Advisory

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This was something I wrote for a class on education on the topic of Advisory, a portion of Middle School classes devoted to helping students with their nonacademic lives.

After reading the articles on advisory programs and classroom management, I do think that I could be a good advisory teacher. I think I listen well, and don’t lose my temper easily. There are friends who have known me for years who have never heard me shout in anger (although that may be because I haven’t dealt with classes of 30+ students.) I believe myself to be empathetic. I can respect different perspectives and understandings of the world.

I do also appreciate the significance of advisory. I can understand how the buddy system (an approach where students get mentors from higher classes) can be particularly useful, with the younger children naturally respecting upperclassmen, and the other students benefiting from being placed in a position of responsibility. It would also be better for me as a teacher to know more about the students and their concerns, due to how the personal affects the academic. While I wouldn’t understand what’s going on with every student, I think knowing what some of them are going through would make me more sensitive to the difficulties of the rest.

There would be some things I’d have to work on. I do have a sarcastic sense of humor. I don’t think I’m the type to say “Good job” to someone who didn’t succeed, but I might assume that someone who did well in a project understands that I’m kidding when I pretend not to be impressed. I feel uncomfortable doing anything that can be interpreted as rewarding disruptive behavior (IE- telling a loud kid that I admire his independence) even though I can intellectually accept that it might sometimes have a better outcome than inflexibility. It’s also odd to think about the idea that kids would spend time talking about how to manipulate me, even though that is going to happen to any teacher. And I don’t think I’d be ready with a quick response if someone insults me, although I hope I’d know better than to just rely on being in a position of relative authority.

Beaty-O’Ferrall et al. mentioned the difficulty for teachers in getting to know 125 students (as would be typical in a school with block scheduling.) There is one more element to that, which might be related since this is the time many children start feeling alienated. In the beginning, it can be a difficult transition for students going from an elementary school environment where they primarily deal with one teacher who gets to know them a lot faster (that teacher’s time is not divided by as many students, and s/he does spend more time with the students) to a system where multiple teachers spend less than an hour with them per day. Memorizing people’s names has never been my strong suit, so an advisory system would help with that, with more interactions and reasons to remember students. I’m aware that it can matter so much to kids whether the teacher knows their names.

On the top of things to remember, the issue isn’t necessarily what but when, especially when it comes to remembering things at the right time. I’m aware of the difference between generic advice and legitimate empathy at the moment, but I could easily forget about how it applies to a conversation with a student two years from now. There are also certain things I’d like to know more about. For example, to what extent is the connection between fewer discipline problems and high-quality relationships an issue of correlations? Also, the 22% of students who suffer serious disorders are unlikely to be uniformly distributed in every classroom, so that’s likely to be a different experience in different schools.

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American Sniper and Socially-Conscious Criticism

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Jamie Weinman’s piece on socially conscious criticism got me thinking about the flaws of the approach: it has a preference for bluntness over subtlety. I’m reminded on one relatively recent example: the years-old debate about whether American Sniper was too jingoistic; perhaps a modern version of John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam War The Green Berets.

I think American Sniper is a film that is nuanced and ambiguous enough that it can be seen in different ways. If you view Chris Kyle as an unambiguous hero, the film will certainly support that view. If you view him as an intense bro unable to deal with serious issues in a controversial and flawed war, the film will support that view. Since it focused on his military career and family, some of his more controversial activities (including a propensity for outright lying) weren’t relevant. It seems that some of the people who dislike the film wish for it to depict events that didn’t happen in real life (IE- Chris Kyle considering someone else’s serious and articulate criticisms of the Iraq war.)

This is a bit different from The Green Berets. I haven’t seen it, but from my understanding it’s much less amibguous than this one. The critical reception for Sniper is better, and it did get some big Oscar nominations, although in retrospect a name actor changing his physicality and affecting an accent is likely to get nominated. The criticisms about Sniper are about omissions than presentation. Eastwood is also a different director, making his second film to come out in 2014, than Wayne, who made the second film of his directing career.

There is certainly a place for art that is blunt and unambiguous about the political message. But it’s a mistake to assume that art that isn’t clearly on one side is dangerously on the other side. The real world is messy, and rarely offers obvious political answers. There’s nothing wrong with art that reflects that.

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Debates and ELLs

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This was something I wrote for a class on Education on whether debate can help ELL (English Language Learner) students.

I’m a fan of NPR’s Intelligence Squared podcast, which offers hours long Oxford style debates on contemporary issues. I also enjoyed participating in a debate on the morality of dropping the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that was part of my high school history class. So I’m certainly interested in the benefits of these kinds of debates in a middle school setting. I am convinced that it fits their interests in providing opportunities to speak, and also their needs in having others listen to what they have to say. I could see some arguments when students are asked to take sides that go against what they believe, but it does seem important for children in this age group to have a better understanding of opposing points of view. Along with the I-Search, debate is part of possibly the most significant parts of a middle-school education: learning how to research.

Differentiated instruction for ELLs is a sensible approach. Varying instruction strategies will likely help all students, given the principle of multiple intelligences, and recent studies that suggest a nuance to the previous understanding of the concept: It’s not that some students learn appreciatively better under different approaches, but that students in general learn most effectively when they are taught the same thing in different ways. Scaffolding for ELLs is also logical.

In practice, there may be some issues with readiness. From my understanding, in New York City, a student’s inclusion in regular classes is determined by how long they’ve been in the country (typically a year) rather than any assessment of readiness. There isn’t much individual teachers can do about that. Relating items to a student’s extracurricular interests can be helpful, although there are potential drawbacks. The child might see it as pandering, although I’m sure they’ll typically appreciate the effort, and the indication that the teachers do care. The final assessments will also be difficult. There is the question of whether someone unable to complete a written assessment is ready to complete a class, although I can appreciate contrary arguments, especially in fields outside the Humanities. Written assessments can also be double-checked for accuracy, although I’d imagine experienced teachers are able to correctly gauge a student’s mastery with greater speed and initial confidence than I would require.

Debate seems to be something that is better for ELLs than standard modes of teaching, so it is fitting that the article on ELLs has some common ground with the article on the advantages of structured debate. Both suggest the advantages of selecting topics that are more likely to be relevant to students, especially in Middle School where they’re learning technique as much as subject matter. Both also suggest alternatives to the typical method of reading, writing and arithmetic. Finally, both acknowledge the significance of speaking and listening as something students will learn more about in the classroom.

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Wizard’s Best Comic Book Creators Circa 2000

I’ve posted a few things from Wizard #105, where they went with a lot of rankings (characters, comic book stories, etc.) They also had a top ten creators (technically, a top 13 since it included three pairings.)

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I wouldn’t call it definitive, although it captures the mindset of people who read a lot of superhero comics at a particular time.

Eisner’s reputation would probably be higher now, due to the emphasis on the graphic novel. Alex Ross likely wouldn’t rate so high, mainly due to limited output. He’s one of the best cover artists, but he rarely produces original work, and the rest of his material didn’t have the impact of Kingdom Come or Marvels. I kinda doubt Ditko would be surpassed by Eastman and Laird. Art Spiegelman might be the guy selected to represented the Independent comics scene in a modern list, due to his work on Maus (the most prominent autobiographical comic book) and his stint as editor of RAW magazine. Alternatively, you could go with the Hernandez brothers for Love & Rockets.

It’s interesting to consider how the list would be different now. Writers are more prolific, so they’ll have a bit of an advantage in terms of their ability to have an impact. There are strong cases to be made for 2000s Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar with all his film deals, and Marvel/ DC writer Grant Morrison.

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Helping English Language Learners

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This was something I wrote for one of my classes when I was going for my education masters.

One of the major issues in education in the United States is determining how to help ELLs (English Language Learners), students whose command of the English language is not particularly strong. This leads to difficult questions that have not been resolved, such as whether the students should be segregated from the rest of the student body, and what specific kinds of institutional support would be most appropriate and effective. The textbook provides statistics on ELLs in the United States, although the numbers are different for New York state, and New York City. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that in the last available school year (2012-2013) 7.5 percent of students in the state participated in programs meant for English Language Learners, which is below the national average of 9.2 percent. However the percentage is higher in New York City. According to the 2013 Demographic Report from the New York City Department of Education, “ELLs make up 14.4% of the entire DOE student population, as there are 159,162 ELLs enrolled in the school system.” A further 41% of NYC students speak a language other than English at home, double the national average.

Statistics for the city aren’t going to be consistent from school to school. The Center for New York City Affairs from The New School produces an excellent website, Inside Schools, which has information on the percentage of the students who are ELLs – defined in this case as “the percentage of students who require English as a second language in the 2014-2015 school year” – in a particular school. For example, I can look up the page for I.S. 119, the middle school I went to, and determine that four percent of students are ELLs. I also learn that the same is true of Brooklyn’s P.S. 119 Amersfort, while P.S.119 in the Bronx has 22 percent English Language Learners.

The textbook mentions how SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Educations) kids have additional difficulties, including a lack of familiarity with formal schooling. Bang, Suarez-Orasco and O’Connor (2011) noted that students who lack strong literacy skills in their first language also have greater difficulties learning English, as they have less of a foundational knowledge about how language functions. They list the additional pitfalls for ELLs and SIFE kids: a higher likelihood of poverty, which corresponds with a lack of resources; limited parental support (often because the parents lack the necessary background knowledge to be able to help); and incentives to focus their energies on nonacademic tasks with more immediate awards. Teachers will need to learn how to help the students who struggle with so much.

It would be difficult to divide ELLs equally in New York City schools since so many schools are zoned, so an area with a higher percentage of immigrants is going to have more ELLs in the local schools. Demographics will differ for Chinatown and Spanish Harlem. ELLs would also have a difficult time getting into any school that requires examinations, and the parents are less likely to have the institutional knowledge to take advantage of any school choice.

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The Rule of Three in Humor

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Stealing a joke.

A little girl was walking through the park when she saw three dogs lying by the pathway. Being an animal lover, she approached the dogs and proceeded to pet one of the dogs on the head.

She said to the dog, “How are you? Are you happy? I wish you could tell me your name.”

The dog suddenly spoke up, “My name is Moe and I had a great day going in and out of puddles.”

The girl was amazed and said, “You can talk?! Do your friends talk too?”

The second dog also spoke up, “My name is Larry and I had a great day going in and out of puddles.”

The girl was pleasantly surprised to hear two dogs speaking to her so she approached the third dog and said, “Now let me guess – your name is Curly and you had a great day going in and out of puddles?”

“No,” the third dog said. “My name is Puddles and I had a lousy day.”

I recently went to a free lecture on humor in writing, and the guy talked about the rule of three. Basically, lists are funny if it’s kept to three.

He wondered if it was tied to three-act structure, giving a joke a beginning, middle and end.

I think it’s the right way to suggest a pattern, without taking too long to make the joke. It can be a list of three funny things, or a subversion of a pattern that’s already been established.

This has been written about elsewhere.

It keeps thinks brisk, useful for speeches.

According to an old New Yorker article, it’s an established part of a comedian’s repertoire.

There is a long-standing tradition—Leo McCarey, who directed the early Laurel and Hardy films, called it “almost an unwritten rule”—that jokes work best when there are two straightforward examples, to establish a pattern, and then a third, to shatter it. (“My favorite books are ‘Moby Dick‘, ‘Great Expectations‘ and ‘Rock Hard Abs In Thirty Days‘.”) The “rule of three” also holds that a running gag should be called back three times. The joke begins losing its savor the fourth time (and then, according to “comedy torture theory,” becomes funny again about the seventh time, as the audience realizes that the performer is being deliberately exasperating.)

“Del’s theory was that we have three brains,” Halpern said. “The joke is got first by our reptile brain, which appreciates slapstick, then by our mammalian brain,” which, Close believed, handles our wants and needs. (The few documented instances of animal humor are physical in nature. The researcher Roger Fouts reported in 1997 that Washoe , a chimpanzee he had taught to sign, once urinated on him while he was riding on his shoulders, then signed “Funny”—touching its nose—and snorted.) Finally, Halpern continued, “the joke reaches the humans neocortex,” which in Close’s view, was in charge of manners and customs.

 

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Concerns About English Language Learners

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This was a final essay for one of my classes when I was going for my Education masters. If I wrote it now, I’d have some additional paragraphs on the troubles with students who speak unconventional languages such as Mixtec, as well as the problems of SIFE (students with interrupted formal educations) kids who don’t know their first language well enough to use techniques for learning English as a second language.

English language learners (ELLs) in American schools face numerous literacy challenges. Standards have changed for a variety of reasons, so expectations are higher than ever. ELLs often lack access to their native language. Text selection is a problem, and their frame of reference may differ from that of classmates. Different ELLs will have different proficiency levels, which further complicates things for teachers and students.

I plan to teach Adolescent English Language Arts 7-12, also known as Middle School and High School in New York City. I was slightly concerned about being placed in a class that has an emphasis on younger students B-6 as this one does. However, the information has still been invaluable. It is very possible that, even as a Middle School or High School ELA Teacher, I will have to deal with students who do not have a significant command of the English language. While I would be less likely to deal with the slight majority of ELLs who are native born, it’s certainly possible that I’ll come into contact with the 45% who are foreign-born (Wessels, 2011.) That will come with unique difficulties. The gap in proficiency can be even greater between recent immigrants and their classmates in high school. Of course, there is also the reality that many adolescent students born in the United States are more capable of communicating in the language of their community than in English, especially as we are in a country that does not have an official language.

The first major problem for ELLs is high benchmarks. Their numbers are great, so they’re in more schools than ever before. The emphasis on testing, which is the standard by which schools are assessed, also applies to ELLs and incentivizes increasing their scores as quickly as possible. Another reason for the higher expectations is a belief in the effectiveness of immersion strategies, as well as an understanding of the need to insist that all students achieve their full potential. The current expectation is that ELLs will be placed in classrooms on day one (Rance-Roney, 2010.) Under the old system, ELL students had up to a year to acclimate to their new environment, and to learn the language, before placement into classes within the larger school community. Even this was criticized for developing unrealistic expectations, as it typically takes years for someone to become competent in a new language.

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Academic language is particularly difficult for ELL students (Echevarria, Richards-Tutor, Chinn & Ratleff, 2011.) Even students able to communicate effectively with their classmates using informal conversational English struggle with this. The level of English understanding required to summarize a text or to comprehend exposition is higher than the level required for small talk. Some students will be more proficient at one than the other (Ajayi, 2009) so an emphasis on academic language might obscure an individual’s skills at conversational English. The higher expectations may restrict efforts to gauge a student’s ability.

There are research-based techniques that work to build the academic language skills of ELL students, such as the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (Echevarria, Richards-Tutor, Chinn & Ratleff, 2011) but overworked teachers often fail to implement these appropriately. The best thing I can do as an instructor is to do the things teachers know that they’re supposed to do, even if they sometimes fall short. An example of something that is proven to be effective, but easier said than done, is to provide content objectives and language objectives that are clearly defined rather than implied. It will also be better to spend time with ELLs going over material in advance, so they have more time to prepare for anything they struggle with.

Another challenge is that ELL learners are diverse. They can be at different proficiency levels, to say nothing of the multiple possible native languages. The category of English Language Learner can include recent immigrants who barely speak English, recent immigrants who have taken English as a second language courses since they were toddlers, native-born speakers more skilled in their home language, less recent immigrants who are close to grade level, and others. These students will all need to be educated, and will have to be able to work with one another.

A third-grade teacher known as Seth found group projects to be a method that is effective when working with students who have diverse proficiency levels. (Iddings, Risko, & Rampullo, 2009). By grouping ELLs together on certain assignments, a teacher can use scaffolding techniques for those students who need it.

A drawback to group projects is that while it may increase participation, it may also make it difficult to assess an individual’s skill level.  A teacher in one of my classes spoke of a problem she encountered in a job interview for a middle school. She was asked to demonstrate a sample English Language Arts lesson to a small group of students. She was able to speak Spanish, which made some aspects of communication much easier. However, it took her some time to realize that one of the students was barely proficient in English. The other members of the group were covering for him, to help him save face.

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Numerous students find themselves in a different situation. A major problem for many ELL students is limited access to their native language (Iddings, Risko, & Rampullo, 2009). There will be an obvious difficulty in communication between an ELL who is barely proficient in English, and an ELA teacher who doesn’t speak their primary language, to say nothing of the student’s interactions with the larger school community.

The hiring of multilingual teachers helps, but this comes with significant drawbacks. There are few complaints about how there are too many people qualified to be teachers entering the profession. Placing a premium on another talent makes it even tougher to find the most effective educators. Policies will also differ based on the language. Spanish is unique in the United States due to the number of people who speak it, and there are quite a few communities where a particular language is prevalent. It may require a change in policy to actively seek out candidates from the pool of available teachers  who are effective at speaking a necessary second language. There will still always be languages too obscure for this to be a feasible option. It seems unlikely that a school will have enough Estonian ELLs to make my proficiency in that language into an asset.

In some cases, the solution isn’t to provide support in the native language, but to make the material more welcoming. As teachers, we can make an effort to pick topics where ELL students can feel comfortable participating with the rest of the class, and material that fulfills several diverse goals.

Text selection can thus be a problem for both teachers and students. If the texts are too difficult, students will be overwhelmed. If the texts are poorly chosen, students won’t learn. The best teachers find material that serves a multitude of purposes. Seth chose Curious George books for his third graders because he had enjoyed the material, and because he was familiar with educational theories suggesting that students can learn from multiple texts with consistent characters, narratives and conflicts (Iddings, Risko, & Rampullo, 2009).

Children’s books might not be effective in an intermediate school setting, although other formulaic work would be available (IE- short stories with the same characters, television scripts, lyrics by the same musician, etc.) There are additional alternatives that can be accessible to ELL students, but also educational for their classmates. As the definition of literacy has become more complex, there is the expectation that teachers familiarize their students with various forms of multimedia. The example was given of a middle school classroom (Ajayi, 2009) that interpreted the meanings of an advertisement for cell phones. All the students learned to be more critical about media they’re exposed to, while the visual nature of the subject matter made it easier for ELLs to participate, and to demonstrate their knowledge. This can’t be done, and honestly shouldn’t be done, with every lesson, but it seems like something worth doing on occasion. As teachers we don’t have to make every lesson as complicated as possible.

A final problem for ELLs is that they will have different frames of reference than other students. From my experiences as a student teacher, we’re encouraged to incorporate popular culture into lesson plans, as a way of developing lessons that are relevant to the students. They may learn about forms of narrative conflict better if it’s in the context of things they like. In settings where they’re the minority, ELLs may feel excluded. Bogum Yoon observed the experiences of two ELA teachers, and determined that one teacher’s emphasis on a mainstream American context might have kept the majority of the class interested, but it wasn’t relevant to recent immigrants. These students were not familiar with American football, and didn’t watch Survivor. In comparison, another teacher selected material that encouraged ELLs to participate, and to share their unique experiences.

In situations where ELLs are a small percentage of the class, teachers will need to determine how much time and effort should be devoted to them. Yoon observed that students were interested in the experiences of classmates born in other countries, but it’s not clear that it was the same level of interest as they had when discussing sports and television. Teachers have to make sure that efforts to be more inclusive towards two ELL students don’t result in three other students losing interest.

Seth’s class was able to incorporate their cultural knowledge by writing a new Curious George adventure in which he visits Mexico (Iddings, Risko, & Rampullo, 2009). That type of material allowed ELLs to participate along with the rest of the class. It demonstrated the advantage of stressing creativity.

Some of these challenges are intertwined, and one problem can exacerbate another. ELL students may find that the subject matter of a class isn’t particularly relevant, which further discourages them, along with the difficulties caused by limited access to their native language. Meanwhile, expectations are high and proficiency levels vary. Teachers must balance the needs of all their students.

I don’t know what kind of class I’ll teach, or what my experience will be with ELL students. It’s possible that I may find myself in a district where ELL students are a rarity (not very likely in New York City, but certainly possible elsewhere) or I may determine that the best available school is in an area where the majority of students speak English as a second language. I may end up working somewhere that is similar to the schools I attended, where there were enough ELL students to merit institutional support. So it’s essential to learn about strategies that are effective at allowing all students to participate, to demonstrate their learning and to share what they know.

Works Cited:

Ajayi, L. (2009). English as a second language learners’ exploration of multimodal texts in a junior high school.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(7), 585-595.

Bogum, Y. (2007). Offering or limiting opportunities: Teachers’ roles and approaches to English-language learners’ participation in literacy activities.  The Reading Teacher, 61(3), 216-225.

Echevarria, J., Richards-Tutor, C., Chinn, V.P, Ratless, P.A. (2011). Did they get it? The role of fidelity in teaching English learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(6), 425-434.

Iddings, AC.D., Risko, V.J., Rampulla, M.P. (2009). When you don’t speak their language: Guiding English-language learners through conversations about text. The Reading Teacher, 63(1), 52-61.

Rance-Roney, J. (2010). Jump-starting language and schema for English-language learners: Teacher-composed digital jumpstarts for academic reading. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(5), 386-395.

Wessels, S. (2011). Promoting vocabulary learning for English learners. The Reading Teacher, 65(1), 46-50.

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