yourself the questions in Step 3. They  will help you sort the Imperatives from the Importants.

Start with a list of the topics.

Topic Imperative Important

3.  Ask yourself some questions about those topics to help you sort them into one of the two columns to the right.

  • Is the topic a skill you need to teach?

Skills trump content most of the time. Skills, the students have to have; chunks of content are often dispensable. For example, in American Literature, the textbooks contain selections from a pantheon of great writers. Will the students survive if they don’t read something by Willa Cather? By John Steinbeck? By Truman Capote?  Those authors are favorites of mine, and of course they’re Important, but in the big scheme of things, students won’t be scarred for life if they miss reading “A Wagner Matinee” or Of Mice and Men or “Miriam.”  Capote isn’t an Imperative.

But research skills? Those are important for academic success in any class, and it’s the English teacher’s job to teach them.  So don’t cut out the research project.  Look instead for ways to streamline it.

Think about the skills in your discipline that the students have to have, that the teacher next year is depending upon their having learned.  Put your time and effort into those topics.

  • Is it a piece of sequential learning that you can’t skip?

In math and world languages and other linear-sequential subjects, you simply can’t skip some things. There are processes and constructions kids have to know in order to progress to the next level.  These are Imperatives.  What can you do to compact the instruction so that you’re spending less time on each topic before moving on to the next?

Can you do the homework in class so that you see the mistakes the students are making as they make them—and offer correctives right then and there?

Can you put kids in cooperative groups and have them help each other?

Can you cut down the number of examples or possibly stop elaborating so much?

  • Is it an activity, rather than a topic, that you could dispense with or truncate?

 An easy one to rethink is a film.  Do you have to show it?  Eliminating a movie can save a couple of days at least.  Can’t cut it out entirely? What about showing excerpts only? What about an after-school showing with popcorn and soft drinks?

Is it a culminating project that involves teaching a process as much as the content?  For example, a debate on an issue the students have been studying.  Without some instruction in process, a full-on debate can deteriorate into a shouting match.  What about conducting a Socratic Seminar or a Pinwheel discussion—something easier to model that doesn’t take up so much time—but still gets various points of view out there.

95An independent research activity can be a huge time suck.  What about putting the kids in groups and conducting the inquiry as a team?  They can jigsaw their discoveries and divide up the presentation work as well.  By working together, they get the advantage of collaborative learning—often more productive anyway than learning alone—and you can likely save a day or so of time online and/or in the library.

Teamwork saves time generally and it allows you to capitalize on the students’ natural disposition to chatter. Set up your expectations so that they stay on task.  Consider using a rubric for daily effort to reinforce your expectation that the students stay focused.  They can fill it out themselves—most kids are honest—and you’ve got override privileges if they misjudge themselves.

  • How can you use a process you have to teach as a vehicle for teaching content? In other words, can you create a twofer?

I remember one year when I was teaching Animal Farm, as I did every year in 9th grade. I was short on time that year and needed to take students through the research process and give them enough background in Russian history that they would be able to see the novel as allegory.  I ended up dividing 300 years of Russian history into six time periods and/or areas of interest.  Students worked independently on a research question of their own, but they were organized in groups, each group addressing one of the six interest areas/time periods.  As they researched their own sub-topics, they had a cohort of friends who were working on sub-topics from the same time period.  The students worked collaboratively even though each one submitted his or her own paper.  In the end, each group made a 5-6 minute presentation to the class on their period in Russian history.  In this way, the class took a whirlwind tour of Russia—from Peter the Great to the launch of Sputnik. The students helped each other understand their period in Russian history, but also work through the processes at play in research and reporting.  As I said, a twofer.

4. Open up a blank calendar (or dig out a 2016 calendar you stashed in a drawer somewhere) and literally block out the days. Don’t forget that Finals Week is lost for teaching new material, and be sure to save a couple of days for review.  Pare each topic or unit down to its essentials and fill in the days.  You may find you have only a few days to teach something that usually requires two weeks.  When that happens, you’ll whittle the content down to the necessities by necessity.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly what is really imperative will surface—and the rest, the important but not the imperative—will just fall away.

5. Stick to your game plan. Don’t allow yourself to deviate from it or you’ll have to go through this process again.  Day by day, one day at a time, you’ll get to the end of the year.  You’ll find actually that it’s a sprint—after Spring Break, everything goes fast—but if you follow your plan, you’ll stay on the track to the end.

This falling behind has happened to all of us, even veterans who’ve been at teaching for a long time.  In fact, it commonly happens to veterans because the longer we teach, the more in-depth we go about our favorite topics and pretty soon, we’re way off track.  For a new teacher, the problem more likely arises because it just takes longer to teach things than you had supposed it would.  Plus, there were more interruptions than you had expected or planned for.  Either way, for both the veteran and the novice, the problem is one of pacing.

So add this to your resolutions for next year: Map out the year (easier to do when you’ve been through it once) and stick to your objectives.

And take this tip seriously: When planning units for next year, add an extra day to each unit you map out.  Then you have a day for re-teaching or for interruptions or for something unexpected or just because you’ve fallen behind.  We never have enough days, so if you do end up with a day left over, you can just add it to the next unit!  You’ll be glad you can.

Under Discussion: Reciprocal Teaching

Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article.  What to do to move forward?

The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.

RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool.  Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next.  Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk of the text.

RRR is not a valid fluency strategy, either: With no chance to rehearse what they’re reading, poor oral readers won’t do well—and on top of that, they’re modeling poor reading for others.  And, there’s the embarrassment factor. I can remember from my own schools days that some kids hated reading aloud because they anticipated stumbling, and the good readers hated it when the poor ones read for just that reason.

But after all these years, teachers still use RRR.  It’s primarily a management strategy.  Kids are quiet, occupied, and the assignment gets read.

So okay.  You still have to lick the didn’t-read-the-assignment-before-class problem.  What could you do instead?

How about trying this strategy: Reciprocal Teaching.

Like literature circles, Reciprocal Teaching (RT) depends on students assuming specific roles: Summarizer, Clarifier, Questioner, and Predictor. In their groups of four, students read the text—or chunk of text—in class and then discuss what they’ve read with each other.  Each student has a reading purpose. The Summarizer knows he’ll have to recap what happened in the story or outline the main points if the piece is non-fiction.  The Clarifier will keep an eye out for words or phrases that might be confusing. The Questioner asks like a teacher, probing the text not just with recall questions (especially if the students are secondary level) but with “What ifs?” and “I wonders…” and other idea extenders.  The Predictors make an educated guess about what comes next—they’re like “the weatherman” one student told me.

Naturally, the teacher needs to be sure the students understand the demands of the four roles.  With older students, that may only require a simple explanation.  At any age, it may require modeling or even a dry run or two.  As with any new skill, the students have to be trained or their conversations won’t be productive.

Reciprocal Teaching can be used with fiction, but it was originally designed for use with non-fiction: a chapter in a textbook, a newspaper article, an argumentative essay, a short informative piece. As they take turns leading the discussion, students practice summary skills, learn to think beyond the text, help each other discern meaning from context, and importantly, grapple with text structure.  This last is a significant challenge. Kids know the story arc well by the time they reach middle school.  Being the weatherman for a fictional piece isn’t hard because middle school students know how foreshadowing works, and they’ve had enough experience with stories to imagine plot turns and story endings that aren’t pat.  But they’ve had less experience with the structures of non-fiction.  Reciprocal Teaching gives them practice at discerning how a non-fiction piece is laid out—to learn about order of importance, problem/solution, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, chronological order, and other methods of organization–to predict what comes next in an informative or argumentative piece.

Website sources such as those listed at the end of this article spell out the details of structuring a Reciprocal Teaching lesson.  Bookmarks with question stems and note-taking sheets are provided on many websites.

Recently I’ve seen Reciprocal Teaching in action.  In fact, I modeled the strategy in a 6th grade classroom, which is where the “weatherman” quip originated.  The students were quick to catch on and excited to implement the strategy.  All the groups were reading the same book: Julie of the Wolves. The students loved talking through that day’s chapter with each other. Days later, after several rounds using the Reciprocal Teaching process as it has traditionally been practiced, the 6th graders suggested a new spin. Let the summarizers all talk together and choose the best summary, the clarifiers work through a variety of confusions to share with the class, the questioners ask questions of each other and then pose the best to the class, and the predictors to consider a variety of options and present their consensus to the class.  Another variation you might try is having each group of four make up a quiz over the assigned section and exchange quizzes with another group. You, the teacher, are the final judge of the quality of the questions: Students get all the points you’ll assign if their questions are thoughtful and carefully written.

Reciprocal Teaching 1Or, each group can read a different piece.  I also recently presented Reciprocal Teaching as a comprehension strategy and an alternative to RRR to a group of high school teachers.  After the workshop, one 10th grade teacher selected articles from internet and newspaper sources that all related to the concept of ambition. Each piece explored the topic from a different perspective. His students read the articles in small groups and then reported the gist of each to the rest of the class. All this was in preparation for a unit on ambition with Macbeth as the anchor text. His students staked out corners in the classroom, spots in the hallway, and tables in the cafeteria to hold their discussions.  I listened in and was reminded not of wooden Q-A sessions where the teacher decides what ideas to privilege and what details are important, but of adult book club conversations.

Another colleague, a high school health teacher, had been using RRR for years.  Once he learned about the advantages of Reciprocal Teaching, he deliberately reorganized his classroom, moving the desks from conventional rows into clusters of fours. His students—who definitely hadn’t been reading their assignments—had taken to the strategy immediately.  They’d developed independence as readers rather quickly.  The teacher found that he was able to circulate among the clusters and keep an ear on their discussions—a much better management strategy, he found, than casting an eye on the students from the front.

One of my colleagues, a high school music teacher and band director, used Reciprocal Teaching as a strategy for students to review for the final exam.  The students enjoyed the process and the conversations about the musical language he wanted them to understand and use on the final went beyond simply recalling definitions.  Watch this video to see what Dan Peo did.  Be warned: the process was noisy.

Reciprocal Teaching is, at its heart, far more than a strategy to manage the classroom, but if that’s the starting place, that’s okay.  Once teachers see how well Reciprocal Teaching works and how much students like the process of learning from each other, they choose RT.  It’s an effective way to build comprehension skills and teach text structures.  Instructional time is put to good use—and the assignments all get read.

This is the original research reported by Annemarie Palinscar and Ann L. Brown (1984) in Cognition and Instruction. The authors developed the strategy, Reciprocal Teaching, and in this paper describe its effectiveness in improving comprehension skills among seventh graders.

This explanation for elementary school teachers has clear directions and a video of a teacher modeling the process for a group of students. Downloadable bookmarks and a worksheet are provided.

Another clear set of directions from a web site for social studies teachers. This site explains that the order in which the group members “present” is not fixed.  The teacher should prescribe the order that makes sense.

Under Discussion: Fishbowl

Keelsing 1In my last post, I wrote about getting the students to contribute to teacher-led discussions. But sometimes, the best way to get them talking is to structure the conversation. A structured conversation, in fact, can engage students in a lesson in ways that a teacher-led discussion cannot.

The other day, I watched a master 7th grade science teacher, Miss Kimberly Keesling, lead her class through a Fishbowl debate. Her objective was a universal lesson in critical thinking: Beware of loaded words and emotional responses. Ask questions. Do your own thinking.

She drew upon a well-known hoax from the 1990s in which scientific “evidence” was deliberately used to mislead the public.

Miss Keesling distributed facts sheets to the students—papers she’d prepared listing the pros and cons of banning a mysterious substance, dihydrogen monoxide—DMHO for short. The strikes against DMHO in the realm of health alone are pretty severe. It’s

  • Colorless, odorless, tasteless
  • Accidental inhalation can be deadly
  • May cause severe burns
  • Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage
  • For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death
  • Has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients, but is not believed to be carcinogenic

Environmental issues are also serious:

  • Is also known as hydroxic acid, and is the major component of acid rain
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”
  • Is found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America
  • Has caused millions of dollars of property damage in the Midwest recently
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes

On the other hand, DMHO is used

  • As an industrial solvent and coolant
  • To generate power
  • In the production of Styrofoam
  • As a fire retardant
  • In the distribution of pesticides
  • As an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products

Miss Keesling gave the students five minutes to ask questions, study the fact sheets, and write out talking points on one side or the other. Then she took the pulse of the class. Those in favor of banning DMHO went to one side of the room; those against banning it, to the other. The Undecideds sat in the middle. She explained to the students that they were going to have a debate about DMHO, so they had to use facts.Keesling 2

It took only a few minutes then to explain the rules of Fishbowl:

  1. Three people—volunteers, one from each group—would be at the front of the room, seated on a comfortable couch. (Usually, Fishbowl is done with two concentric circles—an inner circle and an outer circle—but the rules are malleable.) Using their notes and the fact sheets, the students would take turns presenting their point of view about DMHO.
  2. When a speaker finished, if another student wanted to support that point of view, he’d tap the speaker on the shoulder and the first speaker would sit down. In that way, only three people at a time were seated on the couch.
  3. The speakers stood up to present their arguments.

Middle schoolers love to talk, love to debate, and these students did so brilliantly. Their arguments for and against banning the mysterious substance were cogent and fact-filled. Some students were direct and succinct; others became quite animated. Within 15 minutes, just about everyone in the room had spoken. I heard impassioned and powerful statements and effective transitions such as these:

  • Although it is used to generate power…
  • It’s a risk: But life is about risk.
  • Bottom line: It kills people.

Sophisticated stuff for 7th graders. At the end, my colleague asked how many of the students had switched sides because of the arguments they heard. Some had.

Then she made the Big Reveal: DHMO is water. She broke the scientific words down into their roots and prefixes: di (2); hydrogen; mono (1); oxide. A few students caught on, clapped their hands to their foreheads: H20.

Why, she asked the students, had they come down on the side they had? All the claims and counterclaims are true—but they had been duped. Who had even asked what DMHO was before they began?  No one. What had swayed them? They had heard the facts, stacked on one side or the other as they were—all of them true, all of them convincing—and formed an opinion, often a very strong one. Why?

What followed were insightful responses that boiled down to this: The use of strong, emotional words such as kill, severe tissue damage, withdrawal, “greenhouse effect,” found in tumors… It was easy to be led to a conclusion.

And that was her point. Scientists have to investigate dispassionately. Scientists have to examine the facts. Scientists have to ask questions. They can’t be swayed by emotional language.

And it’s not just scientists. These students were quick to point out that television, politicians, advertising—they’re all guilty of using emotional language to influence their audiences. Everyone needs to be vigilant. Everyone needs to think before they jump to a conclusion about something they know nothing about.

The Fishbowl strategy proved to be superior to recitation and far better than teacher questioning for a lesson like this. Because it was experiential, because kids were out of their seats moving and talking, because they took ownership of the lesson, they were engaged in the activity and Miss Keesling was able to make her point.

Granted, this particular lesson was a set-up. But the kids were good-natured about it. They understood the message and understood the value of it being learned in this way. In fact, the lesson will stick far longer than a paragraph in a textbook or a lecture by the teacher. But the method—a Fishbowl debate—was the perfect vehicle in a powerful lesson orchestrated by this experienced science teacher. Point made.

Fishbowl works for straightforward discussions about all kinds of topics. It’s especially useful if students are invested in a topic and eager to contribute, but even shy students will express their opinion when they can choose when to tap someone on the shoulder, decide for themselves when to take an inner circle seat.

Want to know more? Here are three websites explaining Fishbowl, offering other ways of structuring a Fishbowl conversation.  (Facing History and Ourselves) A straightforward explanation of how to set up a fishbowl discussion. (Annenberg Learner) A lengthier description with alternative ways of structuring the discussion. (Multicultural Pavilion) Another good explanation of the set-up for Fishbowl.

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:

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:

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.

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.


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)

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:  (Many graphics) (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.–14/html/p0000013.htm

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.

Without Words

P1040079The first student I remember coming into my class with no knowledge of English arrived in the early 1980s. I’ll call her Laila. She had recently arrived in this country, the first of her siblings to follow their father to America. He had fled Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded, coming to this country as a refugee. He was able to get protected status, a green card, and then later sign for visas for all the rest of his family. They came one-by-one or in twos, secretly, across the Khyber Pass to Pakistan and then to India where they waited until they could get passage to America.

Laila was the first of the siblings to attend school in the USA, and when I reunited with her many years later, she described for me the embarrassments, trials, and anguish of attending middle school not speaking the language. Boys snickered when she said she wanted to be a doctor, others asked her how to say dirty words in Farsi. Math class was a refuge because she could do it, and so, she said, was my room. I didn’t—and still don’t—even remember doing most of what she told me I had done. It must all have come as common sense to me, gathering material for her and making special word books. But many of the things she said I had done had made her feel included.

As I said, it must have been common sense, for I certainly knew nothing at the time about how to help English Language Learner (ELL) students. She remembered that in the spring of that 8th grade year she had to make a speech in my class. I suggested the topic “My First Month in America,” and she did speak–and the other students were enthralled–and I gave her an A and that made her day/week/month. Such a little thing. It reminds me what an impact–for good or for bad—the little things we do can have.

Lately I have been thinking about the ELL students of today; in my district, they’re mostly Spanish-speaking kids.

Other teachers think about them, too. In fact, teachers at both of the high schools where I serve as an instructional coach have approached me this year, asking what they can do to help the ELL students in their classes—especially, but not only, the ones who have little or no English at their command.

Of course they know that learning a language takes time. They know that gaining academic proficiency can take years. Of course they know there’s no magic bullet. But because they are teachers, they want to help and are frustrated when they can’t. Teachers care about their students—all of them. Still, it’s hard to imagine how you can help when you’ve got five or six classes and anywhere between 120 and 160 students and you have to prep three separate lessons every day and parents are emailing and extra-curricular responsibilities are looming and papers are piling up faster than snow melts in summer.

Yes, the students have an ELL teacher—and she works wonders. But you can only process so much a day. I remember that when I—a non-Spanish speaker—visited Peru a few years ago, I spent most of my time on the bus that carried us from place to place looking at signs and billboards, trying to memorize words.  I was learning about the culture at the same time I was learning the language, and that’s sometimes even harder—and certainly more fraught with danger—than building a word bank. By the end of the trip, 10 days later, I was thrilled when I could negotiate the purchase of a toothbrush. And that only took a few words: toothbrush and how much. What followed was some fumbling with money and help, please.

I decided to shadow some beginning ELL students for a few days and, to attempt to simulate their experience, attend their Heritage Spanish class. By the way, it’s an error to think that because these kids speak Spanish easily, they also read and write it comfortably. That’s why they take Spanish in school and get world language credit for doing so. They may have grown up speaking Spanish, but their parents may not read and write Spanish themselves and they may have passed on speaking errors, just as English-speaking parents sometimes do. (Think of kids who say “I seen it.”)

One day in December, I was able to interview several of these students. I asked the questions, a Cuban-American substitute teacher (who just happened to be in the building that day) interpreted for all of us, and my colleague (the ELL teacher) took notes so I didn’t have to.

Here’s what I learned from our Spanish-speaking ELL students, and here are the suggestions I will be passing on to content-area teachers about what they can do to help ELL students learn English and learn their content.  (And by the way, these ideas will help everyone in the room. There’s nothing strictly ELL about them.)

Greet the students at the door: Say their names, and if you know “Hello” in Spanish, say it. Pronounce their names right, though. In fact, that might be your first conversation. I remember practicing once with a girl from China. She tried to excuse me—say it didn’t matter that I kept stumbling—but I knew it did. Eventually, my tongue ceased twisting around the syllables and saying her name became as easy as saying Jack’s and Emily’s. I realized from being in classrooms all day long that a student could go through a whole school day without anyone using his name or talking to him directly. Imagine how that would feel.

To a person, every ELL student I spoke with said that the teachers who “cared” about them were the teachers they would work the hardest for. Teachers who “cared” were the ones who took the time to treat them as individuals by doing things as simple as greeting them at the door or once in a while using a Spanish word. Really.

Seating arrangements: Put them in the front. Seating an ELL student at the back makes it harder for them to see and hear. Besides, consistently seating ELL students at the back communicates to everyone else that they’re not really part of the class. Yes, they may choose to sit there—but you can un-choose that spot for them.

Let them sit together if you have more than one ELL student—if they choose to. You can’t assume they’ll be friends any more than you can assume any two other students will get along. ELL students come from all over. They’ve got class and country biases, too. They told me so. But most of the time, they’re relieved to be together because they can help each other figure out what’s going on.

When you work in groups, spread the ELL students out among the groups as soon as you sense they’re comfortable with that. If you need to keep two together, you can do that with a group of four. You might consider “Study Buddies” for those times when you give over class time for homework. Pair the ELL student with a willing English speaker who can check that something is copied down right from the board, verify pronunciation, practice vocabulary.

Those objectives of the day: We are obliged to post these every day, so I suggest using them to advantage to teach vocabulary and focus the students’ thoughts.  Print the objective in big, black letters at the front of the room. Make it visible and legible from everywhere in the room. Write it in kid-friendly language. At the beginning of the class, point to the objective and say that this is the goal for the day. At the end of the hour, return to the objective and say it was the goal of the day. This will help ELL kids catch on to the purpose of the activities you do. And it will help every other student, too.

Why black? Because red and green and other colors don’t show up on the board as well. Why print? Because cursive is harder to read—and more kids than the ELL students don’t read cursive. Really.

Make it pop: Put key words on the board or create a word wall. This was a huge aha moment for me. When I attended the Spanish Heritage class, I listened to what the teacher was saying—but I didn’t have a clue. I don’t speak Spanish. When she wrote a key word on the board, I could see that often it was a lot like English—and I caught on. I still flunked the quiz at the end of the hour, but I got the main idea.

So, point out key words or put them on a word wall and then point to them, say them out loud, tap them, throw a ball at them—anything to reinforce them for the student.

Slow down:  Everything you say, everything they hear has to pass through the translator in their heads. It takes a very long time for anyone to get past this stage. The more complex the topic, the longer the sentence, the more time it takes.

  • Slow down for directions, assignments, explanations.
  • Break lectures into segments.
  • If you can, create a PowerPoint to play behind you.
  • Create fill-in-the-blank note-taking guides.
  • Write directions out as well as giving them orally.
  • Use graphic organizers, color coding, other visual aids.
  • Call on someone in the class to paraphrase what you just said: Your words will come out in simpler language and reinforce the message for everyone.

Use checks for understanding and use them frequently: Don’t wait till the end of the lesson to ask if everyone understood, if anyone has a question. Knowing precisely where in the lesson an ENL student stopped processing will help you tailor your instruction—and it will also give you clues about how much English the student has.  Here are some easy ones to implement:

  • Thumbs up/thumbs down
  • Exit passes
  • Stop light method
  • White boards (for individuals and/or for group answers)
  • Post-it notes on the desk

Use these checks for understanding with everyone in the class—it isn’t only the ENL students who get lost.

Let them speak Spanish: They’ll switch to English as soon as they can.

  • If you have two ELL students, let them talk the lesson over in Spanish if they like.
  • If you have one who is proficient and one who is not, ask the more fluent student to translate for both of you when you talk to the beginning ELL student one-on-one. That’s going to help all three of you.
  • Don’t worry that they’re talking about you. You can tell from their tone whether they’re on task, gossiping, or being disrespectful. If they’re not on task, shut them down.
  • Use Google Translator to put your assignments, directions, worksheets, etc. into Spanish. No, the translator isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that beginning students will get the idea. Plus, it’s another indication that you care. You might be aghast at how badly electronic translators can mangle a passage, but in the beginning, they can be a huge help. The kids told me so.

Demo, demo, demo: Make your delivery lively. Gestures, charades, pantomime, movement—all of this reinforces language. Vocal variety matters: Not being loud, but being expressive. Intonation carries meaning.

Use any Spanish you know: How about posters with words in Spanish and in English? If you speak the language, don’t be afraid to use it to help. The ELL students will begin using English as soon as they can because, like all kids, they want to fit in.

Communicate with their parents: Same as anyone. Try this website to create permission slips, thank you notes, invitations to parent conferences, pats-on-the-back notes home, etc. They print in Spanish and in English!

Call for help:  Spanish-speaking faculty, the ELL teacher, the ELL support staff, district level coordinators and instructional coaches will help. You just have to them know you need it.

 Above all:  Don’t give up on these kids—and encourage them not to give up on themselves. It takes time to learn a new language—but they will. Case in point:  When I found Laila again, years after she had left my classroom, she had a Ph.D. under her belt. Give the kids time. They’ll get there.

Call and Response

Once in a while, someone is gracious enough to invite me into their room, not to observe or to lend a hand, but to teach the class. To orchestrate the lesson. To set the purpose, plan the activity, lead the students, and make the close.  Last week, a colleague asked me to do just that. I’ve been singing ever since.

It isn’t easy for a high school teacher to surrender his or her classroom to the instructional coach. In elementary school, people come into and leave from classrooms all day long. The principal drifts in and out and is not just there for formal evaluations. Volunteer parents, reading tutors, paras, aides, and specialists of all kinds are constants in the elementary classroom background, and when someone else leads a lesson, it’s not a big deal. Kids don’t wonder why.

But in a secondary classroom, there are no reading tutors and parent volunteers. Aides are largely silent, and when the principal is present, it is almost always to conduct an evaluation. So if someone else leads the class, unless it’s a guest speaker with credentials to warrant a special presentation on the topic at hand, inquiring students are likely to wonder, “Why isn’t my teacher doing this?” Or the teacher may fear that the kids are wondering that.

It takes an unusually confident person–or a person who’s comfortable saying he or she isn’t an expert at everything–to let the coach model a strategy or demonstrate a technique.

It’s not without danger for me, either, teaching that class.  My reputation is on the line and so is my own self-esteem. The students aren’t mine. I have no relationship with them. Nothing to draw on if the lesson goes awry. No prior knowledge about their dispositions, proclivities, interests, or backgrounds. I don’t know their hot buttons or what might make them laugh or cry. I’ve got to establish credibility in the first fifteen seconds and maintain momentum for the whole fifty minutes. If it goes right, it feels at the end like a song.

Recently, I had a conversation with a singer-songwriter new to my town and at the beginning of her career. On a nippy Saturday morning, I watched her perform at our local Farmers Market. She was pounding the keyboard with gusto and singing her heart out. The people gathered around her were swaying back and forth, keeping time with their feet, nodding and bending in sync with her rhythm. It was as much fun to watch them as it was to watch her.

Afterwards, I remarked on the energy she expended, the connection she’d created, and the fun she seemed to be having. “Call and response” she said, using the term to describe the electricity between the performer and the audience–and I thought to myself then, that’s just what teaching, when it goes well, is: call and response. Like an old-time preacher and the congregation.

The lesson I taught last week was Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” The class had just finished Of Mice and Men, and the teacher had asked me to model for the students the close reading technique I love so well, the one I call the “slow reveal,” where line-by-line the teacher guides the student from the beginning to the end of the poem, helping the students discover for themselves the gradual accumulation of meaning.

I had created a two-columned handout for the students, the poem as Burns originally wrote it and, beside it, the standard modern translation. I asked the students to skim the original first to find the line that Steinbeck was alluding to when he wrote Of Mice and Men, and then my colleague played an online recording of that original poem. They could find the line–The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley–but the poem mystified almost everyone.

We dispensed with the Gaelic for the time, and worked our way through the modern version, focusing our attention on words they didn’t know– timorous, dominion, social union, ensuing–and the capitalized words–Man and Nature. I drew their attention to the two colons–a punctuation mark with authority, used twice in this poem, in both cases to announce a key idea. In the first instance:

But Mousie, you are not alone

In proving that foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go oft astray

And  leave us nothing but grief and pain

Instead of promised joy!

More words to be sure we know: Foresight. Vain. Prospects. I hear a few gasps as students make the connection to Lennie and George and the collapse of their dream of a little plot of land where they could live and raise rabbits and live off the “fatta the lan’.”  I slip in the word allusion again and move to the turn, a word in a poem that signifies the poet is going to stand an idea on its head.

And Burns does. Nice as the connection of the penultimate stanza is to George and Lennie’s schemes gone awry, it is not all that Burns has to say. The last stanza features  another colon announcing another idea, the one that has propelled this poem about a mouse whose home has been plowed up by a farmer from the realm of simple and sweet to profound and memorable.

In this last stanza, the poet makes the distinction between Man and Nature, between the farmer and the mouse, (as Steinbeck implies centuries later, between George and Lennie): Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

What? The mouse is luckier than the man? How can that be?

I say: “See that word Still? What does it mean here?”

They say: “But.”



“Even though everything I have said is true, there’s more.”

I say: “Yes!”

Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

Only this moment touches you:

But oh! I backward cast my eye

On prospects turned to sadness!

And though forward I cannot see,

I guess and fear!

They say:

“The farmer is cursed by his memory of the past!”

“By its disappointments.”

“He fears the future!”

“He can’t see what will happen and he’s afraid.”

“The mouse lives only in the present!”

“So what do you think?” I ask. “Who is luckier? Lennie or George?  Don’t shout it out. Think before you answer. Relate your answer to the story and explain yourself.”

Hands everywhere.

“Lennie: He dies happy, looking across the water and imagining the farm.”

“Lennie: Because George has to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life.”

“George: Because at least he’s alive!”

“Lennie: Because he doesn’t experience regret. Or fear. He just thinks about those rabbits.”

Then my colleague played the recording again–the original.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

Ah…it makes sense now. Some of the students even prefer the Gaelic. Especially Gang aft agley. Much more expressive, much more memorable than Go oft astray.

At the end of the hour, as the class was filing out, a boy approached me. He’d been too shy to speak up in class, but he was brave enough to say to me privately, “I was going to say George because Lenny has only one emotion, really. One idea. He’s limited. George can experience things. He can do new things and feel things and see color and well…learn.”

Call and response. Like a song.