ESL at Home: Tech Free ESL Ideas

When students are away from school, it's essential that they keep learning.  However, limited access to technology or parental assistance can make it difficult to achieve the same goals we hold in the classroom.  I've put together four weeks worth of activities for grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8 English Language Learners.  **Four more weeks are coming soon!** All they'll need to complete these tasks are pencils, paper, and household items. Thanks to the kindness of educators around the country, this file has been translated into more than 10 languages.

Click the picture to visit the website, which includes grades K-8.  You can find even more tech free ideas on this post.

What textbook? Teaching SLIFE"s, Part 2

In my last post I talked about how long it took me to figure out that I was teaching SLIFE's, and what that actually meant.  One of the things that made me into the educator that I am today has been my lack of access to a textbook or teacher's manual. 

 In my first job, teaching French, there was no textbook, so I drew from my experiences learning French to create lessons geared to my students' needs.  That experience allowed me to explore the practice of teaching language acquisition, and learn how to create materials that were engaging and effective.  Then, when I was thrown into an ESL position (again with no textbook), I drew on those experiences to create materials that were also driven by students' needs.  However, I quickly realized that teaching ESL is NOT the same as teaching FSL.  When teaching a world language, the expectation is that students will be able to use the language primarily in social situations;  rarely, if ever, will they need to conduct a conversation with academic language.  

In ESL, you are expected to teach them social language AND academic language, simultaneously and quickly.  My FSL students had no such expectations placed on them- they never needed to use French outside of our little bleu blanc rouge colored classroom. We had fun. We played games, we sang songs, we watched videos, we diverted from learning the language to learning about the culture and history (in English) without any sense of urgency.  So, when I received a group of SLIFE's and became their self-contained teacher, I was caught between teaching them ESL the way I taught FSL, and ESL that the district was expecting.  It's like being caught between a rock and a hard place.  I wanted to teach them rhymes and songs to help them remember phonics rules, but at the same time, I knew they were expected to leave my classroom being able to eloquently discuss changes in the three states of matter and describe the life cycle of oviparous creatures.  

This is when my lack of teacher's manual, scope and sequence, and pacing guide came in handy.  I drew upon my experiences teaching FSL and ESL, and created something that was unique to the needs of my learners, that year.  Looping with these students was one of the best and hardest things I've done as a teacher.  I couldn't do the same craft, read the same read-aloud, rest on my laurels, or rest, ever.  I had to take what they'd learned and expand on it, which pushed me, and them.  Teachers from other districts would come to observe us, and always asked what basal series I was using.  I'd shrug (that very Gallic shrug that expresses the untranslatable "bof" in French) and say I didn't use one, that I'd never used one.  The lack of a teacher's guide makes a lot of teachers uncomfortable. I know for a fact that I scared away a teacher who was shadowing me for a practicum.  My "alternative" instructional design methods were not equating with the strict teacher-prep program (you know, the one that makes you write 6 page lesson plans).  I didn't understand then, in fact, I sobbed, thinking I was an awful mentor.  But now, I understand it wasn't me, it was the fact that I didn't have a textbook, a pacing guide, or even a curriculum beside the one I wrote for myself. 

Although I've learned to never say never, I can pretty much guarantee that I'll never be in favor of teaching SLIFE's from a textbook or kit. This isn't to say that textbooks are wrong or bad, rather, it's the application that can be detrimental.  My experiences have shown me that manuals and books are resources, not prescriptions.  There is no manual in the world that can prepare someone to teach SLIFE students what they need to know in order to survive.  It's not a simple formula, there is no magic answer,  It's about the giving each individual student in a single class period the tools they need to succeed.

Teaching SLIFE's...a personal history

My first year working with SLIFE's was 2009.  It was my first year teaching, and I was teaching French as a long-term sub in an urban district.  I didn't know I had SLIFE's, much less what SLIFE's were.  The next year, I was assigned to teach an ESL 7th grade history, again with no knowledge about what SLIFE students were, much less how to teach them.  I was befuddled when an Arabic student continually used the letter /u/ when he meant the letter /n/.  I didn't know why he eloped from class, just that he did it and then returned when he was ready.  School admin was no help; they couldn't speak with him to discipline him, and he never showed up for any of the detentions he got for eloping.  Another student, who I will remember forever, built me an amazing longhouse (I still have it, 11 years later) out of popsicle sticks, during a unit on Native Americans.  He barely spoke a word in English or Spanish, but he had enough receptive language to absorb content and understand when I asked them to create something.  After stumbling through that first year teaching ESL, I realized I wasn't terrible at it, and it was something I wanted to get better at. (Did I mention I failed the French oral proficiency exam? 6 times? I did. ESL was pretty much my only option to continue teaching.)  So, I went for my M.Ed in teaching ESL.  

I moved to a new district, a TINY district, where I still am in 2020.  I still don't know why they hired me...I had no experience working with the population they had just received.  Sometimes I think it was a happy accident. The population I was hired to teach consisted of refugees from Burma and Thailand.  So here I was, 24 years old, armed with Kevin Henkes and Don Freeman read-alouds, theories of multiple intelligence, and classroom management tricks that worked in an urban setting with more traditional English Language Learners (the kind those "newcomer kits" are written for).  And then I met my students.  My sweet, trusting, bewildered, scared, confused, and frustrated students.   Again, with no training on SLIFE's, I stumbled through my first two years.  By the end of the second year I had luckily figured out what SLIFE's were, due to my own research skills.  I would send desperate emails to colleagues in my former district, pleading for resources and ideas.  I cried in my grad school classes, because what they were teaching me wasn't what was going to help my students learn to write their names.  During one lesson we were talking about the multiple meaning word "waves" and I pulled a picture of the ocean up on my screen.  The picture triggered PTSD in one of my students whose family had lived through the 2005 tsunami in Thailand.  She fell to the floor, wracked with sobs.  All I could do was hold her and rock her.  When it came time for lockdown drills, it took me the entire day to calm them, assuring them that no militia was going to storm the room with AK-47's.  Also, I was supposed to be bringing these students up to grade level reading and writing standards.  

Enter year 3, 2013.  I was just beginning my adminstration licensure program, had just bought my first house with my husband, and in dropped 4 new refugee students.  They ranged in age from 8-13, and none had been to school before.  I don't remember much about that September, only flashes of images and the panic attacks I had in the shower, when the reality of teaching refugees who had escaped with nothing but their lives set in.  I held it together when one of my students calmly explained how he watched someone's leg get blown off from a land mine, and that's why he preferred to stay on the blacktop at recess, rather than the grass. September became October, and with the help of kindergarten teaching blogs, I taught them how to write their names.  Then we counted the letters in their names.  Then we graphed who had more or fewer letters in their names.  By Halloween, they were reading emergent readers with sight words.  By December, we were playing first grade math center games together.  In March, we did our first word search and crossword puzzle.  They were fascinated by the idea of a leprechaun.  We began reading level A readers, then level B.  One of my students joined his grade-level math class, and was able to follow along with the computation skills.  I kept the other three with me, and we progressed steadily through second grade math standards, working our way up to third grade math.  That was the year I realized that teaching SLIFE's was not something you could learn in a textbook.  It was not something a professional development conference could help you with.  

Teaching SLIFE's is an experience that must be had to be understood.  Each and every SLIFE student I've taught has required a different strategy and teaching style from me.  And I see it as my duty and challenge to meet them where they are, learn what works, and give them what they need to succeed.

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