On My Own, But Not Alone

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!).

classroom(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.



…And We’re Back

Summer has been a great time for rest and reflection. As much as I could, I tried to unplug from the things that were stressing me out from the year and turn my school brain off as much as possible. I had trouble with turning it off all the way, but overall, I have been able to relax, recharge, and come back to school and to blogging with a positive attitude.
Right out of the gate, I will not be using any English on the first day of class. As many others have said before, procedures can come on the second day. The first day will be used to set the tone in a way that I have always thought about doing, but I have never actually done before–All Spanish, no English (from me). This will be challenging. I have an advantage that lots of teachers don’t have, which is that 90% of the students already know me and how I teach and I won’t have to do lots of introduction. Rather than “Como te llamas?” and Ice-Breaker activities, we will jump back in just as we would after a long weekend or Christmas break. We will do some PQA about summer, we’ll listen to music, and we’ll make a class mascot (which started as an idea that I saw on Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell’s site a few years ago).
When I ask a story, I always start with a description of the character–what it is (animal, person, monster, alien, etc), name, age, descriptive adjectives, what clothes he/she/it is wearing, how he/she/it is feeling. I will use this familiar template to create a character in each class group. We’ll describe and draw him/her together on the first page of our notebooks. Then, I will have a student volunteer draw another and put it up on my Can-Do Statement boards that I have put up in the room (more on that in a later post). Hopefully, having a mascot will help with friendly competition between classes, especially now that the Olympics are going on.
My other hope is that by sticking to my guns on the first day, the students will see that I am serious about using Spanish as much as possible.The advantage of knowing all the kids is also a disadvantage because they all know me. They all know my personality and how I like to do things and making a change to that will be difficult. I will be tempted to speak with them during class in English to catch up on summer vacation stories, talk about new superhero movies, or to ask how older brothers and sisters are doing. But I will resist the urge to use class time to do these things. We have all the time in the world to catch up and I can and should have these conversations outside of our formal class time.
Spanish all around us
Living in Central Florida, there is so much Spanish around us, but it’s easy to not notice it. My goal with my middle-schoolers this  year is to get them to start looking around at their community and seeing what is just under the surface. We all know how kids are, they can walk past the same thing every day and not notice it.
So, how to solve this?
But not just any old homework…no busywork, no fill in the blank worksheets, nothing like that. This year, I’ll be rolling out a new (to me) system: Choose your own homework . I have taken from lots of other teachers’ lists and come up with something that will be appropriate for my middle-schoolers. The majority of the things that the students can choose from are ways to engage with the community, from things as simple as listening to a Spanish-language radio station in the car on the way home from school to interviewing Spanish speaking people in our community.
As a teacher, I let the Communities standards get away from me. It is an intimidating task to get students to engage with the language outside the school walls and outside the school day, but with this new, ongoing homework assignment, I hope to get them to open their eyes to the things they have missed in their own communities and beyond. This choose your own homework activity, with lots of opportunities for engagement, will be my way to begin to start a conversation with the students about just how much of the target culture is right here around us.
The year is beginning and I am ready for it. Units are planned, lessons are written and posted, and it’s time to get the party started.

Summer Planning and Getting Back in the Game

An unexpected hiatus

Burned out, Over it, Exhausted, Fried, Run down

These are all phrases I can use to describe the last 2.5 months of school. I was ready to be done with the year in April, which is bad, because the year was over on June 1. I didn’t blog because all I had were negative things to say. I know that I would stop following a “woe-is-me” type blog from a burned out teacher, so I decided to just take a break.

And I’m glad I did, because, after a week and a half at home, I’m already anxious to get back into the game. I went back and re-read my posts from the last year. I really posted a lot less this past school year than the year before. I am not too happy about that. This blog is a place to post my reflections, ideas, and share what has been successful in the classroom. The reason I didn’t post was that I didn’t feel as inspired as I had in the last year. I felt like I made it past the honeymoon period of TPRS and have started to plateau.

Engaging students and myself next year

Now comes the hard part: How to keep students (and myself) engaged. I have storytelling pretty much down. The kids like the stories, especially in the lower grades, but the older ones are hungry for more. They need a new story template and new types of activities to keep them engaged.

This summer is the time for finding the solution. I have been reading up on Laura Sexton’s pblinthetl blog and am going to try some of her ideas:

Vocabulary blogs


Since the 8th grade is now a byod class, I am anxious to get them using their devices to personalize their learning. I learned about the idea of student-created word walls, but those are not very practical for me because I teach 3rd – 8th grade in the same room which I also share with another teacher. There just isn’t enough wall space for all the classes to have that for all of the classes.

An idea for those younger grades would be to have class wikis for word walls (have students suggest words or I can take a picture of the words we end up writing on the board) and post them to our class websites.

Interactive notebooks


Interactive notebooks are something that I have played with before, but it wasn’t very successful. First off, it was way too much work for me to collect and grade, which is because I implemented it in 4 grades at the same time. It was a bit of a disaster. This year, though, will be better. I am keeping it simple and straight-forward and I am rolling it out slowly, just like the byod activities that I talked about above.

Finally, assigning homework (or finally assigning homework)

With 2 days per week of instruction time, I decided that chasing students for uncompleted homework assignments wasn’t worth it. While this did free up my time and keep lots of 0s out of my gradebook (allowing grades to better reflect the students’ abilities), it hasn’t quite sat right with me. I want the students to interact with the language outside of school, but I don’t want to give worksheet and I don’t want to have to chase them down for it. Then, I found this 5 year old post from my Blackbox Buddy Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell at musicuentos. I will have some ideas on how to hold the students accountable for getting this work done and I will post them as soon as they are more fleshed out.

These are just a few ideas that I have encountered that are going to dovetail nicely with my own teaching style. I will be describing more as I find them and will be adding my own contributions as well.

Thank you to all the bloggers and great thinkers out there in the World Language Ed-Blogging world. Your work serves as an inspiration and I hope that I may rejoin your ranks soon!

Getting students comfortable with #tl90plus


In my last post, I mentioned that I had used my first story of the year to explain why I wouldn’t be speaking any English in the classroom. I have updated the stories section with that story, so you can read it for yourself and check it out. I used a lot of pantomime and I had to draw several portions of it on the board (especially the part when the rock comes from Saturn and hits me in the head). If you decide to use the story yourself, you can use the drawings at your own discretion, I just found that it worked for me.

Teach them German the First Day

(It’s a little bit late for the first day, but this can be done at any time that you feel like you want to restart your 90% plus TL use in the classroom.)

My first day slideshow has all the regular first day information – procedures, about me, rules and consequences, a slide about TPRS, and a slide stating that I will be using 90% Spanish during our lessons. This last slide is usually the one that gets the kids all freaked out. They hear that and they think, “Oh no, I’ll never do well in here because I don’t speak Spanish! I’m going to fail!”

This year, I found a video of Stephen Krashen that I found on Youtube has helped me to build up the students’ confidence to understand the TL. (I only showed the first minute and thirty seconds; after that, he talks about the cigarettes in his pockets and I decided to not even bother with that portion of the video so that I could avoid the questions and comments that it would inevitably bring up).

Before showing the video, I ask the students, “Who in here speaks German?” A few always raise their hands because they know the numbers or Guten Tag or other similar phrases, but almost no one uses German every day and/or has any proficiency in it. I show them the video. In the video, Dr. Krashen teaches a lesson in German in a conversational tone and speed. I don’t speak German, so the whole thing is pretty incomprehensible to me. I ask the kids if they understood anything and they usually say “no,” or “ there were some words that sounded kinda English, but not really.”

Dr. Krashen goes on to teach some vocabulary in the second lesson using a more comprehensible tone, speed, and with visual aids – he teaches some of the body parts (hand, ears, eyes, face) and he points them out as he says them. He doesn’t speak any English, but after he presents each one, I pause the movie and ask the students what they think he said. They all get it right, every time – That’s the power of comprehensible input. Even though he uses no English, he uses little tricks  that we can all learn from (showing us what he’s talking about, repeating again with the same actions) to make his language easy to understand. It looks so easy. The fastest language processors in the class will usually be able to try to pronounce some of the words and maybe even say them to me later, but they all can understand, regardless of whether they can speak the new words.

The main thing about this video that made it great for me is that it Dr. Krashen gives his lesson in German, not in Spanish. My students have had Spanish instruction their whole time in school and very few have ever been exposed to another language in an academic setting. German is almost completely foreign to them and they can understand it almost perfectly with one viewing of the video.

After I end the video (at 1:30), I tell them, “My Spanish will be like the German in lesson number 2. I will do my best to make myself understood and you guys have to meet me half-way to be able to understand.” This usually puts the students at ease. Their confidence is high because they have just understood a language that the vast majority of them have never even heard before outside of a movie. My goal now is to keep that high level of confidence and TL momentum throughout the rest of the year.

Back to School…

First Days of School

I have been back to work since the 12th, but I’ve only seen the kids for 5 days’ worth of classes, so it’s like it’s been a full week. I’ve been spending my time getting back into the swing of teaching after being home with my 2 sons for the whole summer. I’ve been adjusting to my new schedule and exploring all the great options I have for decorating my new classroom (I still share, but I don’t have to travel any more!). I have also been brushing the dust off my Spanish and my storytelling skills for a new year. The first lessons were rusty and didn’t have any stories, but it’s been slowly coming back to the point where I feel pretty confident in my circling and circumlocution skills.

The students, of course, are doing great, they have been awesome. Even the new students who have not had TPRS instruction before are picking up a lot and excited to try to get into the fun of the lessons.

Management and Procedures and #TL90plus

As I wrote before, I have added a focus on management and procedures in the classroom.

I have also been doing some research for my next Musicuentos Black Box Podcast (look out for a new episode by Karen Tharrington on or around 9/1 and my next episode on 9/15!) on using the TL 90% of the time. The article I will be reviewing in the video has all sorts of strategies and rationales for using TL as much as possible and I will wait for that video to discuss those things, but it is germane to this post because one of the best ways to get to using the TL 90% or more of the class period is the same as one of the best ways to manage the classroom: Set up and stick to procedures.

If you start the year with procedures in the TL and keep them up throughout the year, then the kids will learn what they mean and will be able to do them. The teacher will not have to resort to translating instructions for tasks or managing inappropriate behaviors. My separate focuses on procedures and TL use have sort of fused into one focus. With one (good procedures), I will be able to do the other (stay in the TL)!

More on that as the year goes on.

The Youngest Grades

In the lowest grades (k,1,2), I started with procedures in English. In kindergarten especially, I want them to know exactly what I will do when I arrive and what they can expect throughout a class period. I know a lot of people who read this probably start their year off with TL activities to send the message to the kids that they will be needing to listen to and understand TL in every class. I have done this in the past, but after the management presentation with Harry Wong that I went to a few weeks ago, I decided to start with procedures first and save the Spanish for later. The first day with procedures was great (they could all understand what I was saying!). The second, I fell back into using English even though I came in with the goal of using none. The third class, though (Tuesday of this week), I finally powered through and stayed in the TL the whole time. The kids had a little trouble at first, but it seems promising because by the end of the class, they were understanding and performing the TPR actions that I was asking of them without me having to do them at the same time. That was a big win for me and a lot more than I was expecting.

I had the same itinerary for the 1st and 2nd grade: first day rules and procedures, then start with Spanish instruction. These grades are a little bit easier because I have had them all in class before (except for the new kids). I was a little worried about how I would transition to getting back to using the TL with the students. In past years I have found that once I start to use English heavily, the kids start to expect it and I start to do it more because it “makes things easier” to explain vocab or concepts in English rather than Spanish. Additionally, because they know that I can go back to English, they will beg me to translate or to not use Spanish at all.

My solution this year was unorthodox, but it has been great so far. I decided to make my first story about myself. I used my circling skills to tell the story of how a meteor came from Saturn and fell on my head and knocked all the English out of my brain. I can still understand, I told them, but I can’t talk. They thought that was really funny. It gave me an opportunity to act out getting bonked in the head and act out crying and saying “ow!!!!” (and what 5-7 year old doesn’t think it’s funny for a teacher to get bonked on the head?). It also gave me an opportunity to circle “me duele la cabeza” (my head hurts), “estaba en casa” (I was in my house), and a few other structures that can be useful in later stories and conversations as well as everyday classroom interactions.

Older Grades

The older students know that I speak Spanish and they’re not young enough to enjoy a story like the “Meteor from Saturn.” (Ugh, that’s lame). Even without a complicated backstory, though, the older kids are responding well when I use only the TL. I warn them that I will not speak any more English in the class and they have responded well. It takes a lot of discipline for me to not switch back to English to make a joke or explain a phrase, but my perseverance has paid off because they are responding to me in Spanish more now than at this time last year (even the new kids who are just starting with Spanish classes and TPRS).

Excitement for the year

It’s going to be an exciting year, that’s for sure. With my new procedures in place, I won’t have to resort to using English nearly as much as I have in the past. I am looking forward to getting a little bit closer to the teacher that I want to be.

Being Completely Unprepared–and Totally Ready–for the New School Year

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Readiness and preparedness are usually thought of as synonyms. They both mean that a person has the things necessary to complete a task or perform an action. And they are definitely synonymous in some aspects, but there is a definite difference: I am Unprepared for the year, meaning that I haven’t done much to prepare my order of instruction or lessons, but I am Ready, mentally and emotionally, to be back in a classroom.

I haven’t spent more than 2 hours at a time thinking about school or planning (that’s about how long the boys nap for on a daily basis) and I am unprepared. Usually, by this time in the summer, I have the whole year mapped out…which has usually turned out to be unnecessary because the schedules change and the work I have been doing gets completely negated. This is not a problem, though. No matter what changes get thrown at us this year, I am confident in the CI methods that I began implementing last year and I will use the outline from last year over again, with some changes, of course.

Even though I am unprepared, I definitely feel ready to get back to work. I got the good news that I will be teaching (mostly) in one room, rather than traveling to other teachers’ rooms. I am very excited to have a home base (especially since as a traveling teacher, I always felt like I was invading their space-some teachers were very good at hiding this feeling, others not so much).

My break from school work over the summer also included a break from social media, specifically Twitter, #langchat, and the blog. Instead, this has been time for my family and for myself. I have been busy, though, reading books (Babel No More by Michael Erard—pick it up, it’s pretty great!), working on my Musicuentos Blackbox Podcast contributions, and spending time at home with my kids (they are 2 and 4 and home for the summer from daycare while I am off and my wife is working).

That being said, I am glad to be coming back. I am so ready to rejoin this vibrant and welcoming group of teachers. There is so much I can learn (and hopefully some things that I can contribute) and it fills me with excitement that I can find a place to connect with other teachers—I am an island of Spanish teaching at my school. I teach all the kids and I am the only one who has any experience teaching languages; in other words, I have no one to bounce ideas off of. I am so thrilled to have that in #langchat. I have written about #langchat before and I highly recommend anyone who reads this blog and hasn’t done so already to stop reading, login to Twitter, and search #langchat. You will not be disappointed; you may be indimidated by the knowledge and abilities of the other teachers, but that’s the thing about langchat—they are all willing to help out anyone who asks.

Where to Begin?

I am ready, and now is the time to prepare. Here are a few things to think about when preparing for a new year in a CI language class:

1.  Units and Lessons

This is the biggie: “What am I going to teach the kids?” A great place to start to find the answer to this question is the ACTFL Can-Do Statements, National Foreign Language Standards, and your own state’s Foreign Language standards. We need to think of our goals for our students on a daily-, lesson-, unit-, and year-long basis; in other words, what do we want them to be able to do at the end of a class, a unit, and/or the whole year?

2.  Grading/Assessment

How will I assess these kids?” Will I use Standards-Based Grading? IPAs? Presentations? Grade everything? Grade nothing? How much of each mode (interpretive, interpersonal, presentational) should I include for the grade?

3.  Classroom Management

What kind of classroom will I run?” We need to be thinking of what kind of classroom environment we want–Loud and raucous? Quiet and restrained? Should students raise their hands or just call out answers? We also need to think about how we want students to behave to best achieve the goals of the class and what kinds of procedures and activities will help to promote those goals, too.

4.  Classroom Decoration

What will my classroom look like?” Will I have flags? Posters? Motivational posters or vocabulary posters?

Unprepared and Totally Ready

There is a lot to do to prepare for a school year and I’m not sure of the answers to all of the questions I have written about above (or to the questions that I haven’t even thought of yet), but the one thing I know for sure is that I am ready for it!