Welcome!

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 was my first year using Comprehensible Instruction Methods, specifically TPRS and I have been using it ever since.

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Brain Breaks and The Story Circle – A Fun Twist on Class Stories

I have been using brain breaks in my classroom a lot this year, mostly to move kids around in my classroom and to get their wiggles out. I have been trying out all kinds of things for them to do:

  1. Simon Says – It’s always fun to do quick round of my favorite game in the classroom. It can use structures that we’re talking about in class or it can be something totally different, either way, it’s CI and it’s fun and the kids have the opportunity to get up and move around.
  2. Teléfono – A quick round using a phrase/word that we have been targeting that day can be fun and give each student an opportunity to hear the word said by other than me and to say it themselves.
  3. Reordering seating arrangement – The students, whether they choose their own seats or they are in assigned seats, sometimes need opportunities to be around kids they wouldn’t necessarily choose to be around. I have used lots of ideas for how to reorder them, mostly the standard things: In order by birth month, by height, by hair color, by where they live (the Orlando area has lots of little towns and our school draws from all of them), etc. The kids don’t always realize that they’re getting CI in Spanish or that I’m actually slipping in concepts I need them to understand, but they still participate and get that input. It’s great.
  4. “Aplauso en un circulo” – This is a super simple little activity and it’s very quick: The students stand in a circle, and they clap once or twice and then the next person claps and it goes on and on around the circle. This is great for letting them express themselves and get attention from friends for doing silly things (they do little dances while they clap or say something funny) all without the fear of getting in trouble.
  5. 30 Second or 1 Minute Dance Party – I have written about this before, but it still works and with Spotify, it is so easy to do: Put on music and the kids can get up and move around and dance to culturally authentic music. As an extension, you can have the kids move to a new seat – sit across from where you were, sit in a friend’s seat, sit next to someone you don’t normally sit with, etc.
  6. Animales – (This one can get a little out of control, it’s best to use it on a really low-energy day) I tell the students what to do with their arms and legs and then they guess what animal we’re going to be (right hand, touch your right shoulder; left hand, touch your left shoulder; lift your right foot and touch it to your left knee; move your arms up and down – by this time kids are shouting “Flamingo!”)

Story Circle: My New Favorite Storytelling Activity

This one has become my new favorite activity to do with my kids, especially 5th – 7th grade. I don’t think I’ve read about another teacher doing this, it was a spur of the moment thing the first time it happened and it felt like something I had come up with on my own (but I may have read about it before and forgotten about it and then had it pop back in my brain–that sort of thing happens when so much of what I do has been learned from others). If someone else knows of another teacher who has written about something like this, please let me know in the comments so I can give credit where it is due.

We stand in a circle and the students all add a detail to our story. So far, I have kept the stories in the format of our Madlib Story activity that we have used in the past. The best part is that I get new reading material for my other classes. And I let the kids in the Story Circle know that their story will be read by other classes.

The novelty of this kind of storytelling (it’s a brand new format of storytelling for them this year), along with the ownership of the story and the personalization that comes from each student getting to have a say in a detail of the story (not just the high-fliers or the really confident students getting to hog all the answers) lead to this being a very engaging and fun activity. They love the idea that they will be reading other classes’ stories and that theirs will be read by others.

While we go around the circle, I have a student take notes on what we say so that I can type it up later. I make sure that this student doesn’t worry at all about spelling or grammar. They don’t even have to write complete sentences (the one below was written by a 7th Grader who can write very quickly, so he decided to write in sentences, which is helpful for us here because you can see how it was told around the room). Each sentence is said by me with the main detail provided by the students (each student provides one detail).

This is the same kind of story I would tell or that we would come up with by voting in a madlib story activity, but each student gets to add something. I say the beginning part of the sentence with the high-frequency vocabulary and the students add whatever they’d like (as long as it makes sense grammatically and syntactically…It doesn’t have to make sense in realistic terms).

Here’s an example:

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Fiestas and a Hard Lesson (For Me)

Disclaimer: I try not to get too mopey or negative in my blog posts, but this post veers into that territory.

If there is one thing that I find the most comforting about teaching, it’s that every day is a blank slate. Whether I see kids once a week or I see them on two consecutive days, the mood rarely carries over. This is very fortunate when it’s been a bad day, because the kids come in the next day and it’s almost as if the bad mood of the previous day didn’t happen. They remember it, of course, but it doesn’t color their mood on the second day.

The realization that hit me really hard this week is that what happens after the bad days also happens after the good days…

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Using News in Middle School

Hi everyone! As I have mentioned a few times before, I have been planning to use news articles in the classroom for reading materials for my middle school students. I have been putting off writing about it because I wanted to try a few different kinds of activities before I write about how great or not great it is for my students. Luckily, I can tell you that it is going very successfully!

Start Slow (and Short!)

I started by having students read a short summary of a news story…

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Falling Into Place

This school year has been going for a month now and things are coming together. I wasn’t so sure that this would happen, though. I had a lot of changes this year, the biggest of which was getting rid of all my desks. I had a practice run of this last year with my half-deskless classroom (I put all the desks in a circle with the chairs on the inside which allowed the students to have the space of a deskless classroom but still had desks), so it wasn’t a brand new concept, but I was still apprehensive.

But that apprehension was unnecessary. The kids were, for the most part, very interested and engaged and following expectations in the deskless class setting.

But kids are funny…

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Building skills, not learning facts…And an announcement about ACTFL 2018

2 weeks in, but really only 1 week in

We’re two and a half weeks into the year, which means that most of my classes have completed a week’s worth of work (I only see the kids 2 times a week). It’s been a very positive first few weeks of school and I’m looking forward to a great year!

As I was preparing for school over the summer this year, I felt a new sense of purpose. I am working without desks now, which opens up the room and will continue to allow students to open themselves to taking risks and using Spanish in class to the best of their abilities.

Continue reading “Building skills, not learning facts…And an announcement about ACTFL 2018”

No More Desks!

The year is beginning and the desks are out!

(I have 4 folding tables that I can bring out if I need to, but they are out of the way and I’m loving the openness of the classroom!)

An Outward Sign of What Class is Like

At the beginning of every year, I spend a lot of time talking with the students about how Spanish class is different from the rest of their classes. The learning that happens in my class is not dependent on learning formulas or on cramming for a test to show mastery of concepts. Rather, there isn’t much “learning” in my class at all. I try to avoid teaching rules and formulas for language. Instead, I want the kids to hear and use the language in order to acquire it and to show what they have acquired. When students do learn something new in my class, it is not a fact about the language but rather a fact that they learned with the language as the medium.

This year, not only will I tell them that Spanish is different, they will also be able to SEE it and EXPERIENCE it. They will enter the room and put down their things and they will sit as part of the class circle. This is a powerful setup for the classroom because there is no front or back, there is no place to hide or fade into the background. Everyone in the class is on an equal footing with everyone else and they can interact with each other easily.

The setup of my class is an outward sign of the way I want my class to be experienced by the students. It is a commitment to me taking on the management and planning challenge of instructing them in a different way. And they can see it from the first day of class.

Barriers to each other, Barriers to learning

When I first considered getting rid of the desks in my classroom, the idea of breaking down barriers was in the front of my mind. Without desks in the way, the students have the unhindered ability to get up and move around the room and interact with others. What’s more, the seating is completely flexible and the room can be quickly and safely rearranged for whatever activity we’re doing, whether it’s sitting auditorium style for a story, in small groups, or standing with nothing in the way for a game or conversation activity.

It also occurred to me that I am also getting rid of figurative barriers: In getting rid of the desks, I am allowing the students have an equal view of the class. In moving the students around constantly (more about that in the post about managing the class with no desks), they are given the ability to interact with other students they might not normally talk to. Unlikely friendships now have the ability to develop. The students will be able to break out of their comfort zone of peer groups and interact with students they don’t normally interact with.

The most important thing of all, though, is the way that I am able to interact with the students. I am not up in the front of the room teaching and they are not sitting behind desks taking notes and absorbing everything I say. There are times when I am the center of the class, especially when I am providing CI and we are practicing their Interpretive Listening skills. But there will be times when others are the literal and figurative center. If a student is in the center of the circle, they are the one providing us with input and information. When I’m not talking, I am in the circle with them.

The best part of it all…

My favorite part of my deskless experiment last year was the fact that I could be sitting in the same chairs as the kids and be at their level. The focus of the class changes from one person at the front to the whole group. They will see that I am with them in our journey of language acquisition. I plan to incorporate reading activities that are about the news and current events (more on that in a future post as well). As such, we will be learning facts together and we will have open discussion about the contents.

Sitting with them is a powerful symbol to the students: I am on their team, not just their taskmaster.

 

Micromanaging the Class (Part 3): The Results

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my final exam projects. The gist of that post was that I was giving up micromanaging the kids’ writing. They would write on their own and they would edit on their own. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

The assignment

For their final exam, I assigned students in 6th and 7th grade to make a brochure for an incoming student to our school. In it, they had to describe their schedule and also write an autobiography. These two topics – school and describing themselves – were ones that we have come back to throughout the year in stories, PQA conversations, and reading assignments.

The language they needed to use to complete the assignment is language that they have worked to acquire over several years of TPRS stories and reading assignments (two days a week). As such, the task wouldn’t be perceived as difficult because it’s using language the students already have in their heads. In the 8th grade final, as I mentioned in the previous post, the students had too much freedom-the assignment didn’t reflect the language they had worked to acquire and as such they ran into problems in composing their stories, making sure the language was accurate, and being able to understand what they had written when they had finished.

(Side note: that was a real wake-up call for me–They wrote their stories and then couldn’t understand what they had written because they used translators and dictionaries rather than acquired language. It was after that realization that I decided to be sure that the students’ assignments reflect the language they have worked towards acquiring)

How they self-edited

I had 2 main goals in having the students edit their own work:

  1. I wanted to give the students the chance to reflect on their work and use their own knowledge (with guidance) to correct what they wrote
  2. I didn’t want to correct and (basically) rewrite 125 writing assignments.

After the students finished writing their rough drafts, they had to edit them. As I said in the last few posts about micromanaging, my plan was to give them an assignment that would actually show what they were able to do using the language that we have used throughout the year.

For their first draft, I handed them their assignment that had all of the details I wanted them to include (name, age, city and state where they live, etc) and let them write. They had a word limit that they had to surpass and I sat back and answered questions when needed.

For the second draft, I posted a list of tips and things to look for on the board. I had them make sure their verbs were in the first person (through our use of TPRS stories, they have become more comfortable with using the 3rd person to describe others and I wanted them to make sure they weren’t falling back on old habits based on older things they have acquired); I had them make sure they used the correct vocabulary; I had them check their adjective agreement. I had them work on their own to edit and then rewrite their own work.

Why they self-edited

The goal of self-editing was to give them more autonomy over their language. Rather than be the micromanaging dictator of what they could write, I tried to become a coach, giving pointers and helping them with specific questions. Unfortunately, some of my students have been held back from their true potential by my micromanagement. These high-flying students were more than happy to take on the challenge of autonomy and not ask for help. Others needed more help and I was happy to give it. Ultimately, based on the students’ engagement in the work and the results (mostly As and Bs), they were happy to be challenged a little bit more.

Final Results

Was it successful? No one failed! Even students who ventured out beyond what we have done in class (in terms of vocabulary) found success in their writing. This is how it should be always. Challenging students to use the language they have acquired (and use it on their own without micromanagement from me) boosted their engagement and their confidence.

Moving forward, my plan is to continue to give my students more autonomy. My plan for next year is to incorporate novels and current events content that keeps things fresh. I want the students to ride this success farther along the proficiency path. They’ve had a taste of what they can do when they’re left to their own devices with a task that has the right amount of rigor and is appropriate for their level.

Micromanaging the Class (part 2): Am I Getting in the Way of Student Communication?

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:

  1. There were formulas, just like math and science! (ir + a + infinitive = future action!)
  2. There were vocab and spelling tests, just like English!
  3. 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.

Editing Final Projects: An Exercise in Giving up Micromanagement (part 1)

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.

Continue reading “Editing Final Projects: An Exercise in Giving up Micromanagement (part 1)”

Experiments, Failed and Otherwise

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.

Continue reading “Experiments, Failed and Otherwise”