Same Curriculum BUT Different Class, Different Needs

I remember telling colleagues once, “If I’m teaching the same exact lessons in 20 years, please shoot me”.  However, once you’ve put a lot of time and energy into a lesson and it went well, you think, “That could be used again”.   Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, it can always be a little better.  Whether it’s considering the EAL students more, including more formative assessments, being more clear on a given point(s), engaging the students even more, employing the perfect follow-up activity. etc.  There’s ALWAYS something to improve on.

They are new students.  Their academic levels, based on our standards, are unknown.  Their English skills are unknown.  Where to begin?  Well, in Science, laboratory safety is a good place to start.  The students must understand this content before embarking on any experiment and it conveniently serves to formatively assess language skills.

After reviewing the location of all emergency equipment the command is given, “Everyone point to the location of the emergency shower”.  If a student doesn’t respond until he/she sees others pointing, it is a sign of a potential English language weakness.  The items of lab safety have been explicitly discussed and demonstrated and a simple, multiple-choice quiz that is designed for everyone to reach 100% is administered.  When students struggle to understand the questions, taking an exceedingly long amount of time to complete the quiz, or querying several times,“what does this mean” or simply guessing their way through , there’s another sign of a potential English language gap.  A brief one-on-one conversation is usually also a dead give away of some challenges we, as teachers, might face with different students in the upcoming year.

This year, indeed, one of my classes has more EAL learners in it than in preceding years.   Of course, this means immediate adjustments.  The good news, however, is that often these adjustments and modifications are simply what we refer to in the profession as “best practices”.  For example, for EAL learners an introduction to the vocabulary words they will face in the upcoming unit is often beneficial.  So, a gap activity proves useful not only to them but everyone else in the class.  They are given cards to match; one has the definition, while another has the coinciding vocabulary word.  They work in teams to match words they already know and to decipher words they don’t know yet.  The deciphering process is very useful as it encourages analysis of roots within a word (of course, the students don’t know that’s what they are doing) and to study the language for any clues they can pick up from context or correlation to their mother tongue.

Knowing that students would be deciphering vocabulary definitions from Internet web sites with the task of converting the definitions into their own words, I took the Internet definitions and put them on the cards.  The students were encouraged to read words and definitions aloud to each other in pairs, seeking for understanding and finding the matches.  Each card is discussed as a class together, while we work through reading strategies and explicitly cover the content.  Then, I share the glorious trick of Google Translate (which, to my surprise my students did not know): if you copy and paste a web link into Google Translate, it will translate the entire web page for you!  Their eyes really lit up with excitement when I shared that.  Hopefully the research task was, indeed, easier.   

So, the bottom line, is that we must evaluate our curriculum each year to determine how well it fits to the current students in our class(es).  We must not fear change as it is directed by the need to modify and adapt lessons to meet the needs of our students.  It will only make our students more successful and us better.  Embrace change!

Language Mayhem: One of the challenges at international schools

Today a new student started high school.  

He speaks no English. And I mean NO English.  No matter what I say or gesticulate, he just nods his head.  Not even “yes” or “no” at this point.  The instructions I received for today were to not “make” him speak and “just let him follow along”.

My students are in the middle of a lab that they started on Friday.  I feel desperate to give this new student some idea of what we are doing so I resort to Google Translate.  I formulate a series of simple sentences that I hope will translate reasonably well.  Of course, he only nods his head in response but it’s something, right?  He watches as the other students perform the lab.  His eyes are bloodshot.  He rubs his eyes, his face, trying to appear somewhat focused.  He’s clearly exhausted.  I know how tiring it can be to spend the entire day surrounded by a foreign language and that is even when I understand most of what is being said!  He has to pick up everything through visual clues.

Despite its shortcomings, Google Translate is one of my favorite sites these days.  I’ve used it this year for students speaking French, Dutch, Portuguese, Turkish, and Japanese.  It allows us to communicate.  I ran one of the sentences I used today through a series of English to Japanese to Dutch to Hindi to Malay and back to English just to see what I got back. I figured if it was remotely close to my original phrase then my initial translation probably made sense to the new student.   I chose the languages represented by the student population in this particular class.  “We are doing a lab right now” transformed to “Now we have a laboratory” – that’s pretty good, right?  

I am incredibly impressed by the resilience of these students who arrive with no language skills. While a few shut down and refuse to move forward, thrusting themselves and those around them into a negative spiral of frustration, others tackle the challenge with vigor, engaging themselves and attempting to speak with the most rudimentary set of words and phrases.  It is incredible to watch them grow and develop becoming fluent and fully participatory both socially and academically.  I hope this new student falls into the latter category.

This relates to a previous post of mine pondering the value of providing an intensive language course for new students who are English language learners.  A friend responded on fb to my post suggesting some ideas, including tapping into the volunteer organization at the school or perhaps offering Saturday sessions for language learners.  She added, “you need a network, you can’t do it alone”.  It’s true, for the successful language learners I see they do have a network including themselves, their parents, their ESL teachers, their peers, and their classroom teachers. Oh, and Google Translate.

Does anyone have an experience of their own to share or a story of someone they know who successfully acquired a language in a short period of time?  What are the ingredients to success?

Intensive language course for language learners?

“Go cafeteria?” he points to himself.

I look at him and the clock.  The class just came from lunch, two minutes ago.  “What do you need in the cafeteria?”

His response is unintelligible.  “Do you need food?”  He nods affirmatively.  So I figure because of the language barrier he somehow missed lunch.  I let him go.

A few minutes later he returns with the school nurse who then asks the class, “Has anyone seen Josue’s coat?  He says he left it in the cafeteria” 

With this level of language skills it feels like a waste of time for Josue to even be in science class.  He has no idea what is going on.  He doesn’t understand instructions.  He doesn’t understand the tasks.  He is just following the crowd.  He Google translates every printed word I give him.  I've had EAL training.  I have a skill set to help language learners, however, even this need is beyond my current abilities.  He has a good attitude.  He’s trying.  By the end of science class, which is towards the end of the day, his eyes gloss over.  He’s exhausted. 

It seems it would be best for these brand new language learners to just take intensive language instruction for a few weeks before entering the classroom.  Then, they would be so much better equipped to cope and more able to begin learning in their new language.