Saturday, November 26, 2016

Safe Enough to Learn

WARNING: This post contains confessions of a not perfect teacher who is always learning, growing, and improving her skills.

My first year teaching I was so overwhelmed with everything that creating a safe space for English Language Learners was not my number one priority. Between planning lessons from scratch (who needs curriculum?), to grading every single assignment that got turned in (that was stupid), and trying to manage a classroom full of 13 year olds (it's like the Animal Planet some days), the idea of a "safe" classroom space was so far from my mind. There is a specific moment that year when I realized how important intellectual safety is for ALL students. We did some contextual Pythagorean Theorem word problems in small groups and each group was supposed to present their work to the class, followed by a classroom discussion comparing similarities and differences between contexts. Simple enough, right?

I provided no structure for how the groups should present their work. No rubric for assessing their thinking. No example to follow. No sentence starters. No guiding questions. Nothing. I literally want to write myself a minor discipline report for bad teaching when I think back on this. But in the spirit of being vulnerable, I will continue to set the scene.

(Not) shockingly enough, the native English speakers did great. The language came easy to them, and they were able to quickly think on the spot if they got stuck in their explanation. The groups with English Language Learners did pretty horrible, if we are being honest. Many weren't sure where to start. You could see them struggling to put together this vocabulary puzzle in their brain as they tried to make sentences out of these words they had just barely learned. I was embarrassed for them. The other students in the class were great. No one snickered. No one made fun of them. Some even jumped in and tried to help. But everyone knew, even more than before, that these students were different. That they didn't speak English as well as the other students. And the worst part is... I set them up for that. I created an environment where they were destined to fail. How awful is that? Additionally, do you think they were super pumped to volunteer to speak again? Heck to the no. They were terrified. Their confidence was shattered.

Fast forward a few months in that first year to when I see an activity called Paper Slides on the internet some where. I tried to track down the original source, but couldn't seem to find an origin. I decided that for our 8th grade solving equations unit I would have small groups make Paper Slides about the types of solutions in solving variables on both sides (one solution, no solution, and infinite solutions) and then we would play them as a review before the unit test. Before I tell you about the magic that happened, take a look at some of my student work:

If you want to watch all of the Paper Slides, as well as Paper Slides for different contents, you can visit the South Jr. High YouTube channel: Click Here

You guys. It was incredible. Some things that I loved:

1. There were guidelines for what to include. Turns out they aren't kidding about the need for rubrics.
2. Some students, especially ELLs, chose to write out a script before they recorded their video. This is something I would highly recommend for all students from now on.
3. Some students, especially ELLs, recorded their video 500 times until they felt absolutely confident in their speaking. Students recorded their videos on their cell phones or my 7 class iPods.
4. When we played the videos, students were SO proud. Honestly, beaming. They knew exactly what the video was going to be like, exactly what they were going to say, and exactly how it was going to sound.

This is how you build confidence in students. You set them up to succeed. You create an environment where they can have moments that build them up, that show them what they are capable of, and inspire them to continue trying. What kind of environment are you creating for students?

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