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!

Building Unity and Inclusion from Day 1 of a Semester

This is a picture of my favorite bulletin board. It changes every time I get new students in my classes as I soon will when we start a new semester. On the day that I greet new students, I tell them this story.

In our family, we all have different favorite flavors of ice cream. My husband’s favorite is Rocky Road, but he’s so kind, if I ask him to buy ice cream, he’ll buy everyone else’s favorite flavor. My kids like Cookies ‘n’ Cream, Cookie Dough, or Mint Chocolate Chip. I used to practically live on chocolate—at least until I was diagnosed with an ulcer a few years back. My doctor told me that for some people, chocolate is a reflux trigger. I was in a lot of pain, and I decided to give up all the trigger foods in my diet. I didn’t think I could give up chocolate, but I did it! And even better, the pain is gone! As much as I love chocolate (and can still enjoy the smell) I haven’t eaten chocolate in a few years and don’t want to go back. When I want a frozen treat for myself, I buy fat-free vanilla frozen yogurt, and I’ve learned to love it.

If we have 10 people in a room, we might find 10 different favorite flavors of ice cream. Whether you like all those flavors or not, you can’t say that there’s a bad flavor of ice cream. There is a flavor I don’t like. I think it’s called Bordeaux Cherry—the one with little frozen cherry chunks in it. I think that flavor is gross, but some people must like it, or it wouldn’t be available at the store. There just isn’t a bad flavor of ice cream.

People are kind of like ice cream. I let my students know that you’ll find different backgrounds, skin colors, ethnicities, religious preferences, gender identity, lifestyles, mannerisms, social skills, abilities, humor, language, etc. And you might not like every flavor, but there just isn’t a bad flavor of person. In my classroom, I expect every student to treat every other student as worthy of respect. I expect all my students to honor each other’s differences and make my classroom a safe and welcome place to be.

The first day of a semester always requires time explaining policy and procedure. Rather than expecting my students to sit still and listen through all that (they won’t), I give them something productive to do with their hands while I talk. I tell them they can make one of these people for my “Every Flavor” bulletin board. I provide the figures as well as colored pencils and scissors. They get to work and I can teach what I need to teach.

If you want to replicate my bulletin board, you can find outlines for people online. Look for free croquis (figures for fashion drawing). I tell my students that I want them to draw a figure that shows their personality. I point out that I’ve got a lot of variety on my board—sports figures, TV and movie characters, students from a variety of cultures, etc. Students may draw what they want on their figure, as long as it is school appropriate. I tell them that if it’s not school appropriate, it won’t end up on my board, but it will end up being a conversation with the office and their parents. They don’t push me on that, so I really haven’t had problems. I add in that I won’t put up figures dripping blood or with anything coming out of their nose or mouth. These are some of the things you have to explain to 7th and 8th graders, so you get what you want. I also tell them I don’t care which gender figure they choose, keeping in mind that their finished drawing must be school appropriate. Once or twice, I’ve had boys draw female figures that looked demeaning toward women. When I asked the boys to tell me about their drawings, they quickly threw those figures away. In contrast I’ve had a few students make high-quality, respectful drawings of non-binary figures.

Once the figures go on the board, I often see kids standing in front of the board just looking and pointing to their own person or pointing out what they notice. Students seem proud of the cohesiveness that comes from this diverse collection. I’m proud of the diversity they are willing to share because I see it as evidence that they feel that my classroom is a safe place to be.

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!