Is it worthwhile to teach authentic poetry without knowledge of vocabulary?

I’m teaching the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” to a large group of my Hebrew-speaking deaf and hard of hearing 10th and 11th graders. It’s in the curriculum.

I find it to be a puzzling situation. On one hand it seems absolutely insane to teach it to most of these kids. I’m not exaggerating when I say that most of them only know two to four words in the entire poem. Even a word that seems familiar to them such as “sorry” isn’t in the right context as they only know it to mean “please forgive me”.  Even though we did a pre-reading exercise which included translating the really difficult words (such as “undergrowth” “hence”) they didn’t know most of the other words either and couldn’t even begin to read any sentence of it on their own.

On the other hand, this poem is about dealing with dilemmas and making choices. We did a pre-reading activity on how they solve problems and many of them were interested in that. The vocabulary exercise I gave on those really hard words had them match the Hebrew translation to a simple definition in easy English, so there was reinforcement of vocabulary, just not of the vocabulary of the program. In addition they learned  a bit about metaphors, how to infer something and about the poet. Some of the pupils actually said they find the poem related to life!

However, to answer the low order reading comprehension questions (which were in English they could handle) they relied mainly on the translation of the poem. Since I foresaw that, I made sure they had to copy out lines of the text to prove their answers otherwise they wouldn’t have looked at the poem itself at all!

I wonder if I could have achieved the same effect by having all these nice activities and tasks in English, about a poem written in Hebrew?! So, is it worthwhile to teach authentic poetry without vocabulary?

Saturday’s Book – Dinotopia by James Gurney

Dinotopia by James Gurney
Dinotopia by James Gurney

We own the first two books of this amazing series. It’s a wonderful fantasy of an isolated place where humans and dinosaurs coexist in harmony. They share language and technology and friendship ( I love the dinosaur character that’s an interpreter!).

This series is very special in that not only is it a good story but the pictures are amazing, and are an integral part of the story. You MUST look at the pictures (spend time looking at them) in order to get all the information.

Our boys and I had such a good time with it that for a while I tried to translate it into Hebrew. I did  a section and even discussed it with a publisher who loved the story ( her kids loved it too!) . However,  after looking at the large format and the amount of drawings in color said there was no point in even contacting the publisher. The Hebrew speaking book market is too small to support such an expensive publication.

Too bad…

Comment on Can Texting Help Teens with Writing and Spelling

I just read Bill Ferriter’s post titled

Can Texting Help Teens with Writing and Spelling?

and it reminded of what we experienced in my classroom when texting first became an option on cell phones. I’m not quite sure how long ago that was anymore – maybe 10 years ago?

The first cell-phones pupils showed up with only had texting options in English. People were texting each other in Hebrew transliterated into English. My deaf students were ecstatic about this visual option to communicate, but they had to use English letters! They spent time on their phonics, always pestering me with requests to help them sound out the letters for the words they wanted to write. It was wonderful.
Now, of course, not only can’t we discuss if texting helps their English, we can’t even discuss if it is good for their Hebrew! Most of the pupils have 3G cell-phones and sign (Israeli Sign Language) their messages!

Comment on “Taking a Walk in the Learners’ Shoes”

On the blog Box Of Chocolates, which I really enjoy following, there’s an interesting guest post discussing whether or not the experience of learning a foreign language can help you understand your students better, called

Taking a Walk in the Learners’ Shoes

I had an interesting experience related to this. About 7 years ago when I was on a partial sabbatical, I took a beginner’s course in Spanish. My motivation was part historical (classic Eastern Jewish story, my maternal grandmother’s family scattered from Poland to Israel, USA and Argentina) and part practical (Spanish is supposed to  be an easy language to learn).

I wasn’t thinking of sharing my students’  experiences when I registered – after all, I’m not deaf and had not been expecting the course to enrich my experience as a teacher. Just hoped to learn some Spanish!

Well, I was wrong from the word “go”. I barely knew 3 or 4 words in Spanish when I started. My clasmates were shocked that I hadn’t known the Spanish word for heart! Hearing children in second grade know all sorts of words in English beore they start formal education. The deaf pupils literally start with nothing (some kids know the word LOVE but only in capital letters).

I had no exposure to Spanish outside the classroom. The only Spanish speaking friend I had at the time had recently moved away and I don’t watch the Spanish speaking Soap Operas.  Many (not all, never all) of my students are not exposed to English outside of the classroom, even though we live in a country where English is influential. They watch TV and movies with subtitles, use Facebook in Hebrew and don’t hear songs in English.

Just like my students I found it increasingly harder to remember the vocabulary. Each week required more effort on my part to review the words on my own. As I was also teaching, it was difficult sometimes to keep up when I had report cards and national exams to deal with.  Just like a sizeable number of my high-school students, who are often distracted by things going on at home.

I put in extra special effort and finished the course pretty well. But not easily at all. Seven years ago, after  not using Spanish at all, I remember very little… But I do remember how I felt when I studied.

I think learning a foreign language is a very important experience for any language teacher!

Saturday! Time for a book!

I’m reading “Them” by Joyce Carol Oates and I’m having a hard time with it. I don’t think I will be able to finish it.

She writes beautifully! I appreciate how when the situation becomes crystal clear and you know what is about to happen, she ” fasts forwards” to the next scene.  No sense wasting words on that.

The characters seem so real and believable. And that’s my problem. The book is incredible depressing. Generation after generation caught in povery with an abusive family environment which keeps repeating  itself. People living in a hopeless cycle.

I read and have read sad books. “A History” by Elsa Morante was absolutely tragic. But I can’t bear this one!

Signs!

No, not Sign -Language -SIGNS!

Since my success with cardboard signs that say “TEST”  (which the kids place on their desk when they take an exam) I’ve been trying to replicate the effect with other kinds of signs. These signs worked really well because they are in use in context. Most of the kids rememebr the meaning of this word when they see it in texts (most – in special ed. it is never everyone).

I’ve had signs, or labels, on things in the classroom for years but most pupils ignored them until I gave them a homework assignment about them. However, that was almost three months ago,  I doubt the vocabulary stuck.

This week I had some pupils who come in for volunteer work (In israel all 10th graders must volunteer, so some come  to my class) make signs stuck onto colored popsicle sticks of common things I say in class. Phrases such as “Look it up” or ” It’s a name” or ” Patience please!” I say these things in Hebrew or Israeli Sign language. My thought was that I would hold up the sign  instead of saying it, in the right context. Thus the pupils would connect the sign with the words. The signs generated some curiosity but I haven’t managed to use them! They sit in a colored container on my desk but I’ m never at my desk when I need them! Theoretically I should have them hanging around my neck!

Any advice?

Any suggestions?

Reform Symposium 2011 and “BURNOUT”

I saw a large number of excited tweets about the Reform Symposium 2011 .  A whole convention online!

The lecture dealing with teacher burnout caught my eye and I decided to attend this one lecture. Now there’s a paradox right there! The lecture, my time , was on SATURDAY, my only day off. If I’m feeling so stressed and overburdened that I’m attracted to a lecture on “burnout”,  (we’re just before report cards and mid-year matricualtion exams and I work 6 days a week!), then WHY ATTEND A LECTURE ON SATURDAY?!!

But the speaker, John Spencer was good. He didn’t just say – go to gym class and you’ll be fine! I didn’t take notes but I went to his blog after the lecture and found my PARADOX right there!  Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote about himself, on his contact page:

“I believe that true impact occurs in a paradox. The more I try to “make an impact,” the less I impact a student.”

I have 4 months of real teaching yet to go this year. In addition, as a counselor I have two more matricualtion exams to deal with.  Maybe I  need to stop trying so hard. Easier said than done…

I’m glad I attended the lecture!

Saturday’s Book!

phantom toolboothI loved this when I was growing up, I enjoyed this book so much with my own boys and read it a few times on my own. A combination of “delicious” use of language and ideas that are so true, relate to life so well!

One example,  a child who grows from top down, and wonders how we do it our way! the older you get you keep seeing things from a different perspective when you grow UP but when you grow DOWN your perspective doesn’t change. what a great discussion- opener with children!

Homework – Moving from “Alfie Kohn” to “Robyn R. Jackson”

For years I basically subscribed to Alfie Kohn’s approach to homework, which he hammers home briefly and succinctly in the video clip: “Making Students work a Second Shift”

It seemed particularly unfair for my deaf and hard of hearing high-school students to have to work “a second shift” doing homework when they live so far away from school. Some of my pupils leave the house well before 7 a.m. and return home after 5 p.m.  Not only is dealing with texts in English (as a foreign language!) such a struggle for many of them, many of the kids were notorious for not doing homework before I got them! Therefore, I did not give homework on a regular basis.

But I wasn’t happy with the situation. Some of the students were not taking the learning PROCESS seriously enough and only cared about tests. In fact, I had to admit, that not only weren’t they working “a second shift” – some weren’t working much during their “first shift”!

A few months before this school year began, I read about Robyn Jackson’s approach to homework in “Never Work Harder Than Your Students”. She discussed two elements which I felt were “written for me” :

1)      Focus on quality rather than quantity

2)      That small amount of homework IS IMPORTANT (otherwise I wouldn’t have given it – no busywork) so it’s not going to go away, it has to be done.

I agonized all summer about how to make sure the students did the homework.  WE are not in America – suggestions I found in the book such as utilizing Lunch Period (which we don’t have) or having children stay after school (they are all tied to transportation schedules, NO flexibility there!) were inapplicable.

Since I always “learn by doing” I decided to start without having solved the problem. I created a class website. Every Monday (homework only once a week) I post new homework, but the previous assignments are still visible (I use the format of a table).  I told the pupils that homework is presented online and they can email it me or hand it in, as they prefer. I explained that we’re using online homework to enable me to use color and media. In addition it is good for the environment. The assignments are short and focus on point I want them to pay attention to (such as six sentences on the difference between “how long” and no longer”).

Most of the new tenth graders were onboard right away (though two do not do homework to this very day!) Some even told me they felt that this was a serious class! At first, the others hoped that if they ignored it, I would drop the issue. I kept reminding them that important info is waiting for them. When I congratulated them on getting a good grade I reminded them that their teacher evaluation would still be low because by not doing homework they didn’t complete the learning program. After the first round of tests, the pupils who did fairly well to very well asked how they could prevent the teacher’s evaluation looking bad on their report cards and sat down and made up all the assignments! I even heard another teacher say that the pupils told her that they consider English to be one of the serious subjects because there is regular homework! I didn’t expect that!

The current situation is that about 80 percent of the 65 pupils do homework. I know that a weekly point I want to emphasize is getting across and feel very good about it. Unfortunately, not all of the pupils do the homework on time. I’m not sure how to get around that because by now the pupils know that my focus is on the learning aspect and don’t feel pressured to hand in the work on time. For the second semester, which is about to start, I plan to make a rule that homework can only be made up in the month it was given.

One thing is for sure –  my husband feels that since I read the book  “Never Work Harder Than Your Students” I’m working harder than before!

Skip to toolbar