Teaching Language

December 11, 2009

Speaking Silently
Watching the beginning of Mike Lupo’s American Sign Language class is a cool experience; I’ve never seen so much discussion with so little noise. I guess that’s the nature of sign language.

What was really cool was seeing students communicate in sign language for thirty minutes. Mr. Lupo signed questions about students’ Thanksgiving activities, and students responded in sign language, demonstrating knowledge of vocabulary, sentence structure, and other concepts an outsider like me wouldn’t readily perceive. The goal was basically to get the students to communicate in the specialized language of the course.

Isn’t that what so much of our content instruction is about? If our students can talk about poetry in the specialized language of the poet—or something close to it—then haven’t they developed some level of competence in that field? And if a student can talk about physics in terms of mass and force and newtons, then haven’t they become, in some slight way, junior physicists? And if they can’t communicate in this language, have they really learned what they need to know?

Mr. Lupo’s class was a clear reminder to me of just how much we broaden our students’ understanding of the world by broadening their vocabulary, whether in American Sign Language or in the specialized vocabulary of another content area. On the more practical side, students cannot succeed on end-of-course tests without competence with the language of the subject. Check out some of the phrases they might encounter on EOCs:

  • “y varies directly as x”
  • “initial upward velocity”
  • “amino acids are synthesized into proteins”
  • “evolved from a common ancestor”
  • “equal access to public recreational activities”
  • “special interest groups”
  • “factor of production”

So what?
That’s a tough question. I think the answer is that we must think like language teachers (sounds like SIOP training, doesn’t it?). If we want to assess our students’ comprehension of our particular areas of study, then we have to assess their communication skills in that field. More specifically, we have to incorporate into our instruction writing tasks that require students to communicate in the content and the language of our fields. Answering “C” on the multiple choice test is not enough.
Next time you find yourself talking in the language of art, music, economics, grammar, ecology, or geometry, and your students are responding in the same language—or something like it—know that they are learning. That’s what foreign language teachers like Mike Lupo do every day.
If you want any ideas for teaching content vocabulary, just ask.


Ready to Review

December 7, 2009

It’s that time of year: bake holiday cookies, shop for holiday gifts, wish for the arrival of holiday break, and frantically review for exams.
With only four days between holiday break and our first exam day, most teachers will soon be starting to review, if they haven’t started already. A lot of teachers make review a regular part of assessment. Ms. Byrne puts questions from past units on tests and quizzes. Mr. Hill has been giving mini-quizzes to help him determine what his students need to review and to hold his classes responsible for all information taught throughout the semester.
If you plan on putting together some kind of in-class review activity, let me know; I would be glad to help. I can help you create interactive lessons on the Smart Board, or get you started with CPS clickers. I can even help you figure out what to review to best prepare your students for their exams.
Please don’t hesitate to ask me to create something FOR you or teach something WITH you.

Thinking Maps Proposal

December 2, 2009

I am spending my third consecutive day in the auditorium of St. James Church learning about Thinking Maps. Actually, I am being trained to be a trainer, which means I have one more strategy I’m begging you to try.

So who’s ready?

First, let me say this: I doubt 120 high school teachers are going to jump at the chance to sit through hours of training. I know us better than that. I’ve got a different proposal—read on. Keep reading »