Start a Language Teaching Blog. Seriously, Do it!

Another Year Gone By…

Today is my 2nd Blogiversary. It’s hard to believe that it has been two years since I began sharing my reflections on teaching with the language teaching world and it’s even harder to believe that anybody has been paying attention to them!

Thanks to everyone out there who has read and commented!

Writing this blog has had a lot of benefits for me as a teacher. I recommend everyone start your own blog about your classroom! Lots of different teachers have lots of different blogs. Mine is a more confessional/look-at-what-my-students-just-did/Here’s-how-I-dealt-with-a-tough-situation blog. It started out as something for me to refer back to and has grown into something that matters (hopefully…a little bit…) to other teachers. Other teachers create activities and tasks to share with the world; others talk about the science of language acquisition; others talk about a specific method (like TPRS or OWL); some are written by teachers just starting out and trying something new; some are written by experienced teachers who want to pass what they have learned to another generation of teachers. Whatever category you fall into (or even if what you write about is in a whole new category that no one has ever thought of), writing a language teaching blog is wonderful.

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…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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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!

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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Storytelling in Practice #3: I’ve finished the story. Now what?

This is the third part of a 3 part answer to a question that was sent to me by an elementary school teacher about using storytelling in the early elementary grades. Part 1 was about pre-story activities: How do I get students ready for a new story? What kinds of activities do we do to make all of the input from the story comprehensible? Part 2 was about activities that I do with the students during stories: What do I do to check comprehension during the story? 

As I stated in the last post, I do not claim ownership of any of these ideas. These are all things that I have found in books and other blogs that have worked well for me in my classes. If you are reading this and one of these ideas is yours, thank you so much for sharing it because it worked super-well for me!

I have to start this post with a disclaimer: For all of the talk about using the TL 90%, you’ll notice that several of my post-story activities in early elementary don’t use the TL. Some of them make use of the 10% English allowance in class (and others make use of even more!) and the others don’t require any speaking at all. 

As important as #TL90plus is for acquisition in the classroom, I have found that letting students in early elementary use English for discussion/debriefing is a successful strategy for linking what they hear in the TL to their memory. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about using English in class to get quick results, like I’m shortchanging the students. But when I do these English activities, I see that they are acquiring so much. It builds their confidence, too. They are able to see, “Hey, I know what he said in that story, and not only that, I can tell it myself!”

Is it ideal? Not really. Does it work in 30 minute per week classes? Yes.

There are many things that I do expect them to be able to do in Spanish outside of the stories and most of them come from songs and songs and chants (Buenos días/buenas tardes; me llamo ___; cómo estás? Estoy ___; necesito un lápiz, papel, un crayón; numbers; colors; sí; no; and other basic words and short phrases) and they are really good at remembering.

Spoken Post-Story Activities 

These activities are usually quick and informal. I don’t really hold early elementary students accountable for their ability to speak at length about the things they acquire through stories. I focus on one or two targets in my summative assessments, but on a day-to-day and story-to-story basis, the spoken activities we do after stories are over are formative assessments and really just practice and confidence-building activities

  • Ask students to summarize in English– after finishing a story, the kids are energized because there have been students up and acting, there have been lots of questions about what is going on in the story that ALL the students are expected to answer together, and there have been lots of instances of me being silly to keep their attention. They are wired after we finish. The simplest thing I do at this point is I make my hands into a T for a timeout from the TL. I simply ask, “Raise your hand if can tell me the story I just told you in your own words.” Usually most will raise their hands because they understand a lot of what is happening. Then, I’ll simply call on one of them to start telling me the story. After about 1-2 sentences, I will stop that student and ask another to continue. This really gauges how well they understand on an individual level and it allows students who didn’t understand part of the story to hear what happened from another student, that is, in different words from my own.
  • Ask students story-comprehension questions in English – I have done this by itself and it has been successful, but I have found that it is really successful if I do it while students are summarizing the story for me. If they skip a detail that I wanted them to understand, I ask about it while they are summarizing (for example, “And how did he feel about that?” or “Did he take the fries or did the other character give him the fries?”)
  • Ask students story comprehension questions in Spanish – I realize that I spoke about using English for quicker assessment, but using Spanish for the questions and answers is also important. When I do this, I also incorporate PQA. I try to frame the questions in such a way that I will be able to ask them personal questions using the same forms from the story. For example, ¿A Juana le gustaban las papas fritas? Sí/no. ¿Y a ti te gustan la papas fritas? Sí/no. ¡Clase a Tommy le gustan las papas fritas! Clase, a Tommy le gustan las manzanas o las papas fritas? ¿A Carla le gustan las papas fritas? Etc….

Post-Story Reading and Interpretive Activities

Reading in any language can be tricky in early elementary, especially kindergarten and early first grade because not all the kids are very good at reading English yet. In these early grades, I find that reading together with them is the way to go. Some of our classrooms have document cameras and if you don’t have them, I recommend requesting one because they are great!

My reading activities for early elementary are basically the story that I told in class. Maybe a name or the places are changed, but overall, they are exactly the same. This is key because at this early stage in story-telling and reading ability, they need to have a 100% comprehensible story so that they can tie the words to their meaning.

I made a template for drawing comics (just a 3×2 table on a Word document.) For the early elementary grades, I break up the story into 6 parts and simplify it considerably, then I put those parts into the boxes. Here is an example of what I mean using the Roberto Quiere Papas Fritas story (see the stories tab at the top for the full story and translation)

Capture

This is where the document camera comes in. I show one box at a time and using a pencil, pen, or ruler, I read the words with the kids on the screen. One by one, I read aloud while they read along. Then, in the space above, they need to draw a picture of what is happening. Usually for the first 2-3 boxes, I will draw with them. After I know that they understand what to do, I let them draw on their own for the remaining boxes. But I always come back and read the next box with them, pointing out the individual words as I go. My favorite post-story activity is to have students draw what they heard. They will (almost) all tell you that Señor F may as well be Señor Draw-a-Comic-of-the-Story. It is something that I do a lot, but it is so effective in telling me just how much the kids understand of the story.

I hope that this series of posts has helped all you storytellers out there. I am still learning myself, but these are things that have been successful, fun, and engaging for students.

I’d like to thank the person who emailed me last week and inspired this post. I’d also like to thank all the teachers who write about what works in their classrooms. I get most of my ideas from these places and adapt them to fit my needs. I highly encourage everyone to cast a wide net over the world of language-teacher blogs and see what you find; there is so much out there that you can use! Check out the links in my blogroll and the blogs I follow on wordpress. There are so many great teachers who have so much to offer. And don’t forget to #langchat with us on Thursday nights 8PM et on Twitter. Just search for #langchat on Twitter and join the discussion!

Storytelling in Practice #2: The next step is to just tell the story, right? Wrong.

TPRS/Story asking in early elementary

This is the second part of a 3 part answer to a question that was sent to me by an elementary school teacher about using storytelling in the early elementary grades. Part 1 was about pre-story activities: How do I get students ready for a new story? What kinds of activities do we do to make all of the input from the story comprehensible?

As I stated in the last post, I do not claim ownership of any of these ideas. These are all things that I have found in books and other blogs that have worked well for me in my classes. If you are reading this and one of these ideas is yours, thank you so much for sharing it because it worked super-well for me!

Part 2 of the Storytelling in Practice series is about the kinds of activities that I have found successful while telling stories. I use several different types of activities during stories to assess how much the students understand and to get them to speak in the TL about the details of the story. I definitely don’t just tell the story. Most of the things that I do are standard TPRS storytelling methods, but there is so much more!

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Storytelling in Practice #1: What do you do before you start a story in early elementary?

TPRS/Story asking in early elementary

I got an email recently from a teacher who was using one of my stories (Roberto no tiene papas fritas). The teacher pointed out that this post has a breakdown of how I tell the story over several days, which is helpful for a teacher who is new to TPRS, but it doesn’t have something that is arguably more important: what do you do before, during, and after the storytelling?

After reading this, I looked back at my posts and realized that over the time I’ve been sharing my observations and reflections about language teaching on this blog, I have posted several story scripts, but I haven’t posted any ideas on how to present them or how I assess the students’ understanding of them (other than story re-writes or comic-drawing activities, which are more of an “older-kid” thing and not super helpful to other early elementary teachers).

There are lots and lots and lots of different ideas and strategies for pre- and post-teaching. I could list them all here, but I don’t think wordpress has servers big enough to hold so much content. So, seeing as there is so much that can be used, I have decided to narrow down the strategies to what I have found successful in the classroom.

The last thing to say before we get started is that I do not claim ownership of any of these ideas. These are all things that I have found in books and other blogs that have worked well for me in my classes. If you are reading this and one of these ideas is yours, thank you so much for sharing it because it worked super-well for me!
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One Year Down…

Today marks 1 full year that I have been writing about teaching Spanish to K-8th graders. It has been great, filled with ups and downs, challenges and solutions.

Looking back on the past year, it has been a whirlwind of new ideas and new connections. Reflecting on all the things that I have learned and all the things that I have shared, I see that I am truly lucky to be in the position that I am in.

It has been hard, at times, to put myself out there, to make my activities and stories and failures and successes public. But sharing my reflections has forced me to think positively about failures and frustrations. It has forced me to look back at what was good about the day/lesson/activity rather than focus on what sucked. Framing failures and frustrations in a positive way has been the thing that has saved my career in teaching and without this blog and the support from the readers, I wouldn’t have had the outlet for doing it.

So, thanks to all you who follow this blog. Thanks to all the people who have reached out to me to make connections either through comments, emails, or twitter conversations. Thanks to all the people who have critiqued my stories and have made suggestions to improve them.

Finally, thanks to all of you who have inspired me to share my reflections and become a better teacher. Just looking at the list of blogs on my front page gives me strength to keep going and gives me daily inspiration. Knowing that I am not the only teacher who has bad days or lessons that don’t work is comforting. I’m not I. This alone. And knowing that my own struggles and successes might help someone the way that yours have helped me is what keeps me going.

Thank you for a great year.

Practical and Common-Sense Tips for Personalizing Stories

Personalization

Personalization is one of the most important things we can do to make our input compelling. As a new CI teacher, I found that I was focusing too much on making input comprehensible and forgetting to make it compelling. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have gotten to the point where I need to do some things a little bit differently in order to keep the kids attention. I have tried to stay positive (when the kids say, “We’re hearing another story about someone who wants something…aw,” I used to get frustrated, but now, I say to myself, “They know enough of the language to be bored by it!” It’s all about being positive!)

I know now that I can make lots of not-very-interesting stories comprehensible. So it’s time to take the plunge into making the stories more varied and interesting for the students. They crave something different. I think that’s why TPRS was so successful at the beginning of the year: it was new and fresh and different. But like having pizza and French fries for dinner every night, something that seems awesome can get old after a while.

That’s what this post is about—how I have taken stories to the next level by involving the students to a greater degree. Personalizing the stories keeps the kids involved and interested. These are some of the things that I have learned in the 7 months that I have been using TPRS with Kindergarten through 8th grade:

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Variety = Success

“Kids can be so mean. It’s like they don’t even know that their words carry emotional weight. They say something and it just totally cuts you down…”

That is how I used to think. And sometimes it is still true about the emotional toll that the words of children take, but I’ve learned to not take it personally. I have realized, after a great long while, that their words and reactions probably have nothing to do with me or my class. Sometimes, people are just in bad moods. I think about how many times I have been curt or short with them because I was having a bad day and it reminds me that they are just kids and they lack the self-awareness that (most) adults have.

Boredom in Class

The reason that I bring all of this up is that I had a bad day on Monday. My first period (on a Monday) class didn’t want to do the work that I had planned. I had planned to do an embedded reading from the “Look, I Can Talk” text that I have been using. The kids did the reading ok, but then, when it came time to write, they hemmed and hawed and complained…and whined and protested and told me how sick of writing they are and how they don’t like writing about the stories.

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