Thursday, March 3, 2016

Crossing the Bridge from Grade one to Grade Six

So yesterday was my first day in grade six! It was just an observation day and due to the mass amounts of snow that had fallen overnight I didn't get a chance to meet very many of my future students. However, it was a great day to get to know my amazing new associate teacher and the school atmosphere.

My new placement school is grades 6, 7 and 8... very different from the K-5 school I was at before and to be completely honest the jump from grade one to grade six is incredibly intimidating for me. I absolutely loved grade one and much of the work and volunteering I have done outside of school has been with younger children. So jumping all the way to grade six is definitely pushing my comfort zone, but I am extremely excited for the learning that will come along with this jump.

I know I will have to work hard to re-teach myself parts of the curriculum, but my initial concerns are beyond content knowledge. I'm starting to worry about classroom management as well. As I observed the class yesterday I could tell the students had a great deal of respect for their teacher and this is what made them listen. How am I going to get them to respect me in the same way?

In the primary grades students really want to please their teacher. Mine even did homework for fun just to come in and show it off! But from what I understand, this is not usually the case in middle school. I'm not going to be able to compliment a student on how they are sitting and as a result the whole class will follow their lead... and the "I'm waiting" trick might not work quite as well. I have begun my research on effective classroom management for junior/intermediate students and hope to learn more with a full class of students on my final observation day next week. I'll definitely report back my findings for those who are curious.

As I began looking for teacher support on transitioning from one grade to another, I stumbled upon The Cornerstone where one reader wrote in very similar concerns to my own. I'm glad that I'm not the only one panicking about a jump in grade! The Cornerstone's article titled Advice for Teachers Who Are Changing Grade Levels had some really great thoughts, and calmed my nerves about this grade level jump. "Good teaching is good teaching" is a quote that really stuck with me. I know that if I put the time and effort into this teaching block I will be a great teacher, no matter what grade.

After spending the day observing I am incredibly excited to be back in the classroom. This block I will be teaching Language, Math, Science, Physical Education, Health and Dance. I will also be helping teach and choreograph the competitive dance team. I'm already knee-deep in resources to get my ideas flowing. I can't wait to share my experiences with you (I'll try to be better about blogging this block, but you can always check out my twitter feed @Miss_Hatfield to see what I'm up to!) Despite my initial concerns I think that having taught both grade one and grade six by the time I graduate will only make me a stronger teacher in the long run. I will embrace my commitment to lifelong learning and educate myself on the transition from primary to junior grades. I look forward to  continuing to grow and learn as a future educator.

If you have any advice to share, please do! I'm looking to learn and prepare as much as I can before beginning in the classroom full time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Valuing our Differences & Embracing Diversity

Growing up in a very culturally diverse area of Ontario I had always thought about diversity as multiculturalism. I thought about people from different cultures coming together in our schools and communities to share their stories and learn from one another about these cultural differences. This can be a very rich aspect of diversity, however, in more recent years I have learned that diversity is so much more than that.

In my post secondary studies I learned about the many diverse backgrounds children experience - not just their culture but the type of family they may come from, their individual skills, abilities or exceptionalities, their socio-economic status, gender identity and more. Before attending University I had no idea diversity encompassed anything but culture and race.

Webster's dictionary definition of diversity is "the quality or state of having many different forms, types etc." - so where did I get the idea that diversity encompassed only culture and race? Was it simply because this is all that was discussed in my schooling?

As I reflected on my own schooling experiences I began to recall where I heard the word diversity used. The first image that popped into my mind was a culture fair - a variety of booths set out around the classroom, bristol boards with the flags of many countries, trays of different foods from around the world. My teachers would talk about our class as being diverse and so everyone would share a dish and some basic facts about a country where they or their families came from. Though culture fairs can be used in very beneficial ways, in my experiences we were only skimming the surface of what cultural diversity meant while neglecting to note that culture could extend anything beyond our countries of origin.

As I participated in volunteer teaching trips overseas the diversity that can occur beyond culture became even more apparent. Now I’m not undermining the importance of cultural diversity, as I am extremely passionate about learning about different cultures and the way in which they are different but also similar to my own. I just believe that as teachers we need to learn to recognize diversity as more than culture and use diversity as a term to include all aspects of a child’s history and background.

When I taught in countries where cultural diversity wasn't nearly as prevalent as it is in Canada, I learned to value all of our differences - culturally and beyond. I taught in the small town of Katatura, Namibia where all of my students came from the same cultural background. Nevertheless, they were such a diverse group with so many interesting stories. Their family structures varied immensely as did their socio-economic statuses and their beliefs about education. When I taught in Lima, Peru I found the same thing - it wasn’t uncommon for all children to be from the same cultural background, but this did not mean they were not a diverse group of students. All of my previous experiences had been in Canada, where we often refer to our society as a “melting pot”. A country where we are so fortunate to be able to have individuals of a variety of cultures among us everyday. Teaching in an area where students all came from the same or similar cultural backgrounds really allowed me to appreciate diversity beyond culture.

Grade Two Math Class, Namibia

Grade One English Class, Peru
I recently engaged in a professional dialogue with one of my fellow teacher candidates and in our talk about diversity we found ourselves sharing travel experiences and the feelings of being a minority. It's certainly a challenge not knowing the language and the customs of where you are. But when people are eager to help you and learn about your culture, it is easy to feel more welcome. This is an idea I will certainly embody in my own classroom. It's important to recognize that students come from a variety of backgrounds, cultural and otherwise, and this can present a number of challenges. It is critical that as educators we take all necessary steps to make all of our students feel welcome and included as a part of the class and school community. 

As teachers we must be aware of the whole student and the unique and diverse qualities that come along with that. We need to be sensitive to our students' differences and not put them in uncomfortable situations - providing subsidy for school trips when needed, providing dual language posters and books, making students feel comfortable to ask questions about mental health and gender identity. No student should ever feel unwelcome or uncomfortable when a teacher embraces diversity and acknowledges the whole student. 

Furthermore, by embracing these diversities in the classroom students can learn to think critically about each and others' uniqueness and in turn learn from one another. It's important that when addressing cultural or any other type of diversity we are not just skimming the surface and providing the students with basic facts. We must challenge our students to think deeply and critically about the world around them, ask questions and engage in rich discussion for them to really gain an understanding of what diversity really means. 

Embracing Diversity in the Classroom 

"In diversity there is beauty and there is strength"
- Maya Angelou 

In my recent studies of the Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum I became interested in the grade three topic of embracing visible and invisible differences. As a part of a recent assignment a few colleagues and I designed an introductory or hook lesson to discuss various visible and invisible differences in the world around us. We used the book called "The Cutest Face" written by Rebecca Zak. This book is near and dear to my heart for a few reasons. It's written by a former teacher and mentor of mine, someone who I have looked up to since the age of 13. It is also short in text with rich pictures that can be used in a number of ways to explore students' uniqueness. 

Click here to learn more about "The Cutest Face" and see the Free Teacher Guide
A great way to introduce students to visible differences is to go through the text and discuss ways in which our appearances differ. I would then have students look at an outline of a body and record the visible differences they may see around the outside of that body. Afterwards I would engage my students in a rich discussion about ways in which we are different that we cannot see and have them record those inside the outline of the body. This a great "minds on" activity to get students thinking about how each of us is unique and can be furthered as the unit progresses into valuing, respecting and learning from those differences. 

There are so many ways to value your students' many unique features and backgrounds. I would love to hear more about the ways in which you embrace diversity in your own classroom! 

Let's get our students critically thinking about what diversity means to them and how we can value diversity at both a local and global level

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Ten Teacher Tips: Engaging English Language Learners

In any classroom one of the most important things a teacher can do is get to know their students. It is critical teachers not only know their students' strengths, weaknesses, learning styles and needs, but also their likes, dislikes and "emotional backpack" they carry with them to school. This is a term that I learned in one of my undergraduate courses that has really stuck with me. Children come to school with their backpack full of homework and school supplies but they also come to school with an invisible or emotional backpack that holds their background, life events and feelings they may have that will affect them at school. Teachers must get the time to get to know their students and these backpacks in order to cater to their needs and ensure meaningful learning is going on in their classroom.

Before I started my teaching block I had several days of observation which were incredibly helpful. I was able to sit back and watch my associate teacher teach, while helping with small assessment tasks on the side; this played a huge part in getting to know my learners before I even taught them.

After the first day of observation it became apparent to me that very few of my students spoke English at home. Even for the children who spoke English fairly well, it was not their first language. I soon found out that within this class only two of my students did not qualify for ESL (English as a Second Language) help - however, only 4 students were actually able to receive this extra help because of staffing. It got me thinking, how am I going to keep these students engaged when they may not even understand what I am saying?

I began to think about when my sister talks to me about her University program. My sister is studying math and she will ramble on and on about formulas and equations; I find that eventually I stop listening because I just cannot seem to understand what she is talking about. Well this is what I feared for my students. I did not want them to become bored and disengaged when I taught them. I wanted them to gain meaningful learning experiences where they were not bored, confused and therefore acting out. Rather, I wanted them to understand what I was saying, be engaged in what I was saying and therefore be able to add what I was teaching to their existing body of knowledge. That is when I decided to focus some attention on researching this topic.

Keeping all of my students engaged was a top priority for me. I knew my students would not be learning what I wanted them to without getting and keeping their attention. So during my observation days I began to take thorough notes about instructional strategies my associate teacher was using to engage the students regardless of their level of English. I didn't want to stop here, so I started to do some research on engaging ELLs (English Language Learners). I looked at many teacher blogs to see what other teachers had tried. I also found many of the Ministry of Education's resources to be extremely helpful.

Now as you know, I am just a teacher candidate. I have only finished one teaching block and by no means am I an expert.. but I would love to share the findings of this research project in hopes that you can use some of these strategies in your own classroom. Rather than write you a lengthy report detailing my observations, online and print sources, I decided to summarize my findings in the form of some teacher tips.

From my observations, research and addressing my own challenges, I have come up with ten tips for engaging English language learners in the 21st century classroom that really helped me - I hope you find them helpful as well!

1. Know Your Students
Like I mentioned, it is essential that teachers are taking the time to get to know each and every one of their students on both an academic and personal level. When teaching ELLs it is important a teacher gets to know each students proficiency in English; this will make designing lessons and differentiating instruction easier to do prior to the lesson.

It is also important that you do not limit these students based on their English proficiency, you should be setting high but attainable expectations for them similar to the rest of the students; just because they may not be able to communicate in English, does not mean they do not understand the content.

2. Create a Welcoming Environment
It's important that all students feel welcome in any classroom; this can be a challenge when students don't speak the language of their peers. You may fill your classroom with motivational posters - but what do these do for children who can't read and understand them?

Try and create print-rich environments where students can relate to the visuals posted around the room. This may include putting labels on everyday classroom furniture and items (i.e. desk, door, etc.) This will help your students as they begin to read English. Including clear and coherent schedules for student reference is also a great way to engage ELLs - it is not uncommon for ELLs to have come to Canada from a different country. Using visual schedules will help them to develop routine and learn what to expect each day at school.

Pronounce your students' names correctly! I know for me, nothing makes me feel more unwelcome than someone not knowing my name. This may seem straight forward, but it is critical in developing a positive rapport. Take the time to understand how to pronounce your students' names, you may even want to write your own pronunciation beside their names on your own notes at the beginning of the year, this will make the student feel welcome and a part of the class.

3. Watch Your Language
It's easy for those of us who are fluent in English to ramble on using complex words. It's always important we're using appropriate language, tone and speed when talking to our students but we must be increasingly aware when we have students in our classes that are learning English. It is important that we slow down our speech, simplify our vocabulary and frequently check in with students to ensure comprehension.

It's important that we give clear instructions and always model the correct pronunciation of words. In addition, we must watch our use of common expressions - this was a challenge for me! For example, if you tell a child who is just learning English that their nose is running, they will likely be confused as their nose is still on their face and doesn't have the legs to go anywhere!

4. Use Collaborative Learning
Working in small groups or in pairs may be intimidating for children who don't speak English, however, it can also be a fantastic socialization experience. From my own experience in my teaching block, I found that students often learned English best when engaging with their peers in lunch time or recess discussions. Having students collaborate in the classroom allows this dialogue to take place.

There may also be times when you may have bilingual students in your class. If your ELLs speak this language, your bilingual students can be a great tool to ensure your ELLs feel welcome and understand all of the work they are doing in your class. I was fortunate enough to be able to use this strategy during my own teaching block and it is definitely one that works very well.

5. Be Organized!
It's important for all teachers to be organized, but when addressing the needs of ELLs it's critical you stay on top of your classroom work and routines. As I have mentioned, keeping routine in the classroom can contribute to making learners feel welcome. It will help students to feel comfortable as they learn to anticipate what is coming in a day without surprising them or taking them off guard. Keeping effective and meaningful routines comes from the organization of the teacher.

It's also important you are staying on top of assessment, taking anecdotal notes and always being aware of your students' progress. We cannot place a label on ELLs and continue to teach them in the same way - always being aware of how they are progressing will allow you to cater your instruction to their individual needs. Being organized will allow you to prepare for this prior to your lessons, rather than having to make last minute changes.

6. Find the Right Resources
In the technological era we live in, we can simply conduct a Google search where hundreds of thousands of resources are at our finger tips...however this can become overwhelming. There are so many resources out there to help us engage ELLs that we have to look carefully to find the right ones for our students.

Bilingual dictionaries and books can work to help students better understand a book the class may be studying. There are many apps, computer programs and websites that can also be of assistance to helping your ELLs learn English: Starfall, Reading A-Z, Everything ESL...just to name a few.

It goes with being organized, we must seek out these resources and use them meaningfully in order to really benefit our students. A great place to start is with the Ministry of Education's resource: Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators. This is where I initially started doing my research during my practicum block and it was extremely helpful! Ontario's Ministry of Education has quite a few resources to help teachers with my very research topic, I definitely recommend checking them out.

7. Use a Variety of Mediums in Each Lesson
It's important that you're not delivering instructions or lessons in a single manner when trying to engage ELLs. If you are simply speaking or writing in English, they will likely become disengaged as they will not comprehend what is going on. Use a variety of mediums in every lesson so that they gain an understanding of course content or task instructions. What really worked for me was always using pictures and visual representations. Though I'm not much of an artist, when writing words on the board I would draw a picture beside them. Regardless if the child could read or understand the word I was talking about, they could always recognize the picture.

I would also model tasks as I would explain them, this way students could make a connection between my actions and words. Another great strategy I found was not only using pictures and actions, but real life objects. When I taught the grade one unit on materials, objects and structures, I brought in a box full of items made out of different materials like wood, rubber, plastic, glass, etc. As a class we sorted them to identify the materials; my students who barely spoke a word of English still learned to identify the materials correctly.

Finally, another medium that I found really worked was the use of musical chants. Singing content matter is a way to engage ELLs because it can be easier to pick up on in comparison to lengthy explanations. I taught my grade one students a short chant to the tune of Three Blind Mice so that they could remember the primary colours. When I conducted an oral assessment of which students could identify these colours, I found it was mostly the ELLs who would reference the song when I asked them - it was a great learning tool.

8. Differentiate, Differentiate, Differentiate!
Along with using a variety of mediums it is ESSENTIAL we are differentiating our instruction. There are endless accommodations we can use to ensure our ELLs are being taught and assessed fairly. It's important we allow students to demonstrate their understanding of a concept in alternative ways, this may be through drawing a picture or attempting to provide an oral explanation rather than a written report. I found in my own experiences, my grade one ELLs excelled with a combination of drawing and explaining their picture to me. The dialogue and discussion we would have about their picture was sometimes difficult for me to understand but it was a great learning experience for us both, I would help them find the right English words and they would help me to learn effective strategies to communicate with them.

Another strategy I have also read about to differentiate for older students is allowing students to research a topic in their first language, and then summarizing it for the teacher in a few English sentences. You can even check your students' research by simply putting it into an online translator to make sure they are on the right track (note: the accuracy of these translators tends to be literal and varies in accuracy).

9. Incorporate Multicultural Education
It's always important for your students to be able to relate to the content being taught in the classroom. When you have students from a variety of backgrounds, regardless if they speak English, you should always incorporate multicultural education.

I found a great way to engage my ELLs in my practice teaching was to use pictures and words to find things they could recognize and relate to. For example, when teaching healthy eating, we did not focus on the foods in Canada's food guide, but we used the portion and food groups and looked up pictures online of the foods they more commonly ate - this made the curriculum relatable and relevant for everyone!

10. Encourage the Use of Their First Language 
This was certainly a misconception for myself and I'm sure many other teachers and teacher candidates when finding out they would be teaching ELLs. I thought that there was such a focus on learning English in schools that the home was the place for the focus of the first language... however this is absolutely NOT the case. According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, there are countless positive outcomes for the student by promoting the use of the child's first language in addition to English including building confident learners, developing mental flexibility, experiencing a sense of cultural stability, developing awareness of global issues and more.

I found it wasn't uncommon for students in my placement class to be asked to speak English to each other rather than their first language by school personnel. However, in my research I learned that it's incredibly important we promote the use of both languages in a child's life. It is important that students learn English but being bilingual is a highly beneficial skill that will also keep them connected to their family and culture. One strategy I read about but did not have the opportunity to try myself was to assign certain tasks in English and others for the child to do in their first language; this may be tasks like research, journal writing or even reading books if you can get a hold of them in the child's first language.

A year ago I had the opportunity to teach English in Lima, Peru where children spoke only Spanish. This was an amazing learning experience and ignited my passion for teaching ELLs. A quote I always like to remember is "fairness is not sameness". Students don't always have to do their work or be assessed in the same manner for it to be fair. This belief of mine was only reaffirmed through my experiences with ELLs.

I hope that some of these tips and tricks will help you in your own practice. But please check out some of the great resources I found to help me in my own teaching, I hope you will find them as helpful as I did.

Ontario Ministry of Education Documents:
Supporting English Language Learners: A practical guide for Ontario Educators

English Language Learners ESL and ELD Programs and Services

Supporting English Language Learners with Limited Prior Schooling

Steps to English Proficiency 

Other Teacher Resources:
4 Strategies to Help ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom 

Engaging English Language Learners in Your Classroom 

Everything ESL

Student Resources:

Reading A-Z

Storyline Online