Welcome to the Teaching With Class Blog!
I have been teaching in bilingual, international education for 15 years, and I have some stories to tell you.
Some of them are funny. Really funny.
Some of them will break your heart.
And I hope some of them will give you ideas, and that you share those ideas with me in the comments.
What you’ll find here:
These are the stories about my classrooms. I love my job, but teaching culture can be toxic. I am tired of blogs and articles and groups that try to make me believe that teaching is always beautiful, always meaningful, and always life changing.
It doesn’t feel that way when you realize that you can spend a day negotiating with a nine year old about the answers to the times tables.
When you try to tell a friend with an office job about your day and they don’t quite believe how absurd your job can get, come here for some real talk.
You’ll also find ideas for socially just teaching, rigorous content integration, and raising the expectations for our students.
Our classrooms need to be places for hard conversations and diversity. We need to teach literature, history, and current events without the lens of privilege and comfort, because we need to be preparing our students to live in and change our world.
That means treating them like the capable, intelligent people they are – even our young ones. It means that we need materials and ideas for bringing conversations about race, and hard history, and inequality into the classroom. It means we need to find ways to infuse all of our content with socially just materials. It means we need to raise our expectations – for critical thinking, for empathy, and for academic rigour. You’ll find stories, ideas, and materials for all of that here, and then, you can leave behind some of your own.
We can do it. We’ll raise them right.
This is a re-post of an article I wrote a year ago, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, that my students were asking me about. It is still important. It still shapes my teaching and my courses.
In the last months, we have seen an explosion of protests and social change in the streets. These are important and urgent and necessary. As the dust settles, we are going to have to be playing a long game to ensure that the change we need actually happens. Many of us are asking what we can do to effect long lasting, meaningful change. One of the long games we must play is in education – in our resources, our curriculums, and our classroom cultures.
All of these white people right now saying, “I need to educate myself about racism!” – there’s no excuse for that. We’ve got to change the education. We have to start from the ground up, with the little kids. We have to get it into their brains while their brains are still open.
Because right now? Right now we are cushioning and easing primary education, because we think it’s too hard, or too sad, or too political, to expose young children to reality. And what’s happening is that we are not only wasting valuable time with children open to learning, we are training young brains badly. We are training them to close and look inward and to not know, and when that happens, we have to unteach and unlearn later.
It takes so much more effort to unlearn than to learn. We have 9 year olds who think everything is fine, 15 year olds passing tests about the benefits of colonialism, and 25 year olds saying “I have to educate myself about race, I had no idea.”
There is no excuse for that.
9 year olds aren’t stupid. They can learn.
This week I asked my students about George Floyd and Adama Traoré . I taught them the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade and I made them draw the line and make the connections.My non-white students were first surprised that I brought it up, and then they talked and talked. One of them described how someone had called him charcoal once. A white student asked, “Why charcoal, what does that mean?” I asked the boy if he cared to explain. He thought for a moment, then sighed. “Nah, that’s enough,” he said. My 9 year olds are tired, already, of explaining.
After the lesson, they were sad. They were not traumatized. They can handle it.
They are smart and open and capable. They are not particularly nuanced, they are incredibly literal, and they need everything spelled out for them – yes, if you teach 9 year olds about poor sanitation on a boat, you will need to spell out for them that that means poop. It’s ok, you can do it. You’ll all survive the class.
So they don’t have all the details, and they don’t understand, yet, how complicated things can get. They haven’t yet looked at every side of every issue. But they also don’t have to unlearn anything. They have a foundation that can be built upon and grown, and they won’t have to go back and rewrite anything. They won’t say, “I had no idea.”
But listen – I’m just one teacher. I teach 20 students for 1 year, maybe 2. Just like one good apple cop isn’t enough in the face of a violent system, one good teacher isn’t enough in an entrenched education system.
This is the curriculum I am dealing with, fighting against. This is the textbook. The textbook interprets the curriculum, it is not the curriculum, and teachers are not legally mandated to use it. But this is one of the most common textbooks in France, and the 2 or 3 other common ones aren’t any different. This is the one the districts and schools are choosing and teaching from.
It is an example from France. But where ever you are teaching or learning, the principle is the same. I challenge you to go look at your history and social studies text books with the same critical eye. I am convinced that most of you will find something similar.
Romanticized. Brushed over. White washed.
Made easy and palatable.
2 pages. In all of primary school, which goes until students are ten years old – 2 pages.
Its title is “France Conquers the World.”
It is in the unit in the Renaissance – full of exploration and scientific discoveries and beautiful art. It’s in there. And it’s right before the French Revolution, because they teach about French people fighting against their oppressive King, but not about Black Africans fighting against them.
2 pages, and fully 20% of it is about the port they had to build to accommodate all the sugar and cotton they were bringing into the country.
2 pages, and there’s not a single mention of North Africa or the Arabic people they colonized, who are now living and working in France.
2 pages, and French children have asked me, every year, if Native Americans still exist. They think they are a historical people, like the Ancient Romans and the Vikings.
It’s not good enough. When we play the long game, in the weeks and months after the uprising, we need to change the curriculum. We need to change the education. Education, particularly primary education, must be one of the first answers, one of the first ways forward for real, long lasting, generational change.
My 9 year olds looked at me in shock and sadness and said, “But why did they kill him?”
They’ll never ask a question that directly again. They’ll never be this open again. We can’t waste it.
Writers Need Readers
Introducing: Kids Get Published, my tool for creating authentic writing opportunities for children.
Learning how to write is hard. Teaching children how to write well is even harder. And we have to start in primary school. Too often, we leave intensive writing lessons to the upper years, waiting until they are ‘old enough’ to get it. And too often, children reach high school already believing that they can’t write, that they are not writers, and then it’s too late. We must start early, cultivating their identities as writers and practicing the basic skills they’ll need.
But I can’t count the number of times I have stood in front of a class of tired ten-year-olds, trying to get them to put a paragraph down on paper. Sometimes, it’s like trying to get blood from a stone.
There’s the kid who sits in front of the blank page for an hour, ‘thinking’. The kid who scribbles down 3 short sentences and proclaims the project ‘finished’. The one who studiously counts how many lines of paper their writing has taken up with no concern for how well written any of them are. The kid who tells me they have no ideas, the one who spends all their time checking spelling mistakes in the first sentence and never gets to the second one, and the kid who needs reassurance after every line that they haven’t gotten it wrong.
All of these students can talk until they are blue in the face. They have ideas and answers and arguments. The discussions are lively and interesting. But when it comes time to transfer those ideas to paper, they really struggle.
We know that the best way to get better at writing is to write, but how on earth do we make them do it?
Children need 3 things to form an identity and See Themselves as Writers:
They need authentic opportunities: Choose topics that matter to them and that they are passionate about. Use the news, issues in school, books they loved or hated.
They need to Make Connections: They can not be isolated, writing into the void. They need to connect to each other and to the world, a community of writers and a platform for readers.
They need to be confident: We need to remove the fear of failure. No red pens, no bad grades. As an adult, we would never choose a writers’ retreat with a report card. Why would children?
We can achieve all of this by creating a safe, encouraging Writing Community, including a way to publish, in our classrooms.
Children need to write about things that matter to them. We spend so much time on writing exercises that have no real world meaning. No more exercises! Find engaging topics that children care about. Listen to your students. Remember that they’re smart. Find topics that they respond to – and ditch the ones they don’t. My last round of essays had children writing about vaccines. I guided them to news articles and showed them how to choose sources. I taught them about the right, and the responsibility, of Free Speech. I allowed them to passionately defend themselves. The writing was magnificent.
Writing is communication. We don’t usually like to sit in our living room and talk to ourselves – we seek out people to talk to, to listen to what we have to say. Writing is the same.
In my classroom, online or in person, we talk and write together. Talking is always the starting point, and always what we return to as we move through the process. We discuss the topic together before we even pick up a pen. I encourage the children to talk in groups as they brainstorm ideas before they begin with any kind of formal structure. As they begin to do rough copies, we take regular breaks to share our writing with each other. Children volunteer to read their paragraphs out loud, or have their piece put up on the whiteboard.
The difference in enthusiasm, engagement, and participation, is immediate.
As soon as they know that someone will get to read or hear what they write, without a grade, without a red pen, they are much more excited to get something down on paper. They have a reason for doing it. And as the class goes on, more and more children get excited and confident to share. The ones who were shy at first see their more confidence classmates share, and they gain confidence themselves. The ones who thought they were the only ones with mistakes or who only wrote a few sentences realize that everybody’s in the same boat, and that theirs is much better than they thought. The ones who didn’t know what to write get a model from the kids who did, and with that encouragement, they’re off.
When I was a new teacher, this made me nervous. I was worried about embarrassing students by asking them to share their writing with their classmates, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As long as students know before they begin writing that sharing is on the table, so they don’t write something confidential (there is a time and a place for that), they become much more confident sharing with their classmates than a teacher. After all, their classmates aren’t going to give them a grade, and they are not the authority who can tell them they’re wrong. They are on equal footing.
The biggest barrier to success for my students has always been the fear of failing. They know to look for my red pen marking up their story, for the grade circled at the top.
I don’t do that any more. I don’t put a grade or a number on it. I focus on qualitative feedback and next steps, and I do it throughout the process instead of at the end. It’s a conversation, not a judgement. They need the room to just write, to get it all out on paper, and to be brave, before they have to start thinking about any mistakes.
When it does finally come time to edit, we workshop that too. I put a few up on the board, or share the screen. I model editing a piece, then we edit one together. Once they know what to look for, we start sharing our papers around the desks or in zoom rooms.
Putting the power to edit and change their work into their hands, rather than reserving that power for myself, is transformative.
And now the most important part: Publishing.
They need to publish. Writers need readers. They need to feel proud of all that work they did, and they need to feel that they did it for a reason. Seeing their work somehow out in the world is the greatest motivator I have found. That publishing can be as small as putting it up on the walls of your classroom or as big as binding up books to put in your school library.
I have created Kids Get Published. This is a student blog full of student writing. They share that link with their parents, their families, their other teachers, their friends. They see me so proud of their work that I am willing to publish it. They know before they start writing that publishing is a goal, and now I’m hearing them say confidently, as they submit a piece to me, “It’s good, I’m ready to publish.”
And the proof that it works? Read the writing. It’s good, and with the kids who submit more than once, we can see the improvement over time. On this blog, they are writing about things that matter to them – opinions that are important to them, books they love or hate, stories they crafted lovingly.
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This morning, during a zoom lesson with a 4ieme (8th grade) student, I forgot what caused Fragile X Syndrome.
The lesson was on chromosome aberrations, and I am out of practice. He’s falling behind in his science lessons, and we are using his school holiday to help him catch up and review. It’s been a hot minute since I had anything to do with mitosis and chromosomes.
When I forgot, I pulled out his diagram and we looked at it together. Neither of us could see it on the picture. So, with the screen still shared, I let him watch me google it.
When I began my career, this would have broken me. I would have considered it a failure of knowledge, of organization, of professionalism. I would have kicked myself up and down the hallway, I would have done everything I could have to hide from the student that I had forgotten (or never knew), and I would have spent hours stressing and preparing for my next lesson with him.
I teach upper elementary when I’m in my classroom, and that means I teach all the subjects. People often ask me, “How do you know all that information?” And the truth is: I don’t.
I didn’t know about Newton’s three laws of motion before I taught them for the first time 6 years ago. I hadn’t read The Breadwinner, or learned the history of Afghanistan, before I taught it for the first time 3 years ago. I learned what we have to do to be able to live on Mars as my students did last year, when I taught about it for the first time. I don’t know it all, and to pretend I do, all the time, is disingenuous and harmful to students.
The student I taught this morning is falling behind in his science class, and it’s bugging him. He’s worried it’s because he’s stupid, or a bad student. He thinks he might be the only one who can’t keep Fragile X and Turner’s syndrome straight, or who forgets the difference between mitosis and meiosis. He hates that he needs to get help.
What if, afraid of how I would look, I had hidden that from him? If it was so important to me to continue to look like the expert in the room that I pretended I knew what caused Fragile X, and came to him with a perfectly planned explanation, I might have reinforced the idea that he is alone in his forgetfulness, and I would have modeled for him that knowledge is static and memorised, and that you either have it or you don’t. That would have been a real failure.
Instead, I let him see that knowledge is constantly updated, learned, and checked. I showed him that being an expert doesn’t mean never having to check or learn. When I showed him that I also had to google it, it showed him that it’s normal to forget, that good students and smart people have to look things up. It also modeled a strategy for him that he can use himself when he gets stuck, which he might not have learned if I had made it look like magic.
In recent years, I have allowed every single one of my students to see me fail, make mistakes, and forget things. Every time, I am explicit in my explanations, narrating my mistake and my solution. I explain to them that I am googling information and that they can do the exact same thing.
I know some teachers are cringing as they read this! It can be humbling to allow yourself to fumble in front of a room full of people, especially if those are people who you hope will look up to you and respect you. And there can be some professional consequences to this approach. I have worked with teachers who think I’m not as dedicated when they see me googling during class. I worked, once, with a parent who told me that his son was failing his history tests because he saw some typos in the notes I typed up in class as we discussed the issue together instead of having the worksheets ready to go before class.
It’s worth it.
It’s worth it for the students who don’t feel unintelligent or isolated.
It’s worth it for the kids who go to grab an iPad and look up the answer by the themselves the next time they get stuck.
It’s worth it for the kids who don’t give up when it’s hard, because they see that you don’t give up.
It’s worth it for the kids who learn that failing once doesn’t mean failing forever.
It is worth every humbling moment, because once you build that classroom culture, of failing and trying again and checking facts and looking things up, it stops being humbling and starts being empowering. I have never had a class who actually stopped respecting me because I showed them that saying “I don’t know” isn’t such a bad thing.
A little while ago, I overheard a group of students talking about a problem they had really messed up. “Don’t worry,” said one of them who didn’t know I could hear. “We can fix this. We’ll just do a Ms. Gulka.”
Let them see you fail. Let them see you fix it. And everybody, including the teacher, can take a deep breath, and cut themselves some slack.
Content Integration Including Language Acquisition
CLIL is a pedagogy and teaching style that teaches both language skills and content – science, history, a novel, any topic – at the same time. It originated as a method for teaching second language learners, but is an approach I also use with fluent or first language learners who are engaging with and producing texts and articles.
Below are the four main reasons I use this approach.
|Authenticity and Real Interactions||Language is not an academic exercise. It is a tool that we use every day, for every subject and in every context. It is personal, linked to culture, and changes based on the situation. Students who only learn academic grammar from a textbook won’t be able to connect easily with their friends on the playground, for example.|
So we should learn it the way we use it. When we learn to use it in authentic situations to communicate real ideas, it becomes a tool that can free us to connect with each other instead of a barrier making that communication more difficult.
|Traditional Language Exercises Don’t Work Anyway||Grammar, spelling, and vocabulary are not communication tools by themselves. We don’t isolate them when we speak to our friends or write a story. Spelling, by itself, is useless.|
So why do we isolate them when we teach them? Students who complete grammar and spelling exercises learn quickly how to do the exercises and complete the patterns. However, those perfect test scores rarely transfer onto the page when writing essays.
Research shows that teaching grammar in isolation does not work, and in fact, as early as 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English resolved that teaching grammar exercises was not effective. In a CLIL classroom, the language is acquired instead through authentic writing about real world subjects and writing. Learn more here and here.
|Deeper and More Connected Understanding||Integration of subjects, including language acquisition and literacy skills, helps students to develop a deeper and more academically rigorous understanding of both the language and the subject. In our real lives, subjects are rarely separated from each other. Everything is connected. So why do we separate it all out into discrete subjects in a classroom? When we integrate the subjects, we allow our brains to make connections and think deeply about a subject. We allow for more points of entry into a subject, and so for more opportunities to understand it. When we write about science, or use math to understand geography, or culturally relevant legends to practice our reading, we understand the subjects and develop the skills more authentically and in ways that we are more likely to retain. We also allow students to develop critical thinking, problem solving skills, and empathy. Learn more here, and click here for an example of a unit plan that integrates all the subjects for deeper understanding.|
|Time Management and Efficiency||Practically, learning subjects in isolation takes more time and effort. If we have to spend an hour learning grammar, a second hour practicing our reading comprehension, and a third hour learning about a science experiment, we will burn out and run out of time.|
Instead, why not read and write about the science experiment? An integrated, CLIL classroom accomplishes more in the same time, allowing for higher academic expectations, deeper understanding, and less burn out.