header image

A Little Push

There are times when we need a little help, like a car with a dead battery that can’t get going unless someone pushes it until there’s enough momentum for the engine to start.  Pushing a car on your own is not as effective, and it can be dangerous.  You have to be quick enough to run around and jump in once you get the car moving but before the car gets away from you, or off your car will go on its own; directionless, picking up speed, knocking down mailboxes and garbage cans, or worse.

I needed a push recently.  I was like my first car with no charge in the battery.  Normally, my 1966 Pontiac Catalina was great.  It was a solid, reliable piece of automotive engineering.  It was also a huge boat of a car; long, broad, massively heavy.  With the battery dead, that car couldn’t go anywhere without help.  Neither could I.  Life’s difficulties had gotten between me and my easel.  I had stopped painting.  I was stalled.

I enlisted the help of a professional, someone trained and experienced at pushing people and giving them enough momentum so they can continue on their own.  At our weekly meetings she assigned homework.  Doing the assignments would help her to push me forward in the same way that disengaging the brake and putting a car in neutral allows the wheels to turn.  I had books to read, writing to show, reflecting and contemplating to busy my brain.  My first artistic task began with a benign question.  “What would you paint if you could paint, if nothing was stopping you?”

Unable to think of a subject to paint, I floundered, stammering “Uh, um, well, ummmmm, not sure, really.”  I was pressed to guess what I might paint if I could paint.  After more ums and well, uhs, I blurted out “A hand!”  Theoretically, I might paint a hand from my visit to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery during my stay in Hong Kong last summer.  Hundreds of life-sized, gold-painted buddha statues line the mountainside pathway to the monastery.  They are lovely.  The light falling on the statues creates shifting shadows and changes in color.  I intended to paint that.  I made sketches.  I  took photographs.  But I hadn’t painted.  Somehow, I  couldn’t.

“Your homework assignment is to begin a painting of a hand.  One hand.”  I was mortified.  I had agreed to do the assignments because I had asked for her help, and why ask someone to push your car if you keep your foot firmly on the brake?  Still, I went home thinking I should have blurted out something else, anything else.  A hand is, at the best of times, hard to draw and harder to paint.  I was out of practice and my painting arm was surely stiff and awkward from disuse.

I went to the studio and turned an abandoned, half-finished painting upside down to make the whole thing less intimidating because, as Cezanne pointed out, ‘It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.’  Standing in front of this scumbled up canvas might be less fine, but it would definitely be less terrible.  The canvas was already a disaster, so I figured I couldn’t mess it up much more.

I started.

 IMG_8492

I went back.

IMG_8493

Again.

IMG_8692

Though the painting was still unfinished, I got a new assignment.  Give the painting a title.  “Easy.” I said, because I give all my paintings plain, straightforward titles.  How about ‘Hand‘?”  Not good enough.  My professional prodder told me that the title of this painting must have something to do with my new start, something about the direction I want to go with my art.  Dang.

I went home and thought about it.  I mulled it over.  I contemplated.  Aha!  I remembered from an art history class taken decades ago that each of the features in an image of the Buddha has specific meaning.  I looked up the hand gestures (mudras) and discovered that the hand I started is the Bhumisparsa Mudra.  The gesture is called “Touching the Earth” and is said to be the gesture the Buddha made at the moment he achieved enlightenment.  It represents unshaken strength and truth of his commitment to liberation, which helped the Buddha overcome the darkness challenging him right before he entered the light.  Touching the Earth would be the title.

Naturally, I do not imagine for a nanosecond that one painting will bring me to spiritual enlightenment but I do want to move toward unshaken strength, to be committed to creative liberation, to overcome the darkness.  I want to be artistically grounded and feel always that I am Touching the Earth.  Admittedly, one mediocre, unfinished painting is a very small beginning, but with a helpful push, I have started moving again.

Back and forward

I have changed over the course of this year in many ways.  One difference is that I have come to the realization that a great teacher can in fact, teach an almost endless variety of subjects.  I have learned that teaching itself does not rely primarily on subject knowledge (much to my dismay at first) but on teaching skills.  I have spent this internship year working toward improving my teaching skills.  I reluctantly admit that when I started teaching art, I thought I would naturally be a better teacher than people with less art training or skill.  Not necessarily.

That was a huge change in my attitude about teaching.  Interestingly to me, I still have much same vision of myself as a developing teacher.  I still want the same things as I wanted when I started this program last summer.  The biggest difference I have made is that now I have a plan—several plans, in fact.  I have my professional development plan, lesson plans, assessment plans, plans for classroom management, plans for using a variety of teaching strategies, plans for including families and the community in student art.  I have so many plans, I can’t wait to get started with them.

I still believe with every fiber of my being that art has intrinsic value.  I believe that art offers a form of self-reflection, contemplation, and communication which invites people to reach into the depths of their being and literally ‘draw out’ something of value to offer the world.  Now I have some plans about how to get students to reach down deep, find what they have to say to the world, and say it.  

The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.          ~Aristotle

Give Me Some Direction

Arts standards allow teacher leeway to teach the standards using different media and techniques.  Such flexibility allows the art teacher to differentiate for all skill levels and learning styles while still adhering to standards-based assessments.  I used to think standards-based assessment was akin to standardized tests but have come to learn differently.  The visual arts standard of Washington State provide teachers with guidelines and a framework to build upon so that students can move from school to school and feel comfortable wherever they go because the teachers are teaching what is expected at that grade level.  I personally like guidelines.  I am the kind of person who makes lists, outlines plans for trips, and uses patterns for sewing and recipes for baking.  I also like flexibility, both in my own personal guidelines and those provided for my art students.   For one assignment this year in Drawing and Painting, I used my mentor’s plan for teaching color theory through a color mixing project.  Here are the Washington State High School standards we used to guide us.

EALR 1—Visual Arts: The student understands and applies arts knowledge and skills in dance, music, theatre, and visual arts.

GLE: 1.1.6: Creates, analyzes, and evaluates the elements of visual arts when producing a work of art.

Elements of Visual Arts: Line, Shape, Form, Color, Value, Texture, Space

Differentiates between, mixes, produces, and uses—in various artworks and using a variety media—the following 

  • Primary colors (yellow, red, blue).
  • Secondary colors (orange, green, purple/violet); created by mixing primary colors (yellow + red = orange).
  • Warm colors (yellow, orange, red) and cool colors (blue, green, violet).
  • Intermediate (tertiary) colors; created by mixing selected primary and secondary colors (yellow + green = yellow-green

The assignment allowed students to choose their own subject while using only the three primary colors to mix all the other colors in the projects.  I required each student to mix four different oranges, four different violets (purples), four different greens, and four different neutral colors.  In order to complete this assignment, students first mixed colors for a color wheel using only red, blue, and yellow.  They also mixed several neutral colors.

Color Wheel worksheet

In order to make the assessment of student understanding truly standards-based, several different assessments were required.

Watercolor mixing rubric

I used ongoing observation, assessment of the color wheel, a self-assessment and rubric for the color mixing project, another color mixing assessment, inclusion of test questions on color theory and color mixing, and assessment of the art project itself.

extra 027

It seems like a lot when written down here, but by asking student to do, say, explain, and reflect, the art teacher can really discover if the student has learned what the teacher has been trying to teach them.

Using standards-based assessments is a way to check and improve my teaching practice.  If students do not understand a concept or have not learned a skill I must know that in order to reteach it in a more accessible way.

Getting to Know You

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1956 musical The King and I, with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.  She is a teacher who travels to Siam to teach the royal children—the many royal children of all ages and skill levels.  One of the musical numbers is a song called “Getting to Know You” which she sings to her students.

images

http://www.rnh.com/videos.html?video=186&gallery=136&vpg=2

I don’t know how difficult it was for the real Anna Leonowens to teach all those different students, but I do know how it is for public school teachers here.  Teachers are strapped for time, resources and support.  The best thing we teachers can do to make our teaching appropriate for each of our wonderfully unique individual students is to get to know them.  We learn theory and are introduced to a variety of teaching strategies in our university courses but in order to be able to put that information to use, we must find a way to get to know our students.

Over the course of this internship I have seen how my mentor teachers get to know their students, how some of the teachers I observed do that, and I have learned a little something about how I can do that.  Each of my mentor teachers starts the semester with what they call an interest inventory.  It’s a short questionnaire that students complete which gives a little information about them.

Interest Inventory

Some of the differentiation we do in class is for learning styles and students with special needs but there are other factors teachers should be aware of that affect learning.  If a student works twenty hours a week as a dishwasher and gets off work at midnight most nights, teachers should know that.  If a student has a blind mother at home that they help care for, teachers should know that.  If a student has aging grandparents who live with them, a new baby in the house, plays several sports, travels with the orchestra, has a death in the family, is in the Latin club competition, has no computer at home, observes particular holy days, or is in this country with no parents, teachers can use that knowledge to help guide student learning and to make learning more accessible to all students.

I have included some ‘getting to know you’ activities this internship.  The first one I created was for a project where students worked with partners that were chosen randomly from a hat.  I started out with some resistance until the students learned a little something about their partners.  I gave students several minutes to talk with their partners and learn their partner’s full name, something the two of them had in common and one interesting thing about their partner that most people probably didn’t know (something the partner agreed to share with the class).  My mentor teacher and I began by introducing each other (her interesting fact about me was that I once milked a camel).  Then I gave students time to talk to each other.  Students each introduced their partners to the whole class and we learned a lot about each other.  The collaborative partnership of making an art project went much smoother after that and I plan to find many different ways for students to get to know each other and for me to get to know them.

Art class is one of the best subjects for differentiating.  Everyone who makes art does it differently and has different skills, so we teachers are obligated to look at each student as an individual and at each student’s progress measured against themselves rather than compared to other students.  If there ever was a standardized test for art, it could only test the superficial knowledge and not the real aesthetic understanding of students.  It takes a teacher to do that—one who knows her students and can draw out their strengths.

Student Voice

One of the things many art teachers overlook is teaching students to write about art.  I am not talking here about the typical writing of reports and art history research.  What I am talking about is the kind of writing that is introspective and thoughtful-writing which allows students to ‘find their voice’ in the art class.  High school students are being taught more than art in the art room.  They are being taught how to problem-solve, how to persevere, how to think creatively, how to accept and celebrate one another’s differences.  They are taught to communicate through the arts.  Along with that, comes a responsibility to teach students how to talk about art and how to write about it.

In the sculpture class where I interned, my mentor teacher used graphic organizers to help students put their ideas into a readable, coherent artist statement.  When she first told me about it, I asked if students struggled with the artist statements, since they are difficult for many of us professional artists to write.  My mentor teacher assured me the students were not going to be daunted by the process and I would be pleased with what they wrote.  She got me started on a quest to find ways for students to be able to reflect more deeply on the art process and on the final art pieces.

Here is a basic template for the graphic organizer we used in class.  It is easily modified to focus on specific art projects and can be used for Drawing and Painting, Ceramics, and Jewelry as well.

034

Below is a student artist statement for a collaborative sculpture project.  It is amazing.  This was not the super-smart kid who a teacher expects to be articulate.  This quality was typical of nearly all of the artist statements.

student artist statement 1

This set of skills makes talking about art simple and makes looking at art more enjoyable.  Students who think deeply about how and why they created their own work are better able to go out into the world and truly appreciate what they see.  Being able to talk and write about art will enhance their lives in ways they won’t think of when they are still in the high school art class.  Later, when they are– for example, traveling in Oman, they will be able to look at the decorated domes of the mosques and appreciate their beauty, knowing that it is created using the elements of line and shape, both geometric and organic, which are organized using the principles of pattern and repetition.   It is a far richer way to see and know the world than to simply think, “Hey, that sure is pretty.”

Integrated Arts

Art classes, particularly Drawing and Painting classes tend to be light on technology and heavy on the primitive.  We use old-fashioned tools like pencils and brushes.  But the arts are not totally without their reliance on technology.  Even in visual arts, we use more modern technology than we used to.  In Jewelry class, we use instructional videos (on YouTube, among others) that show students how to safely use the tools in the class.  Students learn to cut, drill, file, make cold connections, weld, and form metal using not only hand tools, but gas torches, glass kilns, and drills.

One of the most common uses for computers in art class is as a research tool.  Students can research the history of a particular type of art, or of a culture, or look up photographs to use as references for sculpting realistic animal faces in the ceramics class.  The computer gives them access to far more information than they can find in the school library.

What else can a teacher to incorporate technology into art classes?  One of my mentor teachers shows the following short video called “What’s Art Got To Do With It?” at the start of each semester to the beginning Drawing and Painting classes.  This little video, beautifully done by a student, serves to get students thinking about some of the different ways we communicate through art.  It is a wonderful introduction for new art students.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1N1wnwahs-I

I am the one of most hopeless computer users, but that is changing.  I took a class two years ago on adding technology to the classroom and learned how to make a movie from still pictures AND add music.  This may be simple for young people accustomed to using the computer, but for me, as for some of our students who are new to this country or have no access to a computer at home, some of the things many students find simple appear frighteningly complex.  I plan to find time (or rather MAKE time) to get to know other teachers where I work after this internship.  Art is intertwined with every other subject.  How wonderful to tie art projects to music, literature, biology, mathematics, chemistry.  Here is my little first attempt at communicating through art using a computer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-7WsM_BYnQ

Through art, I hope to find ways for my students to communicate more deeply than most of their Facebook posts and Tweets.  I plan to keep learning so I can introduce them to all the tools available for making art, including technology.

The Calling – What’s My Job and Can I do It?

I have read a lot about teaching and have probably doubled that long list since last August when I first reflected on the articles The Inner Game of Teaching (Marzano and Marzano 2010) and What’s My Job (Wiggins 2010).  The inner job is an easier article to accept at this date as I have seen some wonderful examples of reframing during my internship.  Being able to look at a situation that could be seen as negative and thinking of it in a positive way is beneficial in the classroom as one recent example reminded me.  A student arrived in the art class who did not want to be in it, had not signed up for it but was forced into the class because of schedule conflicts.  This student made a point of doing nothing in class until personally requested to do so several times each class period by the teacher (me).  When pressed to work in class, he would often simply say he was done and put his head down or scribble all over his artwork and turn it in, giving himself a failing grade on his rubric.  Each day this student introduced me to a new but familiar presenting event.  I was solo teaching and spoke with my mentor teacher about it.  I tried all kinds of reframing, which seemed to work for a day or a class period and then another strategy had to be found.  I looked deeply at the three questions the Marzanos suggested I ask myself for practicing control over my interpretations (Marzano and Marzano 2010).

  • How am I interpreting this event?
  • Does this interpretation help serve an important goal or an important principle in my life?
  • If not, what is a more useful interpretation?

Those questions are very useful.  Nothing works all the time but it is important as a teacher to really think about why we do what we do in class.  I have often compared teaching to parenting and in this aspect, the inner, reflective aspect, it is the same.  When one thing doesn’t work, we consider why.  How am I looking at this student?  Do I resent his wasting valuable class time that other students who remained on the waiting list for this class would fully use?  Do I care about this particular students’ education as a whole or only in my class?  Am I frustrated in my authority as a teacher?  Do I take this one student’s behavior personally as an affront to the value of the arts?  Am I egotistically trying to prove my worth as a teacher?  These are hard questions to ask oneself but important.  A teacher is always reviewing and reconsidering her planning, teaching, and assessing.

This inner life–this reflective, questioning teacher is also the one who is frustrated by the fact that ALL students may not be able or willing to put forth the effort needed to be successful in the classroom.  As I reread ‘What’s My Job?’ (Wiggins 2010), my mind kept going back to something the Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg said when he spoke at the University of Washington last autumn.  After he spoke, a Seattle area educator wondered aloud how does an administrator KNOW that a teacher is doing a good job teaching when Finland does not use student test scores to check the teacher’s results?  Mr. Sahlberg replied that in Finland, teachers are highly-trained professionals and are treated as such.  He told the questioner that administrators in Finland talk to their teachers rather than testing them.

Among other things the Finns do is allow teachers enough time for planning (so that they are not obligated to work at home as most of our public school teachers must do).  Teachers have smaller classes so they can give more than seventy-five seconds of class period time to individual students.  I fully understand that in the US, we do not have the focus or the desire to improve our educational system through changes to the system when it seems so much easier to put the onus onto the teachers.  Teachers are required to make accommodations, adjustments, and modifications for individuals but only those few who either desperately need it and who the state assists, or whose parents understand how to navigate our complex system.  Students with IEPs, 504s, and whatever other states call their individual plans.  Mr. Wiggins wrote “We tend to define teaching by measuring all the things a teacher is supposed to do rather than what the teacher is supposed to accomplish.”(Wiggins 2010, p. 9).  His idea is that teachers should be held to industry standards just as salesmen or business executives are.  To my mind, teaching is not salesmanship (even though we use some of the same techniques to sell our students on the ideas we are teaching them).  It is not a business management position where if your employees do not perform, you should be fired.  This is the very attitude that makes the reflective, inner game of teaching one of frustration and fear.  Teachers who are not trained properly should get proper training, not get fired.  Teachers who have students who refuse to work in class or cannot accomplish to the level of other students should get support for those students, not a reprimand for being unable to do what is not humanly possible. Mr. Sahlberg wrote,

   Education in Finland gives high priority to personalized learning and creative teaching as important components of schooling.  Therefore students’ progress in school is primarily judged against their respective characteristics and abilities, rather than reliance on   uniform standards and statistical indicators. (Sahlberg 2010, p.89)

A teacher is someone who has gone through years of expensive colleges, an often unpaid internship with long hours, and test after test just to be able to learn the art of teaching.  It is an art.  It is also a calling, as has been mentioned in several Seattle Pacific University classes and by Mr. Pasi Sahlberg during his talk at the University of Washington.  If teachers were salesmen or executives, they would also be getting bonuses and wages of the business professional instead of one-tenth that amount.

Does a great teacher also need to be, as quoted on the back cover of the book Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire (Esquith 2007) “a genius and a saint”?  I am neither but I still want to be a great teacher.  The author Rafe Esquith has been teaching with total support from his wife, who helps him get things done for his students, a twelve-hour school day—every school day—and summer vacations spent with students.  Is this the only way to be a great teacher?  Can we teachers get more guidance and support and less of the blame for an imperfect public school system that needs to change a great deal more than it’s educators?

For some teachers the inner game of teaching becomes one of questioning more than their ever-changing job definition.  Teachers reflect on what they do and wonder how long they will be able to manage to do what they feel called to do without having the requirements of the profession overwhelm them.  I plan to ask for the support I need to become a great teacher and I hope my classmates will be doing the same and eventually create a more effective education system.  I plan to do this job of classroom teaching exceptionally well and, not being a genius or a saint, I will need some help.

Esquith, R. (2007) “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire” New, York, NY. Penguin Books

Marzano , R.J., & Marzano, J.S. (2010). “The Inner Game of Teaching” in Marzano, R. J. (Ed.) On excellence in teaching (pp.345-367). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Wiggins, G. (2010) “What’s My Job? Defining the role of the classroom teacher.” (2010) in Marzano  R. J. (Ed.) On excellence in teaching (pp.345-367). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Sahlberg, P. (2010) Finnish Lessons. New York, NY. Teacher’s College Press, Columbia University

Don’t be Gauche

I’ve written a lot over this past year about being an immigrant’s daughter and how that has focused my view of the world.  It has influenced my view of teaching and learning in many ways.  I think about my father, aunt, and grandparents when I look at my students who have little English or who have a different outlook on life because of the influences of a culture different than the broad mish-mash we so incorrectly call the American melting pot.  Cultures do not all meld together to become one lovely multi-cheese fondue that we can dip our bread into and get the same taste and texture every time.  The U.S. is more like a paella, where each different type of seafood is distinct and separate but enhances the other.  Each culture has something wonderful and distinctive about it and students should be reminded that everyone in this country who is not native-American, came from somewhere else.  Students with strong ties to ‘the old country’ add value to this paella of a country by bringing their own flavors and textures.  In my internship, I noticed that one of my teachers is remarkably adept at including a cultural aspect to her lessons.  The other teacher told me that was her focus for professional development this year; including a cultural aspect.  It’s a great idea, but in some ways art teachers can focus on cultural diversity and completely overlook individual diversity.  I am working toward both.

In each art class, we have several students who are left-handed.  Since about one-in-ten people are lefties worldwide, that should not be a surprise to teachers.  Yes, in the ‘old days’, like when my father was in school, teachers often forced students to use their right hand—a conformity that created lifelong problems for some of them.  Still, even very good art teachers forget that all tools are not made for all people.  One teacher I met has only right-handed scissors in her class.  She says that the National Art Education Association recommended a particular type of scissors for everyone (right-handed scissors).  She has several assignments that require the use of scissors.  Some left-handed students are not partly ambidextrous left-handers like me and my sister.  We both learned to use scissors in our right hands as children because one cannot cut properly with right-handed scissors in one’s left hand.  One ends up bending and tearing the paper, which sets the students up for failure when all they need is the right tool for the job.

“Many tools and devices are designed to be comfortably used with the right hand. For example, (right-handed) scissors, a very common tool, are arranged so that the line being cut along can be seen by a right-handed user, but is obscured to a left-handed user. Furthermore, the handles are often molded in a way that is difficult for a left-hander to hold, and extensive use in such cases can lead to varying levels of discomfort. Most importantly, the scissoring or shearing action – how the blades work together (how they are attached at the pivot) – operates correctly for a right-hander, but a left-hander will tend to force the blades apart rather than shearing the target substance. So-called ambidextrous scissors do not help, since the cutting blades are still set right-handed.”  Wikipedia.org

220px-2scissors-clean

There is a reason that left-handers have been considered awkward, ungraceful, and clumsy.  The very word gauche means left in French.  People who teach wood shop must surely know that lefties cannot use a table saw as easily as a right-hander and you just try using a skill saw as a lefty, it’s a miracle to survive the process with all your fingers intact.  Left-handed students who use right-handed tools in school are at a disadvantage.  Imagine writing comfortably during a test on those half-desks with the attached chair and arm-rest on the right side if you are a lefty.  The teacher will think you are maneuvering to see the neighbor’s test instead of trying to be able write without an arm cramp.  Left-handed scissors are an easily acquired tool, readily available for addressing the needs of diverse students and left-handedness is an obvious and age-old diversity.  All a teacher need do is look at the students writing or drawing and they can easily see what modifications are needed.  I hope to be making those modifications in future as well as the ones for religious, cultural, and health reasons.  I am working toward learning about my students so that I will be able to make modifications in the classroom that give every student the best possible opportunities to succeed.

Quote retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scissors

The Interesting Bits

One of the things I have become much better at during this internship year is being clear on learning targets and making sure students know them.  Each of my mentor teachers is quite good at that, in completely different ways.  One of my teachers and I were talking about staying on track with exactly what we are trying to teach by remembering that we must stick to the relevant information rather than the interesting information-relevant that is to the standards and learning targets.  In art class, as I am sure is true in other subjects, much of what makes the subject so engaging are the interesting bits.  Sadly, we do not have endless amounts of time with our students to ponder all of those, so we find methods to stay on track.  Planning is a large part of it.  The Washington state visual arts standards are clear enough to follow and flexible enough to give the teachers room to use a variety of art media, tools, and methods to teach those standards.

Watercolor mixing – new format

Teaching art need never be boring either to the teacher or the students.  So, once we know what we are teaching our students, we can decide how we will do that.  Then, students must know what they are learning and how they will learn it.  I have found that a class of high school students does better with one or two instructions at a time along with a constant reminder of where they are going with their art projects.  In Drawing and Painting that means reminding students that they are learning (for this lesson plan) how to mix a variety of colors using only the three primary colors of red, blue, and yellow.  Each day, I place either on the white board, or under the document camera, what the learning targets are for that day.

April 01

Usually, I include the criteria somewhere so students who are working at different speeds can stay on track.  I am a bit of a list-writer anyway, so this method helps both me and the students stay focused on what’s important and when I do that, I find there is usually a little time to include some of the interesting bits, too.

Listening to Our Students

As a person who has lived and worked in other countries, and as the daughter of an immigrant to this one, I understand how hard it can be for people who are not native speakers.  I grew up hearing stories that were both hilarious and tragic about language and cultural misunderstandings my father experienced.  My father arrived in this country at the age of seventeen with no English at all.  He, his sister, and his mother had to take a train from New York, where their ship docked, to Seattle where my Grandfather was waiting.  In the dining car, the small Westö family pointed to items on the menu.  My father ordered and when his plate arrived, it was a sandwich.  Luck!  Recognizable food!  When he took a bite however, he thought the train staff was trying to glue his mouth shut.  Between the slices of bread was peanut butter, something my Finnish father had not even heard of before, let alone tasted.  That was the first experience in a lifetime of trying to understand and be understood in a language and culture that was not his own.

I have been fortunate to be interning in the most diverse school in what is a very large and diverse school district.  We have students from all over the world, who speak dozens of languages and have varied cultural practices.  We recently had a staff meeting which focused on ensuring access for English language learners.  I have learned over the course of this school year, that some parents opt out of ELL assistance for their children, even though there is no cost to them and it greatly helps students catch up or keep up in class.  Usually the reasons are cultural misunderstanding.  Sometimes parents think of the extra help as demeaning or singling out their child in a negative way, sometimes the ELL support staff are unable to make the benefits clear.  In any case, classroom teachers are required to teach the students they get.  They cannot say, “Well, your English is not very good, so you cannot be in this ceramics class.  Maybe you can come back later when you can understand everything.”  Classroom teachers must learn how to give those students access to the material just like they differentiate instruction for students with different learning styles, abilities, and special needs.  At this wonderful staff meeting (yes I did I write wonderful and staff meeting in the same sentence), a diverse group of students came to our staff meeting to talk to us about some of the things we teachers can do to facilitate learning for non-native speakers.  They spoke to us about language and culture, because those things are intertwined.

Here is some of what they told us:

  • allow additional time to complete difficult (language heavy) assignments
  • be available at lunch or after school sometimes for students who need more time or help
  • allow students to explain assignments to each other in their native language (oftentimes one student has a far better understanding of English than another and can help them understand what is required of them)
  • understand that many students may have verbal skills below their written skills because they may have studied written English but not been able to learn the spoken language
  • offer more than one definition for vocabulary words (if students can’t understand the definition either, they are lost)
  • allow the use of electronic translators and dictionaries in class
  • respect different religions (some people need a separate place to pray during class time)
  • allow non-native speakers to give presentations to the teacher alone or to small groups instead of the whole class
  • understand that some cultures are unaccustomed to group work in education and you will need to teach them how it works
  • talk to students one-on-one, get to know something about your students

Not only in research, but to the students in classes now, the last piece of advice was the most important.  If we learn who our students are, we find it easier to allow for their differences.  We should not just give those kids that old-fashioned, all-American, ‘peanut butter sandwich’ version of education.  We must find out who they are, so we can give them what they need to be successful in school.  My father used to laugh when he told his eating on the train story.  I want my students to be able to laugh at small misunderstandings because they move beyond them and learn to communicate.

One staff member who teaches math told us that she always adds a personal question to the end of her tests.  She learns something about each student that way even though she doesn’t have much class time to get to know them.  The answers open up opportunities to talk with students about their interests or experiences, building that vital teacher-student relationship.  I plan to use that teacher’s strategy in future and to actively seek other ways to get to know my students and to help them get to know each other.