best practice

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!

12th and 6th grade alike?

They’re between the ages of 16 and 18.  They are IB Year 2 Biology students.  They are applying for college and looking forward to being on their own next year.  They can think critically and debate.  They can grasp high level content.  They challenge ideas.  They are aware of global issues. 

Then, within in minutes of their departure, the “little” ones walk in.  They are energetic.  They laugh spontaneously at the silliest things.  They can’t find their notebook.  They don’t have a pencil.  They pull out a crinkled, torn lab paper from the bottom of the backpack.  They are filled with wonder and thrill in discovery.

I teach 12th and 6th grade students.  On the one hand they are so different but on the other hand I am amazed at the similarities.  The most surprising discovery for me is how much my 12th graders enjoy activities that years ago I considered “beneath them”.   Last year, after a special training course on teaching English language learners, I trialed some hands-on learning activities on my seniors. Truthfully, I thought these activities would only work on my middle school students.   I mean, what 17-year old is going to want work out biological pathways through handling laminated images?  Well, I was wrong.  They LOVE it.  So, I’ve incorporated these “best practice” activities such as sequencing of sentences to form a paragraph on genetic mutations or matching laminated vocabulary words on evolution with their corresponding definitions.  Whenever I present such an activity, my older students become excited and eagerly move into position to participate.  Like the 6th graders, they learn well when they are hands on with the content.

Both grades are unique.  Both grades love learning, especially when they are engaged.  Both grades are a joy to teach.  So yes, they are alike!