I’m Learning a Second Language

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Those of us who work with diverse populations know a little something about the stages of second language acquisition.  Aside from teaching English language learners (ELLs), I have also added to my toolbox by receiving an endorsement in English language development instruction. If you work with this population of students then I highly recommend more professional development in this area. It paid off immensely for all of my students and challenged preconceived notions I had about the learning process as a white educator who speaks English only. However, I really had not stepped out of my comfort zone by teaching and learning about how to provide excellent instruction for Ells. Yes, I applied new techniques and ways to help all students receive comprehensible input, but that is simply applying great practices and my reward for trying new things was in the student outcomes. It was natural to continue because I desperately needed to keep all students engaged and involved or I would be focusing only on classroom management.

So, what did I do to come closer to understanding what it is like to be a language learner? I lived outside my comfort zone as I was learning a language very foreign to me- HTMLand CSS.  I did not voluntarily choose this path and with all the great ready-made website platforms like wordpress, it was easy for me not to place value on learning to build a website from the ground up.

Enter, graduate school.

I am in the process of working on a Masters degree in Educational Technology. One of the core requirements is knowing how to build your own website. Despite the fact that it is course two in the entire series, I had been avoiding it hoping they would drop it from the list of required courses! One can dream. Frustrated by my slow progress of taking one class at a time, I decided to take two courses this summer and bite the bullet and fully immerse myself in this web design class that lasts seven weeks instead of an entire quarter. While it is highly unlikely that I will ever be a professional web designer, this learning experience has caused me to empathize in a whole new way with the smart and curious Ells in our classrooms who often present quite opposite at first glance. Here are a few personal things I have experienced as a language learner:

  • I started out needing to copy from those more advanced than me. I was not cheating. I was learning by example and tons of repetition.
  • Extra reading or video tutorials did not help me learn any faster. I was inundated with new vocabulary.
  • I could only focus on learning this new vocabulary in very small chunks with more practice at applying those chunks through even more copying from advanced learners.
  •  I needed an extraordinary amount of time for trial and error. Fortunately, I was prompted about where to find my errors in the code I wrote and then I asked for peer support or viewed video tutorials in the moment.
  • I received immediate feedback from my instructor. He was patient with me until he discovered in week two that I was doing a lot of copying rather than writing my own HTML and CSS. I wrote an email explaining that I was putting in the expected time for this course. I was fine with him taking points away, but this was where I was at developmentally. The standard remained the same, but he now understood me better as a learner.
  • My instructor thanked me for the email, and being an ELL himself, appreciated the reminder of what it can be like to learn outside your comfort zone.
  • Since I am taking my coursework online, we collaborate through sharing our work in discussion forums. This means we have to expose our failings in order to receive help and in turn help those who might be experiencing the same thing. This is a blessing and a curse. There were times I needed so much help that it was humiliating to be forced to speak publicly. Be mindful of this with your Ells.

I still have two weeks to go, but gradually I am building more confidence. Each week I have to address new fears as we continue to add on to our learning at a pace that is faster than what is right for me. This experience has helped me step away from theory and truly see the English language learners in front of me.

When you click on this link to see my current website development skills it is likely the errors will jump out at you. Just remember:  Behind every error you see, there are hundreds of ways learning was applied successfully. May this be true about how you see students in your classroom.

Moving Forward or Running in Place?

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There is much talk about how to get this generation of students college and career ready. I have had the pleasure of raising two boys as they navigated their way through a K-12 public education and now university life. Both boys are very different and view learning differently. One views learning as an intellectual challenge and necessity in order to escape the routine of life. The other views learning as a means to an end- future stability and chooses to keep learning very focused and specialized. You might say that our oldest son needs learning that is centered around ideas and creative solutions. However, our youngest son needs learning to be centered around mentoring and experts in his field of study. When I ask them how their K-12 education prepared them for college my oldest will tell you that the high school AP courses were invaluable. He wishes that his K-12 education fostered more entrepreneurial skills. My youngest cannot point to anything in particular. His K-12 education was a job, as is college, and that’s just the way it goes. He doesn’t complain about it except during finals week!

So, how do we keep all of our youth moving forward in a world that needs solution seekers and specialized experts? The answer isn’t crystal clear, but we do know a few things about learners entering our classrooms. In order to learn they need:

More and more children are entering school without experiences that build executive functioning and social skills. The need to teach these skills comes at a time when the academic standards have risen and youth are less tolerant of waiting to be stimulated. As a parent and educator, the concern then becomes: How much time does my child’s teacher have to spend on learner readiness when my child is bored to death waiting for learning to happen? This is why academic choice is so crucial.

Most educators understand that learning doesn’t only happen within the confines of a school day. However, we need to be mindful that our future depends on our ability to create inspiring, thought-provoking, and curiosity driven spaces for our children whether it’s for the purpose of career or college readiness or simply readiness for life.

In order to create this learning environment, educators need to ask themselves:

Am I moving forward or running in place?

My strategy:

I set a weekly goal for myself. At the end of the week I give myself two minutes to jot down ten things that I remember accomplishing that week- without censoring my thoughts. What did I spend my time on? Then I categorize the ten tasks and see how they align or not with my weekly goal. Reflect and repeat. This would be a great activity to do with students as well. What stuck with them is great data for teachers while also building student agency to see if they actually worked on their goal.

As Albert Einstein said,

“Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.”

The Learning Balance

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I’m just over the half way point in my graduate school journey. I postponed getting my master’s degree for various reasons. I now find myself experiencing learning alongside my two sons and all the students in my elementary school. I’m thankful my K-12 education occurred during a time when educational institutions were still hanging on to the idea that school is a place of ideas rather than a place that prepared you for a particular career. This isn’t a blog post on the importance of a college education compared to vocational education. This is a post for the college bound and people invested in this learning pathway. The cost of a college education is so steep that I can’t help but think that this has changed the purpose of education these days. The high cost also comes at a time when we already understand that learners will need to reinvent themselves in the work world many times over. I think we’ve lost sight of the need to foster curiosity and strike a balance between self-directed learning and learning from others.

I’ve always taken pride in my love of learning on my own time and of my own choice. However, graduate school has taught me that you can develop a fixed mindset when you always are in control of what you learn. Experts talk about learning happening when you are outside your comfort zone. Straying from your comfort zone can occur when you are either confronted with ideas that do not match your current schema or when you are provided with a topic of learning that has been unexplored. We need to encourage students to quit going through the motions and find the good in what is deemed important for them. That might be better received if students were provided time for more self-directed learning so that they felt a healthy ownership for the exploration of ideas.

I fear that ideas or events such as: 20% timegenius hourmakerspace, and Global School Play Day, to name a few, will be seen as fads rather than a plea for balance when it comes to the exploration of ideas within the education setting. We need entrepreneurs and inventors and thought leaders.

Some readers may perceive this post as a longing for the “good ole days.” Not at all. I am advocating for students who are so compliant that they dare not challenge their teacher. I am championing the teachers who dare to try new things in their place of learning despite others not understanding. I am participating in a dialogue for students who speak or act up and tell us, in not so kind ways, that school isn’t working for them. Learning is fun and challenging. Make it so. The costs are too great.

Making Connections: Art, Revision and Reflection

Day 1, Artist Trading Cards
Day 1, Artist Trading Cards

On my run this morning, a new blog post topic occurred to me. Finally, some inspiration to write. It’s been awhile since I have written something by choice.

I’m part of an Artist Trading Card (ATC) Swap via the #k12artchallenge on Twitter led by Nic Hahn, @minimatisse. Students from all grade levels will be creating small art cards so that they can trade their beautiful creations with students all over the world!

When my fourth-graders saw the daily schedule it looked something like this:

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I heard comments like, “This is going to be such a fun day!” and it was. Math was missing from the agenda due to the completion of a unit and the need to make time art. None of the learning on the schedule was a waste of time. In fact, in terms of student observation, I learned a lot about my students yesterday. The power of new voices in the classroom speaking about relevant topics. The power of seeing a child who typically struggles through school excel in art. The power of providing time for a classroom community to take pride in their room and each other. The power of being thankful.

The “aha” on my run was not about all the reminders I received from my students about the components of an inviting classroom, but rather, the need to make time for revision and reflection in our day.  All of my students were very satisfied with round one of their ATCs. They didn’t know that in my eyes they were incomplete. On Monday, I will take the time to use art as the subject area to talk about the role of revision and reflection and what these two words have to do with self-improvement. I will put out new materials they can use to assist them in imagining new additions or possibilities for their ATCs. I know I will hear, “But I like it the way it is.” I’m going to push them to take some time to sit with their cards and new materials and see what surfaces. This can be a very uncomfortable place for some. I will then use this experience as a springboard in other subjects in order to encourage revision and reflection.

I can’t wait to see the results! More soon…

Do You See What I See?

I love thematic learning, and I do as much lesson planning around themes as my time allows. This month I’ve been participating in Tim Needles’ The Everyday Renaissance Project. Each day there is a challenge to create something based on a theme. Participation in this project has allowed me to get back in touch with the art of creation and more recently the value of getting lost in your work. I don’t mean being overwhelmed by work and work isn’t the right term. When you do what you love it never feels like work. I mean to get so involved in what you are doing that you become oblivious to what is going on around you yet you are ultra focused on the task at hand.

This reflection isn’t a scholarly analysis of the pros and cons of student daydreaming at school. Instead, I’m drawn to the power of our words when we respond to something we don’t immediately understand. Since I’ve been placed in the role of the student during the art challenge and as I complete a graduate course, it has been a great reminder about what it’s like to hear comments about my creations from other people. I’ve heard comments ranging from “That’s neat. Did I tell you about…” to “What is it?” As an adult, I can move on from comments such as these because they tell me more about who I am conversing with rather than anything related to my creation. If you don’t immerse yourself around people or things that cause you to see the world in new ways, then it simply doesn’t happen.

So, that brings me back to the classroom. How do we respond to getting lost in thought or how do we respond to what our students create whether it is art, writing, or a presentation of some kind? More importantly, what do we say when we don’t get it? I think we make mistakes more than we think since we have to watch the clock to keep pace with all that we have to cover in a day. However, we know from personal experience that when another person doesn’t see what we see we want to be understood. Every teacher has their own way of interacting with their students. I don’t have an easy answer, but I do know that I want to be more mindful about making time to understand what is right in front of my eyes- even if it has nothing to do with my lesson. You never know when you might learn something new through someone else’s eyes.

Finding Flow

Teaching has always been one area of my life where it has been easiest to achieve flow. What is flow? According to Mihaly Csikszentmichalyi,  flow is described as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” 

Below is a chart that describes the characteristics of flow:

Mihaly-on-FLOWHe correlates the state of flow to the closest representation of true happiness. Of course, we can’t always be in a state of flow or we would be ignoring too many other important  people or events in our lives.

Now that it is summer and I’ve had a chance to catch my breath from the exhilaration of flow in the classroom, it has become apparent where an attempt towards flow is needed- my personal life. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not experiencing any type of crisis or doubt about my lot in life. But I am looking for flow as it relates to finally integrating my mental and physical health. I purposely said that I’m looking at an “attempt at flow” because the true state results in superior outcomes beyond simply benefitting from routine activities. Still, flow is a state of being that is worthy of emulating as much as we are able with the belief that it will increase happiness around us.

So, how am I finding flow?

I’ve been consistently jogging at the local high school track since December and working on other strength building exercises. My goal is not to run a marathon or even achieve a certain weight. My goal is to aim for flow. The health benefits are beginning to show and while I’m running my mind is able to cut through idea overload and either focus on how grateful I am that I can run, the rhythm of my breath or the narrowing of an idea into some sort of action.

Thanks to @Timneedles I have rediscovered the benefits of creating something every day. This month he started The Everyday Renaissance Project which you can find out about here. At first I really wanted to create something super artistic and that was worthy of critique. Then I realized that I was wholly out of my league after so many years of appreciating the arts but not truly creating anything. After talking with my artistic sister, I realized that this challenge wasn’t really about being recognized as an artist as much as it was about seeing what happens when you devote 15-30 minutes a day to a creative endeavor. It has been an extremely rewarding experience. Most of all, I enjoy seeing the creations of others, and personally, the act of creating frees my mind so that my hands, ears, and eyes can take me to places I would never go if I hadn’t devoted time to it.

I look forward to continuing my pursuit of flow. It seems to be leading to a truer state of happiness.  If you would like to hear from the expert himself, then have a look at Mihaly’s Ted Talk.

Knock Knock: You are the door.

Andrea Reich Fender
Andrea Reich Fender

I’ve been waiting for some blogging inspiration to surface in my own head since the close of the Reflective Teacher February Blog Challenge. I reread the purpose of my blog which began as a need to push my own desire to help connect my class to the world through discussion or literal connections with others using technology. This past week I was also reminded of the value of opening classroom doors to parents.

Student Engagement: Children are truly curious about the world around them. This weeks Time for Kids cover story was about the need for safe drinking water around the world. The level of active listening and questioning and sharing was what I dream of for every lesson. My guiding question was: How does understanding what is going on in Africa have anything to do with us? 9-10 year olds cared about the answers to this question. Don’t underestimate the importance of engaging topics and complex questions when it comes to deep learning. I am the door.

Connecting Students to the World: So far I have been successful connecting my students to their community by inviting in guest speakers. I really need to take the leap and set up a learning opportunity that allows them to connect across the U.S. or world. Don’t underestimate the power of sharing learning with others. I am the door.

Open Classrooms: On Friday morning I was quickly organizing last minute materials when I received a call from the office. Our school office administrator said that a Spanish speaking mother and her 18 year old Bilingual daughter would like to visit the classroom for a few hours to observe. I teach the child they love despite the exhausting behavioral and emotional challenges that are presented inside and outside my classroom every day. Many teachers do not like surprise guests. I am happy to share a day in the life of my classroom no matter what the guests initial intentions are about observing. I have nothing to hide and also think that if more people visited classrooms then the teaching profession would have greater respect. Fortunately, I was able to witness an amazing four hours of learning and appropriate behavior with this particular child. Potential witnessed by all. Don’t underestimate the value of parents as your partner. I am the door.