Language diversity is a blessing, not a curse, in our classrooms

This title may seem self-evident to many, but I feel it needs to be said.

A particularly nasty little piece of propaganda popped up on my Facebook feed tonight, liked by one of my acquaintances, and I feel compelled to respond to its ignorant hysteria. The post lamented the increase in English as a Second Language students in our schools. I am not going to republish the image here as I don’t think it deserves further distribution, but it was a class photo of a group of students who clearly hailed from a range of cultural backgrounds. The photo has been edited to label each student by his or her supposed “first language.” Every student apparently had a language background other than English, except for the little girl in the middle labelled “English/Irish.” The caption underneath read: “More and more schools now have children with English as a first language as a minority. How can we allow this to happen? Our own language a minority in our own land!”

Now, this post came from a British political group, but I think it speaks volumes for the arguments currently coming out of some pockets of Australia, particularly in our current political climate. And as an educator and a teacher of ESL students, I am horrified.

Such statements are inflammatory, potentially dangerous, and based on ignorance. Among the problems with this post:


1. “More and more schools now have children with English as their first language as a minority.”

Where are the statistics on this? And whilst there may be some evidence of such an increase in some areas where large groups of migrants have settled within communities, what of it?? Schools often reflect the demographic of their local area. I’d assume that if the child with English as their first language is a minority in their school, English speakers are probably a minority in that community too. Don’t like it? Leave.

2. “How can we allow this to happen?”
Your country has immigration policies that allow people from all walks of life to move to its shores. Of course, in Australia refugee policies are a source of heated debate but that does not alter my point. People are ALLOWED to move here. We are, by and large, a free country with freedom of speech, religion, language, and culture. The vast majority of Australians are grateful for this, so should understand why others might want to come here! When people migrate here their children are entitled to an education. They have the same right to learn regardless of their first language. In fact, in an examination system conducted in English and with an emphasis on the written word, the native English-speaker is in a privileged position. From that perspective, the post smacks of people looking to lay blame on the vulnerable and refusing to take some responsibility for their own situation.

3. “Our own language a minority in our own land!”
I’m not even going to dignify this with an extended discussion. No, it’s not. Not even close. So stop it.

The post continues in the comments section, saying that the ability to learn of English-speaking children is being crushed by the high number of ESL students in their classes. Now, as an ESL teacher, I understand the challenges faced in classes where there are a number of students whose first language is not English. Some of these students’ difficulties are increased because they have also witnessed or been subject to horrific violence and suffered great psychological trauma. Some of these ESL students were born in Australia but are impacted on by their parents experiences. Coincidentally, some of them speak and write more effectively than their peers with English as a first language. I also know that we face very similar, if not greater, challenges when there are students (regardless of native language) with special needs, learning difficulties or behavioural issues. All of these students are entitled to a quality education and need support. Their families need support. Their teachers need support. But the only group mentioned in the vilifying post is students whose first language is not English, and they are painted in the light that they are robbing English-speaking children of the education they deserve. This is simply untrue.

Perhaps the one bit of truth in the post is that ESL numbers are rising. We can’t deny that. But maybe a more productive and inclusive discussion would involve the prevalence and development of New Arrivals Programs, greater availability of in-school support, and increased professional development to better equip mainstream classroom teachers for the changing demographic.

Ultimately, how fortunate are our children to be exposed to such a range of cultures, beliefs and languages in their own schools and communities? This is something close to my heart (perhaps I have some bias being an English and LOTE teacher) and I feel that gaining a deeper understanding through their peers can only make them less insular and better global citizens. We have the opportunity to expose our learners to rich and vibrant cultures, if only we will embrace them as a community!

Bottom line: English as a Second Language students are not stopping your child from learning, so that card is not an appropriate one to play.

A Vlog: Reading to Learn

Last week an EAL Consultant from Catholic Education SA, who I have worked closely with over the past couple of years, invited me to create a video sharing my experiences, observations, data and reflections on the use of Reading to Learn in my English and Italian classrooms. It was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on my own practice, but also to speak to a number of students and hear their reflections about how useful they find this approach to language and literacy. The kids astounded me with the depth of their insights, and I wish I was able to share their videos here (privacy policies prevent me from doing so). Fortunately, their voices will be heard at a formal presentation that the above-mentioned consultant is preventing both overseas and in South Australia. In the meantime, I can publish my own video, so I’ll let the vlog below speak for itself!

When and why do Languages lose their ‘spark’ for students?

This morning I had the pleasure of observing a Year 4/5 Italian class at a local primary school. It was fascinating to witness such a different environment from the language classrooms in a high school.

The lesson began with the students’ class teacher accompanying them to the shared Italian and Science room (perhaps a seemingly odd combination to some but what an opportunity for bilingual learning!). As the children entered the room they immediately greeted their teacher and myself in Italian, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They also responded immediately to questions with ‘Si” or ‘No.’

The class was beginning work on an information report about Australian animals, constructing language using the functional grammar concepts of participants and processes. They are to be introduced to circumstances next week. I found it fascinating to observe the students’ knowledge of -are verbs in the present tense, and their eagerness to participate in the class discussion and respond to the teacher’s questioning. They were patient and genuinely willing to support each other. Even when they were fidgeting, they were engaged with the lesson activities and a pleasure to talk to about their language learning individually.

The students I observed today were lapping up every word they were able to write or say in Italian. They spoke with beautiful Italian accents when asked to read and were so proud of their achievements in the short lesson. Watching this class made me wonder, where do so many children lose this enthusiasm for language learning? Is it in the late primary school years, or early in high school? When do they become so hesitant to take positive risks with their learning? I know this has a lot to do with the age-group I teach, rather than simply the subject…but it is a challenge for teachers of Languages at high school. Where are the gaps, and how can we better foster this love for learning languages in more of our older students?

Rapping Italian Verbs

Sometimes the lessons students remember the most are those that end up looking very little like the original lesson plan. Sometimes the most valuable learning comes from a random idea or a split second decision made by the teacher three steps from the classroom door. This happened to me the other day, and I have to admit, I felt an odd mixture of discomfort at relinquishing control and awe at my students and their creativity. I had a meticulously planned lesson where I knew that my Year 10 students would leave knowing which Italian verbs are irregular in the imperfect tense, but something didn’t feel right as I headed towards the classroom…as well-planned as the lesson was, I wasn’t keen on it so I doubted my students would be.

So I changed my mind at the last second. The new lesson outcome would be that students would leave the 40 minute lesson knowing the most common irregular verbs, and being able to construct one of them. I decided to take a calculated risk and try something that a colleague from another Catholic school (@LaProfOz on Twitter – look her up, she’s a genius!) had presented at a recent workshop – learning Italian verbs through songs. Now this was way out of my comfort zone as I cannot sing to save my life, but I knew that I had some outgoing students who could lead it for me….so I took a deep breath and dove in! I set the students to task in small groups almost immediately, allocating them an irregular verb each. They had the lesson to create a very basic rap or song that would help other to learn their assigned verb. Emphasis on ‘help others to learn’, meaning it had to be catchy, not complex.

Thinking a lesson was plenty of time, I unleashed my genuinely excited little song-writers and wandered, listening to their conversations and trying to give suggestions despite my lack of musical prowess. That’s when I realised that maybe a lesson wouldn’t be enough…by the time groups tried to get the ball rolling between themselves, argued with other groups over who would be able to use a particular song as their background, and then tried to start writing, we got very little done. The task was almost too simple and they seemed to feel the need to complicate it!

We persisted in the following lesson and managed to get a little further. Finally, on Tuesday, some groups began to record their raps and submitted them. Listening to what are some highly creative ‘masterpieces’, I noticed that a couple of the groups had let their imagination run wild, but missed the purpose of the text they were creating….elements of their verb were scattered through the rap (cleverly dubbed over Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’) but it was mostly in English and would be difficult for students to remember the Italian verbs strategically injected among lots of English. One group did get it though, and although they themselves initially had a low opinion of their product, I think it’s great! Their verb was ‘bere’ (to drink) so they made up a short rap that repeated the forms of bere, in the process recounting a tragic story of the star-crossed lovers ‘Latte’ (milk) and ‘Succo’ (juice). Funnily enough, each one of those students got ‘bere’ 100% correct in their test.

Upon reflection, the lesson task had not gone quite as I would have hoped, but there were positive signs for its success if we were to try it again. The students were engaged, even if some of them had missed the purpose of their product. They talked about the task with students from other Italian classes, and even the Year 11 and 12 students had hear about what they were doing. Next time I would do it with more specific guidelines, and perhaps give the students the opportunity to choose their groups and the goal of having to teach one of the junior classes.

And whilst I would never advocate for throwing lesson plans out the window completely, I am glad that I gave up control on this one. If I hadn’t moved outside of my own comfort zone, I never would have known!

I love it when a classroom experiment works!

I love it when a classroom experiment works!

For some time now I have been experimenting with using Reading to Learn strategies in my LOTE classroom. As an English and LOTE teacher, I am in the fortunate position of being able to play around with the pedagogy in both languages and expand my own knowledge and that of my students in regards to how languages function. For a while I have been using it to build understanding of vocabulary in context in my middle school classes which tended to lend itself to focusing on participants, but I felt the students needed something more.

As mentioned in my previous posts, I am currently involved in a professional development project through Catholic Education South Australia where my main focus is strategies for improving  my students’ understanding of the written language system in Italian and their ability to apply in it to their own communications in the subject, as required by the Australian Curriculum: Languages.

I started by gathering raw data on some of my Year 9 students, getting them to write a letter of introduction to me in Italian. Many of them struggled to write more than five lines about themselves.

In order to address this, I decided to extend what I had already been doing with contextual vocabulary and participants, and trial the same methodology in Italian focusing on processes. My aim was for the students to be able to produce a short biography about their favourite band or musician in the target language. The foundation of this was to be achieved during a double lesson this morning.

Lesson sequence

1. Detailed reading using a model text about the Arctic Monkeys as a ‘hook’. Students highlighted key verb structures and made notes.

2. Cloze exercise using the same text, with verb groups omitted. Students had to fill them into the correct spaces based on their new knowledge.

3. Word bank table containing useful participants, processes and circumstances. Students had to choose a band or musician and add relevant information.

4. Writing – students used the tables to construct ten sentences in Italian about their band or musician. This will be checked before they produce their final copy.

The lesson went extremely well and students engaged for the majority of the double lesson (anyone who teaches Year 9 would know how rare that can be!).

 

photo 4

 

My observations from the lesson

  • Highly scaffolded – increased confidence for many students. Some wanted to go beyond what was taught. This was great, however the point of the lesson was to ensure the sentences were structured correctly before moving on, and some were skipping that step in their rush to pack as much information in as possible.
  • The students worked silently for an extended period – not because they were told to be quiet, but they were engaged in and concentrating on their own work rather than being distracted by others
  • Students who usually struggle with Italian were able to do the task, whilst high achievers were still extended
  • Students started to use their own strategies, highlighting the words relevant to their topic, adding new words and asking if they could use the model for structure – showing initiative!
  • Students who usually procrastinate actively asked questions, sought support and wanted more information for their own interest and to take their writing further
  • More on-task time and independent work.
  • Students are being exposed to and are beginning to recognise the features of the past tense without the confusion of going through the structures at this point (one of our challenges is that we never seem to get beyond the present tense with our middle school LOTE learners).

photo 5

Conclusion

At this stage I can use anecdotal evidence to demonstrate what I feel were the successes of this lesson. Students were clearly feeling more confident about their work, and their questions were less like “what’s the answer?” and more like “how can I do X?”  I have gathered some partially finished work samples, but these will be completed next week. Of course, they are not perfect and nor do I expect them to be, but it will be interesting to see how they use feedback given on this piece of writing to refine their final piece for submission. More to come from this very happy Italian teacher!

photo 1

 

A light-hearted reminder about learning styles

A colleague shared this video at staff prayer earlier this week. It’s so amusing because of its element of truth…

But there is a serious reminder for us in this clip too. If I were a betting person, I would wager a considerable amount of money that for almost all of our 80 teaching staff, it brought to mind a student or two. Yet if this were a real life situation, and not just a cute skit with kids’ voices dubbing the actors – with whom would the problem lie? Sure, the student is clearly struggling with the basics, but the teacher does not change strategy, instead persisting with one that clearly does not suit the student’s learning style.

This makes me reflect on how people tend to gravitate towards their own learning style. We are all guilty of it at times. In fact, it can be very difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and teach with a different approach. Yet we need to, otherwise we are doing our students a disservice.

So while I giggle at this video, I am also reminded of the conscious effort I need to make in my classes to ensure equity of access to learning.

Taking the challenges and making them opportunities

Wow! It really has been some time since my last post. Looking back on my posts from several months ago I realise I started the year with the best of intentions for my blog, my precious piece of cyber space. Many of these intentions I have kept up (or at least attempted to) in practice, but unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, there have been a few circumstances which have meant that life’s ups and downs have rudely gotten in the way of documenting it here!

Yet, in the space of a week, several people have asked me what’s happening with my blog. To be honest, I was both shocked and flattered that they remembered it existed! And this has become a prompt of me to get back in to my writing. So, given some of the not so great parts of this year, I thought I’d explore how I could change my thinking around these areas to make them positive.

The stimulus for my thinking around this post came from a professional development with the Languages team from Catholic Education SA today. We are fortunate enough to have  the lovely and talented Selena Woodward (@TeacherTechnol) working with us. While discussing the successes and challenges of the project we are currently working on, I commented that a barrier for me has been changing classes with the change of semester. Selena challenged this comment, suggesting that this is an opportunity rather than a barrier and on further reflection, I can see what she means. The work I did with one class, can now be tested out to see if it is equally as effective with another class, with reflection and further adaptation to follow.

One thing that has really struck me recently is the fact that each year of teaching brings different challenges. For me this year, I have been challenged both professionally and personally. On the professional front, it is the first year that I have taught a Year 12 class, and they are combined with a Year 11 class. The idea of teaching Stage 2 (THE big year!) for the first time in a combined Stage 1 and 2 class made me feel physically ill. I had taught Stage 1 before, no dramas. But to get my head around the Stage 2 curriculum and do the students justice in a combined class? I wasn’t so confident in that.

Yet in this challenge has come opportunities, for both myself and the students. Firstly, the Year 11s benefit from seeing and being involved with a Year 12 program…they get a sneaky heads up for what’s in store next year. Meanwhile, the combined class has ensured that I do not get lazy (they keep me on my toes!), but also it has forced my hand in actively seeking support from sources outside of my school. As the only Stage 2 teacher of Italian at the school, and with my inexperience, I have been forced to step outside my comfort zone and accept where my weaknesses lie and network with those who can help me overcome these barriers. This has been at times reaffirming, and at times reassuring that I am on the right track, or am not far off. The challenge has become an area of growth.

So, my goal for the remainder of the year (as horrifically cliche as it sounds) is to take my challenges and think of them in terms of opportunities!

The importance of time out for Professional Development

This blog is titled ‘Teaching as Learning’ for a reason. I adamantly subscribe to the view that to be an effective teacher, one must also be an effective learner.

Yet, in conversations with colleagues, I notice that teachers often find a tension between their need for on-going professional development, and the fact that it takes them out of the classroom “too much.” This concern is completely understandable, but I do not believe it is completely true.

A range of professional development opportunities have come my way over the last few years, many of which have taken me out of the classroom for one or two days per term – sometimes more. This year will be no different. I am very fortunate to work for a leadership team who are supportive of this and happy to accommodate the fact that I will be away on certain days each term, because ultimately the school and – most importantly – the students benefit from involvement in these programs.

This is, of course, a huge commitment for any teacher, and there is always the worry that we are doing our students a disservice. However, I would argue that we are doing our students a disservice if we don’t take the time out occasionally to engage in training that is relevant and meaningful, and fits in with the direction that the school is taking in its approach to teaching and learning. Time spent out on such courses enhances the quality of our teaching when we are in the classroom. It improves our ability to support colleagues in their own teaching and professional learning, and it improves our own self-efficacyThe YouTube clip below from AITSL illustrates perfectly the idea that everybody involved in the school community thrives when there is a culture of learning, an important part of which is the modeling of learning by the teachers themselves!

It is crucial, however, that teachers take responsibility for their own professional learning. We cannot expect opportunities to simply fall into our laps if we do not seek them out and pursue clear, defined professional goals. The AITSL National Professional Standards for Teachers provide an incredibly useful framework for on-going self-evaluation and reflection, identifying areas of need for professional development, and goal setting.

And, just for a giggle from one of my favourite comic strips to finish off:

Image source website: http://scientificteacher.com/category/professional-development/

What do South Australian pre-service and graduate teachers really need?

I would really like to know precisely who determines which courses must be completed by pre-service teachers and what those courses should contain.

I ponder this for a reason. Too regularly throughout the first four years of my career have I questioned, “Why was I not taught this at uni?” Friends who are also teachers have expressed that they have felt the same way.

I experienced a wide range of teaching styles at uni, from some amazing lecturers and tutors to some who weren’t quite as up there. I learnt a lot about big ideas like teaching students from diverse cultural backgrounds, about the importance of relationships in education, about involving parents and families, about SACSA, SACE and even a couple of nods towards what would become the Australian Curriculum. I learnt to write elaborate lesson plans and unit plans that ticked all the boxes according to the relevant policies and frameworks.

But very rarely was I taught the HOW of teaching. Of course, we looked at educational theory both in terms of methodology and classroom management, but my university program did not prepare me for the nitty-gritty of what I teach and the medium through which I teach it: language.

Which brings me to the question: given that we were bombarded with the principle of “Literacy and numeracy are everybody’s responsibility”, why was I not adequately taught how to teach literacy and numeracy in my subject area?

Friends who attended other universities tell me that they had “Literacy” courses, but even those courses didn’t go quite far enough.

So how can we expect pre-service and graduate teachers of ANY subject area to teach literacy and numeracy effectively if they are not equipped with the skills to do so? How can we expect explicit teaching of language features in subjects other than English if teachers do not have the linguistic knowledge? (At this point, I would like to qualify my point by saying that I do not assert that teachers do not know their subject area. What I mean is, do they know how to explicitly teach the language and language features associated with that discipline?)

In the past few years I have immersed myself in Language and Literacy PD (and by Language, I am not referring to my role as a LOTE teacher, but as an English teacher) and it has made me a hundred times more effective in my role. Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that due to a lack of skills in teaching literacy in my first year of teaching, I let my students down. If I had known then a small fraction of what I know now, their learning and approach to the subject might have been different. I majored in English at uni – I can only imagine how non-English trained English teachers might feel when faced with meeting the Language Strand requirements of the Australian Curriculum. It would be like putting me in front of a Maths class!

The skills for teaching literacy and numeracy are something that I feel passionately about being more effectively integrated into pre-service teacher training and on-going graduate teacher professional development. I wonder, what else do pre-service and graduate teachers really need? According to the Australian Journal of Teacher Education, approximately 30% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

What can be done better at university and in the earliest years of their career to prevent this? What do those teachers require?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

New year, new role

I feel like I’ve been neglecting my little bit of cyberspace for some time, but the extended break has been much needed.

I have started this year fresh, excited about my dual role as both a classroom and an EAL teacher. The last two years have seen many hours of Professional Development through Catholic Education SA, culminating in a fantastic opportunity for a close colleague and myself to take on the EAL role halfway through last year. This year, my colleague and friend moved on to another fantastic opportunity and I found myself taking on the remainder of the EAL load. Whilst this was, at first daunting – given that I was taking the responsibility for a job that we had enjoyed sharing – the opportunities that the role opens up for my own learning and teaching are becoming increasingly clear. I provide in-class support for EAL students and their teachers, and in just a couple of weeks of visiting classes, I have learnt so much about EAL and my own teaching in general. More to come in later posts…

My responsibilities (at least for the first part of this year) also include data collection for Catholic Education SA, which will involve even further engagement with and accountability to the DECD Language and Literacy Levels.

In my own teaching area of LOTE, I am extremely conscious that the Australian Curriculum for Italian is on its way – progress is slow, but it is coming. This will require further responsibilities in our faculty to review our programs and ensure that our teaching and learning meet the requirements.

So, my focus for my blog this year will be on my work in EAL whilst I am in the role, and the development of the Australian Curriculum for Languages. I’m looking forward to a busy and exciting year, with all the positive challenges that it may bring. Happy 2014 all!

Cardijn College in Italia

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