Tag Archives: language

Sal Khan Never Taught Special Ed (or ELLs)

By now, pretty much anyone aware of the goings-on in education reform has heard of Sal Khan, the intrepid gentleman who has recorded nearly 3,000 educational videos for students to view on YouTube.

There is a list of videos organized by subject and topic over at the Khan Academy web site.

It would be disingenuous to ignore the range of Khan’s knowledge or his capacity to produce so many videos. However, to claim that he and his style are the answer to the ills of education, I think, is a bit much. In my eyes, like pretty much every other reform idea, Khan’s videos may work for some, but they won’t work for many.

It is clear Sal Khan never taught special ed.

(Or ELLs, for that matter).

Recently, I was looking for some video options to reinforce multiplication concepts, and I watched Khan’s “Basic Multiplication” video. I wanted to incorporate some visuals and videos to help engage some of my more reluctant learners.

Whenever I watch videos or consider content, I have to do so from my students’ perspectives. So, while something may make perfect sense to me as is, I know that, usually, my students will not accept it in the same way.

I thought I’d give Khan a try. Watching the video from my students’ perspective, though, it was obvious that there was no way it was going to work in my classroom (a self-contained special education class of 100% ELLs at intermediate or beginner levels).

For starters, the amount of text in the video would be overwhelming. I am guilty of sometimes having too much going on at once in my class, but at least I’m there to help filter out the extraneous information (or erase it!) and help students refocus. In this multiplication video, Khan writes the word “Multiply” and puts “2 x 3” on the left, but then reviews addition (2 + 3) for about a minute on the right.

I'm concerned with the amount of text on this screen, as well as the lack of visual delineation between mathematical concepts.

There is no clear designation about what concept is what. The potential for confusion is too great, in my opinion, for this to be effective for many students.

It’s not only the text in the video that concerns me. It’s Khan’s delivery. Clearly, he is a well-spoken man with great depth of knowledge. However, delivery of that knowledge in a way that is too dense for students to understand means he might as well be speaking a different language. And for many ELLs, I imagine when they hear sentences such as the following, English all of a sudden does sound like a different language:

And this is probably the first time in mathematics that you’ll encounter something very neat: that sometimes, regardless of the path you take, as long as you take a correct path, you get the same answer.

Say I’m eight years old. I’m a beginner or intermediate ELL, or I’m fairly new to the country. I just heard all these crazy words: encounter, neat, regardless, path, and as long as. I’m totally lost. I need someone to help me understand the context and meaning of those words. I need someone with a little more sensitivity to my needs than Sal Khan.

Khan, shortly after that long-winded statement, says that, in considering other representations of multiplication, he will continue by drawing rows of lemons so he can continue, “our fruit analogy,” (he referred to raspberries and blueberries previously). Then:

An analogy is just when you kind of use something, as, as an – well, I won’t go too much into it.

After a while, it becomes uncomfortable – and inefficient – to listen to Khan’s colloquial manner of speech and his many verbal pauses. His video is neither concise nor succinct, and therefore it enables the mind to wander, rather than be inspired.

More verbal garbage from Khan can be found. He draws an array of lemons to talk about why multiplication is useful as an expedited form of counting. In my class (as in any class of ELLs), the critical point of arrays when they are introduced is learning what a row is and what a column is.

Khan begins to introduce what a row is:

A row is kind of a, the side-to-side lemons. I think you know what a row is. I don’t want to talk down to you.

Yet, unfortunately, with a statement like that, Khan is talking down. Because he assumes that everyone knows what a row is, he cuts off populations with his pomposity and makes it difficult to access the information.

I think if I made a list of all the words and phrases Khan uses in the video that would be stumbling blocks for ELLs and/or students with disabilities, I would come off as a whiner. However, in my estimation, it’s a fairly long list.

Look, there is some value to what Khan is doing. Just watching the video gave me some ideas of ways I could approach multiplication with my students. However, the mission statement of the Khan academy is not to help teachers teach. On the web site’s about page, it says:

We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.

Hmm. Well, if “anyone anywhere” means kids who are fluent in English and have the ability to follow dense text peppered by colloquial speech, then these types of videos will be fine. However, if “anyone anywhere” means, truly, anyone anywhere, then Khan has quite a long way to go.

I am sharing the video I analyzed so that you may do the same, if you choose. Would this video work for ELLs? Do you know students with disabilities who would be overwhelmed by it? Does it serve the needs of all students? See for yourself and determine your own answer!

It’s On Me

One of the biggest challenges in my career has been bridging the communication gap that exists when two people don’t share a language. That’s been a story line each year. In my four year career, I’ve had 80 students. The parents of roughly ten of those children spoke English well enough for me to talk with them. In all other cases (be the families speakers of Spanish or Chinese) I relied on an interpreter. Unfortunately, despite best intentions, interpretations are often, well, lost in translation.

Now, back in high school, I was a pretty solid student of the Spanish language. In fact, I am often known to tell people who remark at my ability to speak Spanish: “Tuvo un noventa y seis en la escuela secondaria.” Now, though, all those years later, having never been immersed fully in the language, I only retain some of it. I can hold a basic conversation but can not fully address parents’ needs or concerns in Spanish. In essence, effective communication is extremely difficult.

Well, this year, I’ve decided that, the situation being what it is, it’s on me to work through it.

Today, I planned to write five “Nice Notes” to send home to parents as a way of celebrating something awesome about their kid. It’s something I’ve done before, but Josh Stumpenhorst’s recent post catalyzed the most recent batch. I think it is important that the notes are delivered in my handwriting with my message, so I didn’t request my para’s translation abilities. As such, it took me a good 20 minutes to write out three notes, two of which were in Spanish. Now I know what my buddy Greta says when she tells me how difficult it sometimes is for her to think something in one language and have to write it in another.

Anyway, the point is this: “Nice Notes” are worth sending, but they’re worthless if the recipient can’t read them. So it’s on me to take the extra effort and time required to make sure those notes make the impact for which they are intended.

Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do!

An important lesson from LOST's John Locke: Don't tell me what I can't do!

If you were a fan of the show LOST (personally, I am working through the DVD set at this time), you will remember the season one catchphrase of my favorite character in the series, John Locke. Locke’s eyes would burn anytime someone questioned his abilities. An extremely headstrong and mysterious man, Locke would often explode in anger when people doubted him, screaming, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”

And so I sit here, marveling at the fact that my students are beginning to blog independently from home. Why does this inspire me after I’ve seen them type blogs at school?

Well, it’s all about the can-do factor. I think some people might look at their blogs – or their handwritten work – and scoff at the poor spelling of basic words. Indeed, some might even question why students who struggle so mightily to spell should even be *allowed* to blog at all.

Well, like I wrote last week, blogging is a confidence builder. And so I know that when one of my students who still struggles with letter recognition (and therefore spelling, and therefore reading and writing) is putting herself out there on her blog, it’s because she knows she can do it. Bless her heart, she won’t allow her shortcomings to deprive her of the pleasure of writing. Never mind the punctuation errors, either. Her writing is clear enough for all to appreciate, and she will get better.

A reminder that we need to allow our students the benefit of experience to grow and improve and do things on their own terms. Let’s focus on what they can do, and never tell them what they can’t.

The Wisdom of Kids

Now that I’m back teaching in what is technically an upper grade, I am able to revel in the hilarious observations and arguments kids make. I thought I’d share three of my favorites from this week.

The day after reading Hey, Little Ant, a book in which readers are confronted with whether people should step on ants, we finally set up our reading response notebooks (which the kids had been demanding we do for days). We did a shared write in response to the book during which we chose a prompt and expanded on it. I sent the kids off to continue working on their own and challenged them to write 3 or more sentences. As I circulated, I came to one student who summed up his opinion on the matter like this: “Stepping on ants just doesn’t solve anything.” I loved it! What a turn of a phrase. So unexpected and so well placed.

Later that day, one of the girls was complaining that her tooth was hurting. We were flying through a wonderful day with really great work coming from everyone, so I didn’t make too much of a big deal when she took a bottle of Elmer’s glue and held it to her face like an icepack. Of course, I did ask, “What’s with the glue?” She looked at me like I  was crazy and said, “It’s cold!”

The tooth pain didn’t subside by the time we were packed and ready to go home. The student asked me what she should do. I said, “You need to tell your mom when you get home. I’m not a dentist.” To which she replied, bottle of glue still on her cheek and knowing how witty her reasoning was: “Well, the school has a doctor. I think they need to get a dentist, too!”

When we were getting ready to go home today, in a torrential downpour, one of the boys asked me if I was walking home. I said, “Actually, my mom is picking me up.”

Without missing a beat, he asked, “Oh, do you sit in the front or the back?”

You have to laugh at these things! Have a great weekend.

They Ain’t Happy Tears, But They Should Be

I had an opportunity to work with Tessa this afternoon. Earlier in the day, she brought a book to me that she hoped I’d share with the class. I said I would, but upon flipping through it, I thought better of it, and decided it’d be more meaningful if she read it instead.

Despite my efforts to make her comfortable, it’s very obvious that Tessa feels she is a misfit. She wears clothes that are stained and don’t fit. She is significantly taller than the other students (and as a hold over, is also at least a year older). She is uncomfortable at a desk that’s too small for her, but embarrassed to sit at a desk that’s bigger than the other kids’. When we practice our play, her movements are so rigid and awkward it’s almost painful to watch. She is near the top of the class in math, writing, reading, and verbal skills and is widely trusted by other teachers for responsibilities. Still, it is crystal clear how very obviously embarrassed she is to be herself.

Now, Tessa has found joy in reading, as she likes to use what I teach her to improve. For instance, she is thrilled to spot new sight words as they appear magically before her in her books. She fancies blends and the way knowing them allows her to read better. Today, I sat with her for a solid 15-20 minutes, and was angered, slightly surprised, and inspired by what happened.

The book she sent my way was called A Splendid Friend, Indeed. The inside of the book was easy enough, being that it was replete with sight words. However the title itself was a minefield.

I saw “splendid” as a splendid opportunity to have Tessa work on chunking a tricky word into more manageable pieces. Her initial attempt at the word was “special.” I coached her to scan the word and see if she saw any smaller words in it that she knew. She spotted “did,” which is one of this week’s words, and from there we were able to proceed. She used a card with blends on it to confirm the “sp” sound. But the internal chunk, the “len” was really a struggle for her.

First, she isolated it and made sense of the “e-n” to form the sound “en.” But the “l” was a major bugaboo. She kept reading it as a capital “I,” and thus, was formulating words like, “spidid” and “spiend”. I helped her see it was an “l” and, even with that knowledge, the difficult decoding process made her forget what she knew right away, that “did” was at the end. Finally, she got it out as, “splendid,” but it was obvious she was worn. Nevertheless, we continued. I complimented her self-checking and determination, and she opened the book.

She flew through it with lovely intonation for the first six or eight pages, when all of a sudden, the word “splendid” appeared in the text for the first time. I reminded her to scan it for known words, which she did, and then again helped her see how to break it into “splen” and “did.” However, she continued to mistake the “l” for an “I.” She referred to the alphabet chart once, twice, and a third time, and when she turned back to me after the last, I saw a tear trickling down her cheek. My initial reaction was anger, and I did my best to maintain my emotions as I said, “Tessa, why are you crying? You are working on such a hard word and you’re reading it!” But I almost instantaneously switched to a much more sympathetic tone with the same message, “I know this is hard, but look at the way you’re reading a fifth grade word like this.”

She wasn’t mollified, but I was damn determined to make sure she was able to read that stupid word, “splendid.” Even with her tears falling into a tissue, I reminded her it was an “l,” and she was able to try again. Then, when she blanked on the “en,” I wrote a word she knew, “hen” and got her to focus on the ending sound. This enabled her to get “len” and eventually, with a tissue tightly clutched beneath the desk, she read the word “splendid.”

We finished the book, and I told her she should be really proud of working so hard to read such a difficult word. I was proud of her. I offered her a reading themed pencil. We went through very similar work, breaking down the phrase “Readers are Leaders.” I referred her to words she knew to help her read the pencil’s text.

When we finished, wiping her eyes, she asked, “What is a leader?”

I thought for a few seconds, thinking of the best way to phrase it for her to understand, and said, “It’s someone who does really well that other people want to be like.”

I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Kind of like you.”

She walked out the door with a pencil in her hand and a smile on her face.

By the way, I informed Tessa I would not be reading the book to the class, but that she would take it home, practice, and then read it to them. Wouldn’t you know it? She was just thrilled.


It’s Patrick’s Day!

New months are a big deal in my classroom. We have a few routines when it comes time to turn the calendar page. We have to, of course, take the numbers off the interactive calendar, so the calendar monitor has the honor of taking them off one-by-one as everyone counts backwards. When the calendar is clean, we switch the card that says the month’s name and use the pictures on the card as conversation points about what the month ahead holds. We talk about birthdays in the class, trips we’re taking, and of course, holidays.

Well, February turned into March yesterday, and we were going through the regular routines. To inject some new flavor into the morning meeting, which has become kind of stale, I wrote the famous line about March on the board: “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” We spent some time talking about what this means in terms of weather – “What kind of weather roars like a lion?” – and then I tried to transition to the next part of the day.

But the kids, bless their little holiday-loving hearts, would have none of it. They demanded we go over the March holidays. Oops, I forgot about that! So I pulled out the holiday cards and we went through them. As it turned out, the only March holiday in our calendar set was St. Patrick’s Day.

They weren’t sure what that was. So, keeping it secular, I told them St. Patrick’s Day is the day everyone wears green and we see shamrocks (which I drew, of course). But they didn’t seem to care. And this was because the ever obstreperous Alvin was clamoring for everyone’s attention as he called out from his spot in back of the meeting area, “PATRICK’S DAY!”

My bubble's been burst: this year it's "Patrick's Day".

And once they heard that, there was no turning back. I said, “Not Patrick’s Day, SAINT Patrick’s Day,” only to the insistence of the entire class that, indeed, the holiday is “Patrick’s Day.” Finally, I figured out what they were talking about. Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? (Other than Spongebob, of course…)

Well, I had a good chuckle over it and thought nothing more of it the rest of the day. But today, Tessa just had to know, “When is Patrick’s Day again? March 17th?” I fought only a slight resistance to sarcastically remark, “You know, this isn’t Bikini Bottom!” and instead answered, “Yes, March 17th.”

And now I’m thinking about Patrick’s Day and wondering, what could be so bad about that? While everyone else is “celebrating” a holiday that has practically zero relevance to the students, I wonder what ways I can make it a special day for our class where we celebrate the animated greatness of Patrick Star. Will we wear salmon colored clothing? Will we eat Krabby patties and pineapple? (Or would Spongebob begrudge us eating pieces of his house?)

I don’t know what to do.

I’ve never been to a Patrick’s Day party before.

Authentic Books Make Better Readers – I Hope

For a variety of reasons – many of which I’m still trying to parse out – some of my students are showing minimal improvement in their reading. Sure, they are learning sight words (as I learn how to teach them and put a greater emphasis on finding them in context). Sure, they are able to read with me and independently the shared reading books of which they’re so fond. But it’s not translating into their own private reading experiences.

Yesterday, the literacy staff developer came to my school, and I was in the group of teachers who met with her to consider options for those readers who are 1) significantly below grade level (check) and 2) seemingly making little or no progress (check). She emphasized how diverse their reading choices could and should be.

Traditionally, a student should have 8-12 books on her “level” in their book baggies. These are the books they read during school and at home, and are specifically geared for where they are developmentally as a reader. However, our staff developer pointed out ways to enrich the quality of their reading experiences by enhancing the content of their book baggies past leveled books.

One of her suggestions was this: pick three sight words the student does not know, but should. Stick them in the book baggie on index cards. During independent reading, the child should do some old-fashioned flash card work with those words to learn them. This, to me, was a bit of an intelligent and timely eye opener. I have about 60 words on the word wall at this time. I can’t even say half my class knows them all (although a handful do with at least 95% accuracy). So what about the other kids? It makes no sense for me to expect them to miraculously know all 60 just because I say so. It makes perfect sense to have them learn them at their own, more logical pace.

The second part of this is what really got me and the class excited, though. You take those words the child needs to learn. (Donald and a few others, for instance, know some words, but are sorely lacking in most. Without the sight word knowledge, there’s no way their reading can improve.) Right now, I want them to begin to focus on the words “is,” “my,” and “friend.” These are high frequency words in the books they should be reading at this point, and once they know them lickety split, they will be able to get better. So I took those words as well as the pictures I took the first week of school and made a very simple, repetitive book for those students. It’s called “My Friends,” and each page features a student’s picture and the sentence, “______ is my friend,” with the blank being filled with the appropriate name.

I gave the book to five students to keep in their book baggies. Had you seen it, you’d have thought I was handing them a lifetime no homework pass. Now they can read that book to their heart’s content. The book won’t frustrate them, but will motivate them and help them learn those three simple words that much better.

I continued with a similar theme this morning when I walked around the classroom photographing elements of our room to illustrate a book called “In the Classroom.” The sight words that repeat in this book will be, “you,” “can,” and “see.” Each page will carry the same pattern: “You can see _____.” This will, again, help the kids learn those words solidly, and let’s hope, transfer them throughout their reading.

Finally, with my para out today and a substitute para in, I came back from lunch to find a slight bit of chaos ruling my class’ lunch table. I was less than pleased: garbage was all over and kids were not lining up. Our trip up the stairs was noisy and disorganized. When we got back to our classroom, I called a class meeting to discuss some problems we noticed with the class.

Here were the statements we came up with to (attempt) to rectify the situation(s):

1)      We sit in the meeting area.

2)      We put our garbage in the garbage can.

3)      We line up when the teacher asks us to.

4)      We are nice to all teachers.

5)      We walk quietly in the halls.

6)      We raise our hands.

These are not simple sentences. But the hope is to turn them into a big book that we can read as a class. Naturally, kids who are ready to read these sentences independently will get a small copy for their book baggies. But even those who couldn’t read it cold without help will be able to after being exposed to it in a group shared reading session.

These books are authentic. Since they’re authentic, kids will invest in them. And my hope is, since they’re investing in them, they will begin to transfer skills into other books, and (please happen) improve as readers.


Funny, Funnier, Funniest

I read my class a book today about a small girl who is told that due to her size she’s incapable of doing anything that the bigger people can do. For an ELL class, it was a fine opportunity to discuss the terms “big,” “bigger,” and “biggest.” We did so before reading the story.

When we finished, we talked about some other words that can be used the same way: small, tall, happy. And then I told them it might be a nice thing to tell one of their favorite colleagues of mine, the next time she came in, that she’s not pretty, nor prettier, but the prettiest.

She came in shortly after we finished reading the book, and I nudged the class in the direction of paying her the compliment.

Right on cue, Alvin turned to her and said, “You’re not beautiful, you’re the beautiful!”

We all had a good laugh over that and no feelings were hurt when I explained the motive behind the unintentionally backhanded compliment.

With Children, Wonders Never Cease

The helter skelter nature of my classroom and the unpredictability of my weekly schedule at school forced me to be away from our word study program, Words Their Way, for several weeks. This week, I returned to it, and, having done so, may have potentially stumbled, quite accidentally, onto what could be a major breakthrough for Donald (who, by now, you may know fairly well).

Words Their Way is a program that requires students to sort pictures and words according to patterns. Our sort this week was words with the ending patterns -en, -eg, and -et. Having been inspired by a visit to a colleague’s room a few weeks ago, I remembered how she printed the black and white images for the teacher sort (used to model and practice with the kids), and then colored the pictures in lively, engaging colors. Of course, I always use the teacher sort, but this week was the first time I took time out to color them.

As I was doing that, I was struck by my own inspiration. Knowing how much trouble my kids have had deciphering new patterns, and realizing the words are often foreign to English Language Learners (ie. peg, jet, hen), I decided to color code the words. I colored all the -en words yellow, the -et words pink, and the -eg words orange. This made it easier for students to see who was holding a given pattern in their hands, which put everyone further ahead going into the independent work than they have been all year.

During the work session, I watched from across the room as my para walked over to Donald with three distinctly colored markers and colored the headings -et, -eg, and -en. I walked over to observe, and then suggested to Donald that he may want to try to find all the -et words and color them the same color. He did, excitedly. Then, once we established the sound -et makes, he was able to, slowly but accurately, read the words “wet,” “pet,” “net,” and “jet”. I was amazed. This young man has done nothing remotely close to this level of work in Words Their Way all year, but here he was reading words like it was his job.

I helped him color and sort the yellow -eg words, and then left him to do the purple -en words by himself. And boy did he ever. He got them all right, and even took the time to write in the words he lost. My para and I were floating, and Donald was, too.

Later in the day, when I was alone in the room as my para took her lunch, I boldly decided to hold my writers workshop period (knowing that with Friday’s early dismissal, it wouldn’t happen otherwise). I asked Donald if he’d like to try color-coding the pages to help him transfer his one page draft onto five pages of soon-to-be published work. No verbal response was necessary: he ran to get the markers and, together we coded the pages.

For the first time this year, Donald spent the whole workshop doing work, totally unassisted.

Like I said, I kind of bumped into this color-coding business the way you stub your toe in the middle of the night: “Whoa! Didn’t see that coming.” Only thing is, this tickles a whole lot more.

On Injurious Double Standards

Throughout my brief teaching career, I have always called the model in which a special and general educator work side by side in an classroom of special education and general education students by one name. To me, it’s “collaborative team teaching.” In each class I’ve taken for my special education certification, and this is my third, I have heard people argue almost to the point of vehemence that the model is now called “integrated collaborative teaching.”

Fine. No big deal, really.

But there’s a problem. Those same people who insist that we use the new acronym ICT to refer to what, regardless, is still CTT, are the ones who flippantly, without consideration, throw around terms describing kids as “autistic,” “learning disabled,” and even, I shudder to type, “handicapped.”

Those words are no longer being in vogue. They are loaded labels. I know people don’t realize the severity of their offenses. They don’t even take it as an offense. But what happens when a child is called “autistic,” for example, is this: that child is autistic as an identity. In other words, the child with autism ceases to be an individual. Now, she becomes a disorder.

It’s the philosophy of person-first language. Kids are kids. People are people. That’s a universal law of acceptance. Despite differences, really, everyone is the same. So with that necessary level of acceptance, it’s imperative that educators, who are at the forefront with parents in advocating for students with disabilities, realize the power of their words.

No one will ever hear me refer to a child with autism as autistic. To me, it’s almost a slur. There is something inherently devaluing of an individual when you define them as one thing and nothing else.

To bring it back to the CTT/ICT issue, I look at it like this: Isn’t it unreasonable, as a professional, and even somewhat selfish and egocentric, to push the term ICT over CTT, when these same people haphazardly throw around injurious, pigeonholing terms to refer to the kids they are charged with serving?

CTT, ICT, ABC, XYZ, it really doesn’t matter to me what it’s called. In describing a model, there’s no harm being done to anyone. But to hang a flashing neon sign that says “AUTISTIC” around the neck of a child who is at her core, just a child? Isn’t that doing more harm than good? Isn’t it wrong?