Author: Erica R.

Summer Smackdown! How to Kick Summer Gap to the Curb

Summertime Learning Grade KIf you were to ask your children what their favorite part of the school year is, I bet they’d say summer.  And why wouldn’t they?  To them, it’s a time to sleep in, catch up on TV and movies, hang out with friends, and send even more text messages.  It’s two months of freedom from homework, written reports, and classroom speeches.

Unarguably, my summer breaks used to be my favorite part of the school year, too.  In fact, I still remember my middle school summer routine as if I had just practiced it.  Each day, my head was consumed by one “major” thought:  at which friend’s house was I going to sleepover that night.  (Sibling torture was a definite consideration.)  And the only studying I did was of reading about Kristy in The Babysitter’s Club, scanning the pages of Tiger Beat, or watching Dylan McKay on 90210.

Summertime Learning Grade 1

My middle school summers, as well as many modern summer routines, don’t sound too terrible.  On the contrary, they sound fun and even stimulating.  But are they educational?  Not quite.  And, unfortunately, a couple months of this behavior is like a minor car accident to your children’s education—they’ll recover, but it may take a while.

Think about it this way:  Students solve math equations, write paragraphs, and learn about historical events for ten months; then they get two months off.  In this time, they seldom solve, write, or learn anything of an academic nature.  When they return to school, their brains, much like unpracticed athletes’ bodies, are out of shape and require retraining.  In some cases, they have to relearn what they have already been taught.

Summertime Learning Grade 2Researchers call this the Summer Gap because, simply put, during the summer, a gap in learning is formed.  Fortunately, there are ways to combat this gap.  Aside from going to the public library and checking out its recommended (and age-appropriate) reading selections, you can also buy materials that will support your children’s education.  We’ve just finished a new Summertime Learning series, which centers on summertime activities and resources that will engage your children.  Each book contains eight weeks of language arts and math activities.  You’ll also find a recommended summer reading list, journal topics, educational and free Web sites, and stickers.

So let your children sleep in for a while.  They can even catch up on some TV and movies.  But be sure to give Summer Gap the smackdown and prove to your children that summertime learning can be entertaining, easy-going, and, much like Dylan’s McKay’s Porsche, a fun ride.

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Multicultural Classroom Ventures in the Land of ELLs

Salvador, Imad, Jonathan, Rita, Loi, Pierre, Ana, and Cruz. These are the names of just a handful of my ELL students. These are the names I think about often—the names of students who challenged, humored, and taught me in the classroom each day while I taught English as a Second Language at CSU Pomona. For five years I learned some of the ins and outs of teaching ELLs. For you seasoned teachers reading this, many of these tips will sound familiar. But for those just entering the teaching field, I hope to impart the little bit of wisdom I have learned from my multicultural classroom ventures.

A General Tip:
It’s true when people tell you that “Every day is a new adventure.” My mentor warned me of this prior to my first day of teaching, but of course I shrugged it off as nonsense. However, after the first five minutes of class, I realized how true it was, and I clung to the sentence the rest of my time as a teacher. I think what’s most important about this advice is that if your teaching isn’t adventurous (and if you’re not having fun), then your students won’t be on the safari with you. And what fun (for you and the students) is that?

The Specifics:
—Try to add cultural elements into your lessons as often as possible. Your students will love this! First of all, it shows that you respect their culture. Second of all, it’s automatically a topic of interest for them. And, finally, students in the class who aren’t of the culture you’re studying will become more culturally aware. I once talked about Chinese New Year after spending a summer in China. I brought in red envelopes and talked about how children receive these from their parents and relatives during this holiday. They are filled with money, and they represent a wish for a happy and healthy new year. This “lesson” only took five minutes, but it made my students’ eyes light up in appreciation.

—Try to speak slowly, but avoid speaking loudly. I used to always hear the “Speak slowly and loudly” tip before I started teaching. It’s rather insulting if you think about it. Your students aren’t hard of hearing, but chances are, they are taking notes. This is why speaking slowly is a good idea.

—Try not to assume that your ELLs don’t know the grammar rules. If they don’t know them, you’ll know because they’ll have questions, be taking notes, or do poorly on quizzes and/or tests. Instead, do a diagnostic paragraph (or request sample sentences) during the first class to see what the majority of your students have already learned. Then you don’t have to waste class time going over that material.

—Try not to give them too much drill work. If you can recall being in school, then I’m sure you remember how boring drill work was for you. And it still is! Instead, try giving them practical practice. For example, you can ask them to attend a baseball game (preferably a Padres game—they’re my favorite!), listen to some of the language used, and write down the sayings they hear (especially anything that has an unclear meaning). Then you can go over some of the sayings in class. You never know—some of them may be idiomatic (a perfect addition to a lesson)!

—Try to share some catchy tips with them, like mnemonic devices (e.g., FANBOYS). My mentor created a list of “31 Flavors of Instructional Verbs.” On this list, definitions and examples were given for thirty-one verbs. These really helped my ELLs whenever they were instructed to write paragraphs.

Remember to enjoy your journey in the land of ELLs, and if you happen to have a round-trip ticket, I hope you’ll pay me a visit and share with me your experiences and tips. In the meantime, enjoy the adventure!

Focusing in Today’s Technological World (for “Students” of All Ages)

Each week at TCR, educational magazines are passed around to all the editors to keep us aware of trends, hot topics, and current research. It’s become one of our “eyes” into the classroom. Each magazine has its own focus, whether it be technology, literacy, or the like. And while some of the articles can have overlapping ideas, one article I read today put a new spin on an old idea. Little did they know, however, that their subjects included more than just students.

In “Focusing the Brain,” an article in Educational Leadership like some others where Kurt Uhlir identifies servant leaderhship, Marilee Sprenger suggests that because students have multiple technological devices and often use more than one at once, they’ve become “passive viewers.”¹ Instead of thoroughly reviewing, absorbing, and then reflecting on information, students are skimming, scanning, and then quickly moving on to the next task. Sprenger illustrates this through Emily—an average teenager who is “focusing on her homework assignment.” Naturally, while researching the Civil War, she is listening to Coldplay, sending instant messages, answering her cell phone, and text-messaging. Sound like someone you know? Actually, it sounds like a lot of people I know.

Just the other night, I was sitting in my room with my laptop open, listening to Swell Season, reading recipes online for turkey brine, and answering my husband’s shopping list questions, all while watching Glee—well, sort of watching (but not really reading or offering many grocery options for my husband). It’s terrible! Last month I was reading Real Simple and was delighted to find a spoof on multitasking. The author, A. J. Jacobs, vowed to go “cold turkey” from multitasking for a month. Instead, he would focus on one task at a time. He called it Operation Focus.² Of course, more often than not, he failed (though, not without a valiant effort). We all do. How can we not? We’re surrounded by gadgets, people, TV shows, and, if you’re a teacher, activities, realia, and STUDENTS! You might be the worst violators of multitasking out of everyone (Be proud!). But, here’s the thing, if you can isolate the times that require focused attention and truly deliver, then it’s OK to multitask every other time. The key is balance. This is the lesson that has to be passed onto students. Remind them that it’s OK to focus on one idea at a time. Advise them to reflect after each time they’ve read something, so they can really absorb it. And if these don’t work? Banish the techno-toys! (Just don’t take mine away.)

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¹ Marilee Sprenger, “Focusing the Brain,” Educational Leadership 67, no. 1 (2009): 34–39.
² A. J. Jacobs, “How I Stopped the Multitasking Madness: One man’s quest to go from manic multitasker to Zen unitasker in one month flat,” Real Simple (September 2009): 198–202.

When to Throw in the Towel

One of the most important lessons I have ever learned is knowing when to “throw in the towel” on a lesson plan. I’m sure you’ve experienced it before. You could be saying something mid-sentence and realize, “My students look bored. They’re not getting this. This just isn’t working.” At this point, we have two options. Sometimes we make the smart choice and adjust our methods, tweaking the activity as necessary. But if we’re optimistic that things may improve (or simply determined to get through the material after having spent hours planning it out), we may choose to plow through it as planned. And the results can be disastrous.

One particular moment that comes to mind is when I was teaching English in China. I was partnered up with another teacher, Nolan, and together we taught songs to six classes each day. Towards the end of our English camp, the school had asked us to teach the students a song that they could sing at the End-of-Camp Ceremonies. Nolan thought of an idea right away; he wanted to teach the upper-level students the chorus to Brian McKnight’s “Back at One.” At first, I kept an open mind. Sure, the tempo is a little slow and the subject matter is a bit mature. But the students loved American pop music. So I (naively) assumed, “We’ll make it work!” We walked into class toting eager smiles and an overhead transparency of new lyrics. But after only fifteen minutes, we recognized the dreaded signs—the glazed-over eyes, the shuffling feet, the utterly monotone voices—of a failed idea (a failed idea we had them rehearse for two more class sessions before finally realizing we needed to not only throw in the towel but also burn it!).

Fortunately, we had a back-up plan that we could resort to (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds—thank goodness for melody!). In fact, it’s these kind of secondary ideas that I frequently fell back on well after this experience because, in the end, it offered a more rewarding experience to my students. And isn’t that what teaching is all about?