Sunday, November 2, 2014

A letter to Helaine Hager

Dear Ms. Hager,

I am writing to follow up on your "Hands-on Learning" workshop at the Promising Practices conference on STEM yesterday.  It was so interesting to see your take on learning, and what resonated with me was our conversation before class about teaching students who do not speak English.  Your transient population of immigrants from many cultures at Hope High School sounds fascinating and like a real challenge.  The fact that you have a handful of Mexican students who speak a rare Mayan dialect is in itself a challenge, coupled with students of so many other cultural backgrounds.  As a Spanish teacher, I feel like I am in a similar situation, albeit far less challenging than your own, when going about introducing new grammatical concepts to a non-Spanish-speaking predominantly white population.  Although our content areas little in common, some of the strategies you introduced yesterday made a strong impression on me.

I liked the way you teach by backwards design and do not reveal your learning goal in your daily objectives.  That strategy of letting the students arrive at their own conclusions is smart, and I like your deliberate lack of information as to what students will be seeing at the beginning of the lesson.  Although I believe in "no secrets" teaching and always project my own learning objectives, I can understand how your strategy would work well in a high school science classroom.  It was also fun and engaging how you conducted experiments before our classroom and we, your "students", hypothesized at potential outcomes of how water would flow from different points in a soda bottle.  Your lesson on air and water pressure was fascinating, and the fact that you handed out the information after the lesson is a strategy that I will use in my classrooms.  You engaged us and made us do the work versus handing us the instructions first and letting us tune you out.  It was outstanding.

In your second experiment on warm and cold fronts, I was mesmerized by the way in which air flows from hot to cold.  I didn't understand those meteorological maps before yesterday, but since conducting my own experiment with the red and blue blocks, I better understand how air reacts to heat and cold.   I specifically liked how you did the experiment and then we did our own experiments using your step-by-step directions.  Again, it was very helpful in learning the process, and as a result of your workshop, I am thinking of new ways to engage my own learners by having them do the work first.

My follow-up question as a result of your workshop harkens back to our discussion before class about your non-English-speaking population.  As I was sifting through your information packets and finding myself lost on some of the advanced math topics, I was wondering how the learning takes place for students who don't speak English. You mentioned that some students are able to translate for each other (particularly some of the Spanish speakers who also know the Mayan dialect), but what about those students who have no one speaking their primary language?   How do you measure learning for those kids how have no English at all?   I can't imagine that they would be able to fill out your packets, but I would like to imagine that their lack of English language skills would have no bearing on their knowledge of science.   It's fascinating to me how concepts are communicated via visuals and hands-on experiences, but at the same time, is it enough to ensure that every student receives a strong education?  I have no doubt that you are doing all that you can to reach and teach every one of your students, but I would love to learn more about other ways in which you measure learning for non-English speakers.

Amy Mahoney