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.

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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)”

SCOLT 2018: “But I Only Teach Once A Week!”

Creating Memorable Experiences and Lessons in the FLES Classroom

Program Description:

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.

Goals/Outcomes:

Teachers will

  • learn techniques and strategies to create engaging and memorable lessons for students who only have Spanish one or two periods per week.

 

Part 1

You guys already know about me here on the blog 🙂

Me looking cool:

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Me as a Narwhal:

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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?
    • Why??

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:

Part 2

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.

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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?

Stories/madlib stories

Character creation/mascots

One Word Images

Music

MovieTalk

Persona Especial and other Interviews (as themselves and as others-characters, actors, etc)

Student-created/derived word walls

Crafts

School-wide activities/performances

Classroom Setup

 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?

PERSONALIZATION!!!

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.

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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.

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Screen Shot 2018-03-17 at 4.47.02 PMStudent’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.

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(I’ll have a more in-depth look at Interview coming soon!)

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Final Thought

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.

On the way to SCOLT!

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!

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.

#oneword

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.

 

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.

Continue reading “A Recalibration: Finding the Positive Hidden in the Negative”

Graphic Organizers for Stories

Graphic Organizers are big in the education world, for good reason: They help students to visually organize their information. It gives them another way to interpret the information that they are reading/learning in their classes. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to try to use a graphic organizer to help students organize their thoughts for stories. It’s something that other reading teachers do, things like webs and diagrams and maps. I thought I’d try it out. I took a few minutes and broke down the parts of a Blaine Ray-style story and gave them each their own box. I taught the students what personaje principal means and we got to work.

Continue reading “Graphic Organizers for Stories”

Mascots and Silly Characters

Well, the year is in full swing. Homework is assigned, assignments are being completed and collected, grades are going into the gradebook. All is going at breakneck speed from August to June. It’s already our 3rd week (almost the end of it!) and it feels like we just started.

Things have gone really well, especially my classroom mascots. All classes from 4th – 8th have created a mascot (2 grade level). Now, I am waiting on students to finish their artwork. Here are some examples of the mascots (art by students):

Jiggly Puff el Pato Rosado (incomplete, but looking good so far), Pikachu Llama Amarilla (lots of Pokemon suggestions 🙂 ), Furrari el Perro Rojo

Character Interviews

At the beginning of the year, there are always lots of posts about ice-breakers and about how to get the students to share their information with the teacher and the other students. I, for better and for worse, don’t have this issue. It’s better because I already know the students (and they know me, which means they think they know what they can get away with, more on management later). It’s worse because I have to come up with ideas to review introductions and talking about basic personal information (age, name, where you live, how you feel, what you like, etc). Luckily, this is all stuff we have talked about before, so it’s a quick review. Unluckily, the students have been with each other and with me for potentially 7 years! They all know each other!

So what to do?

To get around this problem, I had students practice by answering the basic questions about themselves in their notes and then interviewing each other. This is nothing new for them and they weren’t too engaged because they already know pretty much everything about each other.

But here’s where the hook came in. After their interviews, I had them sit back in their chairs and told them to answer their questions again. Only this time, they would answer as someone else (a famous person, a fictional character, or someone they made up). They wouldn’t share their info with others until the interviews. This gave them a chance to be creative and let their silliness take control. In the 4th and 5th grades, they interviewed each other and then reported back the information they found out to the full class. In 6th and 7th grades, the students interviewed each other, and then they had to create a comic of a story, the basic plot line of which was:

                       __(the character you created)_ needs a friend. He/she goes to all the people you                               interviewed (the other students’ fictional characters) and ask to be friends.

For the 8th grade, they had to be the person they created and answer a survey on the topic we have been discussing since the beginning of the year (the Olympics and Sports in general). Then, they interviewed each other in character about sports using some question prompts I came up with. They liked that they could make up the information they wanted (my favorite was a student saying, in a serious tone, “Señor, is Bob the Builder more of a baseball guy or a football guy?”) and they liked the unrestrained feel of the class because they could pick their partners and enjoy completing the activity with their friends.

If you have students that you already know and/or that already know each other, I highly recommend allowing them to let their creativity loose (with some constraints, of course: no politicians, no teachers or other students, etc) and play with their own ideas.

…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.
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#TL100
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?
Homework.
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.
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