Monday, September 28, 2015

What did YOU teach this week?

Having a bad cold is really no excuse. If you want to build readership of a blog, you need to stick to the promised schedule and post regularly. So I apologize.

The fact is that I had hoped to publish a post about tackling pronunciation in the ESL classroom, but the post grew so long that I'll now have to publish it in two instalments. I'm still working on it. In the meantime, why don't I just tell you what I taught this past week and which resources I found most useful?

My morning class asked to learn how to shop online. I used the English for Financial Literacy documents by the Toronto Catholic District School Board found on the wiki. The volume for CLB 3-5 was VERY helpful.

I also found a presentation on called Shopping and Banking Safely Online, which fit our needs perfectly.

One student began using as a result of what we learned during this week-long unit. However, they chose to get into a different (though connected) topic next: how to get and use a credit card.

My afternoon (LINC Literacy) class had just finished a week of learning some language to R/W/L and speak about food staples. Our second week of the FOOD unit was spent setting up the classroom just like Food Basics--our only supermarket in the downtown core. After learning shopping vocabulary such as shopping bag, shopping cart, list, aisle, frozen, canned, fresh, dairy, meat and produce, we practiced short dialogues.

For example, this was a chain drill that snaked around the class, with A holding a plastic bag and B holding a reusable bag.

A:  Do you need a bag?

B:  No, thank you. I have a bag.

We also practiced:

A:  Excuse me, where is the _______?

B:  It's on aisle ____.  (Or: It's at the back; it's in dairy; it's next to the milk; it's at the front, etc.)

A:  Thanks.

B:  No problem.

After a tour of the store, students set off in teams of three to complete a scavenger hunt. Each team had a different set of items and prices to find.  The T.A. and I took pictures of the field trip so as to be able to put the photos into a Language Experience Approach booklet. The students will add the language then learn to read it fluently over the course of a week.

I am really looking forward to the week preceding Thanksgiving. We will use the items we purchased at the supermarket to make a pumpkin pie. Yum!

What did you do with your class(es) this week?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Martine's Rule Number One

Muffled inside my backpack, the ring of my cell phone was just barely audible as I walked from my parking spot to the building where I'd just been hired to teach for four hours a week--a lunch hour pronunciation class.

I grappled with the zipper pouch in the middle of the sidewalk and managed to answer before it went to voice mail. It could be one of my colleagues calling me to supply for them, I thought. Covering for absent teachers was another role for which I was hired at the same time. My third hat was that of teaching assistant, which was why I was headed into work hours before my class time.


"Kelly?" A weak and raspy voice came through from the other end.


"Can you cover for me today? I woke up with a migraine."

"Sure I can," I said, already starting to feel ill at ease with the notion of zero prep time. "What's the topic?"

"Oh, there's no particular topic. Do anything you want with them."

"Thanks a lot," I said, hoping my voice didn't betray any trace of sarcasm.

She had given me no advance notice nor had she prepared anything like the other instructors always did. There wasn't even a topic to inspire me. Fortunately, I had spent a recent weekend compiling a few emergency lesson ideas for just such a circumstance. I would try out "student-made tests."

Thank goodness I'm a nervous Nellie an early bird; I had time to grab a ruler and create a simple table-style graphic organizer and make twenty copies. (Grab the free template on my website.)

After introducing myself and explaining their teacher's absence, I polled the class to find out what grammar points they had been covering over the past week or two. As they all began to chime in, I scribbled quickly, capturing their answers on the board.

Next I asked them what topic they had covered. They told me they had just finished reading The Piano, a slender chapter book abridged for ESL learners. Great.

I explained that their task would be to think up six good questions to test their classmates on the material covered over the past week or two: three about grammar and three about the novel. I would come around, I said, to help them find any errors in their questions. I then would circle what I thought were the best four out of six, and they were to copy those onto the graphic organizer.

That took us to break time.

After break, we pulled half the chairs from outside the U of tables to the inside so that pairs were facing each other.

"Partner A has five minutes to ask partner B four questions. When you hear my beeper go off, it's time to switch roles: B then has five minutes to quiz A. Then I'll ring the bell and Bs will move clockwise while As stay put. Got it?"

They got it. With five pairs, this took exactly fifty minutes, leaving us ten minutes for a debriefing before the end of class. They were supposed to rank their classmates and report at the end who had done the best job answering each question. But during the plenary discussion, something serendipitous arose from this technique. The students all said they had come to understand the material so much better. Their classmates had elucidated formerly cryptic grammar points, helped them understand the book's plot twists, and had taught them new words or given them a fuller grasp of terms already touched on in class.

As the students filed out into the hall with smiles on their faces, still abuzz with the energy of the activity, I heard the voice of my TESL prof in my head. "RULE NUMBER ONE," she said so many times that it can never leave me, "Whenever possible, have the students do the work."

Yes, Martine. I think I see what you meant.

The next time Martine's rule echoed in my mind was when I was acting as teaching assistant, observing and helping the literacy teacher. The class was about to play BINGO. How many times had I toyed with the idea of using this game in class only to reject it as too time consuming for the teacher? After all, each BINGO card has to be different since you can't have every students shouting BINGO at the same time. But this teacher did something that had never occurred to me. He put the bank of twenty-four words at the bottom of the sheet and had the students COPY them one by one into the BINGO grid, reminding them not to copy them in order starting with the top left cell, but encouraging them to scatter the words around the grid in a random way. Not only did this save the teacher prep time, but these students got an opportunity to practice copying--a skill most of them were still developing. Value!

That was over five years ago.  Now I have two classes and continue to remind myself several times a week of Martine's Rule Number One. Today in literacy class, for example, I decided to start our food unit in a way I never have before. Instead of warming them up, activating prior knowledge, yada yada, and then presenting twelve food staple words of my choosing, I passed out grocery store flyers and had the students cut out five items they buy every week. From posters each team of two created, I then told them they had to decide on the twelve terms we would learn and practice with this week. Well, we ended up with a list almost identical to the one I usually give them, but I noticed that the level of engagement seemed much higher than usual. These are the words THEY chose, the ones THEY say they need when shopping.

So, how about you? How do you feel about Martine's Rule Number One? Do you embrace a similar philosophy in your teaching? If so, how? And if not, why not?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Free Library Resource

When our newest teacher asked me the other day for a copy of the "Using the Public Library" worksheets, puzzle pieces, and unit plan that has been passed around among several of my colleagues since I developed it, I was surprised to find that I'd never posted it with other freebies on my website. That was probably because it included a transcript of an audio lesson I did not have permission to replicate or upload. So I've deleted that part, making the whole thing sharable under a Creative Commons license.
Literacy student using her new card

Literacy students comparing borrowed items
Now is a great time to plan a field trip with your students to the closest library branch. At my school, we're fortunate enough to be within easy walking distance to the main branch. I take my literacy class there each spring and fall, avoiding the walk during the broiling hot and bitterly cold months.

A unit plan and photocopiable materials for CLB 3 and up are under FREE RESOURCES - Settlement Themes - Community and Government Services. For literacy level, we spend a couple of weeks skill-building, then write a Language Experience Approach story around our trip, which we learn to read during the week following the field trip.

How about you? Do you take your class to the library to teach them how to access resources and get a free borrower's card? If you do, I really hope these materials are useful to you. Please leave a comment if they are.

Monday, September 7, 2015

That Summer Feeling

Camping and birding at Rondeau, summer 2015
As my colleagues and I greet each other in the halls the first day back after a ten-week school closure, we inevitably remark how RELAXED we all look. Some of us travelled, some had more time just to get down on hands and knees with their children or take them to the park every single day. Worry lines have disappeared from around our eyes. We are glowing with the renewed energy that comes from two straight months of far less stress in our lives.

"Do you think we can carry some summer forward into our whole year?" one new teacher muses at the copy machine.

"I sure plan to," I reply.

And I do.

A long break helped me see what a workaholic I can be. It showed me the value of taking time just to sit by the water with my icy beverage and library book. How can I carry a bit of that into my teaching year?

For a long time I've recognized in me the need to work smarter instead of working more. This year I hope to follow even more faithfully Martine's rule number one: whenever possible, have the students do the work.

So far, I'm on target. On the first day, instead of having spent any part of the prior evening dreaming up peer survey questions like, "Where did you go this summer," I had students brainstorm the questions they wished to ask one another. Instead of spending my prep time at the copy machine, I put a sample graphic organizer on the board and passed out notebook paper. The students made the peer survey grid.

I'm not sure I would ever go so far as to have students cut up pieces for info gap and unscrambling activities, but shy of that I believe there are many ways I could cut my prep time while simultaneously allowing students to take over jobs from me in ways that have value to them as language learners.

Outside the classroom, meanwhile, I intend to carry forward that summer feeling by taking more day trips, carving out weekend time for more bike rides, more walks in the woods, more live music in small venues, more open mic nights, more fiction, more movies and just in general more ME time.

By living a life with more balance, I trust my students will benefit by having a rested, relaxed, happy teacher in the classroom with them.

What about you? How do you work on a good work-life balance?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

And the Winner is...

Argh. When I sat down to do this, I was already thinking ahead to how this was going to look rigged if the person with 1/6 chance of winning beat the person with a 5/6 chance of winning. But there you go. It happens. To choose a winner, I wrote out the first entrant on line one of my notebook page, and the second entrant, with five entries, on the subsequent five lines, numbering them all one to six.

Next I Googled "random number generator" and checked out the first site offering this service, which was RANDOM.ORG. Of the choices they offer, I thought "dice roll" was perfect since I needed a number one through six.

I rolled the dice and...voila.
Congratulations to Maria. I will get that gift certificate out by email right away. 

Thank you to my two sleuths who helped me clean up a lot of mistakes and broken links on the blog and website. I appreciate it.