As we returned to school-learning after a long break, I asked a group of middle school students, “How do you learn?” They looked at me, puzzled. I explained that I wanted them to think about a time that they learned something new, and think about how they did it; I asked them to tell a story about it. The question turned out to be more difficult than I expected.
Then, after talking about learning to ride a bike, speak a new language, play a new video game or an instrument… , we made a list of what these experiences teach us. The stories of learning can be summarized in five key ideas:
Watch and listen first. Before riding a bike, they watched people ride bikes; before playing an instrument, they watched people play that instrument.
Start out small. It is said that the longest journey begins with a single step, and the same is true for learning. Students first learned how to turn on the machine, or play one note, or ride with training wheels. No one started out playing Mozart.
Learn with others. All of the students talked about getting better while practicing with friends, playing with others, and working with the teacher. The others helped them get better, and encouraged them to keep working at it, not give up. Learning with others also makes it easier to ask questions!
Know that it takes time and practice. Even the best players in the world have coaches, editors, conductors, and teachers. We all need feedback in order to improve; applying and learning from that feedback takes time.
When it gets too easy, move up a level. Yes, they started out with small steps, but then they added complexity, and kept getting better. Staying at the same level did not sound like fun to anyone. Part of the joy was getting good at something, something that was difficult to begin with, and then adding something more when it got too easy.
What are you learning now? Do you share your learning with your friends and family? We are all learners. When we talk about our learning, it becomes normal to be on the road towards a goal, to be in process; we make mistakes and grow from them in order to get better at what we do. And in the process, we are thankful for the opportunity to learn, to grow, to be and to become.
A few days ago, a new student arrived in my EAL class in Peru ( EAL- English as an additional language.). The new student speaks Korean and Japanese, and has studied a bit of English; all of the classes, though, are taught in English, except the Spanish class. So, picture yourself in that situation: You are new to an English speaking school in a Spanish speaking country; you are about 12 years old; you speak two languages that have little to do with where you are now. Difficult, to say the least.
To begin the class, I asked students to introduce themselves to the new student. My students are very welcoming so this was easy for them. They clearly tried to make connections with him as they mentioned music, games, and other cultural ideas that he might be interested in. Then, one of the newer students introduced himself saying something like, “I am also new here, not quite as new as you, and I found it easy to make friends here. I hope you also are able to make friends. I will be your friend.”
I will be your friend.
Imagine the world if this is how everyone received new people, immigrants, refugees, the stranger, the unknown. It could happen.
Do your students say what they want to write before they write it? Whether it is a short exit ticket, the resolution of the conflict in a narrative, a lab report, or something else, there is a lot of power in oral rehearsal at every age.
An easy way to do an oral rehearsal with your students is to do a think-pair-share. You may have heard of this strategy where students take a moment to think about the answer to your question, and then turn to a partner who is near them to share the answer. To complete the cycle, have students write what they shared.
Another way to set up oral rehearsal is for students to have writing partners. Before writing, partners can share what they will write about based on the instructions for the day. After they write, they can share their writing and get some feedback from the partner. I like to set up partners for the length of the unit so that students can build that friendship that good writing partners need.
Yes, all of this takes modeling and practice.
This week I did a small experiment with two of my students who are learning English. I asked them first to write about a movie and I gave them five minutes to write. Then, I had each one tell us about a book that they liked. Here is a picture of their answers. I added a word count to each text.
Sure there is lots to work on with their English, but look at the difference in language production! Oral rehearsal is definitely worth the effort.
As I teach my classes, four sections of the same grade level content, I become a better teacher- I notice the mistakes that the previous class made; I understand their misunderstandings; I see the gaps in my teaching. I learn. That being said, class #4 receives all of my learning from the previous three classes and produces higher quality work. They may even receive, on average, higher grades (I will check to see if this last item is true).
Is this unfair for class #1? Is it unfair that the teaching they receive, because they receive it first, will always be a little less complete and polished? Is this like asking if it is unfair for the first child in a family to have to train the parents?
Now, I return to weave the threads of learning for that first class, perhaps with colors not as bright but beautiful nonetheless.
Now it is time for the first graders- How do you end an opinion paragraph? Here I offer three possibilities.
Just Say It
Dogs are the best pet.
Vanilla is the tastiest flavor ever!
Minnesota will be the best state you ever visited!
Simple Summary Statement
That’s why dogs are the best pet.
Clearly vanilla is the tastiest flavor ever.
For these reasons, Minnesota is finest of all the 50 states.
Act! Do! Go! Try!
Go get a dog! You will see how great a pet they are!
So try vanilla ice cream and you will see that it is the best flavor you have ever tried!
Are you going to go to Minnesota? Yes! You will love the lakes and trees and snow.
One of my 4th graders asked me for ideas on how to start a story. We had a great conversation and looked at some wonderful examples. Here is what we ended up with:
Ways to Start a Story
Once upon a time there was…
Dialogue (people talking)
“Mom! Help me! I can’t…” I shouted to my mom as I fell out of the tree.
“But you promised to take me to the movies today! You promised! You promised! You promised!” I started crying.
Action (something is happening)
My brother slammed the door just as the rain started. This time he did not get caught in the rain. This time he did not get struck by the lightning.
I watched from behind the bookshelf as the thief snuck into the living room and opened the top drawer of the desk. He did not know I was there.
4a. Description (what does the setting look like? sound like?)
The spring flowers bloomed and the honeybees buzzed along the banks of the river. The sleepy town woke up to the sounds of the roaring river flowing down from the dark mountains. Something floated in the water, trapped by an old tree branch.
4b. Description (what does the character(s) look like?)
Jaime was only 4 feet, 2 inches tall but he was the best goalie the team had ever had. He could jump higher than kids who were 5 feet tall. But he never bragged about it. He did not have to.
Recently, I was reminded of the power of theater in education. Thinking about students who are new to English… but not completely new… I have been looking at improvisational theater exercises to get students talking. This is not a strategy to teach new vocabulary but to build fluency, spontaneity and confidence while speaking.
Imagine having two students create a skit where someone is lost and the other has to help the first person find his or her way. Imagine adding a third person who says that the first person is wrong. What would you say? What would you do? Can they ask for an additional person to assist?
Make it a little bit harder and open ended: Imagine students creating a skit based off of three nouns- pencil, stove, rake. Throw in a verb and shake things up a bit.
There are a million scenes that you can have students improvise based on anything that students need to practice. Try it; see what happens!
The short answer is: speak to your children in the language you know best. Oral language is the precursor to all literacy skills:
What you can think, you can say;
what you say you can write;
what you can write you can read.
When parents ask me what language they should use with their children I consistently tell them to use the language they know best. Most of the time the parents are non-English speakers wondering if they should speak with their children using the little English they know. “No,” I tell them.
When children are offered rich language in extended discourse they develop amazing vocabularies and complex sentences. If their caregivers offer them limited vocabulary and limited discourse that is what the children will develop. Because literacy skills transfer, the extended discourse will transfer once the children have the necessary vocabulary in the new language… but they can’t transfer what they do not know.
Speak to your children often and listen to their answers.
Have them tell you stories and ask follow-up questions.
Ask open ended questions (questions that require more than yes or no).
Ask them to explain more or tell you what that means.
Give them new vocabulary as you ask them questions and respond to their stories:
Child: I used that thing to cut cheese.
Adult: Oh, you used the cheese slicer.
Child: Yes, I used the cheese slicer and I cut a lot of cheese.
When you read with your children ask them questions such as:
What do you think will happen next?
Would you have done that?
How would you solve the problem?
Tell me the story
Talk, talk, talk!
There is much research about the importance of oral language. Give your child the gift of language through conversation and story telling.
I am collecting a list of online places to read and/ or listen to stories in English for elementary school students and families.
What great sites am I missing?
Please let me know and I will add them to my list!
Any time we can help students organize their thinking, plan their learning, make their learning visible, we are helping them build connections and increase the number of synapses– that is learning! With graphic organizers we can increase literacy, too.