Category Archives: On Education

From Judy Blume to Hessler – Musing on Reading about Teachers

Naomi’s Photos    Point of view

Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.” by Judy Blume is certainly not a book about a teacher and a teaching career.  It’s a young adult book about growing up and figuring out one’s identity.

However…

It depends on how you are reading it.

There are those times at school when I have really long days and I need some quiet time to recharge around noon. At least once or twice a week I drink my tea in the classroom instead of going to the staff room and read books from our tiny class library. It’s an eclectic collection of graded readers and books at wildly different levels, composed of books that were donated or ones I’ve picked up at “free-book-corners” at the municipal library.

Now that I’m working my way through the Blume book (I must have read it when I was about ten years old but that was a long time ago!) I find myself zooming in on a minor character in the book with a running commentary in my head. The character is, of course, the teacher, Mr.  Miles J. Benedict, Jr.

Really, Mrs. Simon, (aka Margaret ‘s Mom), did you have to groan when Margaret said she had a first-year teacher?  And claim that there is nothing worse? Couldn’t you have kept that thought to yourself? How about giving the new teacher a chance?”

“How did you manage that impressive feat, Mr. Miles J. Benedict, Jr.? The entire class didn’t write their names on their quizzes, as an attempt to pay you back for changing their seating placements in class after they misbehaved. Not only didn’t you say a single word about it, but each student also got the correct quiz back with his /her name on it! What classroom management technique did you employ here? Was it the fact that you had samples of the students’ handwriting from the first day of class when you asked them about themselves? How did you stay so calm?”

I haven’t finished rereading the book yet. My apologies to Margaret but I do hope there will be more about how the new teacher goes through his journey of coming into his own as a teacher in the remaining chapters. There is something fascinating about “seeing” the process as told through the eyes of a student, not as reported by a teacher.

The only problem is that Blume’s book is a work of fiction. Could a teacher really do that handwriting trick and stay so calm? What do you think?

Naomi’s Photos

Peter Hessler’s “River Town – Two years on the Yangtze” is a completely different kind of book. Put aside for a moment the truly fascinating aspects of the book related to history and life in a remote place in China in 1996, this isn’t a “Saturday’s Book Post” review.  In this book, not only does the American Peter Hessler write about his experiences teaching English as a foreign language in a small teacher’s college in China, but he also relates what it was like to study Mandarin, in China, from a teacher who spoke no English.

The interplay of language and culture is what makes Hessler’s experiences particularly worth discussing for teachers. Take the issue of praise vs. criticism as an example. How criticism is delivered, how much, how often and how severe it is employed as a tool, is related to culture. Teachers everywhere encounter students bringing different cultures and behaviors from their respective homes into the classrooms. Even if the differences are not as extreme as Hessler describes.

Interestingly enough, Hessler’s book is also a book about a young person trying to establish his identity as a person worthy of respect, especially outside the classroom’s walls. In China, according to the book, the teacher is always respected inside the classroom…

I read for pleasure and to broaden my horizons and most of the books I read have nothing to do with teaching.  But I must admit that there’s something fascinating about examining the roles of teachers in books and how they are perceived. I can’t exactly put my finger on the reason for it.

Can you?

Does it matter if the reason remains elusive?

Here’s to reading and books!

 

 

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.

 

 

“Teacher, why won’t the new kid play with me?” – Inclusion in the Classroom

Are you ignoring me?
Naomi’s Photos

It is so easy to imagine the situation, because we’ve encountered it. The children are curious about the “new kid in class”. Someone asks “the new kid” to play, but he doesn’t respond. It seems to the children that he is ignoring the invitation and that angers them.

How can we talk to students about those children who do want to be friendly but might not respond in a familiar way?

Erin Human knows how to present a subject in a way children can relate to. Even better, her winning combination of pictures and simple text “Social Skills for Everyone” make the infographic sideshow suitable for learners of English as a foreign language as well. And that’s a lucky break because inclusion is a very real issue that needs to be discussed in class. New immigrants , children with a hearing problem, children on the Autism spectrum and more – you will find them all in the so-called “regular” classrooms.

From Erin Human’s “Social Skills for Everyone”

 

Head over to Erin Human’s blog to see the complete slide show “Social Skills for Everyone” . Erin has kindly permitted me to share the link (given below) to download the slide show as a PDF file for use in class.

social-skills-f_26228424-xq6oa2

Inclusion needs to be discussed.

A “Zeeting” to Spark an ACTIVE Discussion on TOLERANCE

It depends on how you look at it…
Naomi’s Photos

As I have mentioned before, I’m taking  a great in-service course on using digital tools in the classroom.  “Zeetings” is the latest addition to my virtual “toolbox”.

Everyone likes being asked their opinion. Everyone! “Zeetings” lets you create interactive presentations, allowing the viewers to participate and get  instant statistics. That’s exactly what you need if you want to spark a discussion!

This is just my first presentation created on “Zeetings” and I was delighted to find that their presentation tool is almost completely intuitive to use – I added a video and the interactive questions following it without reading the instructions (I’m actually someone who does read instructions, but not this time!). I could preview my creation and easily edit out the wrinkles.

So, if you would like to have a class discussion on  the ways in which media  does / doesn’t promote tolerance toward those who are perceived as different, or would just like to raise awareness regarding  Deaf people, you may find the following helpful. In any case, the video (many thanks to the lovely Beata Gulati for sending it to me!) is a great message for Valentines Day – LOVE despite communication difficulties. Some of you may remember seeing the video on this blog in the past, as an Edpuzzle exercise, created for reading comprehension activities. I’m using the video again this way because it raises so many great discussion points (and students love it)!

Let me know if your students liked it too!

 

 

7 in 2017 – When Teaching Literature in EFL Intersects with Life

 

You know that teaching the literature component of the high-school EFL program has influenced you when…

  1. Getting a beautiful piece of artwork as a post reading task on the book “The Wave” makes you ridiculously happy…
  2. You foolishly carry too many books and papers in the hallway and manage to drop half. A few kind students, whom you’ve never seen before, help gather the scattered items. You thank them but what you really REALLY want to say is “Well, you can now count this day as not lost”! 
  3. The name of the game “Quoits” was a new addition to your vocabulary, but you are old enough to remember that “Patience” was the name for “Solitaire” when it was played with real cards.
  • Pondering age… Photo by Gil Epshtein

    4. When you reach the sentence about Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones’ icebox, it suddenly dawns on you that it might not be such a good idea to suggest that the kids talk to their grandparents for further information about ice boxes. If some of the students’ parents were once students of mine, then I’ll soon be the age of their grandparents.  I seem to have been in the classroom forever yet I never had an icebox…

  • Not a yellow wood but most certainly two roads diverged…
    Naomi’s Photos

    5. You find yourself pondering the fact that you actually took the road most taken by women, becoming  a teacher, a wife, a mother, a daughter (of parents in their “golden years”) , juggling roles while trying to exercise and blog too. Which naturally leads to the question whether I shall be telling this with a sigh of joy or regret ages and ages hence… Or perhaps the question of whether there will be anyone interested in listening…

  • A Smart Move
    (Naomi’s Photos)

    6. You have to bite your tongue every time you reach the end of the story “The Rules of The Game” – Waverly had no more moves to plot! I read “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan, I know what happened! From the moment Waverly supposedly insulted her mother, she never won a chess match again!!! Unlike Waverly’s mother, we teachers do give students second chances (and third, or more) but that isn’t something I can point out to the students because their story ends before that. Maybe it’s just as well…

  • Missing information… Naomi’s Photos

    7. You actually feel the weight of all the hours /topics cut from the national  curriculum, particularly history. Over the years more extensive background information of all sorts is needed for the stories and poems, ranging from the rise of the Nazi Movement to the fact that the early African-Americans DID NOT come voluntarily to the US as illegal immigrants who decided to stay…

Forget the students for a moment – how has teaching literature in the EFL classroom affected YOU?

 

Being Sniffed At & Getting a Nod – Blog’s 7th Birthday!

Moonstruck…
Naomi’s Photos

Funny how things work. My blog was “sniffed at” and  then mentioned on a list of recommended blogs in the same week! A week which just happened to lead up to this blog’s SEVENTH BIRTHDAY!

The other day I met a teacher who said he has a blog. A blog about a very specific topic, totally not EFL or language related. When I said I also had a blog, he wanted to know what it was about.

And I hesitated.

What is the blog about?

It’s not only about teaching English to Deaf and hard of hearing students.

It’s not only about teaching English.

Sometimes it’s just about being a teacher.

Or even about being a book-lover.

So I hesitated.

Then I replied “It’s about education”.

He looked at me as if he were holding back the words “yeah, right”, sniffed in disdain and walked away.

I can see it from his point of view. How worthwhile could the blog be if the blogger has trouble answering the simple question “what is your blog about”?  “Education” is an extremely broad topic…

Define “bright”…
Naomi’s Photos

“Ha!” I thought to myself and smiled. Time works in my favor here, because I happen to know that not knowing what the blog is about works. Seven years have gone by and writing on the blog still helps me put my thoughts in order and reflect.  685 posts have been posted and read by people, even though 98% of my readers do not  teach English to Deaf and hard of hearing students. I’ve even passed the 2, 030 mark in Twitter followers…

Then, this!

On the English Teaching professional website, Chia Suan Chong posted an article called “ELT Blogs to follow in 2018” and included “Visualising Ideas“!

I feel honored to be mentioned among such fascinating bloggers and I truly recommend checking out their blogs!

I would just like to say thank you to all the readers of this blog!

Seven years have gone by but I’m not going anywhere.

I intend to stick around.

Isolating Rote Memorization of Vocabulary – An Informal Classsroom “Research”

Reflecting on comparing and contrasting…
Naomi’s Photos

The decision to frame my long-term classroom observations in the format of an extremely informal “research” was inspired by a post by Leo Selivan on ELT Research Bites – a collaborative initiative to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners.

Research Questions

a – How far can a student advance in terms of reading comprehension exam levels in EFL,  based solely on rote memorization of vocabulary, with little to no comprehension at all of the texts?

b – Do students who memorize discreet vocabulary items very well, but have little or no comprehension of the texts,  perform better on exams than students with poor retention of vocabulary but with better  comprehension of texts?

Terminology used

Rote memorization – Students who spend time successfully memorizing lists of isolated vocabulary items along with their meaning in L1.  Memory measured by number of correct translations of aforementioned word lists and the frequency in which the student turns to the dictionary during an exam.

Degree of comprehension of texts

Students degree of comprehension of the texts on the reading comprehension sections of matriculation exams is assessed in two ways:

a – The number of correctly answered reading comprehension questions that require use of a higher order thinking skill in order to answer them.  Particularly the skills of “cause and effect”, “comparing and contrasting” and “identifying different perspectives”.

b – Conversations in mother tongue with the student about the text after the exam. Such conversations are intended to help the student understand the errors made.

Reflecting on reflections…
Naomi’s Photos
Participants

Six high-school students, divided into two groups. All students were born with a moderate to severe hearing loss but  either cochlear implants or hearing aids help them significantly. They all speak clearly and can communicate (at least one-on-one) using residual hearing and lip-reading. Only one of the six does not know sign language at all. All students have been my students for two to four years. Both groups are current students who are also similar to many generations of students I have taught over the last 30 years.

Group one – Three students who have strong vocabulary retention skills. They are hard workers and they can memorize a word list for an exam perfectly.  All three have very poor language skills in the language of instruction at school (a combination of Hebrew and sign language when needed) which is not their L1.  They all come from families who speak other languages, two of which are immigrant families. Two of them come from families with limited education and all three were not exposed to direct language enrichment at home (which is recommended when raising a child with a hearing loss). Their writing in Hebrew is poor with many errors. They can write, in high school, sentences such as this  “See accident in ambulance man hospital ”  in Hebrew. Their general knowledge is dismal, extremely limited.

Group two –  Three students who have significant difficulties in remembering the words provided for exams. While their language skills in L1 are also in need of improvement, they are far better than those of the first group. Their vocabulary in Hebrew is richer, their writing is better and their general knowledge is significantly wider. Two of the students come from educated families.

Through the looking glass…
Naomi’s Photos
Method

The performance of both groups were compared on  three of the four levels of external matriculation exams given in Israel – Modules A, C and E. The grades were compared and conversations about the texts held in Hebrew and sign langauge.

Results
  1. On the lowest level, Module A, (roughly the equivalent of an A2 level on the CEFR scale ) the students from the rote-memorization group had  errors in questions that required any sort of comparison, inference or understanding a different point of view. They also had significant difficulties in understanding why their answer was wrong. Here’s an example

The text in the reading passage stated that Max was on a ship carrying gold. Pirates came to the ship and Max was afraid. He then jumped overboard. The question asked about the reason why the pirates came to the ship. These students replied that Max was afraid of the pirates or that he jumped overboard. They believed they were correct because they could point to that in the text.

However, there are not many questions that require higher order thinking skills in Module A . The students in the rote memory group preformed as well as or better than the students in the other group because they were able to translate the text with less effort.

2. On the next level, Module C, (more or less similar to the level B1 on the CEFR scale) there are  more questions that require higher order thinking skills. However, the texts are much longer. The students with poor vocabulary retention skills had to use the electronic dictionary much more frequently and had more trouble finishing the exam on time. Some of them felt tired and got discouraged fairly quickly.  In the beginning both groups scored badly but group b understood the cause of their errors better.  With time both groups improved their grades with group A (rote-memory) lagging at least 10 points behind, but certainly passing the exam with grades of approximately 70 (55 is considered a passing grade).

3. On the third level, Module E,  (more or less level B2 on the CEFR scale) most questions require quite an in-depth understanding of the text.  Higher order thinking skills are needed in order to answer many questions. Both groups fail the exams at this level at first but the rote-memory group do not improve in any significant way.  The other group finds the exam very difficult but the grades improve steadily during the school year. They do not achieve more than average grades, however.

Who’s there?
Naomi’s Photos
Conclusion

My very informal classroom “research” indicates that the ability to memorize well large  numbers of discrete vocabulary items can enable a struggling student to achieve moderate success on Modules A and C, despite extremely poor language skills and severely limited general knowledge  This does not hold true for Module E. However, since a student can fail module E and still be eligible for a full matriculation certificate, this is very significant.

In addition, at the initial stages of the year, the skill of memorizing vocabulary  enables the students in group A to do at least as well if not better than their peers in group B. It also gives them a sense of pride and achievement. However, those in group A are not usually able to hold their lead.

I believe that rote memorization has a significant place when working with students struggling with very poor language skills despite it’s known drawbacks and limitations.

A TEACHER’S “PERIODIC TABLE”: 3. Lines

Full Title  – Pondering the “Periodic Table of Teacher Elements”  that make up a teacher’s life.

There are all sorts of lines…
Naomi’s photos

The spark for this series of posts was ignited by reading the book “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi. That book is unique, fascinating and powerful. These posts do not even attempt to hold a candle to the book, which I highly recommend reading.

Nonetheless,  the idea of exploring elements that make up a teacher’s life took hold…

If my claim that “lines” are an absolutely basic element of every teacher’s life took you by surprise, ask yourself the following questions:

  • When you taught the alphabet, did you draw lines on the board yourself or did you have one of those boards that have a section with lines? Are you capable of writing on the board in a straight line? I can’t…
  • Which behaviors do you draw the line at in class? Do you allow chewing gum but draw the line at using the cellphone?
  • To what degree are you required by the administration to toe the line in class? How much leeway do you actually have to decide what you teach, when you teach it and to add your own “flavor”?
  • What are your lines of communication with your students / parents / the administration?
  • How is your classroom organized? In straight lines? Traditional columns and rows?
  • What are your strategies for drawing the line between your private life and work? How do you shut the door on something that worried you at home and give your students your full attention in class? Or vice-a-versa?
  • Lines can become blurry, sometimes…
    Naomi’s Photos
  • How do you navigate that fine line between using humor in the classroom and ensuring that not a single student leaves the lesson feeling insulted?
  • Do you feel a student is out of line when he /she asks you whether or not you fasted during the holiday or if you are pregnant?
  • Do you let students get away with lines such as “My dog ate my homework”?
  • How often have you tried desperately to fit  some important phone calls into a ten minute break between classes, only to be told to hold the line? Then they say they’ll call you back, but of course, you can’t answer the phone because you are teaching?!
  • How much time do you spend online for work purposes?
  • How often do you say (perhaps feeling exasperated) in class “Pay attention to the line numbers!!! “.

I’m sure you can think of other examples along these lines. In the school in which I teach, I am not required to line the students up for lunch or recess, but perhaps that is a daily element for you. In any case, you are welcome to drop me a line with your comments!

Note: I use an apron when I cook for my family. It has lines on it too…

A Teacher’s “Periodic Table”: 2. Diamonds vs. Rust

Full Title  – Pondering the “Periodic Table of Teacher Elements”  that make up a teacher’s life


(Naomi’s Photos)

The spark for this series of posts was ignited by reading the book “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi. That book is unique, fascinating and powerful. These posts do not even attempt to hold a candle to the book, which I highly recommend reading.

Nonetheless,  the idea of exploring elements that make up a teacher’s life took hold…

*** Title inspired by Joan Baez’s song: “Diamonds and Rust”, 1974.

Naomi’s Photos

Diamonds are those moments when…

… a student’s face lights up with the joy of comprehension.

… a student uses what we have just taught on his /her own initiative.

… a student is eager to learn more.

… we realize that the way we presented / planned / constructed our lesson was just what the students needed to grasp the issue and move a step forward.

Rust takes hold the minute  you decide that since that particular mode of presenting the material was such a success, you will always teach it that way, regardless of context, the years that have gone by  and the ever-changing needs of different students. If the fact that  diamonds no longer sparkle during the lessons escapes you, than the rust is truly entrenched.

Note: One good strategy for Rust Removal is to have a student teacher (a teacher-to-be) in your class.   The need to explain why you do what you do is a terrific rust detector.

Additional Note: Attending  a teacher’s conference will enable you to meet other teachers who also swear by their methods for mining for diamonds. Taking in some of that collective knowledge provides powerful rust-removal polish.

Final NoteDiamonds are also those moments in the hallway (and outside of school) when the students are happy to see you…