Are We Just Inflating (or deflating) Students’ Grades by Including Behavior?

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It is THAT time of year again and I feel as conflicted as ever.

The high-school where I work has a policy that student-like behavior is worth 20% of the semester’s grade.

The policy is that the goal of the school is education in the broad sense and a student should be rewarded (or penalized, as the case may be) for behaviors related to coming to class on time, bringing the required materials, participating in the lesson and general attitude toward studying (trying hard means a lot, even if the student is weak).

However, the grades are looked as an indicator of how well the students are doing and which level of leaving exams (matriculation) they should be taking.

I can’t honestly say these grades realistically reflect the students’ level of English with the 20% factored in.

What is the policy in your school?

Progress Doesn’t Always Come In Through the Front Door


Photo by Roni Epstein

Remember the 10th grade girl that CAME TO ME three weeks ago to discuss the fact that she hasn’t been doing any homework? Well if you expect to hear that everything has been “hunky dory” since that conversation then you are reading the wrong blog…

The progress report, up to a few days ago, was that we had begun exchanging emails. No actual homework task had been done, but now we were “connected”.

Then, during our last lesson, I discovered that for some reason this girl, whom I will call T, hadn’t worked at our Y.A.L.P word station yet. I asked another girl, whom we will call G to be here tutor there. G and T are friends and have a lot in common – they are both loud and noisy, both weak students who tend to balk easily at a task.

But G has worked 7 times at the Y.A.L.P word station already.

Out of the fifty irregular verbs in the past she is working on, she now knows thirty two. She began with three.

T didn’t want to go to the word station. She kind of waved her hand in the air and said that I must be crazy if I think she’s going to work with a pile of words. I didn’t say anything. G dragged her over and kept saying:” You got to see how much fun this is, I laugh all the time. And look at my progress chart – see I didn’t know the words either!”.  T knew that the alternative was doing something with me so she opted for her friend.

The girls really worked the whole lesson (which, by the way, gave me much needed quiet to work with others!) and seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Today my colleague sent me a message that T had left me a homework assignment on my desk!!!! Assignment number one!

Note: One of the joys of having my own blog! So much happens in the classroom every day, about some of which I’m pleased and some of which I’m not. It is good to sit down and write about progress – reminds me that I need patience for those other issues!

It is Saturday! An Eclectic Post: A Book, A Trip and a Paper-Cutting

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m reading David Lloyd’s ebook on the computer but a different book before going to bed at night. I was planning to write about that book today.

But I have decided to stop reading Zeruya Shalev’s Book “The Remainder of Life”. Her writing is polished and fluid but I find the characters whiny and annoying and do not relate to the plot. I gave it a chance but yesterday I officially stopped reading it and began another. Too soon to share though – next week!

Today we took a fascinating guided walking tour in the old city of Jerusalem. The bad weather was not an issue as it was a tour of places underground! The highlight was a visit to what we call Zedekiah Cave (in English it is known as King Solomon’s Quarries). A HUGE place – worth checking out the photos on Google, my pic. here doesn’t do it justice and it is just a part. But it is the other picture I want to talk about – there is an area with thousands of names on the walls! And not just names! The largest portion of the names are those of British soldiers stationed in Jerusalem before the British left the country. They took the trouble to inscribe precise details regarding the units in which they were serving. Others, many many others, included their full addresses back home including zip codes! Can you imagine those young men doing that? The guide said they were taken to the cave to get boring history lessons… It was too dark to take a picture of the whole area of the wall with writing so I went for close-ups!

The Cave
Zedekiah Cave
Zedekiah Cave 2
Zedekia Cave 3


And finally, check out Beatrice Coron’s “Spelling Spider” which she says “spins a bilingual alphabet” (French and English). She is a paper-cutting artist. You can either see a peek from that alphabet book or hear the TED Talk. Enjoy!

Notes from a Talk – Round One in Convincing Teachers to Form a P.L.N

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Yesterday I gave a talk to 37 itinerant teachers. Most of the time these teachers work alone. The travel from school to school, tutoring hard of hearing or deaf children who study in regular schools. They are expected to be able to teach all subjects, whatever is needed (elementary or junior high school). They have supervisors. they have periodical meetings, but basically, they work on little islands, guests at every school they work at.

They are not trained English teachers.

Some of them keep on trying to “reinvent the wheel”.

Of course I presented all kinds of techniques and strategies to use, with and without technology (you can see some of them in the LiveBinder I created for the talk) but with every topic I brought up the issue of the benefits of cooperation. I began by discussing activities with a white board and a piece of paper. Then moved onto useful sites that are either good for working directly with the students or make a teachers life easier (see LiveBinder).If someone remarked – “Oh, I sometimes do this/ or that related activity” I immediately asked where that teacher worked. Then I wondered aloud how teachers from other areas would know and benefit from this useful activity or website that she uses.

Then I waIked them through my counseling blog (in Hebrew). I had opened  a counseling blog  a few months before I began this blog but it had very little impact. I’ve learned a lot over the past 11 months in blogosphere and revamped the counseling blog completely. I now title each post as a response to a question I am asked by email. I also stopped waiting for people to subscribe and send out a group mail whenever there is a new post. I showed them that there is an area for comments, arguments and related questions. We looked at the search function and the division into categories. The impression I had before the talk grew stronger during the talk – many teachers think of blogs as something either related to the news (read the blog of someone living in Japan after the Tsunami) or a maybe a place to get recipes. They treat it as a site, not as a live thing upon which they can influence the content.

In addition, I showed them my class wiki. I stressed that all they had to do is send me an email with a link to a website they find useful, along with the level of the student they found it useful for and I would post it on a wiki for them. The same would go for worksheets they may prepare, though here I retain the right of veto (these are not trained English teachers). They would have a place to look for suggestions from their peers, who understand their teaching situation.

The talk was for the 37 teachers who are attending this professional development course. There are many more itinerant teachers, I’m not sure how many. I forward the blog posts to their supervisors. I don’t know if I will get any emails beyond the usual counseling questions from them. In any case, investing in answering counseling questions on the blog is not wasted time for me – more often than not I am asked the same old questions. Now I can save some of my own time by easily locating the question and linking to the reply.

This was round one. Not sure how to set about initiating round two…

It’s Saturday – “Going Places While Sitting Down”

We went to the Israel Museum (in Jerusalem) today and saw a WONDERFUL triptych video projection called “Going Places While Sitting Down” by Hiraki Sawa.

Although you don’t actually see the child, there is a child there imagining a whole host of wonderful things he/ she sees while travelling a magical land on the rocking horse. The child never leaves the house but finds the imaginary world right there, among the ordinary things in a British Country House.

In my mind this connected immediately to Saturdays’ Books – a child’s ability to imagine such things indicates growing up with books and a rich language – the building blocks of imagination!

Here is a link to an excerpt I found of the video installation. You are only seeing part of it and only one of the three panels. Perhaps this exhibition will come your way!

How do I make a “Stop Doing List”?


Photo by Omri Epstein

I really enjoyed Robyn Jackson’s practical approach to teaching as presented in her book “Never Work Harder than Your Students”. So now that I’ve just read her piece titled “Case Study – The Stop Doing List”, I find myself wondering if I could do that.

It sounds like the right thing to do. It makes sense – I’m sure there are things I shouldn’t be wasting energy on when there is so much else I should be doing. But how does one eliminate those things?

Dr Jackson talks about 4 categories:

Time Wasters

I don’t grade unnecessary assignments or do pointless warm up activities but the example of getting into pointless arguments with students made me pause. I actually have a problem with students who AREN’T in my lesson who keep coming into my classroom. They want to talk to me about their schedule (which seems to change constantly) or have discovered that a different class was cancelled and they want to have their lesson now (even though 10 minutes have passed!). I spend precious time and ENERGY getting them out of the room! This doesn’t happen every lesson but yesterday it was a real pain! Would love to eliminate this from my day but HOW?! The other teachers on my staff are unsympathetic – I’m the one who decided to teach in the format of a learning center…

Time Consumers

The advice is to automate these activities. Once again, I’ve caused myself a great deal of trouble by having a learning center. The school has upgraded the online system into which attendance, grades etc. must be entered. The other teachers can link the calendar to the class group saving time when typing in the information. However, my groups on the computer are simply divided by the students level. The students who are on the same level do not necessarily learn with each other. Consequently they are absent on different days.To make a long story short, I have to locate each student separately in the computerized system and it is MUCH slower. Certainly a time consumer but a way out of it has yet to be found.

Empowerment Failures

Which work to delegate back to the students? This is a very important issue and the one I’ve had limited success in implementing. Maybe I should go back and read the chapter in the book again. I’ve tried using color coded feedback for correcting reading comprehension exercises (similar to ones given on the students exit exams) but it didn’t work well enough. LONG story – another post! I HAVE begun experimenting (with some students) with “flipping the classroom” and that seems to show promise!

The Important

The real teaching is supposed to stay!

At the moment I don’t know what I can eliminate from my “To Do” list – do you?

Saturday’s Book: “As I Died Laughing” by David Lloyd

As I Died Laughing is an E-Book.

As a rule, I don’t care what format a book is in – I’m interested in the content.

However, since I don’t own an electronic reader I have ignored E-Books till now. It isn’t comfortable to read them on Adobe Reader. Particulary as I spend enough time working on the computer, I would rather read for pleasure away from the computer.

So why am I reading this one?

My original motivation was simply that it is written by David Lloyd. David gave the Israeli English teachers in Israel an online email support/discussion group in the early 1990s, I believe, long before there was social media and online personal learning networks. This group, ETNI, was and remains very important to me. David blogs at Why I may still be Canadian

My motivation now is that the characters are intriguing, I have no idea what will happen next and I’m curious to find out!

If it wasn’t an E-book I would have finished it by now! However, as I read something else in bed before going to sleep, it will take me a bit longer…

Using Nonsense Words in Teacher Training

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Epstein Family Photos


I was reminded of the topic of utilizing nonsense words when reading Tyson Seburnt’s excellent post Comprehension is often not what it appears . In his post he uses nonsense words to show students that copying from a text doesn’t mean you comprehend the text. He even offers a ready made exercise for us to use!

I had never thought of that.

I’ve been using nonsense words for years (think late 1980’s) but only when working with teachers, not students.  The topic is always “teaching students who have a poor vocabulary”. It is difficult to tell teachers “Pretend you don’t know some words in this reading passage”. With nonsense words they really don’t know the words!

My first source was also the first book on education I ever owned: “Teaching Reading to Deaf Children” by Beatrice Ostern Hart from 1963! The author used nonsense words to indicate words a deaf child wouldn’t know. I began by using her example to highlight something else.

Here is the title and the first paragraph of Hart’s text:

John and His Drum

John had a drum.

It was a flid big drum.

It made a big shole when he krinned it.

John liked the drum.


You can tell that “flid” is an adjective, “shole” is a noun and “krinned” is a verb. You know that because you know basic syntax. I claim that weak pupils who have trouble remembering vocabulary, ESPECIALLY these pupils, need to work on syntax as a tool for building reading comprehension skills and dictionary skills. If they know that “flid” is an adjective they don’t necessarily have to know any more than that. And if they decide to look up the noun “shole” in the dictionary, the fact that they know it is a noun in advance will enable them to choose the right definition of the word (so many words in English have different meanings as verbs or nouns). When you know that “krinned” is a verb it is actually pretty easy to guess what it means here (or, like before, that information will allow you to be a competent dictionary user). Students with learning disabilities (and with hearing problems) are allowed to use an electronic dictionary – that doesn’t help them as much if they don’t have any idea of the type of word they are looking up.


My second exposure to the use of nonsense words speaks for itself. Richard Lavoie is a powerful speaker and he also uses nonsense words for training. Except this time he’s trying to train all the adults who come in contact with the learning disabled child. Here is the relevant part of the film “FAT City – How Hard Can it Be”, which I found on YouTube:

I really recommend getting a hold of the whole film. All of his films are extremely powerful stuff, by the way.

I’ve tried to imitate Lavoie with the nonsense text to hammer in my point that remembering vocabulary items (or not remembering them) is not the only measure of reading comprehension. Reading is about more than strings of words!

Overall the nonsense words have worked well. However, each time this was the topic of a teachers training session, there was always one teacher who would ask why on earth I wanted to spend time teaching nonsense words to students…. I guess there is always room for improving my talks!