All posts by Naomi Epstein

Hi! I teach English as a foreign language to deaf and hard of hearing students in Israel and am a national counselor in this field. http://visualisingideas.edublogs.org

When Students use the “Fishbowl Response” – A Comment

The day after… Naomi’s Photos

On the last day of school I found myself, once again, visualising the first day of the next year school year. It’s the easiest day of the school year to visualise, unless you bother to count “the last day”, which I always spend stowing away supplies in the English Room.

It goes without saying that I see myself smiling and chatting with the students as they come in (or stop by) about how they spent their summer vacation.

However, there won’t be any formal lessons related in any way to the theme of “How I Spent My Summer Holidays”.

All because of “The Fishbowl Response”.

The what?!

You know, the response you get when you cheerfully inquire what a student did over the summer and he/she mumbles “Nothing” and turns quickly away.

So what does that response have to do with a fishbowl?!!

Alone…
Naomi’s Photos

The phrase “the fishbowl response” was inspired by a story Jamie Keddie told in one of his “Sunday Posts”, which I subscribe to. Keddie brilliantly combines visuals and storytelling – I love how a simple sign or an object becomes a thought-provoking story! In the post entitled “Are You a Fish in a Fishbowl?” Keddie tells us about a story from his own school days. In response to his teacher’s question (“What did you do at the weekend?”) he replied “nothing”.

She demanded to know if he was a fish in a fishbowl.

Oh!

My first reaction was a gut reaction.

I could never say that to a student, and I don’t think anyone should. Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive since I’m a Special Ed teacher, but children who reply with “nothing” are feeling vulnerable enough as it is, and are not likely to ponder metaphors and hidden meanings. In fact, they can easily feel insulted.

When you read the post you quickly see that Keddie’s point is that even  a fish in a fishbowl actually could have a story to tell. You don’t have to have had an exciting , eventful summer in order to have a story to tell. Your thoughts and experiences matter.

Let the story out!
Naomi’s Photos

So, considering that I agree wholeheartedly that every student, no matter how “boring” his/her summer vacation was, has something worthwhile to share, why do I refuse to plan a lesson on the topic?

Because it takes time, every single year, to create a safe classroom atmosphere – a class where everyone’s story is respected. Some teenagers, particularly in special ed classes, have pretty lonely summers. Not only do we need to teach students to respect someone else’s story, we need to teach students to recognize and respect their own stories.

That takes time.

One more thing, before you go:

Think about the “fish in the fishbowl”  for a minute longer. See how Jamie Keddie’s simple image becomes a focal point and helps get the message across?

Images matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Golden Legend” by Nadeem Aslam

Naomi’s Photos

What a remarkable book!

Riveting!

It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I were back in college, taking a literature class in which we were studying this book. I imagine “taking a magnifying glass” and taking a good look at how cleverly the author lets information drip in, not adding more information than you need at the moment, letting you sense things before they are affirmed and presenting horrific events with just enough detail to let you fill in the dots yourself, in the amount and manner that you can deal with.

In this legend, that takes place in Pakistan, there most certainly are extremely painful events. However the tale of current events is intertwined with a BOOK (which was once lost , once harmed, being stitched back together in different strokes) whose pages strive to alert the world to the many ways all known cultures in the world were influenced by each other and are connected. Education, books, learning about the other, accepting people’s differences (since no one is really that different) is the path to touching the legend. Extremism, ignorance, banning of books, thoughts and feelings hurts the people setting the bans too, not to mention those caught in the crossfire.

Think of “The Handmaids Tale” or “1984”.

Reading this book made me think of both of them, though in this one there is more hope, a bit easier to see what could be possible instead.

This is the kind of book that leaves an impression.

When Former Students Pop In or How Does a Teacher’s Memory Work?

What gets caught?
Naomi’s Photos

“We’ve walked both sides of every street
Through all kinds of windy weather;
But that was never our defeat
As long as we could walk together”.      “Crossroads”,  Don McLean

I met the most recent former student, who had popped in for a visit,  in the teacher’s room. Thankfully, she hadn’t come down to the English Room first.  It made me feel slightly less bad to know that the other two teachers, who had also chatted with the student warmly about what she’s been doing and what she plans to do, didn’t remember her name either.

The student graduated six years ago…

When we did figure out the student’s name, I was taken aback. That student and I had really “walked” together for three whole years through all kinds of “windy weather”! She was one of those hard of hearing students who had arrived in 10th grade hell-bent on proving that not only didn’t she know any English, it would be impossible to teach her any.  It took quite a while until she agreed to “take my hand” so we could “walk together” and brave the elements with a security net.

“Can you remember who I was?
Can you still feel it?”      “Crossroads”,  Don McLean

There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what I remember (or don’t) about which former student. With some it’s their name, with other’s it’s a task they handed in or the way they behaved in some situation.  Some students I remember a great deal about and some I barely remember. That’s particularly embarrassing as I teach most of the students for three years and I spend a great deal of time thinking about them.  I’m at school five days a week, too. But it seems as if there’s a capacity limit  – each new class of students seems to erase memories of previous students.

You know I’ve heard about people like me
But I never made the connection.           “Crossroads”,  Don McLean

I’ve been teaching for 32 years now..

At least when I  meet students whom I taught more than 10 years ago I no longer feel embarrassed to ask them their name.

But six years?

Does your memory work in the same manner? How do you deal with it?

 

Saturday’s Book: “The House by the River” by Lena Manta

Not a river but it will do…
Naomi’s Photos

I really wanted to like this book, I truly did.

I have a soft spot for Greece, I’m interested in its recent history (as well as ancient history) and I know some wonderful people there. I am familiar with some of the places mentioned in the first part of the book (though have visited very few of them so far), such as Larissa, where I have a special friend.

I knew from the first moment (this isn’t actually a spoiler, its crystal clear) that the book has a clear message – the simple country home in the village is better than anything else and true happiness will only be found at home. I was prepared to treat it as a Greek fable and ignore the “schmaltz”.

My strategy worked well as long as the book was about the older generation and life during (and between!) the two world wars.

However, by the time I had finished reading about the eldest daughter’s experiences after she left home, I thought I would drown in “schmaltz”.

I have no patience for this. I moved on to a new book, which is riveting!

You’ll be hearing about it!

Saturday’s Book: “The Silver Star” By Jeannette Walls

It’s a bit like a star, don’t you think?
Naomi’s Photos

I read this book in three days. I couldn’t put it down.

Obviously, when you recognize the author’s name you compare it to “The Glass Castle”. No, it’s not as good as that book, which was really powerful and memorable. But there’s no need to compare – I really enjoyed reading this book.

First of all, Walls’ writing style had me totally mesmerised from the first page. There’s something about the way she writes that makes me feel that those two sisters, their unstable mother and even the two emus are so real.  Yup, emu, the animal. Two of them. The fact that the author combines the backdrop of racial tension following the integration of schools in Virginia, along with prevalent norms and different perspectives playing out in a small town vs. “city folk” add many thought-provoking dimensions to the story.

I must also admit that the “teacher side” of me also kicks in. It could be a great book to discuss with high school students. Many  issues that are relevant to all teenagers come up, with the wonderful message that running away from your problems isn’t going to make them go away.

In short, I’m glad I read the book!

ONE TWEAK AT A TIME: REFLECTING ON FANSELOW’S TEXTBOOK FOR EFL TEACHERS – 4. Active Listening

This is part four of my second blogging challenge, in which I experiment  with and reflect on some of the small changes recommended in John Fanselow’s “Small Changes in Teaching, Big Results in Learning” .  These challenges are a way for me to keep honing my teaching skills.

The Commander
(Not a pigeon, I admit, but still suitable)
Naomi’s Photos

“I led the pigeons to the flag” – do you know how many American first graders, native speakers, solemnly recite that each morning while pledging allegiance to the flag?  As William Saffire presents it in 100 Years of The New York Times: On Language :

“The most saluted man in America is Richard Stans. Legions of schoolchildren place their hands over their hearts to pledge allegiance to the flag, “and to the republic for Richard Stans.” With all due patriotic fervor, the same kids salute “one nation, under guard.” Some begin with “I pledge a legion to the flag,” others with “I led the pigeons to the flag.”

Fanselow’s section on Active Listening reminded me of this article, because he focuses on understanding how difficult it is for native speakers to understand / repeat / write  correctly words they aren’t familiar with when they hear them. Then he highlights the question: what are learners of English as foreign language actually hearing when we model  language? Is it what their teachers expect? Or are they blithely leading pigeons to the flag some of the time?

Not what you expect…
(Naomi’s Photos)

I’m so glad I read this section of the book too. Obviously, I can’t comment or try the suggested activities as they are not suitable for my classes of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. But Fanselow answers the perennial question that teachers, who have a hard of hearing student in their regular English class often ask:

“Why does my hard of hearing student do so much better in his/her other subjects? When I have a conversation with him/her outside of class the student seems to understand me well! Perhaps the student needs to listen harder?”

You can’t “listen harder”.  The hard of hearing student understands you better in his/her native language because he knows the language better.

Fanselow doesn’t mention this in his book but I would like to point out the issue of acoustics. Poor classroom acoustics doesn’t help anyone and is certainly a big problem for a student who doesn’t hear well. Acoustics affect the teachers as well!  Here is an extremely short  (and teacher friendly!! ) Buncee presentation with some useful tips that could help make your day less tiring and make a significant difference to students: “The Sound of an “English Room”.

 

 

Weighing In on “Weighing My Words” – A Comment

In class it sometimes seems that the answer to all questions is “cat”… Naomi’s Photos

It may very well be  that “all the world’s a stage” but somehow it seems to me that the stage is actually a classroom. Not only does life give me “private lessons” on a daily basis (with no “opt out” option… ) everything I learn seems to connect to being a teacher and to my own classroom.

The latest case in point is a lecture I recently attended, supposedly having nothing to do with the classroom. As you may have noticed, I’ve become fascinated by genealogy research since I received those letters from  pre-war Poland and began my Who Were You, Dora?” series of posts. It was a panel on historical writing  from different perspectives with the famous historian Deborah Lipstadt and the historical-novelist Rachel Kadish, moderated by Ilana Blumberg. It was fascinating  and I enjoyed hearing both speakers. I would happily attend a much longer lecture given by each of them!!

Ilana Blumberg, Rachel Kadish, Professor Deborah Lipstadt

Frankly, I hadn’t heard of Rachel Kadish before the talk. I made the effort to go to the lecture after a long day at school, just before national matriculation exams, because I had wanted to hear Professor Lipstadt speak – it was worth it! However, it was actually some of Kadish’s words that have been “dancing” in my head all week.

First of all, Rachel Kadish referred to a quote which I later found online, attributed to E.M. Forster “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Isn’t that a great answer to the perennial question – “why do I blog?!

The open window
Naomi’s Photos

I often write comments on education-related blog posts that I read. Only through writing can I clearly work out what is it exactly I agree or disagree with, or which elements will be useful for me in class. That’s why I also reflect, in writing, on handbooks for teachers in my blogging challenges. Finding the right words, or “weighing my words”  helps me define my thoughts.

I was so surprised to learn, following the lecture, that Rachel Kadish had a speech impediment when she was a child. It certainly isn’t noticeable today. In an article by Kadish in the New York Times called  Weighing my Words” she explains what words meant to her as a child and ponders the connection between those experiences and her becoming a writer.

As an EFL teacher of Special Ed., examples of real people who manage to turn a problem, which made them miserable as children,  into an advantage later on in life are important. It’s particularly helpful to encounter such examples in contexts that are not given in some teachers’ in-service training course.

Leave a footprint   Naomi’s Photos

We teachers need to transfer a great deal of “positive energy” to the students, particularly those who are having a rough time of it. That means our “inspiration banks” must be filled often, from a variety of sources.

Oh!

And what about the book “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish?

I haven’t read it yet. Planning to get it as an audio-book for my birthday. So a review of that will come later on.

 

 

(Belated) Saturday’s Book: “The Riddle of the Compass” by Aczel

Directions
Naomi’s Photos

Full title – “The Riddle of the Compass – The Invention that Changed the World”

What a little gem of a book!

This is a great example of what a good librarian can do for you. I’m so embarrassed to admit that I have forgotten the English-speaking-librarian’s  name, perhaps  because she rarely works during the times when I visit the library. But I do remember what I have learned by reading some of the stranger looking books she has placed on the recommended bookshelf – give the book a chance! It’s a library – you can always return it if you don’t like it.

You don’t have to be a skipper (I hate boats, get seasick) or a fan of how-devices -work programs  (I just want them to work, thank you very much) to find this book fascinating. In a simple and very engaging style, Aczel takes you on a trip around the world and through the ages. Not only does he present how people navigated at sea before compasses came on the scene,  he shows you how things are related to each other – commerce, war, prosperity, health, education, cultures and technology. In this case the technology is the compass.

Telling you anymore would ruin the experience and Aczel does it so much better! It’s like reading a multi dimensional travel book – globe-trotting and time travel.

It says on the cover that the author wrote more books – I’ll keep an eye out for them.

Enjoy!

ONE TWEAK AT A TIME: REFLECTING ON FANSELOW’S TEXTBOOK FOR EFL TEACHERS – 3. Dialogues

This is part three of my second blogging challenge, in which I experiment  with and reflect on some of the small changes recommended in John Fanselow’s “Small Changes in Teaching, Big Results in Learning” .  These challenges are a way for me to keep honing my teaching skills.

It may be old, but new to me!
Naomi’s Photos

In the book, Fanselow brings up the issue of how the method of reading – thinking – speaking (without looking at the text) may seem to be just a tool for practicing dialogues, but that’s not its main use. The more I use the method now in class the more I understand what Fanselow means when he claims that it helps develop reading comprehension, vocabulary, syntax and more. I’ve just spent several lessons reading 120 word opinion compositions with three Deaf students in this manner(going for what we call their Module G matriculation exam soon). All three commented on how they felt focused on details of the composition and how it led to meaningful discussions.

Note – These students are Deaf so I had to write what they said as they spoke, so we could discuss it. In the book Fanselow has different suggestions for writing and other variations which I have not yet tried.

In any case, I was eager to try the method for practicing speech in pairs or small groups. It is very challenging for me to work on speech in my mixed level learning center. Not only are the students levels of English and academic abilities wildly different, their level of hearing and communication skills vary dramatically as well.

So here’s a Buncee Creation (thanks to Arlene Blum for introducing me to Buncee) to visualise the situation.

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “Educated” by Tara Westover

The ties that bind us…
Naomi’s Photos

This was my third book of my audio-book treat.

Thanks to the combination of the excellent (as always!) reader and the author’s beautiful prose, the backdrop, characters and events were extremely vivid.

Too vivid at times. Honestly.

It’s an amazing story of how a girl who never went to school until she began college at the age of 17 graduated from Cambridge and the Harvard with a PhD.  And no, it’s not that she participated in a wonderful home schooling program…

I am, naturally, fascinated by what makes a person study on her own despite hostile conditions and to see the effect education has on a person’s life.  This story is certainly fascinating.

However, this woman had some extremely difficult experiences while growing up. Some passages in the book were very hard for me to listen to. From what I’ve seen in the media,  people are comparing the book to The Glass Palace. I would also compare the book to The Color of Water.  While there are certainly many similar elements (the desire for education is one of them!) I felt there was one major difference, though I could be mistaken.

In this book I felt it was a wonder that the author, Tara, was even physically alive to make it to college. Her extreme survivalist family literally placed her in physical danger on more than one occasion. Not to mention physical abuse.

If I had read a print version I may have skipped a few lines here and there, in the really rough spots.

I recommend it, but perhaps its best not take the audio version for this one.