This is one of those times when I say; “Forget the students!”
I actually eagerly sat down at first to read Kevin Stein’s free book (PDF or Ebook) “Just About Life” because I did have students in mind at first. Kevin wrote this collection of short stories (fiction) with controlled vocabulary and length, (as he explains in his post) and his intended audience is English language learners in Japan. I’m currently particularly interested in different ways to bring vocabulary lists to life in meaningful context due to changes in the structure of our exams.
But all of that will come up in other kinds of posts. As I said, this post isn’t about teaching.
I found that I enjoyed reading the stories myself, not just as a teacher.
They were short, I read them quickly, but I find I am still thinking about some of the stories. The endings are thought-provoking, rather than your standard clear-cut, simple happy resolution style of stories. I’m tempted to reread a few and see how I interpret some of the endings now.
I think I liked the one related to photography best – I guess that doesn’t sound surprising!
I was saddened by the silences between people in some of the stories, things left unsaid. I was wondering if that is more of a reflection of Japanese culture in these stories. I’ve watched several Japanese movies and this is an impression I have. However, I’ve never been to Japan, so please correct me if this is a misconception.
Oh, and do strawberries have a special significance?
It rocks when teachers can enjoy what was written for students!
The first word that comes to mind when thinking of my father is the word “book”. Or rather “BOOKS!”
Books were part of who he was.
My father was a voracious reader from a very young age. He read everything he could get his hands on. Almost all the birthday gifts he ever asked for, from his Bar-Mitzvah and all the way up to his 85th birthday, were books.
These books were rarely works of fiction. My father had an insatiable curiosity about the world, – he wanted books that gave him information, that analyzed events and examined the processes that led to these events. These were reference books he needed for his work as a historian (and many books that had no bearing on his work – he was just interested in the topic) biographies of the people who made history, a variety of dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases and more.
There were always several books on his nightstand. He would read several books at once along with the three daily newspapers he read and the magazines he subscribed to.
Books didn’t have to be read from cover to cover – they were there to be at your fingertips whenever you needed to read or reread the relevant parts. My father was puzzled and dismayed by Wikipedia – he felt that books and encyclopedias must be written the way he wrote the three books that he published – products of painstaking, methodical research conducted by specialists in their field.
My father had his own unique system for unofficial “field research”. He would talk to every taxi driver, waiter, nurse, hospital orderly or falafel seller he ever met, questioning them about where they came from. He would amaze them with his extensive knowledge of towns/cities and regions around the world, whether it was Eastern Europe, Iran or the United States, or his familiarity with Arab clans and Druze history. But he was never trying to show off, my father always wanted to know more about local life, what was that person’s personal perspective of life there in the past and in the present. He found it impossible to understand how a person could go off to a weekend at a B&B on a Kibbutz or a small town abroad and come home unable to report on the number of people who live there and what their sources of income are.
If it so happened that my father had not heard of a place – well, perhaps it was time to get another book!
For a significant part of my childhood, books were our family’s main possession.
Naturally, my father gave books as birthday gifts too. Our sons received Atlases of explorers, books about inventions and Greek mythology for children. I can’t recall how old they were when they got the book about breaking The Enigma code, but the one on how the alphabet evolved tied in nicely with the process of learning to read.
Interestingly enough, the one place my father tried to get people to look beyond books was in his history classes. He always tried to get his students to see that history was not a page in a book but was a “live” thing populated by real people, who influenced history and related events according to their own perspectives.
One beloved strategy of his was to secretly arrange with two (or three) students to suddenly burst out “fighting” (with a bit of theatrical play acting if possible) in the middle of a lesson without any warning. Then he would ask the whole class to describe what they had just witnessed. The students discovered that though they had all witnessed the same event, their accounts of the event varied! This was an eye opener for them and a good introduction to many a lesson.
Guest speakers were commonplace in his college lessons – my father brought in dozens of well-known people who shaped local history. He set up a video-recording project, to document these interviews for future generations, as he was acutely aware of how the window of opportunity for interviewing these people was closing fast. He took his classes on field trips – putting history into a visual context.
On my father’s 86 birthday he didn’t ask for any books nor did he get any.
Although my father took his last breath at the end of August (two months after his birthday), I began mourning months earlier, when Alzheimer had claimed his ability to read. The father I had always known was no longer there.
And now we are left with his library. He “pruned” it several times during his lifetime, there are much fewer books than there ever were before. Nonetheless, we are still dealing with several thousand.
Several thousand – yet I’m devoting a great deal of energy in finding good homes for individual books. Homes where the books would be welcomed. One history teacher at the school where I teach agreed to come – he took about 20 books. I’ve brought a few to other teachers and to the school library. Another teacher at my school likes biographies in English and was pleased with the five books I first brought her. She didn’t want the next 20 I brought, so I donated them to our wonderful “readers-for-readers” corner in our local library. There are lots of English speakers here, I saw that the books disappeared quickly. Other books that were written for the general public, not scholars, are slowly going there as well.
I don’t know if I’ve even donated 100 books yet, it has hardly made a dent on the shelves. Scholarly reference books are harder to donate (not sell, donate!) than one thinks – libraries are concerned with space and so much is now available online.
But I’m not yet ready for drastic measures in clearing out books. Going over the bookshelves, picking out certain books for certain people does something positive for me.
The cover states (I quote): “From the author of the million-copy selling THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING”.
Not quite the way I would phrase it but I really did enjoy “The Yacoubian Building”!
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this one so much.
Sometimes a winning format doesn’t work when you are trying to repeat it. At least for me. It’s true that there are still a host of characters from different socio-economic statuses (people who would never interact with each other) who find their lives intertwined on a backdrop of a dramatic time in the history of Egypt. But there is too much repetition, the characters seemed “flatter” with certain qualities emphasized again and again.
Perhaps I would have found it more interesting if I hadn’t read the previous book, but the characters failed to hold my interest for the full 496 pages…
I visualize most of my teaching work as a bridge that can lead the students up to the point where they are able to take the last steps alone and be independent. The students take the hand that I have offered and we walk together. That’s why I quote this poem so often on my blog!
There is a problem when it comes to these students.
A BIG problem.
These students aren’t even on the bridge and many of them won’t simply take my hand and let me show them the way. In fact, they have to prove they are right in saying they unable to learn and won’t succeed by resisting help. It’s as if they haven’t heard the maxim “If you are in a hole, stop digging”!
I believe my first job is to get such students on the bridge.
Reading Comprehension strategies are useless to a student who won’t try.
The students know they are weak students, don’t lie to them or praise them in a way that isn’t true. RIG THE SETTING FOR SUCCESS, BUT DON’T LIE! Make sure there is “evidence” as to why the student was praised.
Here are some of the things I do in class to get the students to “step on the bridge” and feel that it is worth giving reading comprehension tasks a try:
I create very simple basic texts on the board from some “tale” a student in class shares. I write the tale in English, even if the student tells it almost completely in mother-tongue (eliciting words from the other students as much as possible). I focus on expressing a sincere interest in what happened to the student. Like this text, for example:
What Happened to Sara This Morning?
Sara got up at 06:15.
She left the house at 07:15.
Sara didn’t take an umbrella.
When Sara arrived in Yehud it was raining hard.
Sara got wet.
Sara wants to call her Dad.
By erasing words, having students fill in the relevant missing words on the board in response to basic “WH” questions, I get the students to focus on the text and the words. They know the answers because they were involved in the process of creating the “text”. I finally erase the ENTIRE text and ask WH questions about it. The students can deal with it!
Answering in complete sentences is not the point! If students can answer a “when” question with “07:15” and a “who” question with “Dad” (and not vice a versa!) then I have a good reason to praise them. They are reading and answering questions!
Note: A visual explanation of how to use the disappearing text method with all students can be found in Jason Renshaw’s post, here: Going Going Gone
“Chopping” Real Exam Papers
The students know as well as I do that their final exams won’t have self-created texts on it. Bringing in a real exam paper from a previous year, chopped into “bite-sized” pieces, makes it easier to “swallow”.
Each paragraph of the text is pasted on a separate page, with only the questions related to that paragraph pasted below it. So now the text is chopped up into several short pages.
On page one there may be only one question but on page two we can show the students that THREE WHOLE QUESTIONS can be answered based on SIX measly lines!
That is much less intimidating than seeing the whole text and a long page of questions. Particularly if you highlight the “WH” question words, names and numbers in the text.
A student doesn’t need to answer all the questions to get a high-five – remember? We’re talking about students who wouldn’t even start working on a text! Lay on the praise for every question answered. Make your check marks extra big!
Divide the Dictionary Work (include the teacher!)
Many of these students gave up on their electronic dictionaries very quickly. Like any tool, you need practice in order to use it quickly and well, yet they won’t touch it. By writing unknown words from a paragraph on the board and dividing the work of looking them up, the students can be convinced to start the laborious process of typing the words they are in charge of. It is slow work for them because some students have trouble matching lower and uppercase letters and they have to copy every single letter, one at a time. However, the more they do it the easier it will get.
It’s important that the teacher shows that he/she is also contributing to the joint effort and fills in some of the translations. While it’s good for morale, that’s not the point! The teacher chooses to translate the words that have several meanings and writes only the suitable one. The students do have to learn to deal with such an issue, but only after they have begun moving along the “bridge”!
Create your own version of a “Proud of You” board!
I know that most teachers don’t have the option of having a wall devoted to praising like I do. I don’t know what you can do instead, but I’m sure you’ll think of something.
“The last few steps you’ll have to take alone” (Shel Silverstein)
I chose my third and final audiobook for the year on an impulse. “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life”, by Steve Martin is not similar to the usual kind of books that I read. Which is exactly why I chose it. I felt I needed a break from the rather serious books I have recently been reading (more on that later) and thought that listening to a comedian read his own book would be taking full advantage of the medium of audiobooks. Frankly, I imagined that listening to this book would be somewhat like listening to Trevor Noah read “Born a Crime”, which I really enjoyed.
It’s an unfair comparison. Not only did Trevor Noah have a truly unusual childhood, but his book also does an amazing job of showing how people from different cultural backgrounds may perceive events from very different perspectives and what that can lead to.
That’s not Steve Martin’s goal. Once I settled down and began accepting the book for what it was (and to the fact that Martin doesn’t “act out” voices of characters) I rather enjoyed it. Steve Martin realized early on, the hard way, that if he waited to be “discovered” at some audition he would never get anywhere. There was none of this “instant stardom” some of my students seem to fantasize about. He didn’t have any mentors to show him the way and he worked very hard at honing his profession.
In short, a tale of grit.
I also found it very interesting that a comedian “grew” out of a silent, rigid family setting.
I’m not a big fan of “slapstick” humor and mainly watched Martin in movies with my sons when they were younger, but it’s pretty amazing to learn about all that happens, or is needed, in order to seem to be “clowning around.”
Sometimes quickly turning inspiration into action, while keeping things really simple, is absolutely the way to go.
This is the first year that I am teaching the poem “As I Grow Older” by Langston Hughes to high school students at several levels, not just to the students at the highest level. I am very pleased by the decision.
The lead-in activity focusing on the metaphor of the wall (and not on giving a historical background) clarified it well for my students. You can find the activity here: Shifting the Focus of Pre-Reading Tasks
However, my weaker students needed more practice in remembering the vocabulary items used in the poem so that we could focus on analysis and interpretation.
It occurred to me that this was a good time to start trying to put some principles into practice. I’m fortunate to be taking an in-service training course with the fascinating Debbie Ben Tura on the use of drama in EFL lessons (thanks to the awesome Regina Shraybman who brought the course to our school!).
Obviously, I couldn’t read the poem out dramatically in English while groups of students act out the lines they hear. Many of my students this year are quite Deaf and communicate mainly in Sign – Language. However, I did not want to miss out on the connection between acting, movement, and retention.
So here’s what I did.
I took scrap paper and wrote out twelve verses from the poem in large letters. Not beautiful, not laminated, just readable from afar. These pages will be thrown out soon. See here:
One student was “the teacher”. Another student was placed in charge of the stopwatch on a cell phone. I explained that each student would mime out each verse on a page, as shown by “the teacher” and the time it took them to do so would be recorded on the board. We agreed that some use of Sign Language would be allowed as long as it was combined with acting dramatically (standing stiffly and just signing was banned).
The students immediately asked for a review of the sentences before we began and I, naturally, was happy to oblige.
The students loved it and were quite creative with ideas. Suddenly a verse like “the wall rose between me and my dream” became a visual creation that the students were physically involved in creating! It was clear that the students were focusing on the verses intently.
The weakest student had the role of playing “teacher” – by the time it was his turn the verses had been acted out five times before with “reminders” in between. He needed some help but felt confident enough to participate.
The students helped me stick the pages with the verses on the board.
One by one a student came to the board. Each of the other students had to act out two verses (we went around twice) and the student by the board had to point to the sentence being acted out. If they pointed to the wrong sentence I intervened until they found the right one, which of course “cost time”. Again we wrote scores on the board. If someone wanted a review before his /her turn at the whiteboard, the group was able to explain the forgotten items. I didn’t have to do it!
The big pages are now going into the trash bin. I had students copy the verses onto index cards which I plan to use in other ways next week.
The full title of the book is “The Woman who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies”.
This is a fascinating book about Elizabeth Smith Friedman, another extremely intelligent, gutsy woman who played an important role in American history, yet her story hadn’t been told.
I was somewhat apprehensive about reading the book since I’m not mathematically inclined. There are explanations about codes and discussions of codes as that was Elizabeth’s groundbreaking field of expertise. However, that wasn’t a problem at all. The book is engaging and clear, presenting Elizabeth’s life as it intertwined with government and military history, actually the covert history of a substantial part of the 20th century. I was particularly interested in the part about South America during World War ll. I had known almost nothing about the “invisible war” going on there!
It never ceases to amaze me how dual feelings toward women could have existed in such a manner. On one hand, men in key roles and government and the military lined up to consult with Elizabeth, yet giving her due credit or equal pay – forget it…
Recent research at the Puffin Institute of Classroom Experience has illuminated the striking connection between using educational technology in the classroom and crushing garlic, particularly crushing garlic with a fork. Due to the fact that many teachers moonlight as family cooks, the following information may be of particular interest.
Here are the main findings of the research:
A divisive flavor!
Either you hate it or you love it… Feelings run strong!
There is no denying that generous use of garlic has a strong presence in a dish – whether it enhances it or makes you push the dish away is the debatable part. Obviously, use of EdTech in the classroom, whether it is via computers, cell phones or tablets can’t be missed either. The question is whether eyes are rolled at the thought of introducing it into the classroom while tongues are clucked in disapproval at the “waste of time”, or is the technology embraced as means to interactive learning?
It can be sorely tempting to use the frozen version!
“Finely dice the garlic!” “Only add the diced garlic when the onion has become translucent, otherwise the garlic will become bitter!” “it’s better to crush the four cloves of garlic!”
While there is no doubt that FRESH is best, frozen garlic cubes, (which only need to be tossed into the pot) can seem quite tempting indeed!
“Fresh” in EdTech means using technological tools that allow teachers to pour in content tailored to their own students’ needs, such as choosing the vocabulary or creating the questions. Remember the old adage “A stitch in time saves nine?” Well, one link (to a ready-made activity) may save time, say nine glorious minutes, or cost nineteen minutes in explaining what goblins are or “zero conditionals”, or get you mired in trying to explain why what happened to a mythical John in Ibiza might be a secret…
There are Time-Saving Tricks – Sigh…
Try peeling the cloves of garlic, leave them whole and toss them into the pot with the onion. Now all you have to do is fish them out and smash them with a fork before adding all the other ingredients to the pot. No dicing or special garlic-crushers needed – all time issues resolved, right?
It really is a time-saving tip, as long as you don’t dice the cloves out of habit before you remember not to. In addition, if you fish the cloves out of the pot too early they tend to fly off the chopping board when you try to crush them with a fork…
Thankfully computers don’t usually “fly” in the classroom. However, colleagues and counselors, so eager to impart time-saving tips which prove that using EdTech won’t take the teacher more time, sometimes forget that it takes time to learn how to save time. Time, practice and patience are called for…
In these matters, Edtech and garlic only have a partial match. While it is clear that learning to use new educational tools (or learning anything for that matter), certainly improves brain functions, the issue of reducing blood pressure could not be established. There are schools in which using EdTech entails running after the person in charge of the computer room or dealing with old equipment that can crash…
There is hope!
The Puffin Institute of Classroom Experience has been collecting accumulating evidence proving that there are garlic-haters who have learned to like garlic in their food and teachers who have learned to overcome their distrust of EdTech.
However, despite the fact that Dalrymple is quite critical (or condescending!) of every place and culture he encounters on his incredible journey from Jerusalem to China, this book is a great read and I quite enjoyed it.
The book is actually a double form of time-traveling. The author, and his formidable traveling companion, Laura, set out to recreate most of Marco Polo’s epic journey. They don’t begin in Italy but rather in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Marco Polo supposedly stopped to take some holy oil for the journey. Dalrymple brings alive historical information about Marco Polo’s journey in a light, engaging, and clearly knowledgeable manner. He particularly focuses on architecture and points out cross-cultural influences between Islamic and Christian architecture, as he relates anecdotes regarding the people he meets and their adventures along the way.
But the modern journey is itself a form of time-travel to a reader like myself, reading the book in 2018. The two students (the author was 22!!!) embarked on the journey in the early 1980s. Not only have the regions they passed through undergone changes or even upheavals since then, but the journey also took place in pre-Internet days. While Dalrymple is very knowledgeable about the past, he seems to have known very little of the current (1980s, that is) forces or news of the regions he was passing through in advance. I believe foreigners trekking through remote places was a much rarer phenomenon back then, which makes his tales even more interesting.
The young people certainly do not travel in style and do many a crazy thing to keep progressing towards their goal. Frankly, I find it pretty amazing they made it to Xanadu at all. Side note: Dalrymple makes the whole journey but in India, Louisa replaces Laura for the last leg. Louisa was Dalrymple’s former girlfriend…
I have to admit that I’m a mother of 20 something-year-olds. Although I read the tales of these two young people’s travels through areas considered highly dangerous (where the two young people could have easily been murdered or thrown into a remote prison many times!), with a fair amount of equanimity, I got quite upset when I reached the part where Louisa became ill. They were in an area where the health care was particularly appalling and she could have easily died! Obviously, she did not but I identified strongly with their mothers’, who are briefly mentioned.
In short, despite its shortcomings, it’s an engaging book! I’m ready to read more of his books!
The scene is familiar, students seated in rows, one to a table, with an exam paper in front of each of them. Their school bags are lined up against the wall and there’s a dictionary on each desk. All the students are focused on their exam papers.
However, the room is quite small. There are only nine students. There were supposed to be ten students but one of them, today of all days, missed his pick-up time for the transportation to school and is absent (hmm, I think to myself).
I ponder the advantages of being Deaf during an exam. The room assigned to us overlooks a parking lot of a neighboring municipal building. I seem to be the only one bothered by the noise of the vehicles, and the people talking too loudly on their cell phone. A student in the back taps his foot nervously and no one is perturbed by the repetitive tap tapping. I’m relieved that there are no real hard of hearing students in this particular class – that kind of noise drives them bonkers (the students who hear better have turned off their hearing aids, I tap them on the shoulder if I need to tell them something). That is until the nervous student starts knocking his pen against the desk. The student sitting in front of him immediately picks up her head, puzzled. She doesn’t know what she is hearing and which direction it is coming from. I explain and ask the other student to stop. He hadn’t noticed he was making a sound. Everyone else is working quietly.
Then it happens.
The same nervous student in the back gets up for a moment to stretch (the chairs never seem to be comfortable for these really tall boys!) and makes a funny face. I smile at him with a sort of silent laugh and motion to him to sit back down. Another student is instantly alert. What did he miss? What went on here? Why was I smiling? Did I say something when I was moving my hands?
You can’t say “It was nothing, keep working”. Deaf students are very sensitive about feeling left out of things. They have to deal with that feeling a lot in the world outside the classroom. So there I am, explaining in Israeli Sign Language, about me smiling because of the student who made a funny face and that they both should get back to work when other students pick up their heads. They picked up on the sign language and needed to know what was going on.
In short, I ended up with a “commercial break” in which everyone got the update regarding the funny face made, that nothing more than that went on, no one missed anything and would they please go back to work.
And they did.
I’m still glad I smiled. Even though it caused some trouble.
Smiles are worth it.
*** Note: I enjoy following Jamie Keddie’s postings as he inspires teachers to take their own stories and use them with students and with other teachers. This week his bi-weekly post happens to tie in with mine, as it is about communication or rather miscommunication!