This much I know about EAL teaching

In my view, biology is a subject that is largely about language instruction. Of course, this doesn’t mean, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Yes, of course, there are facts and concepts that need to be learned and understood but, at its heart, it is a subject concerned with language acquisition.

And just like French, it is full of irregular verbs.

Personally, I remember the challenge of all the new vocabulary of the subject at A level, as being something that attracted me to it; I had the impression that by learning all these new words I would be entering another higher plane of existence.

So just imagine what this vocabulary is like for a new student, stepping into this level of biology and operating in their second or third language and perhaps with a very limited exposure to schooling in English. I am always surprised by the number of other adults, parents and administrators, who don’t seem to see this.

Parents, particularly, seem surprised when I bring up the issues of academic language acquisition

I have had some amount of experience teaching students who have started the subject with no English or very little English and this post will outline what I understand about teaching them today I fully recognise that  I am no expert.

James Cummins: BICS & CALP

My first foray into the realm of EAL teaching brought the work of James Cummins to my attention. To summarise, Cummins’ work postulates differences between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP).

Essentially, the former can be developed over a relatively short period of time (1-3 years) and is the language of peer culture. Children who have developed BICS may well sound fluent and indeed can communicate on a level using common everyday terms and phrases with their family and peers. The latter can take much longer, 5-7 years, and once developed allows the individual to think, manipulate and utilise complex academic concepts mentally. They can think with the language and they can think in very abstract terms.

It seems to me that the work of Cummins suggests that schools should resist simply placing older EAL students into secondary subject-specific classes and hoping that they will catch up. This may work with students going into grade 6 and 7 classrooms but could actually retard students progress in grades 9 and up.

Obviously, in the international context, students may well keep joining older classes (I once had a student who joined grade 10 directly from school in Israel. She has never been taught in English and yet was expected to just catch up in grade 10 biology) and so we can’t reasonably say don’t come to school. But the approach of some managers seems to be that students will just pick up the language.

These students need intensive English instruction first (if that is the language of instruction of their academic subjects) using methods that have been shown to have the largest effect size. Strategies in this category have the best hope of bringing the students learning forward faster and thus the best hope of bringing the time for students to acquire CALP down.

Isabel Beck: Tiered Model of Vocabulary Aquisition

More recently I have come across the work of Isabel Beck whose model of vocabulary acquisition places words into three categories:

 

  • Tier 1: These are the common, everyday words that most children enter school knowing already. Since we don’t need to teach these, this is a tier without tears!

  • Tier 2: This tier consists of words that are used across the content areas and are important for students to know and understand. Included here are process words like analyze and evaluate that students will run into on many standardized tests and that are also used at the university level, in many careers, and in everyday life. We really want to get these words into students’ long-term memory.

  • Tier 3: This tier consists of content-specific vocabulary—the words that are often defined in textbooks or glossaries. These words are important for imparting ideas during lessons and helping to build students’ background knowledge.

 

In biology instruction, it is the tier 3 words that all students are going to struggle with initially, but EAL students may also be lacking a good number of tier 2 words, which will make their comprehension the tier 3 words that much limited as these words often provide the context for the tier 3 words.

For example this year I can think of the words “coolant” and “yield” that came up as not being known by my grade 11 students. Many of these are students raised in English speaking families but have been attending Swiss public schools up until the start of grade 10 or 11. These aren’t words that come up in everyday conversation but are used across academic domains.

I am relatively new to the idea of Tiered vocabulary but it does seem, on first impressions, a useful way to think about words that EAL students may or may not have and to plan to help students bridge that gap.

Perhaps, one wider school aim could be to map out the tier 2 words that are common across subjects. Once a working list is compiled then students can be assessed for their knowledge of these words and interventions put in place.

Strategies

  • Identify and pre-teach complex vocab (tier 3 words) before starting the unit (I use Quizlet “learn” for this)
  • Get to know your suffixes and prefixes so that you can explicitly model your understanding of the terminology to students.
  • Keep new words on the board, clearly visible to students to use in their thinking, speaking and writing.
  • Encourage more reading and writing in your classroom. Encourage students to constantly use the new terms that they are being exposed to.
  • Use a reading age analysis to examine the tests and exams that students in your class are likely to sit – what is the level? What is the English reading level of your EAL students?
  • At the start of the course give students lots of opportunity for guided reading, ask students to identify words that they don’t know and keep a running list. Provide explanations for these words.
  • In line with the above, continue to identify Tier 2 word gaps in your student’s knowledge through reading exercises.
  • Perhaps try to list out common tier 2 words in your subject (this would take time) and compare with other departments. Check students understanding for these.

Biology vocabulary

UPDATE: I had a bit of response to this on twitter and two colleagues have shared lists that already exist for science or biology in general. What I would like to do is:

  1. Go through these lists and find out which are more frequent on the DP biology course
  2. Create a quizlet based on those terms for students to use.

On the IB Biology course, there is approx 450 Tier 3 words at SL and 650 Tier 3 words at HL. You can see my list here.

On this page, I want to collate all the prefixes and suffixes relevant to teaching biology at secondary level into one resource. I have thrown this together at nearly 10pm on a sunday night so please add suggestions in the comments

Prefixes

mono-
poly-
a-
bi-
di-
tri-
quat-
pent-
hex-
Photo-
Hydro-
Geo-
Cyto-
Glyc-
Gen-
Hyper –
Hypo –
Iso –
endo-
exo-
meta-
cata-
ana-
angio-
chloro-
telo-
gastro-
Renal-
Cardio-
Hepato-

Suffixes

-ose
ase
mer
-lysis
cyte
-gen

Thirteen reflections at the end of my first guidance cycle

This week, on Wednesday, the IB results were published and this marks the beginning of the end of my first cycle of working with students as a university adviser/guidance counselor. Here I aim to summarise the key points that I have learned about this work this year.

I blogged about this work last summer, aiming to reflect on my first 15 months in post.

As a summary I started in this work in April 2015. With very little real experience (although I guess I thought I had plenty at the time) and was tasked with founding the university and careers counseling program in a school that was still being set up.

Now our first graduates have got their first set of results and this is the culmination of the last four years of work, since we first opened our doors. When I refer to counseling, I am referring to academic/university guidance not social or emotional counseling. Here is what I have learned:

1. There is an inherent tension between teaching and counseling (part 1: emotional) and I am not convinced that it is good to have one member of staff doing both. As a DP Biology teacher, I am responsible for getting the best out of my students, whether they like it or not. Often that means holding kids to account for the quality of their work and work ethic. Obviously counselors do this too with their deadlines etc but the relationship with students is different. This can be a problem when students may then be annoyed at you (as teacher) for bringing them back at lunch, for awarding poor grades(!) or giving some other sanctions as a teacher, that then makes them perceive you negatively. At worst this can damage your relationship with a student and prevent a student from wanting to come and see you as a counselor, making it all but impossible in some cases to counsel them effectively. This may make them want to go elsewhere for advice. I still haven’t found a solution for this problem.

2. There is an inherent tension between teaching and counseling (part 2: practical). This year I have been teaching 17 hours a week (G9-12 Biology & G11-12 TOK). To say the least my working weeks this academic year have been rather full. This has made it very difficult to make my non-teaching periods match up with the student’s private study periods. My Head’s argument (whose aim for our school is to be the best day school in our country) is that the school cannot afford a full-time guidance counselor. But unfortunately I am only able to work with students and families when I am not teaching and if these times don’t line up with when a student is not in class then it can make for very poor provision. Of course I offer times outside of class, and after school, but with all the other non-academic demands on students this isn’t always a solution. I am hoping that timetabling will take into consideration my request to have two days of non-teaching time to give me the dedicated space to meet with students and their families. Another side of this coin is that when no one else in your team has experience of your job and then at best can only imagine what your job is like (see Dunning-Kruger effect), it can make for difficult relationships with colleagues. I am convinced that my departing VP views me as a cover-dodger because I always have to respectfully decline their last-minute requests that I cover a lesson normally because I was in a pre-arranged meeting with students. My teaching colleagues often wonder my I have so little teaching.

3. Clear boundaries and communication with students and their families matter. In my first set of feedback for the schools University Guidance program (clue is in the name) one student commented that they gave me 3/5 because, despite helping them identify a course they would love and match their academic interests, in the country they were interested in studying, (the student told me that they were not interested in applying elsewhere), I wasn’t able to give “global apprenticeship advice”. Basically I wasn’t able to spew out results to the families various and diverse requests like google can. All that, despite my flexibility in responding to the mother’s requests for info to the best of my abilities for over two years. Clearly this family thought that “University guidance” meant “post-18 life advice”. I now send a letter to all rising grade 11 families making it clear that I “only” provide advice on university applications to North America, UK, NL and CH.

4. Being a team player is really important and doesn’t come naturally to some teachers. Lots of teachers think that they know how to counsel students. I am guilty of this one. In past lives I have thought that I was well placed to advise students where to apply to the chagrin of my counseling colleagues. I do understand that teachers are on the whole giving of their time and advice. It is what they do; they want to be helpful and have a healthy interest in young people and their outcome. Unfortunately, from the counselors perspective it isn’t helpful, especially when advice is given without even at the minimum informing the counselor of the advice that has been given to a student. I am not saying teachers shouldn’t give their students advice but this advice needs to coordinated (I may expand on this theme in a future blog post). To combat this, I need to get more time in front of staff, explaining the need for good solid guidance in our context and the benefit for the students. This needs to happen alongside going through policies with staff.

5. Working with colleagues from a whole school perspective can be really, really challenging, especially when you are not empowered with any actual authority. Taking time out the day to have conversations is really quite important in changing mindsets.

6. With the above in mind, it is also necessary to have time with the whole staff to be able to lay out your vision for counseling at the school to get buy in from your team.

7. Predicted grades seem to some people (parents particularly) to be a form of black magic. In addition there are cultural differences in what predicted grades are, notably between North Americans and Europeans. This year we changed our policy on this and I will blog about this elsewhere.

8. It is important that transcripts make it clear what the numbers mean. Timing of mock exams and their results should be clearly marked up.

9. Counseling is a formative process and encourages meta-cognition in students, which brings school wide benefits as students set goals and become motivated. Programs need individual and group time during the school week.

10. Don’t feel you need to give time to people trying to sell you something.

11. Routines are just as important in counseling as they are in teaching and parenting.

12. Having a clearly defined structure and plan to your guidance program (within whatever constrains you may have to work with). In the first year of this cycle I was teaching 12 hours a week out of a maximum of 24 teaching periods. I only had 12 grade 11 students and so it was quite easy from that perspective. However, at the time I was still learning the ropes (I still am) and was hugely inexperienced at sitting down with students “counseling” them. I had no idea really of how the cycle progresses from the end of grade 10 to the end of grade 12 and despite not teaching all that much I had no official curriculum time with my students. In addition to that, apart from my time, I was denied any other resources to work with. I was consistently denied funding for any sort of database that would help me generate course/university lists for my students for example. This year I had 17 hours of classroom teaching time, but due to changes my line manager brought into the structure of the school day I suddenly had times in the week where I could get in front of all the students together. In addition I was allowed access to some resources that required money and so my current grade 11 students have benefited from more focused time and tasks to support their own search.This has been picked up in my feedback at the end of the year and I have planned changes for next year to improve this further which I will blog about.

13. If you have no guidance from above don’t be frightened to make your own decisions. My line manager is fairly absentee because they are pulled in so many directions themselves. This has hugely frustrated me this year because I am a rookie and I need to bounce ideas off of someone. I have also been really unsure as to how to proceed at times. However the best thing to do is make a decision and run with it. This summer I decided to make it really clear to families what they can expect and can’t expect from my program, to avoid any further confusion.

 

 

 

What I learned about: EdTech part II (Mobile Tech)

Mobile Tech

Mobiles in the classroom? This can be a testy one and probably not appropriate for all classrooms. I currently work in a Bring Your Own Device School or BYOD campus, where students are allowed to bring any smartphone or tablet to class with them, although in Grade 9 upwards (Year 10 UK style) we insist on a laptop.

BYOD campuses bring their own challenges for the learning community but they certainly can bring benefits to classrooms, so long as the focus remains on the learning and not on the “ooohhh” factor of playing with new toys. The SAMR model (below) is a great starting point for launching your thinking about how to use EdTech in the classroom, although to reach the higher levels of the model does require a significant of investment of time for the teacher to be proficient enough with the technology to design appropriate learning engagements. Schools that aim to get in involved with tech in the classroom should pay head to this training need for teachers.

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As a science teacher some of the areas that I have experimented with in using Mobile tech is to ask students to create “how to videos”. Mostly these would be created on iPhones or iPads using iMovie but there are other devices and software available. For example, carrying out foodtests and learning about the diagnostic tests for starch and simple sugars etc is a normal part of a middle school science program. The learning here underpins learning of deeper concepts further up the school, for example using colourimetery to test for the concentration of sugars. In a traditional classroom, science teachers would teach the theory before a class would carry out the tests in a practical lab to get experience of actually carrying out the tests. By adding in the task of making a “how to video” students would be asked to carry out the task as usual but to use their phones to record the tests and at the end put together a short video that demonstrates each of the tests in action. What I like about this is that it causes students to reinforce the learning by applying the theory in a new context; not only in the practical but in the further explanation of the method via the video. Students are effectively being asked to visually write a method, which they can share with friends, or save for revision time. When these videos are uploaded to Youtube it becomes very easy as a teacher to assess and provide feedback on the learning via the comments section.

I include some videos of this below that show the student work. The results do vary.

Mobiles can also be used for higher order learning and not simply the description of methodology but also the explanation of concepts. I have only tried this once with a grade 11 (Year 12 or L6th).

In these tasks students were asked to demonstrate their understanding of a concept by creating a short video about it. Students record a sequence of steps using molymods or playdoh to illustrate an idea. Their lecture is therefore recorded and their thinking is made audible and visible. Peers and teachers are able to review this thinking to give feedback to the student. Tasks can be individual or in small groups, as were done in the creation of this video explaining hydrolysis and condensation reactions.

The task can be scaled up into whole groups as in this explanation of transcription by my current grade 11 HL students. Here I asked students to study the material prior to class. When they came to class I asked each of them to write a model answer to a question about transcription. I then snowballed the students into a group who were now asked to write a script for an animation of transcription. Finally the students were asked to animate their script using play-doh and to record this with one of the students phone. The result can be viewed here:

One of the things that I like about this approach is that it is multi-sensory. Students are not confined to simply writing and reading, activity that is divorced from relying on all our senses to learn. Students can craft a model with their hands, while using their voices and sense of hearing to articulate their thinking and critique the work of each other.

This type of activity can be taken even further and can across classrooms. It can ultimately provided students with their own revision tool, if the explanation is correct or it can be used for further rounds of critique until it is perfected. Students in the same class or in future classes can critique the work to spot and correct any mistakes in the explanation, all the while students are getting familiar with and practice at using the scientific terminology.

 

 

 

 

What I learned about: EdTech part I (Social Media)

Introduction

I left school in 2001. At the time my school had a computer suite and I believe that as a student I had an email address but I never used it. I got into email in a big way on my year out as my only means of communicating with family and friends while overseas, although I suppose I could have started a blog then. When I started university in 2003 we students were regularly advised to check our emails daily and this and DUO (Durham University Online) became two major technologies used in the delivery of the courses I studied.

I rejoined school as a teacher in 2008 and between then and now one of my internal fascinations and dialogues has been concerned with the sheer change and opportunity that technology has afforded schools; initially I was struck by the difference wrought by Skype and social media, between what I experienced at the very end of my schooling and what secondary students in a boarding school in 2008 were experiencing. Since then I have listened, intently, to the debate that has raged about teachers, schools and students and social media – should they, shouldn’t they?

That was the beginning, but it hasn’t just been social media and its opportunities and problems for the education community that has had my attention during my professional career to date. I now work in what can only be described as a “tech-saturated” school and while there are still things I am unsure of, embracing technology in my classroom meaningfully has allowed me facilitate learning in the last two years in a way that was unimaginable even 10 years ago.

I often wonder if anyone who doesn’t work in schools and left school prior to 2000 can possibly have the faintest idea about what classrooms look like now. I wonder what scenarios my parents, who were in school in the 1950s and 60s, must imagine when they think of me as a teacher. The same goes for my (much) older siblings.

In a series of three posts I want to distill the experiences I have had with a variety of different educational technologies to condense my thinking of different areas of what is a vast topic for schools. This post will look at social media, the next with mobile technology in the classroom and the final will look at screencasting.

I expect that I will use future posts to expand on elements in all of these posts.

Social Media

I have been a member of Facebook since 2006. When I joined I needed to use my university alumni email address as at the time you had to be a member of certain universities to join.  I am no stranger to the idea of social media then, but I have been very reluctant to bring it into the classroom. Doing so certainly presents challenges; exposing your personal profile to students so that they and parents know where to find you has been a perennial concern particularly if, like me, your early days on the platform were littered with tags in photos from days at university you would rather not have a grade 9 student poke around through. There are ways around this, particularly if spending hours tinkering around with your privacy settings is the way you like to spend a Friday night (are privacy settings always that private?) so the problem is not insurmountable. However, personally, I think I have been reluctant to use social media because I felt the clue was in the name. “Social” is not the same as professional.

All that said I have experimented with social media in my classroom. Initially this was with Facebook but I have moved on from this platform now and would not use it in my classroom again as I decided last year to change my name and to keep this platform specifically for non-professional life. Because of this I branched out to Twitter and LinkedIn as my professional-social media outlets and it is Twitter that I am now actively considering ways to utilize it in my teaching. Here are some of my thoughts about social media in the classroom, distiled:

Facebook can be used to create groups which can be used like classes or clubs, groupings of students based on certain attributes. Students can be invited to join these groups and this can be a great way to set assignments, share news stories or other activities with them. Student responses can be assessed and the interaction can be really positive. Also there is no need to add students as friends so if your privacy settings are secure then they won’t be able to sneak a peek at those pictures of you down the pub.

Clearly there are advantages to using Facebook in the classroom. If students are engaged and motivated it becomes very easy for them to read, and re-read shared stories or each others work. Facebook can also be used to set up dialogues, quite a interesting one from the point of view as a science teacher. Part of what I want my students to understand is the context that scientific discoveries were made in. If you can get that then you appreciate the wonder even more. Having students write up a facebook dialogue between two competing scientists (for example a dialogue between Franklin, Crick and Watson to name one) could help bring the topic to life. I haven’t actually done this but I have thought about it.

For me, because I joined Facebook as a student when social media was a new thing, I think its best for me to keep the families and students away from that account and so I move to twitter.

Twitter can be handy too. Creating a hashtag for your class and asking students to tweet short reflections, or to upload photos from class to twitter using that hashtag and/or your twitter handle, can create online repository of learning artefacts that track the learning journey in that classroom. These materials from the group can easily be found again when it comes to revision time just by searching for the handle.

I like twitter. It is open and you know how open it is. The privacy settings are simple and to be honest if you want privacy don’t use it. It is made for public engagement. The first thing that interested me was the thought that my students could tweet a well know or celeb in the science world. Someone like @AdamRutherford or@DrAliceRoberts who they see on the TV and in class as well as hear on the podcasts I play them. People like this could be contacted as expert advice for a school project although there is no guarantee they will reply.

Twitter can also be used to create dialogues between students as themselves or as actors, concepts can be explained in real time and the thinking is then recorded easily and interactively for assessment.

It is really important to divide private and professional social media; it is healthy to keep work in work and home life at home and the same goes online. Therefore I now only use Twitter for personal professional reasons, whereas Facebook I now keep private. It is also very important that the focus remains on learning not on using the technology.