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.
Language textbooks catch a lot of flak, sometimes for good reason. One of those reasons is the fact that they don’t capture the full richness and complexity of language. Words for the same things vary widely and who’s to say which is the correct word? Is it auto? carro? coche? Is one of these words more correct than another?
It is precisely this richness, the complexity and variety, that makes language class so different from the students’ other classes. In the olden days (way back before the Crust of the Earth had fully hardened, otherwise known as when I was in school learning Spanish), the trend was to teach language like those other classes:
- There were formulas, just like math and science! (ir + a + infinitive = future action!)
- There were vocab and spelling tests, just like English!
- There were lengthy lectures in which we listened and took notes, just like history!
In other words, the act of teaching language was treated like the act of teaching any other subject, which we know is great for teaching the formulas and drilling the grammar and spelling and for taking notes, but not so great for actual language acquisition and the development of proficiency in the language.
Maybe the teachers (and the language teaching profession as a whole) were trying to legitimize what we do by making it more easily assessed, more easily quantified and codified and graded. “The kids do the things we want them to do and do them the way we want them to do it AND they can do it without any help, so they get an A.”
Spanish is not Math (or History, or Science, or English, or anything else)
But as we have progressed, as we live through the explosion of proficiency-based methods and techniques, as we grow and shift our focus from grammar instruction to more and more comprehensible input, as we understand more about acquisition and shift to methods that foster it over learning, we are coming to understand that language can’t be taught like that.
Language doesn’t fit into a neat little box. There is no “Wrong” like there is in other classes. 1+1=2 and there is no other interpretation of that. But language isn’t so cut and dried. There are multiple paths to get to the same location. The point of our classes is to teach students how to communicate. If a student makes a few grammatical errors but is still comprehensible, are they wrong? Is it wrong if a student uses different words that convey the same meaning?
Who am I to get in the way of a student’s communication?
The way I like to explain this to my students is to tell them that there are as many correct ways to say something as there are people to say it. I might communicate a message in one way, with one certain set of words in English or in Spanish and someone else can say the exact same thing with completely different words but he meaning can be exactly the same.
But where math and science and grammar have a correct answer to every question (most of the time), language has infinite correct answers. There is no one way to say anything. There is no “wrong” if I can understand the message that the other person is trying to communicate.
Because of all this, I can allow my students the freedom to use the TL they have in their heads to write or speak and edit themselves. I don’t have to have the kids say something in exactly the same way that I say it for it to be valid.
Finals time is always stressful – coming up with assessments, writing rubrics, hoping the students have had enough (or paid attention enough to) Comprehensible Input to be able to complete the tasks we’re assigning. Lots of teachers use IPAs or hand out AP practice tests. These things would be awesome for me to do, especially the IPA, but I just don’t have the time to get it all done (or at least I haven’t figured it out yet, as soon as I do, I’ll be back here letting you know!)
My final assessment is a project. This year, 6th and 7th graders are completing variations on a School Brochure / Biography project (our two biggest units were about describing ourselves and others and describing our school and schedule-a consequence of switching back to the book, which you can read about here).
8th Graders have a different project: They have Kindergarten Buddies and they made children’s picture books about them.
Sometimes I question my grand experiment, that is, the whole story behind this blog. I know others out there can feel a lack of confidence bred by the daily grind of school life, the inability to step outside of our own routines and see through new eyes. Sometimes I want to just go back to how it used to be – books, worksheets, quizzes; surely that would make daily life easier. No more running around, no more loud kids to settle, no more thinking on my feet to adapt to whatever the kids decide they want in the story. It would be easy-street.
TL;DR – I stopped my current 4 year long experiment to conduct another experiment: Going back to the book…It wasn’t what I was expecting.
Creating Memorable Experiences and Lessons in the FLES Classroom
Teaching a class only once or twice a week is just not enough time to provide input and foster language acquisition, right? Wrong. By creating memorable experiences through stories, personalization, and other brain-based strategies, we can foster acquisition in the leanest of scheduling circumstances. We can make our one or two classes our students’ favorites of the week and build their proficiency! Learn strategies to engage students and create experiences (and lessons) that they will remember.
- learn techniques and strategies to create engaging and memorable lessons for students who only have Spanish one or two periods per week.
You guys already know about me here on the blog 🙂
Me looking cool:
Me as a Narwhal:
What does this tell us about my classroom? I used this as a way to show off some of my students’ doodles and also to show that we don’t take ourselves too seriously in class, which is an important theme throughout the presentation.
About this presentation
Elementary and Middle School Foreign Language Programs…
…Can be amazing
…Can be frustrating
…Aren’t always given enough time to get anything done
…Or so it seems…
The goals I wrote on my presentation application are below
Learn techniques and strategies to create engaging and memorable lessons for students who only have Spanish one or two periods per week.
As you can see, that’s a pretty general and generic kind of description of what we’ll do. While thinking of what to do for this presentation, as I wrote it and thought over all the things I wanted to talk about, I found myself asking some questions:
- But what does that really mean?
- What should be the goal of a class that meets with elementary and middle school students only 1-2 times per week?
- If you could do anything in your classroom, what would you do and why?
A better list of the goals of this presentation is here:
- To get you thinking about the future, specifically, your students’ future.
- How will they remember your class?
- How will they remember your instruction?
- What content will they remember?
I teach each class from Kindergarten to 3rd grade once a week for 30 – 45 minutes. I teach all the other grades twice a week for 45 minutes each class period. This is great in some ways because I get to make sure all my vertical alignment is great, I get to know the students over their whole time at our school (my first kindergarteners are now 7th graders in my homeroom).
But there is a downside to this schedule: it’s just not enough time. I can’t get all the grammar that is expected of high school Spanish one into these kids’ brains by the time they’re graduating 8th grade because they forget everything between classes and I can’t make any progress. They are failing because they just can’t get enough practice on verb conjugations!
This reminds me of a student I’d like to tell you about:
D is a girl who came into our school in the 6th grade. She came from another school in our town and in her old school, she was the top of her class. Every test score, every stanine, every indicator showed that she was the most intelligent kid our school had ever seen. She was a genius, she was nice, she was a hard worker, she was humble. She was everything you’d expect the perfect student to be.
Until she came to Spanish class. She would come in and be a nervous wreck. There was no reason to think that she’d be unsuccessful. She hadn’t taken Spanish before, but I was confident that she would grasp the grammar and vocabulary concepts that we were learning about. She did ok. As it turns out, at the end of that year, I was the only class where she had a B average.
From February, 2012
Part of me thought, “Wow, I must really be challenging this kid. She gets As in every class but mine. How great am I?”
The other part of me thought, “Wait, why is she doing so well in everything? Why does she have the academic Midas Touch in every subject except mine? Is it something I’m doing?”
It turns out, the answer was yes. It was something I was doing…or rather, something I was not doing.
I wasn’t making the class engaging, I wasn’t making the class memorable.
I was teaching as I had learned in High School, where I had class every day of the week for an hour long period. As a student, I practiced every day. Danielle did not have that. She had 2 days a week in Spanish.
You see, in my school (then, as now), kids in middle school only have Spanish twice a week. I see one group on Monday and Tuesday and I see the other group on Thursday and Friday. That means that they have 5 days inbetween their Spanish classes. 5 days to have stress or to have events happen in their lives…Basically, it’s 5 days to forget everything they’ve practiced.
When I taught straight up grammar lessons (lessons out of the textbook), that is exactly what happened: Students who were A students, students in the highest percentiles on standardized tests, the Ds of our school were getting mediocre grades. And the students who weren’t as academically gifted…They fared considerably worse.
As a beginning teacher, I took my lack of high grades as a sign of my rigor. I was the badass teacher who didn’t give good grades. We’ve all had that teacher, the one who relishes in giving as few As as possible:
“Call me Mr. F, not because my name is Fernie, but because I LOVE to give students Fs!!!!”
Reflecting on D and the other students, I found myself asking the following questions about my lessons and about my teaching in general:
Where is the CI?
Where is there anything memorable?
What is it I’m trying to teach: communicative competence? Or how to correctly conjugate and translate verbs to English? Which should I be doing and why?
Should Spanish Class Be Difficult?
Part 3: The Good Stuff
I went to ACTFL in 2013 in Orlando. I went to a presentation about something called Brain-Based Learning and I learned about how stories help students connect with the material. I researched online and found lots of blogs, including the blogs of some of the other presenters here (who I’m totally geeking out about meeting—I’m like a 13 year old girl at a Beatles concert…). All these blogs kept mentioning something called TPRS. I looked it up, I tried it out on my own and found some success—students were more engaged, students were having fun, students were remembering and reproducing language. I went to a TPRS instruction course in late July 2013. I was hooked and in later July 2013, I changed the curriculum for 9 grades worth of classes (450 kids).
That’s where my journey started. Thanks to D getting her first B in her life, I completely changed the way I teach.
The first thing I did was to Ditch Grammar as the Basis of My Curriculum (otherwise known as not using the book)
Grammar became the supporting actor, the one who works in the background to help the hero but is not the main focus of the movie (think Obi Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars).
So now that Grammar is in the back seat (or in the trunk of the car), what am I doing with my kids?
One Word Images
Persona Especial and other Interviews (as themselves and as others-characters, actors, etc)
Student-created/derived word walls
I have talked about almost all of these things in the blog, but I talked about them in the presentation, so I will now include the slides that I showed at the conference and will add commentary as needed.
What Do all of these things have in common?
If you want to create a memorable classroom experience, the students need to have personalized work—it has to be for them and about them and what they care about.
How do we keep kids accountable now that we don’t have grammar tests? We can use proficiency guidelines and Can-Do Statements from ACTFL to guide them and to guide us so we can have a framework for what students need to accomplish while they are with us (see my blog post about stamp sheets and proficiency).
I’ve talked a lot about stories and characters in this blog, but in the presentation I focused on the personalized aspects of it and how they make it memorable: I have the very basic framework and students come up with all the information about the characters, settings, and any other details.
Student’s ask how to say words, add them to a list that all of your classes can benefit from-they will all see what other classes are interested in and might find inspiration in what other students have asked about.
(I’ll have a more in-depth look at Interview coming soon!)
Given our scheduling situations, it can be difficult for our students to reach high levels of proficiency, but I argue that proficiency isn’t the only thing that we help students develop. We help them see the world in a way that they never would before, from perspectives that they don’t get to see in their communities. It might be more important that we allow our babies to grow up to be life long language learners than perfect young speakers.
Good morning all,
At the airport, waiting to load onto a plane and head to the SCOLT conference in Atlanta!
To all my elementary, middle, and rotating schedule friends, come and see my presentation, “But O Only Teach Once A Week…” all about creating memorable lessons and experiences for students.
Hope to see you there!
It’s easy to think, especially as an elementary language teacher, that your class doesn’t matter. TL;DR: It does.
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?