By Diana Caviezel , Literacy Specialist Assistant, Asociación Escuelas Lincoln, Buenos Aires, Argentina
I was very fortunate to participate in the Cognitive Coaching course offered this semester at Lincoln school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as part of our language acquisition master’s program. It was a wonderful experience which meant more than learning how to coach, it opened a whole new perspective on self-observation and monitoring of my planning and teaching approaches. One of the tasks we were given, was to reflect on and record our daily observations. I would like to share one of my reflections on this experience, hoping it may be of value to you.
This year I have been given the opportunity to practice a lesson three times in the same day, as a Literacy Specialist Assistant (LSA) in the Spanish SLL and Immersion classes. In spite of the task being repetitive, it allows trial and error to become an integral part of planning. Since I may need to modify approaches, strategies and material throughout the same day, it is important to be open to constant change and accept my mistakes as part of the process. Although time may be short in the course of one day, the advantage is that I am able to compare results and continue improving my methods without having to wait for a different type of lesson. I have chosen the introduction of our Daily 5 “word work” center in SLL class for my analysis because I feel it evolved greatly with each group of students. Since the introduction of a center involves teaching about following instructions as well as learning about new material, it becomes somewhat more complex than simply teaching a reading strategy, and therefore provides more opportunities for changes and improvements along the way.
Before I began talking about the objectives and expectations of the center, I asked students whether they had heard about ¨trabajo con palabras¨ (word work) before, this way we could access background knowledge. I knew some of them would answer ¨yes¨, so I later allowed them to explain to the rest of the class. Depending on the group of students, some of them could give a complete explanation. In other classes, I asked one student to talk about a part, and later another could finish what the first student had begun explaining. In some cases, since I wanted to get the main idea across, I translated both the question and the answer to English, in order to make sure they understood. I allowed some of them to explain in English as well. Once they were finished, I paraphrased or translated into Spanish once again. As I presented each point in the anchor chart, I asked questions immediately after, in order to make sure that each point was clear. If it were Spanish immersion class, I may not need to do this so often. As they began working in groups, I assessed their understanding by checking the words they wrote, as well as the drawings that went along with each word. Once we finished the two Daily 5 rounds, I asked them to sit on the rug and share what they liked best and what they liked least about the “word work” center. We also went through the anchor chart and checked each of our jobs, to see where we excelled and where we needed more practice. We agreed that, since centers are timed, it was not necessary to finish our work, as long as we did our best effort, and built up our stamina.
Differentiation is a must in any classroom, although SLL is essentially differentiation in itself. I feel it was not as easy to do this when a general lesson is given to the class as a whole, and there are so many levels of language learners. The fact that some students know very little Spanish or English, makes translating almost obsolete. In those cases, an ipad can give some support, as one of our students uses. Although most of all, showing illustrations or acting out the motions in an exaggerated way, may add to understanding. It not only shows, rather than tells, but it also captures their attention, and supports their comprehension in a different and fun way, involving more of their senses. I find that students enjoy watching teachers act as students, and many times our acting does not need too many words in order to get the main idea across. During the lesson, I tried to look at the faces of those students who knew less Spanish, to catch a glimpse of whether they looked lost, or whether they were smiling because they could follow. As students began working in the centers, I was able to further explain some points on a one-on-one basis. This is where I feel most comfortable teaching, because my attention is centered solely on one or two students at a time. For this reason, giving a lesson to the class as a whole in SLL, has been one of my greatest challenges up to now.
My colleague´s support was key during this lesson. She became an extension of my own senses. Usually, when one of us is explaining something to the whole class, the other teacher looks closely at each child to make sure they are understanding. This may sometimes require grouping them together, so as to not interrupt the flow of the lesson, and the supporting teacher may give shorter explanations, or translate for those students. As changes were needed during the lesson, I sometimes consulted with her, so we could agree on how to implement these changes. If it meant small modifications, we were able to accommodate students and materials in a quick and practical manner. In other cases, we consulted during our planning time and agreed on greater adjustments from one group of students to another. As we got to work in the centers, I was able to focus on the “word work” center, while she assessed student´s reading informally. We usually both keep an eye on students who are in the “reading to self” center. Once we begin implementing more centers, we will need to organize the way we divide our attention among those centers and on specific students, although we have already decided that the teacher is focusing more on the A1 group (beginners), while LSAs work more closely with the A2 and B1 groups.
For this lesson, I had planned to have groups of four students at the “word work” center, but since I had taken a long time to introduce the anchor chart, we changed it to eight students. This way they could all have a chance to try working at the new center. It proved to be too many students, since some misunderstandings came up as I wasn´t able to pay closer attention to each student. I adjusted back to four students with the next two groups. Another change was introducing the material during the group lesson instead of doing it at the center, although it would have been too much information to show during the group lesson with our first class, which is larger and has a greater difference in language levels. As the day went by, I made several small adjustments as well. My choice of words for the anchor chart kept changing into shorter ways of saying the same thing. Even though we try to use a common language for the centers, sometimes it is difficult for language learners to grasp the main idea. The wording is not familiar and the students become confused. I therefore decided to change some words, and make the points shorter and clearer. An example may simply be changing “comenzar inmediatamente” (begin right away), which they could hardly pronounce, to “comenzar de inmediato”, “comenzar en seguida” or “comenzar rápido”. Since our students come from different countries, and Spanish words vary greatly depending on where they come from, or where they began learning the language, we sometimes need to arrive at a consensus as to which Spanish word or phrase is the best choice. Some bigger changes involved moving the center closer to the word banks and word wall, or reprinting some material, in order to use words, rather than sentences. The teacher and I also talked about whether it was necessary to have every student work at the new center that same day, or on the contrary, whether they should have all tried out the center at the same time. We will need to come to an agreement on this point. My observations of how children were focused, as well as how they were enjoying each activity – or not, helped guide my adjustments during each lesson and throughout the day.
Understanding students´ cultures and background knowledge is a tool for measuring what, how and when to explain an activity or new material. When a student is learning their third, or even fourth language, and is at the beginning of the process, I try to simplify and shorten information. As the year goes by, those students will be able to make more connections with their mother tongue, and expectations will begin to grow as they do. Some students have been living in several countries for the past few years, and have not been exposed to Spanish. These students need simple and clear language, and may probably do better at the beginning by not having so many options or ways of saying the same thing. Other students have been exposed to a slightly different Spanish. In their case, it may be a good idea to allow the use of different ways of expressing the same idea, since they already have a basis, and may connect and build on that base. We have second and third grade students together in one class. Although their language acquisition will basically go through the same stages, their thinking processes may differ from one grade to another. Some students are ready to search for options when using Spanish, while others are still struggling with learning new vocabulary and trying to communicate at a social level. The way each student learns and the backgrounds that are present in a classroom, directly influence my choice of material and how I will present it to them. This is especially true when working on a one-on-one basis.
The sequence of how I presented the content in this lesson, was mainly determined by what the students were expected to do as a whole group, since they would be working at the Daily 5 centers. The expectations were similar to the “read to self” center, and therefore presented at the beginning of the lesson, so students could recall the prior expectations and work on more specific expectations for the “word work” center. Following this information, it was essential to model, and make sure students understood the differences with respect to the other center by showing them how to begin working. Once this was clear, they were presented with the specific material for the new center. An essential question that guides this and every Daily 5 center is “Why do we….(read, work with words, write)?”
The delivery of this lesson has certainly been an eye-opener for my future SLL lesson plans. I will probably continue to make mistakes, but will also learn to use them as an advantage and turn them into a learning experience for myself, my colleagues and my students. This reinforces the saying that “we learn through our mistakes”, and why not, “practice makes perfect”. Now I am more able to accept my mistakes as opportunities for improvement, and value the trial-and-error experience as a deeper learning tool that allows for greater effectiveness and expansion of my practice.