Sunday, October 4, 2009

Taking my own advice

Photo © UNESCO/Nicolas Axelrod

Back in August, I started teaching a new class--a new level, to be specific. It has been a few years since I last taught the just-slightly-higher than level zero/level one, and for the first month back, it left me exhausted as each class session wrapped up.

There has been a lot to remember: Speak slower, repeat often, write larger, use less paper, interact more, be physical, and never, ever ask, "Do you understand?" At the end of each day, I thought, "Slower. Lower. Simpler. Tomorrow."

My students fall into two categories: Those who have had little or no formal education in their first language, and those who understand the skills required to learn but just don't speak English yet. (If the word I most want my students to know is "Try," then my word of encouragement is "Yet.")

For those who have been in school, activities we consider familiar tasks are often daunting and frustrating for those who have little formal education. Here are some things I've had to remember:

  • Copying from the board and transferring that information to paper is very difficult. Start by coping single words that are on the paper. Put the lines underneath the word to be copied so the student can line up the letters (stacking). Later, have the student copy the letters or words to the right (linear, not stacked).
  • Never assume my students are going to remember the material we covered days ago. There's a solution to this...stay tuned.
  • Your student's job is to try. Your job is to facilitate learning. It is not your student's job to please you. Your student's inability to learn something new is just a reminder that you need to try another way.
  • Remember--the more senses you involve in an activity, the more parts of the brain are engaged in the learning process. More brain = better chance of success and retention.
Last week, my class was studying how to read and write an American address. We had already covered all of the components, but the class was not together when it came to actually writing address information in order and in the correct format.

Suddenly, it was like a little me popped up in a thought balloon over my shoulder saying, "Manipulatives are less abstract than writing." Aha!

I quickly printed out some address information (size 16 type/Comic Sans font) and cut apart the address into a separate pieces. I put the pieces in front of each student who needed support. I asked the student to only identify the following:
  • Where is the street?
  • Where is the building number?
  • Where is the apartment number?
  • Where is the city?
  • Where is the state?
  • Where is the ZIP code?
And then I asked, Where is the building number? I pushed the student's finger to place the piece of paper. What's next? Is this the apartment number or the ZIP code? Once the address was in order, I mixed up the pieces and asked the student to do it again and again, but each time with less help from me. When the task was learned, the student copied the address onto paper. And then we started again with a new address.

Sometimes, low-tech is astoundingly effective.

Don't forget to spiral. Language and literacy are not learned in a straight line (learn item. Continue. Learn item. Continue...) or on a continuum. This is a spiral, so you introduce, add, revisit, introduce, add, revisit, incorporate, add, etc. If you have ever made bread, think about how, when you get to the kneading stage, you continue to incorporate more flour via the kneading surface. The dough can't absorb all the flour it requires right away, so you build on what's already there.

At any level of teaching--and learning--there is a certain amount of trial and error. The same thing doesn't work the same way for different students or even the same way for the same student every time.

Go forth and, well, hang in there. This is a two-way learning process.


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