Quick Tip Tuesday: Classroom rituals

May 19th, 2009

In Becoming One Community, authors Kathleen Fay and Suzanne Whaley provide guidance for teachers whose classrooms include children who are just learning English. This week’s Quick Tip comes from Chapter 3 of their book, where they discuss how small classroom rituals and remembering each student’s name and its proper pronounciation creates a classroom community where all learners will thrive.

Ralph Peterson writes: It is not unusual in today’s classrooms to find three, five, and sometimes more cultures represented. Bringing students together as a group and nurturing tolerance for their ways and beliefs while celebrating their differences challenges the talents of the most experienced teachers. Teachers who make communities with their students are cultural engineers of sorts. The primary goal at the beginning of a new year or term is to lead students to come together, form a group, and be there for one another. (Peterson 1992, p. 13)

Peterson’s suggestion to create rituals of belonging and understanding is important in all classrooms, but it’s especially important in classrooms with English language learners, for two reasons. First, if the teacher considers how children participate and talk with one another, community-building activities can level the playing field so that each member of the class can realize that he or she is a valued contributor. ELL students will realize this of themselves, and—just as important—the non-ELL students in the class will also realize that English language learners are capable participants. The second reason is a simple one: when students participate in meaningful activities, English language understanding and speaking ability will improve.

Shannon Blaney’s class started a morning ritual when a new student, who spoke little English, arrived from Somalia. A few students spoke Arabic, and they taught the class the greeting “Salam Alaikum” and the response “Alaikum Salam,” which is used by Muslims everywhere, regardless of native language. The class decided to collect various ways to say “Good morning” and “Hello.” Shannon took the opportunity to create a new ritual to begin their mornings. For the first few days, they practiced saying all the greetings together as a group before individual students greeted each other, and sometimes they pulled down the map to see which countries might use that greeting. Eventually this ritual only took a few minutes, but they continued to do it every day.

Once the morning announcements were over, the ritual would begin. The class gathered on the rug in a circle. Shannon sat in the circle, quietly reminding students to move here and there so that no one was sitting outside the circle. When it was quiet, she would ask softly, “Would someone like to start?” On this particular day, Betsy raised her hand. She turned to Mariana at her left, shook hands, and said, “Buenos días, Mariana.” “Buenos días, Betsy,” came the reply. Mariana then turned to the student at her left and said, “Good morning, Abdirizak.” “Good morning, Mariana,” Abdirizak replied, giggling a little, looking at the list of greetings and then at his teacher. Shannon reassured him with a smile. Then Abdirizak turned to José: “Bonjour, José.” “Good morning, Abdirizak.” José turned to Jackie; he hesitated, then turned around to whisper with Abdirizak. When he turned to Jackie again he said, “Salam Alaikum, Jackie.” Jackie paused and looked at her teacher. “Al—Al—” Abdirizak whispered the response to her and she softly repeated, “Alaikum Salam.”

Acts as simple as saying hello or as complex as altering daily plans to make time for someone to share who ordinarily doesn’t speak up are ways teachers help to create a comfortable environment. But simply making time for such acts isn’t enough; you must believe that these acts are important, because your attitude will affect how you respond to children. Shannon’s ritual with her students teaches them to respect and communicate with each other, not just with her. She has made a conscious decision to give everyone an opportunity to participate.

“Your Name Is Important”

Our names are an important part of our identity, so being conscientious about using your students’ names is one way to begin to know them. Teachers of English language learners have to be particularly careful to take the time to learn how to say a child’s name correctly. Many of us have stories of someone calling us a nickname (one we like or one we don’t like) instead of our real name or mispronouncing our name. Our school secretary, Susan Litwin, came to the United States from Vietnam as a high school student. She told us about when and why her name was changed from Chau, the name her family gave her, to Susan. In her American high school her ESOL teacher read the class list and then told the students, “You each get to pick an American name.” She had some suggestions for them to pick from; in some cases she assigned a name: “We’ll call you Susan.” Occasionally I share this story with students if, for example, I am taking the time to learn how to pronounce a new student’s name. I want everyone to feel pride in his or her name. I don’t want kids to be passive abouttheir names, saying, “Sure, that’s fine,” with a shrug of the shoulders, when their name is mispronounced. The truth is, some names are difficult to pronounce exactly the way it is said by a native speaker. Some can hear the differences better than others—whether the language is English or something else. For example, my sister’s name is Erin, and I have a cousin named Aaron. In northern Virginia, both names are pronounced similarly (air-in). But my cousin is from New Jersey. We pronounce the Aa in his name like the a in at. We try to emphasize the difference to my brother-in-law Mike, who is from New Orleans, by saying both names over and over, exaggerating different parts. “Listen: Erin [air-in]. Now listen: Aaaaaaaaron.”

Mike cannot hear the difference. He thinks we’re nuts. It’s important not to joke or take the easy way out with children’s names, especially if the student is new to the school or has a particularly difficult name to pronounce. Thinking about Jorge in the poem by Jane Medina, I say to the students, “Your name is important. I want to say it the way you say it” or I’ll ask, “How does your family say it at home?” This lets everyone else in the class, as well as the child, know that respect for others starts with respect for their names. And children appreciate such respect.

I am working in Samantha Finney’s third-grade class. A new student has arrived since my last rotation. Samantha introduces Mahek to me as the kids gather on the rug. Once everyone is settled I want to review all the kids’ names. They are used to this ritual—it’s a little game I play, since I work in so many classes. The children love to see if I’ve forgotten their names, so I always start with my tricks (telling them all to say their name the first time, even if they know I know, so no one feels forgotten; searching the classroom for names on the wall; asking for the first letter as a hint). When I get to Mahek, the new student from Pakistan, I pause (I’ve already forgotten how to pronounce her name). I smile and tentatively say, “Mehok?” The other kids giggle and say it correctly for me. Mahek looks at me with wide eyes and a slight smile. I want to hear her name again, but from Mahek herself. I ignore the others and ask her, “Please tell me your name again.” Nothing. Someone yells out, “It’s Mahek!” I respond, “I want to hear how she says it,” and turn again to Mahek. I point to my chest and say, “My name is Ms. Fay. Ms. Fay. What is your name?” She says her name. The other kids by now have settled down. Then I try to say it and point to her again, and she says, “Mahek.” I say it a few more times to make sure I have it; Mahek nods. The next time I see Mahek is at our weekly third-grade sing-along. Her class is at the front of the group. I smile and whisper, “Good morning, Ma—Mah—?” I’ve forgotten how to say her name again! She whispers back, “Mahek.” “Good morning, Mahek.” “Good morning.” I whisper, “Ms. Fay.” She smiles. No one else notices our interaction, but Mahek is grinning from ear to ear. It’s as if she’s thinking, “She knows me.”

When I first met Mahek, I consciously tried to ignore the other students who wanted to help and focused my attention on Mahek herself. She can, of course, say her own name, and this is often the first opportunity for a teacher and a new ELL student to have a genuine, meaningful interaction. It’s easy to let a child’s shyness dictate our actions. I should note here, however, that if a child seems upset and looks away, I would not persist. Mahek was engaged, though, making eye contact with me and smiling, and during our interaction she successfully communicated with me. Also, the other students saw that I expected Mahek to be a participant in class—a subtle but powerful message in that simple initial interaction.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Quick Tip Tuesday

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