A Recalibration: Finding the Positive Hidden in the Negative

1000 Days

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.

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Expanding Personalization in the Classroom

This year is the year that everything changed for me, teaching-wise. I became a traveling teacher (rather than having my own room), I changed my curriculum, and I really started to feel like I have come into my own as a teacher. I feel an ease with instruction that I haven’t felt before. Additionally, this year has been the year of TPRS: It has completely changed my instructional style and goals for the foreseeable future. There is no going back for me.

I have been using pre-written stories for a while now, but as you can see, sometimes I like to go a bit off-script. I feel that it can make a huge difference in student engagement if I meet them where they are rather than following the textbook blindly. The stories in Look, I Can Talk by Blaine and Von Ray* were a great starting point and I will start with them with my new crop of students that I get next year. They are a great intro to what I will be doing with storytelling in the classroom and they have provided me with a template for how to write my own stories for students. But instead of blindly following the book, which is what I was trying to get away from when I started using TPRS in the first place, I will move on to more personalized stories earlier.

For me, personalization doesn’t just have to mean using specific student likes and names, but rather it can mean that the stories themselves refer to things that exist only in our school or our program. Everything about school is on the table: names of teachers and administrators, the names of people in our community (like the youth minister, Coach D, who the kids all love), and topics that are relevant to what is going on in our school community like our Fall Fest (I will definitely be writing a carnival/fair themed story to coincide with this in October).

Interestingly, I started doing this type of personalization without even realizing throughout the. In this series of stories I used the school as the setting and teachers and admins and the cafeteria chef as the side characters; in the Tim y el café story, I tied the story to what was going on in the school community, specifically Hispanic Heritage Month; to a lesser extent, in the Familia story for Kindergarten, I used students as the adult characters and adults as the child characters; with Madlib Stories I put all the events of the story into the students’ hands; and with the latest story I wrote for class, I used the students’ things (school supplies and backpacks and desks) to personalize the story (the script for that story, which was very successful for me in the last few weeks, will be coming soon!)

Personal Attachment to the Content

Ultimately, everyone feels a little bit more attached to the story when it is about them. If the audience for the story is connected to it in a deep way, we make a deeper connection; they find it more compelling. Research shows that compelling input has a huge amount of value for students who are acquiring language—the motivation level of the student shoots up and they are engrossed in a story that they might not even realize is in a different language.

Additionally, when we acknowledge what is happening in our schools, outside of the classroom, we build rapport. We need to have genuine interest in our students’ lives. Their needs and desires and interests need to be validated by the adults they spend their time with every day. If we can make that connection and if we then take it and put it into our instruction in the form of fun stories that the students find interesting and relevant, we can fill our classes with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to become life-long target language learners and speakers.

Our goal as CI/TPRS teachers is to connect with students using a different language and help them to acquire that language. We want the students to be totally wrapped up in our input because they will be more attentive to it; when they are attentive, they get lots more input because they are engaged and their affective filter is lowered (they don’t feel self-conscious) because they are focused on the fun that they are having.

*I understand that the books that are written with TPRS stories are developed with incremental vocabulary gains in mind and that they are labored over. I don’t want to diminish that work that was done by so many teachers and writers. In my classroom, though, I like to branch out a little bit to what the students are doing, like I did with my first original story, Tim y el café.

What I Learned in 2014

As the New Year begins, I have been reflecting on what to write. I have learned some really valuable (and REALLY obvious) lessons throughout the last year and I’d like to share them with you.

Storytelling Rules!

There’s not really much more that I can say about it. It is awesome! It is fun for me, it is fun for the kids, and it is effective.

This is a time of big transitional changes in my department. As the only Spanish teacher, I have been granted the freedom to try a lot of different approaches to see what works the best. I am blessed with an administration that values experimentation and is encouraging when I find a new approach that might yield better results.

In addition to changing what the curriculum looks like (especially the change from a book-based order of instruction to a high-frequency-vocabulary-based order of instruction), the switch has also entailed a complete change in emphasis on what student progress looks like. I have been using stamp sheets to evaluate oral communication and I have been using timed-writing and free-writing activities to evaluate written communication. Gone are the days of teaching grammar for grammar’s sake. This doesn’t mean that I don’t teach grammar at all, but it’s never taught to be tested, rather I teach some things to help them to express themselves better. I will not test the students on verb endings, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t ever see that endings change for different subjects.

Student Success Starts With The Teacher

A lot of times, it’s easy to blame the kids for doing poorly in class – “So-and-so never turns in work,” “So-and-so sleeps in class every day.” It’s so easy to write off the kids’ misbehaviors and lack of success as problems that we can’t solve, but we can and those that we can’t solve, we can help to solve. It’s on us to decide what student success looks like in our classes and success in a language class doesn’t look like success in another subject. (See the Promoting Success tag below for more posts about this).

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Promoting Student Success, Pt. 4: No One Does Poorly in My Class

The fourth part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

Student progress in a language is a very individual thing. Different kids who have had the same amount of comprehensible input might have significantly different levels of proficiency. This is just a part of language acquisition. As language teachers (and as teachers, in general), we must be willing to explain things differently for different students or to give alternate assessments that will allow students to show their individual proficiency. Kids who have not mastered all of the things we have discussed in class are not going to fail because they are on a different mental time-table than my course pacing.

If you checked my online grade book and saw all my grades for all my classes-kindergarten through eighth grade-you’d see that the grades are almost all As and Bs and maybe some Cs. You might be tempted to think something along the lines of, “well, this guy must not be grading everything;” “this guy’s class must be a joke–all songs and games and no actual rigorous content;” “this guy must just give everyone good grades to avoid painful meetings with angry parents;” or something else along similar lines.

But there is a really good reason that almost all of my students have great grades and it is none of the things listed above. Continue reading

A little help from my friends: How my curriculum has been shaped by many

Let me admit it here and now: I am constantly using other people’s ideas. I love to look at activities that other people have developed and use them or adapt them for my own classroom. There are several reasons why I devour posts about activities. These range from the practical (I just don’t have that many innovative ideas at this point in my career) to the more esoteric (I like seeing how other people approach similar objectives – I am a one-man department, so I have no one to bounce ideas off of), but they always get a little Señor Fernie flair.

For example, late last week, I did a MovieTalk activity from Martina Bex from a Canadian prank show. It worked really well for multiple grades and ages from 4th – 8th grade. It is a funny video and it made for great input opportunities for the students. I highly recommend it for any time you want to try MovieTalk with your students.

This is not the first activity from Señora Bex that I have used and I am sure that it will not be the last. In fact, there are a lot of people in the blogosphere (is that still what I’m supposed to call it?) who have ideas and activities to share: Señora Bex and Señor Peto and Señora Cottrell and Señora Sexton and Señor Howard and Señor Stolz and Michael Linsin and so many more people have shared so many great ideas (see the “blogs I follow” on my blog page).

I didn’t always have this affection for adaptation. Almost everything I have has come from somewhere else (books, blogs, other teachers in my district) and I used to think of this as a bad thing, as something shameful. I thought, “I hope my administrators don’t find out that I’m getting my ideas from other people.

I have written before about how I was thrown into my position with a slap on the back and the advice of “Good Luck, Have Fun” by my previous principal. I had no idea what I was doing. Luckily, there were so many resources available online for me to start to make headway in designing a curriculum from scratch as a brand new elementary and middle school teacher. Google and I became far more acquainted than we ever had before. I adapted FLES curricula from different states, I devoured all the blogs I could find about FLES and Middle School methods, and I became an expert at Pinterest, still one of my favorite tools for finding new ideas.

Again, I was a bit ashamed of all of this. I felt that since I didn’t come up with everything myself, that there was something wrong with me, that I was some kind of charlatan and imposter who had no idea what I was doing. I had just finished a master’s degree in foreign language education, but I had no elementary or middle school experience and no books to use. I was lost…

…But after a little while…

…after some research, some panic attacks, a new baby at home, and blatant theft of other people’s ideas, I started to find my way. I figured out the work-life balance. I figured out how to grade (and, more importantly, what to grade). I figured out how to make things work and how to teach 430 kids once or twice a week.

As the next 3 years passed, I branched out and made the hodge-podge of methods and lessons into a cohesive K-8 curriculum. And things went pretty well.

Then, I went to a TPRS workshop. Now I’m starting all over.

The advantage that I have with starting over now, though, is that I feel no shame in using the ideas published by other teachers. I see no problem with using the activities, lessons, and curricula that others have developed and made available for the public to use.

I know that it’s tough to start out with no experience and with no materials. But, now at least, I know that there are LOTS of people out there who have helpful ideas. Not only do they post their activities, I guarantee (a guess, but it’s what I would want) that they are actively looking for feedback and constructive criticism; they want to know that you have been using their stuff and whether or not it has worked for you. They want you to let them know the adaptations that you’ve made that worked better for you than the originals…They just might use your new idea in their own instruction because in our connected world, collaboration is the name of the game.

If you don’t believe me, search for #langchat on twitter and you’ll see what I mean.

In the end, this post is for those foreign language teachers who feel like they don’t know what they’re doing or who feel lost in the shuffle of school life. This is for the foreign language teachers who feel like their program is just an afterthought to their school’s mission. This is for the foreign language teachers who feel like they are just babysitters who get to watch the kids for an indoor recess period while their “real” teachers get a free period.

Those words describe EXACTLY how I felt in the beginning, but thanks to the ideas of the people I mentioned above, along with the people at TPRS (who publish the Look, I Can Talk text that I currently teach from), I have been able to make my class compelling for the kids. I took a program made up of teaching 5 years of colors and numbers followed by 3 years of present tense regular verb endings and put together a program that creates students who are thinking in terms of proficiency and Can-Do Statements. Instead of (sort of) knowing verb endings, the students leave the school with conversational skills that they can apply outside the classroom (that’s the goal, at least 🙂 ).

The point is, I took lemons and I made lemonade and you can do the same. Some of the teachers didn’t start out with much respect for my program, but they definitely have respect for the students’ abilities to use the language.

We can all achieve this in our classrooms. The key is to borrow unashamedly from those who have been there before you. Take the ideas that you find and make them your own. Once you feel comfortable with your program and your abilities, then you can start your own blog and make your own activities or observations and share them with the rest of us out here in the blogosphere—I promise I’ll be among the first to use your ideas in my classroom.

If it’s not fun, why do it?

This year, I intend to have fun. If there were some research out there that showed that teaching grammar-heavy lessons with little to no use of the Target Language was more effective than CI methods, then I would do the less-fun option.

But that’s not what the research shoes.

The research shows that CI is the way to go for acquisition. To me, that is a free pass to make my class as fun as I possibly can for the kids (and for myself). My requirement is to get the kids communicating in Spanish. I have all of the Standards and Can-do statements and Most-frequently-used-words lists at my disposal and I plan to put them together to make a program that is effective, interesting, and, most of all fun.

Because if it’s not enjoyable or effective classroom practice, why do it?