Talk to your students.
18 August 2017
After we finished reading a short story about all the things Carlos did with his teacher, I asked my student, J, what her and her teacher did together. I waited to give her time to process the question and think about her answer. I had a sentence stem that we had been practicing ready for her to use and the example from the story to refer to, but she seemed really confused. After re-framing the question, I realized it wasn’t that she didn’t understand the question, it was that her and her teacher don’t do any of the things we read about doing together.
They didn’t read together.
They didn’t do math together.
They didn’t talk to each other.
J told me that I was the only adult she saw during the school day who talked to her outside of the “good morning” and “how are you” greetings. I get it. Adults, myself included, hate to be misunderstood. The fear of being misunderstood when we say something to someone else is there, whether we realize it or not. But that’s what students, like J, experience every day at school with nearly every person they come in contact with. If a student is not engaged with, talked to, helped with math problems, read with, they will go through their school day feeling unseen and unimportant when I believe that is not the way teachers feel about any of their students.
There are a lot of benefits to talking with students who are English Language Learners. “Teachers…serve as language models. Particularly important is exposure to discipline-specific language so ELLs hear what it sounds like to communicate in an array of academic contexts” (The Teaching Channel). It is important for students to hear authentic English being used in many different settings to continue to learn and understand it.
A few things to think about as you are focusing on increasing conversations with students in your classroom, either between you and your students or between students:
- Avoid the use of idioms or other slang words (https://www.wested.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/1410828171pd0901chapter4excerpt-3.pdf).
- Focus on students’ attempts rather than correctness. By over correcting them, they will be more afraid to practice speaking because they know it matters to you that they use correct language.
- Every student is different and their previous experiences and personalities impact the way they engage in your classroom.
As the school year kicks off, remember to talk to your students. Let them know they are seen and you are happy they are in your classroom every day.
How many languages do you speak?
9 August 2017
When I first read through the TED-Ed blog, “Why I taught myself 20 languages -- and what I learned about myself in the process,” I immediately thought of the questions I hear probably most often when I tell people that I work with students who are refugees predominantly from Burma.
So, how many languages do you speak? You must be fluent in Burmese? Nope, not even close to being fluent in Burmese or Zomi.
Then, the inevitable follow up question comes: then how do you communicate with your students?
“But while I’ve come to realize I’ll never be fluent in 20 languages, I’ve also understood that language is about being able to converse with people, to see beyond cultural boundaries and find a shared humanity. And that’s a lesson well worth learning” (Doner). He summed it up pretty well. We communicate in many ways other than orally. I have spent time learning about and learning from the students I get to work with. By observing students interacting with their peers, parents, and older or younger community members, I have learned a lot about respect across different age groups and the way to talk to people in different groups, regardless of languages spoken. Taking the time to learn how to say certain phrases in the language my students’ speak goes a long way when building a relationship with them and their families. The way you approach and speak to someone probably has more of an impact than what you actually say. Treating people as humans and with respect does not require that you share a common language.
Of course I have been misunderstood and misunderstood students and parents many times. These moments of misunderstanding have led me to better understand moving forward. Let me swallow my pride and share a story about a lesson learned when I was living in Thailand working with Burmese refugees that still haunts me to this day. I was standing and speaking with a few colleagues at our community center when one of the Burmese students walked by. Jokingly, I stuck my foot out at the student and immediately saw the horror of what I had done spread across her face. That was all the communication I needed to know that I had just deeply offended her. I later learned that feet are seen as the least holy part of the body and the head is the most holy, as it is closest to the heavens. Sticking your feet at or pointing your feet towards someone when you are sitting is a sign of great disrespect.
This cultural faux pas I committed made me realize that every interaction I have with someone is a way of communicating with them. It is crucial to bring awareness to the unconscious bias that if someone doesn't speak English fluently or without an accent, it means they are less intelligent than anyone else. It is impossible to know the experiences that someone brings with them simply based on the languages they speak.
[For teachers seeking concrete tools: when thinking about the instructional side of interacting with students who are English language learners, I recommend spending some quality time with the characteristics of the different levels of proficiency so you can properly support and interact with your students in the classroom to intentionally aid in developing their language development.]
“I didn’t know there were words in math until I moved to America.”
19 January 2017
In refugee camps around the world, education is either not available to students or is very low quality for many reasons, such as students must work to support their families, volunteers are teaching and they don’t have access to effective teaching practices, or students do not feel safe to go to school. The average amount of time families live in refugee camps before being resettled is four years. This means that a student who is entering 9th grade when they are resettled to the US may not have been in school since 5th grade. A lot of information is covered in those four years of school. As an educator by training, I know that education year after year is compounded so what students learn in, for example, 7th grade science is built on what they learned in all of the years prior. And the academic vocabulary associated with each content area is reinforced year after year. So, a student who may not speak English and who has gaps in their schooling is going to struggle when teachers are teaching to the students who the curriculum was designed for, native English, white students much like myself.
Ninth grade student, H, said this when we were working on his Geometry homework. This nugget of wisdom shared by H is very clear evidence that there is a need for explicitly teaching academic vocabulary to ensure that our students who are coming from diverse educational backgrounds are able to access the content teachers are teaching. I am still so blown away when I think about how confusing it must have been to go from only numbers in math, to the types of words problems students are expected to master, like: The perimeter of your neighbor’s rectangular garden is 250 ft. Three times the length is the width minus 5. Find the length and width of the garden.
Vocabulary can be a barrier for students in every subject, not only English. When all of the words are unfamiliar to a student, how do they even begin to prioritize the words that they should learn?
A few tips:
1. When I was teaching high school math, one of the foreign concepts hindering my students was proper nouns so much so that they would spend all their time deciphering trivial details like defining character names rather than recognizing them as names. Teach students, regardless of your content area, what a proper noun is and how to not get hung up on them. Like, replace the names with your own or the cities with your home town. Make them rewrite it so it flows as they read it.
2. Preview the vocabulary words that students will be learning. This can be a group activity where students must collaboratively create definitions for new/important academic vocabulary words from sentences and/or pictures. As a class, define the new vocabulary words based on the work that the students have already done.
3. Remember that just because students may not have proper command over the English language does not mean that they do not have many strengths and assets. Learn about them and build on what your students are already great at.
What other strategies have teachers found helpful to break down the barrier that vocabulary can put up?
24 October 2016
Hello! Welcome to our blog, where we hope to share more of what we are doing for the refugee population in Tulsa.
Students are our motivation for the work we do every day and student voices are the motivation for our blog. Nearly every time we sit down and work with our students, they say something that really hits us, intellectually and emotionally. Something that lingers in your mind for days. They have so much to share. Our hope is to use this blog as a means to advocate for the best education students who are refugees deserve by sharing some of the wisdom they have imparted with us.