Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Unquiet Classroom: Technology Integration and ELLs

Ashley Coblentz and Jackie Moreno share their vision of the "Unquiet Classroom."

What images come to mind when you imagine a classroom filled with kids using technology?
The Unquiet Classroom: Ashley Coblentz & Jackie Moreno 
A language rich environment or a silent room with students staring at screens? It seems like there is a divide around this issue in the teaching world right now. Recently, we heard a leader in the biliteracy community speak dismissively about providing ELLs with access to technology. Common misconceptions about one-to-one technology initiatives and ELLs include:
  • Kids lose interpersonal skills
  • ELLs do not get enough opportunities to produce oral language
  • Districts purchase devices in a largely unsuccessful attempt to replace good teaching

Before we started using technology with our students, we had similar reservations. If you also have these concerns, rather, imagine:
  • Instead of writing a book report, students become movie producers, bringing excitement to project-based learning
  • Instead of just “publishing” one paper version of a story during writing workshop, students publish ebooks, accessible to hundreds of people, sending digital copies to all of their friends, teachers and family members, creating a digital library
  • Instead of writing a simple reader-response journal entry, students compose original songs in GarageBand to demonstrate learning

Technology integration has helped us become more effective when it comes to formative assessment, meaningful project-based learning, providing language learners with appropriate scaffolds and giving students exciting opportunities to write for authentic purposes.

Our hope is that by sharing how teachers and students are using devices as tools for transformative learning, members of the ELL educational community concerned about potential misuse of of technology will see what is possible. At this point, we cant imagine not advocating for other ELLs to have similar opportunities. If you are an ELL teacher wanting to make a case to your schools administration or colleagues about the powerful ways technology integration can support language learnersacademic success, here are some talking points regarding technology integration:
  • It promotes student collaboration 
  • When used purposefully technology integration increases student talk, providing opportunities for oral language development and more accurate assessment 
  • Teachers are able to provide more interactive, graphic and sensory language supports
  • Student creativity is cultivated through project based learning

Ultimately, these ways to support ELLsacademic success can be realized on a whole new level when technology integration becomes part of the story.

To see some concrete examples of how technology integration lives and breathes in a bilingual classroom, check out our studentspresentation to our districts Board of Education prior to a 6-1 vote to pass a $27 million tech plan:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I have a question. Who should I call? (Hint: Not Ghostbusters)

Matt & Blake answering your questions
Greetings once again from the Client Services Center (CSC). We love to answer questions and assist with quite a variety of inquiries. As you can imagine, we receive a lot of questions from all over the Consortium and around the world! Most of these we are able to handle on the spot without any problems. However, sometimes we need to direct you to another entity such as your state department of education, Metritech, or WCEPS. If it’s a time-sensitive question, it helps to know who best to address your question from the get go.

In this post we’ll give you an overview of the four broad categories of questions. Feel free to print this post and stick it next to your phone and share it with your colleagues. While you’re at it, consider officially following our Blog by clicking on the “Join this site” button on the right hand side of the page.

Contact Information
Types of Questions
 WIDA website

World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment
Toll-free: 1-866-276-7735

WIDA Consortium
Wisconsin Center for Educational Research (WCER)
University of Wisconsin-Madison
1025 W. Johnson Street, MD #23
Madison, WI 53706
  • ACCESS, MODEL or W-APT test administration questions
  • Understanding and interpreting the scores from these assessments 
  • Online training course for test administrators, including log in, navigating the course, and completing the training quizzes

Toll-free: 1-800-747-4868 
MetriTech, Inc.
Attn: Customer Service Representative
4106 Fieldstone Road
P.O. Box 6479
Champaign, Illinois 61826-6479
  • Pre-ID labels for the ACCESS test
  • Ordering ACCESS testing materials
  • Return shipping of the ACCESS test

 WIDA State pages

Your State’s Department of Education
Click on the map of WIDA states on the left or click HERE.  Once the new page opens, click on your state for contact information.
  • Obtaining a copy of your state’s Native Language Codes
  • Establishment of entry and exit criteria for ESL and/or bilingual services in your state
  • Test administration dates
  • Local professional development opportunities
  • Test administrator certification requirements for your state

 WCEPS website

Wisconsin Center for Education Products & Services
Toll Free: 1-877-272-5593

510 Charmany Drive
Suite 269
Madison, WI
  • ·         Ordering MODEL kits/replacement parts
    ·         Ordering CAN-DO Descriptor Booklets
    ·         Ordering Standards Books
    Obtaining a W-9 Form for materials they have ordered 

While this is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all possible questions related to testing, it is designed to give you a better idea of who to go to depending on the type of question that you have.  But if you aren’t sure, feel free to contact the us, the WIDA Client Services Center (CSC), and we’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Teaching Charitable Giving to Low-Income Students

In this post, Heather Jung shares her thoughts on charitable giving from the classroom.

Last year, my students were making toys to donate to the toy closet at National Children's Hospital.  One student did not want to donate the toy that he made.  I reminded him that we were making these toys to donate to sick children who needed our help.  His response was, "I'm sorry that they're sick, but I made this toy, I worked hard on it, and I want to keep it."  I was able to convince him to donate the toy, but he was not happy about it.  Then, a month later we received a donation of a Tablet from  As I was explaining to the students where the donation had come from the same student said, "So someone gave us something that we needed just like we gave those dolls we made to the sick kids."  I was so excited! He had seen and understood the reciprocal nature of a responsible community.  This valuable social skill will help him throughout his life. 

It is often hard for many students that come from backgrounds where they are often on the receiving end of philanthropy to understand that they have both the ability and the responsibility to give back to their community.  But, when we can develop this understanding in students we can change the narrative of helplessness that is found in institutional poverty, showing students that their charitable giving has the power to affect change and positively impact their lives and the lives of those around them.

It can be tricky to find philanthropic projects that are both meaningful and accessible to low-income students. You cannot ask students who are receiving food and clothing from local charities to turn around and donate what they receive. 

Here are a few things that I have done with low-income students that I work with:
·         Grow Sweet Potatoes to donate to a Local Food Bank - Sweet potatoes are inexpensive and virtually maintenance free.  I have one group of students plant them in the spring and different students harvest in the fall.  We taste test them before we donating.  The food bank appreciates having something fresh to offer their clients.  Students that frequent the food bank have something to look forward to sharing with their families.
·         Make Stuffed Toys for a Children's Hospital - This one is a little more difficult because you need to solicit donations of fabric, stuffing, needles and thread, but if you can do it there is a powerful sense of significance that the students feel when they can help a sick child.  It also allows students at multiple grade levels to work together.  Older students do the sewing and younger students do the stuffing.
·         Make Dog Toys for a Local Animal Shelter - Students find an old t-shirt or old sock that can be made into a dog toy.  Students enjoy searching for old, unwashed, stinky ones, which are the best ones for dogs!  Homeless students feel a particularly strong connection with this philanthropic activity.

These are just a few activities that have worked for me.  I'm sure you can come up with many more ways to help your students understand that they have both the ability and the responsibility to give back to their community.

Image by Jonathan McIntosh via Creative Commons.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Kelly Garcia-Lee Talks about Falling in Love with Close Reading

One night, after reading a picture book to my son, I asked him what he thought of the story. He told me he liked it because he could learn a lot from the main character. I thought this was an interesting perspective because children don't often mention things they can learn from fiction books, especially once they really get into non-fiction at school.

Later in the week, I was attending a book study. The book we are reading, Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts - and Life by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts, discusses the idea that by teaching students to read closely (basically to really look at characters and analyze their lives, problems, and dialogue within the structure of a text), we can teach them to live their lives with what the authors call "caring understanding."

These two events served to demonstrate to me that while I teach my students to look at plot structures, conflict, resolution, character traits, setting etcetera, I don't always do a good job of teaching my students to look at literature as a record of human experience. I don't spend enough time teaching them how to learn life lessons from characters in books. When I think back to my schooling, some of my favorite classes were taught by teachers who showed me how to examine novels in order to grow as a person, not simply to write a paper or pass a test. Yet, this is something I feel I have missed teaching my students.

This revelation combined with the book Falling in Love with Close Reading has me looking at teaching literature in a new way. In the past, I thought close reading was simply a strategy for reading non-fiction text. I have recently begun to reevaluate my old ideas. Thanks to a partnership with a great classroom teacher in my school and the close reading book mentioned above, I have ventured into teaching close reading using the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

The fifth grade students in the class I am working with have read several chapters of the book Wonder. In groups of two, students then analyzed their notes to find patterns in the character's words, thoughts, and actions. Finally the students discussed their thoughts about the character with one another before writing independently. Students were then expected to use a model, sentence frames, and their notes to create a character analysis paragraph. The work that the students produced was both academic and insightful. This is not the type of thinking I typically got in the past when teaching kids about character traits. Now that we are trying close reading and working to help students examine literature as a reflection of life, we are getting better thinking, and thus, better readers!

I am thankful to these books for igniting a spark in to me to change some of my previous thoughts about reading instruction. I am thankful to the wonderful teacher with whom I am working to try out this new (or more likely, new to me) approach. But mostly, I am thankful for the students who have so willingly joined me in this close reading journey! Ultimately, I hope this approach will teach them a little about reading and a lot about life!

Image by Kelly Sikkema via Creative Commons.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Supporting ALL Student Needs

Heather Jung shares her experience in meeting student needs beyond those in the classroom.

As I was working with one of my ELL groups in grade 1 a few months ago, another student kept interrupting the group asking, "Did you just call me?"  I realized, after the third interruption, that she was trying to get my attention because she wanted to talk. I finished my lesson, and went to her.  She said that she wanted to read to me and proceeded to pull out a familiar book, which she then read haltingly, with several pauses to yawn and stare off into space.  After a few pages of this, I stopped the reading and asked her to go for a walk. Once we were out of the classroom, she confided. She was tired, she had nightmares the night before, had been yelled at for not sleeping, and then yelled at for not getting ready for school quickly enough in the morning. Because she was not getting ready for school quickly enough, she didn't get to have breakfast.

The lesson of this story is that children often have needs that they do not know how to get met. It is our responsibility as teachers and caregivers to try to meet these needs as well as the students' academic needs. Maslow's hierarchy of needs puts Esteem and Self-actualization, the needs met through the academic objectives at school, at the top two tiers of a five-tier pyramid.  These needs cannot be adequately looked to until the other needs, Love/Belonging, Safety, and Physiological, have been meet. This student was not able to function successfully in the classroom because she was hungry and tired (physiological needs), and she was stressed by having been yelled at (safety and love/belonging).  These needs had to be met first before any academic work could be attended to.

Those of us that work with low-income students, ELLs or otherwise, have to be mindful of these needs and be willing to offer assistance. Fortunately, there are many resources available in most communities that can help.

At my school, we have an active parent community that supports our outreach.  We have a Care and Share Committee and Parent Resource Center that help to provide books, clothing, shoes, internet and other supplies for families in need.  Our local Girl Scouts and Dance troops go out of their way to provide opportunities for low-income students to participate in activities that might, otherwise, be out of their reach. Staff and community members work together to find out what students need and provide for them. Sometimes this means staff providing transportation for student activities or bringing a student shampoo for their hair.

One of the best examples of this school/community partnership that I have seen takes place at the elementary school next to mine.  There the school hosts the local food bank once a month.  The food bank drops off the food and it is left to the school staff, long after the school day is over, to organize and distribute it in an equitable manner.

After giving one of my students a stack of books to take home, she responded by saying, "My sisters and I also need paper, markers, crayons, and colored pencils.  We need to be able to draw and writes stories at home.  You can get that for us right?"  I felt like she was asking me to be her own personal Wal-Mart. Then I realized that is my responsibility as I try to meet not just academic needs but all of my students' needs.

Image from Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Holly Niemi Shares How Her Students Are Stars...Video Stars

Let Video Star kick start you into the last marking period of the 2013-2014 school year.  This app is a free and easy way to enhance any lesson.

I’ve included two different videos* as examples of Video Star’s capabilities.  The one video shows a montage of various ESL classes’ Video Star projects and the other video is one completed Video Star project in its entirety, both created by Levels 1 and 2 ELLs.  Video Star is a great way to present material visually to music.  I have used it as a culminating extension project to complement the end of the unit assessments to Edge Fundamentals.  The objective of the video project was to give students the opportunity to respond orally and in writing to the unit’s essential question.


Here is an overview of my experience using Video Star.  First, each class nominated songs that supported the unit’s theme.  For example, one unit’s essential question was entitled “What does it take to survive?”

Students suggested songs like Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”  After reviewing audio clips of the nominated songs, each class voted to choose which song would accompany their video.  Next, I printed the lyrics to the song for us to analyze together in class.  Then, students brainstormed how we would visually interpret and conceptualize these lyrics into a music video that was connected to the multiple texts we read throughout the unit.  After that, we organized and plotted all the ideas on the whiteboard to create a loose script to follow and the students signed up for various video performance roles.


The next day, it was time to shoot the videos as a class with my iPad.  Some students were so excited with this new app, they created their own videos with their iPhones. With the lyrics on the Promethean board, we shot each clip verse by verse and scene by scene until the song was complete. The next day, each class participated in a video share and watched all the Video Star videos.  While watching the videos, they had the task of answering the unit’s essential question in writing that we later discussed in a Socratic seminar.

In addition to supporting the curriculum and integrating technology, this lesson was both rejuvenating and motivating.  I found the benefits of Video Star to support the common core insofar as analyzing and interpreting meaning across genres, connecting meaning to multiple texts, as well as responding to the essential question, collaborating with others, and integrating new technology.

Day 1 (5 minutes): Students nominate songs that support the unit’s theme.
Day 2 (45 minutes): Students vote on which song will be used in the Video Star production.
Students analyze the meaning of the song lyrics and look for connections to the unit’s texts and essential question.
Students brainstorm video sequence ideas.
Students sign up for video performance roles.
Day 3 (45 minutes): Shoot the video.
Day 4 (45 minutes): Students share Video Star videos in class, respond to the essential question, and discuss their answers in a Socratic seminar.

*It is important to note that I have pixilated, darkened, and blurred the videos on purpose in order to mask the identity of students.

WIDA offers this blog post as a resource for educators.  It is not intended as an endorsement or recommendation.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What Is an ELL Teacher? (or an ESL or ESOL teacher)

On my flight to the WIDA conference last October, I sat next to a Congressman who was fleeing Washington DC after the late night vote to restart the Federal Government.  He told me how excited and relieved he was to be going home to his family and then he asked me what I did.  Being very careful not use any confusing acronyms, I told him that I was a teacher that worked with English Language Learners and that I was on my way to a conference of other such teachers.

His response was:  "Wow, that's great I would love to speak two languages!  What language are you teaching them?"

I blinked, smiled, and replied, "Well, I work with students who come from other countries. I help them improve their English."

This Congressman's confusion was troubling to me because of his role as a policy maker (though he does not sit on the Education Committee and comes from a district that is 96% white), but I have found that misconceptions and confusion are common when I tell people what I do.

My mother is from an area that is 83% white.  She tells me, "No one knows what you do when I first tell them, but once I explain it to them they get it."

When I told one friend of mine he said, "Oh, I didn't know you spoke Spanish."

"I don't, and though some of my students do, my Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian students don't," I replied.

He smiled and said "Oh sorry, I'm from Miami.  ESOL was all Spanish when I was growing up."

As with all comprehension, background knowledge is the number one determinate of understanding.

So what does an ELL teacher do?

The truth is that we do many things.

We may work with ELLs in small groups or one-on-one building their language and literacy skills.  We help them build their prior knowledge so they can understand content area instructions.  We employ diverse and culturally responsive teaching strategies to increase our students' linguistic skills, but we also do so much more.

A couple years ago when I was at Ellis Island I saw an exhibit about how the children of immigrant families are the family's bridge between their home culture and the new culture.  These children are our students.  How often do we hear a young child say: "My Mom can't understand English, but I help her"?  Think about the responsibility implied in that statement.  We always think of the parents as being the bridges that guide their children into adulthood, but for many of our students the burden of helping the family build the bridge between old and new is placed upon their young shoulders.  Who is there to help and support them?  We are! It is our responsibility as ELL teachers to support them and help them build a strong cultural bridge for them to lead their family across.   As Holly said in her post, we are the advocates for our students and their families in the community. We provide support, sensitivity, and cultural understanding to help them build a strong bridge toward the future for them and their families.

How are you building cultural bridges for your students?

Thanks, Heather, for sharing your experience and starting an interesting and important conversation.

Image by via Creative Commons.