Friday, October 21, 2016

Students as Cultural Ambassadors

We're just starting to discuss tangible and intangible aspects of culture and cultural heritage in class, and this past month's celebration of Hispanic Heritage was an ideal opportunity to showcase a little of each in our school.

As always, my colleagues have been phenomenal and diligent in creating an abundance of visual and sensory feasts, from bulletin boards to dance costumes, decorations, dance performances, authentic food, and simply hyping up interest in the cultures so many of our students represent. 

The work of three teachers in particular, Ana, Carla, and Elder, epitomizes what we think of as a labor of love. They begin working daily with students after school in August to prepare for performances in October. Hours of dance practice and hours of creating bulletin boards consume their time, but they and the students are smiling, excited to share and invigorated by their (often new) roles as cultural ambassadors. 

When asked why it is so important for them (both staff and students involved) to do this each year, the passion is palpable, as is the sense of mission. They are learning as well as teaching others.

Students who have been involved each year have noticed greater interest from all students in the school, particularly non-Hispanics, and they enjoy learning more styles of dance. Many of the dances are indigenous and typically tell a story of people and lives in each country--and even each region. Every dance element symbolizes something specific, from sowing seeds to processes of harvesting. and from male societal roles to female roles. 

New knowledge is one part of it, but the dancers all talk about how their confidence has been boosted through these experiences. Performing even when nervous, especially in front of peers, is a nod to the importance and value they place upon their evolving roles as cultural ambassadors. Sharing one's culture is not always easy, and isn't always received with open arms, but step by step these students are realizing their journey of learning extends to the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical. 

Since both tangible and intangible journeys are best shared with others, one of the girls nailed it when she said these kinds of cultural celebrations are a "nice way to approach others." 

Look around you. Who can you approach? What can you learn from someone else? And which of your traditions can you share?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

4 Quick Mythbusters About Using Visual Notes in the Classroom

Ever wonder if visual notes can “fit” into your classroom? Do you worry they are too childish? Take up too much time? That your content doesn’t align with the idea of visual notes? Or that you can’t draw?
If so, you’re not alone. Many colleagues I‘ve spoken to have the same concerns, and today’s post is designed to give you a small glimpse of how visual notes in the secondary classroom can be used.
1.     Myth: I can’t draw.
Buster: Who cares?
If you’re worried about not being able to draw, then you’re the perfect person to edusketch! Our brain is a marvelous thing and needs to recognize only a small percentage of a sketch to understand what it is. A squiggly line can represent a snake, a rope or a winding road, depending on context provided. 

Counterintuitively, students are more apt to give it a try when you can’t (or don’t) draw well. They feel more confident and willing to show you up, dear teachers, so go on, have some fun. Draw horribly on your whiteboard/ paper and you will have plenty of volunteers to come up and “fix” what you did. Little do they know it’s stealth learning. And besides, laughter and fun help to cement the learning, too. 
2.   Myth: Those notes must have taken forever.
Buster: But we drew them together.
When providing context, one of my favorite things to do is to sketch my way through information for students. What might be a normal 15 minute lecture, or reading assignment, now becomes an interactive activity.  The idea is to get students thinking about what I am saying or what they are reading, as they sketch their own representations.
Even though these notes look detailed and possibly chaotic, imagine them as the lesson outline, and each image created in real-time as a talking point throughout the lesson. At the end, everyone has a full-page (or two) of visual notes. The sense of pride is palpable, and by being part of the process, students typically gain quite a bit of confidence, as well as understanding about the value of edusketching. Students remain engaged in acquiring new information, which is always a pleasure.
Here you can see student notes based on mine as we sketched together in Earth Science class: 
Student notes.
My notes, drawn in real time using a document projector.
Continually ask students how they would represent a concept
and use their ideas. Great validation, and encourages their thinking
in new ways. 
Create notes in black and white. Revisit notes the
next day to highlight key ideas with color. 
3.     Myth: I don’t have time to do this.
Buster: It's about their learning, not your content. 
If you have concepts you want students to remember, using visuals will improve their retention by 55%. Just by using visuals. That’s enough for me to give it a try.
Here’s the key: Constraints.   Whether time, paper size, or chunking the task by sections, giving students boundaries will encourage them to do even better. 

Photos below show students sketching a summary of a text they had read. We had folded our papers into 4 sections, and had divided our reading into 4 sections. Each section had a visual representation, and that made it much more feasible for my language learners to be successful without being overwhelmed. We also had students come up to the board to share their sketching. 

Even our sketch on the board has 4 sections. Allow students to
create their own, but also allow them to copy ideas until
they are more comfortable. 

Use words to supplement the sketches, especially new vocabulary. 

Have students then use their notes to retell the information. Doing so serves
as a confidence boost, particularly for language learners. 

Time is another key constraint. I typically allow 2-3 minutes for quick sketches. As you walk around, you can see who needs more time, and you can also shorten the time when you see that everyone has got it. 2 minutes is an extremely long time, and can provide you with a lot of formative assessment information!
It’s also a fantastic brain break! Teachers shouldn’t be talking more than 10-15 minutes at most without students responding, synthesizing, or producing in some way. Recapping every 10-15 minutes helps students cement their learning and provides us with a solid glimpse of their understanding at that point and time. 

4.   Myth: I can’t fit it in anywhere.
Buster: Use visual notes in a variety of ways.
Here you can see how students used small visual notes to create name tags for themselves, with three things they are passionate about as a way to introduce themselves. This simple activity was thought-provoking, and the information will be used as a reference throughout our semester. 

Other ideas? Students can sketch their goals--and even better, sketch themselves and their reaction once they achieve their goals; sketch a representation of one main idea in a lesson; or use their visual notes to retell information they have learned. Use sketching as a warm-up or bellringer to summarize or retell one fact they learned yesterday or as a pre-assessment to dig into their background knowledge. Have students work collaboratively on larger paper to connect thoughts from brainstorming in a visual format. Use visual notes as a shared reference, akin to a word wall, in which students can keep referring back to the information throughout the semester. The ideas are endless.

You can see how students with different levels of language proficiency
can still access the same activity, with pride. 

Now, about those concerns of yours? Do you see a way you can squeeze in visual notes into your content area? Visual notes are far from childish, and in fact, require far more critical thinking than most realize. But there's no way to know that until you try it. And with smiles like those above, why wouldn't you give it a try?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Kindness of Teenagers

The banner students created for my Mom while I was away, thanks to the guidance of my colleague

They say the highest form of wisdom is kindness, and this past week, I experienced it from all angles, but most impressively from my students.

My incredible dad passed away two weeks ago after an unexpected Stage IV small cell cancer diagnosis. It was a rare and viciously aggressive form, and his death came a mere two weeks after the initial diagnosis.

Returning to school, returning to a new norm, and grappling with the why’s, the what if’s, and connecting all of the disparate dots after such loss can only be described as surreal.

Once again, however, my students have much to teach me. They, too, have endured loss, the resultant shifting perspectives, and the constant battle to make sense of what has happened and how it connects to what they need to do.

Each of my students wrote heartfelt cards to me, with wisdom, verbal hugs, and insightfully appropriate humor. My colleague encouraged and guided them to create a banner of thoughts and quotes for my mom, who they know is suffering on a different level.

You see, I used to not open myself up to my students. My educational experiences shaped my initial teaching beliefs where you went to school, kept everything personal at the door’s threshold, and when necessary, acted on autopilot as if nothing were amiss. My first year of teaching blew those beliefs out of the water. My first students (they were high school students) were curious, asked questions, wondered, and showed me that indeed I could find a sweet spot of the personal and professional. Those were powerful lessons they never knew they taught me. 

My classroom was, and has been, all the richer. I learned that my students are a delightful diversion when I am having a bad day. They have the power to put my own ills into perspective, cheer me up, and otherwise help me appreciate a different way of looking at things.

Kindness is an incredible form of both strength and wisdom, topics of discussion in our classroom this week. Yes, these are high school students, but their kindness and strength bely the losses they have endured. They also negate many of the myths of selfish teens. They have experienced rethinking life anew, and have begun a journey of shaping their new selves. Their notes to me displayed genuine kindness as they applied their hard-won knowledge of life’s lessons to help me make sense of my own loss.

Kindness as the highest form of wisdom?  Our kids have got it. Now, to keep tapping into that throughout the year, and to remember that every single student truly does bring their own gifts to our classrooms, no matter the language they speak or their level of expressive ability.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Now More Than Ever

I recently found this declaration of the value of global education and and wanted to share. This would be a great primary source to use in class, with students discussing cause and effect, or adding their additional ideas. I will use it to jumpstart our human rights unit in my class by having students each take one "because" or one affirmation and find evidence of each within both historical and current events. This declaration is an ideal foundation for understanding the value of taking action, and could easily spur students to create their own manifesto of being a 21st century learner. 

I would love to know how others have used it to enhance their students' learning.


                  A Global Education Declaration

A Declaration of the Value of Global Education
Presented at the 2013 Global Education Conference

Because we are citizens of our individual nations and also part of a larger human family;
Because it is important to learn about other cultures and to understand the similarities that unite us and the differences that define us;
Because global understanding, empathy, and compassion depend and are built on communication, shared experiences, and relationships;
Because we increasingly live in a "global village";
Because we increasingly work in geographically and culturally interconnected ways;
Because we are interconnected physically and our ecological and resource-use decisions impact others;
Because we share a world which appears to be increasingly fragile;
Because complex worldwide problems need collaborative, cooperative, and intelligent solutions;
Because wars, conflicts, abuse, slavery, misinformation, and other forms of oppression both exist and also exert powerful influences;
Because we live in a world that is increasingly "flat" and where Internet technologies have dramatically increased the global connectedness of individuals and cultures;
Because creation and sharing technologies of the Internet and the Web dramatically shift personal and community capacity;
Because the world increasingly is our classroom;


We affirm the universal and inherent worth of every child;
We affirm the deep importance of supporting learning opportunities for all people generally;
We affirm especially the importance of providing wholesome and healthy learning opportunities for all children;
We affirm the need to support the variety and uniqueness of learners, teachers, cultures, and circumstances;
We affirm the importance of independent intellectual inquiry and thought;
We affirm the value of connective technologies and their ability to provide broader learning and thinking experiences;

We affirm the individual, cultural, and worldwide benefits of students learning about, from, and with peoples from around the world;
We declare the critical importance of helping our students, teachers, administrators, parents, and all others to connect globally and to learn from each other; we express appreciation for those who provide opportunities for such global learning activities; and we devote ourselves to furthering the cause of global education.

Friday, July 8, 2016

What English Language Learners Wish Teachers Knew

This article was originally posted in, and I am cross-posting it here so that my students are able to read it. From the Invisible to the Visible, this is an area I'm very passionate about for my students, and am steadily navigating the cultural nuances that surround aspects of "voice" and empowerment. Please share with colleagues.

Despite the fact that English-language learners (ELLs) and immigrant students have been the fastest growing student subgroup in the United States for the past 10 years, teachers continue to report that they feel unprepared to work with students who are language learners. Professional development for reaching ELLs seems, at best, a one-shot deal, even though ELL enrollment continues to increase annually in most states. As of 2013, there were 4.5 million language learners in the United States, nearly 1 in 10 students in public schools, and they are not going to disappear.
I believe teachers are frustrated. Teachers continually ask me, an English as a second language (ESL) teacher, what to “do” with “them,” and worry about “them” bringing scores down. They wonder why they have to have “those kids” in their classroom, and ask me what I will do with “my” kids while everyone else does the “regular” activity.
It breaks my heart. Of all the labels and data points (ELLs, ESL learners, LEPs, ELs, immigrants, migrants, LEP subgroup, Title III accountability, AMAOs considered in AYP, etc.), the absolute worst one of all is “your kids”.
In an effort to portray our students, who happen to be language learners, as the humans they are—stripped of labels, and devoid of data points—my students created a project entitled: I have a face, I have a name, I have a voice. Part of the project was indeed about honing language skills, but the sweet spot of learning lies in the center of content, purpose, and application. Students were determined to use this project to catalyze change and improve how teachers view ELLs. Here are their top takeaways compiled from the things they wish teachers knew.
#4: Remember they are intelligent. Just because they aren’t proficient in the English language—yet—doesn’t mean they are “stupid.” They are deeply attuned to body language and tone of voice—be mindful of yours. They have an incredible wealth of knowledge and experiences that inform their thinking and worldviews. Ask them what they know and ask them to share their experiences, even if only in pictures. They have fascinating stories of multidimensional resilience, courage, and perseverance that each of us can learn from.
#3: Be patient. Give them time to answer, to complete their work, and to think of the words they need. Allowing time to process, to listen, to manipulate the thoughts in their minds, and express their understanding as well as they can will help them feel more confident and successful. This also necessitates a positive classroom community, in which peers are equally patient and understanding. It further necessitates teachers knowing exactly what students should walk away from class knowing each day, and sharing those objectives with the students so they can measure their own learning.
#2: Hold them accountable for their work and participation. Provide feedback on what they do well and areas they can work on to become better. Make sure each student answers questions and participates in class every day. Don’t ignore “them,” or take it easy on “them.” Challenge them to do what others are expected to do at the very least, if not more, and celebrate their progress. If you lessen or lower your expectations for them, they know this, and equate it with teachers not caring about them. When imagining what they are capable of accomplishing, students often take their cues from us. We know that our expectations of our students are often self-fulfilling, and language learners are no different.
By far the most frequently mentioned action that teachers can take to help language learners:
#1: Talk to them. Or at least try. Don’t ignore them. Talk to them about non-academic things, their interests, their dreams and goals, and what they did during the weekend. Give them responsibilities in the classroom to demonstrate trust. Talk to them honestly about the obstacles they face. Spend time, when possible, in one-on-one interactions, whether it is during class or after-school tutoring. In other words, build relationships with them. Doing so helps us remember to see what they can do, rather than what they cannot do.
From my listening and observing, it’s also vital for us to impart the following message to our students about their responsibilities:
"Many teachers and classmates may consider you as invisible. Rather than wait for the perfect circumstances or for others to take the initiative to “see” you, it’s time to take the responsibility to write, to tell your own story, and to represent yourself. You are important, and it’s up to you to ensure that everyone knows you are. Turn your dreams, hopes, experiences, goals, and thinking into action. Use them to color yourself in, to fill in the proverbial lines and make yourself fully visible. You’ve worked so hard to get where you are today. Some of you have sacrificed beyond imagination ... but your story doesn’t end here.
Ultimately, it is your responsibility to make yourself visible. Doing so will provide the missing puzzle piece for others, so they know you, and begin to see you as the complex human being you are. Once they have seen you from your perspective, and have heard your voice and your story, you will have begun to catalyze change. You will have set into motion teachers’ desires to view all students in a new way. In turn, others, too, will become visible. Their voices will be heard.”
As teachers, our role is to be actors, advocates, and allies—not bystanders. Although it’s true we live in an amazing country with powerful ideals—“The American Dream”—our journey, and that of our students, is far from over. Using the phrase “your kids” deflects our investment and responsibility in every student’s learning, and denies us the richness of their lives. English-learners are not going away. They are “our kids” through and through, an integral piece of “our world,” now and in the future.
I am not so naive as to believe all the labels or polarized conversations will disappear, but I refuse to let it be the only conversation. Listening to each other’s stories can inspire us to care in a different way and consider what we need to do differently—better—to help all of our students succeed.
It may be demanding to work with our English-learners, but in the heart of our greatest challenges, we can indeed stumble upon life’s most incredible gifts. It takes courage from all sides, which is only apt since courage comes from the Latin word for heart, at once the center and starting point for the most impactful learning.