REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
It has been a long time since I've updated my blog. But, it's not without good reason. It was a busy summer leading into by second exciting year at John F. Kennedy Elementary (JFK).
As summer approached, I started to wonder what I would do with my now longer vacation (2 months compared to 1.25 in Japan). I signed up for a week of newcomer (students recently arrived to the U.S.) summer school at JFK and was enrolled in a week-long math best practices training, and on my radar was the possibility of teaching at my graduate school, Saint Michael's College, in the TESOL Diploma program. I started to think maybe I wouldn't have much free summer to worry about afterall. Just a few weeks before the end of the school year I got the okay for the Diploma program and realized I had a summer of hard work cut out for me.
Math Best Practices Training
I began a post at the conclusion of my math training course. It was an intensive five-day course in nearby Shelburne where I gathered with other Vermont educators to explore math from an invigorated Common Core perspective. Here's what I wrote:
This past week I've revisited math I never thought I would use again, and I revisited it first with panic ("Oh no! I don't remember how to do this"), then with relief ("This isn't so bad, I'm starting to remember why math was fun"), and then with a productive struggle that pushed my math thinking to a whole new level ("Wow, I actually am beginning to understand what's going on with these numbers, not just the 'trick' to solve the problem).
That's as far as I got and with the wealth of information I received, read, and reflected on during that week I didn't have much post-processing time before I was teaching two different summer programs. However, it's worth revisiting as I enter the new school year, calmer, less anxiety-ridden about whether I have what it takes to be a math teacher. Math instruction was not part of my teacher training at Saint Michael's, but in many situations ELL teachers are asked to do math push-in at their schools and while our focus is on helping students access the language of math, we inevitably teach math. I've been fortunate to work in classrooms with teachers who really know their stuff, and who are willing to go the extra mile to help me understand the "core math ideas," the effective mathematical "Habits of Mind" and "Habits of Interaction." These are the identified behaviors and ways of thinking that professional mathematicians demonstrate. Despite this, last year had its challenges. While kindergarten and first grade math are arguably much less challenging than math in the later grades, what current standards and assessments ask of children is very language-based and multilayered, which is challenging for our English learners. Those who come with math skills in their own native languages have something to bring to the task, that background knowledge that is so essential, and tend to do well. However, those who don't have that background, and who are simultaneously learning English and working on building basic number sense while the rest of their classmates are learning to represent mathematical operations (equations, pictures, etc.), use numbers flexibly (make 10, add and subtract, etc.), and explain and justify their thinking, it is difficult to decide where to focus my attention. After the math best practices training, I feel more confident to address these issues, knowing the progression of math through the grade levels, and how building students' ability to attend to difficult tasks, see the value in making mistakes, and being willing to listen and learn from others are key elements to growing their mathematical selves. For myself, when faced with higher grade level math tasks in the training, getting over my panic meant that I really worked with others to see strategies that worked for them and listened to their justifications to get a better handle on what was happening when solving a problem. The most powerful learning was when we worked with geometry and had to build equations to determine the area of different shapes. This is where I could see how the work in kindergarten and first grade would later pay off for learners when they began to encounter algebra and geometry. I find it odd now when I think back on my own mathematics education that algebra and geometry seemed so separate. I look forward to another year of math learning, for myself and my students.
JFK Newcomer Summer School
One of the highlights of my summer was co-teaching in the experience-based newcomer English summer program at my school. We had 11 friends from around the world: Nepal, Somalia, Iraq and the Congo, brave and kind little souls who we got to spend the week with. Our theme for the week was "force and motion" and it began at school, reading non-fiction and doing some simple experiments to explore speed, friction and force. Everyday of the rest of the week was spent exploring Vermont through that lens. We went bowling, we took them biking on the bike path, a challenge since quite a few of them weren't comfortable on bikes yet, swimming near the lake, and to Sugarbush resort where they rode the chairlift, flew through the air on a zipline, and bounced around in the bouncy castle and suspended above trampolines. It was unforgettable for all of us.
I led Introduction to TESOL and Grammar in the Saint Michael's College (SMC) TESOL Diploma Program. In this month-long intensive course, participants gain background in the theories and methods of TESOL, a crash course in TESOL content, grammar, and contexts, as well as practical classroom experience in the SMC Intensive English Program (IEP) with international students from around the world. Veteran Diploma teacher Tracy Magel was incredibly helpful as I embarked on this journey, where I was able to reflect on my own teaching experiences, expand my own professional education, share what has worked for me over the years, and learn with a passionate, diverse group of adult students. Out of this came great discussion, debate and exploration, and a wealth of resources for new teachers including practical teaching activities, professional development videos and articles, and learning websites. In addition, I developed a deeper understanding of my own personal teaching philosophy, which focuses on the whole learner, student-centered, and active, task/project/problem-based learning.
Interested in teaching English in the U.S. or abroad? You should check out the Saint Michael's TESOL Diploma Program. There is an optional capstone project that awards participants 6 credits toward the MATESOL program. Please check out the resource section of my website for useful links related to TESOL.