Thursday, April 13, 2017

Creating a Climate of Caring in middle school

In middle school, one of the most important things a teacher can do is create a climate of caring and concern in the classroom. A negative classroom climate can crush learning for the student as an adolescent, and if the climate is negative enough, can convince some students that they will never be able to __(fill in the blank)___. It seems like there is so much uncertainty among 12-14 year-olds. Often these students struggle just to “find” themselves, let along figure out where they “fit in” in the constantly changing landscape of school life. Even the lucky ones who kind of feel secure can be uprooted when someone else changes the rules on them.
Because it is such a challenging time in their lives, middle school students often take excess stress out on each other—verbally or even physically. Others give the silent treatment or shun. Friendships are broken, feelings are hurt, and life is, overall, tough.

All of that is happening before and after my students sit in my class. So how can I make my class a haven from that?
Also, I teach in China. 80% of my students are ethnic Chinese and the rest are ethnic Koreans. None of them speak English natively. Considering all of these variables, how can I create a healthy climate in my classroom? 

As a new(ish) teacher, my short answer is, “good question, I’m trying to figure it out now…” but as I study and gain further experience, I have learned some really critical things:

1)   A well-managed classroom is better for everyone, and management begins even before the first student ever steps foot in the door on the first day.

For example: how is the classroom arranged? Do I want to communicate collaborative effort with the seating arrangement? Then it needs to allow for students to see each other as opposed to only me.

Example two: What are the nonverbal cues on my walls saying? Do I only have quotes from well-known thinkers from my home country? Or have I included other regions of the world? Did I recognize the Korean students who are in the minority in my class? Does everyone feel like this is a place where we honor great people from all over the world?

2)   10-1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions may be impossible for some students, but it is critical to both try to reach this ratio, and also to know which students are not receiving this amount of positive reinforcement.

My students in China are used to being praised for high test scores and for modeling excellent behavior. This is good. I can also praise for these reasons. However, what has been fun and challenging for me is to find other ways to praise. Talented doodler? Creative storyteller? Above average social/leadership skills? These are all things that students can get in trouble for here, but I can try to find ways to encourage, because they actually are valuable skills and should be developed. Even more than that, many of these students do not perform well on tests and are not used to being praised. A few kind words go a long ways for some of them.

3)   Consistent consequences are critical

Not only do the consequences need to be consistently applied, but they also need to be emotionless. Fortunately it only requires 3-5 consistent applications of a rule before the whole class understands it and buys in. However, if I am inconsistent, the entire year will pass before the whole class buys in. Some will push the limits, while others will simply not believe limits exist at all.

4)   Never be afraid to love a child

Some of these students are homosexual, or overweight, or don’t feel good in their own skin for another reason. A few of them do not have anywhere to turn for love. It is important that, as a teacher, I can show interest and concern for each of my students by calling them by name, and learning about them individually. This is challenging, no doubt—I have over 200 total students—but it is possible over the course of a semester and I never know for whom this personal care is critical.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Case for Mobile Use in Education

The Case for Mobile Use in Education

As technology evolves at an ever-increasing pace, virtually every element of the average American life changes. Some of the changes are expected; faster internet and processing speeds, cheaper electronics, better cell coverage, safer, more efficient cars. But what is really exciting to observe, is the unexpected benefits of multiple industries converging, through technology, into new, improved industries.

Perhaps the best single example of this is the cell phone. Only a few years ago a phone was a phone. It was used to speak to people who were not within earshot. Today, a phone is much, much more than a talking device. My cell phone is also my video and still frame camera, my GPS device, my flashlight, my most portable computer, my notebook, my language study partner, and much, much, much more.  In the past 30 or more different devices (some costing as much or more than my cell phone) would have been required to perform the same tasks that my cell phone performs. It is so simple for me that I often take it for granted. Multiple devices have converged into one, simplifying and dramatically improving my life.

Not only is the cell phone of today more valuable and more useful than ever before, it is also ubiquitous. Even children carry cell phones with them everywhere they go. As technology continues its blistering pace forward, phones will continue to get cheaper and more accessible to even more people. People also carry their mobile devices with them wherever they go. Many people report withdrawal symptoms when they accidentally leave their phones at home.

So many teachers have, at their disposal, teaching tools in the hands of the vast majority of their students. The percentage of students who regularly carry cell phones every day will only increase over time. Isn’t it time we overcome our outdated beliefs holding us back from making the most of these learning tools?

Yesterday I taught a 3rd grade class. It was not exceptional in any way. A simple class teaching ELLs to make sentences using “want/don’t want” followed by “to,” and then the rest of the sentence.  We would also be reviewing other vocabulary and grammar from the rest of the week and students would be encouraged to make sentences that encorporated all of that material. This is the type of class where only the two best students pay full attention. Most of the class stays focused for the first few minutes, but quickly zones out, and the 3-4 students who struggle most with English disrupt the class every few minutes. Teaching this lesson was destined for disaster.

Except, it wasn’t a disaster. Every single student stayed engaged and focused throughout the entire class. Every single student (for the first time all year—no I am not exaggerating!) volunteered to speak in front of the class. When the bell rang and class was finished, several students wanted to continue.

What was the difference? A single cellphone.

Each child was given the opportunity, if they chose, to come to the front of the class and record their sentences. Then we would replay the recording on speaker phone so the speaker could hear their own sentences along with the rest of the class. First the speaker was allowed to point out mistakes, then other members of the class could pitch in and point out mistakes. I followed with comments about what they did well, and asked if they wanted to try one more time before we gave another student a chance. Every single student took me up on my offer for one more recording. Every single student improved dramatically.

Students took a sheet of paper home with vocabulary words and grammar principles. They will need to study them and create sentences, just like every week. But this weekend I think we are going to get dramatically better participation, because they are all so excited about recording their sentences and sending them to me.

In class I only used my cell phone. After class the students will use their own or their parents. This is a tremendous win for me, the students, and for their learning. I’m excited to dive in even deeper and find even better ways to use mobile devices in my students learning.


Earl, R. (2012, May 18). Do Cell Phones Belong in the Classroom? The Atlantic.

Meyer, R. (2013, September 13). The Post-Lecture Classroom: How Will Students Fare? The Atlantic. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from

Miller, A. (2011, December 05). Twelve Ideas for Teaching With QR Codes. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from

Ormiston, M. (n.d.). How to Use Cell Phones as Learning Tools. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from

Prensky, M. (2005, December 02). Shaping Tech for the Classroom. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from

West, D. M. (2013, September). Mobile Learning: Transforming Education, Engaging Students, and Improving Outcomes(Rep.). Retrieved April 01, 2017, from Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings website:

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Teaching Students at Four Levels of ELL

Differentiated teaching to English Language Learners at four different levels

For the next six weeks we will be learning how to present in public (public speaking) in my language acquisition class. While all of my students are ELLs, for the most part the fit nicely into four language ability ranges, represented by four fake names, Chris, Kelly, George, and Jina.

Chris’ English level is what would be considered “Advanced Beginning.”
Kelly is Intermediate.
George is Early Fluent.
And Jina is Fluent.

Each of my class lessons will require that I vary my language usage to include precise instructions for those who can understand with simple instructions so everyone can at least understand what we are doing.
Additionally, I will break the instruction up in the following ways:

1)   teaching how to speak
I will introduce the importance speaking loudly enough for all to hear. After introducing this topic in a specific and general way, I will ask students to team up in groups of 4, with each language level represented in each group. In these teams of four, I will ask them all to tell a story to the group using 200% the normal volume, and 200% more gestures. While this will be comical, it will get students used to speaking loudly while being the focus of attention.
2)   Movement.
Here I will introduce the “speaker’s triangle” and model appropriate movement. Focusing on “moving with purpose,” I will ask the students to get into the same groups of four and present three points of observation to support an argument, moving with purpose to the three points of the speaker’s triangle.
3)   Polish
At this point the lower level students will not be able to keep up, but will still benefit by observing (and critiquing!) the higher level students. We will learn about rhythm, pacing, pausing, voice inflections, alternating speed of speech delivery, etc. This time when we break into the same groups of four (with all four language levels represented in each group) the students will listen to each other speeches, and fill out a worksheet where they grade each other based on a rubric. There are so many things to pay attention to, that only experienced speakers would be able to do everything well. None of my students are experienced speakers, and all will be taken out of their comfort zones. However, as they observe each other, and share feedback on what they observed, they will be able to identify things they do well and can gain confidence accordingly.

So much of good public speaking requires self confidence and a willingness to go out and make mistakes. At the end of our lessons, I will encourage each member of class to be a risk taker, and be willing to make mistakes. There will be many mistakes on the journey, but often they can be our best teachers.

We will continue practicing speaking (with polish) throughout the rest of the semester to continue developing this skill.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Special Education in Washington, Idaho, and Guangzhou

After interviewing half a dozen parents and teachers of children with disabilities, I now have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for the great work being done in schools around the world. I believe there is a special place in heaven reserved for these teachers.
Michelene Bay teaches nine children with severe learning disabilities ranging from down syndrome to autism and in age from five to 14 years old. She enters school at 6:10 each morning and completes her lesson progress reports from the previous day, email, phone calls, and whatever other small tasks she has like copies. At 7:15-7:30 her TA arrives and they can collaborate on the daily routine and goals, which all need to be written clearly on the board before 7:45, when the student aids arrive.
Students arrive at 8:05 each morning and need to be escorted from the bus to the classroom. More than 75% of the time, Michelene reports that the plan for the day must be altered due to behavior or health issues. For example, last Monday one child felt sick while riding the bus to school. By 9:30 AM all but one of the students reported also feeling sick. Some even began throwing up. Michelene says this is because the children are so sensitive to suggestion.
Melodie Larson, the mother of an eight year old by with Down Syndrome, told me his son is picked up at the house with a specialized vehicle to handle all of the needs of all of the children and taken directly to school. Her son spends half of each day at the Apollo Elementary Special Needs Magnate school, and half of each day in a regular classroom. Robbie, her son, works with 6 dedicated specialists and over a dozen other aides each day, to accomplish goals like “count to ten” or “transition from one activity to another without sitting down.” Robbie’s father mentioned that these specialists are far more effective dealing with Robbie than he is. Needless to say the parents are thrilled with the support Robbie receives.
When Robbie is in his regular school classroom, his teacher uses Robbies strengths well. Robbie is highly attached to Winnie the Pooh, and the teacher uses Winnie the Pooh effectively as a reward for him. She also knows that Robbie is highly social, so every day a different student is assigned to be Robbie’s friend that day, and make sure he does what he is supposed to do. These students learn empathy, patience, love, and many other social skills through these efforts. When Robbie is not responsive, the teacher knows that he will respond better with friends, so several students can ask Robbie to walk to the lunchroom together. This is usually effective even though it is a long walk for him and sometimes he does not want to go.
When interviewing the coordinator for my MYP section, Antonio Shawfer, I discovered that my school makes not effort to identify or support children with special needs. No training is given to teachers to help these children, and even if a teacher correctly identifies a child as having special needs, it is against school policy to speak to parents about this. Antonio says this is because the school does not want parents to lose face. Within my classrooms, I have a couple of students with special needs, and I do have different expectations and goals for those students. I try to plan lessons in a way that all students can benefit, but this is easier said than done.
In order to better prepare for teaching in future schools where I will be asked to identify and help such students, I also interviewed Alex Teston from Madison Middle School. He trains teachers in the state of Idaho to identify learning disabilities. He says there are three early signs that a student might need extra support, but he also emphasizes that all students should be receiving extra support at one point or another, so identifying a student for evaluation should not reflect negatively on the student, parents, or teachers. 
The three things to look for are literacy challenges, numeracy challenges, and difficulties with transitions.
When students with learning disabilities read, they often have trouble pronouncing words and will usually avoid reading out loud whenever possible. Mixing up words like “dad” and “bad” in both reading and writing is also common. Often writing lacks basic focus.
Mixing up symbols like + and x is also common. If a child mixes up two numbers they may get the mechanics of the math problem correct, but still show a wrong answer.  Mathmatics education moves very fast, and so students with learning disabilities often get left behind.
Often students with special needs have a hard time getting on task, and an even harder time transitioning to a new task. At times this is rooted in social inabilities, other times the struggle is rooted in the fact that this child needs more time to accomplish the task than another student would need.

These and other warning signs can help a teacher identify and then help students who could benefit by having some extra attention.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Bilingual Education in America and Abroad

The United States has been a country of Immigrants for more than 200 years. Historically, immigrants were expected to shun their native customs and languages in favor of the dominant, local language, English. Most immigrants did learn English over time, but as education become more necessary for success, the gap between native non-native English speakers became more important to close. Drop out rates for non-native speakers were very high, and many students who did not drop out still performed very poorly, in part because they didn’t understand what was happening in class. According to the American Federation of Teachers, many states, including California and Texas created their own state-wide policies to help non-native English speaking students, but the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was the first federal policy to recognize the needs of these students. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSO) quotes the law on their website as follows: “Where inability to speak and understand the English language excludes national origin minority group children from effective participation in the educational program offered by a school district, the district must take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students."
Even today many people argue that full assimilation is better for the immigrant and the greater community, while others feel that multiple languages are a tremendous asset both for an individual and his/her community.
According to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, "the role of bilingual education is grounded in two knowledge-based principles:
  • All children are capable of engaging in complex thinking tasks.
  • Developing and maintaining the [student's] native language in no way interferes with English language acquisition. On the contrary, research over the last decade in bilingual classrooms with established models of instructional excellence indicates that utilization of and facility in the primary language enhances the acquisition of a second language."
According to the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation ,(CERI) when No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002 the Bilingual Education Act was renamed the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act. 
 What is bilingual education?

According to the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), bilingual education “refers to approaches in the classroom that use the native languages of English language learners (ELLs) for instruction.” By teaching in a student’s native language, as well as English, native cultures and languages remain intact, but the student is able to grow into the new language environment and ultimately achieve academic success.

An article accessed from the UNesco site explains there are multiple styles of multilingual education:
  Bilingual education:
Students are given instruction in two or more languages. The amount of instruction given in each language varies from school to school.
Non-native English speakers are given instruction completely in English, regardless of how long the student has been learning English.
  Two-way bilingual education:
Native and non-native English speakers are placed in the same classes. Instruction is given in English as well as the other native language, with the goal of all students becoming proficient in both.
  English as a Second Language (ESL):
Students spend part of the day in regular classes and part of the day in ESL classes. In the ESL classes, they receive focused instruction in mastering English.
This is often targeted towards native English speakers who want to master a foreign language. Teachers deliver instruction in a foreign language for the entire day.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Bilingual Education

The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education explains that “there are years of research showing that the brains of bilingual people have better executive function, which is what allows you to focus on problem solving, moving between tasks, and recalling words and information. All of these are keys to being successful in life.”
According to Asia Society, speaking a second language is a distinct advantage when seeking a job and can result in higher pay.  The benefits of bilingual education seem to have been accepted by a significant portion of the US population, because now native English speaking students are being placed by their parents in dual immersion schools—where they can learn a second or third language fluently without leaving the country.

However, bilingual education can be very expensive relative to monolingual systems. And much frustration stems from the fact that not all students are seeing such positive results. Critics point to test scores showing many students who perform poorly both in English and in their Native language. Proponents and critics agree that there is a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers.

What Can I Do As a Multilingual Teacher?

The NEA has a list on their website describing five things each of us can do to advocate for bilingual learning.
1. Isolate the issue. Begin by clarifying the source of the issue, with the goal of identifying concerns in your immediate environment and gaining insights about broader, external factors. For example, imagine educators are complaining that many ELL families do not attend parent-teacher conferences. Speak with families and find out why this is happening. Are the conferences only occurring during hours when families have to work? Have the expectations and procedures for conferences been clearly conveyed to families in their home language? Is childcare provided if needed? Once the root of the issue has been identified, appropriate action steps can be planned. “Advocates often upset the applecart in their pursuit of a fair and equitable society.”
2. Identify your allies. Advocacy occurs at different levels, alongside varied partners. To be effective, you must foster relationships with others, be willing to listen to opposing viewpoints, and use conflict as an impetus for change. There will be a wide variety of perspectives for any issue, and it’s important not to dismiss those who do not share your beliefs. Despite differing opinions, the advocacy process has the potential to be a consciousness-raising experience for all participants.
3. Be clear on the rights of ELL students. Have a clear understanding of the policies and laws that are in place to protect ELLs and their families. It empowers you to advocate from a position of what is ethically right and legally right. The rights of ELLs are encased in legislation, but also in hard-fought court victories that have been instrumental in actually protecting those rights and establishing educational standards: Mendez v. Westminster addressed the segregation of Mexican students in California schools and paved the way for Brown v. Board; Lau v. Nichols argued for ELL students’ rights to have instruction in a language they understand; Casteñeda v. Pickard demanded high-quality bilingual education programs; and Plyler v. Doe secured the right of undocumented students to an education.
4. Organize and educate others. Remember you are not alone. Create opportunities to share what you are doing with others. Take advantage of community events to discuss the issues impacting ELLs. These steps will allow you to expand your network of allies and to inform others about issues occurring in local schools. “An advocacy lens is always appropriate, but it is imperative in the face of injustice.” 2
5. Identify your outlets for change. Consider asking the following questions:
  • What can I do in my classroom?
  • What can I do in my school?
  • What can I do in my district?
  • What can I do in my community?
  • How can I collaborate with other non-school-based communities?

Stewner-Manzanares, Gloria (Fall 1988). "Bilingual Education Act: Twenty Years Later" (PDF). National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. 6: 3. Retrieved 9 October 2011

CCSO, (November 2015). “Dcuments Ensuring Equal Education Opportunities for English Language Learners” (PDF)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Law of attraction fundamentals, volume 4: the Power of the Subconscious

Powerful lesson about why studying the law of attraction often leads to frustration instead of success-- not taking into account the subconscious.

Read about it here.