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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

First Week Teaching in Florence: Culture in the Classroom

Upon walking into the classroom on my first day at San Gaspare Scuola Primeria in Florence, Italy, I was met with wide eyes and open mouths on the awe-inspired faces of the third grade students in my cooperating teacher's class.  My cooperating teacher introduced me (slowly) as a student teacher from the United States of America, and a few gasps were heard amongst the students.  My sheer shock that the students were utterly amazed by an American was only exacerbated when I realized that I could not communicate with them in their own language.  Beyond the few words I knew in Italian, I assumed the communication between the students and myself was bound to be difficult.  However, I could not have been more wrong.  The students in the third grade at San Gaspare understood more of my English than I did of their Italian.  Using hand motions, pointing, and facial expressions, the students and I connected on a nonverbal level.  To my embarrassment, I learned that these eight-year-olds were mastering English much quicker than I was learning Italian in my beginner language course at my abroad university. 
As I observed the lessons following my arrival, I noticed how my cooperating teacher handled the dichotomy between the English and Italian cultures.  In order for the students to effectively absorb the English language, my cooperating teacher constantly incorporates Italian cultural aspects into her lessons.  During a lesson on food vocabulary, she taught the students the English words for their favorite Italian dishes such as a ham and cheese sandwich (“panini con prosciutto e formaggio”) and ice cream (“gelato”).  The students responded more enthusiastically to a lesson they could relate to in their own culture, thus enticing a positive learning atmosphere and better understanding of the material.  Throughout the rest of my time at San Gaspare that first day, I noticed how the posters on the wall, the students’ artwork, and the decorations were reflective of the Italian culture with images of their summer vacation and Italian phrases used in the home.  Although the goal is to teach the English language to the students, my cooperating teacher recognizes that it is also important to remain true to one’s own cultural background.  In comparison, the American classroom is beginning to recognize the importance of culture since the number of students from diverse cultural backgrounds is increasing.  A culturally competent classroom is necessary for the fluorishment of a student’s education because it informs a child that his or her culture is worthy and recognized.  Fortunately, the third-grade students at San Gaspare Scuola Primeria are encapsulated in a culturally competent classroom that allows them to absorb the English language while holding onto their Italian roots. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Repetition of Learned Materials (MA vs. Vienna)

     Teaching at a Viennese elementary school, I have noticed that one common method of teaching the English language there includes consistent and frequent repetition of learned materials. Reinforcement of newly developed English concepts, words, phrases, texts, etc. is crucial to students' sustainment of this new knowledge. Therefore, in Vienna, repetition occurs both within English lessons and at various points throughout the week. For example, one morning first grade students were learning how to talk about their favorite colors. The teacher introduced the phrase, “My favorite color is…” and proceeded to tell the class that her favorite color was purple as she pointed to a student’s purple shirt. Then, together the students practiced saying, “My favorite color is…” Each student was then asked to state the phrase with his or her own favorite color/s. Most students accurately exclaimed the sentence, while others required some assistance from surrounding peers. This type of teacher-supported and whole group repetition occurred frequently in the younger elementary classrooms. Since everyone was working together to complete the sentences, students felt comfortable speaking English. The repetition boosted their confidence. 
     In this Viennese elementary school, repetition of material also occurs at various times during the week. Teachers bring up words, sentences and topics from previous English lessons to refresh students’ memories. For example, after a lesson on the prepositions “in, on, under” and “behind” in a first grade classroom, the teacher asked questions and stated phrases such as, “Look! My pencil is under the chair” throughout the following weeks. This triggered students’ prior knowledge and allowed them to exercise their developing English skills.

     Repetition, although also a key component of teaching English Language Learners in Massachusetts, is incorporated differently into lessons. Although words and phrases are explicitly repeated in some lessons as they are in Vienna, repetition is incorporated in a more expansive manner. For example, in many Massachusetts schools I have noticed that teachers will work on the same book with students for weeks at a time. They begin by doing a quick read of the book and pointing out significant vocabulary words. Then throughout the following weeks they not only re-read the text, but they ask new questions related to the concepts and themes of the book, they develop new activities/games/projects that involve the book’s characters, they ask students to complete writing prompts and more. Throughout the re-readings and additional tasks, students trigger previously learned materials while developing new knowledge and skills. While vocabulary words and the text itself are frequently reiterated, the repetition itself is not as straightforward and explicit. Since English is not taught as a foreign language in the States and most classes have a combination of native English speakers and learners of English, there is not time to repeat every new word or phrase extensively. These things are incorporated into the daily lessons in a more elaborate way. Normally, however, teachers will provide additional guidance and support to English Language Learners who might need additional review of a word, topic etc. before moving on. It has been really interesting observing the differences between how teachers teach the English language in Vienna and in the States! 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Differences in English Vocabulary Instruction

Teaching at a Viennese School, I noticed various differences (and similarities) in how English vocabulary words are taught. Teachers in Vienna incorporated clear and explicit vocabulary instruction in their English lessons. Expanding students’ vocabulary knowledge, although time-consuming, is absolutely critical to their developing of English proficiency. Vocabulary knowledge allows students to feel comfortable both conversationally and academically in foreign languages. The more words students know, the stronger their language proficiency becomes. For these reasons, it is not surprising that teaching vocabulary words is prevalent in most English lessons at the Viennese elementary school. Teachers not only repeat newly and previously learned vocabulary words, but they ensure that everyone knows their meanings by asking students to state the German equivalents. For example, while reading a short English text about a family working on farm, the third grade teacher read the sentences out loud with her students. Then, they would stop and identify new words/expressions in the text, such as “check” and “What’s happening?” The teacher had the students repeat the words. Then, they reviewed the words’ meanings in German. Since the students had already developed literacy skills, this type of vocabulary instruction occurred frequently during third grade English lessons. When I arrived in Vienna, I was asked to teach students new words based on various lesson topics. One week while talking about beaches, I introduced the words sand, sun, waves and ocean. I created a beach vocabulary sheet with the new words written in large letters and accompanied by colored pictures to help students visualize the words’ meanings. We practiced the pronunciation of the words, discussed what some words looked or felt like, thought about the meaning of the word in German, and looked at the pictures together. Most of the students at this school in Vienna are at early stages of their English language proficiency, therefore, introducing, repeating and highlighting common English vocabulary words is important to their language development.

In Massachusetts this type of clear and explicit vocabulary instruction can also be observed. As stated before, extensive vocabulary knowledge is critical in developing students’ conversational and comprehension skills. In Massachusetts, however, I have noticed a variety of different ways that vocabulary is introduced or practiced. Teachers often show pictures that represent new words before introducing the words. This gives students a chance to think about what the image means to them. Then, when the English vocabulary is introduced they already have a visual of the word’s meaning. New vocabulary is almost always accompanied with photos, especially in the younger grades.  Although I included visuals in all of my lessons in Vienna, I did not observe the teachers doing the same. In Massachusetts teachers will also have students come up with their own definitions of new words. For example, in one lesson at a public school in Boston, my teacher introduced the word “hiking” to her English Language Learners. She wrote the word on the board for everyone to see, but rather than telling the students immediately what it meant, she showed them a video of someone hiking and asked the students to create their own definition. Although the students were too young to write themselves, they shared ideas about the act of hiking and the teacher helped them combine their ideas into one definition. She wrote this definition on the board and repeated it several times. This elaborate vocabulary instruction helped students recall the word later on because they remembered the video and their self-constructed definition. Group construction and analysis of English words and expressions is quite common in Massachusetts’s classrooms with English Language Learners. It is interesting to notice how frequently Austrian teachers will state an English word and then say the word in German. Since most students in Viennese classrooms are native German speakers, this method makes sense. However, in most American schools students have a wide range of native languages, the most common being Spanish. Because of this, the technique of stating English words and then the same word in students’ native language doesn’t quite work. Despite some differences in vocabulary instruction, it is clear that both American and Austrian educators recognize the value and importance of developing students’ English vocabulary knowledge.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Pen Pals and the Arts: Revealing Differences Between Irish and American Schools

I can’t believe that my time at Scoil Mhuire has come to an end! Reflecting upon my time abroad, some of my favorite memories are of working with the teachers and students at this school. Some the memories that stand out the most are from the pen pal project I started with students from my previous pre-practicum at Edison K-8 in Brighton. Students and teachers in both schools were enthusiastic about the idea so it turned out to be a lot of fun and a valuable learning experience for all. The class at Scoil Mhuire began by writing about their interests and asking questions of the American students, mainly about the weather as Boston was in the middle of the never-ending winter at the time. My CT and I co-taught a lesson on letter writing to help the students produce something they were proud to send. My CT then sent the letters in their decorated envelopes off to Boston and, after spring break, the girls were extremely excited to receive responses from the students at Edison. They shared their letters with one another and were pleased to find that many of them had similar interests and were learning about the same things in school.

These pen pal letters also brought to light how different the two schools are. The class I completed my pre-practicum in at Edison was incredibly diverse in terms of ability, race, gender, language, and SES. Edison is also a much larger school and has less of a community feel than Scoil Mhuire does. Additionally, Scoil Mhuire is religiously affiliated which shapes many of the activities throughout the school day. Finally, the funding for these schools is vastly different. Scoil Mhuire relies on student tuition and donations while Edison, as a public school, is state funded.

I think the difference that became the prominent to me through the pen pal project was the different situations the classes were in at the time. Both classes were extremely busy which made the pen pal project quite difficult and meant that I could only oversee one letter each way. Although they were both busy, the reasons why they were busy were very different. At Scoil Mhuire, students were absorbed with their JEP project (which I wrote about in my earlier post “The 11 Year Old Entrepreneurs of Scoil Mhuire”) and were working ardently to finish in time for their Showcase Day. In contrast, over in Boston, students and teachers were consumed with work preparing for and taking the new PARC test.

Contrasting these situations has allowed me to look at the American system of standardized testing with a more critical eye. In Ireland, students take one set of standardized tests in their final year of junior school: the Junior Certification examinations. These tests are used to assist in determining the level at which students should take their Leaving Certification examinations at the end of Secondary School. As they only have one exam to worry about, students and teachers at Scoil Mhuire, seemed to be more relaxed than those at Edison. This allows more flexibility in the curriculum and enables focus on many different subject areas.

One of the ways in which the lack of testing enables freedom at Scoil Mhuire is in terms of the Arts. The teachers and headmistress at Scoil Mhuire are extremely dedicated to music and drama and firmly believe that it is a crucial part of their students’ education. This means that the Arts have a much more prominent role at Scoil Mhuire than I have seen in any other school. Each morning, at assembly, students gather and sing their school song “A Mhuire Mhathair,” throughout the day students leave lessons to go to violin lessons, and in the afternoons the school is filled with the sounds of recorders as the headmistress travels from class to class giving lessons. While at Scoil Mhuire I also saw art field trips, sat in on drama lessons, and experienced the hype over the school musical, Practically Perfect Mary. Many students seem to thrive in these artistic settings and I think it is wonderful that they have the opportunity to be exposed to the arts in such an inclusive way.

Ultimately, my time at Scoil Mhuire has opened my eyes to the many possibilities in different systems of education and has motivated me to bring what I have learned here back to my future classrooms. I have loved being a member of the Scoil Mhuire community and feel so fortunate to have been able to observe and help with so many different activities. Thanks to how welcoming the teachers and students were, I was able to help with the school musical, chaperone a field trip to the zoo, teach a unit about Native Americans and set up a pen pal project. I’ve learned so much from all of these experiences and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with such wonderful teachers and students!

The Final Countdown

I finished my last session at my placement a few weeks ago, and I feel like overall this experience has given me an entirely different perspective compared to my other pre practicum placements. In my P1 at Baker Elementary, each week I was there our class had their Spanish class, but other than that, I have not really been exposed to foreign language class teachings. I have been a student in a foreign language class for many years, but observing these types of classes as a student teacher is completely different. As a student, you do not notice the complexities of teaching.  There are so many different strategies to teaching children a second language, which I have learned about in a number of classes I have had a BC; but, having the opportunity to see this first hand, and in another country where English in the foreign language to students, instead of Spanish or French, was an incredibly experience.

I feel as though I have learned many skills in my placement this semester, and in the beginning I was not extremely hopeful about my placement, since I was not exactly in a French school. Even though my experience was different, I still was able to observe students learning a new language and the challenges they faced during different phases of language development. I also learned a few things myself from the students. At first they had an incredibly hard time understanding me because they were not used to my American accent (in English and in French), but as the weeks went by and they would correct my French accent, I too began to improve in my second language. I hope that I will be able to bring what I have learned in Aix this semester back with me to Boston College and apply it to my last pre practicum and my full practicum next year.