Supporting ELL Students

Some of you know that I’ve started a new role as an ELL/LST teacher this year.  One challenging part of that role is helping ELL students, many of whom are new comers to Canada and have just been introduced to English.  In my context, these ELL students are ushered into mainstream, academic courses within months of their arrival to Canada.

This post is all about giving teachers some tools and ideas to support the ELL students in their classes.   Really, this is a more detailed answer to one of my most frequently asked questions, “What are some practical ways that I can support ELL students in my class?” Here are a few suggestions.

10 Tips for Supporting ELL Students

  1. Pair them up with a language buddy. Teaming up with another student who speaks their language often allows for increased comprehension of spoken language and motivation for learning. It can be a little bit tricky to have someone translating at the same time you are giving instruction but it is possible. Layout some ground rules for the translators so there is minimal disruption. Let the rest of the class know that they are permitted to talk because they are translating.
  2. Front-load vocabulary. It sounds too simple to help but providing a vocabulary list or asking students to make one before you start direct instruction phase of a lesson is important to ELL learners. ELL students don’t always need to look up definitions to these words but they often need to translate them into their own language prior to instruction. This will ensure that they can at least understand some of the key words being discussed.
  3. Provide print. This point goes along with the last one but should be underlined because of how prominent video is becoming in classrooms. Printed notes with definitions and examples, or digital copies of textbooks, are very important for ELL learners because they allow students to translate at their own pace inside or outside of the classroom. Digital notes also allow them to use powerful online translation tools like Read and Write.
  4. Provide technology. If you don’t supply many digital texts for students, make sure you supply students with technology that will help them translate the text they are reading. Using a tablet with an app like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator allows students to take a picture of English text and have it instantly translated for them into their language. These tools are especially valuable to Beginning and Developing ELL students. However, students can easily become over-dependent on translation tools at the Emerging and Expanding levels.
  5. Communicate with extra effort. Translation technology is also a very valuable tool for teachers. Translating an email into a students home language can make a huge difference! Using the “Conversation” feature on a translation app can also facilitate a small conversation with a parent or teacher. Connecting with a multi-cultural worker and communicating with students and parents face-to-face is another important means of overcoming culture and language barriers with ELL students. If you don’t know who the multi-cultural workers are, just ask your ELL teacher or your administrators.
  6. Honour their culture. Look for ways to honour the cultural background of your ELL students. Knowing the date of an important holiday, learning a few words in their language, or thoughtfully integrating someone of the same race or background into your curricular content are small ways to value a students culture. The National Film Board has some great resources to help include content from different cultures.
  7. Give them a voice. Giving a voice to students is always important but for ELL students it’s more significant. Many ELL students immigrate to Canada from very oppressive environments. Their default mode is passivity and silence. Try to draw them out and constantly encourage them to speak, ask questions and share their interests. Sometimes this requires a little coaching. Many students don’t feel comfortable putting up their hand in class but they might feel comfortable with a more subtle signal to get your attention.
  8. Give extra time and support options. Evaluations are difficult for ELL learners they often need more time to translate each word. Often LST teachers can support test taking students or provide a monitored environment where students can continue working on tests. Catch Up or Homework Clubs often provide additional, supported time for ELL students.
  9. Reach-out early. If after attempting to support ELL students in a variety of ways they are lost and overwhelmed, reach out and contact a support teacher, school counsellor, multicultural worker or settlement worker to gather information about the student and solve problems in the classroom.
  10. Don’t mistake lack of language for lack of intelligence. In her blog post about 12 Ways to Supporting English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom, Jennifer Gonzalez makes this excellent point. When a child can’t express themselves in a way that sounds intelligent, it’s tempting to make the assumption that they aren’t intelligent. In fact, many ELL students are brilliant. They often need teachers to overlook their accent, translation error or missed social cue to give them the respect that they deserve. Actually, when you think about it, ELL student are doing twice the mental work of regular students but their English output often doesn’t reflect this mental effort. You can help students by assuming the concepts are making sense even when the language isn’t. This is true, especially when concepts are made visual.
  11. Recognize the stages and phases of cultural shock. When students transition from different countries and cultures, the first few months are glorious but then there is a big dip. After about three or four months, students go through a phase where they are miserable. They miss their home foods, customs, fashion, people and language. In these culture shock and adjustment phases, they need more care and understanding. They may need a lighten workload or extra time with others who share their language and cultural background.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Moved by a Vision of Hope

One definition of “vision” according to the the Oxford Dictionary is the “…ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.” The only thing I would change about this definition is to combine both words at the end of it. Imagination and wisdom are needed to create a compelling vision for the future that motivates others and give them a sense of purpose.

Attendance trouble and blurred vision

Unfortunately, many students do not have a hopeful vision for their future. A few days ago, I found myself in a meeting with one my students (lets call him Deep) and his school counsellor to discuss his course load. Near the end of our conversation, the topic changed to a discussion about class attendance. With a mere week and a half behind us in the school year, Deep had accumulated a small pile of absences.

For the next few minutes, I listened to the counsellor compassionately urge Deep to attend class but she didn’t do it in the brow-beating sort of way that might be expected. First, she questioned him about what he envisioned himself doing in the future. These questions were difficult for Deep to answer but eventually he put forward one or two things that he saw himself doing. To move toward that vision of the future, she said that it would require commitment, ownership and action. At the end of our meeting, she made Deep promise that he would attend his classes consistently for the rest of the year. He agreed.

The vision and motivation connection

Deep’s lack of motivation and purpose is a familiar story in many schools. However, this conversation helped highlight the direct link between motivation and vision. Students with a hopeful vision of the future are deeply motivated to work toward it. The opposite is also true. Those who lack vision also lack purpose and a plan for accomplishing something great with their lives.

The link between vision and purpose is as true for groups as it is for individuals. To influence a community of citizens, shareholders or stakeholders, leaders needs to communicate a compelling vision of the future. Creating a shared vision that others really believe motivates others to work hard to contribute to it.

M.L.K. had a dream. Do you?

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, American freedom fighter, Martin Luther King Junior, communicated a powerful vision of the future where he saw his four little children living and playing in a nation where they wouldn’t be judged by the colour of their skin but by “…the content of their character.” It was this compelling vision of the future that propelled the nation into an age of increased racial harmony, equality and freedom. The same is true of every individual person and student. Every person is heavily influenced by their ability to imagine a hopeful way forward.

Visions require imagination and faith

George MacDonald, the author who inspired the writing of C.S. Lewis, had much to say about vision and imagination. For MacDonald, a person’s vision was deeply tied to their beliefs about God and the nature of reality.

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect. It is the nature of the thing, not the clearness of its outline, that determines its operation. We live by faith, and not by sight.”

George MacDonald, Dish of Orts

MacDonald was a Christian and his view of living by faith is inspired by his own faith in God. However, even if you don’t think of yourself as a religious person or a person of faith, MacDonald’s point is no less important. What a person believes about who they are, their ability to see a vision about something beyond themselves is one of the most defining things about them.

MacDonald was adamant that vision-casting ability required a wise and powerful imagination. If that is true, the question becomes, “How can I develop a wise and powerful imagination in my students that gives them hope?” I suppose there are a million ways to do this but here are some ones on the top of my head.

Ways to foster a hopeful vision

  • Don’t pass over the goal-setting process at the beginning of the year. It’s not a part of your academic content but is certainly will impact learning through the year. Spend some a significant amount of time there. Make SMART goals and spend time revising them. Make sure the goals are challenging students to grow and not something they have already achieved. Come back to them at the middle and the end of the semester. Have students reflect on them and self-assess. Setting meaningful goals promotes student voice in the classroom. I’ve also found it far more productive to have a conference conversations that include both student goal and teacher goals because it shifts the focus of the meeting to include student self-evaluation and self-assessment.
  • Teach students to ask “What if..” questions and imagine the possibilities
  • Share stories about people who dreamed big and made a huge impact for others in the world
  • As you get to know your students affirm their growth, areas of passion and abilities.
  • Create a culture of “becoming” in your classroom that doesn’t focus on a perfect score or the highest grade but the developing character by admitting mistakes and learning from them.
  • Support students in their difficulties. A hopeful vision isn’t merely about the “power of positivity.” Life is hard and many of my students lives that are harder than my own. Ask how you can support your students? Follow up with them to make sure that your support is appropriate and timely.
  • Hold them accountable. One way to treat someone with hope and dignity is to hold them accountable to standards they want to achieve. Failing to to this is sometimes understood to mean that you have given up on them.

As I type this list, I know that there are so many other ways to foster a hopeful vision for students. Please let me know how you do this in your classroom in the comments below.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Visible Learning

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Visible Learning Institute in Richmond, British Columbia. Here is a summary of the event if you are interested in attending in the future.  To be honest, I’m not a huge advocate of conferences as a mode of professional development but I would highly recommend this one.   

Below,  I have complied a few of the major websites, schools and people that were mentioned during the conference.  I hope these resources will benefit those who want to dig deeper into Hattie’s writings and the professional development resources that his community is providing. 

Twitter Highlights

The Twitter hashtag for the conference was: #vancouvervl .  The Twitter note-taking was decent–there was about 50 tweets per day.  Ainsley Rose (@Ainsleybr) is a Kelowna-based member of the Visible Learning professional development team that was our presenter on the first day of the conference.  Connie Hamilton (@conniehamilton ) and professor/teacher Nancy Frey (@NancyFrey) addressed us on the second day.  Another notable Twitter mention, was Stonefield School (@StonefieldsSch).  This Australian school is one of the only officially recognized Visible Learning schools in the world.   

Visible Learning Resource Links

Corwin, the official publisher of the Visible Learning resources, has a  Visible Learning Plus website devoted to professional development.  The  resource page, linked below, has a number of articles and teacher surveys that are really helpful. 

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are the authors of many of the Visible Learning resources referenced in the website above.  Their own website also has a number of great teaching strategies and literacy resources.

Additionally, the Teachers on Fire has recently done a podcast episode with Nancy Frey highlighting her educational journey and passion for literacy.

Sebastian Waack also has Visible Learning blog dedicated to gathering John Hattie resources.  Although Sebastian is not part of John Hattie’s official Visible Learning Plus community, he has collected some great podcasts, videos and infographics that I would like to investigating further.

The Teacher Clarity Playbook is one book in a series of Teacher Playbooks that Corwin has published.  It is structured like a professional development course for teachers.  This particular one, focuses on creating successful learning intentions and success criteria for organized, effective instruction.  The video and resource page, linked below, will give you a glimpse of the topics covered in the book.  Keep in mind that the Corwin website also houses a number of PD video resources like this one–should you want to explore further.  

Have I missed any important resources that you would recommend? Please link them for me in the comments below.  Thanks

Photo by Krisztian Matyas on Unsplash

Celebrate What You Value

The culture of a school, family or organization is shaped by what it celebrates. Schools show that they value character traits or skills by putting them in their vision or mission statement or celebrating them in smaller ways. In classrooms, teachers give out treats for desired behaviour or an extra recess for a collective achievement. Schools also show what they value with year-end rewards. Recently, I was participating in our school’s reward ceremony and it caused me to reflect on how much we have grown in celebrating what we value.

When Rewards and Values Don’t Match

Four years ago, when I first started teaching at the middle school, we had a Head Masters List and an Honour Roll List that celebrated academic achievements based on marking percentages that had been averaged across three terms of the school year. Not only was this a horrible grading practice, since it didn’t take into account any growth the student had shown, but it also didn’t fit with the school’s goal to produce servant leaders.

In fact, our system of rewards was actually working against our stated goal to make servant leaders. As our staff began to reflect on the character of the students who were being rewarded with both of these academic lists, we discovered that these students were often very arrogant and narrowly focused on attaining grades for themselves.

I found that this individualist mindset was further enhanced in my own class by parents who gave out cash or luxurious gifts for high academic achievement. I also contributed to this way of thinking as a teacher by giving lots of individual assignments and grading with numerical scores that made class ranking a focus of my class instead of student growth.

Adjusting Success Criteria

A year later, we decided to replace our academic lists with a reward that was more aligned with our values. We called it, The Award of Excellence. It had components of leadership, service to the community, creativity and academic achievement. In the following year, the “academic achievement” part of the reward was revised to focus on academic growth–according to benchmarking at the beginning and end of the year rather than simply rewarding high achievers. In other words, we didn’t ‘t want to reward the strong students for being strong. We wanted to see growth in every student over the course of the year-regardless of their starting point.

The Culture Change

Over the past few years, it has been exciting to watch how this new award has transformed the culture of our school. Our Student Council has expanded, we have added additional leadership teams to help guide our House Team activities. Many different student-led clubs have emerged as students attempt to fulfill the leadership requirements of the award. Our students have been more active serving in their local communities and in other classes in our school. The transformation has been amazing!

Even though our school has lots of room for growth in changing its assessment culture, I’m proud of the growth we have achieved over the last four years. As we move forward, we need to keep asking ourselves, “Does our school celebrate what it values?” What we celebrate in our families, schools and organizations really does matter. It is a huge factor that shapes what they become.

Header photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Bringing Formal Back

One writing trend I’ve noticed in my class over the last few years is a decreased ability to use formal language in speech and written work. I’m really not sure why this pattern is emerging but I have a hunch that it is due to increased use of informal mediums of communication-like text messaging or tweeting.

Formal Style is Out of Style

I’ve also thought that the communication style of influential leaders like U.S. president Donald Trump has contributed to this gap. In his Washington Post article detailing Trump’s use of language, Bastien Inzaurralde says that the 45th president rarely uses prepared speeches to address large audiences and has become famous for informal communication style. For example, the president frequently answers questions with only two words. Two common short replies are, “Not good” and “Great people.” This kind of informal register is surprising given the president’s position and the formal, public context of most of his remarks. It also has an impact on the millions of listeners and watchers that are tuned in daily.

Is Learning Formal Style Not Important?

While formal written and spoken registers may be in decline, it remains a really important practical skill that everyone uses at some point in their life. Resumes, letters (or emails) to civic, political or workplace leaders, all require a formal style of writing. Further, the academic and specialized vocabulary that is needed to write or speak in a formal setting is really helpful for any student who will be required to do more academic writing in the future.

Lavalin Letters to the Prime Minister

Through out the last few months, our class has been paying close attention to the SNC Lavalin affair as it has unfolded in our nation’s capital. One of the many reasons that my students find this issue engaging is because one the main players, former Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould is a local Member of Parliment in the Vancouver-Granville riding.

In an effort to help my students develop some formal writing skills, develop their own voice and participate in the democratic process, I asked them to write Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter giving him their advice regarding this situation. I also challenged them to consider sending the letter to the Prime Minister to make the task more authentic. Below, is an example of one of a letter written by one student.

Dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Our class have been learning about the SNC-Lavalin affair and I am writing to you regarding this case. We learned about SNC-Lavalin’s “checkered” history. We also discussed how you are worried about jobs being lost and we know how hard you are working to keep SNC-Lavalin a running company so Canadian’s won’t lose their jobs.  But I think Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould was doing her job right which is keeping Canada fair.

 I admire how you stood up for Canadian’s jobs and I think you took a big risk and I respect that. But I think it was unnecessary how you moved Ms. Wilson-Raybould down from her position as a Justice Minister and Attorney General. Mr. Prime Minister, according to the “What in the World? – The SNC-Lavalin Affair” article issue 7, when you took office in 2015, you appointed Ms. Wilson Ray-Raybould yourself.  Wilson-Raybould clearly stated that the SNC-Lavalin company was going to court and Attorney Generals are supposed to make decisions independent of politics. She was following what you have assigned her to do.

 I value your leadership but in my opinion, I think Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould did nothing wrong to be stepped down. I think her decisions and her strong opinion makes her a fair Justice Minister. I would want to see her back in her office and let her continue to do what she thinks is best for our country as a Justice Minister.

Sincerely and most respectfully,

7M Student

Another student was able to avoid using the first person pronouns and includes a few more formal vocabulary words. A sample of his letter is below.

Dear Mr. Trudeau,

On April 27, 2019, Jody Wilson-Raybould was expelled from the position of Justice Minister. She claimed that the government had pressured and harassed her with messages, emails, and calls in an attempt to get her to intervene in SNC Lavalin’s criminal case. She did not give in to the pressure, which is a just response, but you silenced her by transferring her to Veteran Affairs. SNC Lavalin did some illegal things, like bribing other countries with millions of dollars, then, instead of admitting to the crime, they tried to cover it up. Then you tried to help them avoid the crime.

If you had just admitted what they did wrong and what you did wrong, the punishments would have been dealt, and then everyone would be forgiven. Work with what you have now by apologizing to the people you hurt, like Andrew Wernick, Jane Philpotts or Jody Wilson-Raybould.

You fired Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she came forth with the messages and a call with Michael Wernick coercing her to comply. I do understand that you were looking out for all the people working at SNC Lavalin, but you tried to cover what you did, and then removed a very important person. That is very wrong. At a time like this, I suggest you apologize.


7M Student

I have really enjoyed reading these Prime Minister letters and would recommend it to other teachers as writing idea. The only missing part in this project, at this point, is a reply. I hope the students who did send their letter to the Prime Minister’s office will receive a reply from the in time to share it with the class before we break for summer.

If you have ideas or suggestions for teaching formal writing style to your students, I would be interested in hearing from you in the comments below.

Header photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

No Time to Reflect

If you asked most teachers to give you a list of their top learner qualities, I would bet that reflective would be somewhere at the top of most of the lists.  Teachers know that reflective students can think about their experiences, identify mistakes or improvements, and make adjustments to previous ideas.

Reflection is Demanding Work

However, teachers also know how difficult reflection is.  Many students who come into my class don’t understand how valuable reflection is for learning.  Some of my brightest students view reflection questions as a waste of time.  They are looking for tasks that show academic prowess and don’t think reflection does that. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Reflection is a demanding, metacognitive task that takes time and demands sustained focus.  By metacognitive, I simply mean that it requires students to think about their thinking or learning process, make observations and come to conclusions.

The Difficulty with Stopping

Further, no meaningful, detailed reflection happens in a short amount of time. Of all the things that can be rushed at school, reflection is not one of them. It takes time for students to collect their thoughts or mentally reconstruct an experience that just happened. But stopping is a struggle in fast-paced school environments that are dynamic and future-orientated. Additionally, for teachers, there is usually a gazillion things on their ‘To Do’ list and not enough time to do them.  On top of daily tasks, there are also the government curriculum standards and content to get through.  With a constant stream of “To Teach” and “To Dos” rolling in from our phones and email inboxes, stopping our classes to allow students to reflect on their learning is incredibly challenging.  But isn’t this why it is so important? As our society and schools become more inundated with information, shouldn’t we be more intentional about having our students stop and reflect on their learning?

Developing a Rhythm of Reflection

Over the last few years, I have become more intentional about making reflection an integral part of the learning in my classroom. As I read through my report card reflections from last term, I was really proud of the progress my students have made in their ability to reflect. Here is a sample of what one of my student’s wrote in response the three questions below.

  1. What is one area where you have experienced growth as a learner this term? Provide specific evidence.
  2. What are you most proud of as a learner this term?
  3. Going forward, what is a way you would like to grow as a learner?

One area I experienced growth as a learner is taking more ownership of my learning. At the start of the term, I always did the least work possible. I always asked the teacher what the minimum requirement so that I didn’t have to do a lot of work and carry on with other things. Throughout the second term, however, I realized that if I wanted to learn, I had to be more of a risk taker and try my hardest on everything I do. Now, whenever a project is assigned, I always think “How can this piece of work be even better” instead of thinking “I’m done” so that I can produce my best work possible.

Something I’m really proud of as a learner this term is my Cool Pool project. I’m really proud of this project because my partner and I work very hard on it. Another reason I’m proud of this is because my partner and I both had an important role in making the pools. I cut all the cardboard pieces out and Rebecca glued all the cardboard pieces together with a hot glue gun. Together, we built a pool that turned out better than I expected and I learned to give other people a chance to express what they think about the project instead of just listening to my own opinions.

Going forward, I would like to grow further in taking ownership of my own learning. I can do this by thinking about how I can improve in something instead of doing the minimum requirement. I think that if I grow in this as a learner, I can produce better work at school and feel like I want to learn. I can do this by putting my mindset in the right place and thinking “How can my work be even better” instead of thinking “I’m done” and moving on with other things when I hardly tried at all.

7M Student

When I think back on my own growth in teaching reflection, one thing has made a significant difference is embedding regular times of reflection. At first, I started making informal times of reflection a more intentional part of the self-evaluation process. Then, I began to include specific refection prompts at the end of each unit.

Fast forwarding a bit, my school decided to start including student refections and self-evaluation in our report cards. This added huge value to reflection and gave more voice to students in the evaluation process. From these Term-End reflections and my own, the students and I started developing goals for the next term. Last term, I decided to include those term goals in a Goal Tracker document to help students intentionally self-evaluate and reflect on their goals three times during the term.

In the Goal Tracker document I used last term, students set two goals for the term and developed a plan to meet those goals. One goal was relational and the other was academic. The other two goals in the docuement were set by me (the teacher) and their parent at the student-led conference. In the second term, I use the Core Competencies in the B.C. Education Plan to help structure these goals. For example, if we were setting the relational goal, I would use the “I can” statements in the Social Responsibility Competencies Profiles to help the students find a goal to work on for the next term. Before the Student Led Conference, I also scheduled a short one-on-one meeting with each student to review their goals and make sure it represents an authentic challenge.

After the goals were set, I had the students post this Goal Tracker on their digital portfolio three times. Once for their initial self-assessment, again at the mid-point of the term with a reflection about their progress, and a third time at the end of the term with their term-end reflection.

As I reflected on my use of the Goal Tracker, I realized that it was a very simple and effective way of keeping the goals in front of my students and I. It also helped our class develop a regular rhythm of reflection.

Reflection Tips

  • Over-reflection is as equally as ineffective as under-reflection. Reflecting too often leads to reflection fatigue and extracts significance from the process.
  • Negative and positive exemplars are a great way to communicate to students what quality reflection looks like.
  • Reflection needs to be timely. Have your students just completed a major project or experienced a presentation that has impacted them. Take a few minutes for them to reflect.
  • Collect your reflection for the term in one place. I use Seesaw to collect reflections so that parents can read them and we can both refer back to them to track growth over time
  • Quality reflection requires high quality prompts and reflection questions. I really like some of the reflection questions on the core competencies in this resource from the BC Education Plan.

If you have some strategies to help students reflect on their learning, please add or link them in the comments below

Restoring What is Broken

When I think about the relationships I have with my family, friends, and co-workers I feel very blessed. There are so many people in my life that are passionate, happy, thoughtful and generally just fun to hang out with. Yet, even within this amazing group of people, there are times when a conflict emerges. The conflict isn’t always negative. In fact, often healthy conflict that is very productive. But when conflict has caused deep harm or hurt, there is a question about the next steps that need to be taken. These next steps can be punitive or restorative and they set the culture of the communities we live in.

Healthy Conflict

Negative conflict is so prevalent that it’s easy to forget the positive conflict exists. Healthy conflict is sometimes necessary for good communication to occur. In an article published by Edutopia, Elena Aguilar gives five indicators that a school-based team is engaging in healthy conflict.

  • They are wrestling to understand ideas.
  • They are asking questions to probe for deeper understanding.
  • They change their minds.
  • They are demonstrating curiosity
  • They are holding student needs at the center of our work.

Discussions like these ones can lead to a positive student impact and more transparent leadership. A critical voice in the discussion can help move the conversation in the right direction. In fact, healthy conflict can is often an important part of a more informed decision-making process.

Harmful Conflict

Sadly, negative conflict is all around us. I have often been a guilty participant in conflicts that are harmful. Even this last week, I had a conflict with my wife that I wished I could have taken back. I was being overly sensitive to her criticism and I responded with a harsh tone and a cutting words. As my two sons watched from the dinner table, I envisioned them talking to their mom in the same disrespectful tone that I had just addressed her and realized that I would have to apologize to them and to her to make things right again.

Large groups or organizations also develop cultures and policies about negative conflict that can be helpful or harmful to students. Whether they are harmful or helpful may be determined by the way they view the conflict.

Two Different Systems of Handling Conflict

Recently, I listened to the powerful story that Katy Hutchison told at a TEDx talk in West Vancouver, Canada where she contrasts two different models of the criminal process. The first, was a punitive model and the second, a restorative model. She examines each of these two systems to help others construct better ways of approaching conflict in schools.

The Punitive Model

Hutchison says that the punitive system of criminal process, is characterized by three major questions:

  • What law was broken?
  • Who broke that law?
  • What is the punishment going to be?

She says that this model pays little attention to the needs of the victim or the community. The emphasis in this system is focused on a just punishment for the offender. The question of rehabilitation or restoration of the criminal to the community or the victim to the criminal is a secondary consideration.

The Restorative Model

Contrastingly, the restorative model works on the assumption that when harm happens to the community, it is a violation of a relationship and the questions change significantly. The restorative model wants to know:

  • What happened?
  • Who has been affected?
  • What are we going to do to make things right?

Hutchison uses these two models to talk about how schools approach conflict on a very practical level. If the conflict is primarily viewed as a violation of relationship, teachers and administrators take a “time-in” to discover the story behind the actions. They also focus their response on how the offender will make things right in their community.

As a teacher, I want to become better at using restorative practices to respond to the conflicts that happen in my classroom, school and family. Rather than encouraging further isolation and distance with quick punishments, I want to use time-ins with students to figure out what is going on in their lives.

I would encourage you to listen to Hutchinson’s full TEDx talk (below) and hear her personal journey to restore a relationship with the person who murdered her husband. It is a powerful story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Not-So-Simple Collaboration

The concept of collaboration seems simple but it’s not. Anyone who has actually attempted to collaborate with other teachers or team members in their community knows that great collaboration is both difficult and messy. The potential for all sorts of difficulties abound. Over-communication, under-communication, miscommunication, micro-managing, inefficient task completion, lop-sided workloads and unhealthy relationships are just a few examples of how things can go wrong.

However, being apart of a great team can be a really rewarding experience. There are things that a team can accomplish that an individual could never achieve on their own. A good team can motivate and support you in difficult moments, help you see blind-spots in your teaching practice and teach you new skills. Teaching teams also provide the potential to develop meaningful relationships that will last far beyond the present job or task.

As I write this blog post, I think of a number of teachers dwell in classrooms on my wing of our Middle School that have encouraged me to write this year. I would have never had the motivation to start blogging more regularly during this school year without their input and encouragement. I’ve become a better writer and had some great conversations this year due to their engagement with my writing. This blog is really an expression of collaboration and inspirations with the colleagues at my school.

Collaboration is equally as difficult and beneficial for students. For example, there are so many learning benefits for students when they provide each other with formative feedback. There are so many things that students can say to each other that they would never accept from a teacher. For example, they might admit and that they don’t understand a certain concept to a peer but feel defensive about admitting this to a teacher. Having good collaborative teams in the classroom multiplies the amount of formative feedback in your classroom exponentially. Sometimes students come into my classroom with the expectation that learning happens in a direct exchange between the teacher the student. I attempt to change the culture of learning in my classroom so that students recognize that much of the learning in our classroom also happens through interactions with classmates.

Two Pitfalls of Collaboration

Over-dependency on Others

In general, I think there are two major ways that collaboration can fail. I imagine these as two ditches that we can fall into while trying to move forward on the road of collaboration. The first is over-dependency on others. Over-dependency is a mind-shift that can happen the instant that a teacher mentions the words, “group project.” Immediately, someone in the class is devising a way to escape the essential struggle that is a part of every learning experience. An over-dependant collaborator might think, “The group can complete this task without me” or, “I can’t add anything to this conversation or project.” Under-valuing your own contribution or just refusing to put in the effort that is needed can get in the way of meaningful collaboration.

In my experience as a teacher, over-dependency on other teachers leads to a lack of innovation and creativity. Often there is a lead teacher that is made the front-runner for the group and the other teachers fall in behind simply mimicking his/her pedagogical moves. Is not that copying doesn’t help us learn sometimes, it does. However, if this kind of pedagogical mimicry becomes a pattern, it can inhibit the teachers impact on the unique learners in his/her classroom. Further, it can also prevent teachers from engaging in critical and creative thinking about their own practice.

Retreating to Silence and Safety

If over-dependency is ditch on one side of the road to effective collaboration, safety is the ditch on the other side of the road. By safety, I’m thinking about avoiding the necessary relational messiness of collaboration. True collaboration involves some sticky situations–there is no way around them. It depends on strong relationships with others, listening to each others story and members being vulnerable with each other. When we open ourselves up to offer ideas, give our opinions and perspectives, there will be opposition, disagreement and sometimes it will seem like discussions or project isn’t going anywhere. When confronted with those who aren’t doing their fair share of the work or those who act as if they know everything, it can be tempting to close your classroom door push forward alone. However, withdrawing into the safety of isolation doesn’t help anyone over the long term. Those who are not willing to take the relational and creative risks don’t learn anything new from their colleagues.

Suggestions for Staying on the Road

Group Norms Help Establish Expectations

One of the most helpful concepts from the Professional Learning Community model that I found helpful is the idea of establishing norms for collaborative groups. This post from Jigsaw Learning contains a Google Drive folder of many helpful samples of group norms. The idea behind the norms is not primarily to establish a code of rules. Instead, they help establish a common expectation for all the members in the group to prevent hidden expectations from separating group members. For example, consider a norm about disagreement or conflict that says, “We always communicate those who we have disagreements (or conflict) with before we communicate about them with others.” If I find myself in a situation where Teacher A is sharing about a conflict or exchange where they were hurt by Teacher B, it becomes a normal expectation for me to ask Teacher A, “Did you tell Teacher B that he/she offended you with his comment?” These common expectations help communication and enable us to build stronger relationships.

Group Norms Create a Sense of Ownership

It is also helpful to teach students to set norms for their group work because it gives them a sense of ownership. Writing down norms as a group gives a helpful reference point for everyone in the group and helps encourage ownership and self-regulation of behaviour in the group. Consider one of the most difficult group norms in my class, “We will contribute evenly to the workload of this team.” Having a group of students write this down and agree on it is often more powerful, at least in Middle School, than the teacher telling these expectations to the class. Sometimes Middle Schoolers are more concerned about pleasing their peers than the teacher. It also provides a student-centred basis of accountability. If students have discussed these norms, then they can hold each other accountable.

Further, if my students are feeling disengaged with what I’m teaching them, it is sometimes because I haven’t invited them co-construct the assignment or project that I’m asking them to complete. Empowering others by including them in the decision-making process often leads to feelings of ownership and engagement. The same is true of collaboration. Giving the student guidance and exemplars is important, but having them set the norms and giving them a chance to work through disagreements with those norms in place is equally important.

Team Innovations Encourage Creativity

Writing an article for Forbes, Stephanie Cartin suggests that team collaboration can be improved by hosting “Team Innovations” where each member of the team is encouraged to present an original/new idea for the team. This fun activity can help others come together as a group and give members of the team the chance to share their ideas. It also gives other team members a sense of what kinds of things are going on in other classrooms around them.

Implement Effective Task Management

Another key to successful team collaboration is implementing an effective system that manages the tasks and projects that your team is to accomplish. This is particularly helpful when a team of teachers is organizing a school-wide or grade-wide event with a number of different teachers and organizational tasks. Optimally, a task management system would include a place to store data such as a calendar, documents, and chat functionality. I’ve just discovered a task management, cloud-based software called Smartsheets. I love its compatibility with Google but am not sure if I want to pay for the subscriptions to use it regularly at this point. There are many task management tools like this that allow everyone to work within the same framework.

Spencers Seven Keys to Collaboration

Recently, I used John Spencer’s video Seven Keys to Collaboration video to remind my students about some helpful principles of collaboration. I recommend it as a great resource for teachers or students to create some good discussion about collaboration. Spencer’s Seven Keys are ownership, dependability, trust, structure, shared vision or directions, fun and candour.

If you have some helpful resources that you use with your students or teaching team, I would really appreciate it if you linked a website or named a book in the comments below.

The Power of Publishing

Over the past few years, our middle school has emphasized Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a specific, inquiry-based model for teaching that has several distinct elements. One of the most powerful of Buck Institute’s Seven Essential PBL Elements is the final, “Public Product.” This pivotal, last stage of the project is where students share their work with the public by explaining, displaying or presenting it to audiences beyond the classroom.

Motivation to Learn

Sharing your work with a large audience can be scary for anyone but it’s also extremely motivating. Preparing a presentation or piece of writing for others creates a healthy pressure to produce your best work. This kind of pressure is distinctly different other classroom scenarios where the teacher may attempt to motivate the class by threatening to deduct marks or promising prizes for the best work. Under these conditions, the motivation of the students tends to centre on the teacher instead of their own learning. However, when students know that they will share their work with an audience beyond the classroom, they are more intrinsically motivated to make sure their best work is on display.

Supplying an authentic audience works to motivate students in a way that most of us are familiar with. Let’s say your boss asks you to make a big presentation at work. The task itself calls on you to put forward your best communication skills. You pour dozens of hours into your final product because you want to leave an impression on your audience. The classroom is no different. Who wants to write a story or make a book review just so their teacher can read it? What student wants to create a piece of writing that will be hidden in a digital folder or stashed in a pile of papers? The answer, of course, is that no one does. To make creative work meaningful, it needs to be shared with an authentic audience.

Storybird Student Publishing

Gathering an audience can be a tricky business but having the right tools is important. During the past few weeks, I learned about a publishing tool that gives students the ability to reach a larger audience with their writing. It’s a website called Storybird. Unlike many of the publishing platforms out there, Storybird is specifically focused on students.

How it Works

The website functions in a similar way to other educational websites. Teachers can create a class within the site and invite students to join. Before joining the class, the students need to create an account. If your school uses G Suit, it is really handy to have them create an account using their Google credentials. Once they have created an account and joined the teacher’s class, they can publish an Ebook or PDFs with beautiful illustrations for free. At first glance, it looks like students have to pay about $3.00 to publish these files, but once the students begin composing their story, they begin accumulating crowns that can be used to purchase a PDF or Epub file of their illustrated work. Students can also gather enough crowns to publish their work by having their parent sign up to receive communication from the website.

Publishing Formats

The Storybird website also has three different published products: Longform Books, Picture Books and Poetry. Due to the length of the stories that my class had already authored, I decided to have them create Longform Books. In the longform format, students can publish a written piece as one, long chapter or they can divide it into separate chapters. Although the Longform Books didn’t have as many illustrations as the Picture Books, there was an option to embed photos within the chapters. At the end of the composing and editing process, my students publish their stories as PDF file so that we could share them on the digital portfolio website we use called, Seesaw. Below, I’ve uploaded a few PDF versions of my student’s stories so that you can see what the final product looks like.

Although I was primarily interested in publishing a PDF file, because the affordability was appealing, there is also an option to order reasonably priced, printed copies on the website.

Storybird Publishing Considerations

  • It looks like the site is designed for students to pick a theme of pictures and write a story that conforms to those pictures rather than writing first and then finding pictures later. For example, the pictures are organized in themed packages and you cannot upload external pictures to add to your story. You also cannot pick illustrations from other packages. This is a limitation of the website that really matters–especially if you are creating Picture Books.
  • At the time of this post, there isn’t any clear way for writers to indent their body paragraphs. The first line of the first paragraph of each chapter can be indented, but I couldn’t find a way to indent the paragraphs that followed.
  • When composing Longform Books, students are required to publish their chapter before they create the next chapter. This was a bit confusing for my students because it looked like they were making multiple copies of their books. In the end, we discovered that publishing each chapter privately was just how the site worked to compile the chapters.
  • During the publishing process, it is a good idea to pre-buy download credits just in case someone has to publish their book twice–which happened to us a number of times. Buying the credits in bulk saves a lot of money. You pay $.20/download instead of $2.99!
  • I initially thought that my class would be able to share their stories with the other readers on the Storybird website, but as it turns out, student sharing is more limited than private accounts.
  • There are also writing lessons that you can assign your class on Storybird and I’m looking forward to trying one of the lessons with my class.

The Result

I wish I could bottle up the buzz in the air as my students composed their stories and send you a sample. The class was so proud to present their published products to each other and to their family and friends.

I’m still looking for ways to spread our stories to a larger audience through iBooks. If you have done something like this in the past, I would love to connect with you or read about your experience.

Copy the Cult

Copying was known as cheating in the schools I attended growing up but experience has taught me that copying is often a very important part of the learning process. In my visual arts class, I often have students copy a photo portrait of their own face in pencil. Copying allows them to discover knowledge about proportions, shading, different textures and even drawing techniques. Students are not the only ones who can learn from copying–teachers can too. In fact, using techniques or units from other teachers can actually be an effective form of professional development.

As a teacher who enjoys inquiry-driven modes teaching, I’m not a big supporter of ready-made types of curriculum. Commercial curriculum makers often have a particular audience or culture in mind when they create their product. As a result, these units or textbooks rarely appeal to my class. That is not to say they don’t benefit my teaching. I often rely on bits and pieces from textbooks and resource guides. I also draw on local authors like Adrienne Gear for her expertise. Her reading and writing resources are easily adapted to different classes. However, a steady diet of “canned curriculum” is not engaging to my students.

Each of the lessons also came with presentation slides and pages of clearly organized notes for the students. For example, the lesson on writing dialogue outlined some very simple rules that were clearly diagrammed so that the students could quickly refer back to them as they were writing their stories. These notes were (and will continue to be) an excellent resource for my students as they improve as writers.

One of my favourite mini-lessons in the unit was on pacing. Gonzalez explained how good stories have time jumps. They skip to the most interesting parts of the story to keep the momentum going. She also used a box diagram (below) to show how each story event is shrunk or blown up based on its importance. Some of the most dramatic events are expanded and developed in great detail while less important parts are squeezed into smaller summaries.

I can’t say enough good things about this unit. I only wished I had found it earlier in my teaching career. If you are interested in checking it out for your own class, it can be found here. There are several other units listed on her Teachers Pay Teachers account that I would like to investigate in the future. As I was writing this post, I bumped into her persuasive writing unit. It looks excellent too!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Jennifer Gonzalez’s website, the Cult of Pedagogy and her Youtube channel, I highly recommend them both as great resources.