Magazines in the Classroom

I recently was contacted by someone wanting to donate to my classroom their entire collection of National Geographic magazines from 1964 to 2014. That's 600 issues spanning 50 years of history. I was super excited about the prospect. I could think of plenty of ways to use them in my own classroom. I asked if I could break up the collection and if he minded if I asked other teachers I knew if they wanted some of the set. I am always happy to make another teacher's day.

I drove down to get them, and I felt like a kid at Christmas when I brought the boxes into my office and finally got them open. Of course I kept a few that I thought the girls would be interested in, mainly anything with dinosaurs. And of course the Apollo 11 one from 1969, because how could I miss that opportunity. 

Special delivery! The man even donated a new class pet for one of our newcomers classes. And quite a few laughs in the office as I might have screamed a bit. 

(Yep, that's a southern devil scorpion, probably about full-grown)

There was a bookstore in Houston that used to donated boxes of old magazines to teachers that I used to get all sorts of magazines from. I used them for a variety of activities. I had a handful of Life magazines from the 1960s and 1970s that my students always enjoyed looking at. When they were born in the 1990s and even in the last few years I started having students born after 2000. These time periods just seem so foreign to them. I know in this digital age it is easy to pull up images on a computer screen, but I feel there is something to be said for the usefulness of magazines in the classroom.

So I thought I'd quickly share some ways I used them in my room.
  1. For Visuals - I talk over and over about the importance of visuals. Magazines provide tons of visuals to support building background knowledge for content and vocabulary learning.

  2. As part of your classroom library - magazines like National Geographic make great additions to a classroom library. Even younger students and students with lower language proficiency levels can appreciate the pictures.

  3. As part of a Science/Social Studies learning center - magazines like National Geographic provide plenty of visuals and and maps to support student learning. 

  4. As mentor texts - there are a variety of non-fiction articles to read, and use as a guide for non-fiction writing

  5. As a reading text - Magazine articles provide short texts that can be used to practice a variety of skills, especially summarizing, which can be a big task for English language learners. I used to laminate interesting articles and organize them into a reading crate for students if they finished work early. 

  6.  For visual writing prompts - This could look different ways. First, if there is a really interesting picture students could make inferences about it and use it as a visual writing prompt. Second, if it is a magazine that you don't mind students cutting, they could create collages to make their own picture of whatever the topic is and then use that as a spring board for writing. For lower proficiency levels labeling parts of a picture with words or phrases is writing. (this can also be used for speaking practice too.)

  7. For looking for rhetorical devices - the non-fiction writing in magazines offers a variety of examples of different rhetorical devices for students to identify and practice with.

  8. For discussion/debate - magazine articles can provide great practice for English language learners to discuss what they read and maybe even have a debate. Current events can be great ways to spark discussion and debate.

  9. For language practice - I had a stack of pictures cut out from magazines that I used with my newcomers and I would ask things like: what is he doing? to practice present continuous verbs. Or I'd ask them to describe the picture depending on vocabulary we were practicing. For example when we learned about family vocabulary with my newcomers I would ask them to imagine the people in pictures were a family and have them describe their relationships.

  10. Comparisons - magazines can be useful for comparing two people, two pictures, two situations, or even two sides of the same story. No matter whether this is used with inferences with pictures, or by sharing two articles the skill of comparing and contrasting is another important skill for students.

  11. To practice questioning - magazines can be a great tool to discuss questioning, because we naturally ask questions to learn more about topics we don't understand.
I'd love to hear how others use still use them.

Alternative Assessments: Othello Foldables

I recently had a lively discussion about alternative assessments with a group of middle and high school teachers. It is always a touchy topic because in education so often assessment is such a dirty word because of standardized testing, penalties for not meeting AYP, and all sorts of other initiatives aimed at monitoring student progress. It was a common sentiment in the group that they felt they spent more time testing than teaching. That's definitely understandable as testing season is in full swing. 

I shared some ways that I used alternative assessments in my own classroom. At first this was met with some skepticism, "The test isn't differentiated, it's not in an alternative format, how will that prepare them?" I've been asked this many times, the problem is, you see, the test was never my goal post. I decided I would teach my students to read and think critically, I didn't ignore the test, but it was not the end result.

Before you ask, yes, I taught a tested area. In fact it was their English test required for graduation. No joking matter, but also a low goal. I knew what objectives my students needed to master, the power objectives if you will, the ones that showed up over and over again. They were always on my mind. But I never felt like traditional assessments showed my English learners knowledge, or language growth. 

I grabbed a file folder, large manila envelope, some glue and some construction paper and I walked them through an assessment I could use with the unit I was sharing with them. I had taught this unit, or elements of it for years, and these are based on some of the things I had my students do in their interactive notebooks. We talked about all the skills the students would work on when creating their project, and the study tool they were creating, and how adaptable this was to different content.

The cover can be decorated to yours or their liking. Mine just includes the title and some important themes from the play. They could have drawn important symbols/themes/you name the skill you want to highlight. I did this pretty quickly, don't be too harsh on my art skills.

When you open it up, you can see it is very organized. The left hand side include places to summarize information from pre-reading lessons to build background for my students. The top one concerned Shakespeare's life, a brief history of the time period, and the theater. The bottom left is concerned with the history in the play. It has a map that shows Venice and Cyprus, but also the Ottoman Empire and Mauritania. It unfolds to leave room for students to summarize important information about these places.

Gluing the manila envelope down on only 3 sides creates a pocket in the middle. In there is housed a worksheet my students completed after a matching and sorting activity of basic drama terms. 

In the middle, on the front of the manila envelope is a place for students to summarize each act of the play to keep the events straight. You may have noticed we are hitting retelling and summarizing quite hard so far in this, and that is because it is a challenging and yet important skill to master. Being able to pick out important information and put it into your own words is challenging for ELLs. It is also something that can be scaffolded to support students no matter what level of language proficiency they are at. 

On the left hand side is a table for students to record all of the names other characters call Othello, and then make inferences about what they mean, and how they feel about Othello. They also have to decide the significance of it.

When you open the manila envelope, there is a place to record information about characters. There is also room for students to create a character web that tracks how characters are related to each other and how they interact with each other. 

When you open the manila envelope again, there is a place for students to record examples of the 4 primary themes that we follow throughout the play. There is also room for an analysis of the themes, what the message is about each one and why it is important. I did a writing assignment with my students that prompted them through answering these questions.

Then finally inside the half of the manila envelope that is not cut to make the book is a pocket for students to store important quotes from the play. I chose several from each Act and students had to record information about. Here students had to look at literary devices and determine things like purpose and tone.

I hope you enjoyed it!

Video: Miracle Workers by Taylor Mali

As we are getting to the end of the school year, testing preparations are underway and after burning both ends of the candle for the last 9 months, the teachers I'm seeing are tired. I can relate, I know how I felt at this time of year. "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming." is constantly running through my head (I love Dory). 

So, I decided to share a video. This poem from Taylor Mali is just as poignant as his "What Teachers Make" and I love it. "Education is the miracle. I'm just the worker." We all need just a bit of encouragement and to be reminded of this sometimes.

Essential Tips for Mainstream Teachers with ELLs (Part 3)

This is the third part in my series on essential tips for mainstream teachers who find themselves working with English language learners. 

In case you missed them, you can read them here:

In this section, I'm going to focus on ways to help students interact with your content. 


1. Vocabulary - When it comes to English language learners, the problem is truly one of a vocabulary gap. The older the students the more noticeable this is. 

We hear a lot about 3 tiers of vocabulary, but I find many people do not have a clear idea about which words are which, and which ones to teach. It's such a confusing task that I talk about it in almost every workshop that I do.

Tier 1: (words they already know) basic sight words, early reading words, common use/ everyday language. Even if the students don't know these words, their ESL teacher is likely working with them on these.

Tier 2: (words they NEED to know) testing words and phrases like evaluate, describe, draw a conclusion, things like polysemous, multi-meaning, words, prepositional phrases, and words used in multiple contexts and content areas. 

A 6th grade ELA/SS teacher shared with us in my SIOP cohort last week about giving students state test type questions, and on one that said draw a conclusion about... 2 students actually drew pictures. One of them was not even an English language learner.

It is estimated that 40% of the English language is polysemous, it can cause confusion for an English language learner that may or may not be able to decipher a meaning from context. These Tier 2 words also carry a lot of meaning in content areas, but are often not explicitly taught anywhere.

Tier 3: (words they SHOULD know) academic vocabulary, content specific vocabulary

These are the words we want to expose all of our learners to, they are often bolded in textbooks, and the words up on your word wall (if you have one). They are the content area words you are already teaching. 

My next series is going to be all about vocabulary, so if you are looking for more information in that area, stay tuned!

2. Focusing questions - English language learners, especially lower levels spend a lot of mental energy just trying to decipher basic meaning. Often times, it is challenging to determine what is important and what is not. There are a lot of things you can do to adjust your own practices such as slowing your rate of speech, avoiding asides while presenting information, and simplifying speech. Sometimes, this is not enough, so providing focusing questions can help give students clues about what is important and what to listen for. Going over objectives and having them written out has a similar impact.

3. Teach/model how to take notes - The truth is all students need this. But just as I was saying in the last tip, it can be hard to pick out important information, so explicit instruction in how to take notes, and modeling is important.

For beginners, copying is writing. One thing that you can do if you are seeing that your students are struggling with taking notes is to provide them with notes ahead of time, or notes to copy so that they can focus on listening, and worrying less about what to write at the same time.

I had a student two years ago who was an incredibly hard worker and because of that, despite language difficulties made excellent grades in most of her classes. She came to me because she wanted help in her government class. The entire class was lecture, and they didn't use a book. She told me that she took plenty of notes, and studied. So one day, I looked through her notebook, and I realized that her notes were nonsensical. There were words and phrases written down, many misspellings, notes on what appeared to be teachers anecdotes, it was hard for me to follow to help her. We went to the teacher and just asked kindly if he could provide her with an outline of the lecture and key words. She was able to work with that and focus in on details about the key words and wasn't trying to copy down every single thing that he said. 

4. Listening stations - If you have ever learned a new language and tried to communicate with a native speaker, you probably wanted them to slow down and repeat what they said a few times. When it comes to reading assignments, an English learner's listening skills are usually better than their reading skills. This is something that worked great in my classroom and technology makes it pretty easy to accomplish. Whenever possible I would look for audio versions of texts that we were reading so that students could listen and read at the same time. This can be expensive, you can record yourself reading and share it with students too. This way they can go back and listen to it multiple times and at their own pace too.

I also used this with major project descriptions and directions. I would post the directions and the audio on Edmodo or Google Classroom which ever I was using that year.

5. Use manipulatives - When you talk about something, it can be very abstract and you are relying on the English language learner having a good grasp on whatever vocabulary you are using. Manipulatives help to make the abstract concrete. Post-its and index cards with words that could be moved around, categorized, matched, etc. can make as great manipulatives it does not have to be expensive "toys." When working with manipulatives with groups not only are they seeing the information in a new way, they might be hearing it in a new way too.

6. Get them talking - If they can verbalize it they can internalize it. Talking about content is a great way to process information and get it moving from short term to long term memory. For English language learners, it is practice with language and content. Let's look at it another way, speaking a foreign language is mentally exhausting. So when your student is talking to friends who speak the same language and their family who might only speak their first language, what language are they speaking? You guessed it, not English. That means your classroom is the only place they are practicing academic English, if they aren't getting it there, they aren't getting it anywhere.

Along these same lines, no opt-out. Don't accept "I don't know," teach them other ways to respond or how to find the information.  

7. Higher Order Thinking - Just like all students English language learners need to be engaged in high order thinking activities. A lot of times with English language learners, the types of questions they are asked are literal and basic recall. However, you can ask questions that have a low linguistic demand but are still higher order thinking questions. Things like charts, diagrams, and drawings are great for students to show their reasoning skills in non-verbal ways.

Combine this is visuals, word banks, and sentence stems for responses and your English language learner can soar.

Essential Tips for Mainstream Teachers with ELLs (Part 2)

This is part two in my series of posts highlighting essential tips for mainstream teachers to work with English language learners and help them thrive in their classes. 

My first post focused a lot on creating a welcoming classroom environment, you can find that here. This is so important because no learning will happen if a student does not feel safe enough to take the risks necessary to learn. 

I'm going to break this one up into tips for comprehensible input and output for students. Comprehensible input is important for English language learners, the content and language must be accessible to students for students to learn in. I can reflect back onto my own language learning experiences and saying silly phrases like "La souris est sous la chaise" because that is what I could handle. Along those same lines, the task that students do, and the language they are asked to produce also needs to be comprehensible. As essay is not an appropriate task for a newcomer, etc.

Comprehensible Input/Output

1. Use Visuals - Incorporate visuals into everything. Instructions. Procedures. Reading. Everything. Spoken language, especially if it is not modified, can be difficult for English language learners to follow. Having directions written is good, having directions supported with pictures is even better. Giving directions is good, modeling and showing our students what they need to do is better. Sometimes that is all they need to be able to do something. Making it visual does not have to just be pictures. I can make it visual by demonstrating with my body or with classroom objects too.

In many of my workshops for teachers I go through a full lesson in German. Whether it is my lesson on Unser Sonnensystem or gleichwertige BrĂ¼che the one thing participants say as soon as I open up reflection is the visuals made all the difference. Most go as far to say that without the visuals they could not have completed the lesson, let alone pass the quiz at the end (no one has ever failed one of the quizzes)

I just recently did my workshop for teaching mathematics to English language learners and I shared with them a problem I saw a teacher give on a worksheet. The lesson just crashed and burned at this point, and we as a group reflected on why. 

A farmer has 52 chickens and oxen combined. They have a total of 148 legs. How many of each animal does the farmer have

There are many native English speakers who do not know what an oxen is, in fact there was not a student in the classroom who did. The problem is, that knowledge is necessary for solving the problem, because you have to know how many legs it has to get the answer. I know you can make a logical guess that they have 4 legs, because lets face it, many farm animals do, but the difficulty disappears by adding a picture of an oxen and a chicken with the problem.

2. Provide Sentence stems/frames - providing sentence stems/frames for oral and written responses gives students an opportunity to practice with academic language and sentence structures. All students need practice with academic English. I say over and over again to teachers all students are academic language learners, these strategies really do work for all students. I gave my students sentence stems for talking about content:

The tone of the _______ is _________. In the text it says, "..." This means ___________.

Guess what my students were also learning to do: cite text evidence and write a paragraph.

I gave them sentence stems/frames to talk about cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies:

I predicted _______. My prediction was (not) confirmed.

I was confused by _________, I thought __________.

I also gave them sentence stems/frames for classroom discussion:

I agree with _______ because ________. I respectfully disagree with what ________ said because _________. 

I get more push back from teachers on this point than I would have expected. They tell me this is seems to babyish. When I get them to try it, they are always amazed. If it has never been the norm for students to use complete sentences and have academic conversations, you have to teach them how. Sentence stems/frames take the guess work out of that for students, and they know exactly what is expected.

I had a place in my room for sentence stems/frames that students would need regularly. But just like my word walls these were fluid, as we mastered these things I could take them down and add more. I also always gave my students the option, to try something beyond the sentence stem/frame if they were able. 

The participants of my German lessons are asked to write complete sentences, and they always tell me, I couldn't have done that without sentence stems, and once again, no one has ever failed the post-quiz. The best part is now in their notes they have it written out completely and correctly to refer to later. For my German lesson it isn't a big deal, they don't need to know it later, but for students they do. 

3. Allow use of their native language - I know this has been the subjected of heated debates, but the native language has its place. First, if the student is a newcomer and you tell them to quit speaking in their native language, you have cut off their primary form of communication. Second, instruction should be in English (and modified), but clarification is fine in the native language, a language buddy can be a great thing. But remember, use them, don't abuse them, or else you'll lose them! I even allowed students to write responses/plan first in their native language so that they could get their ideas out before having to worry about English. 

I hear over and over again, I don't speak X, how do I know they are on task? Or how do I know what they wrote is appropriate? etc.  Allowing native language use just might be the difference in a student fully participating and engaging, and tuning out. It's all about setting expectations for students, and encouraging them.

Essential Tips for Mainstream Teachers with ELLs (Part 1)

I'm compiling a list of essential tips for teachers working with English language learners. These are the things I find myself telling teachers repeatedly. Or things I'm noticing when I do observations. Some of them may seem like common sense but in the trenches it is easier said than done, and that doesn't mean it is always done, and some of these are just overlooked, or go completely unrealized.

Because this runs the risk of being a really long post, I'm going to break it up into several parts. Starting with the beginning, something that needs to happen before any learning can go on, creating a welcoming classroom environment.

Creating a welcoming classroom environment: 

Creating a welcoming classroom environment is one of the most important things you can do when working with English language learners. We need to feel safe and comfortable in order to take the risks necessary to learn. 

1. Smile - Especially if you are new to working with ELLs and the task seems daunting. It is a new learning experience for you, and is not something that you should dread. I am well aware of the stresses placed on teachers in the classroom, and I know what it feels like to be in the middle of a large class and in walks a brand new student that doesn't speak any English right in the middle of a Beowulf unit, or a week before finals, and that feeling of just wanting to scream. When an ELL walks into your classroom, if you look at them with a sense of impending doom, they will see it. We all smile in the same language, and a smile goes a long way towards creating a welcoming environment for students.

The same is true for ignoring the students. One year in the spring semester at my school, the failure rate for ninth grade English learners was so high the administration took pictures of all of the students and printed them, and at a staff meeting asked the teachers to pick up all of their students. Each student had 8 teachers, surely they could all be claimed. Wrong, at the end there were 5 students left over that none of their teachers recognized. Surprisingly, these students were receiving failing grades in most of their classes. I'm sure if you asked those students, they were aware of their teachers' indifference towards their education. Sometimes ignoring the students is not intentional, but a byproduct of assuming the student doesn't understand English.

2. Learn how to pronounce the student's name - Even if the name is hard to pronounce or sounds funny to you, take the time and make the effort to learn to pronounce their name correctly. Ask the student if you are saying it right, they will appreciate the effort.

3. Increase your knowledge - Take time to learn as much as you can about the language and culture of your students. A quick search for something like "Hmong culture" can give you valuable insights. This might even open up opportunities to bring the student's home language and culture into the classroom. All students will benefit from this. Also be aware of effects of culture shock which can manifest with physical ailments and behavior outbursts.

4. Don't assume he/she does not speak or understand English - Take the time to find out. Ask about the language proficiency level of your students. This will be necessary for planning appropriate accommodations.

One year, again in the spring, a student with rather low English language proficiency - she came to me in the beginning as a beginner, but she was intermediate level at the time - said, "Ms. E, you are my favorite teacher." so I asked her why was that, what did I do that was so different from everyone else. She didn't even hesitate when she answered, "you're the only one who talks to me."

5. Recognize that students will make language mistakes - model correct grammatical form in a supportive, friendly and respectful way. Being overly corrected, and getting writing back full of red ink doesn't make anyone feel good. Consider a conversation like this:

Student: I goed the store.
Teacher: Oh, you went to the store! What did you buy?

It shows an interest in what the student is talking about and is giving extended opportunities for them to practice their English.

6. Do not force reticent students to speak - Give students plenty of opportunities to speak in low risk settings, casual conversations, and with a buddy, etc. Increase wait time to allow students to process a response, and respond positively to student's attempts. Most newcomers go through a silent period that might last months, where they aren't producing the language yet, but they are listening and taking in their environment. If they are not comfortable with speaking, give them other ways to show their understanding of content. Allow them to do activities with pointing, matching.

7. Give lots of praise and encouragement - celebrate successes and give praise for what students can do. Create opportunities for students to be successful in the classroom. Grade for content not language.