“I’m thinking, I’m thinking, I’m thinking”

When I was working as an ESL Reading tutor a few years ago, I worked with John, a socially fluent English speaker who struggled in all academic areas.

John was sitting at one standardized test or another when he broke into tears. “I don’t know this,” he cried.

“It’s OK, John. Just think about it for a little while then do your best.” I encouraged.

John looked down at the test then started this mantra, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking, I’m thinking,”

It would have been funny if it weren’t so tragic.

 And today, about six years after the completion of that test, it dawned on me: We had never taught John to think.

I’m learning so much about helping kids figure out this big idea, “thinking.” It started with our school’s focus on student discourse. From Pre-K through fourth grade, we’re teaching kids to have academic conversations that help them work out their opinions, build on each other’s ideas, and back up their assertions with appropriate evidence. I’ve brought it into our reading where together we work on taking good notes about what we read with our end goal in mind. Planning to compare this book to another? Then we’d better look for commonalities. Looking for the lesson in the folktale? Pay careful attention to what choices the main character makes and the results of those choices. We spend time “whisper thinking” to ourselves, talking with a partner, and sharing ideas with the group. My second graders use words, phrases, and pictures to keep track of their thinking. We’re practicing the difficult process of turning those notes into written responses to reading.

 Thinking is harder than it, at first, sounds.

We follow a similar process in Writing and I’m working to make thinking this concrete in

Math and science as well.

I always threw words like “thinking” out and expected kids to just know what that meant when, in fact, I didn’t fully know myself. I’m becoming a much better teacher because I assume less now and try to make everything I say as concrete as I can. Thinking is the mortar that holds all academics together; we’ve got to help kids learn how to mix this foundational ingredient.



I found out yesterday that the student I retained from my class last year (let’s call him Juan) has moved to a different city. Now, this student inspired many deep breaths in me, moments when I had to calm myself before reacting. One of the first words he spoke to me in English was “sorry” which he said, at first, softly while looking down at the floor, then with a sly smile looking me in the eye.

I really liked this kid.

He was full of energy, constantly moving his body when the class was sitting together on the rug. At the end of the year I was able to send him out for 10 minutes in the morning with the gym teacher to shoot baskets before school. He loved that and though it didn’t really calm him for his school work, it did make coming to school more fun. He looked forward to it and made sure to have his sneakers tightly laced each morning.

When he came to our school in December he spoke not a word of English. He spoke very little in Spanish as well. He had recently left the Dominican Republic to stay with his grandparents. We slowly pieced together that, though he had attended school, his education was sporadic and inadequate. He could not identify the letters of the alphabet nor count to 10 consistently (in neither English nor Spanish). He had no idea how to behave in a second grade classroom.

While we all worked hard between December and June, at my last meeting with Juan’s grandmother, she was still very concerned. I told her I would like to keep him back with me. I had waited so long to decide I thought he should stay because we don’t usually keep newcomers back a grade. We know they need time to both learn the new language and learn in the new language and we have supports in place to help them along at every grade. But Juan wasn’t just learning a new language. He had effectively missed all of the pre-literacy work typical of kindergarten – in any language – and he was just beginning to catch up. By the end of second grade he could identify the letters of the alphabet fairly consistently, recognized a handful of sight words, could produce simple sentences in English, and even could add single digit numbers. He had built up the stamina to sit independently with a book for sometimes up to 15 minutes.  And when he fooled around and ran in the halls, he had the confidence to look directly at me and say “sorry.” He was making progress but I worried that third grade would just be too overwhelming. There is a huge leap in expectations in third grade and he was still testing at a kindergarten level in literacy skills.

Juan’s grandmother was relieved when I suggested keeping him in second grade one more year.

My principal was not easy to convince. Her legitimate question: “What are you going to do differently next year?” My honest answer: “That’s what I’m going to spend the summer trying to figure out.” And I have. As I have read and thought and planned this summer, Juan has always been at the front. How am I going to help him progress? How can I adapt this activity so he can benefit from it? What’s a good way to track his progress and share that data so all of the teachers that work with him can help him move forward?

And then the email from our English Language Development teacher; Juan has moved.

I’m upset, not because of the work I put in this summer – clearly that work will improve my teaching for other students – but because another teacher is going to have to start from scratch and learn what Juan needs and how to get it for him. And that means more delay in his education. And I’m upset because I was really looking forward to having him in class again. I actually wanted to see him throw a paper airplane or roll around on the carpet just so I could give him a reminder and hear him say “sorry.”

The best test answer. Ever.

So, I worry about a few kids in my class at test time. They are working hard to reach the level of “academic proficiency” set by the state. It can do a number on your self-esteem. I have one student who worked his tail off to move up 5 reading levels this year, though it still puts him more than a grade level behind. He happily went with tutors to work on Math skills, only to get low grades back on every test. He never gave up, though you could see his frustration building. I was worried.

So, when I got his last Math test back with the following answer to the open response question, my worry disappeared. School had not beaten him down.

Keep at it, my young scholar, because you are absolutely right.


Building the language classroom

What does a language rich classroom look like? How do we support our English language learners, and our students with a poverty of language, in growing their proficiency?

If  “language is inextricably linked to learning to be with others in a socially complex world” (Genishi and Haas Dyson, 11) then it follows that we should organize the classroom space around interactions. Yes, individual work space is needed, but most of the day should be spent socially, in rich language environments.

Our children arrive at school with a variety of sociolinguistic experiences. Whatever that experience, children have learned the grammar, syntax, phonology, and semantics of their language and dialect. Often, that language is different from the standard language of schools. So, it becomes our job as teachers to appreciate the language proficiency of a student and to support their flexibility with language so that they can also use the standard language of academics. “This work includes monitoring one’s own evaluative judgments about individual interest and ability. Teachers need patience, trust, and skill to interact with children, especially those whose ways with words are different from their own “normal” ways.” (Genishi and Haas Dyson, 20-21)

In my classroom, Yeremi has a tenuous grip on the English language. He rarely produces complete sentences, with subject and predicate in agreement, modified by appropriate adjectives and adverbs. However, he expresses himself clearly with his peers, with his family, and with his teacher (me). When he focuses in on a class discussion, he is a delight to watch. His face contorts as he struggles to make sense of the reading or discussion; then his whole face opens up as he lands on just what he wants to say. And what he has to say is worth the wait. Yeremi makes great connections between books and between previous class discussion and the current lesson. “Remember the pig like buttered toast in the other book? So now, she won’t go in the car without Mr. Watson give her buttered toast.” Great observation. (NOTE: We are studying series books, specifically how an author builds on what we learn about a character from book to book. Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series has been a treat for us all in Room 102.)

Yeremi had the space to explore this idea about the text partly through my careful design of time and space in the classroom but mostly through happenstance because I’m not that good yet at designing my classroom for focused academic discussion. But, I’m learning.

Here’s what Yeremi has taught me I need to improve:

  • He, like most of my second language and language impoverished students, need a better organized place to look to for sentence starters. When I have had sentence frames neatly posted and have practiced them explicitly with the class, Yeremi will often use the board to help him write.
  • We need time to practice those sentence starters through daily partner talk. In the beginning of the year, I need to explicitly teach the thinking prompts “I predict . . .” “I disagree because . . .” “That makes me think of . . .” etc. One at a time, building on our store of prompts, until we not only understand what we are being asked to think about, but also have the language to express it. Yeremi would have benefitted from more practice working an idea out with a partner.
  • I need to help my students release their dependence on the posts, become independently fluent with the prompts enough to be flexible with them. If students are practiced enough, won’t they then internalize the critical thinking these prompts are meant to encourage and so be able to use their own words and phrases to best analyze the text or topic? Yeremi might need the support of the sentence frames longer than some others, but that’s OK. He reminds me that I need to organize resources so that they are useful to those who need them, in the way that they need them.

Yeremi and his classmates have taught me so much more than this, but in just re-reading this post I’ve started to feel panic welling up. Seriously, how do those bright and wonderful teachers do this every day? How do they maintain consistency? And in the middle of my panic and self-doubt, someone posted the perfect piece of wisdom on Facebook (of all places to find wisdom). “Don’t judge your beginning against someone else’s middle.” Right. Despite my advanced years, I am still a beginning teacher. And my teaching has been frequently interrupted, so I haven’t spent more than 2 years in the same position. I am still beginning.  So, rather than waste my time feeling remorseful about what I haven’t done well, I’m going to put that energy into improving. I still feel a bit of panic over the sheer amount there is to be done, but I am energized to get to work.

I want to continue this thread of assessing the language and literacy of my classroom. I will continue to read and reflect and connect and take some chances and hopefully become a better teacher for all of my students.


Resources: The post was inspired by my reading of the book Children, Language and Literacy: Diverse Learning in Diverse Times by Celia Genishi and Anne Haas Dyson (Teachers College Press, 2009).

Today I was a teacher

I had the best Math lesson with my 2 “newcomer” boys today. After 4 months trying to get them excited about learning, something clicked.

Both boys arrived in the state within the last 6 months, having no proficiency with English; both boys speak Spanish with their families; both had interrupted schooling before entering our second grade. Neither boy can read or write in their first language, nor in their second. Neither boy is fluent with basic math facts; actually, when they started. school with me, neither boy could count past 10.

It has been a struggle to help them learn English and catch up with Math at the same time. We struggled most of all with school appropriate behaviors – “No, you may not run in the classroom,” “No, you may not play with blocks right now,” “No, you may not climb on the desk.” I began to hate the word NO as much as they did. But slowly, we figured out how to add more YES to each day.

In my worry about the progress of these two, I connected with our Literacy Coach and she made time in her schedule to meet with the boys before they go off to their Language Development teacher. Our coach, happily, is a native Spanish speaker so could provide much more first language support than I could with my stuttered words and phrases. Our goal was to identify where the gaps were and find a way to fill them.

Working with them is exhausting. One is in need of constant praise and encouragement, the other is in constant motion and would much rather be playing. We’ve settled on a combination of sticker chart encouragement, time with learning games on the computer, and breaks to draw and color to help them get through the grueling work of learning in a language they have not yet mastered at even the most basic level.

Today, we were working with coin values. While the rest of the class tackled story problems with money, the boys and I sat together with plastic coins and learned their names and values. “Count 5 pennies. How many coins do you have? How much money do you have?” A round of high fives for accurate work and on to nickels, then dimes, then quarters. We traded 5 pennies for 1 nickel, we lined up 4 quarters to make one dollar, we counted out 20 cents. High fives, big smiles, and a sense of accomplishment ended our day.

 These two boys are wonderful. They are thoughtful, kind, and funny. School is not their favorite place to be, but now that they know the drill, they do their best to follow rules. I love having them in class, but have been really frustrated by what I saw as their lack of progress. Today they helped me remember that we all work at our own pace, and even when it seems someone is not listening, they hear. They have been mulling things over all this time, and today were able to draw on old lessons to learn new things.

 Today, I felt like their teacher.

And that has been the best gift I got so far this week.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, all.

From Professor to Mrs. LA

A year and a half ago, I left my full time job teaching elementary ELL and since then I’ve been working part time at the university. But now I am ready to go back to full time, so I sent a quick note to a couple of people I used to work with to let them know. My thought was to plant the seed so that, as they made plans for the next school year, they would have me in mind. I never expected to be offered a position so soon. Within twenty-four hours of sending that email, I spoke with my former principal about a position she was trying to fill.

Since talking with her about the possibility – the possibility – of taking on this classroom, I have been teaching imaginary lessons in my free time. I spent an entire car ride presenting a mini-lesson on adjectives and planning center activities that would allow for creative exploration of the topic in a few different ways. By the end of that ride, I had a photography exhibit, a poetry collection, and a student-produced dictionary all planned, complete with connections to science and social studies objectives.

I didn’t realize how much I missed elementary school.

It’s more than just the energy and enthusiasm of young students, though the snarky 18 year olds have been getting to me this week. No, it’s that integration of concepts throughout the academic day; the demand for overlapping curriculum. When I conceive of writing workshop lessons for elementary school students I do so with the entire school day in mind. We learn process writing so we can describe how to complete a Math problem. We practice careful, objective description in science labs and later turn those images into poetry with figurative language. Since I am involved in all the subjects, I can tailor our writing to support our learning in all areas. That’s just not possible in the current college level curriculum.

So, a week or so after that first conversation, it looks like we can make it work. As soon as my college semester is over, I’m jumping right into that second grade ELL classroom. Before I’ve even posted grades for my freshmen, I expect to be checking on reading levels and language proficiency. By the end of January I may not even remember a single snarky comment about the uselessness of college writing; I’ll be too busy creating opportunities for writing all through the day.

An ELL conversation

I had a few telling conversations this week that reminded me that many mainstream educators lack deep understanding of ELL issues.

English Language Learners (ELLs) come with a variety of academic backgrounds. At my last elementary school, I had students who were completely literate in their home languages, able to read and write at or above grade level, and I had students who were barely conversant in their parent’s language, with no reading or writing skills at all. Clearly, these students needed very different support from me.

The latter student is actually easier for the average teacher to understand. We know what struggle looks like and we have lots of strategies to use. But the former student, that highly educated one who knows everything a fourth grader should know, except English, he’s harder to pin down.

The students in my College ESL class this semester were telling me about their experiences in English classes, learning over and over again how to say the same simple words and phrases. These are educated young people, with the academic strength to get them into a competitive university. They mastered those simple phrases the first time around. What they needed, and didn’t get, was explicit instruction in ACADEMIC ENGLISH.

A colleague who is currently teaching linguistics to a group of aspiring public school teachers was frustrated by one who continued to worry about having to teach ELL students when she didn’t know their first language. ELL teachers can’t possibly know all of the languages of the students who come before us. In the past 4 years, I have worked with students who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese, Myanmar, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Laotian, Gujarati, and French.

The thing is, our students don’t need for us to know their first languages (though learning a greeting is a friendly gesture). They need us to understand something about how their language is structured and how that differs from English. They need us to know how to help them, not only with grammar and mechanics, but with understanding how American schools expect them structure an essay, to support an argument, and to integrate outside sources.

When we continue to offer a standardized ELL program, we deny students the support they need. With students of all ages, we need to start where they are in their speaking, reading and writing proficiencies. Then, we have to offer specific support to help them progress to the next level. For my students now, that means giving them lots of opportunity to write and lots of feedback on that writing. It means grouping students who struggle with the same issues and working together to improve. It means pushing students forward, constantly. I only see them for 50 minutes, three times a week. Every minute is valuable. Can you imagine the frustration if I spent a whole class time on common irregular nouns if the majority has a solid command of their use already?

Those academically advantaged fourth graders need the same thing. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to offer explanations and help in their first language, but mostly we don’t have enough staff to cover all the languages in one school. So, we need to offer intensive language study for some part of the day – geared towards their language proficiency, not just their grade level. And we need to do it without skipping out on grade level Math, Science, and Social Studies. I’ve been a classroom teacher; I know it’s not easy. I also know that most of us don’t get sufficient training and practice in the pedagogy of ELL instruction.

I do have some training and practice and have benefitted from the wisdom and modeling of some really great mentors. But this week, I’m inspired to delve into more research and writing that will help me better serve my students this semester, but also help as I prepare to return to public schools next year. There is so much I don’t know; there are things I do know that I could apply to my practice more effectively.

I’ll use this space to share some of my learning, and lots of my questions. Perhaps we can get a conversation going.