Tag Archives: Notes from the classroom

The Second Question related to “The Coursebook Conundrum”: Recycling Vocabulary

Unlike the situation described in my previous post, I have unequivocally found that teaching “unplugged” in the self-contained classroom has major advantages for the special-needs learner.

In fact, in my classes I have found that the pupils whose hearing loss is just one of a myriad of problems (such as an additional handicap, problematic home life, etc.) respond to it the best.

Let’s take, for example, the “rainy day” lesson I previously posted about. This group of very weak deaf 12th graders, ages ranging from 18-20, have difficulty focusing on the  best of days. I would never have gotten them to work from the coursebook after they got wet on their way to class from an unexpected rainfall. Yet by creating together, on the whiteboard, a 5 sentence story describing one of the girl’s experiences on the way to school that morning (why she had no umbrella and how she got wet…) I had the girls’ attention. They stayed focused when we finished writing the “story”, had 3 rounds of “disappearing text” ( I erased words from the story and they came to the board to fill them back in. Each time I erased more words) and then answered WH questions which I wrote on the board.

They practiced reading comprehension skills and grammar. I was thrilled!

But there’s always a “but”.

These 12th grade girls have a TERRIBLY small vocabulary.

In our vocabulary project I have a set of 50 irregular verbs that I wanted them to master and they spent months on it. One of the four still can’t remember them all.

I supplied the vocabulary needed to complete this “Rainy Day” story (for example, “wet”, “rain”, “umbrella” and “socks”). On one hand I was completely justified in doing so because the benefits were enormous and the girls learned a lot. The story HAD to be about what was on their minds at that moment and I supplied the vocabulary needed to make it happen.

But we haven’t used these words since. And if the lessons are not related to a coursebook at all, how do I make sure these pupils are exposed to the vocabulary items “recycled” in many ways, as they are in a coursebook?

The Coursebook Conundrum and the Special-Needs Learner in the Regular Classroom

To teach “ unplugged” or according to a coursebook, how closely to follow the coursebook and in what manner are topics I find discussed a great deal recently.  For example, I recommend reading Lizzie Pinard’s beautifully written summary of this week’s ELTCHAT: How to avoid death by coursebook

Perhaps I take particular note because these topics are very much on my mind! I’m very enthusiastic about teaching unplugged but am besieged by the countless aspects to this conundrum. I thought it best to examine them one by one. So this post is devoted to the special needs learner in the regular classroom.

Here’s a true story and a couple of facts.

website * Photo by Gil Epshtein

For three consecutive summers I worked with a bright boy we’ll call Joel (note: Joel does not have a hearing loss!). Joel’s intelligence and good language skills helped him compensate well for his learning disability in all subjects at school except English. Joel began learning English in third grade and was in trouble from the word “go”. This is not an uncommon scenario in Israel, in classes of both Hebrew and Arabic speakers, because English requires learning a new alphabet which is written in a different direction. In addition, English is not a Semitic language!

Joel completed his first year of English at school failing to learn the letters and basic phonics. His oral vocabulary was dismally small, despite having a rich vocabulary in his mother tongue. By the end of fourth grade, studying with a private tutor, he had mastered the alphabet and was making progress. But he was way behind his classmates at school and hated English lessons. He did not participate in the lessons.

After fifth grade Joel came to me for three consecutive summers (he continued with his wonderful tutor during the school year) and we prepared for the upcoming school year.

Our summer program’s main goal – build up Joe’s self confidence and enable him to experience success in class. Success breeds success and we had to break out of the vicious circle.


I pre-taught the first unit and half of the coursebook every summer.

I didn’t work with Joel on the book itself. I retyped the texts from the unit on the computer in dark blue letter with a  pale yellow background (slightly enlarged)with no pictures or additional colors. we read them several times in different ways.

I took the grammar topics (present simple, present progressive, past simple, etc.) but rewrote the exercises using either the vocabulary items in the unit or sentences related to Joel.

I closely followed the word lists given in the units in the coursebook and we worked on them intensively.

Joel wasn’t memorizing the answers to exercises in his book – we didn’t do them as they were. He didn’t see most of them. But we made sure he was ready for them.

Although we never got farther than a unit and a half (he needed LOTS of practice!) that made a world of difference. He started off each year surprising his teachers by participating and understanding the material. Since he was more confident he focused more during the lessons and took in more of what his classroom teacher was teaching.

In 8th grade “the penny dropped” and he began doing very well in class! He stopped coming for his summer program…

The fact that we knew the topics that would be covered in the reading passages, main vocabulary items and grammar topics that would be taught (because we had the coursebook) was very beneficial!

Now for the facts:

* In Israel there is a strong push towards mainstreaming special-needs children. Approximately 80% of the children with a hearing loss in this country study in a regular class.

* These children are entitled to a certain amount of hours with an individual tutor. Till about 8th grade these tutors often teach every subject taught in school. It is their job to sit with the classroom teacher, study the coursebooks used in class and support the children.

* Some parents of special-needs children are extremely involved in their children’s schoolwork (in some cases too much so, but that’s a whole different topic!)These parents rely heavily on the coursebook for information and examples of what the child needs to know as often the notebook is so unorganized or incomplete that it is of very little use for reviewing anything.

What happens to these children and their tutors in an “unplugged” classroom?

An End of the Year Lesson

banana girl

In the month of May at the high-school we move into exam mode. Some classes are cancelled when the entire grade takes an exam but usually only some of my students will be absent (different pupils each time, depending on the subject they are majoring in). The school yard is half empty during breaks and the general atmosphere is one of a year drawing to a close.

Both students and I really need some fun and variety at this point.

As soon as I saw Jamie Keddie’s lesson, Lessonstream,  on “How To  Books” I knew this could be easily adapted for my students. The topic seemed just right for adolescents!

As some of you know from previous posts the word “easily” was not an apt description as I ended up copying the PDF file to PowerPoint picture by picture, but it was worth it!

I created a simple laminated, re-usable worksheet. I didn’t want the activity to be too difficult and I didn’t want to make photocopies. I planned that the students would fill in the missing answers on a piece of scrap paper.

Version One looked like this:

how-to-1The translations of the book titles were supplied, in a different order from that on the slideshow. The students were expected to match the Hebrew translation to the English title, copy the title onto the scrap paper and then write down one piece of advice that might appear in each book.

I had them work in pairs and they really seemed to enjoy it. HOWEVER…

It was too easy.

I realized I was in trouble by the time the first pair had completed the task. Two more pairs of students completed it (ending the day) before the new version “appeared”.

If it had been a photocopied worksheet the pupils would have  copied the titles but in this format they simply wrote numbers. When they saw the word “school” they immediately matched it to “How to be an outstanding elementary school teacher” without reading the whole title or writing it all out. So, it became a writing activity since they only worked on the advice column.

That’s not a bad thing but certainly not utilizing a resource to its maximum potential.

Here’s Version Two:


This time, it wasn’t a laminated worksheet. I realized I had been thinking “old tech” . It’s a WORD document which the students have to keep open in another window.

Now the students took it for granted that they had to type EVERYTHING in and they had to really look at the information in order to match everything up.

The students still enjoyed it! They thought some of the titles were really funny and liked discussing what advice to give.

I had filled in “ Bring a Towel” as advice for the book “ How to Survive the End of the World” but not  ONE student had seen the movie “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!!!

Here is the WORD document.

How to books wksht2

* Photo by Gil Epshtein

Thanks to my PLN my Classroom Computer will be Hooked Up to the INTERNET!!!!


Don’t hold your breath as it may take a few months, but when Rachel, the computer woman at my school promises something, I know it will happen. And its all because of you guys!

It began with my blog post regarding the things I do with a computer without an Internet connection. People in my PLN started pointing the way to things that I could use in this situation.

First I went to Rachel about TRIPTICO, which I couldn’t install via flash-drive. She wasn’t particularly interested.

Then I came back and told her about “Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals” that had movie segments that can be downloaded and watched offline on the classroom computer instead of me needing the video room. I asked that a movie player be installed so that I could use this site. She said that she would talk to the technician about it next time he came to school.

Then I sent her a letter with a copy of the PDF lesson I had downloaded from lessonstream on How To Books. I had been SO SURE that would work when I copied it from the flash-drive. I thought having a PDF reader was standard for every computer! But not mine…

That did it! She said that there was no point in doing what I asked (installing a pdf reader) because pdf must be updated all the time and she has found a way that the computer can be hooked up to the Internet and be done with it!


What I DIDN’T tell her though (counting on you not to tell her either!) is that I still wanted to use the PDF lesson NOW. So I copied each picture into POWERPOINT and burned it to a CD. Works! Hope to use it tomorrow! Sh…

Student smelling their way to the Second Conditional

Today I  was finally able to begin using the first of the computer lessons I prepared over the vacation “Use Your Senses with the Second Conditional” (The link takes you to the lesson I posted 10 days ago, explanation and download-link).

If you were there...
If you were there...

From previous experience I knew that my students learn the technical side, the form of the Second Conditional easily enough but that they have trouble with the “hypothetical aspect”. Being born with a hearing loss often results in a language impairment. One of the common manifestations is a tendency toward concrete thinking.

It worked out well that I chose pictures of two extreme places where students have never been. None of them had heard of Namibia.

I explained to them about the second conditional but did not say that the questions they would have to answer were related to the senses. The first question relates to how they would feel if they were there. That seemed reasonable to them. But then they got to “what would you smell”. Some students immdiatly jumped to conclusions and read the word as “small” (most don’t know the vocabulary item “smell”). They also decided “sweat” was “sweet” and then could not understand what to do with the question. When I helped sort that out some of the kids were shocked – no one has ever asked them about smelling before!

Only when they read the suggested (funny ) useful words of “penguin-poo” “camel -poo” and had a good laugh (“phew, I don’t want to go there” some said) did the idea that they have to IMAGINE being there sink in. One boy was troubled by “dead fish” (in the suggested vocabulary) because he doesn’t like eating fish. Only when he got past THAT did he get the hypothetical aspect.

By the time they got to “what would you hear” they all knew to relate to what could be heard whether they can actually hear it or not ( a lot of students have cochlear implants and can hear lots of sounds, speech is more of a problem).

As they had to write the word “would” more than 10 times I hope that the connection between the form and the concept was made. Time will tell. They seemed to enjoy it and three boys were even arguing if wind made noise in the desert!

Two problems:

1) I had to write “useful words” as many of the students have such a limited world knowledge they wouldn’t know enough to imagine what could be smelled or heard. However, they did not try to add any ideas of their own (using their bilingual electronic dictionaries). Without words some would have been more creative, others would have gotten stuck. I suppose I need two versions…

2) Computer woes. For some reason not all pictures look as they should on the screen. In the photo from Antarctica you couldn’t even see the Zodiac-boat! The c omputer is new but the screen is much older – that way the computer looks older and is less attractive to possible thieves… Since all my other computer lessons won’t work (involving PDF and a video clips) I’m working on getting a compuer person to come in, so we’ll se if that can be solved.


Some people would say that I’m creating work for myself…

Notes for teachers on “How To Steal Like An Artist” By Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon wrote a brilliant piece (with great visuals!) called:


He refers to his post as “notes on writing and drawing”. I’d like to point out how they are also notes for teaching. I’m following his post point-by-point (the points are direct quotes, the photos are by Gil Epshtein)

1) Steal like an artist.

By Gil Epshtein

Great teachers don’t constantly strive to reinvent the wheel. They read, listen and talk to other teachers and let their students benefit from a wealth of accumulated experience and creativity. The great teacher uses whatever strategies and ideas are useful and suitable and makes sure to go where these can be found!

But what the teacher has heard can’t and shouldn’t be used exactly as it was presented. Each class is different and adpating the material is a creation of something new! As Austin Kleon says: “Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of previous ideas”.

2) Don’t wait till you know who you are to start making things.

by Gil Epshtein

There is no magic formula. It isn’t only people who have written coursebooks or teachers who have taught for more than 7 years who can suggest material, strategies and innovations. Just like we try to tell our students not to be afraid to make mistakes, teachers must not be afraid to experiment with the ideas they have!

3) Write the book you want to read.


By Gil Epshtein


Which for teachers is:

Find / collect /create the materials needed for teaching the way you believe it should be taught.

4) Use your hands.


By Gil Epshtein


Don’t let issues such as “crooked lines” or being able to draw only “stick figures” dissuade you from making and using your own materials and games. When they are tailored for YOUR class, then they are worth more than commercial material!

5) Side projects and hobbies are important.


By Gil Epshtein


Having hobbies are not only important for teacher’s sanity – they can lead to great things to do in the classroom. There are many blogs out there in blogosphere by teachers who are incorporating their love of movies, animals, photography or what not into their teaching!

6) The secret: do good work and then put it where people can see it.

By Gil Epshtein
By Gil Epshtein

As stated in point one – we learn by communicating with others, so share your work too! Go to conferences, write for your local jounal, write a blog, TWEET or whatever works for you!

7) Geography is no longer our master.


By Gil Epshtein


The teachers in your staffroom may not be interested in sharing but you will always find teachers online who are! it’s called building a Personal Learning Network. This blog is a testimony to the growing number of teachers I have found that enrich my teaching experience from the comfort of my home!

8) Be nice.

By Gil Epshtein

If you liked a recommendation – say so. If you didn’t, you don’t have to use it but that doesn’t mean you have to “trash it”! Communities support and encourage!

9) Be boring. It’s the only way to get the work done.


By Gil Epshtein


Which for teachers is:

Take a deep breath and deal with the boring, administrative side of teaching. Every school has technical demands which are boring and not always logical. But if you don’t stay within the framework of the school requirements you won’t have a job and then won’t be making an impact on anybody!

10) Creativity is subtraction.


By Gil Epshtein


Austin Kleon says “Devoting yourself to something means shutting out other things”.

For those teachers who have found their “online PLN” I take that to mean : Beware of Gold Rush Fever! There are SO many interesting things going on out there that one has to remember to study and adopt new things in small chunks, accepting the fact that you can’t possible take in everything that is being offered to you. You will have to ignore some and focus on really making the most of what you have begun experimenting with before taking in more new ideas.

I’m sure there are other lessons to be learnt from Austin Kleon’s post, but those are my ten!

USE YOUR SENSES with the 2nd conditional!

Screen shot of lesson
Screen shot of lesson

Since I read Ceri Jones post about using the senses to relate to a picture I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I really felt that this could be a useful tool for expanding my use of visual materials but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to experiment with it.

I decided that the best way to begin would be by comparing two photos from very different environments. Ceri talks about (in other posts) about the importance of using pictures related to pupil’s lives but with my pupils I need to expand their world knowledge. In addition, I’m trying to get them to think, and not work by comparing words in a question to the text. Some kids default response is “dunno”.

I had used Jason Renshaw’s Valentines Day lesson and the striking format seemed perfect for the topic of senses. Jason has kindly permitted use of his format – THANK YOU JASON! I had some technical trouble – I know Jason has also posted a blank format without pictures but he used different colors and I was unable to change them. So, if you look closely, you can see I pasted pics over his small ones. That actually was a lot of work but I hope I can make a series of “senses” lessons so it will have been worth it.

I need to teach the second conditional form and I thought everything connected nicely.The instructions are purposely vague, I plan to use it differently with different students.

Here’s the  link to the lesson:

2nd conditional with senses

We’re on vacation so haven’t had a chance to try it. May need tweaking. If you have suggestions, can still make corrections!

Inclusion: A Comment on Tom Whitby’s: “A Third Rail Education Issue”

Tom Whitby has a very interesting post on the issue of Inclusion.

This is an extremely complex issue. A look at my classroom highlights some of these complexities.

Deaf and hard of hearing students at the high-school where I teach are placed in regular homerooms, but the time they actually spend learning with their hearing peers is compleltely individual. Some learn all subjects except gym (and homeroom hour) in the self contained small classes, with special teachers (by subject matter) situated  in the school, while other study varying degrees of hours a week with their homeroom class,   depending on the subject. There are 70 deaf and hard of hearing students and approx. 1, 700 hearing students at our school.

Some of the students came to the high-school from self contained classes in regular schools. Others were completely mainstreamed  till they came to us in 10th grade. Some of these transferred because of academic difficulties. Despite receiving tutoring, the older they became the harder it was to keep up with their hearing peers. Others did very well academically in the mainstreamed classroom.

Regardless of academic succes (or the lack of it) all of the students who came to us from the mainstream were lonely. Some students had hearing friends but felt, as adolescents, that their hearing friends could not understand them and be a “real” friend the way their hard of hearing peers could. Some students study most of their subjects with hearing students yet spend every second of the breaks hanging out with the other hard of hearing students.

I teach ALL70 students. This year we don’t have a single student who can deal with studying English as a Foreign Language on a high-school level with the hearing students. I know for a fact that some deaf and hard of hearing students that are mainstreamed take exams at the highest level of English and do well. But this is a minority. Studying English when the teacher talks, sings and lets the students talk in  a foreign language which is hard to lip read is a nightmare for many. The level of English of some of the pupils that come to me from the mainstream is very low.

Back to Tom Whitby’s post. He writes: “…but sometimes fairness to all, means unfairness to some.”

Now, lets look at Inclusion within the special classroom.

Some parents would rather their child be labeled as “deaf” of “hard of hearing” than other things. In recent years I have been getting pupils whose hearing problem is really the “least of their problems”. For example, a pupil who is hyperactive and when frustrated or angry by a small thing erupts in violence needs my full attention to keep him on task. What about the other pupils in the room? What about the sweet, polite girl who is really weak and needs my attention as a specialist but  I’ve  constantly got one eye on  this pupil or else “all hell will break loose” literally?

And what about the pupil who has organic problems and is sensitive to noise? Classes of deaf students are not (as you may think) quiet places. I teach in the format of a learning center. Hard of hearing students may talk too loudly. Deaf students tap their pens or their feet unaware that the noise is annoying. This student throws temper tantrums when the noise causes him to feel a headache.

Neither of the pupils I mentioned rely on sign language for communication.

I’m told that as a special ed teacher I must be “inclusive”. However, there are days which I wonder who we are being fair to with their placement.

To Use “Moodle”, “Wiki”, “School Program” or Just Say “FORGET IT”?

I’m currently using Wikispaces as a class site. It’s main use is for homework: the students go to the homework page, download a worksheet that either “stands alone” or is based on a link to a picture or video clip they must watch.The they email me the homework (gmail).

A number of people have recently told me about Moodle. Some recommended it strongly, one said it is more work that its worth.  I also discovered this post by Michelle Reckling on the pros and cons of Moodles. Unlike Michelle, my students do not use it anywhere else. Hers do and yet she reports they don’t like using it and that she is unable to get support from others.

The fact that you can see exactly which pupils have logged on when and done what sounds attractive. I currently keep track of the homework on an excel sheet that I have printed out so the kids can see it too. However,the fact that the moodle looks unattractive does not sounds appealing.

I AM afraid of the extra work using a MOODLE may cause. I’m learning all about using technology in the classroom all on my own and it is very time consuming as it is. I still can’t tell if the benefits will outweigh the effort.

The school computerized grading system has an option for sending emails to students through their files and even attaching a document. I don’t know if links stay “clickable” when sent this way. It would be more work for me to use that instead of the WIKI.The emails can be sent to multiple pupils but only those registered in the same group. I have 9 groups.

On the other hand, it’s not an outside system, students don’t have to get used to  new things. Also the parents have access to it. That, on the condition, that the students haven’t lost their password. I have a few that say ‘I AM NOT going to spend 5 NIS ( a bit more than a dollar) to get a new password! But those students don’t do homework anyway. Using this school system may help encourage the students to monitor their school grade file.

The WIKI is totally open to anyone. I’m already using it. I know I haven’t yet learned all it can do. Maybe I should just stick with it? Or would my life actually be easier once I have a moodle running and can track the homework?

Open to suggestions here!

Close Encounters of the “You are STILL teaching?!” Kind

At the supermarket this afternoon, while trying to choose the nicest carton of strawberries, I discovered that I was standing next to someone I hadn’t seen in a very long time.

She was a teacher at the high-school when I arrived, 22 years ago ( I taught elementary school before) and we were both there for about five years. Then she left the school and teaching.

Turns out that after several years of doing other things she went back to Education, is completing her P.H.D and has become involved in counseling programs involving computers.

I tell you this with the utmost respect – it’s great what she’s doing.

But then, each one of us standing over the supermarket cart, comes the inevitable comment – so you are still doing the same thing, huh?  I proudly smiled and said “Sure am!”

I don’t feel I’m doing the same thing at all!  I turned the classroom into a learning center, I’ve been experimenting with “reverse reading” and “teaching unplugged” and finding ways to use the Computer-Without-Internet in the class and more!

Since I began blogging, I’m not bothered by the fact that there are very few people I can share this information with. I just say that I’m happy to still be at the school. Here I have an outlet to share my feelings that every school year is a new year, never been a year like the previous one!