TESOL Connections article published! Try, Fail, Succeed, Repeat: Taking Risks in STEM

Hot off presses in the September 2023 issue of TESOL Connections!

At the end of the school year, my friend and colleague Katie Miller and I were approached by TESOL Connections to write a piece based on our TESOL Int’l Portland presentation Try, Fail, Succeed, Repeat: Taking Risks in STEM.

It’s my first publication since grad school and first ever co-authored. It was a dream to write with Katie. Here’s to firsts! It’s amazing how words and ideas pull together cohesive when you have first hand knowledge, experience, and excitement!

Game Design – The Amazing Maze Game

In this lesson series where we create a maze game in CS First for Google, what more appropriate warm up than to give students a traditional maze to work through. I began too easy, then the next day, a more difficult one, the last day, what I considered a difficult 3-D maze. Timed the students and watched them fly! This gave them an opportunity to explore the challenges and emotions of mazes before we explored their place in literature.

Then, in an ESLified version of unplugged to plugged, ELs are intentionally given opportunities to grow in the four language domains, listening, speaking, reading, and writing, to advance their English. I find poems to be extremely accessible for English learners. They’re succinct and gripping. Because much of academic, elevated language has cognates in Spanish, poems are more accessible than one might think. We began with “Joy” by the celebrated Harlem Renaissance author Clarissa Scott Delaney.

Reading Poem 1 – “Joy

Student sketchnotes the poem. We underline adjectives and point them to the nouns they describe. We define the literary device. And illustrate “bewildered” with symbol ??.

“Joy” is accessible on Newsela.com. We began with a sticky note warmup and attached it to the image below. Using the sentence frame _______ bring me joy because ________. students thought and shared with the class their answer to the prompt: What brings you joy?

We read the poem in a choral read a few times over the course of the lesson series. We sketchnoted the phrases. We explored the literary devices. Then we separated the poem into two parts–the first 8 then then last 3 lines. We explored the flexibility of the last 3 lines and moved that emotion of being scared and lost to the front of the poem-a more chronological approach.

My students rewrote sections of the poem adding what brings them joy. Made their own comparisons. Explored synonyms for “bewildered” like “confused,” “unsure,” and “uncertain.”

Reading Poem 2 – “El Laberinto/ The Laberinth”

One of my deep desires for my students is that one day they will have access to a heritage Spanish class so they enjoy the beautiful authors of Latin America. And they all have the ability to interact with grade level (above grade level!) content with the appropriate supports. Watch this in action.

Jorge Luis Borges is a Argentinian author who had a degenerative eye disease which progressively left him blind giving his poem El laberinto (Spanish for maze) a different significance. I placed the translation side by side and we made bilingual connections about all the ways he refered to the maze. I told my students to hunt for and underline 6 phrases. They’d bring the poem back to me until they found them all. Then they wrote them in a list below.

Student notes on El Laberinto by Borges

Write to the End

Using elements from both poems, I created sentence stems for my students to complete. Students used the maze phrases from El laberinto to complete the sentences then selected their synonym of choice to replace “bewildered.” They wrote their final drafts on a maze they completed earlier and the joy of having written something so complete and inspired by such greats.

Student draft of their poem inspired by “Joy” and “El Laberinto.”

Now code your own maze!

With a firm exploration of mazes’ place in literature and culture, we opened up our last Game Design set of modules, “The Maze Game.”

At this point, we had completed both the character story and the racing game, so students had some base familiarity with coding. That is the beautiful thing about coding- when integrated with even some regularity, students build on the same skill and further their competency. Nearing the end of our school year, they were ready.

We made connections to ELA story elements and learned about equivalency across disciplines. In English language arts, a setting is where the story takes place and in computer science backdrop is where the story takes place. With this, we reviewed and discussed the utility of phrases like “in other words” and “that is” which can cue us in to an alternative explanation. This is a key comprehension strategy for ELs as they may understand one explanation over another because of cognates and vocabulary knowledge.

Students, with the support of the guide sheets when needed and video tutorials, created their own maze games. They customized them by selecting different add-ons. Then, to cap it off, with our final part of the project, we had a speed dating structured presentation where the students got to show off their games to their peers and try to pitch them to the game company. Knowing that they would present to their peers helped motivate some. After this speaking activity, I had a couple students tell me it was the best project we have done all year. Amazed.

Student proudly presenting her maze game to a classmate in our speed dating style presentations.

Try, Fail, Succeed, Repeat: Building Confidence in STEM at TESOL Int’l 2023

“Holly. Next year, we are co-presenting,” Katie Miller informed me at Pittsburgh TESOL 2022. Katie, or as I knew her, “Duda” is my friend and colleague from graduate school. We graduated together in 2007, 2 of a cohort of dedicated students of linguistics, self-named “the trenchers.” We were in the trenches of phonology, syntax, and sociolinguistics, the beast of the Applied Linguistics program second semester. We attacked it together- study marathons, pizza and $2 pint nights at Cogans, and nerdy language jokes binded us all.

I hadn’t seen her in person for about 15 years, but serendipity and purpose re-united us in Pittsburgh. I knew she had presented virtually at TESOL on an ESL pre-engineering class she taught the year and was also teaching a fundamentals math class. She is the E and M in #STEM and I’m the T.

So here we are, year 3 of her, me, then us at TESOL presenting on STEM education with English learners.

Duda loves these slides, and I have to agree. Look at these slides! They’re lit! Thank you @slidesmaniaSM!

Our presentation highlights one of the best outcomes of why we would teach coding and STEM to ELs: it promotes resilience, persistence, and a tolerance for problems–all of which are needed in learning a language. Learning a language is a long haul, not a semester class. It necessitates a learner’s mindset. How can we as EL teachers cultivate this mindset? STEM.

We organized our talk around 3 points: the problem of fear, opportunities to “fail” in STEM, and strategies to help our students “fail forward.” One of my favorite outcomes of preparing for this presentation was our discussion on how do we support our #EL students in our content? What kind of framework do we follow?

Scaffolding student learning experiences is key.

One, teach the language. For EL teachers, this is our strength! Tap into what you know. Teach the imperatives, the complex sentence structure, vocabulary development from general to specific to technical, multiple meaning words, problem solving language. Choose the language demand required of the lesson and go! Ways can include creating language guides with sentence stems, visuals/ gifs which explicitly explain and demonstrate vocabulary, conduct surveys, & pre-teach and play games with the vocabulary. Often to play games I’ll create sets in Quizlet and later export the Quizlet sets to Blooket. 7 minutes of a lesson used to practice, play, and apply. Check out an example set here, words like strength, weakness, puzzle, improve, develop, overcome, suggestion are cross-curricular and need-to-know in all disciplines.

Two, embed more opportunities to fail in the lesson sequence. In computer science, we introduce concepts with a real world activity first which later extends into a coding activity. Unplugged 🔌 to plugged💻. These are fun and build excitement, which carries over into project.

Three, leverage interactive support. In the WIDA world, interactive support is one of the 3 primary ways we can support ELs. In computer science, it’s known as peer programming. This can look different. One student can program and the other can offer guidance, input, and problem solve sitting by their side. Another way is one student can write code, another can read the code and predict what will happen, and then they test it together. Students work better together figuring out a puzzle. They help each other, learn to ask for help, and build relationships in the process. Both my loud and quiet students are all in when I assure them as I’m giving directions/model expectations, “You’ll get to talk soon, I promise, guys.”

Last, teach and embed social and emotional reflection. Teach them to move beyond, “I felt good” to “I felt accomplished.” Include sequence and extension, “At first, I felt _______. After its completion, I felt _____. Students can journal, participate in a poll, turn and talk, identify a feeling on a gradiency and then expand their choice with the why behind they feel. They try, fail, succeed, repeat–and know what they’re experiencing. Check out Duda’s emotions/ moods table below!

Coding is for all! For primary ESL students, too!

My current lane is secondary ESL, however my first experience in preK-12 was in the primary grades. My National Board Certification is in English as a New Language (ages 3-12) and I spent 9 years teaching primary with a focus on sweet ESL students ages 4-5. To renew my original certification, I crafted a coding lesson for a group of “borrowed” students at the local primary school. Here are the slides that I created to support my lesson. Feel free to use them!

When I observed prior to teaching the guest lesson, I saw that the students were reviewing life cycles—YES! There’s an opportunity for sequencing! Perfect. What subject matter? Animals? Plants?

Corn! A big lump with knobs, it’s got the juice! No–that viral Tiktok video came out a year later. I had a better hook.

I pulled the kids into the lesson with a big bag of Maseca, which has a picture of corn on the front. Maseca is corn flour, primarily used by my hispanic families to make tortillas. In fact, they will often call corn flour by it’s company name, just as in English a person will say, do you have a Kleenex meaning facial tissue, they will say I bought Maseca, meaning, corn flour.


I then taught the life cycle of corn with beautiful images by Mommyhood Montessori Learning, purchase yours from her store on teacherspayteachers here.

In this lesson, I focused on the skill of debugging, that is, problem solving. For English language support, I taught the students to first identify what was missing and then, explain where it belongs. These students were Level 2 students and needed opportunities to extend their discourse. Explaining is one of WIDA’s Key Language Uses, it’s a prominent use of language across the curriculum as we see here in the Language of Science Standard and also, I’d add, the language of computer science.

Each student identified what was missing then we explained in chorus, “______ is missing! It is not where it belongs. It belongs after the ______.” See one of the five images on missing stages below.

The sprout is missing! It is not where it belongs. It belongs after the seed!

After the students practiced verbally identifying and explaining, we moved into the coding portion of the lesson. At what stage does the Harvester pick the corn? When it is ripe. I took them to Code.org’s free PreReader Express curriculum and introduced them to Lesson 5: “Programming the Harvester,” the students would program the harvester to pick the ripe corn.

Now these primary EL students had practice problem solving, they simply needed some simple, explicit vocabulary instruction before we watched the tutorial. We learned code, blocks, and attach.

Next, Code.org’s tutorial on the Harvester:

Result? The students were more than prepared! Using the same language that we used with the life cycle activity, when they encountered a bug (CS for an error), they identified what block was missing, explained that it was not where it belonged, and solved the problem, “It belongs after the ____ (in the code!).”

The students identified and explained in two contexts–the life cycle activity and coding. The coding reinforced the WIDA Key Language Use, explaining. Students learned the Language of Science and had an introduction on how to code!

Upon reflection, my one piece of advice would be to split this into two 30 minute lessons. I fit it all into one, and we would have loved more time to code! If you’re a primary ESL teacher, try this lesson out, and let me know how it goes!

The World Cup & Tynker’s Coding Cup!

For the first and only time ever, the FIFA World Cup occurs during the school year. Usually held in the summer, the heat of the host country Qatar had FIFA move the soccer tournament to the early winter for its balmy 85-90 degree days. In the summer, temps reach a scorching 120 degrees!

This makes for a lot of passion in the classroom! But where there’s excitement, there’s opportunity. It’s been a springboard for a thematic unit where we have explored symbolism of flags, geography, politics, predictions & justification, competition, idioms, surveys, data, graphs, and more.

Tracking the Group Stage!

As we approached #CSEdWeek2022 and #HourofCode during our unit, Tynker.com promoted its Coding Cup by BYJU. Sounded like a great extension and an opportunity to revisit coding!

Explicit vocabulary instruction first! To support my students, I taught & reviewed some key terms in a Quizlet set.

They included soccer vocabulary: players, jersey, to train, to be on defense, striker, goalie and also CS subject & process vocabulary: strategy, evaluate, loop, command, upgrade, conditional logic. Students repeat the vocabulary 3x. We identify its equivalent in Spanish, discuss its definition with a visual, and sometimes, an example turns out a laugh–A loop is like what I see some of you doing in the hallway on a bathroom pass! I see you walk around and around and around over and over again!

To warm up, we loved the Kahoot! World Cup sponsored by Tynker. Even the most diehard futball fans had to think about the regulation size of a soccer ball and the sequential order of the last 4 World Cup hosts–I mean, were they even born 12 years ago in 2010 when South Africa hosted? Well, done.

Creating the team and designing the jerseys was a win–“I’m going to make Honduras!” I overheard.

Next, the training. The students coded their players moves in the training modules. They would have enjoyed being able to challenge each other to a match, not be relegated to play against random teams, but it was still highly enjoyable. I know, though, if they had that option, they would never stop coding!

We ran out of time so we extended our hour of code into the next class. I fronted the next lesson with an unplugged activity to explain the concept of conditionals. I had the students prepare a game in the mode of the classic children’s movement game red light/ green light. Each student wrote two direction cards for the game following the sentence frame “If_______, then_______, otherwise (else)_______.” Most questions written were strategic! “If you have a bird as a pet, take two steps forward, otherwise take zero steps.” Then they lined up and followed the directions as I read the directions.

Support includes vocabulary, sentence frames, translation, and examples!
Students writing & preparing the game!

This eased my students into manipulating conditionals again. Now there was a more solid understanding of what a conditional required, e.g., If I have the ball, then shoot. Else (Otherwise) move to the ball.

What I would have loved to see would be to be given access to the analytics without a paid prescription, so I could centralize tracking my student’s progress through the modules. Code.org offers theirs free, so I was really left wanting. No doubt it would be great to have a paid account! I’d explore Tynker’s Coding Cup with my students again–sooner than 4 years from now when there’s the 2026 World Cup!

Lesson Sequence- Unplugged to Plugged

How do I incorporate coding into my lessons? Is it a replacement? Is it an extension? It can be both- the field of computer science supports integration. Let’s look at this practically. Let’s look at lesson design.

We can take a lesson from the field of computer science with the lesson sequencing approach from unplugged to plugged.

An unplugged activity is just that– unplugged from a digital device. It is a real world application or problem that introduces and practices the concept later to be used in coding.

Stay real!

An unplugged activity is often what we would think of as a traditional EL language activity. For example, write directions to a place in the school or community. “Turn left,” “Move forward,” “Pass the library.”

A plugged activity is the digital application or problem to be solved in coding.

Now plug in!

For example, code a digital sequence that moves your sprite from one location to another. Also, “Move forward,” “Turn left,” etc.

Sound familiar? Maria Montessori talked about a similar instructional sequence for math. “Concrete -> Representational -> Abstract.” She’d have her students manipulate physical items before expecting them to write representations and then work equations.

See this in action!

Unplugged– Write directions to a place in school. In groups of 3, my students had to write specific directions to a place in the school. Their instructions would tell them where they needed to end up and some told them where they could NOT go. For example, “Start at room 207. Go to the clinic. Do NOT pass the library.” They had to write out each physical step. “Move forward.” “Move forward.” etc. Then when complete, they exchanged directions with another group and had to follow them. Upon arrival, they had to take a group selfie in the location. Successful algorithms, directions, would lead the group there, and ones that needed work would, well, need work.

Plugged– Write directions (code) for your robot to reach the finish line. Students select and sequence the appropriate blocks to help their robot reach its destination.

Their unplugged experience gave them vocabulary exposure, problem solving practice, and interaction to be confident as they approached coding! And, it was super fun! Great job guys!