Saturday, July 21, 2018

So What Is SIFE?

I know, I know, it's been years (almost literally) since I last posted, but I'm hoping to use this more regularly this year to share more about my classroom and teaching.

For those of you who are new around here, I teach middle school SIFE in Nashville, TN. The next obvious question whenever I tell someone that is:

What is SIFE?

SIFE stands for Students with Interrupted Formal Education. It means that my students are new to America, missed at least two years of school in their home country, speak no English and are illiterate in their first language. 

Where do they come from?

This graphic is a few years old, and some of these countries are much more difficult to come to the US from now, but most of our students are still from Central America and Africa.

How long do they stay?

Our program is designed for students to stay about one calendar year (if they arrive in February, they stay until February), but these are the criteria for exiting the SIFE program:

From my classroom, they move into a level two or three ESL class and into grade level science, social studies, and math classes. 

Catching these students up to grade level is a tall order, but this is my dream job and these are my dream students. We're still looking for a math teacher for this year if anyone's interested in joining the team! We start back in a few weeks and I can't wait to see what this year has in store.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Refugees and SEL: Foundational Skills

Hi all!!

I know, I know, it's been... a while. Like the whole school year. It was a full, busy, wonderful year and I spent so much time investing in the needs of my students, my coworkers, and getting ready for my wedding that I hardly had a minute to spare to share our year with the world. But here are a few sweet photos to catch you up (and be sure to follow me on twitter if you want more regular updates of life at the cozy learning cottage!).

But we're finished with all of that now, and it's summertime! I've planned a quieter summer than usual, with a few trainings, subbing for summer school, and lots of time at the pool. In two weeks, however, I have the opportunity to present on what I've learned in the last few years about social/emotional learning and refugees- their unique needs and strengths, and specific foundational skills that I am sure to address throughout the year in explicit lessons.
Side note- if you're local to Nashville, you should come to the conference! It's free for Davidson county residents and educators and there are some great presenters lined up. Check it out here!

I thought I'd share with you a few of my go-to resources for SEL with my students. Some I've created and some are from other educators, but all have been resources I've referenced time and time again this year as we've worked to create a positive learning environment for all students.


I believe I've talked about yoga before on the blog, but over the course of the past year yoga became one of our weekly SEL skills, and my middle schoolers loved it. I received a grant in the middle of the year for the YogaFoster fundamentals training (which I cannot recommend enough!) and mats for my class, which really helped to give us a structure to our weekly yoga time. Before we would start yoga each week, I would ask the class "Why do we do yoga again?" and they would respond, chorally "Because it is good for our bodies, good for our minds and helps us to [deep exhale] calm down."

And it's true! Research has shown yoga to be especially effective for trauma survivors in helping hem to reconnect with their bodies and develop self-regulation skills.

Here's a sample "yoga burst" from yoga foster like one we would do in our class:

One thing I would note about yoga- in my classroom, yoga is always voluntary, and always calming. That means we can giggle and be a little silly, but we can't be crazy. We never touch each other during yoga, and it's never a problem to sit out yoga. I always encouraged students to participate and reminded them of why we do yoga, but we always kept it lighthearted and fun. We don't want to be stressing students out or making them uncomfortable!

Calm Down Choices

One of the biggest emotional obstacles we had in our classrooms this past year was students with difficulty regulating their emotions. Small problems would become big problems, meltdowns would occur because someone skipped in line or stole a pencil. For middle school students, this isn't an appropriate level of emotional regulation, but because of our students' backgrounds, often the underlying problem was a traumatic trigger like remembering waiting in line for food at refugee camps where the last one in line might not get food. Regardless, no one can learn when their emotions are constantly on high alert, so we needed to develop some methods to help calm down when they got angry, sad, or even just too silly. So I created this calm down choices chart to give my students options when they got upset- and to allow picture references for my very limited English proficient students. I laminated them and put one in each students' folder, as well as keeping extras on my desk, in the front of the room, and at my small group table. If I could have wallpapered my room with it, I probably would have. 
Identifying The Size of and Appropriate Reactions to Problems

Speaking of wallpapering my classroom, one resource that I did print off poster-size and hang next to the whiteboard was our "How Big Is Your Problem?" chart (I downloaded this one for free from TpT). We spent several SEL periods on identifying different problems and where they would fall on the chart, drawing and role-playing appropriate reactions to different levels of problems, watching funny videos of people overreacting to problems and role playing how we could handle it differently. My coworkers used the same charts and lessons and after a week or two, we could all ask any of the class groups that came through our door to identify how big of a problem they were having when they came to us with a problem. 3 or higher required teacher intervention, and all of our students knew that, which helped them to triage their own problems.

Those are some of the big resources I'll be covering in my talk at the end of the month. Is there anything else you would want to hear about in a talk about refugees and SEL? Any questions or hang ups I should be sure to address? I'd love your suggestions and feedback!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

When The Kids Repeat Everything You Say

It is a crazy power trip to think that the majority of the words my kiddos learn in English come out of my mouth. Sometimes this is great- they learn things like, "I feel mad at you," instead of "F*** you," but sometimes it's also hilariously not great.

I call my students about 1000 different nicknames during the day, sometimes because I can't think of their names fast enough and sometimes because I'm just feeling silly. My whole homeroom has nicknames for one another because we spend 3 hours a day together and it's just happened.

My most common nickname for boy students is "bro". I don't know when it started, but even my coworkers have started saying it because I say it so much- and hilariously, my little accented English learners have started calling each other "bro".

But for girls, I have a whole vocabulary of nicknames, ranging from sweetie to honey to, occasionally, baby. Unfortunately, "baby" is the one my students seem to have latched on to (I really didn't think I said it that much!) and now I'll hear in passing, "Thanks, baby," "No problem, bro."

We're turning into some kind of 90s sitcom.

On the other hand, during guided reading this week we were answering some text dependent questions about the sequence of events in the story. The group couldn't remember what happened next exactly, and one sweet boy piped up, "Let's look back in the story," and started flipping through his book. I have said that exact sentence probably every day since school started, but it was still startling to hear it perfectly echoed out of a student's mouth. They really are listening.

This week was a hard week on a lot of levels, but the kids themselves were not one of them. They're learning and growing (and not saying the F word anymore at all!!) and that's all I ask of them. I have some upcoming blog posts in the works about how I teach sight words (and keep a bijillion sight words flashcards organized), collaboration across content areas, and routines in the middle school classroom. Keep an eye out!

What's the funniest thing your students have repeated from you?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

We Only Know 4-Letter Words: Let's Talk about Swearing and ELs

We're three weeks in to the school year and my class is finally settling in to a routine and developing relationships with one another...

... Or they were, until we got three new students this week, nearly doubling our class size.

Don't get me wrong, I knew our class would be growing and I'm excited to have more kids in the class. But the sudden influx has left everyone feeling a little unstable in their friendships and changed the dynamics. It also means I can't overhear every conversation happening in the room at the same time.

And somehow, by Wednesday, every time I looked up, someone was raising their hand to tell me someone had called them stupid, told them to shut up, or (and by far most commonly) had said F*** you to them.

That's right. We struggle to answer the question, "How are you today?" consistently in English, but at this point I'm fairly certain every student in my class has either heard or said the F word.

It was happening in all of their classes, and my coworkers and I were completely flummoxed. Why had this started? How did they even hear this word? And most of all, why on EARTH do they say it so much?!

As we continued to enforce our "We do not say that word- EVER" policy, we didn't want to send them to administration or suspend them, because we knew they didn't understand how bad the word they were saying was. But still, we couldn't let them keep saying that. If nothing else, if they say it to people outside of class, they might get physically harmed.

After 4 days of listening to tattles and asking questions about why that word was used, I came up with a theory. Our kids all knew this was a bad word- a really bad word. They were using it in situations when someone else was annoying them in some way- talking too much when they were supposed to be quiet, making fun of them for some reason, knocking something over or bumping into them.

They wanted to express their annoyance and frustration to the other student in a way they would understand- but the only language they have in common is English, which everyone in the room has low proficiency in. So they say the only word they know the other one will understand and will communicate anger and frustration- F*** you.

So Friday morning, we had an intervention during our SEL time. I sat all of the seventh and eighth graders down on the rug in a circle (and assigned their partners). I explained that we have been having problems with hitting each other (another common way of expressing frustration) and saying bad words and we were going to talk about it.

The Lesson

The first thing we did was identify the emotion we were feeling: we were mad.

We went around the circle and made our best mad face, so I knew everyone was on the same page about what we were talking about. It also loosened up the group, because nothing will get you giggling faster than a good mad face.

Then I asked, "Is it okay to feel mad?"

There was a chorus of dutiful no's, but I cut them off.

"YES! It is okay to feel mad. It is no problem to feel mad. It is a problem to hit or say bad words, but when I feel mad, it is okay."

Most of my students come from incredibly rough backgrounds, and school needs to be a safe place for them to learn how to healthily express their emotions. All of us need to be able to recognize when we are feeling mad and decide on an appropriate way to express our emotion. That starts with feeling mad and knowing that's okay with me.

We reviewed that we know we don't hit and we don't say bad words, but we had some trouble (as I expected) coming up with another way to show our frustration. I had made an anchor chart just for this occasion:

We read it together and practiced saying, "I feel MAD at you!" (with feeling).

Then I had one of my most outgoing students come into the middle of the circle with me. I explained that one thing that makes me feel mad is when students poke me to get my attention (this is a true fact), and I told him to do it as annoyingly as he could. He took great joy in this, let me tell you. The rest of the class laughed as I made my best mad face and turned to him and said, "Please STOP! I feel MAD at you!"

We even modeled what I would do if he didn't stop when I said that (raise my hand and talk to the teacher). Then they practiced with their shoulder partners, poking each other and saying, "I feel mad at you!"

When we'd finished, we read, "How Full is Your Bucket?" and talked about how our words make other people feel.

Finally, we did some yoga to help us manage frustration and relax. GoNoodle has a great series of yoga videos called "Empower Tools" and they have one called "Manage Frustration". My students (all 7th and 8th graders, majority boys) all participated and get excited for yoga time. 

The Result

It's only been one day, so we'll have to see how long this lasts, but y'all, I heard the F word ZERO times yesterday. We had 2 small "shut up" incidents, but no one hit anyone else. And even more impessively, I heard "I feel MAD at you!" three times, and one student raised his hand to tell me he had a problem and he had already said, "Please stop."

The only explanation for the incredible success of this lesson is that these kiddos had been looking for other words they knew everyone would understand to express their frustration. They're all going through puberty and the hormone level in my room is currently through the roof. There's a lot of frustration goign around and that's okay. We're learning healthy ways to deal wih it and I'm so proud of these guys. But I'm getting ahead of myself- let's see how Monday goes.

How do you deal with swearing with English learners?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Most Wonderful (and exhausting) Time of the Year

Well friends, I know it's been quiet around here lately, but I've got a good excuse. I've been busily setting up my new cozy learning cottage at my new school (that's right! I'm still outside!). We started back with students about two weeks ago and through some unavoidable delays, my classroom wasn't ready for students on the first day. Electricity is a requirement in my book :)

But we've finally moved in and I'm remembering why this is my favorite part of the year. The kids' antics are still hilarious, and they're not tired of me yet either. But especially with new to English and new to school kiddos, it's also the most exhausting time of the year.

I have spent quite literally every moment of this week teaching procedures, and guys.. they're getting it. They know what the quiet signal is and what to do. They've learned how to raise their hands, where to sit, when to talk and when to listen. But what I'm most proud of- they already know and can independently participate in three literacy centers!

Center One: Read to Yourself

I always teach this one first because they're going to have to be able to do this and it takes a while to build up their stamina. It's also a great one for them to know how to do as an early finishers activity. I set up my library area to be cozy and inviting, so kids always want to go there and settle in with a good book. We do have a 1 pillow and no laying down rule, however (too many kiddos rolling on the rug instead of reading). I give them book bags (gallon size ziplocks) with two appropriately leveled texts and they get to choose one more from my classroom library of any level. During read to self time, they are allowed to read any of those three books, and they can choose one new book when they first sit down, but then they read through what they have.

We start off with a 5 minute increment and they can already do 10+ minutes of silent reading time! Especially because some of my students are pre-readers, it's impressive that they will sit for that long with a text.

Center Two: Writing Center

Because my students are a variety of different levels with regards to their writing ability, I have two activities at the writing center. One is a word wall search, with different themes every day. One day they need to find and write down as many words as they can that have the letter "b" in it, another they have to copy down all the 6 letter words. It's good to keep my lower level students engaging with the words and practicing their letter formation as they copy.

I also have the sentence frame pocket chart. I change out the words and sentences regularly, but students can move the cards around to create a sentence, then copy and illustrate it on a piece of notebook paper.

Center Three: Listening Center

My public library has a decent supply of these bookpacks, and they've been a clutch find this year. They're essentially books on tape with the books included, and my students have already figured out how to turn them on, plug in the headphones, and turn the page when they hear the "bing" sound.

I let the students try the centers without any help from me today with about 10 minutes at each center, and all of my classes were incredibly successful. I'm going to try to start pulling guided reading groups tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Thematic Teaching

Today I'm welcoming Melanie Speros to the Cozy Learning Cottage to tell us about how she uses themes to collaborate between EL teachers and Gen Ed teachers. 

I teach kindergarten at an elementary school with a high population (75%) of English Language Learners (ELL).  Many of my students are trying to learn the academic content and English at the same time.  I support this simultaneous learning with thematic teaching.  If you are an ESL teacher who provides push-in or pull-out support to students, you may already be working with themes in your language work.  Maybe the general education teachers are working with themes in their own classrooms.  If we coordinate and use the same themes together, our ELL’s subject-area learning can reinforce their language development and vice versa.

Using Themes with Beginning Readers
I realized how useful thematic teaching can be when I was working with my beginning ELLs.  During guided reading, when I would introduce a new text to my students, I would do a detailed book introduction.  We would talk about the pictures and practice using the vocabulary and language of the book, but when it came time to read it, they could not remember the vocabulary. 

One day one of my beginning ELLs was reading a page that said, “I see the boat.”  They stopped at the word boat and didn’t say anything.  After some prompting (with some blank stares and no attempts to read the word), I told them “boat.”  Then, on the next page, it said “I see the train.” But again, my student stopped at the word train.  With a fluent English speaker, prompts such as, “Check the picture” or “Make the beginning sound” would remind students to use all of the information on the page to read the word.  But I realized that prompts like these are useless if you don’t remember the word train.  Even if my student knew to check the picture, if they could not remember that that thing on the page was called a train in English, checking the picture would not help them solve the word.  Even if my student saw the word train and knew the /t/ sound, if they didn’t remember the word train the /t/ would not help them. 

I started teaching guided reading in themes, particularly with my beginning ELLs so that my students could use the same vocabulary across multiple texts.  I have seen amazing progress, lots of confidence, and many smiles as my students now read their books.  Using themes gave them a little extra support to take on the reading work.  It has been so exciting!

Using Themes Throughout the School Day
This got me thinking.  What if they saw that same vocabulary during math time when we were practicing addition story problems?  What if they heard that same vocabulary in our read aloud?  What if that was the vocabulary they were using during our designated ELD time?  I knew that thematic teaching would provide such an important support for my students.   

While vocabulary is only a small piece of ELD, it is the glue that holds it all together.  As an ESL teacher, if your goal is to work on using prepositional phrases, you would probably use sentence frames as a scaffold.  But what if the topic you chose was consistent with the read aloud the students had listened to earlier in the school day, or the same topic in their guided reading book? What if they had been reading books and solving math word problems on this topic all week?  Your ELLs would be hearing and practicing the vocabulary all day long!  Then, when it came time to practice prepositional phrases with your sentence frames, your students would be familiar with the vocabulary, and ready for the new language challenge.

ESL and General Education Teachers Working Together
Thematic teaching does not need to be complicated or elaborate.  Just collaborate on a theme.  Brainstorm vocabulary (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and think about areas where the theme may fit into the curriculum.  Don’t worry about fitting it into every part of your school day.  Here are some ideas for an ocean animal theme:

·       Solve math word problems about ocean animals
·       Use a survey about favorite ocean animals for sharing during Morning Meeting
·       Read aloud books about ocean animals or use ocean-themed books in shared reading
·       Find guided reading books about ocean animals for small group instruction
·       Use ocean animal examples in word study or word work (e.g. Correct grammar errors in sentences about ocean animals)
·       Write an informational piece about an ocean animal or write a story with ocean animal characters
·       Do an ocean animal art project
·       Sing songs about ocean animals

What are some themes you have used with your students?  When or how have you integrated it into the school day?

Melanie Speros is a kindergarten teacher in Southern California.  She believes in the importance of the home/school connection and using interactive and hands-on learning to maximize student engagement.  You can find her on, Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest, and Periscope.

Periscope: @melanie_speros

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Classroom Teachers & ESL Teachers: Working Together for Student Success

Today I'm thrilled to be hosting Lindsay Marcaccio on the blog to talk about her experience with ELs and how classroom teachers and EL teachers can work together for student success.

Just like our students, we as teachers are always learning. It was no surprise to me when I arrived in the UAE that I was about to experience a huge learning curve. I had never taught ESL students before, and I was excited to see how they learned differently from native English speaking students.  I quickly realized that if you have never worked with ESL students before, the differences can be overwhelming. The simplest communication takes time to understand, and it takes a lot of inferring on the teacher’s part to understand just what a student is trying to say, especially if they are trying to explain something.
“Miss, he beat me!”
 “I don’t cant!”
“Shu hadda?”
Keep in mind, the he referred to above was actually a she. Someone’s being beaten? What is going on! Boy was I confused.  It was only with the help of my experienced colleagues that I was able to get through those first few days, weeks and months! “He beat me” really means anything on a scale of “she grazed my arm” to “she tapped me on the arm a little harder than expected”.  Moving on from the simple conversational English that was challenging to understand in itself, I found myself wondering, how on Earth am I supposed to be teaching these kids words like photosynthesis and quotient?
On a normal day in the beginning, here’s what happened:
Introduce the activity. Model the activity. Do the activity together. Give students an independent task.
Me - “Do you understand what to do?
*Children shake their heads, yes.*
Me – “Any questions?”
Silence. *Some children shake their heads, no.*
Walk around the room. 3 hands up, 6 students looking around the room for answers. All the same question: “Miss, what I do?”
            Teaching ESL students can be challenging but also very rewarding. As ESL teachers, we are kept on our toes by always trying to find new ways to help our students understand. Using the right words and speaking at the right speed when explaining something to these students can make the difference of whether or not the student will be able to comprehend and complete a task. Finding the right materials can be a challenge, especially if the student’s first language is something other than French or Spanish. Most ESL resources available are made for the other official languages in North America, however with the increasing number of refugees and immigrants the need for more resources is also increasing. ESL teachers can be a great support for classroom teachers. The ESL teacher may better be able to assess the students’ needs and where to start, ultimately making the classroom teacher’s life a little easier. A teacher and an ESL teacher together may find or create resources specifically for a child.

English language learners need to focus on different skills than native English speakers because they generally take longer to comprehend and retain this second (or sometimes third) language.  The curriculum was made for students who speak English, and it can be very challenging to imagine how you will teach the same content, skills and strategies to students with varying levels of English. There are many simple accommodations that an ESL teacher could suggest depending on the situation, such as using extra visual cues and pictures to explain activities or a series of events. Those who have worked with ESL students before have a better understanding of how to interact with these students and what strategies might work best when teaching them. The classroom teacher may also have helpful strategies that they have used in the past with a struggling reader in English that could be beneficial to an ESL student. By working together with the classroom teacher, the students will have the best chance at being successful!

My name is Lindsay Marcaccio. I am a Canadian teacher and traveler living and working in the rural part of Abu Dhabi, UAE. I have been teaching the core subjects to ESL students for 3 years - grade 3 and grade 5.