Monday, October 21, 2019

Learning How to Decenter Whiteness in a TV Show

"It's hard as a young person of a different ethnicity or background to look at the TV and not see anyone who looks like you. Representation is very important."
-- Zendaya

When I was asked if I’d like to participate in the #itstimetotalkracism campaign, at first I wasn’t sure what I could write about because I’d never really taught an explicit anti-racism lesson.  But after thinking about it, I realized I could present a lesson I’d implemented when I was a teacher trainer.

Learn what "decentering whiteness" means, download a free checklist that helps you identify TV shows & videos that center whiteness, and discover a book you can use with your students that deals with bias | The ESL Nexus
Source: Buzzing with Ms. B.
The lesson used Star Trek: The Original Series to explore first impressions, “the other,” and stereotypes.  I’m a proponent of using videos with students and as a long-time fan of Star Trek, I thought the series was a great way to teach about intercultural communication.  I mean, Vulcans, Humans, Klingons, Romulans, the Ferengi – you can’t get much more cross-cultural than that!

I emailed Chrissy from Buzzing with Ms. B., the coordinator of this 22-day campaign, to ask if my idea would be okay.  She viewed the episode, Devil in the Dark, and said it didn’t really decenter whiteness.

Since I didn’t quite understand what “decentering whiteness” meant, Chrissy and I emailed back and forth as we delved into why that Star Trek episode didn’t do that.  Because I think our conversation would be helpful to other educators, with her permission I am going to share some excerpts below.  Following that, I’ll offer a link to a resource I created to help you select TV shows and videos that decenter whiteness.  I’ll also discuss a book I recently read that would be a great read-aloud and discussion starter with your students.

Below are the sections of the email exchange I had with Chrissy that really made clear for me this idea of decentering whiteness.  But -- spoiler alert!  If you've never seen this episode of Star Trek, these excerpts give away part of the plot. 

Chrissy: I've been thinking about the Star Trek episode, and I totally see where you're coming from with addressing biases and cultural misunderstandings.

I'm realizing that this episode does center whiteness. In other words, because it's from the perspective of the colonizers...and how they're being killed by this other thing, it's about the white experience in response to this new culture.

Susan: I see where you're coming from with that and I agree up to a point.  But I also feel that it's Spock, who is bi-racial, who is the hero of the episode.

: [T]he issue as I understand it isn't that the actors or writers are white or anything in that sort of vein. With this episode, the issue as I see it is that there was a group of people moving into a territory and the creatures there are represented as some kind of animal, even once Spock understands their perspective. My concern is that some people might see themselves as the Horta, an animal who, even when being described as being "highly intelligent" is the butt of jokes about her appearance.

The agreement that the crew and the Horta reach is actually only beneficial to the humans…. The humans are acting as colonizers, taking what they want, and agreeing to leave the natives alone, taking on the role of white savior to bestow that kindness on the Horta, even though she was fine before they arrived.

Susan:  That makes a lot of sense, especially the part where you say it isn't about the writers or actors being white…  And I see your point about how the Horta is described and how some people could internalize those negative comments. 

That really makes things clear, in terms of where you're coming from with your analysis of this episode.  I hadn't ever thought of Kirk and crew as being in white savior mode but it makes perfect sense from the way you've characterized it.

Chrissy:  It's interesting that we can love shows and acknowledge that they were problematic, too.  When people see that it's ok for our thinking to change (and it always does!), they can feel like it's ok for their thinking to change, too.

*   *   *

So I discarded the idea of sharing my Star Trek lesson with you.  Instead, I decided to create a checklist you can use when you are looking for a TV show or video to show your students.  It’s a list of questions that ask about the show, with space for you to write answers next to each question.  You can find it HERE, where you'll be prompted to download a copy of the free checklist.  Please note that I use the phrases "minority characters" and "people of color" interchangeably in the checklist.

Learn what "decentering whiteness" means & download a free checklist that helps you identify TV shows and videos that center whiteness | The ESL Nexus
Download your free copy HERE; source: The ESL Nexus
Using these questions as a guide when evaluating videos and TV programs helps you view shows in a different way.  I know that I, now, am looking at what I watch through a different lens.

Now I'd like to reccomend a book that would be a great addition to your collection of books that deal with racism, bias, stereotypes, prejudice, and how kids interact with people who are different from them.

With its traditional “once upon a time” fairy tale beginning and watercolor-ish full-page illustrations, from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea is a beautiful picture book that will appeal to kids of all ages.  It’s about fitting in, choosing who you want to be, and how to treat non-conforming people.  It’s also about a mother’s love for her child.  The song she sings every evening when her child recounts their negative experience in school will warm your heart.

Find out why this book belongs in every teacher's classroom library in this blog post about anti-racism | The ESL Nexus
Find out more about this book HERE

This story has an important message that will resonate with all students who feel awkward and out of place in their school: English Language Learners, special needs students, gender non-conforming students, and every other kid who doesn’t fit into whatever is considered typical for where they live.  I love this book and it should be in every teacher’s classroom library.

This post is in memory of Maribel Hernandos Campos, one of the 22 persons murdered in El Paso in August 2019 by a gunman who targeted people of Mexican heritage.

Honor one of the 2019 El Paso shooting victims by reading this blog post that discusses how to identify videos & TV shows that center whiteness | The ESL Nexus

I am posting a link to each day's blog post in the #itstimetotalkracism campaign on my Facebook page and Twitter account.  Please check them out for great teaching ideas and resources!


Monday, October 7, 2019

22 Helpful Anti-Racism Blog Posts for Educators

"I should not have to prove my ethnicity to anyone. I know who I am."
-- Christina Aguilera

The #itstimetotalkracism campaign is a 22-day effort by teachers to help other educators and their students discuss racism, bias, and related issues.  Please click HERE to read how and why it got started.  I was honored to be invited to participate and hope you will share these blog posts and resources widely with your colleagues.

Join the #itstimetotalkracism campaign: 22 days of blog posts with resources & info for educators | The ESL Nexus
Read how and why this campaign was started HERE; source: Buzzing with Mrs. B.
Today’s blog post, the 4th in the series, is by Ha Dinh and her post is titled Acknowledging and Celebrating Where We Are From.  She writes about an experience her son had in school when he was asked where he came from.  It’s a common experience for a lot of students, including English Language Learners, and Ha explains how she handled the situation.  In addition, she recommends a book dealing with this topic which you can read with your students.  Ha also offers a free resource in her post that your students can fill out -- what’s really great about it is that it includes a positive affirmation about their origins.

Join the #itstimetotalkracism campaign: 22 days of blog posts with resources & info for educators | The ESL Nexus
Download your free copy HERE; source: Happy Days in First Grade
Here are some additional articles you might find useful:
* How We Refer to Groups of People Matters a Lot
* Teaching 6-Year-Olds About Privilege and Power
* Learning to See Students’ Deficits as Strengths
* I Thought I Understood What School Was Like for My Students of Color
* Lessons Learned in Teaching Native American History
* How to Address Bias and Bullying: Resources for Schools

My own #itstimetotalkracism post will be published on Monday, October 21st.  To read all 22 blog posts in this campaign, please follow me on Facebook or Twitter -- I’ll be publishing links to each day’s post on those platforms.


Monday, September 23, 2019

How to Determine if Books are Suitable for English Language Learners

"A capacity, and taste, for reading gives access to whatever has 
already been discovered by others."
-- Abraham Lincoln

Are you a regular education/mainstream teacher with English Language Learners in your classes?  Or are you an ESL teacher with multi-level ELLs in your classes?  Both teaching contexts present a challenge when using a textbook or a novel since it’s quite likely your ELLs are not all reading at the same level.  This post will give you some tips on how to analyze a textbook or novel to see if it is suitable to be used with your ELLs.

How to Determine if Books are Suitable for English Language Learners | The ESL Nexus
What features in a text you should look at when using texts with ELLs; source: The ESL Nexus
First off, look at the presentation of the text:
* Look at the size of the font(s): The larger the font, the easier it is for an ELL to read and comprehend the material.
* Look at the type of font: Printed letters are easier to understand than words in cursive fonts, especially since different languages write cursive letters in different ways.
* Look at the letter spacing: The more space there is between the words and lines in a sentence and paragraph, the easier it is to read and understand the text.
* Look at the amount of white space: The more white space there is around the margins, the easier it is to comprehend the text.

Next, look at the non-textual features in the text:
* Are pictures included: Photographs and illustrations that help explain the text will greatly aid ELLs’ comprehension of the material and for ELLs at beginning and intermediate levels of proficiency the more images the better, but even ELLs at advanced proficiency levels find pictures beneficial.
* Are diagrams, tables, and/or charts included: The easier it is to read the info in those images and in their explanatory captions, the better it is for ELLs.
* Are the images in color or black-and-white: Color is preferable but if the black-and-white images are high quality and it’s easy to discern what they are, then ELLs will be able to figure out what they depict.

Lastly, analyze the text complexity of the textbook or novel: 
* Look at the sentence complexity of the text: Shorter sentences are easier to comprehend.
* Look at what grammar structures are used: Sentences beginning with subordinate clauses, (e.g. Before I went home, I did my homework), sentences with relative clauses (e.g. The girl, who came from Mexico, earned the highest math grade on the text), some transitions (e.g. nevertheless, on the other hand), sentences with idioms and figurative language – texts with these features will be harder to comprehend.
* Look at how new vocabulary words are  presented: When definitions are provided right after the new word, such as in parentheses or offset by hyphens or commas, that makes the text easier to comprehend.  Even texts that have words explained in footnotes or a glossary in the margin of a page will be easier to comprehend than texts that make students flip back and forth between a glossary at the end of the book and the page being read.

After you’ve analyzed the book, you’ll have a better idea of whether it is something your ELLs will be able to read and understand or if they will have difficulty comprehending it.  To help your students even more, check out this blog post for 14 Tips to Help ELLs Understand Their Textbooks.

Use these Social Studies Resources when Teaching English Language Learners | The ESL Nexus
Click HERE for more info about these resources; source: The ESL Nexus
Social Studies textbooks in particular are text-heavy and written in dry prose.  I’ve created a line of resources about historical time periods and civilizations, with more to come, that are written at lower levels of text complexity.  They’re aimed at ELLs in mainstream classes who have a hard time understanding regular education textbooks but they can be used by any student who is not reading on grade level.  If your students are having difficulty comprehending their regular Social Studies textbooks, these resources will help them out.  You can find them all HERE.


Monday, September 9, 2019

5 Reasons Why Round Robin Reading Is Ineffective

"I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage."
-- Roald Dahl

Learning to read is important.  So is understanding information that is read aloud.  But it is not realistic to expect students to read a text out loud in class and simultaneously comprehend what was read.  It doesn’t matter if they are the students doing the reading or they are just listening to another student reading.  Round robin reading is an ineffective method of teaching reading and content to English Language Learners and native English speakers. 

Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Do Round Robin Reading
* Reading out loud is a different skill from reading silently.  A student can be an excellent reader when reading silently but stumble over words when forced to read aloud.  When I was in school, I read several grade levels above my actual grade but I hated having to read out loud because I got nervous about having to perform in front of an audience.  Just imagine how ELLs who are not fluent English speakers would feel in that situation!  They are already self-conscious about their language skills so calling on them to read to the whole class would be nerve-wracking.  And if a teacher skips over them but calls on every other student, that will also make ELLs self-conscious because they are being singled out for being different and/or less able than everyone else in the class.
* Students read at different rates: Some people read quickly and others more slowly.  Asking students to listen and follow along in the book to someone who reads at a different speed makes it difficult to actually comprehend the material.  If a student reads faster than someone else, the listener doesn’t have time to process the information that is heard and can’t keep up in the book.  If a student reads slower than someone else, the listener can be tempted to read ahead but is lost when asked a question by the teacher because she was not in the right place.  For ELLs whose reading skills are not as proficient as the other students, even following along in the textbook would be difficult since some, many, or most of the words would be unknown to them.  ELLs with lower levels of language proficiency who are in mainstream classes might be lost from the first sentence.
* When students do round robin reading, they often ignore the punctuation because they can’t read ahead to know when a sentence ends and they can’t go back and reread it to get it right after they see the whole sentence.  That means their intonation isn’t correct.  That, in turn, exacerbates the difficulty for ELLs and other students in understanding the material.
* It’s virtually impossible to learn new content when also reading that content out loud in front of other people.  If students are reading material that is new to them, they will inevitably end up focusing on trying to pronounce the words correctly.  But new content means many new words, so the meaning gets lost because the form takes precedence.  I did push-in ESL in a 5th grade Science class for a couple years and that teacher often had students do round robin reading.  I sat next to an ELL with intermediate language proficiency and it was impossible for him to read even one paragraph in the science textbook out loud without making lots of errors.  He didn’t learn anything because not only were the science concepts new to him, many of the words he was trying to read were new as well.  Nor did the other students in the class learn anything when he read because it was new to them, too, and he had to stop so often for help with pronunciation that his listeners lost the gist of what he was reading.
* Some teachers use round robin reading to assess students’ pronunciation skills, thinking that if students can pronounce words accurately that means they understand their meaning.  But just because students can say words correctly, that doesn’t mean they understand what they are saying.  And what is the point of reading unless it is to comprehend what is being read?  For ELLs, especially those at beginning and intermediate levels of language proficiency, the vagaries of English spelling make it difficult for them to know how to pronounce unknown words.  Asking them to do a cold reading and expecting them to do it well is unfair and not realistic.

Find out why round robin reading is not effective for ELLs & other students in this blog post | The ESL Nexus
ELLs & other students don't benefit from round robin reading; source: The ESL Nexus
What You Can Do Instead of Round Robin Reading:
* If you are doing round robin reading because you are reading a class novel, put the students in small groups of mixed ability and have them read the novel that way.  Reading in a small group is much less intimidating for ELLs.  You can do the same thing with textbooks.
* If you are doing round robin reading because you are introducing new content material to your class, such as the case with the Science teacher mentioned above, you can read the text yourself.  As the teacher, you are already familiar with the content and will be able to read it with proper intonation and pronunciation, which facilitates comprehension by all students.  Students can follow along in the book if you wish and see how words that are new to them are pronounced.
* If you are doing round robin reading because you want to ask questions about specific parts of the material to see how well students understand it, create a worksheet or other activity instead that asks the questions you’re interested in.  Then have your students complete it after reading the material on their own or in pairs or small groups.  Let students work together to do the worksheet or activity.  Not only does that give students the chance to explain the information to their classmates, it also gives them speaking practice.
* If you are doing round robin reading to assess students’ pronunciation skills, do the assessment individually and in private so students aren’t put on the spot and don’t get nervous.

Another Suggestion:

When you, the teacher, read out loud from a book, give students the option of following along in the text or just listening while you read.  Many teachers want their students to follow along as they read but for ELLs, often it is more productive for them to just listen to the material being read.  Because ELLs are not fluent in English, they may recognize words when they hear them but not know how to spell them and therefore not recognize them when encountered in a text.  If understanding the content is your aim, then letting students listen as you read will be more effective.  Later, on their own, you can have the ELLs read the text and, since they have already heard it, it will be easier for them to comprehend the material.

Book Recommendations:
Mainstream teachers in middle and high school, and many ESL teachers, are not necessarily literacy specialists but are often tasked with teaching reading.  Many of them have not been trained in how to teach students to read or, if they have, they have not been trained to teach second language learners how to read, which is somewhat different from teaching native speakers to read.  Below are 2 books I have found especially helpful for teaching reading to ELLs. 

(This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase one or both books below, I make a small commission but it's at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!)

From Reader to Reading Teacher

This book contains background theory about reading and practical ideas for teaching reading to ELLs.  See my detailed review HERE.

Reading and Writing in More Than One Language

This short book is aimed at K-12 teachers and includes lots of classroom examples about teaching literacy skills to ELLs.  You can find my detailed review HERE.

There are many effective ways to teach students to read.  Round robin reading is not one of them.  As the new school year in the U.S. gets underway, I sincerely hope that you will not use round robin reading in your classes.