The School Break

This mixed group of Haitian and Vietnamese students has been meeting in a church basement for English class two evenings a week for many months. All of them are new English learners who say they want to “speak English everywhere,” and it has taken awhile for the teacher to learn about their more specific needs. As the class was approaching the month-long winter holiday break students worried that, during the long hiatus, they were going to forget what they’d learned . They joked that they needed lots of homework.

Lesson: Instead, the teacher suggested that they develop their own plans for practicing over the break, which seemed okay to them. Since the students viewed their learning purely in terms of communication skills, the teacher didn't try to explain to them that she would be looking at the “Take Responsibility for Learning” Standard to guide this planning. She wanted to focus particularly on the second component of the Standard, “Identify own strengths and weaknesses as a learner and seek out opportunities for learning that help build self-concept as a learner,” because many had expressed anxiety about communicating in the outside English world.

Following the guidance of the Standard, the teacher would have the class identify their authentic opportunities for speaking English, as well as the resources and strategies they could draw upon for support. From all of these ideas, they could put together individualized plans to be implemented over the break . For assessment, they would put together a checklist for keeping track of the strategies they used and would reflect on their activities in dialogue journals. When class resumed, they would share their experiences and reflect on the progress they’d made as English language learners over the holidays .

To begin, the teacher divided them by language group and had them briefly discuss, in their native languages, the barriers to using English outside the classroom and their strengths and weaknesses related to communicating in daily life. Then, in English, the groups reported back the highlights of their discussions and what they had learned from each other. Together, they made a list of the key contexts in which they might use their English over the break and examples of the goals they might set for each one.

Places to use English: Sample goals:
Go shopping in English
  • Ask for things in store
  • Read signs at the mall
  • Take children to Santa in mall
At school event
  • Talk to the teacher
  • Talk to parents I know
Practice with friends from class
  • Practice 2 hours together
Read newspaper
  • Look through newspaper every day
  • Cut out the news items that interest me
  • Underline and look up 10 new words a week
Watch practice videos
  • Watch 1 hour a day
Watch news
  • Watch every evening except weekends
Talk to relatives
  • Practice with my kids
  • Call my American sister-in-law
Write in journal
  • Write 4 times in journal
Go to library
  • Ask for easy books in English
  • Ask for Vietnamese/Haitian books
  • Take children to story hour

Then they brainstormed (with help) a list of resources and strategies they could draw upon for support:

  • calling one another
  • writing out scripts (e.g. what to say on a trip to see Santa)
  • using a dictionary
  • going places together or watching TV together
  • bringing paper so that you can write or draw things when trying to communicate
  • practicing with their children

Finally, they created their own checklists by picking the goals that felt most important for them and at least one strategy to use for each one. (Theoretically, this should tailor the activity to individual needs, but several students created their plans together and ended up with identical worksheets.) Each student agreed to keep track of his/her progress through the use of the checklists and through a dialogue journaling process (which they had used before, so it wasn't new for them). To keep it simple, they agree that they would write about:

  • What was hard? What was easy?
  • How am I doing?
  • What am I learning?
  • My questions:

The holiday break came and went. When the students returned, they shared their experience of taking responsibility for learning with their classmates. They discussed:

  1. whether they met and/or exceeded their goals
  2. the situations in which they used English
  3. the resources and strategies they drew upon to help them
  4. the lessons they learned about communicating in the outside world, and
  5. if or how they felt differently about communicating in English.

There was a lot of excitement as they described their interactions and enormous empathy as they recounted their shyness and fear. They worked hard to understand each other across accents and cultures, and were very interested in hearing about immigrant-friendly establishments where their fellow students were treated with patience and courtesy. To explain to each other where some of these places were, they started roughing out a community map with key landmarks.

In the next classes, they would continue filling out this map with all kinds of places –places that they liked to go, didn’t like to go, wanted to go, etc. – and perhaps use it to plan a class outing where they could interact with new people and widen the circle of places where they could feel comfortable and confident.

In this teaching example, the learning standard was addressed in the following ways:

Take Responsibility for Learning How the activities addressed the Standard
Establish learning goals that are based on an understanding of one’s own current and future learning needs The students named their barriers (situational and dispositional) and became aware of the need to plan for intentional language practice over the break.
Identify own strengths and weaknesses as a learner and seek out opportunities for learning that build self-concept as a learner. Students discussed their fears and gathered support for achieving their goals. This built their confidence that they could meet the goals.
Become familiar with a range of learning strategies to acquire and retain knowledge. They brainstormed a wide range of practice possibilities to choose from.
Identify and use strategies appropriate to goals, task, context and the resources available for learning. They selected goals and strategies that were challenging and yet doable in an unstructured environment.
Monitor progress toward goals and modify strategies or other features of the learning situation as necessary to achieve goals. Students used their checklists and journals as a monitoring tool that helped them stay disciplined about following their plans. However, in cases where a strategy didn't work (e.g. friends were not available to go out with them), most students did not try an alternative strategy, and they needed help reflecting on what they could have done differently.
Test out new learning in real-life applications. The learning was based on using English in real-life situations, and the students intended to continue doing this.