Tuesday, October 18, 2016

What's in a name?

As an instructional coach, I get to work with both ESOL and mainstream teachers alike to help them improve many aspects of their professional practice, from instruction to collaboration with colleagues to cultural awareness. Recently, I met with an ESOL specialist who expressed frustration that one of the teachers she was working with refused to spell two of her students' names correctly, even after the correct spelling was shown to her in the students' registration documents. It broke my heart to hear this.

Identity & Respect
To me, name is an important part of a person's identity. My name is not all that difficult- Laurah- but it still frequently is misspelled when people drop the "h". Other times, people move the "h" to the end of my last name instead. This seems like a small thing, but getting a person's name correct- whether you're spelling it or saying it- shows that you've taken the time to address them properly, and is a small sign of respect. If this is something that bothers me even as an adult, it surely bothers the children. I know it bothered me when I was in school, too. When someone persists with the mispronunciation or misspelling even after being corrected, I tend to lose respect for that person, because I perceive a lack of respect on their part for me.

Culture, Family and Heritage
When parents find out that they're expecting, they usually spend a great deal of time selecting a name that they feel is just right for their little bundle of joy- including the spelling they use. When you disregard the importance of pronouncing or spelling the child's name correctly, you are sending a message- whether you mean to or not- that the student and their culture or family are not important; that it is not worth your time or effort to pronounce or spell their name correctly. Is that really a message you want to send to your students or their parents? You don't have to get it right the first time- asking the student to teach you to say or spell their name properly is enough to show that you respect the student as a person, you respect their culture, and that you feel they are "important enough" to say or spell their name properly.

Bigotry and Microaggression
Former educator Jennifer Gonzalez from the Cult of Pedagogy describes mispronouncing a student's name is a "tiny act of bigotry" and reminds us that such an act communicates to a student that because their name is different or foreign, it's not worth your time to get it right. Making a mistake is fine- but refusing to try (such as saying "or whatever" when you bungle the name instead of trying again) or insisting that your pronunciation is "good enough" is a type of microaggression that can undermine learning in your classroom. Looking at this from another viewpoint, a common way in our culture of making fun of someone is to bungle up their name and make a joke of it. This happens because names are such an important part of who we are that changing it to something unflattering can cause a great deal of hurt!

Make a Change
Think back over your time as an educator- have you made a genuine effort to correctly spell and pronounce your students' names correctly? If not- it's time for a change! This is yet another chance for you to grow as an educator. Take the student or family aside and ask them to teach you to say or spell the difficult name correctly. I can almost guarantee that they will be happy to take the time to do it, and their estimation of you will rise in the process. For some students and families, you may be the first person who has even tried. If you need to, create a pronunciation guide for yourself and keep it somewhere you'll see it when taking attendance or grading papers- like your gradebook or as a sticky note on your computer screen.

School should be a safe place for our students to come and learn. There are so many other things in their lives that can cause anxiety and interfere with learning- how their teacher pronounces or spells their name shouldn't be on the list.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tech Tip Tuesday: Troubleshooting in Google Classroom

As a Certified Google Education Trainer, I get a lot of questions about Google Classroom. Here are some of the most common questions I get and their solutions! To make an image larger, just click on it!

How do I post one assignment to multiple classrooms?

I need to rename a classroom. How do I do that?

How can I schedule an assignment to appear at a future time?

How can I reuse a post from last year's classroom?

When creating an assignment, how can I make a copy of a document for every student?
Please keep in mind that this option is only available the first time you create the assignment before clicking the blue "assign" button. It is not available when editing a previously posted or scheduled assignment.

How can I keep students from commenting on posts and assignments?

I hope you find this reference useful as you work to implement Google Classroom!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

#ELLEdTech Twitter Chat: Tools for Helping Teachers Learn More About Working with ELLs

Our next #ELLEdTech Twitter Chat is this Sunday, August 21 at 7pm EDT. This month's topic is Tools for Helping Teachers Learn More About Working with ELLs. Join us to share your favorite tech tool and learn about others!

Questions and Timeline
7:00 = Tell us your name, location, level and subject taught #ELLEdTech
7:05 Q1: What tech tools do you recommend to teachers of ELLs? #ELLEdTech
7:13 = Q2: Who are these tools aimed at: ESOL/mainstream/SPED teachers, coaches,  admins? #ELLEdTech
7:21 = Q3: How do they help educators who work with ELLs? #ELLEdTech
7:29 = Q4: What’s your biggest challenge in getting educators to use these tools?? #ELLEdTech
7:37 = Q5: How do you persuade teachers to use these tools? #ELLEdTech

Directions for Joining the Chat:
1. Log into Twitter on Sunday; the chat runs from 7:00 - 7:45pm Eastern Daylight Time.
2. Search for tweets with the hashtag #ELLEdTech in the search bar.  Make sure to click “All tweets.”
3. The first five minutes will be spent introducing ourselves.
4. Starting at 7:05, @ESOL_Odyssey or @The_ESL_Nexus will post questions every 8 minutes using Q1, Q2, Q3, etc. to identify the questions and the hashtag #ELLEdTech.
5.  Answer the questions by prefacing them with A1, A2, A3, etc. and use the hashtag #ELLEdTech.
6.  Follow any teachers who respond and are also using #ELLEdTech.
7.  Like (click the heart icon) and post responses to other teachers' tweets.

You can schedule your answers to the questions in advance by using an online scheduler such as TweetDeck or HootSuite (and remember to use A1, A2, etc. and #ELLEdTech).  Links are encouraged, but use tinyurlbitly,goo.gl or ow.ly to shorten your link so it can be included in your tweet.  Just click one of those links, paste the longer link in the app's box to shorten it for Twitter, then paste the shortened link into your tweet . If you have relevant images, we encourage you to post them, too.

Is this your first Twitter chat? Here are our rules:
1. Please stay on topic.
2. Please do not post about paid products unless explicitly asked. 
3. If you arrive after the chat has started, please try to read the previous tweets before joining in.
4. Feel free to just read, like, and/or retweet if you prefer -- we know the first time can be a little overwhelming!
5. Always use the hashtag #ELLEdTech when tweeting.
6. When responding to someone, please be sure to "mention" them by including their Twitter handle.
7. Make sure your twitter feed is set to "public." (And do remember that Twitter is completely public; that means anyone--students, parents, teachers, school staff, administrators--may see what you tweet.) 

You are welcome to let any of your teacher friends who might be interested in joining us know about this Twitter chat. We can't wait to chat with you on Sunday evening!

Can't make it to the chat? Check out the archives to see what you missed! (The archive is not currently showing everything. I'm still working on a better solution for chat archives- if you have one- please let me know!!)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Grading ELLs: Providing Meaningful Feedback

In my last post on Grading ELLs, I discussed some overall considerations for grading ELLs, including the idea that grading be based on a student's learning goals. I'm going to delve a little further into that this time by discussing the role that feedback to students plays in the learning process.

As teachers, we know that providing students with feedback in a timely manner is best practice. In fact, we’ve even started to see timely feedback creeping into teacher evaluation systems. While ensuring that our feedback is timely is important, I think there are two additional important attributes of teacher feedback that are often overlooked in the rush to ensure that our feedback is “timely”: feedback also needs to be meaningful and specific.

I’ve noticed that students often get feedback that doesn’t really tell them much- “needs improvement” or “great job!” are common examples. Even worse, sometimes the only real feedback they get is often an arbitrary letter grade. This sort of feedback is superficial and really doesn’t tell the student anything about their performance.

In order for feedback to be helpful to the student, it needs to be specific. According to Stiggins (2006), there are three guiding questions that meaningful feedback helps to answer for the student:
  • Where am I now?
  • Where do I need to go?
  • How do I bridge the gap?

When I read this for the first time, it was really a “wow” moment. On the surface, it seems so simple- but how often do we really consider these three questions when giving our students feedback? If we as educators begin to provide feedback like this for our students, it not only helps them understand their performance better, but it allows them to take some control of their own learning as well. So, how can we ensure that the feedback we are giving our students is specific and meaningful in terms of helping tem understand their performance and set new learning goals?

As a teacher of ELLs, this means several important things for my practice. First, my students need to understand exactly where they are on the English language development continuum. Sure, they might know that they’re a level 3 or an intermediate English learner- but do they know what that means? Secondly, I need to ensure that my students understand that they need to move beyond their current level to the next. Finally, I have to help them figure out exactly what they need to learn to help them move from their current proficiency level to the next.

In order to help my students understand the criteria for each level of English language development, I need to provide explicit instruction to them on what each level of proficiency and development looks like. I can do this by providing concrete examples of writing and speaking samples at each language level. We can discuss what listening and reading skills look like at each language level. I can provide them with rubrics and performance definitions in kid-friendly language.

Another step I can take to helping my students understand where they are and where they need to go is to incorporate peer and self-assessment into my instruction. Giving students the opportunity to assess and reflect on their own work and the work of classmates builds their capacity to understand the criteria and learn how to bridge the gap.

In addition, I need to deepen my own analysis of student work, truly honing in on strengths and weaknesses. Rather than simply scoring a student’s work and giving them a score based on the language proficiency rubric, I need to give them specific feedback about why they scored at a specific level on specific criteria on this assignment. Rather than superficial comments, I need to provide suggestions about how they can improve their work to move to the next proficiency level.

Below is a sample of a feedback tool I started using when assessing student work samples. Since I am in a WIDA state, it is set up to help students understand their performance based on the WIDA performance criteria. Using this tool helped me to ensure that my feedback was specific and meaningful in helping students get a clear picture of their performance. It can easily be adapted to your state’s ELD standards and criteria!

Linguistic Complexity
Language Forms and Conventions
Level on this assignment



Take it to the next level

I urge you to take a few minutes to reflect on your own feedback practices. Ask yourself:
  • Is my feedback specific?
    • Does it help students understand where they are?
    • Does it help students understand where they need to go?
  • Is my feedback meaningful?
    • Does it help students understand how they can bridge the gap between where they are currently and the next level of proficiency?

If you aren’t able to answer “yes” to every one of these questions, then it’s time to review and revamp your feedback practices!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Summer PD Series: Academic Language Demands for ELLs

I hope all my US teachers had a fabulous Independence Day! Today continues our Summer PD series with the third installment- Academic Language Demands for ELLs. 

When working with ELLs, we not only need to consider the content that we want them to learn, but the language they need to acquire in order to access the content and be successful with the lesson. In order to be sure that we are providing appropriate scaffolds and meeting students’ language learning needs, it is essential that we take time to analyze the language demands involved in each lesson.

Since I work in a WIDA state, I use the academic language features that WIDA has laid out in order to help me break down the language demands in a lesson. Here are the components that WIDA considers, and the questions that I ask myself when planning a lesson:
  • Vocabulary Usage (Word Level)- What sort of vocabulary must be learned in order for students to access the content and participate in the lesson? What vocabulary is essential for students at all levels of language proficiency? What vocabulary could be useful to teach students at each level to extend their vocabulary beyond the essential terms?
  • Language Forms and Conventions (Sentence Level)- What parts of speech or grammatical structures are used when talking or writing about the topic? When listening to or reading information? Consider grammatical structures, punctuation/conventions, parts of speech, and verb tenses.
  • Linguistic Complexity (Discourse Level)- What organizational patterns are used? How much language do you expect students to produce or process? What sorts of transitions are used?

Take a look at the language analysis chart below for a 4th grade lesson on equivalent fractions.

Levels 1-2
Levels 3-5
All levels
Vocabulary Usage
fraction names:
one-fourth, one-half, three-eighths
greater than, less than, smaller than, bigger than, comparison
compare, denominator, equal, equivalent, fraction, numerator, part, whole
Language Forms and Conventions
- Short, simple sentences

-Compound sentences
-Use of conjunctions, such as “because” or “since” to connect thoughts
-use of comparatives, such as: greater than, bigger than, smaller than

-Present tense verbs
-correct use of is, is not, are and are not
Linguistic Complexity
-no use of transitions to connect sentences and phrases
-paragraph format with cohesiveness and smooth transitions

¼ is equivalent to 4/8.
1/3 is not equivalent to 4/6.
½, 2/4, 4/8 and 8/16 are all equivalent fractions.
When you compare ½ and 5/8 using fraction strips, you find that they are not equivalent because 5/8 is larger than ½.

-Sentence frames (simple sentences)
-Explicit instruction in the correct use of “is” and “are”
-Sentence frames (compound sentences)
-Explicit instruction in using conjunctions to create compound sentences
Word bank
As you can see, there’s actually quite a lot of language involved in a lesson about fractions, and students must be able to understand and use this language to be able to fully access the content of the lesson. The expectations for each level are shaped by the WIDA performance definitions for each level, and organizing my thoughts into a chart like this also allows me to determine the most appropriate supports or scaffolds to put in place for each level, as well as where brief but explicit instruction in the use of certain language structures might be needed.

I also advocate sharing this chart with mainstream teachers. Language growth and development is not solely the domain of the ESOL specialist- we all share this task. Providing a completed chart to teachers gives them concrete examples of the types of language they should expect students to process and produce during the lesson, as well as suggestions for supports they can provide. Teaching mainstream classroom teachers to use this chart to analyze the language demand of a lesson allows them a way to directly support the language growth of the ELLs in their own classrooms.

Once you’ve fully analyzed the language demands of a lesson and put appropriate supports in place, be ready to watch students soar!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Teachers Shouldn't Be Expected to Share Everything for Free

In the wake of the announcement of the new Amazon Inspire, and the scandal that emerged upon its roll-out, the debate has once again emerged over whether teachers should share everything freely or whether it's ok for teachers to sell the materials they create. I feel it's important to add my voice to this debate- after I've had a little time to calm down and clearly state my ideas.

Who owns what teachers create?
The fact is, that varies by district and state based on the language in the teacher's contract. In some districts, the district owns whatever a teacher creates in the course of his or her job. In others, a teacher retains all rights to their IP. Still other districts have a joint-ownership philosophy. However, such contractual clauses apply to what teachers create in the course of their employment, presumably using district provided equipment and software.

What about TpTers who are revising and selling curriculum created in the course of a previous job? What about those who are creating simply what they see a need for, with no relation to their own jobs? Or those teachers who are retired, or out of the classroom to raise a family or care for an ailing spouse?

The vast majority of TpTers I know are creating on their own time, outside school hours, with materials and equipment and software they've purchased on their own. They are using expertise gained through the education they paid for, experience in the classroom, and their own research. They're using their own time to create, market and sell materials- why shouldn't they be compensated?

Teachers have a "moral obligation" to share freely with other teachers.

I don't even know where to start with this one. I feel that teachers are underpaid and underappreciated as it is. They already spend hundreds of hours outside of contracted time completing their duties. Why shouldn't the be compensated in some form for their expertise? Especially if they're creating stuff to do their job effectively outside of contract time? If I buy a rug and bring it to school to use in my classroom, the school wouldn't expect to keep that when I leave. Why should they retain ownership of intellectual property that I create on my own time?

Most TpT teacher-authors I know share what they create freely with their own colleagues and others in their district. Many use a portion of their TpT profits to "give back"- supporting classrooms by buying materials, making donations on DonorsChoose, or donating products and hard goods to help teachers who lost their clasrooms in a natural disaster.

Most TpT teacher-authors also have around 10% of the items in their store for free, and give still more away on their blogs or websites.

But teachers shouldn't have to pay for materials to do their jobs.
Well, this is one that i really can't argue with. It's true, we shouldn't have to spend SO MUCH of our own money to buy materials. It's true, many of us spend a month's rent or more throughout the school year to decorate and supply our classrooms. It shouldn't be that way.

However, many professions have to buy some basic materials in order to do their jobs, so to expect teachers not to have to spend ANY money is a bit unreasonable. Especially considering the REALITY of the underfunded American education system. Until something systemic changes, teachers will continue to need to supplement their classrooms.

Why not buy high-quality materials that have been classroom tested in real clasrooms, and created by real teachers at better prices than you can get from Scholastic or Pearson? As a teacher, I would rather throw money at a fellow teacher to save a little time and effort for grading or planning or- heck- to have a little social life (gasp!)- than at big publisher who already makes too much money off our students. I can't tell you how much less stressful my first few years teaching would have been! Yes, I know that not all materials on TpT are high quality, but let's be fair- not everything you get from the big-name publishers or the "everything free" folks is either!

Also, let's be real. I know that MANY of the educational publishing companies, Scholastic excluded, will sell ONLY to school districts, not to individual practitioners. So, if Scholastic (or a similar company) doesn't have what they need, they can't find it for free, and they can't buy it from a big publisher, they either create their own or look for other options- like paying fellow teacher.

I also can't help but think, if I had been able to purchase a few high-quality resources from a more experienced teacher when I was just starting out- my practice might have improved far more quickly than it did! What about a teacher whose strength might be teaching math, but as an elementary teacher must also teach RELA? They can benefit from purchasing some ready-to-go, high-quality lessons from a colleague with more expertise in that area.

Free is free for a reason.
I started this whole curriculum-writing and materials-creating journey because as a new teacher, who was teaching Language Arts and ESOL to newcomer and intermediate ESOL students, I did not have appropriate materials to teach my students. I had some that taught basic language skills, but nothing that met the state standards I needed to meet with my ELLs except what was available in the mainstream classroom. So, I set out for the inter-webs.

I often found free stuff to supplement the lessons I was planning, and essentially, the lesson curriculum I was slowly writing, one day and one lesson at a time. But, most of the free stuff I found was not high-quality, and I never found more than bits-and-pieces, never anything I could take and use long-term. Further, even the high-quality stuff was bland and not visually attractive- hardly engaging to me as an adult, and certainly not to adolescent students. This is because some teacher out there created something they needed quickly and then shared with others. It's like a cake mix at that point- it's a great starting point, but you need to add the eggs and milk to make it palatable.

The teachers who are selling their resources are not only investing their time in the creation of these materials, but they're often spending their money to purchase special fonts, clipart, and software to make their creations look professional to teachers and appealing to students. Why shouldn't they be compensated for adding these extra touches? Most even do this on their free resources, because these are a reflection of the work they sell- so they want it to carry the same quality. The last time I was on a website full of only free resources, they all had plain fonts, Googled graphics, and often were in formats that caused formatting difficulties after download. Free is free for a reason.

But....what I do is different!
When one particular proponent of "free for all" was questioned about why she felt it was ok to sell her books or consulting services, and how that was different than selling resources- she couldn't come up a valid argument- other than she does that on her own time. Hello, so do I. The fact is, there is no difference between the teacher trying to sell their book and the teacher trying to sell their teaching resource. You offer books and consulting services, I offer PD and teaching materials. We're really splitting hairs there to insist that what you do is different or better. We're both hoping to help teachers and make some money off this expertise that we've got; we both give away some of our expertise freely, and charge for some of it. Bottom line- you are no different than me.

Couldn't you share your materials and do something else to make money?
I could absolutely find another way to supplement my teaching income. I was a bartender and server for years, and could easily work part time doing that in the evenings. But, the fact is, that would decrease the amount of time I have to spend grading and planning, allow no time for creating the materials I need, and make me feel far more exhausted physically. If I had to do that to make ends meet, I'd quickly have burnt out and probably would have left teaching years ago. Fortunately, selling my materials allows me to help other teachers while making ends meet so I can still do what I love- teaching!

Creating materials that help other teachers is inspiring to me, and has improved my professional practice as well. The enthusiasm and passion for creating high-quality materials has driven me to seek out new methods and strategies which have also been implemented into my instructional habits. My students get the benefit through the lessons I plan and materials I create for them as well!

It takes all kinds. Can't we all just get along?
If you feel that you should share for free- go for it! I love sharing free things too, and it is totally your prerogative. Just as it is my prerogative to sell materials I see fit. However, please examine your own practice- if you say that teachers are morally obligated to share their materials and knowledge for free- are you truly sharing your "everything" for free? Because you can't have it both ways- selling books and consulting services, but making a clamor because I choose to sell lesson plans or task cards.

And, how about we all just stop judging each other? I don't judge you for sharing freely, so please don't judge me for my choices!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Summer PD Series: Cooperative Learning for ELLs

I hope you're having a great summer! Unfortunately, my own summer isn't as relaxing as it could be because we are packing to move! But, I thought I'd take a few moments out to bring you the next installment in the summer PD series!

One of the most important ways ELLs acquire language- and content- is through using the language during interactions with peers. Cooperative learning gives students a chance to process thoughts and knowledge, gain insight into the thought processes of peers, and to learn from one another.

Most importantly, it gives them a chance to use and rehearse the language we want them to learn and remember. Using small group cooperative learning can also make our ELLs feel more comfortable- talking and working with a small group of people often feels safer than whole-group situations in the classroom.

While students do need to be able to work independently using the skills and knowledge they've learned, allowing them to explore that knowledge and practice those skills with their peers prior to independent practice is a valuable part of the learning experience.

With proper scaffolding, even students at the beginning levels of proficiency can participate. As an example, when my 4th graders were doing an activity using fraction strips to find equivalent fractions, we talked about, practiced and posted the names of each of the fractions, along with the sentence frames, The fractions _____ and ______ are equivalent and The fractions _____ and _____ are not equivalent. As I circulated and listened, even my level one student fresh from Ecuador was able to participate fully and communicate her understanding.

The slideshow below outlines several easy-to-implement cooperative learning strategies that can be used in any content area!