Monday, September 18, 2017

Vocab Party


Note: at my school, Sheltered Algebra is a class for English Language Learners--students that are newcomers to the US that speak little to no English.

Update: Link to a Google Drive folder with Word and PDF versions of Vocab Party Cards for: bivariate stats; key features of quadratics; term, coefficient, exponent; math operation words; and polynomial vocabulary. 

I just finished my 5th year teaching Sheltered Algebra. Without doubt, this has become my favorite class to teach. But that wasn't always the case. The first three years of teaching Sheltered Algebra were challenging and I struggled--mostly because I felt like students weren't learning mathematics.

I felt like students weren't learning mathematics because my lessons inspired EL students to get up 20 times to sharpen their pencil. Or they would constantly get up to pretend blow their nose. There were behavior problems. I would try group work only to have the 'top' students in each group do all the work independently and then turn in the product as group work. I wasn't teaching mathematics for understanding. I could go on...

The last two years, however, have been a complete turnaround. My EL students do meaningful group work; my lessons are engaging, students are active; and students only get up to blow their nose for real! Upon reflection, I realized the primary factor in this classroom culture turnaround was an activity I created called Vocabulary Party.  Vocabulary Party allowed students to experience success in my class and gave them the skills needed to access my lesson, and once the students had access, they were willing to give their full effort and participation.

What is Vocab Party?

Vocabulary Party is a quick warm up activity I do most days in my Sheltered class. First, I project a card and we do an example together. 

This slide is an animation. The "answers" fly in as we go over the sentence frames together.

After we do an example together, I give each student a unique card that has the same sentence frames as example I projected, but the polynomial expression is different. (confession: it takes a long time to make a class set of cards, but once it is done, you can use it over and over). I give students about a minute to talk to their partner.  Students DO NOT write on the cards. That way I can reuse them. 

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What Does Vocab Party Look Like in my Class?

The first few times we do the activity I will do a roleplay so students are very clear on my expectations for this activity. I'll have a student volunteer come up, we introduce ourselves to each other (bonus conversational English practice) and each read our card to the other person. It is also important that the partner can SEE what's on my card as well as HEAR me say the frames so I make sure to model that. 

Then, I give each student a unique card, and I have the students stand up and mingle (like at a party). They read their cards to each other and then find a new partner. I circulate, mostly to check in on specific students; this is also serves as a useful formative assessment--especially as I get new EL students throughout the year. 

Finally, I collect all the cards and do a check for understanding. I pull a card, put it under the doc cam, give students 30 seconds to talk to a partner, and then I cold call a student to read the card. My favorite part of this activity is giving newcomers, who are often low status, a feeling of success as they read the card (in English!) to the class. The best part--the round of applause that follows when a newcomer student reads the card to the class. This activity imbues a feeling of success for the students. And that feeling of success pays dividends in terms of engagement and effort.

Where do I get the cards for Vocab Party? I make them! Yes, initially it is time consuming. Especially since each student gets a unique card. Most of my classes have 25 students, but one class can get as big as 35 students. However, after I create the Vocab Party cards, I copy them onto card stock, and I can reuse them over and over (some teachers laminate them and use them for multiple years). To be honest, the return on the initial invest of my time is definitely worth it.

Here is a link to a Google Drive folder with lots of examples of Vocab Party in word documents and PDFs that you can print and use!
Examples of Key Features of Quadratics Vocab Party cards

How I Decide on the Content of a Vocab Party Card

When I plan a unit, I think about the language students need to be successful. I ask myself: in this unit, what do I want to hear students say or see students write that would tell me they understand the content? Once I answer that question, I create a Vocab Party to build the language students will need.

For example, the first unit I teach in sheltered algebra is called Foundations. One of the skills students need to master to be successful in this unit is combining like terms. To demonstrate understanding, I would expect students to talk about exponents, coefficients, and variables. Something like, "I cannot combine x and y because the variables are different" or "I cannot combine x and x2 because the exponents are different even though the variables are the same." Thus, I created a Vocab Party to explicitly teach the language students would need to demonstrate mastery. 


Academic Language Production

The experienced success and instant feedback of Vocab Party helps build the skills students needs to access the content.

For example, in those first three years when the class wasn't going well, I didn't explicitly teach the word "term" during the quadratics unit. Then, when I taught multiplying polynomials, it was very difficult for the students to understand or describe what they were doing without the word 'term'.  The students didn't have the vocabulary necessary to access the content. So I created a Vocab Party that specifically taught the word term--this makes teaching multiplying polynomials (and quadratics content in general) much easier.

For an expression like 4 – x, students often forget that the coefficient of x is –1. Vocab Party helps address that. Students sometimes think the exponent for a variable like x is zero (or that there isn't an exponent). Vocab Party helps address that. Vocab Party is an activity I use to explicitly teach the academic language that students need to learn a skill. That creates access. 

Moreover, since Vocab Party is easily differentiated, the activity allows ALL students to experience success. In a set of Vocab Party cards, I can have 'challenge' cards and I can have cards for students that needs to build basic vocabulary. 

Stats Unit Vocab Party card
Functions Unit Vocab Party card


Access Granted

It took me three years to figure out that in order to motivate students, in order to build engagement, I needed to create opportunities for ALL students to access the content. And, especially for EL students, but arguably for all students, explicit instruction of academic language (writing, speaking, listening or reading) is one way to create opportunities for students to access the content.

When I did not explicitly teach the language needed for the lesson, I was denying students the opportunity to learn because I was denying them access to the lesson. This wasn't an intentional move on my part. As a new teacher, I didn't understand the power of language in terms of creating access. Vocab Party is an opportunity to explicitly teach the language students need to be successful and this addresses the problem of access. Once students can access the lesson, they are engaged and willing to learn.

Many teachers in my department, including myself, now use Vocab Party for our mainstream, non EL classes. This activity is very easy to modify and different teachers have created different participation structures for the activity. I love hearing the different ways teachers in my department have structured this activity. If you try Vocab Party, let me know how it goes! 


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