How do we smash the gender binary with English Language Learners?

I’ve been really struggling with how to be respectful of gender identity and avoid reinforcing the gender binary when speaking in a language that genders everything. Just asking “what is your name?” in Hebrew (and in most languages I’m familiar with besides English!) requires the speaker to assume the other person’s gender identity (male or female, no other options). How do you ask pronouns in a language that genders the sentence “what are your pronouns?”

Teaching primary school ESOL and EFL adds a whole second layer of complexity. Continue reading

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“What are those dots on your face?”

Four-year-old: [looking up from Lego helicopter] What are those dots on your face?

Me: They’re called acne. I’m not sick. They’re just part of my skin. Most people get some pimples when they become teenagers, and a lot of people, like me, have them as adults too. They come and go.

Four-year-old: They look icky.

Me: Sometimes they feel icky on my face, too, and other times they feel fine. Sometimes I even forget they’re there.

Four-year-old: But I don’t have them.

Me: I know, not yet. You’ll probably get some when you’re a teenager, but you may not. Not everyone does.

Four-year-old: [silence as he plays with Lego set]

Four-year-old: [suddenly reaches toward my face]

Me: Please stop and wait. Were you wanting to feel the dots on my face?

Four-year-old: Yes.

Me: Okay. That’s fine with me. It’s just important to always ask before you touch someone’s body. Can you try asking, “May I please touch the dots on your face?”

Four-year-old: May I please touch the dots on your face?

Me: Sure! I don’t mind. Just please be gentle. Thanks for asking.

Four-year-old: [feels gently, wrinkles nose] Ew. [pulls hand away, smiling]

Me: Yeah, they’re kind of funny sometimes. It’s okay to feel them because I said it’s okay. When you want to touch someone’s body, you just have to ask first if it’s okay. Only if they say “yes,” then it’s okay. If they say “no,” it’s not okay and it’s really important that you respect that. I said yes, so it’s okay.

Four-year-old: [feels my face one more time in interest, then goes back to Legos]

I have a variation on this conversation pretty often. I hope the message gets through. Also. I find it really interesting that it is so, so much easier for me to be body positive around young kids. Most of the time, I’m super self-conscious about my acne (which has been particularly strong for aroung twelve years or so), and really hate it. And then I hate that I hate it, and I feel like a bad feminist, because I know it’s just part of my body that I can’t control, and it doesn’t inherently make me ugly, and I shouldn’t cover myself up, and blah di dah all of that that’s easy to say and difficult to feel. And then I tell myself my feelings are valid anyway. And then I get into a big argument with myself and just end up putting on some basic concealer to go to work and forget about it. Somehow, with four-year-olds, that whole self-conscious narrative just melts away. I’m just me. And they’re just them. And that’s okay. Wow.

“Māra,” by Moira Wairama

During the last week of term, I introduced many of my E.S.O.L. students to “Māra,” a poem published in Issue 52 of the New Zealand Junior Journal, a journal of writing geared towards students working in level 2 of The New Zealand Curriculum. The full journals, with illustrations and audio recordings, are available here at no charge: http://literacyonline.tki.org.nz/Literacy-Online/Planning-for-my-students-needs/Instructional-Series/Junior-Journal.

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A pēpepe I met in the Auckland Domain

 

In a smooth blend of English and Māori, the speaker invites us into her māra (garden) to meet all of the insects she meets there. The (free) audio recording available on the educators’ resource site highlights the poem’s magical, musical quality, capturing students’ attention in a way that simply handing them the poem as a silent reading assignment could not.

Though the poem is a great example of how students can use imagery, rhyme, and meter in their poems, I find one of the most important things this poem does is highlight the bilingualism and biculturalism that is so important to New Zealand. While I am an American citizen teaching English to non-native speakers, I feel a responsiblity to honour and lift up Te Reo wherever feasible in my teaching as well, and to set a norm in my classroom that all languages are equally precious. Of course, though the poem incorporates both languages, I don’t know if it actually tells us anything particular about Māori culture, so I should be on the lookout for more poems that do this. Learning English is never about replacing what one has grown up with but about adding something new. This is a topic for a future post, but does anyone have suggestions of other poems appropriate for young children that incorporate multiple languages fluently? I’d love to start a solid collection. Thank you!

Most of the articles in the journal come with teacher guides, but the poem does not, so I’ve written up some activities and prepared a vocab sheet for pre-teaching the Māori words and some of the Tier 2 English words that non-native English speakers would need support with. I included some questions to prompt a discussion about the concept of being “special” and what it means to consider something or someone special. My sessions with these students are each quite short, so we don’t have the opportunity for full on CoI, but as always, I’d love to hear of your students’ responses – just hit “reply” below! Adjusting for your students’ needs, I would discuss the unfamiliar words first, so that they have context. Then listen to the poem, giving each student a copy of the poem (from the journal) to have in front of them. Then proceed with the discussion and writing activity.

The guide is available here: http://tinyurl.com/maraguide

After a few drafts, I publish the students’ poems on the wall and give them a chance to read their poetry to each other. It gives each student a chance to showcase their own work and be publicly proud, to review what they have done vs. just turning in an assignment and never seeing it again, to recognize their own work as publish-worthy art, and to learn from and about their peers. I’d love to hear your experiences, successes, and challenges of young students writing and sharing their work!

Integrity in Teaching

This is a response to the article “Integrity in Teaching: Recognizing the Fusion of the Moral and Intellectual,” by Deborah Ball and Suzanne M. Wilson (1996). Since the article discusses student-directed and inquiry-based learning, I thought it was an appropriate thing to share with readers of this Philosophy for Children blog. Happy reading and please join the discussion in the comments!

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Teaching: “Knowledge endeavor” or “moral enterprise?” There is a tension in the academic community between those who say teaching is about transmitting content and those who approach teaching as primarily about engaging with students’ wellbeing. Ball and Wilson use two examples from their third grade classes to illustrate the point that these two ideas are inseparable.

Wilson begins by giving an account of a unit she spent discussing government with her third graders. A discussion of the history of how Lansing (their home city) became the capital of Michigan yields a number of misconceptions – some vocabulary confusions, some geographical, some about the nature of government. Instead of slamming down the discussion by correcting her third graders’ misconceptions right away, Wilson engages her students in further discourse, encourages them to respond to one another, and learns a great deal more about their thinking and understanding.

Wilson continues with an example of a fascinating third grade math lesson. She works hard to foster student-directed learning in her classroom, and encourages students to come to solutions and new knowledge through inquiry, active experimentation, and debate. During the episode she relates for this essay, her students are trying to figure out how to compare the sizes of different fractions. A portion of the class comes to the conclusion that five fifths is more than four fourths because there are more pieces. Wilson is befuddled but ends the lesson at a loss of what to do.  “Having worked hard to create a classroom culture in which mathematical ideas were established with evidence and argument,” she writes, “I found that many students were no longer so influenced by my views” (169-170). With five minutes left before recess, she asked students to journal about their thinking: “I was humbled to see that, even when I do choose to tell students something, there are no guarantees, and I remembered that this was one of the things that spurred me to make my classroom more centered on the children’s thinking in the first place” (171). While I grew up with and nearly always promote student-directed learning, one thing I noticed that makes Ball and Wilson’s techniques unique is that the content of their teaching is quite purposefully teacher-directed, but the process and method of the learning is student-led. This is a new model of shared responsibility for student learning.

The writers go on to discuss the potential challenges to their inquiry-based methods of teaching. More traditional modes of teaching might yield the correct answers more often, but their experience has shown that students can often give the “correct answer” without actually having the underlying understanding. For instance, it is common for students taught mathematics traditionally to understand the correct answer in one situation but not another – e.g. representing six pieces coming together to represent one whole using manipulatives, but still insisting that a sixth plus a sixth equals a twelfth when using just numbers alone without the manipulatives (presumably adding across the top and adding across the bottom). Instead of providing examples (e.g. same size pizzas getting cut into different numbers of pieces), Wilson chose to encourage students to come up with their own examples. These examples did not provide the correct answer right away, but they demonstrated students’ thinking in a way that working with only teacher-provided examples would not.

We also must consider that many subjects will arise in the conversation that the teacher did not intend to bring up. Some may engender discomfort, and some students will be more or less uncomfortable depending on their experiences. When some of her students made derogatory remarks about welfare, and Ball had no lived experience with the subject, luckily some of her students were able to advocate for themselves. But what about the students who remained silent? When discussing serious and sensitive topics, is there a point at which the teacher has a responsibility to step in and steer the discussion? And if so, at what point and how is this to be done without squashing student creativity and self-advocacy?

A central theme of this essay is how to approach every topic with intellectual honesty. Bruner (1960) claims that any subject can be taught honestly in some way to any student at any developmental level. Being intellectually honest means both taking the subject matter very seriously and taking each student and their individual thinking seriously. What does this mean when a student’s entire framework of understanding is at odds with conventional wisdom? Even once Wilson’s students understood that a cookie was the same size no matter how many pieces you split it into way, five fifths was considered more because you could share the whole thing with more friends. In a poetic way, one could argue they have a point. But according to the conventions of mathematics, they are wrong. How does an educator honour the poetic truth in the student’s understanding of a situation while explaining the mathematical flaw?

Ball notes how happy she was to see four young girls in her classroom, three who were students of colour, debating mathematical proofs – a domain too long dominated by white men. However, she worries that in her quest to respect her students’ critical thinking and learning process, she let her students leave third grade without the skills to defend themselves against the erroneous notion that women have lagging mathematical skills. Providing our students with only one or two conventional perspectives on a mathematical idea or historical event robs them of the nonstandard but valuable insight that they can achieve for themselves: “History would be something others do, not them” (186). However, as educators we have the responsibility to “represent the subject matter in ways that are honest and true” (178). If we leave our students believing that five fifths is more than four fourths or worse, have we failed them? Worse, if we teach social studies and do not ensure that our students see people like themselves represented in government positions and historical turning points, do we leave our students believing that they do not have the opportunity to be moral agents in the shaping of their world?