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lost and found

I am not sure why the title of the thought stream to follow sprung forth to wrap this month, but I will roll with it just to see where it will flow.

We have had one heck of a March at the speed of learning. With 70% of the seeds of this instructional year plan already planted, it looks to be an exciting and busy 3 months of tending, nurturing, and harvesting ahead.

It’s Spring. It’s new years and reflection and remembrance for some. It’s resurrection time and Ramadan for others. It’s also the annual rebirth of nature and reflection that we have all been waiting since the first snows of winter blanketed our outdoor spaces.

lost and found

I have been thinking a lot about what is mine and what is not. I can pinpoint the most recent moment that precipitated the throughline of this piece too.

In our school caretaker’s work room there was a dolly full of about 8 large plastic bags and a number of boxes. Curious, I took a closer look and happened to see that the bags were full of clothes that had accumulated between the Winter to Spring breaks. 8 bags. This got me wondering about a couple of things beyond the obvious: How could a kid lose boots or a winter coat and not know they were missing?

Perhaps I have gotten used to this scene playing out over the past years in schools, and have become comfortable in knowing that the thrift shops in our community always benefit from receiving the goods. Hence why they were on the dolly ready to be delivered. However, a few thoughts still linger.

I started to wonder about how much we have to lose before we realize/recognize/know it’s gone? Is it too late once we do? Have you ever found something that had been lost and forgotten about? This seems to happen each time I organize my materials, especially for science, for a new unit and when I move classrooms/schools.

In those moments I am hit with multiple memories of past lessons and classes. These times have also come with my own version of a Marie Kondo intervention. Was this item useful? Did it bring my students knowledge and understanding? Does it bring me joy when I used it? Will it still be able to serve its purpose going forward?

Many times, the answers have been no, not really, and result in a new home in the recycling bin. This has been hard for me as I have horder tendencies when viewed through the educational lens. I am guilty of keeping things even when they no longer serve or survive their purpose. It has only been recently that I have worked through this challenge.

Happy to say that my own personal dolly loads have decreased as the years go on. To this day, I do not regret recycling or giving away any of my resources although I have retained some digital versions of a few on USB.

So what about losing someone?

Spring is also the time when many educators seek new schools, get surplused, or retire. I know this very well being on my 5th school in 15 years. The necessity/choice to make a move can be exhilarating, nervewracking or both. In each of my cases, it meant losing one community and then finding it again but in a new ecosystem.

Along the way, I have tried to maintain some connection with staff from each place, but it also comes with the need to accept that absence makes you irrelevant when you are not sharing the same spaces. The pandemic really amplified this fact as we used to be able to catch up at PD or larger conferences, but those opportunities/reunions have yet to return. Whenever it does happen though, reminds me of the positive experiences gained from those times together. Despite the distances, some strong friendships have remained regardless of the bricks we work within now. Even though there are few guarantees when making a move, the opportunity for growth will be there for you.

I guess my point here is that it is worth the effort to keep in touch even if it is only once a year. Yes it can be time consuming, but it can also be a breath of fresh air, like Spring, to hear from someone you used to work with when they reach out. I also know that it can be equally joyous not to hear from others. Thankfully that is not the majority of my experience, but I won’t speak for former colleagues.

Sometimes you have to get lost to get found and whether it is in reinventing your classroom approach, moving schools, or seeking out connections with past and present Spring offers us a perfect time to weigh what is important and not so important, what brings us joy and what can be appreciated when looking back.

I wish all of this for you whether you move, move on, or stay put for another year. May yours be the joy that fills those spaces.

on paper

On paper, there are all sorts of things to see.
On paper, the letters are arranged to convey information, strengths, and next steps. 

On paper, there are always messages to read in between the lines. Although unseen, they are still there even when they between the letters on paper. Let’s face it, when it comes to reporting, most readers are not looking for messages or next steps on paper, but rather for some numbers between 80 and 100 or for a couple of individual letters and math operators between A- to A+.

It’s important that things look good. On paper. 

Is something missing?  

We have all seen this in our classrooms whenever assessments are returned. For me, any output that requires evaluation, where a mark gets entered of learning, has already gone through several iterations accompanied by  constructive feedback along the way. Whether this was done in one on one conferences or as a whole class activity, students are receiving several chances along the way to control what is going to go on paper.

After considerable planning, consistently paced instruction, clearly mapped out expectations/learning goals/success criteria, scaffolding, mid-unit course corrections, carefully curated choices to demonstrate understanding, and an easy to follow rubric Carefully outline the expectations, co-construct success criteria, instruct, provide access to resources to revisit, check-in to ensure understanding along the way, provide effective descriptive feedback, extend due dates, and then hope to receive a clear artefact that shows evidence of understanding from learners to assess. 

Cue the rubrics and tests. It’s marking time, or is it?

As I have discovered over these past 14+ years, assessment can be exhausting on occasion. I usually try to do this earlier in the day whenever possible as the caffeine has not reached its half-life in my system. It has also been beneficial to dwell longer in the ‘assessment as learning‘ spaces than those ‘of learning’. This has allowed my students to see overall better results along with a more applicable set of skills to bring forward to other tasks and future grades.

For every educator, regardless of years of experience, assessment as learning, formerly known as, formative assessment needs to be acknowledged and implemented with the greatest frequency in every classroom. I have found it to be the biggest lever in helping learners progress during their time in class. 

It has also allowed me a means to manage my assessment workload more effectively along with helping students develop more positive attitudes towards feedback beyond what is printed on paper. 

Rubrics…meh or more please?

With a class of 25 grade 6 students this year, I have figured out it takes 2.5 hours to read a single journal assignment, 2 hours to grade a reading response or Math check-in, and 2 to 3+ hours for projects. Keep in mind that learning skills are also being factored in daily to provide our students the next steps for their next days. This is largely due to two things: Clearer expectations and a rubric to remind students about what they are working towards. I wasn’t always this efficient. 

When I was a new teacher, assessment took considerably longer. I have also come to my senses and have sought help from some reliable sources such as our ETFO Members Sharing in Assessment portal and by working with my grade team on moderated marking tasks. As a newbie, working alongside a more experienced educator to assess was a very eye opening and important experience. It helped me see how to look at student outputs through the lens of curriculum expectations and success criteria. It is now something I do with each teacher candidate. 

It is here where we can get the information we put on paper right when it comes to assessing students. Knowing how much work goes into it all and in providing the feedback with next steps has me thinking about the most recent batch of report cards.

The buildup and aftermath from Term 1 reports has come and gone, but I am left wondering, again this year, whether if, how, and when what was printed on paper will be used that will be reflected when it happens all over again in June? How can we get our students to see themselves beyond the few letters and math operators, but as works in process and progress? 

I am not sure there is an answer in the current way we do this at a systemic level. Is there a way to lessen the addiction that students develop to marks and leverage that desire into something more edifying to their long term happiness and development of their uniquely gifted abilities even if they are not seen on paper?

Understanding Attitudes Toward English Language Learners in French Classrooms

As an specialist teacher English language learners (ELLs), I often hear a lot of comments and questions about newcomer students who are learning French for the first time – especially in grades 6-8.

Many teachers think that ELLs should be using that time to learn English, or that the students have already missed too much French instruction for them to be successful in their grade level. There also exists a belief that French learning for older elementary students is pointless, especially in grade 8: why should ELLs learn French if they can opt out of the course in grade 9?

Such comments and perspectives may negatively impact newcomer students on their French learning journeys. I remember arriving in a grade 8 classroom as a newcomer from the United States, and taking French for the first time.

While I wasn’t an English language learner, I found it nearly impossible to follow the class. Grade 9 French was so incomprehensible to me: I recall barely passing and doing the bare minimum to get the credit. While it’s hard to recall all the details of French class in grade 8, I do recall plunging into French work and lessons without any program adaptation different from my peers.

By contrast, welcoming newcomer students in French can lead to radically different outcomes, such as a deep and long-lasting interest in French language learning. I have a colleague who was a newcomer ELL to Canada in the intermediate grades, and she enjoyed French so much she went on to become a French teacher. I have also taught newcomer ELLs that excelled in French; one student even won a French language speaking competitions against his French Immersion peers.

Understanding why some newcomer ELLs excel in French and others do not can be complicated. Recently, I informally asked groups of multilingual learners how they felt about French class. Some students shared that they loved learning languages and trying out new French words, while others found French to be confusing and frustrating.

Let’s take a closer look at some research covering educator perspectives about French language learning. In part 2 of this blog, we will then consider how we can reframe French learning for ELLs to make it more inclusive and accessible.

Teacher Attitudes Toward ELLs in French Language Programs

A 2018 study on novice teacher attitudes toward exemption and exclusion from FSL programs in Canada provides interesting insight on why French teachers may think some students are better suited for French language instruction than others.

In this study, Katy Arnett and Callie Mady explore pervasive beliefs around FSL programs, including the perception that FSL study is for “academically elite” students in need of enrichment. Their research revealed an array of commonly held educator perspectives about ELLs: that French instruction was an “unnecessary burden” for ELLs who arrived in Canada at an advanced age, and that there was a need for ELLs to  “focus on English.”

Arnett and Mady’s research strongly indicate that FSL educators support the idea of exemption from French learning when there is a concern for the emotional well-being of the student, concern for grade-level achievement in English, and limited supports are offered. As one French Immersion teacher stated, “if it’s too much of a challenge and the student experiences a lack of self-confidence and it becomes to be like a barrier or like a psychological barrier for the student, then I think it will be better for him to go be in the English program. (Agnès, Year 3)” In the specific context of ELLs, the rationale for exemption typically centred on concerns about the student “navigating too much language learning, experiencing minimal success, and/or having additional challenges such as learning difficulties”.

What does Research and Policy say About ELLs in FSL Programs?

The Ministry of Education published a well-written (though often overlooked document) in 2016 called “Welcoming English Language Learners into French as a Second Language Programs. The document shares research about ELLs in FSL programs, pointing out how multilingual learners are uniquely positioned to be successful in French classrooms.

According to the document, “English language learners do as well as, or outperform, English-speaking students in FSL”, and are often more motivated to learn French than their English speaking Canadian born peers. And yet, studies in Ontario show that newcomers were often excluded from enrolling in FSL classes in secondary school.

The document also states that French educators are well suited to teach ELLs, since they are highly familiar with language acquisition processes. Language acquisition is a process that is relatively similar across different languages, with beginner learners typically starting their journey by acquiring vocabulary through oral communication practice. Because most students in English speaking schools would be relatively new to French, the pedagogy used in an FSL classroom is extremely adaptable for emergent English speakers.

Perhaps most importantly, the ministry document emphasizes that French instruction is for all students. When ELLs feel that they do not belong in a French classroom, or are excluded from French learning, a barrier is created between the student and what should be a highly accessible learning pathway. In other words, equity is at stake when ELLs are discouraged from French.

Reflecting on the Research

Having worked in ESL/ELD support for many years, these perspectives are rather familiar to me. I have no doubt that educators are trying to do what they feel is best for the student. It is also worth noting that in most schools French speaking or FSL qualified support teachers are the exception rather than the rule.

I think it is also worth noting that educators generally don’t consider exemptions from any other subject, which makes me wonder why we view French so differently from other subjects like Social Studies, Art, or Physical Education. As Arnett and Mady suggest, such perspectives may be grounded in a “monolingual bias supported by the English dominant Canadian context in which language learning apart from English is viewed as a luxury rather than commonplace”. In other words, it may be useful to challenge the assumption that French is learning pursuit designed solely for English speakers that already experience success in schools.

In my own conversations with other educators, I have found that what helps are practical strategies for teaching ELLs and examples of program modifications for emergent language speakers. In part 2 of this blog, we will take a deeper dive into what such program adaptations might look like.

Resources:

Transforming FSL:

https://transformingfsl.ca/en/

https://ojs.lib.uwo.ca/index.php/eei/article/view/7760

is it days or daze?

Somedays come with some daze by their ends.
Not sure why or how life plays or tends.

Rises, falls,    ebbs, flows,     rips and bends,
Atop and under the waves life’s ocean sends.

Somedays are like poetry and others like prose,
When thoughts, words, and actions argue as friends.

Somedays we are run ragged and torn.
Scratched, kicked, tired, and trying to mend.
We wrestle with this calling and ache to transcend…

“How it must be so nice to work with the future.”
“How hard could it be? Just open the text book and read it with them.”
“How come you got bitten? Couldn’t you get out of the way?”
“At least you have your summers off.”
“Teaching is easy. You guys got it so good.”

Somedays flow smoothly even when they seem out of hand.
Somedays descend into chaos even when everything is planned.

Somedays the coffee and tea are all gone before the first class is done.
Somedays you are finishing them cold just to stay awake on the commute home. 

Somedays your lunch is 60 minutes to power up the body and mind dream.
Somedays you choose to dine and dash in 20 making time to meet with your club or team.

Somedays you have to deal with tears, grief, and loss.
Somedays you get to share joy, triumph, and success. 

Somedays you really need shoulders to lean on.
Somedays yours are the ones that are leaned upon. 

Somedays we witness joy in the littlest things.
A step in the right direction that makes our hearts sing.

“Thanks for inspiring and motivating my kid.”
“You made a difference for my child this year.”
“We really appreciate the time you spent supporting…
after school learning programs, teams, extra-curriculars, and arts events.”
“This must have taken up a lot of your time before and after school. Thank you.”

Not sure why or how life plays or tends.
Somedays come with some praise by their ends.

You got this. Keep doing the little things that no one sees that make all the difference in the lives of others. Good job. Thank you.

Learning Together – The Solar Eclipse

On April 8th, 2024 there will be a rare and unique event in the lifetimes of many Ontario students, a total solar eclipse. Many more will experience a partial solar eclipse. Whether or not your students are in school on April 8th, consider planning special activities and learning as the day approaches.

This natural event is shared by millions of people across North America. Let’s take the opportunity to help our students understand how much we have in common with others.  It’s a perfect time to get kids connected to the natural world.

Fun Facts about this Solar Eclipse 

Very important!

Looking directly at the Sun, without appropriate protection, can lead to serious problems such as partial or complete loss of eyesight.

In Canada, the solar eclipse’s path of totality will pass through some cities and towns in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, plunging them into darkness for a few minutes.

https://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronomy/eclipses/total-solar-eclipse.asp

Solar eclipses happen about every 18 months but they are not visible to everyone on earth.

During an eclipse the moon casts a shadow that is approximately 250 km wide on the Earth.

https://www.queensu.ca/gazette/stories/total-solar-eclipses-provide-opportunity-engage-science-culture-and-history

Curriculum Connections

Explaining the eclipse will generate excitement in many areas of the curriculum. 

*We can study maps and learn more about places along the eclipse path.

*We can learn about space exploration and the upcoming Artemis mission to explore the moon.

*We can study the timing of the eclipse looking at both digital and analog clocks.

*We can write predictions about animal and plant behaviour during the eclipse. Will nocturnal animals awaken? Will flowers close their blooms?

*How will the horizon look? We can create a class mural, individual paintings or drawings.

*We can dramatize the eclipse by taking on the roles of sun, moon, earth, animals and plants.

Get more information on the eclipse:

Canadian Space Agency

Ontario Science Centre 

Queen’s University

Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Anti-Oppressive Education: Creating an Equitable Society for all.

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of anti-oppressive practices in elementary education in Ontario. Anti-oppressive education aims to dismantle systemic barriers and address inequities within the education system. This reflection explores the significance of implementing anti-oppressive practices in elementary education in Ontario, highlighting the impact on students, educators, and the broader society.

In Ontario, as in many other regions, elementary education has not been immune to the effects of systemic oppression. “Historically, marginalized groups, such as Indigenous peoples, racial minorities, individuals with disabilities, and those of lower socioeconomic status, have faced discrimination and inequitable treatment within the education system” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2006). Such oppression can manifest in various forms, including biased curricula, discriminatory discipline practices, and a lack of diverse representation among
educators and staff, to name a few.

“Students who experience oppression in the education system may suffer from lower self-esteem, reduced academic achievement, and disengagement from learning” (Tuck & Yang, 2012). “Moreover, perpetuating oppressive practices can perpetuate cycles of poverty and marginalization, deepening social disparities and hindering social progress” (Freire, 1970). As educators, understanding and incorporating anti-oppressive practices in our praxis is crucial to disrupting and dismantling the many fibres of anti-oppression prevalent in the euro-centric teaching spaces we often occupy.

The Role of Anti-Oppressive Practices
Anti-oppressive practices are essential in elementary education to counter the adverse effects of oppression and create inclusive, empowering learning environments. “By integrating anti-oppressive principles into teaching strategies and curriculum development, educators can actively challenge stereotypes, promote diversity, and foster empathy and respect for all students” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2021).” Adopting inclusive teaching methods, which acknowledge and accommodate diverse learning needs, can also enhance student engagement and success” (Zhang & Carrington, 2019).

For example, using the seven competencies of the anti-oppressive framework as examined by ETFO, when educators are intentional about addressing biases, centring marginalized voices, challenging power & privilege, building inclusive communities, embedding intersectionalities to mobilize systemic change while connecting issues of mental health, learning environments that foster belonging, questioning, curiosity, and the ability to engage in meaningful uncomfortable is created for students, educators, and all staff. It truly creates a community where transformation can occur.

“Anti-oppressive practices encourage critical thinking and dialogue about social justice issues, helping students become active and informed citizens who can advocate for equality and fairness” (Shor, 1992). By challenging the status quo, educators play a pivotal role in shaping a generation of individuals who can create positive transformational societal change.

Learning as Educators
To effectively implement anti-oppressive practices, collaborative learning opportunities and dialogues with diverse colleagues can foster a deeper understanding of different perspectives and experiences. Anti-oppressive practices involve not only what is taught but also how the learning environment is structured. Schools must intentionally foster safe and inclusive spaces for all students, regardless of their background. “This may involve adopting restorative justice practices instead of punitive measures, implementing equity-focused policies, and providing necessary resources to support the diverse needs of students” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2020). Implementing anti-oppressive practices requires support from the broader educational system, including school boards, administrators, and policymakers.

Incorporating anti-oppressive practices in elementary education also requires collaboration with families and communities.” Engaging parents and caregivers in meaningful partnerships can provide insights into students’ unique needs and strengths, promoting a holistic approach to education” (Epstein, 2001). Building relationships with community organizations can also expand opportunities for students to connect with their cultural heritage and engage in real-world learning experiences. To achieve this goal, ongoing professional development for educators, support from the educational system, and collaboration with families and communities are all indispensable components.

“By acknowledging and addressing systemic barriers, the education system can create a more equitable platform for students and educators. This may involve reviewing and revising curriculum standards to be more inclusive and culturally relevant” (Ladson-Billings, 1995). As an educator, engaging in curriculum audits to ensure that I am reflecting my students’ experiences (as a mirror) and facilitating learning of the experiences of many others outside of my student’s communities/identities (as a window) empowers all students as they develop their understanding of themselves as global citizens. As educators, understanding and incorporating anti-oppressive practices in our praxis is crucial to disrupting and dismantling the many fibres of anti-oppression prevalent in the euro-centric teaching spaces we often occupy.

An Anti-Oppressive Framework

More work still needs to be done in incorporating an anti-oppressive framework and utilizing anti-oppressive practices in Ontario (and in all of Canada) schools. Implementing anti-oppressive practices in elementary education in Ontario is essential for fostering inclusive, empowering, and transformative learning environments. By challenging systemic oppression, educators can cultivate critical thinking, empathy, and social awareness among students, shaping them into active participants in creating a more just and equitable
society.

Check out ETFO’s Anti-Oppressive Framework: A Primer which “provides an entry point for all learners and an opportunity for critical engagement, understanding and action planning on anti-racist education, anti-oppressive practices and equity initiatives” (ETFO, 2021).

 

 

References:

Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. (2021). Anti-Oppressive Framework: A Primer. Retrieved from https://www.etfo.ca/news-publications/publications/anti-oppressive-framework-a-primer

Epstein, J. L. (2001). School, family, and community partnerships: Preparing educators and
improving schools. Westview Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational
Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2006). Human rights and school boards: Obligations to address
racism and discrimination. Retrieved from
https://ohrc.on.ca/en/human-rights-and-school-boards-obligations-address-racism-and-discrimi nation

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2020). Education for all: A guide to effective implementation.
Retrieved from
http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/Guide_to_Effective_Implementation_E N.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2021). Anti-racism in education: A resource guide for Ontario
schools. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/equity.pdf

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. University of Chicago
Press.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity,
Education & Society, 1(1), 1–40.

Webb, J., Schirato, T., & Danaher, G. (2002). Understanding Bourdieu. Sage.

Zhang, L. F., & Carrington, S. (2019). Inclusive teaching in action: Supporting teachers and
pupils in mainstream classrooms. Routledge.

 

Winterfest

Our school is an OPHEA certified school- which means, “Healthy Schools Certification gives your school the tools to promote and enhance the health and well-being of students, school staff, and the broader school community.” More information about being an OPHEA certified school can be found here

Last year, our focus was on physical activity and this year, our focus is on wellness. So, our OPHEA team (which consists of ten teachers and over 40 students) planned a day called “Winterfest”. This day ran during school hours and was planned completely by our OPHEA student leaders. They planned activities indoors and outdoors for the school- students in grades 1-6. The intermediate students ran each student or led a group around the school to each station. Stations included:

  • Bobsleigh: students on a mat guiding their way through a course of pylons
  • Biathlon: a fake skating activity where students have to bowl to hit some cones at the end
  • Hot chocolate: students enjoy some hot chocolate while a fake fireplace sparks in the background
  • Ring Toss: an outdoor activity 
  • Directed Drawing: a mindful activity indoors
  • Box Igloo Building: students compete to build an igloo against other students with boxes 
  • Cooperative games: students work with their classmates to reach a common goal (silent line up, octopus, parachute)
  • Spoon & Egg relay: students race again their classmates to not drop the ping pong ball off the spoon
  • Obstacle Course: students run through a ground ladder and around pylons to race to the finish 
  • Capture the flag: class vs. class style, two classes play a game of capturing the other teams flag 
  • Ball Hockey: students compete against their classmates to score goals outdoors in a Canadian favourite

These activities were 25 minutes long in length and were a combination of indoor/outdoor games. The day went off without a hitch as intermediate students received compliments all day long for their excellent leadership skills! Thankfully, it was 8 degrees so the weather was not a negative factor. We look forward to doing another wellness day similar to this in the Spring. Try it out with your school!

 

Using Foundational Literacy Resources with students in ELD Programs

It is no secret that the new Language curriculum in Ontario places a strong focus on the development of foundational literacy skills. In response to the new curriculum and the Right to Read report, elementary schools across Ontario have been engaged in utilizing resources, such as the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI) Foundations, that focus on the explicit development of decoding skills. These resources work by teaching students the different letters and letter combinations that make different sounds in English. In most cases, they would be used from grades 1-3, when children are in the throes of learning how to read.

Given the effectiveness of such resources, many educators of multilingual learners have started to use the same strategies as part of ELD (English Literacy Development) programs. Students that receive ELD program adaptations have 2 or more years of interrupted schooling for reasons such as crisis or political conflict. Because many students in ELD programs have not had the opportunity to develop literacy skills in their home language, resources that teach decoding would seem to be ideal.

But are such resources appropriate for emergent speakers of English in ELD programs? Aren’t they primarily designed for students that already speak English?

Like so many other things in life, the only way to find the answer is to experiment, explore, and of course make mistakes along the way. I was pleased to discover with so many colleagues in different schools that teaching foundational decoding skills to students in ELD programs does work – but it is important to keep some important factors in mind.

Here are some key takeaways I have gathered from using foundational literacy resources to teach students in ELD programs.

Provide Opportunities for Newcomer Students to Build an Oral Foundation in English

If you are using decoding resources with newcomer students in ELD programs, be mindful of the cognitive load they have of learning to read in English while also learning the language. Decoding resources focus on sound and letter combinations, not communication and comprehension.  A lot of resources that teach decoding skills presume that the student is already familiar with the sounds and words of English.

Newcomer students are still in the process of building their speaking and listening skills in English, and need time to orient themselves in their new learning environment and develop social communication skills through play and interaction with other students. They should have exposure to the sounds of English and opportunities to build an oral foundation at the same time, if not before, they start learning English sounds and alphabetic code.

Adjust the Pace of Instruction as Needed

When working through a program like UFLI Foundations it can be tempting to move quickly to stay within the suggested time frames. With ELLs, you will want to be flexible and provide additional time for students to build vocabulary as they experiment with reading new words. Have a laptop or tablet with search engine at the ready for a quick visual dictionary. Ask students if there are words they do not know yet, and take the time to show them the meaning and practice using them in sentences. Again, be mindful of how different the cognitive load will be for early speakers of English, and stop the lesson early if it seems appropriate.

Use Decodables Strategically

When you use decodable books with ELLs, be sure to use ones that are illustrated for meaning-making. Some decodables on the internet are text only, which limits opportunities for vocabulary acquisition. The experience of reading even a decodable text can also be brought to life when the content reflects information or experiences that are familiar to newcomer students. I read a decodable with a newcomer student in an ELD program recently and she was excited to see pictures of seagulls. It turned out that when she first moved to Canada she went to Lake Simcoe with her family and watched seagulls at the beach. Connecting that experience to the book made the reading much more enjoyable and meaningful for her.

Leverage Your Students’ Oral Foundation in the First Language

Like any other language, English may have sounds that do not exist in others. English also has sounds that can be heard in other languages. For example, Spanish speakers have a rolling “r” sound that is not used in English, but both languages have a “d” sound. When practicing phonemes with newcomer multilingual learners, check to see if the same sound exists in their home language by asking the student or checking a resource like mylanguages.org. Some students may need additional practice saying sounds that are new to them.

Literacy is Empowering at Any Age

Many students in ELD programs tend to be older students (grade 3 and up). Students in the intermediate grades can feel self-conscious reading books that are designed for much younger learners, or learning concepts they perceive to be inappropriate for their age. A tutorial (one-to-one) or small group support model is much more conducive to teaching foundational literacy skills to older students. Furthermore, there are some publishers like Saddleback that have decodable texts that are designed for older learners. If you do not have these books at your school, consider using decodable texts with a non-fiction theme.

In my board we have many success stories of intermediate aged students in ELD programs learning decoding skills that have shared how impactful the instruction has been. These students similarly express the joy and excitement of being able to read a word “without looking at the pictures,” or feeling confident about spelling.

Summing it Up

Teaching English decoding skills through foundational literacy programs is a powerful way to accelerate learning for students in ELD programs. However, it is important to be flexible in your approach and to understand that their learning experience will be significantly different from their peers.

Finally, always keep in mind that students, particularly those in ELD programs, bring a variety of background experiences before entering the classroom. Newcomer students that have experienced separation, political conflict, extraordinary stress, and other traumatic situations may need to focus on other areas of orientation and development to be available for learning. Be in touch with settlement workers and staff that can help connect students to resources to support their social and emotional needs.

The loneliest time

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to teach overseas. I was hired as an assistant for public school English teachers, half a world away; my role was to team-teach grade 6-8 English classes with them. Each day was an adventure in which I learned more and more about this new country I was living in: how their school system operated, traditions and cultural norms, and what it was like to live in a place where I could not easily understand and communicate with others — sometimes at all. 

While each day came and went with many blessings (mostly in the form of kindnesses from kind people) life in another language could be flat-out hard —and sometimes lonely. And there was one part of every day that was lonelier than all the others …

It wasn’t back at my tiny apartment in the evening, when it was only me and nightly chores before sleep.

It wasn’t on solo train rides to work, crammed in with countless strangers, all of us silently looking down at books or phones or hands folded in laps.

It was the 15-minute morning staff meeting.

It always took place in the staff room, which was very different from the ones I was used to in Ontario. Here, staff rooms were filled with large, identical teacher desks, arranged into three groups down the length of the room. There were exactly six desks to each group, one for each of the teachers of that grade.  Seating within the group went strictly by order of seniority. This particular year I was assigned to the grade 6 group, and my desk was right at the end. 

And so each morning I would walk down the school’s corridor, slide open the staff room door, and get ready for the daily meeting. A chorus of “good mornings” would ring out, as was customary whenever anyone entered. Although summer months were scorching, the winter was chilly. On colder mornings a tall kerosene heater stood in the middle of the room, a large kettle perched precariously on top for the teachers’ tea. As the only source of heat in the room, it inevitably drew people near it, to chat and commiserate about the temperature. These social greetings and light conversations were usually within my language grasp, and were a nice start to the day. And the English teachers I worked with were there too, so I could always chat with them in English. 

But as the meeting time approached, everyone made their way back to their desks. The vice principal and principal sat at the front of the room, and in this way would call the morning meeting to order. We all stood up together, and once we had formally called out our greeting in unison, the vice principal would begin to speak.

And here is why those 15 minutes were the loneliest of my day …

I was surrounded by colleagues who understood every word the vice principal uttered. As the meeting progressed, I could see teachers nod, raise their eyebrows, exclaim, suddenly check handouts, all in response to his flowing speech. But to me it was just a continuous droning, a string of unintelligible sounds. Handouts filled with indecipherable characters.

Occasionally I would catch a phrase or two, though. Basketball at 5 o’clock. Exams next week. After-school clubs. And each time I did, a glimmer of hope would spark inside me, and I would strain to make sense of what he was saying. But the advanced vocabulary, intricate grammar patterns, and speed of delivery made it almost impossible to glean much else from his message. 

The pace of the meetings was snappy, designed to quickly impart information and get on with the day. Before I knew it, papers were shuffled and stacked, chairs pushed in, and teachers on the move to the first classes. On a couple of occasions, everyone left so abruptly I was worried I may have missed an evacuation notice. 

It was a jolting experience for me. Words had always been a vital source of connection to others, a source of expression and belonging. Now they only thing they brought was isolation. Everyone in that room understood what was being said. But not me. Everyone in that room could contribute. But I could not. Everyone in that room belonged. I did not feel as though I did. Not during the meeting, anyway. I may as well have been invisible.

And of course, none of this was was anyone’s intention. I was welcomed warmly and treated well by many colleagues, and had some of the best teaching experiences of my life. It was just that the days were moving along as they always had, with no one really aware of how isolating and uncertain that little part of it was for me, not realizing the erasure that can come with not understanding what is being said. 

And I always think of those 15 long minutes when I consider instruction for multilingual language learners.  Except instead of 15 minutes, they have an entire school day stretched out in front of them. Which is why I am so thankful for dedicated teachers who do all that they can to make sure these students are included: that they are not sitting in silence, unaware of what is being said; that they have access to the lessons and ideas and information that everyone else does; that they have a means of contributing. In every class, it looks a little bit different, and a little bit the same. Some teachers take a few extra seconds to translate the lesson topic for the students before it starts, so students know in advance what the teacher will be talking about. Some have pictures up, in every lesson, that they point to as they speak. Some have translated and adapted worksheets, so that MLLs have access to the same rich curriculum content and class work as everyone else. Some use sentence starters and stems for the whole class, so that speaking in groups becomes structured and achievable for MLLs. 

I could fill a page with strategies and supports I have seen educators use to chip away at the barriers that MLLs face, that instead draw them into the learning community. But for now, please accept this blog entry as a little love letter to all of those educators who make sure every student is included and heard. Because if even one child is not understanding the way they deliver that lesson, those teachers change the way they deliver their lesson. Relentlessly. 

And yet again, I must concluded with a familiar quote, which always seems to perfectly reflect what these educators know:

“Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space, for everyone.”

– George Dei 

MVP of 2023

Every new year, I start a writing assignment where students have to brainstorm to decide who their MVP of 2023 will be. We generate lists based on possible categories such as:

  • Actors
  • Musicians
  • Athletes
  • Educators
  • Political Figures
  • Doctors
  • Youtubers
  • Citizens
  • Environmentalists

Then, I teach my students how to write a five paragraph essay. They start off by identifying the three main reasons that they think their person had an incredible year. This is usually a challenge as some of the main ideas are based around the same reasons such as they are generous, kind and charitable. We then talk about how our three main ideas should be very different from each other. I then approve the three main ideas before students start to research their person.

Students are encouraged to search through various sources to find quotes to prove their point- why their person should be the MVP of last year. They are encoruaged to find relevant, recent ideas that would make their person a stand out citizen. Then, they work on explaining their proof with their own ideas. I created an essay organizer which they filled out during their research stage to help with organization and flow. After that, they could start to type their first draft.

So many of my students were excited to see how long their first essay was. They were so excited to be able to write about a role model of their choosing and were excited to share their choice with the class. They also learned about proper citation format as well as thesis writing. Many of my students are in grade eight so this is something that they will be doing lots of this time next year. One of my old students came to me halfway through his grade nine English course and reminded me of how important the MVP assignment is that we did last year because it teaches all the necessary skills needed for high school English. I was very glad to hear this as I know it helped prepare him.

At the end of the essay assignment, students are able to read their peer’s essays and review them with our success criteria. Students are assessed based on:

  • developing ideas
  • organizing ideas
  • voice
  • word choice
  • revisions

After marking all of their essays this year, I was very proud to say that everyone excelled at developing and organizing ideas. I am wishing I had done a word choice lesson with similes, etc. before the writing process started as that was the area students needed to work on.

We also had a bracket tournament where everyone’s MVP was listed on the board. Students had to read their thesis for the competition so classmates could vote for the MVP of 2023. The final two canditates were one of the student’s moms vs. Cristiano Ronaldo. The winner for this year was…”My Mom” as it is hard to compete with a mom.

I look forward to doing this assignment again in the future as their are many present and future applications for it and students get to look for role models and reflect why they are important to them and to our world.