Loosening the “Teacher Grip”

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?

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Seeing With New Eyes

As a language teacher who sees the students in class every day, I find that it is so easy to take for granted the everyday language that students know and are able to use. My students are able to say a lot of things about themselves, they are able to ask this information about others, and they are able to understand a lot of topics that they aren’t ready to talk about yet. And on a regular day, I would say to myself, “well of course they do, but they can’t do XYZ.” I tend to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can. This is a theme that I find myself coming back to again and again in my reflections on teaching:

Sometimes, it takes a different perspective to see just how significant the students’ progress really is.

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Encouraging Student Interactions in Class

Since I attended the SCOLT conference, I have begun to implement a lot of new ideas into my daily teaching. Some of these things are a bit outside the TPRS mainstream, but I think that even if it isn’t “TPRS approved,” there can still be value. Specifically, I am talking about “forcing” student output.

I am on a journey with my students and I am learning as much as they are as we go through the year. Just like most of my students with their Spanish proficiency, my TPRS proficiency began at novice low. Just like my students, I have made major gains in my proficiency, but I felt I was reaching a plateau. I have felt stuck, not knowing how to get the students to the level above just acquisition. How do I get them to synthesize that newly acquired knowledge and use it in original interpersonal interactions?

Most of what I have read and researched about TPRS is about students at the beginning of their language journey-they shouldn’t need to produce at the very beginning, but what about the students who have had a lot of input and are eager to start speaking? As I move along my own Spanish teaching proficiency scale, I am finding that I have to do the same kinds of things that the students have to do to progress: take chances (they use dictionaries and other tools to move beyond what we are doing in class; I use ideas from all over the language teaching spectrum to make sure that they get CI and also the opportunity to express themselves), make mistakes (everyone in here experiments and gets things wrong, but that doesn’t stop us from trying again), and get messy (linguistically 😉 ).

01-frizzle (Thanks for the advice Ms. Frizzle!)

source

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Automaticity and Transparency

TPRS is awesome. It is powerful and it empowers students.

It has also redirected my idea of what students should be able to do after learning language in class. Before TPRS, I didn’t know that language that students learned in class could be internalized. I didn’t know it could become automatic for students. My own language learning experiences were nothing like that. I always had to think about each individual word as I heard it. I had to translate it and hope that I could think fast enough to respond before it was too late and the conversation had shifted to another topic. It wasn’t until I worked as a TA in the Spanish department during graduate school with 20 or so other students (all but two of whom were native Spanish speakers from all over the world) that Spanish became automatic for me like it does for my students.

I am floored on an almost daily basis by what the students are able to do. I used to teach grammar and chase down students for homework assignments and, as most teachers I have talked to do, wonder why grades were still so low for most students. Why did they have so much trouble internalizing and memorizing everything I was asking them to (vocabulary; grammar-verb endings in multiple tenses, gender and number agreement, the fact that there are 4 different ways to say “the”; listening comprehension skills; reading comprehension skills; writing accuracy; etc)?

Then I started with TPRS…

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Promoting Student Success, Pt. 6: Back-up Plans

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

It has been a while since I have returned to this series of ways to avoid failure and promote success. Overall, I think I have been doing a pretty good job of helping the kids to be successful. I have tried my best to meet them where they are, to assess them for what they can do rather than what they can’t, and to manage myself so that I can manage them (more on this last point later on).

Level Appropriate Activities

The latest issue for helping kids to be successful: Knowing what they can and can’t do. I have a tendency to overestimate what kids can do. I assume that the kids can do the same things even when they are at different grade levels. But that is not a realistic expectation. And it isn’t a problem with the students themselves or with the content that I try to teach; it’s a problem with me knowing what is developmentally appropriate. If the kids get content that is too advanced for them (for example, younger students getting stories that have lots of independent-subordinate clause structures in sentence), they have trouble following along. An 8th grader who has had more experience as a reader (in their native language) is going to be better at figuring out what is going on in a complex sentence than a 4th grader.

The disconnect that exists between what older kids can do and what younger kids can do, I have recently figured out, is wide not because I am a bad teacher. It’s wide because the younger kids are simply not ready. They haven’t had enough practice with the types of texts that I am presenting to them. This causes trouble because when they get overwhelmed, they shut down; when they shut down they get bored; and when they get bored, they will let you know it by acting up and being “bad.”

So enough with the description of the problem: How can it be addressed? The answer, interestingly, is easy…and, for the same reason, it’s difficult:

The Answer, Pt. 1: Easy

Have a bunch of backup activities/lessons ready to go.

It’s easy because it is a common-sense answer to the problem. If the kids are not successful with an activity or lesson, I can’t just give up and have them read quietly (or maybe I can, see below) or talk with their friends in a free period. That would be a big waste of time. Instead, the kids should have something to do that uses their language skills.

As soon as you see “the blank look”—you know the one: a mix of being bored and perplexed at the same time—have something ready to go.

The Answer, Pt. 2: Difficult (or rather, time intensive)

This is the potentially difficult thing: having lots of stuff ready to go. Some activities take a lot of preparation and getting them ready can involve a lot of extra work outside of the work you’re already doing with lesson planning and finding/creating materials.

But, as I have found through trial and error this year, it doesn’t have to be difficult. Remember, the whole point of what we do with CI instruction is to keep the class going in the target language. This can be through simple PQA (personalized question and answer), games (Simon Says, telephone, other word games), or, if your school has the resources to help you build it up, TL reading time from your FVR (free voluntary reading) library.

Personally, I trend towards lazy, so anything that doesn’t take a lot of extra effort outside the classroom is what I almost always try to use. I will play a simple game of Simon Says before I go and create a whole separate lesson plan for class periods that might go wrong. That’s just me, though. I like to be spontaneous.

Now, you might be thinking, “Wait, you’re rewarding that ‘bad’ and ‘disrespectful’ behavior you talked about earlier with games? Don’t you lose in that scenario? The kids get what they want, which is to do something that is not rigorous and doesn’t give them instruction. Aren’t you just letting them win?” And you might have a point, but I will answer with another question:

If the game or conversation is in the TL, Spanish for me, and the kids are participating and using the language, do I really lose? Yes, the kids win because they get to do something that they enjoy that isn’t “instruction.” On top of that, I win because I keep the class going in the TL.

The class’ ‘disrespectful’ behavior is not acceptable, but it is understandable. They are lost. When they are lost, as I said before, they get antsy and don’t buy into the lesson. In these situations, I could lecture them or harangue them about what it means to be respectful. I could use my force of will to make them try to complete the activity that I had planned.

Or…

I could take my cues from them, realize that they are lost and keep the rapport good by doing something that I know they can do in the TL. I could continue providing input, even if it’s not the exact thing that I was planning.

Why can’t everyone win?

The main purpose of my instruction is to give the kids input in the TL and it doesn’t always matter if they’re getting it from a story or reading that I meticulously crafted or from something “insignificant” like a game or PQA session. Granted, the things that take time are my first go-to for activities when I am planning before classes because of the amount of thought that went into them. I have crafted them to focus on certain things that I want the kids to be able to do. (I don’t want it to sound like all I do is play games, but if something falls flat, I don’t abandon it forever, I take it back to the drawing board and rework it.) Before I can do that, I can’t just give up on the current lesson. I have to keep them getting CI. And having back up plans is the way to do it.

So What Can You Do?

Lots of activities can be used when your lessons don’t work.

Activities that Require Little to no Teacher Preparation

  • Simon Says
  • Sparkle (a spelling game that I learned from the ELA teacher at our school in which the students spell words one letter at a time–each student says one letter of the word, then when the word is spelled, the last student says, “Sparkle” and the following student is out)
  • Telephone
  • Broken Telephone (like telephone, but instead of repeating the word they hear, each student says a word related to the word they hear)
  • Comecocos (fortune-tellers–the students can make them and fill them with any TL information related to what you have been talking about)
  • Word Races (write target words up on the board in no particular order, then teacher calls out one of the words and students race 2 at a time to find words first)
  • Word Sneak (better for older students, this game comes from Jimmy Fallon’s late night talk show: students are given 3 random words each. Then, they have a conversation and each one has to use the three words as casually as possible; each student has to guess what the three random words are-for an example, watch this.

Do you have other suggestions? Tell us about them in the comments!

This Year’s Main Lesson: Every Kid Has the Potential

Update

And we’re back! I have had a great spring break-went on vacation to DC and ate some of the best food I’ve ever eaten and then I got home to FL and went immediately to the NCEA conference in Orlando with my whole faculty team and learned about all kinds of new things to use in class. Unfortunately, not many of the sessions were specifically for teaching Spanish, but I was still able to get a lot out of the general education sessions (brain-based learning/memory strategies, talking about “Hot Topics” with kids if/when they come up, etc).

Spring Break = Time For Reflection

School starts back up on Monday, 4/13 and then it’s a mad dash to the finish line on June 3 (last day for the kids). This time away from the classroom has been a great way to recharge my batteries and it has given me some time to sit back and reflect on the things that the kids have achieved this year. Over the last few years, I taught using more traditional methods-conjugation tables, straight-forward grammar instruction, rule memorization, etc-and I found it boring and difficult for me and the for the students. They didn’t know any better, but I knew that it wasn’t working. The best of them, the ones who are the most motivated to study every night, could do a pretty good job of memorizing everything I taught them and could regurgitate it on a test, but they couldn’t communicate and they couldn’t understand.

This year has been completely the opposite. I’m 99% sure if I gave the students a grammar test after these last 8 months, they wouldn’t do so well. But when I give them a writing assignment in Spanish, I can get 10-20 good sentences in Spanish from kids as young as 4th grade! I couldn’t get last year’s 8th graders to do anything near that.

Of course, I must note that this is not the previous year’s 8th grader’s fault. It’s my fault. I was not getting their best from them because I was not teaching them the best way. They all had the ability. This year’s improvements are testament to that.

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Promoting Student Success, Pt. 5: Reestablishing Expectations After Winter Break

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

As a teacher who only sees each class once or twice a week, I try to make my expectations simple and easy to remember. I have a whole speech about why students should be quiet, how their brains are wired to try to understand messages, and about being respectful, but it usually does a better job of putting students to sleep than opening their minds to the benefits of respectful participation.

As the New Year begins, I am reminding the students of the expectations I have of them and I am also reminding them of what they can expect of me.

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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

Promoting Student Success, Pt. 3: Dealing With the Bad Days

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

The Bad Days
I wish I could say otherwise, but it’s not always awesome in Señor Fernie’s classroom. Sometimes, it really stinks. When behavior is out of control, when students aren’t responding well to the story, when I’m not on my game (usually, these things happen all at the same time, each one affecting the others), frustration grows.

I had a day like that last week and it still haunts me. I yelled at my class. I harangued them about being quiet. I totally lost my temper. It was not my finest moment. The worst part is that I haven’t seen this group again since that day. They are coming back for class today and I don’t really know what to expect.

That’s the problem with losing it in front of the kids: there is a vacuum that can be filled with a lot of bad vibes.

The Schedule
I teach each middle school class two times a week, usually back to back days (Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday). That means that I have two consecutive days to make a point or to teach a lesson and then 5 consecutive days of not seeing the kids. It has been challenging, for sure, but I have gotten to be pretty good at anticipating the types of problems that sometimes arise from this schedule and nipping them before they start…but sometimes I’m not so good.

And the two day a week schedule multiplies those bad days. If the bad day is a Friday, I won’t see the class again until the following Thursday, leaving 5 days of hurt feelings and thoughts of, “Señor must really hate me.” This breaks my heart. I don’t hate any of the kids. There are around 450 of them that I teach and I dislike exactly 0 of them.

The Problem with Losing It
The feeling of dislike, of discontent, of fear towards their teacher, is like an infection. Without any any antibiotics, the infection grows and grows and eventually becomes life-threatening, transforming a small injury into a mortal wound. And that’s what happens to the relationship between myself and the students when the kids think I don’t like them.

Their feelings fester and they dwell and they end up acting out even more in class. They talk among themselves at lunch and say things like, “you think Señor hates you, he hates me even more!” They’re kids, they don’t always know how to deal with their hurt feelings in constructive ways. Some shut down completely and refuse to participate.

And if that’s not setting them up for failure, I don’t know what is.

The Upshot
This has been quite a bummer, but there is a silver lining: apologies go a long way. I always apologize when something like this happens. I think that it builds good will and models the types of behaviors that we should expect from students. This is probably the most important part of restoring confidence between the teacher and students.

It can be humiliating to admit to making such a huge mistake and it’s humbling to do it for children who have lost some respect and admiration for you. It goes miles in rebuilding the rapport you have with them. They learn a lesson about taking ownership of their behaviors, good or bad, and they get to take a peek behind the curtain, as it were, and see that we teachers are human beings who make mistakes and have bad days.