Sunday, June 28, 2015

Board Game for Vocabulary Review

I am indebted to Val Baggaley, ELL Instructor at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement for sharing this great board game template. In this version that I'm sharing in the BLANK TEMPLATES section of my free resources area, I have inserted royalty-free clipart images as sample placeholders. If you have a newer version of MS Word, you can simply right-click on any image and choose "Change Picture." The new picture that you insert will then automatically size itself to fit the cell. How cool is that?

I am in love with this board game. I use it with my literacy learners either by filling it with images from the unit they have just finished (e.g., furniture and parts of the house, articles of clothing and weather) or by leaving in one item for each letter of the alphabet. The alphabet version is especially useful when we have new learners join the class who are still familiarizing themselves with the alphabet and related sounds. This is why, as you will note in the sample template, the five vowels are represented by words beginning with the short vowel sound and not the long. (Otherwise I surely would have used ice cream for "I" instead of igloo, a word my learners will perhaps never need.)

One reason I find this board game especially valuable is that it accommodates a multi-level group, as my literacy class seems always to be. Students roll a die and move coloured markers from START to FINISH. After landing on a square, the learner must at least name what is in the picture. Students are encouraged by me and by their peers to use as much English as they can muster in talking about the picture. Other players can encourage them with questions regarding colour, like/dislike, etc. When that player has run out of ways to talk about the picture, play continues clockwise.

In addition to finding this game a fun way for literacy learners to review sounds and vocabulary, I have had success using it with the seniors class. Their speaking/listening skills are at about CLB 3 while their reading ability and grammar knowledge are much higher. In general, my morning class does not like to play games, but they make an exception for this one. Well, they don't like using the dice or markers, but they readily grab copies of the game board and sit in small groups to quiz each other on the terms of the unit we've been covering. Whatever works!

For game pieces, I find that plastic-covered paper clips work wonderfully since there are many colours in a pack. I just bend one part so that it is perpendicular to the other part. This way the paperclip has a foot to rest on and a little handle by which to grab it and move it around the board. If you have game pieces from board games picked up at yard sales, all the better!

Tip: If you have a group that tends to rush through this too quickly, announcing "teacher, finished!" before another group has even made it to the halfway point, give that group a penny instead of a die. Heads = move 2 spaces; tails = move one space. Heh, heh. ;)

If you end up using Val's board game, please leave a comment to let us know how it went over with your learners, what level they are, etc. If you come up with successful variations on this game, let others know!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Critical Thinking in the ESL Classroom

On a recent Friday evening in Windsor, fifty plus ESL educators were gathered for the 'Back to the Well' workshop that I co-presented with John Sivell. While most attendees went home with new ideas on how to give their learners' brains richer conditions for second language acquisition, the participants at one table grappled with a challenge of a different sort.

John had given us a brief history of Second Language Acquisition theory, ending his crystallized overview with a description of emergentism, then had yielded the floor to me.

I had then recounted some of the ways that I have been implementing John and Chirawibha's ideas in my classroom(s), to great success. We had then distributed the 'toolbox' handout to each participant, one set of graphic organizers for each table of four, and one or two copies of a text based upon the CLB level for which each table indicated a preference.

Shortly before the workshop, I had gathered what I thought was a good variety of texts (several written and one transcribed audio) spanning Phase I adequate literacy all the way up to CLB 5+.  My sources were a free sample from a literacy series, The Ontario Reader, The Best of the Reader by Joan Acosta, and a couple of other texts recommended by a colleague. Topics were ones I assumed teachers would find familiar: David Suzuki, Canadian history, and so on.

It was hoped that at each table, teachers would take a minute to examine the text, read through the 'toolbox' handout for ideas, and then begin to brainstorm together as many ways as possible they might find it valuable to take students back again and again into that same text. Could they stretch it two days? Three? A whole week? Could it remain as engaging on day four as day one?

At most tables that is just what began to happen, but not at all of them.

At one table close to me, the intended process didn't get very far. Instead, another important issue was broached, though not very comfortably. Before discussing how to explore the language with a class, one educator felt a need to question the text itself (a CLB 3 text about Kanata, the origin of the name of Canada). This teacher was concerned about the effects of presenting such a text without encouraging some critical analysis by the learners.

What are we doing, she wanted to provoke her fellow teachers into thinking, when we teach a text like this without challenging the socio-cultural norms and structures that allow it to stand as the prevalent version of the story? 

What I think she was getting at is this: might students presume there is no version aside from this quick and simple blurb that glosses over all nasty details regarding such things as oppression and genocide? And is it our job to take the time to explore that with our learners?

That's not my role, someone else at the table may have said.

Well, that certainly is MY role, said the teacher who wanted to trigger deeper thought.

And then there was an impasse, an uncomfortable detente, a mood killer for the table, a failure to bond.

In thinking about how I wanted to bring up to you, my readers, the subject of critical thinking in the ESL classroom, I came upon this helpful article by Andy Halvorsen in the Internet TESL Journal. To be honest, I've attended workshops on critical ESL that left me feeling completely overwhelmed by the proposed task at hand, ill equipped to implement the approach. This article, on the other hand, not only gives me hope but makes me feel that I am already doing most of what is suggested.

When I invite my learners into a text, I try always to remember that nothing is written in a socio-cultural vacuum. Every story has a perspective. Are we viewing the story from the point of view of those in a position of power and privilege? If so, what might other perspectives sound like? I do believe it is of utmost importance for us as educators make such questions a regular part of classroom discussion. Why? Well, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Do I want to live in a stagnant culture that does not progress in terms of equal rights for all? Do I want to bring my learners' attention to such realities as ageism, sexism, racism, ableism? Rhetorical question, clearly.

Getting back to the frosty mood at table one, how might the participants have proceeded? Maybe we could first have students try to imagine how the text might sound if written from the point of view of First Nations people? Could different teams come up with a few perspectives? One team might even take the point of view of the trees that looked on as events were transpiring. Then the groups could come together to examine the most interesting (worthy of study) nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that all groups used in their versions.

In fact, one of the activities John and Chirawibha recommend is one in which students categorize words as having either positive, neutral, or negative connotation. This can lead to much debate. Think about it.

The word "institution" may be neutral to you, but has a strongly negative connotation to me since that is where doctors wanted to put my baby brother when he was born with spina bifida. The word "school" may be positive for my literacy student who is over the moon being able to attend classes for the first time in her life. But what about First Nations elders alive today who were forced into residential schools as children? This one graphic organizer is in itself an exercise in critical thinking.

How about you? How comfortable are you prodding your learners to probe assumptions and question the values imbedded in the texts you present to them? Do you worry that you'll trigger conflict among the learners--conflict that will spiral out of control? Or do you, like my friend the provoker, feel that it is part of your job to help students think critically about the text that has been set before them?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Hook

My first TESL gig was a four-hour-per-week pronunciation class that met over the lunch hour. The afternoon that will stick forever in my memory is the day I brought my African drum to school. Having just recently hired me, my supervisor had advised me that he wanted to sit in on one of my lessons just to get a feel for my teaching style.

Fresh from my TESL course, I dutifully put together a lesson plan with all the requisite parts. Since it was to be a lesson on syllabification and stress, I thought that my drum would make a nice hook. I would set the drum atop my desk and leave it there in plain sight as learners arrived and took their seats.

"Why might I have brought this drum in today?" I could ask them. That would be a great hook.

So much about my teaching has changed since those first months. And though I don't always remember or bother to start each lesson with a hook, I probably should. Certainly I notice a deeper sense of engagement on the part of the learners when I pull it off well.

Tuesday, the antepenultimate school day before summer break, was to be sports and activities day. There would be floor hockey and dance lessons in the auditorium while my classroom space would host board game stations.

I figured there were two ways I could go about preparing my students to open our space as a game room. I could greet them from the front of the class with that typically nasal teacher voice: "Today, class, we are going to learn to play some North American board games."


I could try to hook them.

The fact that my morning group has expressly requested that we waste spend zero time playing games helped me decide which approach to take. Before anyone arrived, I removed some game pieces from their boxes and placed them at students' places around the room. On the board I wrote a few questions:

  • How many people can play this game?
  • What is the object of this game?
  • How do you play it?
  • What are the rules?

I then left to finish my photocopying, ensuring the students would have some time in the space to ponder the objects and questions without me there. I like giving curiosity time to mount.

How about you? 

Do you believe that starting with a 'hook' makes for a better lesson? If so, is there a favourite way to get that instant engagement that you'd like to share with other teachers? I'd love it if you'd leave your idea in the comments.

By the way, games and activities day went really well. The supposedly games-averse seniors really got into Tangoes and Quarto. Two men enjoyed their Scrabble match so much that one asked to borrow the board so as to be able to play with his wife over the summer.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Families Come in All Colours, Shapes and Sizes


As you know, I have begun the journey of learning how to make my classroom (and help my agency become) a saf-ER space for newcomers who are members of the LGBTIQ2+ community. During a recent meeting with others engaged in the same process of education and self-assessment, I mentioned that I had created some materials for my literacy learners in which non-traditional families such as those with two moms or two dads were part of the lesson. One person helping to facilitate the workshop I attended expressed interest in having me share these materials and how I use them with other instructors.

Before I would feel comfortable or confident sharing what I've created, I would want to flesh it out A LOT. So I had the idea of creating a series of vignettes of some less traditional family models. So! I need some families living in Canada who would be willing to write a little autobiographical blurb about the members of the family OR tell the story of their family. The subjects are free to focus on the thing that makes their family less traditional or not mention it at all, rather talking about family members' hobbies or the like (or a bit of both).

I would like to offer students of settlement English an illustration to go with each family bio. While I prefer a high resolution, quality colour photo or two, for those families not comfortable with that, we could perhaps produce a line drawing based on a photo or substitute stock photos that resemble the family members.

As for names, I would ideally like to be able to use first names and province, but I am open to publishing some "names have been changed" stories as well. As Erin--one of my consultants on this project--has helped me to see, varying degrees of willingness to out oneself in published photos is in itself a reflection of an aspect of Canadian society that our newcomers can learn about.

If you feel that the kind of family of which you're a part is under-represented or not accurately represented in teaching materials and you would be willing to star in this little book I'm putting together, then it's you I'm looking for.
Aaron and Steph, Childfree by Choice

I am still in the brainstorming / collecting stage, so perhaps the material I receive will dictate the direction in which I take this.

To initiate email correspondence, you can leave a comment on this post or use the flying envelope (contact me) icon at the bottom of the ABOUT ME page.

Thank you so much!