Welcome to the Teaching With Class Blog

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.

Let Your Students See You Fail

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 And Language Integrated Learning

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 InteractionsLanguage 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 AnywayGrammar, 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 UnderstandingIntegration 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 EfficiencyPractically, 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.