Friday, August 30, 2013

Just in Time Timelines

If you teach EL-Civics (US government-funded ESL in the context of civics lessons), you may be interested in the free course available at  Our state is presenting this course as a TAL (teach along)* project.  Many teachers are going through the program together with the help of a mentor, taking it into the classroom and coming back to share ideas and reflections.  But you can take it at your own pace, of course!

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Our first lesson plan was supposed to involve US History, so I chose Thomas Edison.  The lesson was written for low intermediate learners and mine spanned two lessons (a week's worth of classes).

I brought in a couple of light bulbs and some record albums to get some conversation going that could lead (perhaps) to talk of Edison. They could also be used later for illustration, I thought. I chose LPs over CDs because the covers are bigger and more visually engaging. I had a good laugh at myself, though, when nobody could guess what the LPs were!  Hand me a walker and lead me to my rocking chair, sigh ... The bulbs, were much more effective at getting things going. Thank  goodness one of them was a compact fluorescent, since incandescent bulbs are on their way out as well!

The course highlighted the usefulness of timelines in a history lesson, so I planned a small group timeline activity for later in the lesson.

I liked this activity because learners would have to discuss how to figure out some of the needed information. But  before we got started I had second thoughts.  I realized that some of the group probably didn't have experience with timelines and this wasn't the simplest one to start with. I was concerned that they would be so distracted by understanding how to read the timeline itself that they would miss the point of the activity (getting perspective on Edison's life, deriving new facts from the facts available).  So, at the last second I made a change.

I noted that we had been reading a story about someone's life and asked them to listen because I was going to tell a story about MY life.  Everyone seemed very curious!  I sat at the table and, using a mental timeline, told a 5-sentence story using "When I was [age]" and "In [year]".

I asked everyone to comment on the story and made notes on the board of what they remembered, then I wrote the story out.   We worked together to complete the timeline using information from the story.  Then I erased the story and told it again, using the timeline and the two bits of language above.  One student picked up on it right away, and he took a whack at telling the story -- doing quite well!

Next, I asked everyone to think of 4-5 personal life events ("I was born in", and "When I was ___, I came to the US" being two obvious ones!) and they made their own timelines.  Each person tried to tell his or her story using the target language.  Finally, I asked everyone to write their story for homework.

At the next lesson, everyone shared, of course.  We then proceeded to Edison's timeline, which went so well that we didn't even need the worksheet I had prepared!

Thanks to the Kheel Center
Since we're embarking on the theme of "history" for September, we will have ample opportunity to reinforce this learning.  Two timelines can be compared to give historical depth to both stories (and recycle facts and vocabulary from the older story, I might add!). For example, Labor Day is next week here in the US.  In our story about Edison, we read that "sometimes they worked all day and all night".  Yesterday, we explored the implications of that statement in a little more depth.

To summarize my learning: Readers can use a timeline to draw out additional facts from available information (use dates to find out age, etc.) or to decipher a story that is not told chronologically. Comparing two timelines can give historical perspective. Learners can  practice using the language of telling a chronological story and they can use a timeline to organize writing a chronological story themselves.

In the past, I've only used timelines with higher level learners to illustrate history lessons; I never really thought about the many other ways they can be used, not only by teachers but by good readers and writers!

* I made this term up!  In online knitting circles, there is the KAL -- knit along -- where folks all pick the same pattern and work on it together, sharing their progress, helping each other with problems and admiring the results. 

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