Monday, 27 July 2015

What it is Like to be an ELL Learner?


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an ELL learner in your classroom?

For me I would have to say I never really have.  Not that I haven't thought about how I could help but that the perspective has always been from the other side. Me the English learner, teaching English with good pedagogy. But never really with the lense of what it was like to receive a foreign language.

I will have to say I have never experience life as an ELL learner until I was in China. I mean I knew what it was like to be a teacher of ELL students, I know the pedagogy and the approaches that I need to do in order to engage and help my ELL students but I have never felt what it was like to be one until two weeks ago.

It is probably safe to say that the majority of us in North America as teachers can say the same thing as I did just above. Born and raised as an English speaker, in an English country I have never known what it was like to not understand the language around me. Well that changed dramatically when I went to China for the Global Education Summit.

Even though this summit was a Global Education Summit it was predominantly meant for Chinese teachers so it was predominantly or pretty much all in Chinese. In addition to this our interpreters didn't understand English that well and there was not enough of them to go around for all of the English speaking teachers.

This meant that I spent the majority of my day listening to the cadence and rhythm of random words and sounds. Though it was pretty and every now and then I picked up a word or two it was quite frustrating and often times I tuned out and wasn't engaged in the conversation. I mean why would I want to be when all I heard was the Charlie Brown teacher. WanWAA WANAA



This was quite a frustrating experience. My brain was able to comprehend what was going on but I wasn't able to communicate all of my thoughts in a manner that was acceptable to the audience I was talking too.

To help with this there was a lot of hand gestures, asking questions, visual cues, lot of review of english and Chinese, repeated practise or listening and talking, etc. But in the end many of times I was just bored and lost interest.

This got me thinking about my own classroom. Is this how my students feel? Is this what they are going through as they learn a new language?

In my head I was thinking no way, my classroom is amazing! but to be honest it is most likely the reality that many of my students have just tuned me out.  Can you blame them? It is a lot of work to listen intently, to try and pick up words that you think have meaning. I mean I wanted to learn, I wanted to be there, I wanted to participate but I just didn't know what was happening. Even with translators it was hard work and after a day of it my brain wanted to explode.

I know as teachers we do amazing things in the classroom to engage our ELL learners but it was truly humbling to be in the other shoe ( so to say) and really shifts your paradigm and perspective on your own classroom.

What do you do in your classroom to help engage the ELL learner? What strategies do you find work best? 

This post s more of a umm...I never thought about this. I have more questions than answers but wanted to put this thought out there. I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts.

Global Education Summit: China 2015



This has been a well over due post but after two weeks away from my family, they were my first priority.

This summer I was given the opportunity to go to China for their Global Education Summit (GEC2015). Basically, the Chinese are embarking on a path of discovery and trying to analyze good teaching practises. Professor Guoli Lang decided to bring Project Based Learning to Chinese Classrooms. In order to do so he started a GEC community three years ago with teachers from the United States, Finland, Australia, Singapore and now Canada. He has also teamed up with Ann Lieberman from Stanford University who was the person to bring my teammate Michelle Cordy and myself, along a with two teachers from Butler University and Lab school in the States.

As I stated the point of the conference was bring Project-based Learning to China. This was a totally new experience for many of the Chinese Teachers; even after three years the teaching that the other GEC countries brought was a total new phenomenon.

The conference lasted two weeks, during which time we were asked to develop a project on Flight or bridges and then model a lesson from that unit. We were given three days to meet and greet with our students and then 75 minutes to teach the lesson, which was broadcasted over a huge screen to about 200 teachers.



The first day was a little rough as I was still getting over jet lag and being 12 hours ahead of everyone. However, during this day we got to see parts of the school and I was able to play some sports with the kids on the play ground. There is nothing in the world that can put a smile on a Teachers face then being with students. I know that many of you understand, there is no word to describe it but one of the biggest learning moments I had is no matter where you are in the world kids are kids.




I absolutely loved the atmosphere of the schools that we were at. The first school was in Beijing. Supposedly it was the number one school in the whole city but that aside, even though in a gated community it had a welcoming vibe. I say parents and kids coming and going and doing all of these amazing activities together.  The Chinese value good physical education and culture in their programs. There is a lot of facilities for activities and the students even learn the culture of serving tea.  

They have three wings a K-1 wing, 2-3 wing and a junior wing. Also in the school are various cultural and physical spaces. I saw at least two band rooms, with numerous practise spaces. Some of the classrooms became specialist music rooms as well. For example there was a room dedicated to violins and one for a cello. They had a ballet section as well as the whole outside was for sports (basketball, football, volleyball, track and a jungle gym).  From what I have seen and heard there seems to be a really good balance between school, the arts and physical education; then again students go to school for a long time each day so it is a little bit easier to fit that into their schedule.

Before I knew it I had a huge line of students. In fact they asked if I was the new Volleyball Coach.

Library Reading area
Hallways of the School
Library
Tea Classroom
Music Room and Band
More from the Library


The school from the outside

The only thing that I was not a fan of was the differences in classrooms. The picture above is the American classroom. Students sit in groups there is paper and "stuff" all over the wall. It is a visual nightmare. The Chinese classroom are all in rows with very little visual, in fact nothing except for the socialist tenets and rules of the school.  It made me reflect on my own space and how effective the "scholasticy" posters are (Caveat: I have nothing against scholastic. I use that name as a verb to describe all store bought posters).  I have been thinking about this for a while but I wonder how effective these posters really are. Sure they make our rooms look pretty and full of information but do the students really view them? If we just put them up on the wall and never refer to them then what good are they? (Caveat: I know that many teachers use these posters quite effectively and they do have great content on them.) All I am really trying to question is the purpose for our posters. Is it to make our room look amazing and special or is it for educational purposes? For me I would rather see student generated success criteria, performance rubrics, and student work samples on the bulletin boards.




The school in HangZhou was even more artistic. They had a sculptures yard, outdoor playgrounds, ponds and a track in the middle. Quite an amazing design.  








Makes me think about our own school design and classroom design. What can we do to make it more inviting? What can we do to make it a true learning space? What is a true learning space? What makes it a learning space?

Sorry a lot more questions than answers. 

However, back to the teaching.  We finally got to our Demo's and it was really great to see all of the teachers in action. Here are some of my thoughts:

First I want to start off by saying that no matter which group was teaching it was interesting to see some commonalities between all three. 1) the interaction with students is a key for problem based learning. In all three groups the teachers spent time talking to students, working closely with them, giving them feedback and helping them to improve. 2) Kids are kids. In all three groups the same behaviours that I would witness in my classroom in Brampton happened here. Kids are kids and they are just happy to be learning. They want to talk, they want to feel honoured and they want to have fun. 3) Good pedagogy is good pedagogy. In all three classrooms there was wait time, good questions and a reflection process.

Here are my thoughts on the Chinese group:

The Chinese teachers designed a ball launcher. It was interesting to see how even though they had three teachers in the classroom, each one work as a separate unit. The teachers seem to have specific roles to play. Afterwards I found out that they actually do. There was the Chinese teacher, the math teacher and the physics teacher.  Each of them were looking for different things and taught different parts of the lesson. Where I do think that specialty teachers have their place I would rather have teachers know their content super well and be able to teach it effectively than having three teachers out of sync with one another. The best world would be where these teachers could teach together fluidly, which would serve the best interest of the students.

Here are my thoughts on the American and Finnish Teachers:

I loved the connections that the teachers made with each student. They knew who and what each students was. This connection is very important because it makes the students feel that they are honoured and feel important. This may not have any statistical value but it does have quantitative value.  We were given three days to work with these students in order to bring the best out of them. Having a good connection and making them feel honoured is key to this success. These students did amazing work and I attribute this to being the key to success. I was also amazed at all of the good teaching pedagogy: the scaffolding, the good thinking questions, student voice, and observations where tremendous.

Overall, good teaching is still good teaching no matter where you are in the world. Kids need many things to be successful. Scaffolding, clear expectations, clear assessment and honouring their voice. I was truly honoured when they asked the students what did they learn and they said: 

"that learning can be fun, mistakes are okay as long as you are learning, and that they have a voice and ideas."

This is really what our kids want, they want to know that they matter. When they feel that they matter, they will learn and do amazing things for you as a teacher. We had three days to get students who spoke very little English to basically perform and learn about flight the biggest key was making them see the value in learning; of course also tied into amazing teaching pedagogy and learning.

Need I say that this was quite an interesting experience. However, in the end meeting some great people from Finland, the United States and Australia was truly remarkable and the best part of my two weeks. Take a look at all of the photos: https://plus.google.com/+JonathanSoMrSo/posts/MAi31hCZrBS.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Year 2 of primary

It's been my second year of second grade and even though I entered the grade with some reservations it has been two of my best years of teaching.

Being in primary has taught me three things: 1) Inquiry learning is amazing; 2) really look at the curriculum when planning and 3) kids are amazing.

INQUIRY LEARNING

As I said above inquiry is amazing. When students are given the autonomy to learn the possibilities are endless. Now I am not promoting that kids are off on their own doing whatever they feel like but that the teacher is always there guiding and asking questions. The teacher has a plan in mind and has mapped out how the standards all fit together.  The students are exploring and learning about the concepts.

When students have an opportunity to learn they gain so much more knowledge then if they were just told. Now this does take time but when you look at the curriculum there is that time. Primary is the time to explore, investigate, practise theories and interjections.

Inquiry also builds self confidence, research skills, critical thinking and inferencing skills. Students have to use all faculties to make judgements about what they are learning. It is also about the community and the learning that is happening around them.

LOOK CLOSELY AT THE CURRICULUM

Before coming down to primary I taught junior (4,5) for a very long time. I often thought what is being taught in the primary grades, why do these grades seem so high but I wasn't looking at the expectations close enough.

When I came to primary I had to examine the curriculum very carefully because I had no idea of what to expect. I was shocked at how little was expected of them. It made me realize how primary students were receiving an A but then in junior dropping to B and Cs. There is a huge jump in learning expectations in junior that is not found in primary (possibly another post). However the point is no matter what grade you teach one has to look carefully at the expectations that is expected of them. Map out the learning, map out the questions and the trajectory of those expectations and see where it goes. Remember that expectations are by the end of the year so we have to keep revisiting them.

KIDS ARE AMAZING

We as educators cannot forget this important fact in our profession. If we think that they can't do something then they will never be able to do it. Kids are amazing and will continue to surprise you at ever turn. I had to stop myself a lot this year from saying they're too young or they won't get it. They might not but more often then not they did. Kids are amazing.

These are just 3 of the most important things that I learned this year. What are yours?

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

No grades no problems

I had to laugh a little when I heard the news this morning on my way to work, "there may be no formal report card for public elementary students this year!"

"Oh, no! The world is coming to an end."  I don't mean to make fun of anyone who feels this way but at the same time it feels a little "sky is falling mentaility."

For me the final report card is a labour - some task that many only see the letter grades and not the helpful comments that go with it. They are often a cause for smiles on kids faces as they beam with pride or hidden because the child doesn't want to disappoint or face the eye of failure.

However, I want you to think about a couple of things:

1) should the final report be the first time you hear success or failure? 

       If not then how important is this report card? Why is it so honoured the without it the world is done?

2) are your elementary marks or any grades for that matter, tell how successful you will be in the future?

     Don't get me wrong they are good indicators but are they everything?

     If no then again why are they so important?

Is it an accountability piece? If so then I can give you every mark and note I have ever done on any student at any time. Why because that is my job as a teacher.

For me assessment is about learning and  learning is not shown in a final letter grade but in growth and reflection. I can't speak for every classroom in Ontario but in my classroom, all students have access to the class coconstructed rubrics, success criteria and their own reflections. We are always talking about their performance and they all know what their strengths, and weaknesses are. All assignments come with formative feedback based on our rubrics the have comments on how they did and what they can do better next time.  We have constant conferences with parents and students and all work is posted in their portfolios.

Kids have private class YouTube channel that they vlogg, blog and tape their thinking.  Assessment is truly an open door policy.

So in closing I ask you two more questions:

What is more important, a formal document with my EDU speak and grades or a child telling you how they are doing and what they can do next to improve?

                          Or   

What is more important a document that comes to you three times a year or ongoing formative refections and assessment that comes every assignment?

For me it's the ladder of the two and why I find the discussion of no report cards quite hilarious we need to relax and ask our children or their teacher.

If you ever want to know how they are doing, just ask.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Is our job as a teacher obsolete?

I know that the title may be a little disturbing but it did catch your attention?

When I ask this question I gt a varying degree of answers and it is because of these answers that I have decided to write this post.

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the role of a teacher and the role we play in the grand scheme of learning. Putting aside various fees on teaching pedagogy I think we can all agree that teaching is currently undergoing a dramatic change in its profession. I think that we can also agree that knowledge is no longer obtained the same ways in which we use to obtain it and it is very rapidly changing. It seems that every second there is some new break through in technology or some new scientific break through.  So if this is the case should our teaching change to reflect this?

This actual idea started with a post from my good friend Brian Aspinall

Catch the whole conversation here: https://twitter.com/mraspinall/status/599915516254236672.


This started a chain reaction and conversation that was truly amazing to be a part of. There was two main parts to this conversation. The role of a teacher and 2) creating and sustaining this change.

The Role of the Teacher

The bases was that teaching has not changed, our role continues to educate and motivate students to learn but what has and should be changing is how. Now this may stir some to stand up and revolt about what I am saying but I truly believe that the teaching profession needs to change their methods or we will become obsolete. 

I think this for three main reasons: 1) With the ever increasing access to information students can obtain anything in manner of seconds. Its as easy as saying, "Siri, whats the population of China?" Presto you have that information. The problem lies in how do we assess which information we need and what is true. This is critically thinking. This is the skill that needs to be taught. However, we often find classrooms a place of regurgitation of information that is outdated the moment we learn it.  Now please don't get me wrong, facts are important to learn, basic skills are needed and yes memorizing is important too but all of this can be learned at the same time as critically thinking and evaluating information. 2) Learning is happening whether we like it or not. Now this is not a new phenomenon but I do find a lot more students are taking to youtube, books, and other information to learn about topics that interest them. My own five year old daughter knows how to youtube minecraft in order to figure out how to do something in the game. If we are not careful in our teaching soon students may soon see school as an obsolete place.  3) My final reason is that I am ever depressed to see that school itself has not really changed since its inception. What I mean by this is schools, physical space and mental space. We can still walk into a school and it looks the exact same way it did in 1880's. Yes materials, tools, and colour has changed by the premise of school hasn't. Kids sit in rows or even groups, they walk in straight orderly lines, we go to school 8-3, Sept to June, its endless at the similarities between the eras. But with the rapid changing world this needs to change.

If we are going to make this shift then as a teacher our role needs to change. No longer am I the wise person who stands before the classroom to impart all of my wisdom in one fell swoop, no longer am I the end all to be all for information and no longer am I the one to start, initiate and carry the conversations. These areas fall on the students.  However, I am the one to plan rich and engaging lessons, I am the one who anticipates the majority of work and possible answers, I am the one who is constantly walking around my classroom, inspecting students thinking, strategies and work samples. I am the one that is assessing as I work, thinking about next steps, where students are and what I need to do to make that happen. I am also the one that plans purposeful questions and comments that at the right moment can make many students go "Aha."  I am also the one that if I recognize real struggle that I differentiated for them but only when they need it.

In addition, school shouldn't be this archaic place of learning. Space needs to be reinvented, times and timetabling needs to be more flexible. We need to go back to a place of learning.

Creating and Sustaining

This last part is the one I am currently struggling with. It is very easy to get discouraged by how slow progress seems to be going.  We have often debated, the time factor, the money factor, the willingness to learn but to me these just seem like excuses as to why something is failing. They are all factors in they why but I think that instead of focusing on the why we should be asking how do we support this change?

What do we need to do to allow fellow teachers to grasp, understand, implement and then affect change in others?

What is missing that isn't done already?

or How can we change what we are doing already in order to affect this change?

I don't think this is a simple answer but I do think that it needs to happen faster than it is currently. Our students are embarking into a world that rapidly changing, information that use to last us a life time is no longer lasting these students more then a year. We need to change our teaching methods, strategies in order to meet this. Then again, this is only my opinion, would love to hear yours.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

#MakeSchoolDifferent: Five things we have to stop pretending

Last week (I think) I was challenged by Aviva Dunsiger to think about my five things that we have to stop pretending in education (You can read her post here: http://adunsiger.com/2015/04/21/makeschooldifferent-what-we-need-to-stop-pretending/).

I am finally getting around to writing it.  These are in no particular order.

1) That differentiating for each student is not possible:

I know that this may seem like a pipe dream statement but I think that as teachers we need to think about each of our students in the classroom. I know that we do but we truly need to think about how we can teach to each student and meet the needs of each student. Fosnot makes a great statement in one of her books, "[Teaching and learning are often seen as synonymous words and ideals but] without learning there is no teaching."  This statement has made we really think about how I am meeting the need of my students. It has made me think about the philosophies, strategies and assessments that I use in order to teach. Not every student is the same, so why is our teaching styles?

2) That students are vessels in which we impart our knowledge to:

I know that this is a very hot topic but to be honest most if not all people learn not from listening but from a combination of listening and doing.  I love this picture from Syliva Duckworth.


I know that we need to have some knowledge given in order to move forward but to be honest we need to give credit to our kids that they know a lot of things and can solve many problems we through at them.  As a teacher we need to find that balance between saying enough and allowing our students to explore, to muddle through and figure things out on their own. Learning is so much richer when this is accomplished.

3. That a test is the only way in which to assess students knowledge:

For centuries, students have gone to school, sat in desks, listened to teachers and then regurgitated information on a sheet of paper to show their understanding.  But is this the best way to understand our students learning? Is this a true test of their abilities? Is this really making them learn? or is it making the cram for a bit and then forget?  The true nature of a test shows you what a student understand at the particular moment in time. There is a purpose for it but I personally don't think that it is the end all to be all like it is being used today. In all honesty I don't think a test should be used at all. I think that teachers need to and should move into learning portfolios and project based learning. We need to have more conversations and observations of our students and communicate that as a grade. This is again is actually a lot harder then giving a test. Teachers need to know their content matter, curriculum and have a really good assessment strategies in place. Their needs to be clear communication and more communication with parents and students, but in the end this type of assessment is a lot richer. 

4. Parents don't care about their children's education: 

I hear this a lot in education, "Our parents just don't care about their child's education."  I know that their might be some parents who may feel this way but deep down inside I would say that all parents want their children to succeed and all parents do care about what is happening in the classroom. The problem is that they may think that the only time to contact teachers is when their is a problem, when you contact them or during parent interviews. Why? because that is exactly what happened when they when to school. For the longest time and still today, the classroom is this mysterious place. Its like the Bermuda triangle. Kids go in and come out but no one knows what happens inside. The only communication parents have is what their kids say. If their kids come home happy or say nothing is wrong then parents don't question it. We also have to keep in mind that it is really hard to raise kids today and many parents work various hours in order to support their children and household. It may be more that they can't care because they actually can't or more don't have time. However, when kids come home excited to learn and excited about your classroom I will guarantee that parents will take notice.  We as teachers need to do more to open our classroom up and bring in parents; excite them to be a part of the community. 

5. That we don't need to teach diversity and inclusion: 

This last one is an important one as it is something that I have been dealing with personally this last week. I teach my children about diversity and inclusion. I teach my children all about the ism's, everyone of them. I teach my children that we need to love one another, allow others to have opinions and honour those opinions; whether you agree with them or not. I teach my children that just because some one is different then you (whether religion, believes, physically or racially) you do not discriminate, you do not hate and you do not make public comments about it. You may at home believe many different things but in the classroom and out in the world we need to be tolerant, loving and accepting. I teach these things because I want to make sure our world is loving and peaceful. I don't want wars, I don't want hate. However, I am constantly reminded and moreso this week then ever, that this needs to be done more in the classrooms. I feel this because this week I have seen close friends bombarded by hatred and slander because people don't believe the same thing as they do. I have seen people lash out at me because I stand up for anyone who is being discriminated against.  Unfortunately it is never the children we teach but one day those children will become adults and I want to make sure that they know that hatred is hatred. That even though you may not believe or think the same as the person next to you, when you make that comment or thought public you are crossing a human rights line. That you are perpetuating further war and hurt. No one has the right to judge as we ourselves are not perfect. It is okay to have differing opinions and believes but there always needs to be discernment and tolerance in what we say and do.

Again these are my thoughts and observations about teaching. They are always up for discussion and I would love to here your thoughts on how we can make school different.

I am now calling on:

Betsy Callanan

Jay Wigmoore

Roland Chidiac

Matthew Oldridge

Michelle Cordy

If they have not done so.  Of course I would also love to hear from anyone and their amazing ideas.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Why it's important to teach diversity and inclusion

I recently heard one of the most deplorable things I have ever heard in my educational career and have really felt the need to blog about my response to this event.

I was talking to a colleague about diversity and teaching the isms and she directed me to an article in lifesite magazine that was recently written about a fellow teacher. The headlines read, "Lesbian Teacher: How I convince kids to accept Gay 'Marriage', starting at 4 years old." I was appalled that this was ever written. I would also recommend that you do not read the article as this sleazy type journalism and to be frank appalling comments is not worth the read.  I also don't want to give more power to the writer through amount of views.  The funny thing was that the presentation had nothing to do about this title and all about teaching children about inclusion and love.

I want to first state that I am proud to teach about all the ism's including hetersexism. I also want to say that I am not Gay and am religious but to me it is about the message of "love", about understanding, about being human. I was raised to love people for who they are inside and not by their skin colour, their thoughts or life choices but for who they are as people. This is the message that I as a teacher preach. This is the message that I as an educator tell my students. This is the message as a human that I tell my own children.

What has gotten me so steamed and upset is that people in this world are allowed to write comments like this. That this type of prejudice is still active in today's so called 21st century world. We don't debate slavery, we don't debate racial slurs, we don't debate making fun of someone for being disable but its okay to say these hateful comments about a community. To me that is the very definition of discrimination. 

So why do I teach diversity because I don't want my children growing up in a world of hate. I don't want my children fearing for their life because of war and rumour or war. Because I want my children to love everyone and to be able to work with everyone. 

In my experience as an educator children do not hate. Yes they question and yes they inquire but they never hate. It is us as adults that show kids how to hate. We are the models that our children follow. We are the examples that they see every day of their life. How do you want your children to act? How do you want them to behave? If the expectation is to love one another, then we need to start leading by example. 

These types of articles, comments and ideas are quite frankly archaic and bigotry. The ignorance that follows is even more disturbing. We have always been told, "Don't judge a book by its cover" or "Treat others as you would want to be treated." So how are these comments and ideas helping? They aren't. 

This world is already a dark and disturbing place. I fear for my own children and those that I teach for what they will have to endure in their life time. Because of these fears I try hard every day to change the future generation. Not to rebel against their parents and religion but to think, to love and to understand. Our children our the future but we are who they look up to. 

How will you make a difference in this world? How will you be the change you want to see in your children? It starts with you. Thank you for listening and reading this post.