Welcome to my blog. I am a father of two and a Kindergarten through 8th Grade Spanish teacher in Central Florida. The 2014-2015 school year is my first using Comprehensible Instruction Methods, specifically TPRS.
This has been a rough year filled with family emergencies, sicknesses, a hurricane…I haven’t had my head in the right space for teaching for a few months now. I have been in a funk for a lot of the year, feeling uninspired
and underwhelming as a teacher.
Fortunately, though, the fog is lifting; sicknesses are resolved, grieving is easier to manage, and I’m ready to get my head back in the game. I don’t want to be underwhelming, I want to whelm!!!
So what’s new since I last talked to everyone?
Everyone makes mistakes. As a language teacher, I know this implicitly: kids are always making mistakes with their language. But should I chide them for it? Or gently correct them? Should I be mad about mistakes? Or should I roll with it? I hope that it’s obvious from what I’ve written here that I am absolutely in the latter camp (gently correct and roll with it).
This is how I should treat students and this is how I should treat myself with regard to making mistakes in class, right? I think so. As teachers, it is so easy to be hard on ourselves. It is our responsibility to be the best we can be for the 45 minutes that the 20-30 kids are in our rooms so that they can acquire as much language as possible. At the same time, we are human and we make mistakes, we have off days, we just don’t feel like it some days.
And some days are like last Thursday. I was prepared, I was ready, I was excited for my lesson. My 4th graders were going to read and then complete their first timed writing assignment (40 words, 5 minutes). We have been practicing writing in Spanish to get the hang of it, to learn the skills of editing themselves and staying within the bounds of the high-frequency vocabulary that our class curriculum is based on. I was pumped to see what they could do…
Two days a week. That’s all the students get of Spanish. Two measly days. That is all the time the kids get to have CI, to practice their speaking, writing, and reading (with teacher supervision), to interact with their peers in the TL. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire time teaching. How much will the students care? How much should I care? Should I just be a babysitter, should I be the most serious and rigorous teacher I possibly can? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself over the last 8 years.
Some years, I swing into ambivalence: “Why bother doing anything rigorous? This should just be an experience for the kids to hear some Spanish and leave.” Other years, like this one, I am feeling like I have a grand opportunity, that even though the kids only have a 90 minutes (or less) a week of Spanish, they have the potential to move forward on their proficiency paths.
There are two ideas that I’ve played with before that I’ve given much more serious thought to and that I’m very excited about: Stamps and Homework.
Ten years ago, on Monday, August 20, 2017, I stepped into my very first classroom.
Twenty two years old, teaching undergraduates at the University of South Florida in Tampa. At that point, I had two years of one-on-one tutoring, one week of TA training, a textbook, a syllabus, and a desire (and need) to get my graduate degree paid for.
Back then, I was studying Spanish literature and not really knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature, I had a feeling that I’d end up in education, but I couldn’t picture myself doing it. I applied for and was given one of the few TA spots in the department. I arrived at the university a week before the semester started and had a crash course in what to do in the classroom. I leaned hard on what I learned those days for the whole semester. I taught the book just as the syllabus said to: page 6-10 on Monday, 11-14 Tuesday, and on and on. On top of that, I taught exactly like I was taught in high school and college, which is to say, I emulated my favorite teachers to point of plagiarizing catch phrases (hola, hola, Coca Cola) and class structure (homework check, grammar instruction, practice, assign homework, wash, rinse, repeat).
As a TA in charge of my own classroom, I was required to take a methods course. It was in that course that I decided. After about a month and a half of learning about input and acquisition and Krashen’s hypotheses and Input Processing and seeing their effects in the classroom as I was learning, seeing how input affected the students’ acquisition vs. their textbook practice activities….I knew what I had to do: I went to my advisor and switched from Spanish Literature to Foreign Language Education.
Two years later, I graduated and after a few months of teaching online, I got the job I have now teaching kindergarten through eighth grade. I am challenged and delighted and surprised (and sometimes frustrated, just like everybody else) by my job every day.
Since this journey began, almost accidentally, I have never ever been able to see myself doing anything else. The community of teachers that I have joined is the most welcoming, supportive, and helpful community I have ever been a part of. From the other TAs in the USF language department, to the professors who taught me how to teach effectively, to the langchatters and conference friends I’ve made from all around the country, everyone who is in this profession inspires me and keeps me going. Seriously, language teachers are, by a wide margin, the most awesome teachers around (if I do say so myself).
Ten years snuck up on me. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to do the same thing for this long, but here I am, looking forward to the next ten, twenty, thirty…who knows?
One and a half weeks down
The year has started and is in full swing. I am teaching all the kiddos again, K-8, and I have a homeroom this year, too. Seventh graders. They are goofy, loud, smart, boisterous, outgoing, friendly, and all the other things that 12-13 year olds can be (also moody, emotional, confused, annoyed…). They keep me busy; they need guidance; they are awesome.
The homeroom kids are a particularly special group: They were in Kindergarten when I started. They (most of them) have been at our school for as long as I have. I am excited to have them as “my kids” this year. I have watched them grow up. I have built relationships with them and their parents and I have been there with them to celebrate their highest moments in school and guide them through some of their lowest.
Department of One
Being the only foreign language teacher (#deptof1) can have its setbacks and problems. It is difficult to not have a partner teacher to bounce ideas off of or to commiserate with. I am on my own. Sometimes it can feel lonely. Since I am the only one teaching my content in my whole school, it is sometimes hard to share successes and defeats that happen through the year. Luckily, I have developed friendships with all the people I work with and I have found a community of teachers through Twitter, conferences, and blogs. They help me feel like I’m not so alone in my teaching.
The other thing I have that helps me to not feel alone is the kids. As the only language teacher, I see the same kids year in and year out. They grow up with me. For most of them, I’m the only Spanish teacher they’ve ever had. This is a situation that no other teacher in my school has. I see it as a blessing. It is a gift that many teachers won’t have in their careers.
When I started, I was overwhelmed–too many students, too much grading, too many preps (9!).
(My first classroom at my school – 2010-11 School Year)
But as the years have passed, the rapport I have built with my students has gotten deeper and more meaningful for me and (hopefully) for them. There are no more icebreaker activities-we all know each other. There are no more placement tests, I know where they all are and what they’ve all been taught. I am able to develop a relationship with them unlike the one they will have with any other teacher.
I am the only teacher who has taught them every year for their entire time at our school and that can be problematic in some ways: Conflicts that arise can are not easily solved when the student leaves my room at the end of they year, they have to be solved right then and there; The students only have one teacher’s perspective and voice (both metaphorically: I have to make sure that I am checking my biases and personal beliefs at the door; and practically: I have to go out of my way to find other voices for them to hear in the TL so that they can experience the language of someone who isn’t me). But ultimately, I wouldn’t change it.
There are lots of posts about #oneword. My word this year is Appreciation. Having a homeroom this year has changed my perspective a bit. I spent a lot of the past 2 years feeling like unappreciated, like my room was a place for the “real teachers” to drop off their students so they could make copies or plan their activities. In reality, my room is an opportunity, no matter what the teachers who drop off their students there think (not that any of them think that I’m just a babysitter–that’s more of a personal fear than anything else). In reality, while I was busy feeling unappreciated, I was the one who was not appreciating the situation I am in. My classroom isn’t just a holding cell for while the students’ “real teachers” have a planning time, it’s a place where the kids build proficiency in another language and build camaraderie between each other. It’s a different kind of class with different kinds of interactions. The students are encouraged to speak their minds and explore their abilities to connect with others in another language.
Just as in Spanish class, in homeroom (a total of an hour spread throughout the day), the students need to feel safe to speak their minds and bring up their problems and successes. In previous years, I would have been mad about being assigned a homeroom. I would have complained about all the extra work and supervision that I was taking on. But this year, I am looking forward to it. It’s been a great first week and I feel like I know what I’m doing (famous last words, right? Hopefully I’m not jinxing myself).
As a homeroom teacher, I am like their parent at school. Just like being a parent at home, it’s my job to encourage them, to guide them, to help keep them on the right track. I hold them accountable for their behavior and praise them for their successes.
I am more excited for this year than I have been for a long time. I am looking forward to a year of laughs and tears and struggles and successes.
Kids need novelty.
Every blog from every teacher I follow, every textbook on language teaching, and every bIt of common sense in my head tells me that this is the case. Seven years of experience with the same kids in the same school has proved it. If I do the same thing day after day, year after year, the kids tune out. It is a struggle I’ve contended with since I started teaching: What can I do to keep my instruction interesting and compelling for the kids?
In the past, my answer has been to quit using whatever methods or techniques I’m using and start from scratch. My thought process went something like, “If kids have gotten bored with what I’m doing, I have to get rid of it and find something to keep them engaged.” I started this blog after doing just that. Every time I read a blog post with an interesting or novel approach, I tried it. At the first instance that this method would be great, I threw away what I was doing before (metaphorically) and started with the new thing. The kids and I were itching for something new and I was happy to try everything I could. And it seemed really successful. When I found effective alternatives to grammar-heavy, book-based activities, I happily ditched them. When I learned how to ask a story and circle (TPRS techniques), I gladly did that and nothing else. When kids got bored with the same sorts of stories using the same types of vocabulary, I looked for other things-I tried OWL techniques and non-targeted CI and a host of other techniques.
Ultimately, instead of being successful, it was exhausting. Each different thing burned bright and then fizzled out. And each technique fizzled out a little bit more quickly than the last. What was the problem? Why were these techniques that other teachers use so effectively falling flat for me?
I misunderstood the kind of novelty that students need. They don’t need something brand new every time they start to get bored; they need a teacher who has a large toolbox of fun and effective activities. The problem was that I replaced one fun activity with something else and never really returned to the others that the kids had gotten sick of. The problem was that I replaced instead of adding.
The students didn’t hate the activities that we have done in the past, but they were just ready to take a break. Think of it like this: It would be really exciting to be able to eat ice cream for dinner every night, but in reality if we ate ice cream every night, it would lose its excitement. We would get sick of it. And just like getting sick of ice cream after having it all the time, the kids get sick of things they really like when it’s the only thing they do.
The trick, then, is to be prepared to do lots of things that are effective and that the kids like.
That’s my plan for planning this summer (and something I’ve talked about a little bit before): have lots of activities ready to go so that when one activity begins to sag or slow down or the kids don’t seem to be into it, we can transition into something that would be more effective and compelling.
1000 days ago (1001, to be exact) I wrote a post about having fun in the classroom. I wrote another one (about 870 days ago) about variety and avoiding boredom in the classroom. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of these things. I got bored and I started being the kind of teacher I always told myself I’d never be: unadaptable, stuck in my ways, unwilling and unable to see that what I was doing wasn’t working, and refusing to try something new. I committed 2 of the biggest teacher sins: losing sight of why I’m even teaching and blaming the students for not being successful.
It’s hard to say that out loud.
As teachers, we want to control all the things the students are doing. It is in the nature of our profession to create perfect students who do things exactly as we tell them and give us answers that are exactly what we are expecting, but that’s not how kids work. They want to do things their own way and be individuals. If our grip is too tight, if we don’t allow their individuality, creativity, and ingenuity to shine through, we might turn off the students to learning and acquiring languages altogether.
Letting go and letting them
(I heard this phrase somewhere (probably from one of you awesome teachers on langchat) and it stuck with me. I wish I had come up with it but I can’t say that I did. If you know who came up with it, please feel free to let me know.)
Lately, I have found that my students are getting a little tired of the standard storytelling format. (Maybe not so “lately”) They know what’s going to happen, they have a good working knowledge of the high frequency verbs we’ve been circling for years. They are ready for something new, but what?
I have a colleague and very good friend who asked me about my presentation at the SCOLT conference in Orlando (see this post). Her main question was, “How did you get to do that?” It’s a question I have gotten from lots of people since my first time presenting last year (see this post).
Attending and/or presenting at a conference is a great experience for any teacher at any point in their career. I have made friends and met colleagues that I would not have otherwise met. I have also met people I have only spoken with online through #langchat or other social media. When I met Laura, Keith, and Megan, I was completely star-struck. But the thing is, they’re normal people who want to be the best teachers they can be. Just like the rest of us. So come out to a conference and see what it’s like, then try and submit a proposal. The worst thing that could happen is they’ll say no. Last year, ACTFL rejected a proposal for a presentation. It was not very nice to feel the rejection, but at the same time, now I know what I need to do differently to maybe present there next year.
So What To Do?
Below is my working script for my presentation at this year’s SCOLT conference.
The title of the Presentation is:
We Don’t Learn Anything Anymore: Moving Away From a Grammar-Based Curriculum
One note: There was a question about what I meant by Grammar-Based Curriculum. To clarify, I’m talking about curricula that are directly tied to a textbook and that follow the grammar points as presented in the text (only present tense first, then past tense, then direct objects, and students are not made to use any of these forms outside the order of the text.)
The Powerpoint presentation that goes with the script can be seen here.