Saturday, April 2, 2011

Parent Night in Kipnuk

Preschool Parents Learn about Language Acquisition in Kipnuk

On November 17, 2009, parents of preschool children had the opportunity to learn about their children’s language acquisition. Each month, the Kipnuk preschool, which is part of the LKSD preschool program, hosts a meeting for parents. In November the topic was language acquisition.

Louise Paul of the Kipnuk preschool invited a special guest to talk about language acquisition, which is a very important part of the development of young children. The preschool years are crucial for vocabulary development, which is a strong predictor of success in school. Studies show that some kindergarteners enter school being able to use to over 5,000 words, while other children know as few as 1,000 words. This wide range depends on the children’s home environment and their preschool experience.

Parents reviewed the definitions of literacy, language acquisition, bilingualism and “home language” and discussed what these terms meant in their community. According to the Alaska’s Early Learning Guidelines, literacy involves “the ability to use language, symbols, and images in a variety of forms to read, write, listen, speak, represent, observe, and think critically about ideas. This process includes the acquisition of first and second languages and the cultural knowledge, which enables the person to communicate effectively using language appropriate to different social settings.” Parents reflected on these ideas and then worked together in teams to discuss essential questions such as:

• What is the most important time for language development in children?
• What stages of language development is your child going through now?
• What new words and phrases is your preschool child learning to say?
• What are important means of communication in this community?
• What forms of literacy are used in this community?

All parents participated in the small group discussions by contributing their ideas to the group and by making a poster. Each group then picked a person to present their ideas to the other groups. The format for sharing was a SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) strategy called “Stay and Stray,” where one member stays with the poster to teach it and the rest of the group members ‘stray’ to another table to learn what the other groups discussed.

Louise Paul, the preschool lead teacher who organized the parent night, commented, “Parents said that it was quite interesting to hear about diverse uses language in their community and reflect on how they can encourage language growth, based on how children will need to use language in their future. They liked getting into groups and working together and learning from other people’s resources.”

At the end of the evening, parents were awarded raffle prizes donated by LKSD and picked up activity guides with suggestions on ways to help their child’s language development.

Preschools and head starts around Alaska have parents’ nights to encourage parent involvement in their children’s early education. It is a great way for parents support their child’s education, learn about their child’s development and work together with parents of other preschoolers.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Science and SIOP

This article was published in the fall of 2009 in the Delta Discovery.

By Maria Offer

You may be asking to yourself, “What does SIOP have to do with science?” or even “What is SIOP?” SIOP stands for Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol and it is an instructional model that is being implemented by LKSD in all schools this year to help improve students’ academic achievement. SIOP provides teachers with a well-researched model of best practices for high quality language instruction, especially to bilingual students.

SIOP has been developed to teach all subjects along with the language, whether it is the Native language, such as Yup’ik or English, that is needed to be successful in that subject, such as math or science. As part of the SIOP plan, teachers integrate language goals, such as reading, writing, speaking and listening, into every class, along with content goals, such as science, math, language arts, social studies or health.

Elementary teachers in Chefornak are developing science notebooks to increase writing in science as well as giving students the opportunity to explore the natural environment. Science notebooks give students the opportunity to learn science and develop their skills in writing. Research shows that use of science notebooks greatly increases academic achievement in science, and in addition, test scores in other subject areas increased by 26%.

Chefornak teachers follow the SIOP model by first giving the students direct instruction, and then modeling what they want the students to do. With science notebooks, students also have the hands-on experience exploring their environment and collecting data in the field. Kindergarteners and first graders gathered plants on the tundra just behind the school and brought them inside to make their observations and write descriptions in their “Science Notebooks.”

They will collect their pages of observations and then add a table of contents and a cover. Next to the word scientist, they write their names.

Teachers demonstrate how scientists use science notebooks when they work in the field or do research in labs. She tells the children that when they are collecting data and writing about it in their science notebooks, they are doing real work as scientists.

And being a real scientist is exciting stuff for kindergarteners and first graders!

When students come back into the classroom after collecting data in the field, they write their observations, not in English as many scientists in Alaska do, but in Yup’ik. Along with the support of the Yup’ik curriculum staff, teachers are developing science notebooks with writing prompts in Yup’ik. The teachers note that students are learning how to write complete sentences. Teachers model writing scientific observations in complete sentences and also help students by providing “sentence frames” that help them get started.

Julia Lewis, a first-grade teacher says, “Students are doing a lot more writing because I am incorporating writing in science.” That’s important considering writing is an essential skill that students will need as they progress through the grade levels and into the world of work, higher education, and being active members of the community.

Not only are these young children strengthening their literacy skills in their first language, which is Yup’ik, but they are also learning skills that help them gain job skills. Who knows, someday these young students may be future scientists working out in the field, combining their local knowledge of the environment, Yup’ik epistemology, and their skills as bilingual speakers and writers.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Kindergarteners Learn Literacy Through Yuraq"

I wrote this article about Yup'ik dancing and it was published in the Delta Discovery in December, 2009.

Teacher Noel Kairaiuak of Chefornak has found a way to connect students’ cultural traditions of song and dance to develop academic skills. She brings her kindergarten students to a local elder, Maria Kairaiuak’s, house where the children learn a Yup’ik dance, the words of the song and the corresponding motions. The kindergarteners watch the elder intently and practice the motions that illustrate the main events of the story.

Through the learning the songs, these young children gain a rich oral language experience and learn the motions that help them create meaning through the song and dance, as they develop their oral language.

Maria Kairaiuak is teaching the children a song about a gathering mouse food. The children depict a story about some people who go hunting for mouse food. Traveling out to the tundra, they find a mouse house and open it up to gather the mouse food. After putting the mouse food in the nap-sack, the people return home. On the way, they see two people and speak with them. They tell the two people where they can find mouse food. They leave the two people they met and continue their journey home. When they arrive, they open their backpack and share their harvest with the people who are at home.

The students practice the gestures in the song represent the sequence of events in the story. The physical movements keep all students engaged and actively participating in learning.

Kairaiuak noticed that the kindergarteners have made great improvements since they started going the elder’s house in October. She describes how the children benefit from the high level of language input. She states that the elder speaks “a more complex and traditional form of Yup’ik and this strengthens their language development, which helps build a strong foundation for academic growth.” She adds, “It is very important to expose children to the proper vocabulary and sentence structure of Yup’ik.” Additionally, Yup’ik values of sharing the harvest are integrated in this lesson as students develop expressive language skills.

Ayuprun Elitnaurvik kindergarten teacher, Sally Samson says, “Yuraq is writing with our bodies.” Samson, who recently finished a Masters program in linguistics from the UAF, researched the connection between Yup’ik dance and orthography in her thesis entitled “Yuraq: An Introduction to Writing.” Samson found that through the process of teaching Yup’ik dance she could link to writing “because it helped students understand that they are telling a story through dance, and we explored those stories further in our lessons.” From these experiences, children are able to link Yuraq with writing.

Samson based her work on research that shows reading and writing should be introduced right at the beginning of language learning to help learners connect written language with spoken language.

Both Samson and Kairaiuak teach in a Yup'ik immersion program and integrate Yuraq into the curriculum as a precursor to writing instruction help to develop writing skills. Kairaiuak notes that learning dance and songs from the elder helps the children gain an understanding of a sense of story.

According to Samson, “Yuraq helps learners develop voice, ideas, word choice and organization,” which are part of the Six-trait writing program of LKSD. She also found her research increased her awareness of the complex ways in which her young students learn literacy and language.

Kindergarten students are now finding greater success in writing, especially students who may have had difficulties in developing their writing skills, because now they are actively engaged in the writing process and it is linked to their cultural experiences. Students can easily see the connection between the sequences of events in the song and the corresponding gestures, which help children make connections to what they do in reading and writing. Integrating Yuraq has helped these teachers develop lessons to teach writing and reading as they meet the needs of the children in a developmentally appropriate way.

Photos by David Neave, LKSD social worker

Monday, December 14, 2009

Always Getting Ready

It’s Sunday; and I am getting ready for the week. But my mind is focused on getting ready for my next flight. On Thursday, I have to fly to Bethel. I am thinking of all the things I need to do before I leave. I start packing so I do not forget anything. I start preparing SIOP lessons and materials that I have promised to help teachers with. And cleaning the house. And then I will work on paperwork that needs to be done before I leave. The list goes on and on.

Nonetheless, I have a little more time to relax; I sleep in until 9 am and walk to church. Enjoying the beauty of the early morning in Chefornak, this poem came to me as I walked to church.

Twilight on the Tundra

A faint rose-hued glow on the horizon
contrasts against the darker streaks
of pink and gray-blue clouds.
The sliver of the new moon hangs
over the last row of houses,
where village meets the expansive earth.

Its 10 am;
snow crunches under my boots
on frosted boardwalks,
the rasp of ice reminds me
that it is yet another week
until Winter Solstice

The sun postpones her presence
as she slowly slides
into the silent beauty of the day;
Twilight on the tundra.

Indeed, an hour later I watched a glorious sunrise when church got out. I walked quickly down boardwalk to the school where I wrote down the image of this magical morning that I witnessed. Wooden boardwalks connect the school to the church, store and houses, to carry people over the marshy tundra of the spring, summer and fall. Now that the landscape is frozen, the snow machines zip across the frozen lakes; a shortcut back home after church.

The title of my blog today is take from the title of a great book about this region, Always Getting Ready: Upterrlainarluta Yup'ik Subsistence in Southwest Alaska by James H. Barker. It is a great book that has given me insight into the people of this region and the importance of subsistence. Knowing the issues of this region and culture is essential for any teacher. It is of even greater essential for a SIOP coach, because we have to make lessons culturally relevant and build on students’ background knowledge. For SIOP to be effectively implemented in this Yup'ik region, I must adapt it to the culture and intergrate the great cultural resources of the region.

I am constantly learning from the elders here, from the community activities and from the natural environment. In this way, I gain insight into the strengths of the students and the depth of their background knowledge. Students have a wealth of resources to draw on, if only we can think of ways to connect their background knowledge to the content and curriculum.

A wonderful, gifted teacher here in Chefornak has found away to connect to the students’ strength in their expressive language through song and dance. She brings her students to an elder’s house, who teaches the children to dance. She teaches them the stories, the words of the song and the motions that go with them. The students gain a rich oral language experience and learn the motions that help them create meaning through the song and dance.

Everyday, I am amazed at how much I am learning from the people around me: the elders, the teachers, the children and the local culture. I look forward to the week to see what new things I will learn as a SIOP coach. Sometimes it seems like I am doing the greatest learning of all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My life as an Instructional Coach in Western Alaska

This blog is a reflection of my life as a SIOP coach. SIOP stands for Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol and is a model of instruction developed based on the research of Echavarria, Short and Vogt. I first read their book, Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model, about ten years ago and I was impressed. 

In the interest in meeting children's diverse needs in rural Alaska during the following decade, I took graduate courses in reading and achieved two degrees: a K-12 reading endorsement and an Education Specialist degree in Literacy Leadership. 
Then, I took a SIOP course from Stanford and I was so impressed with this approach. Every component was based on the best research in literacy instruction, including a comprehensive approach to instruction in reading, writing, listening and speaking. I was sold. Besides from agreement with the theoretical and research base, I was most of all impressed with the changes I saw in my students. Their achievement increased, as well as their motivation and confidence in language learning.
I find that SIOP is a great model for lesson planning and implementation of high quality sheltered instruction. The eight components of the SIOP model are aligned with current research on instruction for English learners. And it all makes great sense. Seeing the students´ positive response is also one of the benefits!
One challenging aspect of this job is the flying between schools. There are no roads between the villages except for the “ice road” between some of the villages, when the Kuskokwim River is frozen and the trucks drive on the frozen surface of the river, hoping to avoid any overflow. Most of the planes are Cessna 207s, which are single engine, propeller planes, which seat six people. If I am lucky, a Cessna Caravan makes the route and I can sit in a little more luxury and feel a little more secure from the winds and winter conditions.
The distances between villages are great here in Western Alaska. The flight from the villages where I work and the town of Bethel is about 45 minutes to an hour in duration, depending on whether there is a tail wind or head wind. Between the two villages is about 16 miles, which takes about as many minutes to fly. Even a 15 minute flight between two of my schools takes a couple hours of packing and organizing before I leave. I always have hours of work to wrap up before I leave and meetings with teachers, who I will not see for a week or two.
Next, I need to bundle up in snow pants, a down parka, fur mittens, a hat and gloves; not only because it is cold on the planes, but also in case the plane has to make an emergency landing. The good news is that I have only heard of one plane having to make an emergency landing this winter, in this region. Yet, it is always good to be prepared. Besides, it gets cold, just walking out to the plane and waiting for the pilot and the agent to off-load mail and cargo before we take off.
Another formidable challenge is the fact that one is submersed in the school, isolated and cut off from the outside world. How can a SIOP coach keep up his or her energy and inspiration, when living thousands of miles from the next district that is implements SIOP, from contact with teachers outside the district, who may have fresh ideas and insights?
Another challenge is getting a good night sleep. This is especially difficult when one has to sleep on the floor of the school. One itinerant school professional told me that she had nightmares about accidentally sleeping in and being woken up by a circle of kindergartners surrounding her, staring down with their curious, smiling faces. I can relate to this nightmare; sleeping on a classroom floor is far from the privacy and comfort of home. Even though I am far from home, I create a ritual before I go to bed, that helps me relax, so I can get energized for the next day!
The challenge of being an Instructional coach in Western Alaska is to take all the difficulties of living in remote part of Alaska in stride and focus on the needs of schools, teachers and students, without skipping a beat. This is easier said than done.
I try to focused on the teachers, students, the positive learning environment, and joys of coaching teachers, rather than the challenges of the job. In my next blog, I will focus on some of the successes of the teachers I work with; the teachers are doing great things as they implement new strategies to help English Language Learners.
For now I will leave you with the words of a great song, sung by one of my favorite singers, Héctor Lavoe:
Estoy segura que mi suerte cambiará. Pero ¿cuándo será? --Omar Alfanno

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Flying Start

I started this blog in Jason Ohler´s technology course. I learned how to post pictures on my blog, which is great because I love taking pictures and sharing them with others. This opportunity will help me get back into creative writing. I also think it will be a great way to reflect on my work as an Instructional Coach in rural Alaska.

I am on a new adventure, albeit reluctantly. I wanted to stay in the classroom in the village. I loved teaching ESL in the primary grades, Kinder through 3rd grade, but the funding was cut for the program. In my new job, I am training teachers to teach with a program called SIOP, Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol.  Though I knew it would be challenging, I strongly believe in the program and wanted to share the joys of raising student achievement with other teachers. I felt that I could learn a lot and the it would be rewarding to share what I had learned about SIOP through my coursework at Stanford through the CLAD program (Culture, Language and Academic Development).

I have gotten off to a flying start, busy with training, and getting to know teachers at the schools I work with. I am finally feeling like I have a chance to breath and sleep. Tomorrow I will be busily packing and then running over to the gravel runway, now covered with snow, to jump on another small plane, probably a Cesna 207, that will take me across the tundra, to Bethel where I will spend two days scoring 6-Trait writing assessments with other ten SIOP coaches.

The schedule of a coach keeps me very busy; it seems like I go from one training to school, and then back on the plane again. What about all that work I promised I would do this week? I still have not finished doing things for teachers that I had promised them. What about cleaning, packing and catching up on my own life? It’s after nine p.m. and I have not cooked dinner yet, much less eaten. Nor have I looked at my mile-long "To-do" list.

Getting caught up? It’s not going to happen. Not today, not tomorrow. Perhaps, next year, in 2010. It’s all in the life of an instructional coach in Western Alaska.