Tuesday, December 30, 2014

MELED Conference Merger

In November of this year, the two annual conferences focused on English language education in Minnesota merged into one. The MinneTESOL conference, hosted by the local branch of the international organization Teachers of English to Speakers of other Languages (TESOL) was combined with the Minnesota ESL, Bilingual and Migrant Conference hosted by the MN Department of Education. The newly formed conference was christened as the first annual Minnesota English Learner Education (MELED) Conference.

From MinneTESOL

As a member of MinneTESOL for the last five years, I was curious to see what a combined conference would look like. I was pleased to see resources being shared between MinneTESOL and the MN Department of Education. The field of English language instruction, although not as new as one might assume, seems to change frequently. In the last five years, we have seen a brand-new system for intake and assessment and a strong push for inclusive, collaborative instruction.

The MELED Conference, much like the two conferences it replaced, proved to be an excellent venue for learning about changes in the field and for networking with colleagues. Some of the biggest updates this year related to the LEAPS Act, a recently-passed piece of legislation that seeks to improve education for English Learners in Minnesota. In addition, there were also multiple sessions on systemic functional linguistics, an approach to understanding language that has recently gained popularity among language teachers.

One of the most interesting conference presentations was the keynote session by Dr. Elaine Tarone, director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Tarone presented some interesting statistics on the history of multilingualism and language instruction in Minnesota. Her presentation underscored the idea that Minnesota has never been a monolingual state. Dr. Tarone also discussed Harriet Bishop, one of the first teachers in Minnesota. According to Tarone, Bishop’s first classroom was home to students who spoke three languages.

From minnesotahistorycenter.org

Today in Minnesota, our schools are home to over 100 different languages and dialects. Although that number can seem overwhelming at times, it is uplifting to reflect on a historical perspective. Multilingualism is nothing new in Minnesota, and our state’s history will continue to reflect diversity in language and language instruction. I look forward to attending the MELED Conference in future years to continue learning about new research and best practice in the field.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Ideas Worth Spreading: TEDxBurnsville

In September of this year, I participated in my very first TEDx conference. I have been a big fan of TED videos for quite some time, but so far, I have only participated from the comfort of my couch. The official TED conference is usually held each year on the West Coast, and the cost of attending can reach into the thousands of dollars. Because of this, I was extraordinarily excited to find out that there would be a local TEDx conference in Minnesota this fall.



Officially named TEDx Burnsville, this local conference featured a strong line-up of speakers, including nationally-known educators and ed-leaders Eric Sheninger and Jennie Magiera. The topic of the conference was “Real World Ready” and each speaker talked about what it truly means to be preparing students for the real world.

To affirm the importance of student voice, the TEDX Burnsville line-up also featured Hasib Muhammad, an inspiring young man who has spoken in front of the United Nations on youth empowerment. His talk, along with many others throughout the day, reminded me that preparing students for the ‘real world’ is not just about preparing students for life after high school. In many ways, being real world ready means giving students the tools they need to navigate and influence our world in the present.

Although there were many thought-provoking moments throughout the course of the day, my favorite TED talk of the conference came from Jennie Magiera. A former colleague of mine had introduced me to Ms. Magiera’s blog several years ago. Having been impressed by her work and writing online, I had high expectations for her talk, which event coordinators had scheduled as the final of the day. Ms. Magiera’s passion and conviction exceeded my expectations and refreshed my own enthusiasm for education. The 18-minute talk is definitely well-worth the watch.



There were also a good number of local educators and administrators featured in the line-up, including Chris Turnbull, Michelle Ament, Brad Scherer, Brad Gustafson and 2014 MN Teacher of the Year Tom Rademacher. I had been following many of these local educators on Twitter, so it was exciting to finally see and hear from them in person. The complete list of speakers (as well as videos of their speeches) can be found here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Goodbye and Hello

"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." -Winnie the Pooh

As a child, I was always fond of Winnie the Pooh. As an adult, I have come to realize just how talented A.A. Milne was is articulating thoughts and emotions that transcend generations. The quote above does a great job summing up my emotions over the last few days. In the past few weeks, I made the difficult decision to leave my position in as an elementary EL teacher in a small town. The decision to leave had a great deal to do with the logistics of commuting for both my husband and I. A new job for me will mean significantly less commuting for both of us. And less time on the road means more time to devote to our passions and interests.

In the fall, I will begin teaching at an urban high school. The shifts I will be making from rural to urban, elementary to high school, pull-out to push-in programming will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination. The anxiousness I feel, though, has less to do with what is ahead and more to do with what I am leaving behind. Over the last three years I have come to love the students and families I work with. I know that I will miss the excitement and energy of my little ones. I know that I will miss the friendship and encouragement of my colleagues. And I know I will miss the unwavering support of school leaders and administrators who actively sought out my voice and the voices of my students in the fight to close the achievement gap for language learners in our district.

From http://i.imgur.com/jIsajAt.jpg

It would be easy for me to let in more sadness than I should. It is tempting for me to focus on what I must say good-bye to, but A.A. Milne reminds me just how lucky I am to have had something so great that makes saying good-bye so hard. Not everyone has the privilege of being a teacher. Not everyone has the chance to be involved so greatly in the lives of future generations. I am one of the lucky ones. And my luck is only compounded when I realize I will have the opportunity to experience all of this again with new students, new colleagues and new administrators. So good-bye dear friends. And hello.

Monday, August 4, 2014

School's Out!

I know....I know...it's already August. So why am I writing about the end of school? Well, in this case, I'm talking about graduate school. Two summers ago, I decided to start my Masters in ESL. I remember looking at the course list back then and wondering how I would ever make it through all those courses while teaching full time. And yet here I am, two years later and finishing up with my last course and wondering where all the time has gone.

Truth be told, I'm not completely done yet. I still have to write my final capstone paper...and that will probably take another year. But all of my classes are officially done and I'm left feeling a little bittersweet. I'm excited to have a bit more free time - time to spend with my husband and my family and time to finally make a bigger dent on the reading list that has been piling up over the last few months. 

But I'm also sad to be losing the constant connection with other EL teachers in the field. Having the chance to meet regularly to learn and share with colleagues has been an invaluable experience. For EL teachers in low-incidence schools, coursework and conferences are some of the few places to really connect with other EL teachers. This is one reason I am excited to become more involved with social media.

I am hopeful that the connections I am building through Twitter and blogging will be a big step towards building a network of colleagues so that school never has to be out for good.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

I Forgot Everything!

One of the things I have loved about being an EL teacher in a small school is that I get to work with my students over multiple years. Research in language acquisition generally suggests that it takes between five to seven years to learn academic English. As a K-4 teacher, I often have students who work with me from Kindergarten through Fourth Grade.

Spending several years working with each of my students offers an incredible opportunity to build lasting relationships with my language learners. The corollary to this is that saying good-bye to my students can be even more difficult. I have to say good-bye to my students for a number of reasons. Sometimes it's because they are 'graduating' from the Elementary School and moving on to the Middle School. Sometimes it's because they are moving to another district. And sometimes it's because they have reached the exit criteria that has been set for the English Language Program.

The letter below is from one of my former students who had been recently exited from the program. After several months, she came to me to ask why she could no longer come to my class. As I had told her before, I explained that she had already learned everything she needed to from my class...and it was time for her to learn new things with new teachers. I felt pretty proud of my explanation, and then I got this note:



This is probably one of the cutest notes I have received from one of my students. She is a very bright girl who took a very calculated approach to pulling at my heartstrings. I did double-check her scores to make sure she was doing well in the classroom without my support - and, of course, she was. In many ways, I wish I could hold on to some of my students for much longer. But in the end, I know that they do need to move on to new teachers to learn new things and build new relationships. And when that happens, I hope these students know that even though they are no longer in my class, they will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Let's Meet Up (for Language)!

Back in college, I remember attending Spanish "charlas" held at the University dining center. These meet-ups were informal opportunities (usually planned by Department TAs) to practice Spanish with other students who were learning Spanish. Oftentimes, these meetings served as a good reminder that knowing how to complete a worksheet in another language is much different than actually communicating in another language.

I recently stumbled upon the website "Meet Up" which allows users to organize and schedule informal get-togethers around a variety of topics. I was pleased to see that, in addition to Meet Ups for regions, religions and any number of interests and activities, there were also meetings organized specifically around the purpose of learning and practicing language!

In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area alone, there are Meet Up groups dedicated to Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, German, Italian, French, Arabic, ASL, Dutch and English. In addition, it also seems relatively easy to create and organize your own group if needed. It is nice to have an option to find and connect with other linguaphiles to practice and polish language skills. This is one website that I will definitely have to bookmark!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Power of Social Media

I learned a very important lesson this month about the power of social media. I joined Twitter just over a month ago. One of my New Year's resolution was to become more connected as an educator, and I had heard that Twitter was a great resource for staying on top of current trends in education and for connecting with other educators. I decided to jump in.

I could (and probably will!) write an entire blog post devoted to Twitter's usefulness for educators. Between #edchats and PLNs, there is a great deal to share about and a great deal for which I am thankful. I had read many articles on how to get started, but nothing I read prepared me for just how powerful Twitter can be.

During the Superbowl last month, there were several commercials that seemed to strike a cord, both positively and negatively. One commercial in particular, aired by Coca-Cola, proved to be quite controversial and ignited a wave a criticism and praise online. In case you haven't seen it, it's worth checking out below.



Many people took offense to the fact that this 'American' song was being sung in multiple languages. As an English language teacher, I work with children and adults everyday who speak languages other than English. I believe multilingualism adds great value to our society and that trying to homogenize our language does a great disservice to our potential.

Before Twitter, I would have have probably struck up a few conversations with friends and family on the subject and left it at that. This year, I decided to weigh-in and share my own thoughts with my humble group of followers (a few dozen at the time). Unbeknownst to me, my tweet was picked up by USA Today and embedded in an article that was eventually read by tens of thousands.
Over the next several days, I realized just how powerful that exposure can be. Many people from around the country and around the world tweeted back to me to express agreement or disagreement. Some were exceptionally kind, while others were much more confrontational. My small group of followers quickly doubled and I was left in awe at the power words can have when spread through social media.

I am glad that my voice became a part of the conversation and I am thankful for tools like Twitter that have allowed me to jump in. Although I'm sure that most of what I post online probably won't be picked up by mainstream media, it's good to know that my voice does matter and so does yours! Don't be afraid to take the plunge and join a community of educators who value communication and collaboration. It's never too late to start!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Multilingual Minnesota

There is a lot going on in Minnesota schools these days. One of the most exciting aspects of being a teacher in Minnesota (at least to me!) is our growing linguistic and cultural diversity. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the North Star State, Minnesota is actually home to a significant number of cultural groups, including growing numbers of Hmong and Karen and the largest Somali population in the entire United States.

Immigration Policy Center


With growing language diversity has come a growing need for resources on multilingualism. The website Multilingual Minnesota has been a great resource for me to encourage others to expand their linguistic horizons. There are resources for language teachers as well as for language learners (including prospective language learners). Users can use the website to learn more about the benefits of bilingualism or about the research behind immersion education.

One of the really neat features of this site is a language service directory that highlights where you can go to learn or study more than two dozen different languages within Minnesota. There are a wealth of resources available to encourage and support bilingualism and Multilingual Minnesota has done a great job combining many of those resources in a single place. Check it out!

Reference: http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/new-americans-minnesota

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Google Books Ngram Viewer

Every once in a while, I come across a website that distracts me (in a good way) from whatever I was doing. Today's language distraction is Google's Ngram Viewer. I stumbled upon this site several months ago and I have used it since then to keep myself entertained and informed with the kind of data that makes linguistically-minded folks smile.

This Google project pulls data from a corpus of scanned books. Users can input words or phrases and Google will graph the frequency with with those words or phrases have been used in print over time. There are also advanced features that allow users to modify their searches with inflections or parts of speech.  

For anyone interested in language or history, the Ngram Viewer offers the potential for leisurely fun or for more serious, scholarly research. As an English language teacher, this website seems like a good tool for understanding more about how language is used over time and for explaining to students the different contexts in which English words and phrases are used.

Usage of 'tackle' as a Noun or Verb between 1800 and 2000

Usage of 'read' with different Determiners between 1800 and 2000

The graphs above could be used in a language instruction context to demonstrate patterns of language frequency and usage. More information and sample graphs can be found on the Ngram About page. Happy Searching!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

21st Century Learners and Leaders

One of the major themes in our district this year is how to best prepare students to be learners and leaders in the 21st Century. I've recently joined our district's curriculum advisory committee, which has given me a great opportunity to discuss a vision for learning with other teachers, parents and administrators. One of the questions that has arisen from these committee meetings is "What does it mean to be a 21st Century Learner?"

Several years ago, Education Week published an article with eleven different answers to that question. Educational scholars and leaders weighed in on the topic and shared their own definitions of what it means to be a 21st Century Learner. As I read through their responses I realized that I agreed with many of the different definitions that were put forth. Trying to define what it means to be a learner in this century is a complex proposition, but is it definitely a discussion worth having.



In my opinion, being a 21st Century Learner means having the skills and knowledge to be successful in our ever-changing world. Technology is changing and advancing at an increasing rate. Students today need to be able to adapt to changes in technology and use technology as a medium to advance their own learning. Students also need to be able to use technology to build and manage social networks for the purpose of learning and collaborating.

In today's world, effective collaboration requires effective means of communication. Students need to be able to use and learn language, including academic language, world languages and the languages of technology (like coding). Academic language allows students to develop their own voice as learners, world languages allow students to communicate globally, and coding languages allow students to become creators (and not just consumers) of technology.

Finally, students need to be equipped to think critically about the world. There are a multitude of issues in our world today that require complex problem solving and critical analysis. Students need practice in defining problems and identifying multiple solutions. We need to teach students to be able to look at issues from multiple perspectives and identify the complex relationships between issues.

Being a 21st Century learner and leader requires an intentional commitment and investment in education. It requires teachers, administrators and parents working together to establish a vision for learning and teaching. Isolation is no longer an option. We must work together and encourage one another to create the kind of learning environment our students need to be successful. Let's make it happen!