Friday, February 20, 2015


In my ELL History class, we are moving beyond building vocabulary to reading and answering analytical questions. They are currently studying the Han Empire and were asked a question about the Silk Road on page 105 from the Pearson/ Prentice Hall World History book by Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Elser (2007).

The question is: How do you think the knowledge Zheng gained helped establish the Silk Road?

Not one of the students could answer the question based on the information in the textbook. One part that confused them understandable is that Zheng is also spelled Zhang in the textbook –I don’t know if they fixed that in later version. But the biggest problem was that the answer is not explicit in the text and therefore they needed to think about it.

The book explains using a brief primary source and historical description that Zheng Qian, a Han diplomat, was sent by Emperor Wudi to “establish contact with peoples outsides the Han empire” (104). He went all the way to India and the Roman Empire for his research.  The textbook then explains what he learned in those faraway places helped establish the trade routes of the Silk Road.

So first I asked them what supplies do you need in a school. They answered balls, pens, pencils, paper, computers, uniforms, food, drinks, etc. I then asked, “If you had never been to this school before, how would you know where these items were?”  They answered, “You would have to ask people.”  Then I asked them, “How would you tell people outside the school where they were, if they had never been to the school?” They answered, “You would have to write it out for them or draw a map.”

So they very briefly drew a map of the school as if we were giving strangers instructions, like voyagers on the Silk Road needed if they planned on trading or buying goods.

So I explained that Zheng Quian had to go to different places and talk to different people from far away regions to find out what goods they sold and needed. But one student whose parent is a diplomat said, “That’s not a diplomat’s job. His job is relationships with other countries, like politics.”  So I explained that diplomats also negotiate economic issues and gave examples of economic treaties that are negotiated between governments. I also explained that there is crossover between political and economic issues, for example sanctions.

Also, a diplomat’s job is to provide reconnaissance (not as a spy but as an information gatherer) to offer a perspective to her government.  

That’s exactly what Zheng Quian did. He told the Emperor Wudi what he saw on his journey and that there were consumers for their products. In addition, he reported on possible imports for the empire.  This drastically impacted their economy as well as created a new, eventually powerful merchant class.

Did I plan to spend 45 minutes on one homework question? No, I didn’t.  Is this particular piece of information crucial to their life? No, it’s not. However, I wanted to demonstrate and cue them on how to think through a difficult question and apply a historical concept to their own life. I wanted them to think. And for 45 minutes, they did.

Feedback on Speeches

Giving feedback to students on their writing is a very tricky endeavor. You want to help them improve, but you also don't want to criticize them to a point of causing their writing paralysis. Writing requires confidence, but not hubris. I try my best to keep this in mind when providing them with edits.. However, some students cannot handle any constructive criticism. The goal with them is to gain their trust and open their hearts so that they can learn without feeling like feedback is an attack on their self worth.

I find that feedback is least tolerated by students when the genre is creative writing; unless, the entire course is focused on creative writing. Students are most eager to receive feedback on a speech because they will be reciting it in front of their peers. They want to put their best foot forward. 

Below are links to four students' speeches. The students are diverse and English may not be their first or second language. Their grades last semester range from C to A. All four of the students received some type of individual, in-person feedback either during class or after class after receiving comments on their rough draft. Student 4 was asked to rewrite his speech during a conference; I prefer to tell a student to that in person, rather than in the comments section. 

This is their sixth piece of formal writing this school year. They are 10th graders.  Rough drafts were uploaded to Turnitin. I included three very successful final drafts and one improved, but less successful one. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Giving them what they need

Teachers are trained to create units, to set learning outcomes, and to follow the objectives of a curriculum. There is a perceived and sometimes mandated rush to cover topics. What I am finding is that sometimes though, I’m sacrificing depth for breadth and when I do, no one is benefitting, specifically not the students.

This is something I fret about, but it was confirmed recently when a student wrote on an evaluation that, “sometimes the teacher cuts a discussion short just to get to the next topic.”

Students write all sorts of comments on evaluations. Some I take to heart and some I take with a grain of salt. But this, along with my own professional inventory, I really took to heart.

For example, right now my students are working on their speeches for the school’s annual speech contest. I wanted to cut this unit very short. My excuse was that speech writing was covered in 9th grade and will be covered again in 11th and 12th grades.  I wanted them to write their speeches, get comments from me, practice, and deliver.

However, they wanted more. They requested guided brainstorming and time to revise. Some asked to conference with me. They used and desired time for peer feedback and practice. Some students were ahead of others and hoped to spend their time on practicing vs. revising.

So, I listened and gave them the time.

The first question I asked at the beginning of my English classes today was what do you need so that you can successfully deliver a speech during the next class?

They were a bit surprised by the question. It's not a typical question asked by a teacher to a student. We usually tell t hem what they "need." However, it didn't take long for them to communicate their exact needs. 

Was every student on task all of the time? No, they never are, but are you ever on task for 80 minutes?  But I did my best to monitor their progress and ask questions to get them back on track. 

So as I find myself stressing out over the fact that my lesson plans from last year show that we were already reading Macbeth and that this year we are “behind,” I will remind myself that there really is no such thing as behind. I am not teaching for the state. There is no 10th Grade English test that my students have to pass.   I have some autonomy in determining the pace. For this, I feel very fortunate and so are my students.


Postscript: Their speeches were great and much improved from the first to the second drafts. It was time well spent.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

What do 10th graders at an International School care about?

There are so many assumptions made about teenagers without ever consulting them. Every generation has its labels and this one is no different. But how often do we ask teenagers what is important to them. What do they care about?

As I've written about before, out school holds an annual mandatory speech contest. This provides an excellent window into our students' priorities and values. Knowing what they care about will help me be a better teacher, so that I can make my lessons relevant to their interests. Here is a list of their topics:


  • Schools should ban computer use
  • Everyone should know how to code
  • Technology is taking over our lives
  • Technology is increasing the wealth gap
  • War technology creates a disconnect between the bomber and the victims
  • Piracy is immoral
  • Space exploration is still crucial

Emotional Well Being

  • Mental Illness should be taken more seriously
  • Middle Child Syndrome is a real illness
  • Stop ruminating
  • Say yes to life
  • Enforce a four-day-work week
  • Baking is therapeutic
  • Nothing in life matters, so don't get so upset about everything
  • Success involves hard work and luck
  • The soul exists
  • Intuition is important to develop
  • Count your blessings
  • Cursing is good for you
  • Love yourself
  • The value of internal motivation

Physical Health

  • Why obesity is a serious problem
  • Eat a pepper every day
  • Overuse of antibiotics
  • Why everyone should be a vegetarian
  • Sleep is important
  • Ride a bike to work
  • Lefties are superior to righties

Politics, Religion, and Social Policy

  • Religious extremism is and always has been a great world problem
  • It's time for anarchy
  • Beware of cults
  • Child Soldiers should be a UN priority
  • Street art should be considered equally to other types of art
  • It is wrong to hold whales in captivity
  • Video games do not cause violence in youth


  • Being a 3rd Culture Kids opens your eyes to the world
  • Take a Gap Year
  • Why there should be no speech contest
  • Should students be allowed to choose their teachers
  • Everyone should read more


  • Everyone should be a fan of a sports team
  • Professional soccer needs video replays
  • Why everyone should be part of a sport team

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How is Islam is portrayed in the media worldwide

This semester to begin Middle East History, each student was assigned a different news web site from a different country or part of the world. Into the news' sites engine, they needed to type in the word "Islam" into the search engine. They then copied the headlines into a Google Doc and copied them into Wordle.

If you are unfamiliar with Wordle, it it a graphic representation of the most frequently used words that are copied and pasted into a word cloud generator. It can help students, especially visual learners, easily spot trends.

After creating their Wordles, students inserted them into a Google Presentation. Today, we will discuss what words are currently associated with Islam as indicated by the different news sites from around the world. We will compare and contrast countries to note the emphasis. We will ask why some words are there and some are not.  For example, Islam is a religion but the word "prayer" or  other Muslim observances are hardly mentioned. Why?

This lesson follows a previous lesson authored by my colleague Mrs. Chill, where students examine their own identities and how that may lead to their perceptions in the course. Where a media outlet is located also influences its coverage of Islam and the stories that are written about it.

Just a technical note, not every student has Flash on their computers as required by Wordle. There are many other programs that create word clouds. They are listed here.

Below are a couple of the Wordles generated by this class, but if you would like to see more, visit the presentation.

The next time I do this assignment, the only thing I would change is have students actually delete the word Islam from their Google Doc so we can focus on the other words instead.
The Local (Germany)

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 11.58.24 AM.png
From the Jakarta Post