Built on Trust

At the beginning of the school year in each class, we always spend a lot of time getting to know one another. The first term starts with engaging in conversations with the students and asking them to trust me, learn with me, and learn about themselves. We’re doing team building activities and I’m giving them time to explore who they are in this new space together.

But, there’s also something special about the second term in elementary school. It’s a time when I feel like we’ve built a classroom community, know one another, and the students are ready to dive in. Maybe because the days are starting to get brighter or maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on each students’ strengths and next steps while writing report cards, but I always feel like we’re in a different stage of our relationship. We’re building a trusting relationship with each other where we can all feel comfortable and safe.

It’s so important to build that trust. In times of challenging learning, the student-teacher relationship can be key to students feeling like they are not alone in their learning journey. Educator Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain, likens this trust to another familiar relationship. When we are with a physiotherapist, they give us exercises to help our bodies to move better physically. Sometimes those exercises stretch us to our limits, but we trust our care to these professionals. They assess and watch how we move and encourage us to continue getting stronger. Much of this ability to grow is based on trust; I know that I trust this person to do the best for me and provide care for me. Similarly, we help students to learn in class. We ask them to stretch their thinking, learn and attempt to master new skills, and take risks for their own growth. They trust us to guide them, provide them attainable next steps, build on their strengths, and be the person who helps create a safe place for them to learn.

Lately, I’ve also been thinking about the importance of building a space where students also trust each other. It’s difficult to host any space where there are so many different people together; many who come from different backgrounds and experiences and whose personality traits differ greatly from one another. How do we build trust between all of these students?

First we can define what that safe, trusting space looks like, sounds like, and feels like for each of us. We might have already done this activity together, but term two is a great opportunity to revisit those ideas. We might look at the original ideas if I’ve got a copy on chart paper or digitally and see how everyone feels as a whole or allow students to reflect individually and anonymously. I might ask if there’s anything to add, perhaps students have better language or understanding of what they are looking for in the learning space.

As the educator in the room, it’s also time for me to reflect personally on the ultimate goal of this learning community. This year, I’m radically dreaming of the possibilities for our classroom communities. I want students to feel safe and cared for by me, but I also want them to feel safe and cared for by each other. I want less division amongst social circles and more inclusion of everyone not because they are simply present in the space with us, but because we trust that we all belong here. I want all students to feel safe sharing their thoughts and to know that they don’t have to be perfect. This, too, all seems built on trust; that students trust one another to be respectful and trust that they will be kept safe.

Teaching is so challenging. There are so many things to think about; meetings, curriculum, deadlines, and more. It’s hard to trust that building belonging is essential for learning and wellness. In my year of radical dreaming, I’m remembering that at the centre of each day is a trusting, positive, and exciting experience for students in my care. I wonder what that looks like, sounds like, and feels like for all of us.

Forest of Reading Part 2 – Silver Birch, Yellow Cedar and Red Maple

For the second part of the series I’m going to focus on the Forest of Reading book clubs intended for independent readers. The Ontario Library Association created several categories based on age and reading ability. These clubs differ from Blue Spruce as the students read the books themselves in order to qualify to vote for their favorite book. In each case there are 10 Canadian books nominated and students are required to read at least five of the books to vote.

Silver Birch Express for grades 3 and 4

The list of 10 Silver Birch Express books often includes a combination of detailed picture books, graphic novels, nonfiction, and early novels. I absolutely love how accessible this book club is for readers who are beginning to read independently. For students in that age range there can be a great variety in the ability to read and yet this club makes books accessible for students to read on their own even if they are not as advanced in their reading as some of their classmates. I highly recommend a previous winner from Silver Birch Express called Meet Viola Davis. It is a very well-written overview of Davis’ life and includes the racial segregation she experienced and fought in the courts of Canada.

Silver Birch Fiction for grade 5 and 6

For readers in grades 5 and 6 there are 10 new Canadian novels nominated for the Silver Birch award. Again, students must read at least five of these books to qualify to vote. There have been many excellent books the nominated in the past and this year is no exception. The 2017 winner, OCDaniel, has been in constant circulation at my library. 

Yellow Cedar Non-fiction for grades 4-8

The Ontario Library Association recognizes the importance of non-fiction with the Yellow Cedar award. There is always a range of topics from animals to the world wars. Some students collect fascinating facts from these books and their horizons are broadened. One of my very favourite non-fiction books, Hannah’s Suitcase, was introduced to me through the Forest of Reading and I used it with many classes over the years.

Red Maple for Grades 7 and 8

Nominees in this category have included well known novelists Kenneth Oppel and Eric Walters. Having new Canadian books purchased for your school or classroom library always brings excitement to the literacy program. For some intermediate students, the Red Maple book club reignites their love of reading.

Tips for Running a Book Club

Giving students time to read is one of the greatest gifts we can give. These programs can be run in classrooms or as an extra-curricular activity. The OLA provides checklists of all the nominated books so it’s easy to track which books have been completed.  There are virtual visits with authors and illustrators if you register with the forest of reading as well.

Start early. The nominations come out in October and voting happens in April. If you can organize your funding and get the books right away then your students have more time to read!

Sometimes it’s hard for one adult to read several lists of books so this is a great opportunity to team up with colleagues and ask them to read some of the books too. In order for students to validate that they have completed reading a book they would visit the staff member who read the book and discuss the book with them.

Acknowledging reading accomplishments, such as completing a book, reaching voter status etc., can be done with announcements, posters or even a rewards program. School council, local businesses or your administration may be able to sponsor incentives such as food, stickers, or book fair credits. 

Celebrate by holding a special event. For example have an arts day with your school and get activity ideas from the nominated books.  When the OLA announces the winners you can attend in person or virtually. Your students can participate as ambassadors. It’s an energizing experience with music and great speakers.

I highly recommend participating the Forest of Reading. Students get excited about the new books and the fact that their votes decide the winners.  It’s also wonderful to support Canadian authors and illustrators!

Happy Reading!


Exploring the Language Experience Approach with Sentence Strips

Program adaptation for emergent speakers of English in the elementary grades has a lot of challenges. Educators have to adapt their classroom programming to make content comprehensible, set appropriate goals for language output, while also providing opportunities for the student to learn English.

This is where the Language Experience Approach, or LEA, comes in. LEA will not be a new strategy to many experienced teachers – it has been practiced for years in classrooms. It is a fantastic strategy for teaching literacy skills to English language learners (ELLs). Though you can find explanations all over the internet, Denise Nessel and Carol Dixon’s 2008 book “Using the Language Experience Approach with English Language Learners” remains a quintessential resource on the subject.

LEA combines experiential learning, oral communication, writing, and reading skills in fairly straightforward and textbook-free lessons. While many iterations of LEA exist, the central principle, as the Nessel and Dixon state, is to use the “student’s own vocabulary, language patterns, and background of experiences to create reading texts”.

At the core of LEA is building English vocabulary (or any target language you are teaching) through experiential learning. Through experiences, students naturally start connecting the words they hear with meaning. The experience can be something as simple as a classroom activity; as an educator, your role is to enrich that experience by explicitly teaching related words and their meaning.

For example, you might label items in the classroom, while also making a point of referencing those words during the day. When giving instructions to to students, explain the meaning of the action words as much as possible through movement and facial expression. The early learners of English in the classroom might receive flashcards with frequently used nouns, and be provided with opportunities to say those words in simple statements with common word patterns that have been modelled by the teacher.

There are a number of ways you can utilize LEA, but in this blog, I will focus on using LEA using sentence strips. This would be a great way to provide focused instruction to ELLs while other students are engaged in their own writing or drawing.

The Process

Start using LEA by taking students through an experience – it can be a day outdoors, an afternoon of playing games, or even exploring a picture or video if that is what you have done. The activity that follows is best used with ELLs that have acquired a basic oral foundation and can communicate using simple sentences (Ex. STEP 2).

When the experience is over, there are a number of different starting points you can work from. For early learners of English or primary students, you can start by having the class illustrate what they have experienced, whether it was playing a game or visiting a zoo. Students that are already writing sentences may choose to write about their drawing if they feel comfortable doing so.

While the class is drawing, start with one student and ask them to say a sentence about the experience or what they have drawn. Scribe the sentence exactly as the student says it. It’s important to use the student’s exact language so they will recognize their words when they reread their own writing, and they will also feel encouraged in creating dictated accounts.

If you want to gently encourage a revision, you might ask questions to help the student adapt their statement on their own. But you will want to make sure that the student has stated the words you scribe – avoid changing the text or they may not recognize the vocabulary or language pattern.

For example:

Teacher: What happened during the basketball game? Tell me one thing.

Student: I got a basket and scored a point.

Teacher: Oh, so you shot the ball in the basket and scored a point?

Student: Yeah, I shot the ball in the basket and scored a point.

Teacher: How should I write that down?

Student: I shot the ball in the basket and scored a point.

Teacher: (writes the sentence exactly as the student has said it).

Once you have scribed the student’s sentence in their notebook or journal, take a long strip of paper and write the sentence on that strip using a marker. Cut each word on the strip.

Example of student work using sentence strips with LEA.

Then, ask the student to put the words back in the correct order using the sentence that has been scribed for them. Ask the student to read the sentence back to you. Repeat twice. Once the student has mastered the sentence, you can ask them to read the sentence to a friend or partner.

Then, you can move onto the next student! You might use sentence strips again, or provide more advanced feedback to students who are already independently writing.

Picture by C-B studio

The Art of Cursive Writing: A Valuable Journey.

In the bustling world of elementary education, where the focus often lies on specific subjects and foundational skills, including cursive writing might seem like a quaint notion. However, delving into the art of beautiful writing from an early age brings forth many benefits.

Alright, picture this: little ones in elementary school getting into the groove of cursive writing. You might think, “Wait, isn’t that more for grown-ups?” Introducing cursive writing to the kiddos early on is like unlocking a treasure trove of skills that go way beyond just pretty handwriting.

Primarily, cursive writing serves as a nuanced exercise in fine motor skill development. The meticulous movements required to craft elegant strokes with a pen or brush contribute significantly to the refinement of hand-eye coordination. As students navigate the intricacies of cursive writing lettering, they concurrently enhance their motor control, laying the groundwork for improved dexterity in various academic and extracurricular activities.

Moreover, cursive writing imparts invaluable lessons in patience and focus. The deliberate and measured approach demanded by the art form instills a sense of meticulousness in young learners. In an era characterized by constant stimuli and distractions, instilling the ability to concentrate on a singular task becomes a transferable skill that can positively impact a student’s overall academic experience.

But it’s not all serious business. Cursive writing is a way for kids to show off their personality. Scribbling becomes an art form, a canvas for expressing feelings and ideas. That creative outlet isn’t just about making pretty letters; it’s about feeling proud of what they create and boosting their confidence.

Within the language arts domain, cursive writing uniquely combines visual and verbal communication. As students engage with this art form, they naturally develop an enhanced appreciation for the aesthetic aspects of language. This heightened sensitivity to the visual nuances of letters and words can elevate their understanding and enthusiasm for written expression, transforming language arts into a more captivating and enjoyable subject.

The advantages of learning cursive writing extend beyond the academic sphere, reaching into the realm of mindfulness and well-being. This art form’s deliberate, meditative nature gives students a serene space to explore creativity. In navigating the rhythmic flow of ink on paper, students can cultivate mindfulness, offering a valuable respite from the frenetic pace of contemporary life.

The integration of cursive writing into elementary education transcends the mere enhancement of penmanship. It represents an investment in the holistic development of students, fostering skills that span from refined motor control and patience to enhanced creativity and an enriched appreciation for language arts. The early introduction of cursive writing catalyzes comprehensive student growth, leaving an enduring impact on their academic journey.

daring 2024 – dragon edition

Au revoir janvier. Cue the fireworks as we look forward to the year of the Dragon along with many of our students. What a natural segue to a follow up to my earlier post daring 2023 where I unpacked what was daring in my classroom last year. For now though, let’s talk about dragons.

In the spirit of transparency, I am not a huge fan of fantasy books, neither of games with the word dungeons in them, nor into television shows where dragons are used as war machines in by gone Scandic empires. I am a fan of the book Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke and of the mythology, stories, and art about dragons in Asian culture. Most of what I have learned about the latter with regards to the cultural significance of the Chinese Zodiac has come from my students, and their families. As a result, I am always gifted with something new from those interactions. Whether it is during an in school celebration of Lunar New Year when students dress in traditional new year’s clothing from their culture, or a retelling of activities shared at home with extended family.

I may have also wondered whether the 12 year cycle animals and their respective traits correlates at all to what goes on from year to year in the classroom. Would I know well enough to differentiate with such limited experience? I was born in the year of the Horse after all. In a nutshell, I am adventurous, energetic, and independent, but lack academic intelligence. This really means I am going to need the whole village to point me in the right direction, but I’ll get there at my own pace once I know the way.

For reals this time: a bit more about the Year of the Dragon – 2024.
“Years of the Dragon include 2036, 2024, 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952…
People born in Dragon years usually possess natural courage, tenacity, and intelligence, often displaying enthusiasm and confidence. In Chinese culture, the Dragon holds a significant place as an auspicious and extraordinary creature, unparalleled in talent and excellence. It symbolizes power, nobility, honour, luck, and success.” via Year of the Dragon:

Talk about daring 

If the characteristics of a dragon are not filling your thoughts about the work we do as educators, take another look at the list of traits above. Even with my horse-like tendencies, I can relate to the exciting, daring, and dignified descriptors used to define dragons, I mean educators. As we move forward through the Year of the Dragon, let’s all be daring enough to recognize the incredible courage, determination, and energy we all bring to school each day.

The fact that only 1/12th of us are born in the Year of the Dragon is not being overlooked. If we look at the other years/animals of the Chinese Zodiac we will find numerous positive traits that educators possess as well.

Let’s dare to acknowledge and celebrate the work we do and the accomplishments of those around us. Let’s hold our heads high even when time’s get tough. Let’s dare to try new things and take chances without fear of failure. Let 2024 be the best Year of the Dragon ever- unparalleled in talent and excellence”.

Beginner ESL Class: Fluid Dynamics and Bernoulli’s Principle

OK, not the topic we generally envision when planning instruction for students new to English. Nonetheless, this is exactly the lesson a classroom teacher and I planned for her STEP 1 MLLs a couple of weeks ago.

Ah, I can hear my teachers-college self exclaiming from 1998: “What?? How?!? This topic is advanced, with complex language! Don’t students new to English need simple topics to start? Is there an ESL workbook anywhere?”


Well, Diane of Yesteryear, you’ll be happy to know that we have had the good fortune to work with Multilingual Language Learners quite a bit in our career, and the equally-good fortune to collaborate with dedicated ESL colleagues and educators. Here’s a bit of the learning that happened along the way:

We learned that even if MLLs have a withdrawal instruction period each day, there are roughly 5 additional periods in the day that they have with their full class. That’s 5 periods of math, science, music, health, history, geography, Language, phys ed, or French …

We learned that MLLs need access to grade-level curriculum content and learning, just like everyone else …

We learned that just because English language ability is in the beginner stages, that doesn’t mean background knowledge, skill, and ability is …

We learned that MLLs consistently tell us that they want to contribute in class, belong, talk with their friends, and understand the lessons happening around them …

And finally, we learned there are effective ways to do all of that.

So.  Here’s how we taught fluid dynamics and Bernoulli’s principle to an entire grade 6 science class, in a way that meaningfully included the teacher’s STEP 1 MLLs. And bear in mind, I was present for the initial planning stages and one in-class support support session. Kudos to this teacher for the amazing program she developed for her students.

The classroom teacher and I briefly discussed the curriculum, in which students learn about the four forces of flight and Bernoulli’s principle. We located two educational science videos on the topic, one in Arabic and one in Spanish as these were the students’ first languages (what did we ever do before YouTube?). Using simple English and some strategic translation, we told them we were learning how airplanes fly. I took the students aside briefly and showed them the videos, to pre-teach content in first language. The classroom teacher then gave the entire class a picture word bank of key vocabulary related to the unit: flight, lift, drag, thrust, weight, air, pressure … Each of us worked with the MLLs to practice the terms, in English and first language. And the pedagogical bonus of having visual word banks such as these? They can be projected or posted during whole-class lessons. The whole class (not just MLLs) can then warm up each day by chorally repeating key terms attached to visuals – a quick 30-second focus and review exercise for everyone that has the added advantage of giving MLLs critical speaking and listening practice with target English vocabulary. These types of visuals are also great for pointing to throughout the lesson, allowing MLLs to more easily follow what the teacher is explaining. Finally, students had sentence starters and stems to write and speak about what they learned, in English and first language.

And learn they did.

When I returned, the teacher showed me how the week had progressed, with these few simple strategies. The students had sketched and labelled diagrams of the forces of flight, as all of their classmates had. They had practiced the same vocabulary the other students did. They had written simple sentences with support to describe the four forces, and they had accurately demonstrated through visuals, gestures, and first language their understanding of how those forces worked.

Have I mentioned lately that teachers are superheroes? Because when I think about lessons such as these, with the access to curriculum knowledge, the belonging and inclusion, the learning of English vocabulary (just a few terms and sentence starters each day, but adding up over time), I am reminded of the dedication that abounds in this profession, that inevitably leads to student success.

Take that, ESL workbook.

Forest of Reading Part 1: Blue Spruce Book Club

This two part series examines the annual Forest of Reading book nominations by the Ontario Library Association. 

Cracking open a box of brand new books is a wonderful part of the teacher-librarian role.  My favourite box has always been the Blue Spruce book club nominated titles.  Within the blanket of bubble wrap are 10 brand new Canadian picture books published within the past year. The selection committee uses specific criteria to narrow down the dozens of candidates to the top ten. The stories cover a range of topics with diverse characters and themes aimed at students in K-2.

If you register with the OLA you get several benefits including teaching resources and opportunities for virtual meetings with authors and illustrators. There is a fee for these services but I found administration or the school council always willing to support this initiative. 

By reading the 10 books before the deadline in April you can register your students to vote for their favourite book. Then in May the winners are announced. Blue Spruce book club time always generated plenty of excitement among the students and staff. We had deep discussions comparing illustration styles, characters and plots.  Students were eager to participate. What a fantastic way to generate excitement about books and reading!

Since I love reading aloud, this book club really suits me. I would read several titles to classes during library periods over a few weeks’ time. I would also encourage homeroom teachers to read some of the titles to show students that our entire staff was very excited about reading.

As the winter weeks pass, I would sometimes host large group readings with several classes in the library at once. Pushing aside tables and chairs we would gather together and warm up with a song or two and then settle in to hear a new book.  Bursts of laughter and the occasional sound effect or cheers of audience participation punctuated these large group readings.

The build up to the books arriving is also an exciting time. There are so many terrific past winners of the Blue Spruce book club.  I would read these books before starting the club for the current year.  I lean towards the funny ones…The Boy Who Loved Bananas, Stanley’s Party, Scaredy Squirrel and Chester come to mind right away. There are also touching stories about friendship, family relationships and struggles that our students can relate to.  It’s been wonderful to see BIPOC authors and illustrators nominated over the years, giving students diverse Canadian perspectives.

If your school doesn’t participate in the Forest of Reading, you can borrow the books from your local public library. When it’s time for voting day it’s fun to have students make posters and announcements so the whole school knows you are hosting this terrific literacy event. For more information check out these links…

2024 Blue Spruce nominees

 How to participate in the Forest of Reading 

Blue Spruce Winners and Nominees 2002-23

Happy Reading!


Elementary – Podcasts as a resource to broaden and deepen teaching practice.

Elementary is a podcast for teachers, education workers, and anyone who wants to know more about public education in Ontario. This podcast will take on some of the big issues in education, outline opportunities available to ETFO members, and bring together educators, activists, teachers, and students to share ideas and information about education” (ETFO, 2023).

In the ever-evolving realm of education, continuous professional development remains vital for educators to fine-tune their teaching practice and deepen their grasp of pedagogy and subject matter. Enter podcasts – the dynamic, accessible, and conversational tool transforming how educators broaden their horizons and refine these skills.

Picture this: educators like you and me tuning in to podcasts during our daily routines – be it commuting, exercising, or catching a breather between classes. Podcasts offer a variety of content, from insightful discussions on pedagogy to practical classroom strategies, all at our fingertips.

One of the primary benefits of podcasts is their ability to broaden understanding by providing access to expert insights and diverse perspectives. We can explore topics ranging from innovative teaching methodologies to discussions on equity and inclusion in education. By tuning into podcast interviews, discussions, and expert analyses, we gain exposure to new ideas, approaches, and best practices that enrich our professional repertoire.

But wait, there’s more. Podcasts don’t just scratch the surface; they invite us to dive deep into complex educational issues and theories. Through thought-provoking analyses and real-world examples, we’re encouraged to critically engage with content, challenge assumptions, and explore new avenues for teaching and learning. It’s like having a fireside chat with fellow educators, sparking ideas and igniting our passion for education.

From implementing innovative strategies to fostering student engagement, podcasts inspire us to infuse our classrooms with creativity and purpose. They’re our go-to resource for staying ahead of the curve and keeping our teaching practice fresh and dynamic.

Podcasts are more than just audio recordings; they catalyze growth, inspiration, and community among educators. As we embrace the conversational nature of podcasts, we embark on a journey of exploration and discovery, enriching our practice and empowering our students to thrive.

So, fellow educators, let’s plug in, tune in, and elevate our professional growth – It’s Elementary. Together, let’s spark meaningful conversations, ignite change, and shape the future of education, one episode at a time.

“You can listen to Elementary here or find it on most podcast apps.”



Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. 2023. Elementary: A podcast from ETFO. Retrieved from https://www.etfo.ca/news-publications/publications/podcast-elementary



picture of a holiday JOY sign taken from behind so letters are shown in reverse
photo by author

No joy, no peace.
Know joy, know peace.
Perhaps this simplistic approach may lead some philosophers, I mean educators, to search for specific pieces of peace as part of putting their own life’s puzzle(s) together. Or maybe not. It’s good to have a choice in matters of this nature. 

As simple as the adapted axiom above reads, it becomes much more perplexing when, as, and if pondered.

Call it YOᒐ

So what happens when joy takes a holiday when doing the work that you love, and all that you are left with is its opposite? Without this becoming a full on self help post, I will attempt to work out my thoughts in the paragraphs below. 

At first blush, the answer comes with equal parts complexity, scheduled and unscheduled situations, and a litany of responses ranging from (over)reactionary to nuanced. I never said it was going to be easy, right. I also didn’t say it has to be difficult either. 

Finding our own versions of JOY while trying to avoid YOᒐ might as well be like trying to distil our own definition for the meaning of life. And you can’t use 42, Adams already gave us that one. What brings us JOY or YOᒐ is personal, elusive, and evolving. We are humans after all, and our tastes and needs are subject to change or be changed whether from inside or out? Joy will look different from one person to the next. One person’s perceived worst day ever, may only appear to someone else as an opportunity to gain knowledge and grow from the experience. 

The winter of my disco tents will lead to a rockin’ summer

Looking at JOY and YOᒐ as seasons instead of life sentences has been helpful for me. 

In fact it has become very clear that each and every day has the potential for us to take a time warped trip through the seasons complete with blizzards, droughts, refreshing rains, and warming sunlight. Whether we wither or weather the storms depends on first knowing who we are at the core and what emotional strengths we draw from to meet the demands of each day’s tempests.

Will I be ready with an umbrella for life’s downpours or will I be looking for towels because I left the windows down in my car? Will I be ready to shield myself with a supportive network of caring colleagues from the cold of self-doubt and discouragement when things are not working in the classroom or I am feeling unsure? Will I be ready with sunblock, glasses, and a hat to appreciate those warm days? How about you? With so much of our well being anchored in our mental health, it is crucial we know how to prepare and where to seek a proverbial shelter.

JOY is…

The feeling of sipping your coffee or tea when it is still hot, warm, or from the same day it was made. It is having all of your students in the classroom. It is a week of uninterrupted school life at the speed of learning. Joy is seeing the eyes of students light up when they accomplish a goal. Joy comes from having a purpose? Where it gets really good in our lives happens when we can combine what gives us joy, with what we love, with our purpose, and talents. This in essence is the Japanese concept of Ikigai.

For me, there is joy in knowing I am working in a space that I love and using the skills/gifts/scars/lessons thus far to occupy my place as an educator. Over the past 15+ years there has been far more JOY than YOᒐ too. It doesn’t mean that we are on easy street until our final days, but that each day we are presented with JOY or YOᒐ will be an opportunity to shine brightly or strengthen ourselves or one another.

As we navigate this season of low daylight and high workload, I just wanted to remind you all that you are purpose and passion in action. You are the light to so many even after the sun goes down. Thank you.


My West end schools are a joy these days. A fair number of junior and intermediate students have arrived recently, all new to English, and many with solid literacy skills in their first language. Teachers stop to chat in the halls, excitedly telling me about the latest science project, or writing assignment, or music class, in which they have used first language to enable students to learn curriculum and English and, critically, to help them maintain and develop their first languages. Classrooms are filled with multilingual writing, and every time I lean over and read a student’s work, I learn a little more about what they can do, and wonder what else is around the corner. 

As many ESL teachers have noted, student writing reveals a lot, even if you do not understand the language of the writing. Sometimes, a paper on a desk in an empty classroom can speak volumes … I love it when I find a story, or an essay, for example. Paragraph after paragraph, the steady flow of sentences, the well-formed letters, the crisply-accurate capitals and punctuation …all can suggest awareness of form, convention, and fluidity of thought. Looking at compositions such as these, it is apparent the student can do so much more than their beginner work in English can reveal — for now. Or sometimes it is short notes in first language that I see, written above English vocabulary on a math problem or science experiment … the brisk dashes in the student’s writing suggesting that, perhaps, they used a translation tool or teacher support for an unknown word, quickly jotting down the meaning before moving on to the next section, learning English naturally as they engage with curriculum. And sometimes, I am lucky enough to see a student in action, engaged in the process of writing … pausing to think, to erase, to edit, to look up words … evidence of the ability to proofread and revise.

When a student is just learning English for the first time, and using only simple writing skills as they begin their journey, these first language writings offer a window into the complexity of their thoughts and skills. And as I said at the beginning, it is a joy to see their colourful voices on the page, the full spectrum of their capabilities and resourcefulness in evidence.