REaChing for the stars
Empowering Multilingual Learners
This blog post was originally published on the on June 6, 2016.
This year, the Winooski School District family English classes took on a new project. Women in their third year of after school English classes explored the world of biography with the goal of writing their own autobiographies. ELL teachers and classroom teachers teamed up to create a year-long curriculum using processes of project-based learning (PBL). The fall semester was spent reading biographies on historical figures. Books were found through the school libraries and provided reading material for students at different levels. Students participated in a combination of shared read alouds, independent reading and choral reading. Characteristics and features of biographies were identified and discussed, such as sequential life events written in a timeline, or a central message to a person’s life story. The teachers used elements of responsive classroom, a greeting meeting and team building activity, to create a sense of community in the class and introduce elements that scaffolded biography work. For example, when discussing how stories often share memories linked to emotions, students might have played “feeling” charades to preview vocabulary and assess understanding. As stories were read in class, students were encouraged to make connections with text and extend their learning through speaking and writing.
In the second semester, the focus was on students creating their own autobiographies. The literacy levels of the class varied, so much of the preparatory work was oral. As students were asked to tell or write memories from different times in their life, the women found similarities between their tales. Each story showed emotion: sadness, joy, and laughter were all present as students creatively put all of their English vocabulary to use to convey their meaning. All students made incredible effort to put their words on paper, and then these were typed up into formal autobiographical texts. Teachers asked questions to make writing more detailed and encouraged verbal recounting and peer sharing. In the end, work was published into a book and each student chose one memory to tell for a movie. A public showcase celebrated their hard work.
The women graciously agreed to put their book up for sale in order to help the district raise more money for future family literacy work. If you are interested in supporting this cause, please follow this link.
The movie can be seen here.
For a curriculum guide and template, which was presented at the NNETESOL Conference in 2016, click here.
Tomorrow, the kids come back. Last night, I climbed a wall, all the way to the top. This post is about why I think climbing is a good metaphor for teaching.
I haven’t been climbing, and I mean indoor mock rock climbing, for very long, just a handful of times. The first time I did it, I was petrified of moving beyond jumping distance of the floor, but gradually, as I got comfortable with the belay system and talked myself through my heart-racing fear of heights, I started to have fun. This experience is not unlike the first time you observe a class you will teach in, or realize someone is going to watch you do a lesson, or even experience that bit of anxiety that still makes you have nightmares before the first day of a new school year. Once you’re past that though, you start to pay attention to the course ahead, and enjoy puzzling out your route. Imagine the wall is a class of students, and it presents various challenges, some of them complex, some of them straightforward. The wall is also within a building of many walls, the school community, or if I ever get outside, a rock face of a bigger mountain (I’m quite comfortable in my building!). The toe holds jutting out from this wall are crucial, and I equate those to all the professional development and training we do as teachers. While there are incredible amounts of research and resources behind these toeholds, and complex systems in place, we just hang on to those key pieces that are going to move us up the wall, towards successful learning with our students.
We wouldn’t be climbing if we didn’t use our upper body, our arms and our hands to reach higher and higher with every balanced step. Those reaches are our own creativity, flexibility and patience as we look for that next move towards helping a child make progress. The handholds are the positive learning experiences we achieve with our students, and when we reach them, we are confident, and we are motivated to keep on climbing. Even when our muscles start to burn, and feel like they might give way, and the next hold seems too distant, we know that if we just keep reaching, we’ll make some progress towards the top. At times, we may have to take a break, or at least I know I do, and rely on the support of others. My husband is a fantastic climbing buddy, he tells me to hang back on the rope to look at my route, take a breath, and get right back to it. Just like my colleagues and I at school remind each other to take time for ourselves, to step back from a situation to get clarification, and then keep trying. When we reach the top, when we see a child succeed, it is exhilarating. We can then look back and say, “Wow! That was hard, but we made it.” The next route will be challenging too, and as we attempt higher and higher climbs, we may experience some of that same old fear of heights creeping back in, but when we know the result of our efforts is that fantastic feeling of reaching the top, it is worth overcoming our jitters.
Each time we climb, there will be familiar aspects too. Some of those footholds will ring a bell, and we’ll be thankful when we see them. Some of those handholds will remind us of other times when we felt like we were in the “zone,” and we will be delighted that creating that positive learning experience almost seems routine now. In our discussions with other climbers, we will gain new techniques that make our climb more exciting or manageable. We will watch other climbers too, and we will be in awe of their skill, hoping one day to reach their level of calm, flexibility and grace as they swing, jump and pull themselves into harmony with the wall, the challenges of education.
I’m thrilled to step onto the wall, both at the gym and at school. Can’t wait for another great year!
This article will also be available on the NNETESOL board blog at http://www.nnetesol.org/blog/.
By Sarah Forbes
After a four day training for responsive classroom, thanks to our school’s supportive administrators, I feel confident that the philosophies embedded in this approach are significant for all students, including ELLs, and the corresponding activities have great adaptive value for practicing language and content. Responsive Classroom aims to answer the question of how we can teach the whole child, and recognizes that a learner's basic needs, including belonging, significance and fun, need to be met in order for academic learning to be at its best. It also argues that academic choice, which considers the various learning styles and developmental stages of students in a classroom, results in greater student engagement and “buy-in.”
It is exciting that our current administration is supporting this shift towards a more complete Responsive Classroom, as community, interaction, student choice and fun have always been central to my own teaching philosophy. When I worked with high school and college age EFL students in Japan, I had a lot of freedom in the content I taught and how I taught it. I tried to infuse all of my lessons with interactive and energetic activities, creative practice with meaningful content, and student choice. Even reluctant students, those who struggled to see why they were required to learn English, couldn’t help but be drawn in by the enticing, student-centered quality of collaborative projects, games, and story creation.
New England's chapter of the TESOL organization hosted their annual conference this past weekend at the University of New Hampshire and my colleague Courtney Bryan and I went to present on the thematic units we co-create and co-teach in kindergarten math.
This one day conference is a great way to network with other teachers and professionals of English language education in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and to get some fresh ideas to take back to our classrooms.
The conference kicked of with a keynote address by Dr. Danling Fu of University of Florida. Her presentation, titled "From a Monolingual to Translanguaging Pedagogy Model," discussed her experience as a bilingual individual and those of her students. She emphasized a definition of bilingual that acknowledges that languages do not operate in separate, parallel ways, but in one interconnected mind that may be stronger in certain aspects of one language than another, but combines languages and literacy into a unique identity. She urged educators to look at "translanguaging from a pedagogical perspective of systematically structuring classrooms with multilingualism in mind," capitalizing on students home language literacy and recognizing their rich linguistic identity.
I realized the power of attending such a conference with someone I teach closely with in the next presentation by Anne Wright Shank on using iMovie with students. Anne shared a great resource her and her colleague had made, the website "Lights-Camera-Action", where they've posted a tutorial for teachers/students on how to get started with iMovie. There are also tips on how to move forward as well as examples of student movies and trailers linked from the site. While watching these movies, Courtney and I took notes, and as often happens with us, our ideas kept flowing as we bounced them off of each other. Anne shared some great ways to use video with students, such as:
Beth Evans, ELL teacher in the Burlington School District and board member of NNETESOL since 2006, put on a stellar workshop on combining dance and movement with language instruction. This was incredibly valuable to us. Through her work at the Integrated Arts Academy, a magnet school in the north end of Burlington, Beth partnered with The Flynn Center of the Performing Arts and Lida Winfield to help newcomers learn English via an integrated arts approach. Lida, a pioneer in arts and content integration, visited Beth and her colleague Suzy King every Friday to work with students on building community and language, through movement, joy, and student risk-taking. Beth's workshop led us through a plethora of example dance and movement activities and games that had us all laughing and leaving inspired. The video above shows some of the short energizers Lida did with Beth's class that Beth also demonstrated with us at the conference. Beth has shared the journey with Lida on this blog. We left feeling ready to put some of these ideas to work in our own classroom and today we tried out a partner counting dance that was a great success.
Finally, Courtney and I presented ourselves, on "Making Math Meaningful for Young ELLs Through Thematic Units". We didn't have quite as many participants as we'd hoped, but all who came were eager to share in the discussion and celebration of the math atmosphere we have created at JFK. For math in kindergarten, I pull our newcomer students from other kindergarten classrooms and then we push-in to Courtney's classroom. Together, Courtney and I plan and teach lessons to target our school's math curriculum plan, which combines Common Core Math Standards with previous work done through Investigations. Last year, we had a high percentage of ELLs in the classroom, and we also struggled to get kids interested in math in the beginning of the year. We decided to reframe our math units around themes that were both familiar from other subjects in their day and interesting to them. We started with a unit on measurement and counting with the theme of Jack and the Beanstalk, with letters written from the Giant posing challenges and questions to the students, where they were counting beans, measuring the giant's footprints, and ordering number leaves. We'd piqued their interest. From then on, we've always strived to tie units together with a theme that helps students access math through familiar vocabulary and themes as well as concrete counting and problem solving tools. By the end of last year, we were able to bridge students to more abstract ways of thinking about and solving problems.
Math can be a real challenge for ELL teachers who are called upon to teach it, but are not trained in math content in their teacher training programs. Courtney has always been open to working with me, to both share her knowledge of content, and build on my ideas for infusing the language instruction students need to be successful at math. Our respect for each other and willingness to co-plan and co-teach is a large part of why our math units feel so fun and successful. We get to know our students and their needs well, and having two of us in the classroom allows us to be flexible and adapt materials and instruction to reach each student where they are.
This week began our fourth week of school and our second week of PEP classes. PEP stands for Parents as Educational Partners, which is a program that started at The Center, in Arlington Heights, Illinois. The Center offers trainings and a curriculum for schools interested in teaching a parent English class which builds parents communication and literacy skills through content that fosters their confidence in joining the school community and supporting their children's education. My colleagues at Winooski School District, under the urging of Nancy Devost (my mentor teacher from years ago) and grant money began this program two years ago. At the end of the first year, several of the moms who had attended the PEP class provided unanimous feedback that they wanted to learn how to read. In response, the teachers created a PEP II. A class specifically for those who have completed the first PEP class and want to continue building their literacy skills.
My colleague Kristin Van Fossen and I decided to teach this section of PEP this year, and we recruited two classroom teachers, Lisa Bushey, kindergarten, and Jaime Willoughby, first grade, to join us as well. We will co-teach the course, English teacher and classroom teacher, on alternate weeks. In our first two weeks, we decided to all facilitate, so that students could meet us all and we could carry out entry assessments. We've been using an assessment adapted from the USA series by Cengage Learning (National Geographic).
We also decided on a daily class routine which takes elements of responsive classroom (a community meeting) including an interactive written greeting, a team building activity, and some calendar work before we will either do whole group literacy work (community reads, spelling work, projects) or level-targeted reading and writing activities. We will follow this with a closing activity where students can share something they learned or did each class. This week, for our community meeting, I borrowed an activity I found through watching some of the teacher training videos on the New American Horizon's Website (great resource!) for our community meeting activity. For this activity, we had the students write the letters of their names on individual index cards, and then we shuffled all of the letter cards and spread them in a big circle all around us. We took turns saying our names and spelling them while everyone else in the group had to find and order the letters to spell the names. This is an activity we can later use to target key lesson vocabulary and spelling. The students really enjoyed it and it gave us an opportunity to see how they did with quick letter recognition.
I think by now we've met all of the moms who will come to our class, though with their hectic work and family schedules we will need to be flexible about when people come. I'm very excited to work with these inspiring women who in addition to raising families and working full time are making time to improve their lives through study. I was able to watch them write in their native alphabets, in Karen, Somali, and Swahili. Their smiles and perseverance are a great gift and addition to my teaching experience.
In the school day, as I work with some of their children, I used letter cards in another way this week. We're working on learning our color words in first grade and I placed the letters for each color word into ziploc bags. In pairs or groups of three, students worked to unscramble all the letters in their bag, spell it out loud, and race to another bag to focus on word order, initial and ending sounds, and using resources like a labeled poster to help them puzzle out their words.
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.
This past March 26th and 27th, I attended my first TESOL convention, and felt invigorated as I roamed the halls and classrooms of the impressive Metro Toronto Convention Center over two days of busy learning and connecting. I was astounded at the amount of coincidental meetings with new and familiar faces, inspired by the work being done by passionate educators and researchers in the field of English language teaching (ELT), and honored to be counted among the presenters.
On the morning of my presentation, I grabbed a coffee and muffin and sat down with a stranger, Kirti, from Delhi, India. As I chatted with her, I learned that she was a colleague and friend of a welcoming woman I had met two years ago at the Asia TEFL conference in Delhi, Jayshri Kannon. Jayshri had invited me for an authentic Indian experience when I was attending the conference, a generous and unforgettable gesture of kindness for someone she’d just met. We’ve since remained friends on Facebook. I enjoyed chatting with Kirti and marveled at the way global organizations such as TESOL are able to bring people from around the world, from all walks of life, together in the name of improving teaching and learning. As I continued on to prepare for my presentation in my allotted session space, in walked Mark from Japan, an acquaintance from the Task-Based Learning Special Interest Group (TBL-SIG) of the Japanese Association of Language Teachers (JALT), an organization which I was a member of while in Japan. In fact, it was at the TBL conference in Osaka, Japan in 2012 where I gave my first poster presentation on project-based learning (PBL), encouraged forward in my work by the supportive community of the TBL-SIG. Oana strolled in after, another familiar face from the TBL-SIG, and suddenly, the task ahead wasn’t so daunting anymore. Two other colleagues and friends from Japan also came to support me. As I shook hands, gave hugs, and welcomed those who were there to learn from me, I was reminded that I am part of an extraordinary local and global community of people who are dedicated to helping their students be successful learners, and I couldn’t wait for my own learning to start.
I wasn’t disappointed by the fantastic line-up of sessions I attended over the two days I spent at the convention. Here are some of the high-lights:
Building Bridges between Rigorous Standards and ELLs
I've been at John F. Kennedy (JFK) Elementary now for almost 6 months. The time has elapsed quickly, as everyday is filled with teaching and learning, and there is never a dull moment. Do I occasionally find myself missing the generous preparation time allotted to teachers in my last teaching position? Yes. Do I sometimes find myself plugging away at pulling curriculum together or reorganizing the piles of paper that have stacked up on my desk through the week late on a Friday evening? Yes. Is it all worth it? Yes!
Our elementary English language learning (ELL) department has one of the highest teacher-student ratios in the state and I'm currently providing services in language and math for 35 students in grades K - 1. My day is spent doing a combination of pull-out literacy and academic language support and development and push-in math. I work closely with both the kindergarten and first grade teaching teams. My day begins with a rapid fire teacher meeting from 7:30 - 8:00, and a planning time from 8:00 - 8:45 in a small room full of boisterous fifth graders that I share with two other ELL teachers, I am eternally grateful for the fact that I have so many great teachers around me, a suggested curriculum timeline from the last teacher in my position, and YouTube. YouTube has a wealth of free resources that are easily adapted for classroom use and eagerly received by students.
I will admit that since I have been at JFK, I have spent many a weekend singing along to songs that we've played over and over again in the classroom, much to the chagrin or amusement of my family and friends. There are songs and raps that integrate challenging academic concepts and vocabulary, like "metamorphosis", in catchy tunes that students can't help but remember. I was so inspired by these amazing YouTube video creators that I myself wrote an "Apple Rap" for my students when we were studying the life cycle of apples. When students came to making their own books about the life cycle, I heard, "I can't spell apple!" and reminded them to sing the apple rap. To their own amazement as they sounded out the chorus "Apples, apples, a.p.p.l.e!" they realized they had just spelled the word apple. This apple rap also provided written material that students could use to high-light site words and read along to when we sang. We followed this by great songs on YouTube about the life cycle of pumpkins, butterflies and frogs. For the frog rap, I created a simple cloze activity where students had to listen and look for specific words in the song and on the screen and I saw a heightened level of engagement in the students as they read the text trying to identify missing words. These songs are so catchy and memorable that students still sing songs we learned in the first week of school.
In math, songs and videos on YouTube provide tons of fun and interactive practice with counting and other math concepts. This one here is a favorite in the kindergarten classes.
In first grade, math concepts make a big leap. With the Common Core as a guide, students are being challenged to be flexible in how they solve problems and use numbers. These often complex math concepts are accompanied by an array of math terminology that adds a layer of complication for many students, including our English language learners. Realizing the unique power of song I wrote a math rap for my students that also helped them get some of the vocabulary of math straight. In the future, I hope to take these lyrics and have students learn them, recite them and record them, so we too can add to the wealth of learning materials on YouTube.
And, it's not just songs. When the frigid winter provides no opportunities for real life observations of life cycles, videos on YouTube provide time lapses of these metamorphoses. Other videos, such as this one on the story of Austin's butterfly, can model for children language and processes of critique and feedback.
Students can also watch animated versions of their favorite books, which often provide dramatic voice changes and soundtracks that make the stories come alive for learners.
Thank you YouTube for these endless resources and for the hassle free way you've (plural including all people involved) allowed us to enrich classrooms and engage students!
For my growing list of early learning videos please check out this playlist.
My teaching life has changed dramatically, from EFL in a private monolingual Japanese engineering high school/college, to ELL instruction in Vermont's Winooski school district for kindergarten and first grade students from a diverse mix of language and cultural backgrounds. The experience is challenging, invigorating and loads of fun! In my new position, I am privileged to work closely with eight talented classroom teachers, as well as fellow ELL teachers and support staff, to provide support for up to 54 English language learners (ELLs). This past week, my services extended to accompanying and chaperoning kindergarten classes to Shelburne Farms, a fantastic local farm that provides educational programs to local school children. The power of experiential learning was evident in the enthusiasm of these young learners. From the moment we stepped on the bus, students were besides themselves with excitement. Some of these children had never been on a bus, and their eyes roamed the landscape, their bodies bouncing up and down in their bus seats, unable to contain their curiosity.
At the farm, we were greeted by experienced educational leaders who outlined the days activities. Students were split into small groups of 8 to 10 and went off to participate in engaging learning opportunities and games. We began by learning about tomato plants, as one student was dressed in a costume to teach the parts of tomato. This visual was incredibly helpful for the ELL students, and Christie Nold, the Educational Program Coordinator at Shelburne Farms, did a fantastic job of supporting new English speakers with vocabulary repetition, songs and verbal cues.
The students learned the five things tomato plants need to survive: sun, water, air, space and soil. They went on a treasure hunt to find each of these five items to complete a beaded bracelet. As they did so, they also learned how to work as a team with attention grabbers such as "magnetic toes" (all students in a circle with toes touching) and "make a circle make it round, make it round, make it round, make a circle, make it round, make a circle" to the tune of "London Bridge is Falling Down". Learners who had barely spoken a word since their first day of school less than two weeks before were verbally identifying things in their surroundings: cars, tractors, birds, animals, plants, flowers, etc, and raising their hand to answers Christie's questions. It was a great opportunity for me to connect with my students and see what they are capable of.
In the garden, we picked strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, carrots, green beans and corn. All of which students gobbled up. We met and pet cows, goats, chickens, sheep, pigs, donkeys and turkeys. We sang a song to shake a jar of buttermilk and turn it into butter, then ate the butter we'd made on crackers. Children were adventurous. I saw many of them look skeptically at food or animals at first and then find the courage to give something new a try. On the second day, students even had the chance to milk a cow and feed baby goats. We ran, ran, and ran some more, up and down hills and through the forest. Smiles were abundant. It was an exhausting blast! It's no surprise that quite a few children fell asleep on the bus ride back to school.
This field trip was organized by the kindergarten teachers at JFK to spark students' interest and curiosity in gardens, because they will be participating in a year-long project called "The Kinder Gardens" as part of a school-wide initiation to incorporate project-based learning into classroom curriculum. I think that all of the kindergarten teachers would agree that this trip was a huge success in that regard.
I plan to use the pictures I took to make a book that I can use with the ELLs to review what they saw and help them build vocabulary and language to access other aspects of the project through-out the year. I look forward to more fun times with my new friends!
I haven't had time to write about the big career and location change I have recently made and that has brought me back to my home state, Vermont.
First, a little background.
I decided I wanted to pursue my professional teaching qualifications while working with a fantastic group of preschoolers at an international kindergarten in Osaka, Japan, Kinder Kids in 2005. During this time, I could see how quickly my hard-work and creativity in curriculum planning turned into fun and learning for my students. Three and four year olds are full of energy, curiosity, and imagination and I found myself wanting to know more about development and education in their presence.
In 2008, when I was working towards my Masters and K-12 teaching license, I did my student teaching at John F. Kennedy Elementary in Winooski, VT, the town neighboring Burlington. Here I worked with a very diverse group of students who were mostly part of the refugee community. Burlington is a refugee-friendly city, and accepts people from all over the world annually who come to rural Vermont from war-torn countries or refugee camps in Africa, Thailand, India, and elsewhere where they have often lived for years, forced from their homelands by political and violent turmoil. Working with this community gave me a profound respect for the struggles of this refugee population and also the volunteers and teachers who help them to transition and thrive in their new home.
It is in Burlington where I met my husband, began to build my professional network, and fell in love with the more "urban" Vermont landscape along the breathtaking Lake Champlain.
After graduation, I was lucky to find a job as the After School Coordinator of Barnes Elementary School, now the Sustainability Academy of Burlington, VT. It was an exciting and challenging year, but I ultimately missed being in classrooms with children. The lack of English language learner (ELL) teaching jobs in the area encouraged me to look elsewhere for work. It is this chain of events that brought me back to Japan and over four exciting years of life abroad, travel around Asia, and the chance meet and work with many wonderful learners and teachers in the process.
In June, a friend of mine who works at JFK Elementary sent me an email informing me of an opening for a kindergarten and first grade ELL teacher. My initial reaction was that it was impossible. I felt nervous about the lack of time to pack up our lives in Japan and move, and also about the extreme shift for me as a teacher, from high-school and college-level EFL to early elementary ELL instruction. However, as I talked it through with my husband, I found myself remembering those Japanese preschoolers, the supportive group of teachers at JFK Elementary, and the diverse communities of Burlington and Winooski. As I went through the interview process, I got more and more excited. Winooski is working on some innovative, school-wide initiatives that have teachers pumped and students paying attention. Answering questions about my work with young children made me thrilled at the possibility of working with them again. In an interview with the Superintendent, I got to hear about the project-based learning movement at the school. If you have followed my blog or looked through my website, you know that this is one of my passions.
I write this from my new apartment in Burlington, VT, a short ten minute drive from my new school. While it was incredibly hard to say good-bye to Japan, to my students, colleagues and friends, I feel confident I've made the right decision. Two weeks ago I had my first orientation days and an inspiring WIDA training, and this week I've had in-service trainings focused around collaborative project-based learning team planning and mindfulness (a huge part of managing stress for both teachers and students). The teachers I've worked with are all passionate team players who want the best for their students and I'm looking forward to supporting them, and to meeting all of my new learners. I will have about fifty learners between kindergarten and first grade to provide with pull-out (of mainstream classrooms) and push-in instruction. This is the typical structure of ELL services in U.S. schools. The WIDA ACCESS test monitors their language progress, with particular attention to their CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) development. Immersed in English in their American school and community, these learners often pick up social and communicative language much faster than the more challenging language of academics that will help them be successful in U.S. schools.
It is my hope that I can help new learners gain those foundation skills through working closely with classroom teachers to build vocabulary, phonics, numeracy and critical thinking skills needed to help them access mainstream content, and to establish a love of learning. I also aim to connect with families to forge strong school-home relationships and educate parents as to how they can help students by building strong background in their home languages.
I have a challenging road ahead, and I will do my best to keep this site up to date with new resources, stories and ideas for working with young ELLs.
I'm Sarah Forbes. I'm the