Children’s Drawing

One year, at the end of the year, all the kindergarten classes that I taught put together a book of their drawings, which they gave to me at the beginning of the following year. They did this because I saved their drawings from their English class which I had sorted into three (because there were three quarters in the year) books of English Drawings.

In the process of sorting the drawings, it became clear that many kindergartners forget to put their names on drawings. But it also became clear, that most of the time, I could tell who drew what, even though my sample of students was 162 students.

How is that possible?

Each student had things that he or she liked. Each one had a specific way of putting together images. Some of them were “more advanced” than others: they knew how to draw things behind each other, or how to draw the clothes on a person better than another; conversely some had very little idea how to show space, but were excellent at expression.

It was interesting to see how these drawings related to the students’ social and academic ability. Being their English Teacher my knowledge of their developmental progress was limited. I endeavored to speak only in English, and although I didn’t always succeed, the language barrier meant that the children didn’t confide in me as much as they did in their classroom teachers. Nor did they have the capability in English to express very much.

But because of their drawings, and how quickly or slowly they learned vocabulary, or solved the tangram puzzles that we used as support materials, there was already a lot of incidental information about my students’ developmental progress available to me.

When I collated their drawings into books, I wished that I had more time to look at each student’s drawings. That I could talk to them about their drawings instead of just asking them to name the plane or the cat in their drawings in English. This inability to connect on a deeper level to my students’ progress was sometimes quite stifling, and one of the reasons that my final year in Spain, I wanted to work with older children.

Now, I’m at a crossroads. In order to teach in the U.S. I need to get a certification which means more school. Since I have to do more school anyway, I’m thinking about studying Art Therapy.

The observation of those hundreds of drawings laid out on tables and chairs in the teacher’s lounge as I put them into the little booklets was one of my most moving experiences as a teacher. It was a concrete showing of what the young learners were coming to understand, and even more, it was like looking in their heads like the mother in Peter Pan who shuffles through her children’s thoughts while they are dreaming.

Looking at their drawings, I can’t remember anymore who did what but I can still see things about who these children were and where they were in the course of their growth. I’d love to see some of their drawings, now that they are in second grade. I’m sure they are quite different and quite the same.

Looking at the drawings of the girls I lived with, I can see a big difference from when we began our lessons and three years and a bit later when I left Madrid. They gave me some of the newest drawings to keep, and have mailed me more. This transformation is very dramatic and beautiful, and I wish I had the tools to better understand it. It is like some key to a room that I can tell is there, but inside of which lies I know not what!

Deaf Culture: Another Kind of Bilingualism

I just finished reading a book that my grandmother gave me years and years ago called Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World. It is by Leah Hager Cohen whose father, Oscar, was a longtime Superintendent at Lexigton School for the Deaf in NYC. She writes about her own family, her relationship to the Deaf Community, and about a couple of students at Lexington around the middle nineties.

It was interesting reading about the ways that they teach in this kind of community. There are many parallels with any other dual-language curriculum, even though ASL and English are perhaps much more similar than other languages to each other, the very visual way in which English must be presented to the Deaf feels very related to the CLIL techniques we used at the bilingual school where I worked in Spain.

The book was also interesting to me, because while Hager Cohen has a much deeper and longer running relationship with the Deaf Community than I do, many of the things that she said were very familiar. It made me miss my Deaf friends.

I say that ASL resembles English, and in some ways it does. But really it is a complex and beautiful poetry all to itself. It has a relationship with written English in a similar way to colloquial spoken English, at least where the spoken English is non-standard. What I mean is, ASL has its own form of grammar which follows English directly, but which also cuts things away and adds other things. So to say, “How are you?” in ASL you only make the signs for “how” and “you,” but you must also make a facial expression and show with your shoulders that you are asking a question.

I’m not very fluent in ASL (anymore, if I ever was) but I love to sign.

One of my favorite passages in the book describes a Literacy Day activity where Oscar, the author’s father, reads a story to the children. He asks if they want him to voice the story, or to sign it. The children want him to do both so that they can learn more words. Oscar is bilingual in ASL, an uncommon thing for a hearing person, because his parents were both deaf, and so he learned to sign before he learned to speak. He explained things about the slightly complicated story very well, and I liked the questions that he asked the children at the end.

Many of the issues that were facing the Deaf community at that time are still true, and many of them are the same sorts of issues that any minority language culture faces in a larger culture. They were talking about how to teach children English, so that they could get good jobs, and about the tension between the families and the school. This is true for many immigrant children who are forced to play translator for their parents as well.

One difference is that Deaf people are native-readers of English, and that there is a stronger thread connecting English to ASL than English to Chinese, Polish, and maybe even to Spanish. Another difference is that there will always be a degree of non-fluency for the Deaf, even if they are good at voicing and at reading lips because they cannot hear the sounds that they make.

That said, hearing isn’t such a big deal most of the time, and there are things– besides sign language– about not-hearing that make Deaf culture more special.

Ms Cohen talks about how much more touchy-feely Deaf people are, and I’ve experienced the same thing. They also take care of each other instead of competing. They form the proverbial band of ten scholars touching the elephant trying to figure out what it is, and instead of arguing about who is right, or about the essential nature of the elephant, they weave it into answers and questions to help themselves as a community advance. This is because nobody within the community is ever quite sure he or she understands the hearing community. Some don’t want to, but even those who hate hearing people, usually must interact with them, so they share tips and tricks and news more freely than do hearing people.

Deaf Culture is as strong and valid as Hispanic Culture, or Black Culture, and I’ve observed it come into conflict with the “mainstream,” in little ways that I didn’t understand at the time. Now that I’ve been in Spain, those little things make so much more sense to me. Let me tell one story of my own, and you will see what I mean.

When I first arrived to Spain, I kept running into people on the street. By the end I didn’t. An Italian friend of mine living in London had the same problem in London, where I’ve never had a problem. I said to him, “You move differently,” which he understood to mean, “you change directions,” and he said, “No, I don’t change my path at all.”

This triggered a Eureka moment with relation to Edward Hall’s concept called “proxemics.” I ran into people in Spain, because until I adjusted to their culture, I moved differently from them. That is, as an American, I weave as I walk to avoid people, rather than slowly shifting along a longer arc. My friend did the opposite. He didn’t weave as he walked, he picked a trajectory and only modified it slowly. So in London, people would change their path at the last second, but not enough, because he didn’t move the way they expected him to move, and in Madrid, people wouldn’t change their paths the way I expected them to, so I would run into them.

There is a similar thing with the Deaf that I’ve observed on more than one occasion. When they are in public space, they spread out so everyone in their group can see everyone else’s hands. Once on the EL on the way from Chinatown to Lincoln Park, I was with a big group of Deaf friends who had just gone to celebrate Chinese New Year and eat Dim Sum. They formed a big circle through the middle of the train, and a couple of them kept running into the hearing people around them as the train shifted.

The hearing people had been there first, so they didn’t move, and the Deaf people needed to see each other to talk, so they didn’t move. The hearing people were getting steadily more upset that that guy next to him wouldn’t get out of his space (the Deaf guy wasn’t actually touching him, just standing “too close”), the Deaf guy didn’t notice at all because he was having a great conversation, and I grew steadily more embarrassed at both the hearing guy and the Deaf guy, but I didn’t understand why.

Now it makes more sense. It was embarrassing to me because I could understand both cultural motives, and couldn’t resolve the tension which resulted. They each had an extremely valid intra-cultural motivation for maintaining their claim on the space, and because they are both “English-speaking” Americans, neither could understand that the other was really, truly in a different cultural mindset. Therefore, neither one tried to make an inter-cultural bridge to solve the problem.

There was a conflict of “values:” The hearing guy felt he had claim, and in general had a larger personal space than the deaf guy, and the deaf guy felt he had claim to the space, and didn’t realize (because of his smaller concept of personal space) that he was even infringing on the hearing guy. It follows the same tenets that the proxemical relationships between other more acknowledged cultures do. Each of the parties had his own implicit idea of space based on the values and needs of his own culture, and they each behaved accordingly, which caused a friction between their two unacknowledged ideas about space.

Until hearing people in general realize that the Deaf have– by necessity and by choice– their own culture, these little points of tension will always occur. I wish I had an answer about how to alleviate these tensions, both for Deaf people and for other minority culture groups. The only thing I can say is, pay attention to how other people react to you, and try to modify your own behaviour according to context.

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. As well as Beyond Culture by Edward Hall.


One of my favorite games to play with Elementary students is “Telephone.”  Today a friend of mine put as his Facebook status, “There is no greater joy than literal non-idiomatic translation.”  He is a scholar in Middle East studies and therefore speaks reads and writes Arabic, and due to prior interest in Languages also German, and now he is learning French.  He may speak or read others as well that I don’t know of.

Anyway, the ensuing comments on his status were about translation, mis-translation, and creative translation, which clicked a button in my head about what I read yesterday.
As the author of the chapter I read yesterday, Sally Wilkinson, asserted, when language is taught as a purely formalistic non-cultural exercise, it loses meaning, and motivation.
The perfect example is online translators.  They can be helpful when used as a tool, but when used to translate whole bodies of work, they are often trouble ridden.  One student of mine last year turned in a paper that he had poorly typed into some online translator that gave him the following result:
“From out the house seemed that tapeworm one floor, but really tapeworm two floors.”
Taking that phrase and plugging it into a translator you get a phrase that makes a whole lot more sense in Spanish, if you add a few accents:
“Desde fuera, la casa parecía que tenia un piso, pero realmente tenia dos pisos.”
See, in Spanish, tenia (say: TE-nya) means tapeworm and  tenía (say: te NEE ah) means to have in the past tense.  
I caught the student cheating because he didn’t read what he “wrote,” and he wasn’t careful with his own language.  Because he took the exercise without his own motivation, he didn’t make any effort on the final product of his writing, and sadly he made little progress in my class over the course of the year.  He took it as a purely garbage in garbage out exercise, which was a shame.
One of the commenters on my friend’s Facebook status sent us the following link, which puts online translators to the test and creates extremely funny Japlish.    A very high tech version of Telephone, don’t you think?

Use of Language (reading journal)

This morning I began re-reading a book that I read part way through last summer.  It is a book published in the UK about British schools titled, “Use of Language across the Primary Curriculum.”  It it edited by Eve Bearne, but has various authors.  As I read articles/chapters in the book, I’ll note who the authors are.

I bought the book because I am interested in using Language in other subject matter, and in interdisciplinary coursework.  The book offers a different perspective to my own, it being British, and me being American.  Oddly a friend to whom I showed the book, and another I bought which was published in Australia said, “It is amazing how different the American system of Education is even to the British.”
Apparently Education all over the world has changed since we were both in Elementary School.
Anyway, the introduction is enlightening and it gives me the idea that the blessing and curse of Political Correctness has infected British Education as well as American.  The authors go on about the National Curriculum dictating proper usage of Grammar, and how one should not “[suggest] that a child’s own language– and so, by implication the child herself or himself– is intellectually or socially deficient.”(p. 5)
There are so many politically correct aspects to that one sentence that I have to restrain myself from rolling my eyes, although the statement itself is correct.  One should not say that children shouldn’t express themselves any way they like, but stringing jargon and acronyms onto the analysis which says that seems a bit over the top to me.
I say the part about acronyms because apparently not only do we have EFL (Engilsh as a Foreign Language) and ESL (English as a Second Language) but additionally and I will give them, probably more accurately since many children learning two languages also learn another simultaneously in our global village, EAL (English as an Additional Language).
The distinctions are very thin between each of them, though they _do_ exist.  EFL is taught in non-English-speaking countries, because English is taught as much as a cultural envoy as a means to survival.  ESL and one supposes EAL are taught in English-speaking countries to help children learn to speak in the common language instead of their “home language.”  The authors apply the term “home language” not only to Bengali or Spanish, but to the non-standard dialects and accents that children may use at home and out of which children may transfer into when they “…take on the role of a weather forcaster or news reader…”(p. 5 again)
Although I get the impression that the authors will be too gentle/politically correct, I like the general direction in which the book is going.  They talk about the constructive nature of language as contrasted with the probatory version, in other words using language to meet three goals:

* children learning to use language;
* children using language to learn;
* children learning about language.  (p. 3)

That is, they think of language use in the classroom to prove knowledge of but also to construct thought patterns.  They say, “If the new emphasis on use of language is to feed vigorous growth, then it needs to offer the fullest understanding of what kind of environment and nourishment will best support healthy development.”( pp. 3-4)  In other words creating a classroom culture where thought is grown, not just fed.

One way which they enunciate very clearly, the most clearly I’ve heard it expressed, is by valuing the strengths of bilingualism:

If a child is learning two languages simultaneously, or even learning a second language during the early years, the cognitive patterning is similar; the repeated experience of matching an already known word or expression to one in another language sets up a mental framework for other kinds of matching– the kind of analogical thinking which helps the development of mathematics, for example.  It can also lead to the ability reflect more analytically on language.  (p. 6)

This was an idea we talked about in the training sessions for the Language Assistant Teachers in Madrid.  They talked about how there are a few models for brain development, and one of the most prevalent and perhaps wrong ones is that one’s brain can only hold so much information at once, and therefore one mustn’t clog it with more than one language until it is developed enough to analyze the grammar and play point to point matching games.  The argument presented in this book, and to us as Bilingual teachers was the opposite, that teaching analogous systems of thought (languages) at the same time will expand the ability to form other kinds of parallel thought.
I tend to think that the latter system is true.  From my own experience learning a third language after mastering two, the study of grammar and the naturalization of fluency have helped me understand and assimilate French much more quickly than I did Spanish.  It does raise the question if the same thing holds true for unrelated languages, like Asian languages which are of no relation to English whatsoever.
But going back hundreds of years, Greek and Latin have been taught in British schools not only because they are Classical, but because children will better understand logic by learning a complex and related grammar.
Another point which the authors made in the Introduction, which to me is very important, is that, “New technologies offer new possibilities to evaluate learning– both for teachers and learners.”  (pp. 6-7)
Given my own forays into the use of multimedia in my smaller classes, and using art and computers directly in the Bilingual School where I taught, this statement makes me think that the rest of the book will probably touch on issues central to my own interests in Education.
(Citation for the book:  Bearne, Eve (editor); Use of Language across the Primary Curriculum; 1998; Routledge, London.)
(Will cite individual authors as I read and discuss the chapters.)

Itsy Bitsy Spider Projects

This is a lesson which I prepared to teach EFL students in Spain.  In it they practice numbers, learn to indicate up and down, practice the weather, and learn how to ask some questions.  This project was done with children between six and nine years of age.

[Coming Soon, more videos as well as clear step-by-step explanations.]
The Itsy-Bitsy Spider Puppet
The Itsy-Bitsy Spider Book