Tag Archives: ell

Out with the Old Word Wall, in with the New

Now that it’s been EXACTLY five months since my last post on this blog, here I am with some fresh thoughts for the new school year. But first, how was your summer? And, since I haven’t been here since March, how was your spring? Has it been that long. Yep, it sure has. Last year’s class really took a lot out of me and I struggled to find much to write about. Or, I struggled to find the energy and enthusiasm at the end of the day. Or both. For whatever reason, this blog – and all of you, dear readers – fell to the wayside. I’m sorry and I’m going to try to do better.

So, it’s a new year, and that means it’s time for a new outlook. The good news (or perhaps the best news) is that for the first time in a long time, I only have one grade in my class. Please stay that way. The other best news is that, also for the first time in a long time, I don’t have a testing grade. Though I do love third grade (the math is so fun and the kids are really developing as humans), I’m excited to be back in second. Really, it’s my first year as a full on second grade teacher, but I’ve had bridge classes with second graders three times. It’s a transition and a challenge, but it could be a lot harder. It’s also in my favor that service providers and previous teachers have given me such positive feedback about my incoming class. The reviews are in, and they’re fans.

My plan is to expand on all this and more throughout the school year (as I used to so steadfastly in my younger years), but for now, I’m going to focus on what has emerged out of the blue as one of my big initiatives for the year.

I won’t lie: for a variety of reasons, I strongly dislike having a sight word wall in my room. My room is teensy tiny, and devoting a wall to 26 letters and a growing list of words under each just overwhelms my space and sensibility. The thing becomes hard to look at after a while. A mishmash of sentence strips doesn’t do much for anyone. Biggest, perhaps, is that the kids mostly don’t know how to use the word wall. It’s basically there because it has to be. I’m not a fan of that kind of thing.

In our classrooms early this morning to work on setup and organization (school starts next week), a colleague and I shared a conversation over the dilemmas of the sight word wall. Although my to-do list had on it, “Put up word wall letters,” based on our conversation and brainstorm, that WON’T be happening. As a result of our discussion, the sight word wall space has been repurposed, converted into two separate but related boards, and the sight word wall itself is being moved to a more appropriate, convenient place (or places, if you prefer). It’s a lot to take in so let me walk you through it.

First off, the sight word wall, despite the garish display it tends to be, actually can serve a value when properly utilized by teacher and students. To be sure, my students absolutely need to have the words as a reference. So, the sight word wall will remain, but it will be in a different form. Rather than be up on the wall lording over all the little readers and writers, each cluster of desks is going to have a word wall displayed atop it. This way, everyone has words right in front of them. It will have to be updated weekly, which can become a management issue, but as it’s a new concept, that’s something that needs to be fleshed out. In addition to the communal ones on the tables, each student will have his or her own word wall. It will contain the words of the week as well as any words taught in guided reading, or that the student wants to include. (Differentiation and student choice alert!)

Next, the space formerly occupied by the sight word wall will continue life as not one word wall, but TWO. Wow. Since the texts we read are so crazily complex, we think it’s best to move ahead with word walls full of delightful vocabulary that come from the texts. And instead of being there just to be there, they’ll be there as major foci for our students.

Why two, you wonder? Well, on one side there will be words for everyday use (little nuggets of gold like, “ideal,” “usual,” and, “plenty.”) The hope – and, to be fair, the expectation – is that students take these excellent and valuable words and transfer them to all facets of their literacy. Hey, that reminds me of the superb job my students did last year with just that sort of thing. On the other side will be words for content. These are words students need to understand in order to understand topics about which we’re reading, but that may not transfer too well into the rest of the world. As an example, last year, we read a book that used the word “culvert.” It didn’t make sense to expect students to use this word outside of book-related topics, but it was definitely important to their comprehension of the story.

The word wall will look something like this, and it’s possible, if not likely, that each wall will be sectioned for nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. I’ve got a bug/garden theme going this year so I’m saying, “Our Vocabulary Grows.”


Click to enlarge.

There’s no secret here. I am a word nerd and I love when kids get excited about new vocabulary. I can really envision this new setup taking off and benefitting the students more than any old sight word wall will.

For more inspiration:

10 Great Word Wall Strategies for Classrooms

Let the Games Begin! and Let the Games Continue!

But Do They Get It?

So, in a sense, we’re getting it. But, in a sense, are we really?

The literacy program we use mandated our current read aloud, and it’s a descriptive, wordy doozy. On the guided reading leveling scale, the book is a level O. My students’ reading levels range from C through M. It’s clearly a book that is way beyond – WAY beyond – most of my students’ independent reading levels.

But, it’s mandated, and so there’s no discussion. The point is, I, and every other teacher in New York City required to teach by the Common Core standards – those one-size-fits-all pie in the sky edicts that don’t account for ELL status, disabilities, development, home experience, or reality – have to figure out a way for our students to “get” this work.

In the current literacy unit, we are focusing on how characters’ actions tell us what the characters are feeling. The book, as all teachers should know, is the conduit through which we teach the skill. But in a class like mine, where the background knowledge is so lacking, and the language barrier between their own vocabularies and the book’s so distinct, it’s absolutely impossible to not teach the book unless I want a group of bored out of their skull third graders on my hands.

So I do teach the book, and I work through it slowly with them, stopping to explain, clarify, and answer questions. There winds up being plenty of talking during our read alouds. And fortunately, all our conversation enables us to get to a discussion about what the characters are doing and what this tells us about them.

This is all very teacher-led. The kids offer opinions and, with their best efforts, speak about what the characters do. But without my leading questions, prompting, and coaching, they would have great difficulty connecting all the dots and coming up with an inference or main idea about the characters’ feelings. Our conversations are enjoyable, though, and together we are able to work on understanding that characters’ actions tell us how they character feels. In that sense, we get it.

But come the time when the students have to read these level O texts independently, say, I don’t know, on some horribly unfair standardized test, there is little chance they will be able to make their own assessments and connections. Does that make me a bad teacher? Our lessons are going well, and they’re enjoying them. They’re learning the skill. But to transfer it to independence in texts that are, as I said before, WAY beyond their abilities, well that’s a whole different ball of gooey, muddled wax.

Which makes me wonder: is there a point to any of this? If there hands are forever held, do they ever learn to do anything on their own? Which makes me wonder: is this kind of work what we should be doing in my class? What’s the value in it past a decent conversation? I’m not sure I know.

Main Idea: The Details are In the Bag

In my school, one of the big pushes this year is helping students analyze what they read to understand main idea and details. In reflecting upon my past as a student, I can’t say I remember ever receiving explicit instruction in determining main idea and details, and that being able to analyze them came about as a result of experience as I grew.

Be that as it may, for students so young (like mine) and with so many challenges (English language learners, disabilities, texts above grade level and certainly way above theirs’), explicit teaching is necessary. But the skill is challenging to master independently, and so, non-traditional approaches to teaching it are necessary.

This all came about from a brief in-house PD I attended this week. We were presented with a variety of tools to help students conceptualize main idea and details. Included, of course, were the usual graphic organizers. They help, but they’re too abstract to start with. So I was happy to see a couple of new and concrete ideas that I could use to help my students begin to tackle this crucial literacy skill.

By far, my favorite idea was one that necessitated a hands-on approach. It was visual and helpful and served as an engaging entry – and subsequent anchor – for our work on main idea and details.

The premise is simple and it makes sense. A large zip-seal bag represents the main idea. Inside the bag are items with something in common. For my students, I showed them a bag with a marker, a highlighter, a dry erase marker, a pencil, a colored pencil, a Smencil, and a pen. They realized these are all writing utensils. So, why were all of those items – a.k.a. details – included in that one bag – a.k.a. main idea? Because the details all tell us about the main idea.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

From this very concrete representation, with my charges on board, I began to segue into something still somewhat concrete, but requiring a bit more thought and effort. We read a chapter out of our book and I emphasized that all the details in the chapter would relate back to specific main ideas. After reading, I started them off by telling them the main idea of the whole section: “Roots grow underground and do many things.” From here, we were able to pick apart the details of each paragraph and arrive together at a consensus as to what the main idea they supported was. A small bag represented each paragraph’s main idea, and we placed each bag inside the big one to show that all the information we read related back to one overarching main idea.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs' main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs’ main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

We’ll continue doing things like this, exploring other ways to understand how details work together to support main ideas. The hope is that with enough varied exposure to the concept, students will internalize the skill. That’s the…idea.



My Little Wordsmiths

This has probably been the most challenging start to a school year that I’ve had in my six-year career. Challenges are waiting on all sides: a new teacher evaluation system and its components, push-in and pull-out services in flux due to demands on the providing teachers’ time, failure by the city to provide supplies in a timely fashion, and for me, a class that doesn’t quite seem to be jelling behaviorally.

Despite it all, there is incremental academic progress. We can now round numbers to the nearest ten and hundred (at least with more consistency than there had been). We are better in our routines. And we are having discussions about books that are way way WAY above our reading levels (Common Core and the whole one-size-fits-all deal, amiright?)

The most exciting development in my class has, in actuality, come about due to those Common Core texts. As part of our new evaluation system, we were asked as to identify a couple of goals for ourselves. One of mine was to increase students’ vocabulary through reading “grade-level” and “rigorous” texts. So starting with our first book of the month selection, I began pre-teaching rich and wonderful vocabulary words, pinning them up in the room, using them in my speech, and encouraging my students to do the same, as well as in their writing.

I am definitely a word nerd. People often ask me what words mean and admonish me for, “always having to use SAT words.” So it is particularly splendid to hear and watch my little darlings expanding their vocabulary with some legit words.

Some of their favorites: superb, efficient, error, the idiom “dark day,” scribble, gasp, and overwhelmed. They are using them in unexpectedly accurate and creative ways. Some examples:

  • Upon showing me completed math work and me checking it, “Is it superb?” followed inevitably by, “Can you write superb?”
  • Upon noticing a mistake made my be, a peer, or themselves, calling out, “Oh, error!”
  • Upon me having to erase something I wrote because it was sloppy, “That’s scribble! Error!”
  • Upon noticing someone is upset or struggling, or just that the general mood in the room is not as chipper as we’d like, “This is a dark day.”
  • Upon searching for ways to describe the detectives in the book we’re reading, “They’re really efficient at solving problems.”
  • And just today, during the heat of a particularly aggravating series of moments during which all the math we’ve done for six weeks seemed to vanish into thin air and I pretty much lost it, “Mr. Ray, you’re overwhelmed.”
  • One more. As we lined up to leave today, it must have been obvious how exasperated I was. So one of my wittier boys said, “Mr. Ray, you look exhausted.” “I am,” I said. His reply? “And overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with anger.” How can I not smile? One of my colleagues heard it and cracked up.

It’s truly amazing to be a part of this. We’re talking about kids reading and writing 2 and 3 years behind grade-level. But they’ve added a repertoire of words to their vocabulary that they’re learning to use appropriately. It’s been slower to get them to use the words in their writing, but when I suggest it, they’re overwhelmed with excitement. They love it. One girl came up to me during reading today to show me that she found the word “gasped.” It was for her, like, The. Greatest. Thing. Ever. She even felt the need to shake my hand to congratulate herself.

Oh, and by the way, since everything now needs to be tested – because what better way to spend our time than with tests? – I am administering pre- and post-tests before and after we read the chapters from which these words are pulled. As I get the hang of teaching the words and making them commonplace, I am finding that most students know none of the words prior to me exposing them to the class, and that when I administer the post-test, most students know all or most of the new words.

A class of word nerds may be just what I need to keep myself afloat. That’d be superb.

A Question on Testing: What’s the Point?

My students – with their IEPS, modifications, accommodations, academic struggles, and all – just completed a three-day ELA test.

On day one, they did their best. On day two, they tried their hardest. And on day three, they slogged up the stairs, uninterested in and unmotivated by the prospect of facing this even one more time.

An hour and 45 minutes on day one. An hour and 45 minutes on day two. An hour and 45 minutes on day three. In all: five hours and 15 minutes across three days. Five hours and 15 minutes of silence, confusion, doubt, and frustration. Yes, they were willing to give it “The Ol’ College (and Career-Ready) Try,” but by day three, they had seen and had enough.

What will these tests show that we don’t already know? That they read significantly below grade level (by any standards, Common Core or otherwise)? That their writing ability doesn’t reflect their speaking ability or intelligence? What’s the point?

They were finished with day three by the end of day two. All they cared about this morning was that after today, this test would be done.

Do you think my students are the only ones who felt that way? Why do we subject them to so many hours? Shouldn’t, say, 20 multiple choice questions and two or three essays suffice? The kids are not interested or invested, so they’re not at their best.

Do these tests show the full scope of my students’ capabilities? Or the capabilities of others?

I think we all know the answer to those questions.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It…If You Make It At All

They’re silent. At least they got that much out of this. You can’t talk during a test, plain and simple. Even the slightest sniffle or throat clearing will be treated with suspicion.

Some of them are looking back to the passages – maybe they’ll pull it out. Sure, I know no one expects good grades on this year’s tests. But maybe, just maybe, these kids will pull off a shocker.

Or…maybe they know “What Good Test Taking Looks Like,” so they’re turning back, putting pencil to chin in a thinking pose, and underlining.

But I see in their faces that nothing here makes sense. The words are too long and too many. The questions are too boring and too many.

But they try. They’re too young to realize that, while the test is hard for many their age, it’s even harder for them.

What are they learning from this experience? You gotta fake it ’til you make it.

But with tests like these determining who’s smart and who’s stupid, how could they ever make it?

What Testing Does to This Teacher

I’ve written previously on the damage I see done to my students when they’re faced with a test on which there’s no way they can possibly do well. With all the hyperbole leading up to the standardized tests they take, and because they are virtually impossible to pass if you have a disability, my students are often left to feel worthless, regardless of what strides they made heading into the tests.

We’re into it now. Around this time, benchmark assessments and practice tests are du rigueur in my third graders’ worlds. And so for me, the cycle begins anew, just as it has since I started teaching special education: Kids make significant progress on their levels and terms -> kids forced to take tests way above their levels and terms -> kids realize there’s something wrong and made to feel worthless -> kids frustrated, disengaged, unmotivated, and upset.


Recently, I’ve sat and watched with my downcast head in my open palm as my poor 8-year olds have been made to sit in their chairs for unnatural lengths of time, like tiny little soldiers whose feet don’t touch the floor, thinking they have a clue about how to answer the questions in front of them, but demonstrating by their blank stares and nonsensical responses that they are lost. Can’t blame them.

Every group of students is different. These third graders are not nearly as talented or interested in math as last year’s class. They also have the added “bonus,” lucky little winners they are, of taking Common Core-aligned tests. Read: lots of multi-step, multi-operation questions, each one seemingly designed, with a little more vitriol than the previous, to invalidate English language learners and students with disabilities.

Bless their stubby pencils and little hearts, they try. They show work (whether it’s appropriate to the task is another story). They wait patiently for their friends to finish so I can read the next problem. They smile when they think they got it right.

And, in their stunted spelling (learning disabilities, you know), they answer a short response question by saying, “I dink dis test is to haid.”

What’s this do to me? It makes me sad. Makes me angry. Makes me mad. Makes me question myself. Makes me worry about unrealistic expectations. Makes me pity the kids.

One colleague had the best advice about how to deal with this: “Don’t look.”

When we’re all jumping off a cliff together, that’s pretty solid advice.



So, How’d Your Kids Do?

“How did your kids do?” and “What did you think?” were the questions on everyone’s lips this week, replacing the far more pleasant and important, “How are you?” and “What’s new?”

I digress.

As my colleagues and I spilled into the halls in the hours following the conclusion of each session of the three-day 4-6+ hours ELA test, everyone was eager to share their opinions (few of which were favorable).

On one point we could all agree: The kids did their best. Confronted with what many considered inappropriately challenging passages and ambiguous, misleading, culturally-biased questions, the kids tried to make sense of it all and tried to make the most of their lot.

For my students’ part, I am happy to report that no one broke down over the pressure that could have crushed them if they let it. Some kids finished quickly and put their heads down for 90 minutes. Others took most of the time afforded them. My student on the lowest reading level dutifully fought through the texts 10 or more levels above her current reading level and answered each question. Those who couldn’t comprehend certain questions accepted that they had to do their very best on their own and they put down responses nonetheless.

So, how’d my kids do? When the grades come in, I suspect they won’t be exceptional. But there is a certain amount of pride to be taken – both by them and me – in knowing that no one gave up. I have to applaud them for that. What more can I ask for?


Dear Students: On the Eve of Your First Test

Dear students,

Today, tomorrow, and Thursday, I will try to treat the day like I would any other. Only thing is, despite my attempts at geniality and mirth, you’ll probably notice the heavy and dark curtain of The Test draped on the walls of every classroom and evident in the halls of every floor.

So, it is likely that you will enter into a state of nervousness, even self-doubt, both of which will be exacerbated – depending on who you are – by the horror that stirs when you’re confronted, on your own, with a booklet of passages that masquerades as meaningful, enjoyable reading. (In your mind, you’ll try to reconcile why such a fun activity has to be hijacked and turned into such an arduous one.)

I know I’ll probably see your faces turn various shades of green. Your lips might utter statements such as, “This is too hard,” or “I’m not going to do this.” You might say you’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re bored, you’re hot – anything to get yourself out of the unenviable position of having your status as English Language Learners with disabilities be used against you in a poorly-conceived plan to make you “proficient.”

You don’t need a test to tell you if you’re “proficient.” Are you doing your work every day? Hey, you’re proficient! Are you prepared and ready to try every day? Guess what? You’re proficient! Do you give your best effort all, or even just most of the time? Well then, you’re proficient!

Some of you asked me if this test is important. That all depends on what your priorities and values are. If you, like me, value a positive, can-do attitude and realize that you’ve improved in all subjects, then you already know what’s important. It’s like I’ve told you and your parents many times before: it matters that you are improving. No test score will give us the full picture of your growth or abilities.

This morning, you’ll find some items on your desk that I hope help you through day one of The Test. Of course, there will be a pencil (duh, how else can you bubble?). I’ll leave a highlighter, as well, since I know that helps a little when reading those big bad passage article stories. And I’ll leave a Rice Krispies Treat with a little note attached, because I promised you a snack and everyone is probably going to need a pick-me-up this morning.

Listen when I talk. You’ll probably find that I won’t say, “Good luck” nearly as much as I’ll say, “Do your best!”

Yesterday, with the realization that the desks would stay in rows overnight and you would enter this morning into what was once your classroom (now a test room), you stared straight into the terrifying eyes of The Test, trembling in fear as it scowled at you from a hundred feet high. Many of you wondered if it would swallow you whole and destroy you.

Do not be distressed, dear students. You can slay that scary monster just by doing what I’ve been stressing all year: your very best.

What Does a Know-it-All Know, Anyway?

I’ve heard people suggest that, since I’m a special education teacher, I am also a saint. People have told me, “Those kids need someone like you,” and, “They need a good male role model.”

Of course, none of these people are political types or billionaires. The way these influencers see it, I’m exactly the kind of teacher my kids don’t need because I don’t add enough value. Full disclosure: I typed that sentence with a smirk on my face.

Instead of honoring my commitment to teaching a high-needs cohort (or the commitment of others who teach special ed, ESL, or in high poverty areas), the know-it-alls use the choice I’ve made to label me a poor teacher. It is both upsetting and laughably idiotic that they have perversely twisted the notion of good teaching so that the teachers who take on the hardest assignments are made to look like the worst teachers.

Which shows you just how little these know-it-alls know.