In Translation: I’ve Never Been So Proud of Any Class

Friday I had the kind of teaching experience that makes pre-service teachers want to teach and keeps in-service teachers in teaching.

On Tuesday I learned I was getting a new student–a refugee student who speaks no English. I immediately felt my own inadequacy as a teacher, but I tried to brush that aside with ideas for how I could include this student in my classroom and help him participate in our lessons.

If I’m honest, Wednesday wasn’t stellar. I see my students every other day and decided I could make Friday better. I planned to incorporate a Power Point with pictures into the lesson plan, and then I used the translator feature in Microsoft to translate the text from my Power Point into the student’s native language. I know that electronic translators have flaws, but I figured this was the best hope I had of communicating with my new student, who, by the way, is pleasant, alert, bright, and trying his best to make sense of his new world.

On Friday, I put up the Power Point with an explanation in English and the student’s language explaining to the class why I was using this additional teaching method. I told the class I wanted the whole class included in our conversations. I explained that the translation I was using was not perfect and might at times be confusing for our new friend, but it was the best we had, and we needed to try it.

My classes are currently mid-way through a project-based-learning unit I call “The Big Event.” They start by researching a variety of medical conditions that affect diet. We learn about MyPlate as well as safe food handling and kitchen safety procedures. The students make a healthy snack in the lab, and then I introduce the problem: We’re planning a large family party for a group of fictional family members, several of whom have specific medical conditions. The students must plan a menu that meets the needs of those family members as well as other criteria. On the last day of the unit, they get to cook some of the items from their chosen menu.

On Friday, the goal was for each team to make a list of healthy foods their fictional family member can and should eat, as well as a list of foods that person should avoid.

I told the class with the new student that even though I typically expected nothing more than a presentation of a list from each team, for this class, I was hoping they would also include pictures, which might help our new student feel connected to the content.

That’s when the magic happened. As teams started to research and build their lists, they began to pull me aside with questions like this: “Mrs. Coray, can we use the translator feature and make Power Points with pictures and translations of what we are talking about?” The whole class was a buzz of excitement. I was showing some teams how to use the translator feature in Microsoft, and other students were showing me how to make it better, and there was this whole-class, synergistic, collaborative effort that brought me almost to tears! Each team seemed eager to include their new friend in the conversation.

Our new student’s own team went even further. They pulled out their computers, pulled up translator apps, and began passing their computers back and forth as a way to communicate. One girl on the team with artistic talent drew elaborate pictures as they made their list in regard to their fictional family member, Uncle Jake, who was recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. As the team made their list, their art specialist drew a page depicting soda, candy, and baked goods, and another page with fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and foods made from whole grains.

I got an even bigger surprise when that team asked me if they could use the translator app to allow their new friend to speak when their team presented their list to the class. They would have him read his part in his native language with another student standing by as interpreter to read that same part in English. It was fantastic!

The team presentations were amazing, and more than I could ever have hoped for!

Just before the bell rang, one student on the new student’s team asked if he could also use the translator app next time we’re in the foods lab as a way to help his new friend participate with cooking.

Junior high students are often careless with their belongings, and I find all kinds of things left after class in my classroom. They never take papers with them if the papers do not affect their grade. I noticed as the bell rang how those beautiful drawings were left behind on the table. I also noticed how my new student carefully scooped up those drawings and tucked them in with his things.

It made me happy!

Flexible Seating on a Budget in a Junior High Classroom

Flexible seating is just one way to help students feel safe, wanted, and respected in the classroom, but how do you make it work in junior high, especially when funding is limited? I’ve used flexible seating for several years, both in elementary and junior high school. If you want to try flexible seating I would say, just like with everything else, start simple.

One of the easiest ways to start is with a few yoga balls. Along with other items, these have gone up in price over the last few years, but you don’t need many of them to get a start on flexible seating. I get mine on Amazon. If you’re a Utah teacher, you can use “Class Wallet” money to buy them. Right now I have 6 in my classroom. They will need to be replaced from time to time, but having just a few makes buying and replacing them manageable. The 65 centimeter size is a great size for junior high school.

Not all teachers like yoga balls. The up-and-down or swaying movement makes some teachers dizzy. That’s another great reason to start small until you know if this option will work for you. If you are going to use yoga balls, you have to set up some rules, and you’ll also have to be careful how you present the whole thing to students. Junior high boys will snicker if you get the wording wrong. When I share my expectations with the kids, I always talk about “yoga seats.” That helps avoid problems. And here are the rules. Yoga seats are on a first-come, first served basis with no saving and no fighting. Yoga seats are seats, not toys. They should not be dribbled or thrown. It’s ok to get movement on a yoga seat, but it’s not ok to distract others. Yoga seats are not for doing the “Superman,” or rolling under the table and kicking your neighbor. If someone is sitting on a yoga seat, nobody else should kick that seat. If you are sitting on a yoga seat, you can’t bang it on the sides with your hands or otherwise make noise with it. If any student has difficulty meeting my expectations with a yoga seat, I will ask them to put it away. The kids understand my rules, and I’m consistent in enforcing those rules.

Not all students like yoga balls, which is another reason to start small. I have a handful of students in every classroom who can benefit from the movement that comes with sitting on a yoga ball, but many students are irritated by that movement. I’ve added other options to my seating to allow all students to find something that matches their personality.

Most of my students choose to sit in traditional student chairs at one of my 7 classroom tables where students work in teams. Each team usually has 5 students, but I have some larger classes where I have to have 6 students on some teams. I can lower the size of my teams by moving a few students to my soft seating area. I always have students volunteer for these soft saucer chairs, which are quite comfortable, and which I also found on Amazon. This is a great seating area for students who want less movement or want to be away from distractions.

The “tall table” is another option. I can almost predict the personality of students who will choose to sit at the “tall table.” Some will be rowdy or more likely to need redirection to stay on task. Often these kids are independent and creative thinkers.

For a few years my tall table was a regular classroom table on risers, just like the kind you could use to raise up a bed. The table was less stable that way, and even on risers, it wasn’t tall enough for me to use as a cutting table when I’m cutting fabric. This year my principal agreed to purchase a 36″ Nasco cutting table for my classroom. I absolutely love this cutting table! It saves my back when I have to cut fabric, and it’s a great surface for students working as well. The Nasco table has a larger surface area than the other tables in my classroom, and because some students naturally gravitate to that tall table, I often have 6 students seated on 24″ stools there.

I let students choose their seats on the first day of class with the understanding that if there is a problem, I will change their places. I also change their seating from time to time if I need to adjust teams for various projects. When I do adjust seating, I try to keep student preference for types of seating in mind.

Last week we started our third and last trimester of the year, which means that I am meeting four new classes of 7th graders for the first time. I have one student who came to class on the first day anxious and unsure about staying. I noticed how this student swayed and rocked while talking to me and asked the student if it would be more comfortable to sit on a yoga ball. The student lit up. Sometimes students have needs that I can easily meet by providing legitimate movement, and I’m happy to be able to do so. Every student can succeed. My challenge is to find a way to make that success possible.

3D Community Building

The title of this activity is a play on words, because students will be building community with their team, but they are also building a 3D community out of paper at the same time.

Many courses have strands and standards that involve teamwork and collaboration. For Family and Consumer Sciences Exploration in Utah, this activity works well with the following strands and standards:

  • I can explore the importance of employability skills (Strand 4 Standard 1) including the following:
    • Effective communication
    • Problem solving
    • Teamwork
    • Critical Thinking
    • Dependability
    • Accountability
    • Legal Requirements/Expectations

For Utah College and Career Awareness classes, this activity gets even more bang for the buck, meeting the following standards:

  • I can discuss the benefits of strong workplace skills and the negative consequences of underdeveloped workplace skills. (Strand 2 Standard 1)
  • I can complete tasks on time. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can exhibit self-motivation and self-discipline. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can show respect for others. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can be responsible for my own actions. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can demonstrate strong work ethic. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can explore various methods of communication and can use effective and appropriate communication for the given situation. (Strand 2 Standard 3)
  • I can identify and demonstrate effective collaboration and teamwork skills. (Strand 2 Standard 5)

3d Community Building takes minimal preparation and supplies but provides a lot of engagement. Students love this activity!

Here’s what you need to have ready in advance for each team or table.

  • 4 pieces of cardstock
  • 1 tape dispenser
  • Colored pencils
  • Scissors

And here are the rules for the activity which you can also find posted on the Canvas Commons as “3D Community Building.”

Your teacher will give each team 4 pieces of paper or cardstock and will allow you to use tape, glue, colored pencils, and scissors. Each team will have the same amount of time to create the following 3-dimensional items:

  • At least 1 building
  • At least 1 vehicle
  • At least 1 tree, shrub, or other plant
  • At least 1 person
  • Any other elements of a city you would like to build

All items you build should match each other in scale and should be similar in style. That means that as a team, you should choose a theme for your community so that the items look like they belong together. When we finish building, each team will share their work and their process with the class. 

As I am explaining this activity to students, there are a few things I make sure they are clear on. The first is that they will only get 4 pieces of cardstock! If they have 5 people on their team—4 pieces of cardstock. If they have 3 people on their team—4 pieces of cardstock. They can’t ask for more cardstock. Using their supplies effectively is part of the requirement. If they come to me in 15 minutes and tell me that they made a mistake and need more paper to start over, I tell them that they need to figure out how to problem solve with the mistakes they made and the supplies they had.

We talk about what it means to make their items 3-dimensional. I do allow for paper people to be flat, as long as they can stand.

We talk about scale, and how a car should not be smaller than a person or taller than a house.

And we talk about choosing a theme. I have seen all kinds of creative themes chosen for this activity—old Western towns, alien towns, New York City street scenes, vacations on the beach, campsites, “under the sea” scenes, scenes from shows and movies, and the list goes on. I look forward to 3D community building because the kids often surprise me. Just last week, I had students create a pop-up beach scene. It was delightful! And yes, I do allow boats to count as vehicles.

Once students start working with their team, they need approximately 40 minutes to build their scene and feel ready to share with the class. Some teams go a little faster or a little slower. When a majority of teams have mostly cleaned up their scraps and mess and are ready to share with the class, I have a spokesperson from each team share what they made. After every team has shared, we have a class discussion using both pair/share with students at tables as well as whole-group sharing. The discussion is how I make sure we have met the day’s objectives. I tell students that as long as they have participated effectively and respectfully in both the building activity and the discussion, I can see that they have met the standards for the day, and I can give them points for this activity and its objectives based on their participation. That makes this activity quick to grade, even for a large class!

These are some of the questions I typically ask during the class discussion, and I believe these questions connect well to the standards, but you can use your own questions, depending on the objectives for the activity in your classroom:

  1. How did your group split up the various responsibilities, meaning, did you share in various responsibilities or did specific people do specific things, such as leader, architect, artist, object designer, builder? Were formal assignments given or did the responsibilities just happen?
  2. What made communication most effective for your team? 
  3. What are some real-life workplace skills you used as part of this activity?
  4. What are some of the things that your group did that helped the group cooperate and be successful?
  5. What did you learn about decision-making in a work or teamwork environment?
  6. What were the positives and negatives of working with a group?
  7. What are some things you could have done to work together better as a team?

I hope you love this activity! If you use it with your classes, I’d love to get some feedback on how it went. Also, what would you change to improve the activity? I can always make improvements to my own lessons!

Below is one of my favorite ever 3D communities. The 4-person team that made this creation was incredibly in sync! The figure standing on top is Willy Wonka on a green hill of candy trees over the top of a chocolate river. The vehicle is a violet, Viking-style boat floating on chocolate inside the chocolate factory.

Personalizing Clusters, Pathways, Concentrators, and Completers

Say the phrase, “Clusters, Pathways, Concentrators, and Completers,” and your students will look at you with a sort of dazed look. The words mean nothing to them. And yet, if they understand the meaning of this phrase, it can give them a powerful tool to take charge of their education throughout high school. The objectives for this lesson, based on the Utah State standards for Family and Consumer Sciences Exploration are as follows:

  • I can identify the 6 Family and Consumer Science career pathways and the associated clusters. (Strand 1)
  • I can define the difference between career pathways and career clusters and how they are related. (Strand 1, Standard 1)
  • I can define a CTE pathway concentrator and a CTE pathway completer. (Strand 1, Standard 1)

There could be multiple ways to introduce the vocabulary and meet the standards for this lesson, but I find that it is most meaningful to personalize, which means going a little beyond the standards. To start, I explain clusters and pathways. I talk about how clusters are groups of things that go together, just like all the cereals go on the same aisle at the grocery store, even though Grape Nuts and Cap’n Crunch are quite different. For CTE, clusters are groups of jobs or fields that go together, even though they may not seem closely connected.

Then we go to the Utah Clusters and Pathways page so the students can see what I’m talking about. Here’s the link for the USBE website: https://www.schools.utah.gov/cte/pathways

Once students are on the USBE website, it’s important to click on the current school year. Otherwise, they won’t be able to find the information they need. This is January 2022, so the correct school year to pick for this year would be 2021-2022.

After clicking on the correct school year, students will find the “Utah CTE Career Pathways” page. Below is a screen shot of the current year page for illustration, but when you are on the current year page on the actual website, each line is a live link. All the headings in blue are clusters. The pathways are listed in black.

I ask the students to find a pathway they are interested in, and invariably, I have students ask why there is no pathway for pro football. I have learned not to argue about whether they are going to become pro football players. Instead, I point out that this list is a list of career and technical pathways, and they can all choose a pathway from this list, even though their pathway may not be connected to sports. For those who tell me they want to be famous game designers or famous YouTubers, I point out the Broadcasting and Digital Media pathway. Just about every student can find a pathway they are interested in, and from there we can look at the classes in their pathways and learn about concentrators and completers.

Pathways represent lists of courses available in high school for students interested in that field. Generally, concentrators complete 1.5 high school credits in the pathway, and completers finish 3 credits. To find out for certain how to become a concentrator or a completer in a given pathway, students click on the pathway. A page will appear that shows all high-school classes in the pathway and gives specific requirements for concentrator or completer status in that pathway.

What’s the advantage of becoming a completer? Students who complete a pathway get a special cord to wear with their robes at graduation. But more importantly, students who complete a pathway can include their completion status in their resumes. There are some businesses that will hire completers straight out of high school. In fact, some career and technical fields have such high demand that companies will not only hire completers in entry-level positions but will also help pay for college so that students can move up into positions with higher demand and responsibility.

Now that students understand clusters, pathways, concentrators, and completers, the fun part begins. I tell students how much I love Disneyland.

That sounds like it’s way off topic, but there’s a purpose behind it. I absolutely love Disneyland, but I suffer from motion sickness and rides make me sick. What I love in the “Happiest Place on Earth” is the set design—the Imagineering that turns an ordinary spot of ground into a whole new world—that makes something so banal as garbage cans disappear into the background and brings the textures, smells, sights, and sounds of distant and even imaginary places to the forefront.

My students relate to the idea of a favorite vacation spot, and they relate to the idea of having a souvenir that helps you remember something important to you. Once I’ve planted that idea into their minds, I ask them to make a souvenir, somehow connected to a theme park or a favorite vacation, and I ask them to put their pathway on their souvenir. They need to include the classes necessary to become a completer in their pathway. For each student, the chosen list of classes could be different, even if they choose the same pathway. I tell them that I hope they will use their creativity with their souvenir, and I hope they will keep it, so that as they register for 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, they can let their counselor know what classes they need to take to finish their chosen pathway. We talk about course options in their high school and in our local technical colleges. Technical colleges, such as Davis Technical College, provide excellent opportunities during high school for moving forward with career and technical education.

My students make all kinds of souvenirs—maps, signs, menus, t-shirt and mug designs, stuffed-animal and bobble-head doll designs. I even got an impressive song! With permission from the student who created it, I’ll include the song here, along with some of the other fun souvenirs I’ve seen.

Students thrive when they can choose to submit work that showcases their own personality.

Choice as the First Step in Personalization

For several years I had a custom sewing and alterations business in a home studio. I put emphasis on the magic of a perfect fit. Clothes that fit well are flattering and build confidence in the wearer. When we teach interior design, we help students understand that effective interior design begins with understanding the needs and wants of the client. In the food-services industry every restaurant offers a menu with choices that will meet a variety of needs and tastes.

It makes sense that if we want students fully engaged in the process of learning, we need to offer them choice with opportunities that are precisely tailored to their needs. Student agency must be built into everything we do. Choice is not only the first step to personalized learning. It also provides automatic differentiation, which, in turn means inclusion for students from varied backgrounds and abilities. Choice allows us to offer our students the magic of the perfect fit. That, in turn, builds confidence, and isn’t that what we’re trying to do?

Teachers know that we should always begin lesson planning with the end in mind. Activities and assessments should align with objectives. That’s Teaching 101, and I’d like to go beyond that here. Keep all your effective, research-based best practices! Activities and assessments should still align with objectives. But when I’m lesson planning, I now add the element of choice whenever I can. Choice is the scale or measure I hold up to each new lesson plan. Students respond in amazing ways when they can make the activities and assessments meet their needs.

It’s important not to go crazy with personalization. If I could give one piece of advice, I’d say, “Start small. But do start.” Pick one or two lesson plans you’re already familiar with and see if there’s a way to add more choice into what you’re already doing. Once you feel steady with one or two lessons, reflect on what you’ve learned and build from there.

What does adding choice look like in the classroom? Here’s just one example.

My 8th graders have several State standards they need to meet in connection with sewing and textiles. These standards include using equipment properly and following safety requirements as well as using specific industry sewing techniques. In the past, we’ve met these standards over a 12-day unit with most of those days in our sewing lab. After two days focused on how to use equipment properly and safely, students create a drawstring backpack that incorporates all the techniques required by the State standards. Once students finish the backpack I have always let them work on optional projects in the sewing lab. However, this year, I was limited on the number of days my students could use the sewing lab because I have a class that meets during the same period as our ninth-grade full-semester sewing course. The teacher for that course was kind enough to arrange her schedule to give me nine days in the sewing lab so we could complete the backpacks. I knew my students would want more sewing, so we moved our sewing to the regular classroom with exclusively hand-sewing techniques and supplies.

Before we got started on projects, I let my students know what supplies and tools I would make available to them and asked them to submit a plan for a project they could complete using hand sewing. Some students found patterns online, and some students designed their own creations. I had all the necessary hand-stitching tools, embroidery thread, stuffing, small zippers, buttons, and beads. Fortunately, I also had several boxes of all types and sizes of fabric that had been donated to the school. My classes worked on their hand-sewing projects the last three days before Christmas break (usually among the most chaotic days of the year in junior high). And yet things were relatively peaceful in my classroom.

Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I feel that slow sewing has a calming, meditative effect. It was fantastic to look at my classes and see both boys and girls hunched over embroidery hoops or using other tools to hand make gifts, ornaments, or other small items. Each student chose what to make, which meant that the chosen project most likely fit each student’s ability level. Students were joyful and helpful as they worked. Most of them seemed excited to share what they had created.

The slow-sewing days were low stress for me, and I will likely incorporate them into future sewing units, even if the sewing lab has a higher availability. As always, when I reflected on these days there are things I would change for next time. Students had to wait in line to get a hand needle from me, partly because I wanted to make sure they got the right size and type of needle for the project they were doing, and partly because I wanted to keep an eye on the needles and make sure I got them all back at the end of class. Getting all the needles back was the trickiest part, as a few needles inevitably fell out of sight and ended up on the carpet every class period. Although I believe I found them all, I might incorporate a check-out system next time around—a trade-your-phone-for-a-needle option. They can get their phones back when their needle is safely returned.

Students also waited in line for embroidery floss if they wanted it, because I knew I needed to show them how to separate strands in the skene without making a giant, tangled mess. I would keep that process in place, but I would also streamline it by having the thread colors coordinated and wrapped on cardboard in advance. Overall, I’m happy with how the hand projects turned out, and even happier that I was able to allow my students so much choice with this activity while still meeting the standards with sewing techniques. Here are some examples of finished student work.

Each project showcases student personality!