When There is No Common Language with the Parent

Epstein Family Photos

Last night we had a Parent – Teacher Night for the parents of the new 10th graders. Their children were not invited. The idea is for the parents to have an opportunity to meet and chat with all the teachers that teach their children before the official Parents Night , that fateful evening when grades, behavior and other weighty issues are discussed.

One of the parents came with her son in 7th grade, as her interpreter. She doesn’t speak any of the languages known by any of the staff members.

It’s a tricky situation. I made a point of speaking directly to the mother, making eye contact with her, then waiting for the son to translate. I’m well aware that one is supposed to engage with the person, not the imterpreter. However, in this case, the interpreter wasn’t a paid proffesional, but a child. I didn’t really engage with the son at all. I think that may have been respectful of the mother but I’m not sure about the son.. He was obviously well practiced playing this role. He was very patient too.

I tried hard to focus on the good things I was saying about her truly  brilliant child and not be judgemental. I admit that it is difficult to ignore the fact that the parent has been in the country for approximately 10 years and still doesn’t speak a word of the language. I guess that just highlights how talented her child is, to reach such academic achievements. I know her life is very difficult and there probably haven’t been many opportunities.

Nonetheless, it is an awkward situation.


Saturday’s Book: “December” by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

This book surprised me every step of the way. Every time I was positive that it was now clear how the rest of the story would play out, the plot veered in another direction.

The last 85 pages – I simply ignored everything I was supposesed to be doing at home and read them in one sitting.

I chose the book fairly  randomly. It was one of those library visits when I get discouraged beccause I can’t find any of the titles I am looking for and every book I pull off the shelf seems to be the “your uncle is really your father” type, which I detest. The review quoted on this one states ” This extraordinary novel seduces as it also challenges”. “Challenges” sounded promising!

The book presents a family of three dealing with an 11 year old daughter who stopped talking. The plot progresses as we see things each time from the point of view of each of the parents and the daughter. Be warned, it is a deceptively  “slow” book. There are a lot of descriptions of different sorts (winters in New England & New York , feelings,) and you may think things aren’t “moving”. Then suddenly you realize they most certainly have been moving. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that there IS a happy end, since I had no inkling of how they would get there. And isn’t the journey what a book is all about, not the destination?

Feedback vs. Advice – That Blurry Line

This topic reminds me why I HAVE TO blog.

I think about feedback every time I check a test or a homework task. Turns out I’d better be thinking about it – according to the article I just read there are eight things that can happen when we give a student feedback and six of them are bad! (Feedback, Part of a System, by Dylan William). With that “encouraging” statement I embarked on a thorough journey through the Educational  Leadership Magazine (published  by ASCD) devoted to the topic of feedback.

Photo by Roni Epstein

Since there is no non-virtual framework available for me to discuss the issues that I find confusing, here I am!

Grant Wiggins warns against giving advice instead of feedback. In fact, he makes a strong case why giving advice instead of feedback is inneffective. Advice includes value judgements (Seven Keys to Effective Feedback). I don’t “get” it.  I’m having trouble differentiating between the two.

I’ve always been told to phrase comments so that they would be helpful and the students would understand what they need to do to improve the quality of their work. Now that seems to be labeled as advice.Wiggins says this is not worth much if not preceeded by descriptive feedback. First the student needs information regarding the effects of the action in relation to the goal. From what I understand, instead of saying ” next time remember to include a name of a place if the question word was where“,  I should say ” points were lost because the question word “where” was ignored. Is that what he means? I’m not sure. It doesn’t sound more helpful to me.

Photo by Roni Epstein

John Hattie (Know Thy Impact) says that students value feedback that helps them know where they are supposed to go.  All the articles in the magazine stress that feedback won’t be effective without clarifying goals. I understand that. However, the main goal of my students at the high-school and the hearing adults I teach comes through loud and clear from every possible angle: my job as a teacher is to help the students get the highest possible grades on their final exams (reading comprehension). Isn’t giving advice on how to avoid those errors the next time the kind of information the students expect to receive?

By the way, there is also an article dealing with the value of differentiating between errors and mistakes, by Fisher and Fry (Making TIME for Feedback)    . While I clearly understand the distinction, the way this distinction can be applied to comments on  reading comprehension tasks is beyond me. But that I’ll leave for another time.

Any advice on how not to give advice?

It’s Saturday! How To Discuss Books Read Long Ago – Kazuo Ishiguro

Our youngest son (18) just read “When We Were Orphans” by Kazuo Ishiguro. He simply  pulled the Hebrew version off the shelf in our living room bookcase and read it. We have it in English as well. Back in 2001 I was so impressed with how pleased my husband was with the book and was still such a stickler for not reading books written in English in any other language, that I went out and bought it.

My husband just came back from the library with a copy of “The Remains of the Day” by Ishiguro. The movie came out in 1993 and despite having written on this blog that I had only seen the movie I believe  I DID read the book though some years after seeing the movie. I have memories of comparing the versions.

All that was a very long time ago. The most recent book I read by Ishiguro was “Never Let Me Go” which was excellent and powerful all the way through. I remember it well. My main memory of the first book is of my feelings – I was fascinated by the beginning, utterly drawn in, and disappointed by way it ended. Regarding the plot, beyond the fact that the hero began his life in the Far East, went to England and then went back to the country where he was born, I could not remember a thing.

Being delighted that our son read the book, I wanted to discuss it with him. Luckily he is very open and talkative and was willing to supply basic details from the plot, which made me feel better. Also, I must admit to being a bit pleased by the fact that he wasn’t crazy about the ending either. But it raised a question in my mind:

If I want to discuss a book read long ago, should I read about it on the Internet? On the one hand that will supply me with details long forgotten, which sounds like a good thing. I had been trying to remember details from the book all week!

But won’t my personal feelings and memories of the book get lost when I read summaries and reviews by other people?

What do you do?

Slippery Soapy Homework

Switched at Birth Task

It is “soapy” because the task involves a two minute segment of soap opera called “Switched at Birth”, which has deaf teenage characters in it, who use American Sign Language.

It is “slippery” because I find that one of the many parameters I have set for myself for defining the optimal online task  is always eluding me. I make sure one is “in” and woosh another slips away.

As someone who avidly follows blogs who plan inspiring lessons with films, such as Film English and The Lessonstream Blog I have to admit that I could not follow their lead and take a “meaty” topic from the segment to discuss in a  framework of a formed set of activities, such as a Deaf boy dating a hearing girl ( with me totally ignoring the soapy aspects of that particular hearing girl being the one who was switched a t birth with the deaf girl – boy do I dislike soap operas!). Since the mode of communication in class is Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language such a discussion wouldn’t lead to learning English…

So I prepared homework tasks related to the segment. Here are two levels, the “blue” version is the more advanced one (I had the really advanced kids write a description of the segment. We are working on description essays now). The tasks comply with the requirment that they utilize the Internet (not just Word documents posted on line) and the questions use formats that we need for their reading comprehension exams (though I gave up on defining the word “record” in simple English and just used L1).  They are also short and I can safely say the topic is relevant.

Switched at Birth Blue

Switched at Birth Red

The big parameter that slipped away on this one was the “Google Translate” factor. How much are they actually learning from this exercise with all the cut / paste going on?!

Yet how could this be built differently? I, myself ,have said before that graphics which make it harder for the students to copy/ paste into the translator (students have to copy things in small chunks, more chance they will pay attention to the connection between word and translation) are better. But now that I have begun using Google Forms as the means to submit homework (the students are SO pleased with how easy it is to hand in homework now!) I find myself limited with the graphic aspects.

Something always slips away…

Any suggestions?



Saturday’s Book: “The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake

I have mixed feelings about this book.

The style of writing is a pleasure to read, it flows and the descriptions are vivid. The author brings alive the American reporters attempts to make the American’s back home understand the horror that what was going on in England and in Europe during the early period of WW2, before Pearl Harbor.

But the main issue Blake seems to be dealing with is whether there is some order to the chaos of war, whether or not there is someone up there watching out for us or all that happens to us is random. And she rams this down your throat with intensity.

This is one of the books where I feel the author counts pages. Every seven pages (or maybe it is eight) something sensual or romantic must be mentioned.  Every ten pages the major questions must be asked again – does it all add up? Is someone watching over us? is there ryhme and reason during war time?

I’ve read a large number of novels about the same period, written by authors from different countries. Many of them certainly made me think of these questions and other moral issues, without being so explicit about it. It is if the author wasn’t sure we, the readers, could figure it out on our own and she needed to spell it out for us, repeatedly, throughout the book. Its a shame because the book could have been better.

Nonetheless, I certainly didn’t want to abandon ship and had to read to the end!

Fighting Windmills with “Tourist Language”

Planning a visit to a foreign country is a  motivating factor powerful enough to put those general plans to learn another language into motion.

Photo taken by Roni Epstein

As a tourist it makes most sense to focus on “tourist language” – the language most useful for those classic situations every tourist encounters. When I chose to acquire some “Spanish for tourists” before our trip to Spain, I didn’t see much difference between that and “beginner level language”. I thought that the knowledge I was acquiring would serve as a springboard for future studies.

Now that I have returned from spending a wonderful week in Spain, I believe I was mistaken.

At first I blessed every podcast I had listened to. Although we visited classic tourist places, in cities, the waiters in almost ALL of the restaurants we entered did not speak any English. One can tell when one is speaking to someone who does understand some English but prefers to respond in their native tongue or someone who really doesn’t know any English at all. My “tourist Spanish” really came in handy  then. The context is clear, the possibilities are limited, we communicated. Of course, there were lots of surprises, as there always are when eating abroad! The fact that we figured out that a dish was good for my vegetarian husband and contained eggplant didn’t mean we had any idea of what we were getting… Part of the fun of travelling!

***Side note: Getting a menu with English in it didn’t always mean we could understand it either. In one Chinese restaurant there was a dish labeled “noodles with three delicious”!!! Turns out “delicious” refers to vegetables!

Outside, in the Spanish world that wasn’t a restaurant, I discovered that all the podcasts I had listened to led mainly to speaking not understanding. Which surprised me as I had thought that receptive skills come first. Take the simple issue of directions. I knew the words for “right, left, straight, up, down, far, near” and even “around here”. Nonetheless, after nicely asking in Spanish where something was, I couldn’t understand more of the directions we got in many situations, than my husband did from the hand movements. Often I couldn’t even discern the familiar words in the long stream of words that was the reply. By the way, switching to asking for direction in English in my strongest American accent didn’t help – the answer was invariaby a stream of Spanish. Thank goodness signs were easy to read!

Photo taken by Roni Epstein

By the end of a fascinating and wonderful trip I feel glad that I had invested in learning useful language for tourists as it really did help in various situations, but feel that there is an immense gulf between what I learned to any pretense I had that I was learning to understand Spanish.

Seems that “language for beginners” and “tourist language” don’t really overlap.

Saturday’s Book: “Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind” by Ann B. Rose

I know it isn’t fair to label a book as a “travel book” but this book was such an excellent choice to take on a trip!

Just picture this: four a.m, sitting at an airport gate on an uncomfortable chair after barely getting any sleep, loudspeakers in the background, and me engrossed in this book. I read a lot on the plane too, which I don’t always do.

It is very easy reading and the author made me feel as if I was standing beside Miss Julia. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that you know at once there will be a happy end but that just gave me a warm, comforting feeling. Especially as I had no idea how that “happy end” would happen. The story is a great combination between things that make you chuckle and some serious notes.

The book reminds me of “Fried Freen Tomatoes” by Fannie Flag, though I admit I probably made the connection a lot faster because there’s a recommendation by Fannie Flag on the cover of the book! It also reminds me a bit of “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. Not in the sense of civil rights, this book doesn’t touch on that subject. But rather regarding the issue of the right of the American Southern white women (in the sixties, more or less) to be independant thinkers and manage their own lives. That was certainly an issue that came up in”the Help”.

I finished the book the day after I arrived. Tired or not – had to finish it!