Stamps and Homework

Two days a week. That’s all the students get of Spanish. Two measly days. That is all the time the kids get to have CI, to practice their speaking, writing, and reading (with teacher supervision), to interact with their peers in the TL. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire time teaching. How much will the students care? How much should I care? Should I just be a babysitter, should I be the most serious and rigorous teacher I possibly can? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself over the last 8 years.

Some years, I swing into ambivalence: “Why bother doing anything rigorous? This should just be an experience for the kids to hear some Spanish and leave.” Other years, like this one, I am feeling like I have a grand opportunity, that even though the kids only have a 90 minutes (or less) a week of Spanish, they have the potential to move forward on their proficiency paths.

There are two ideas that I’ve played with before that I’ve given much more serious thought to and that I’m very excited about: Stamps and Homework.

Continue reading “Stamps and Homework”


On My Own, But Not Alone

One and a half weeks down

The year has started and is in full swing. I am teaching all the kiddos again, K-8, and I have a homeroom this year, too. Seventh graders. They are goofy, loud, smart, boisterous, outgoing, friendly, and all the other things that 12-13 year olds can be (also moody, emotional, confused, annoyed…). They keep me busy; they need guidance; they are awesome.

The homeroom kids are a particularly special group: They were in Kindergarten when I started. They (most of them) have been at our school for as long as I have. I am excited to have them as “my kids” this year. I have watched them grow up. I have built relationships with them and their parents and I have been there with them to celebrate their highest moments in school and guide them through some of their lowest.

Department of One

Being the only foreign language teacher (#deptof1) can have its setbacks and problems. It is difficult to not have a partner teacher to bounce ideas off of or to commiserate with. I am on my own. Sometimes it can feel lonely. Since I am the only one teaching my content in my whole school, it is sometimes hard to share successes and defeats that happen through the year. Luckily, I have developed friendships with all the people I work with and I have found a community of teachers through Twitter, conferences, and blogs. They help me feel like I’m not so alone in my teaching.

The other thing I have that helps me to not feel alone is the kids. As the only language teacher, I see the same kids year in and year out. They grow up with me. For most of them, I’m the only Spanish teacher they’ve ever had. This is a situation that no other teacher in my school has. I see it as a blessing. It is a gift that many teachers won’t have in their careers.

When I started, I was overwhelmed–too many students, too much grading, too many preps (9!).

classroom(My first classroom at my school – 2010-11 School Year)

But as the years have passed, the rapport I have built with my students has gotten deeper and more meaningful for me and (hopefully) for them. There are no more icebreaker activities-we all know each other. There are no more placement tests, I know where they all are and what they’ve all been taught. I am able to develop a relationship with them unlike the one they will have with any other teacher.

I am the only teacher who has taught them every year for their entire time at our school and that can be problematic in some ways: Conflicts that arise can are not easily solved when the student leaves my room at the end of they year, they have to be solved right then and there; The students only have one teacher’s perspective and voice (both metaphorically: I have to make sure that I am checking my biases and personal beliefs at the door; and practically: I have to go out of my way to find other voices for them to hear in the TL so that they can experience the language of someone who isn’t me). But ultimately, I wouldn’t change it.


There are lots of posts about #oneword. My word this year is Appreciation. Having a homeroom this year has changed my perspective a bit. I spent a lot of the past 2 years feeling like unappreciated, like my room was a place for the “real teachers” to drop off their students so they could make copies or plan their activities. In reality, my room is an opportunity, no matter what the teachers who drop off their students there think (not that any of them think that I’m just a babysitter–that’s more of a personal fear than anything else). In reality, while I was busy feeling unappreciated, I was the one who was not appreciating the situation I am in. My classroom isn’t just a holding cell for while the students’ “real teachers” have a planning time, it’s a place where the kids build proficiency in another language and build camaraderie between each other. It’s a different kind of class with different kinds of interactions. The students are encouraged to speak their minds and explore their abilities to connect with others in another language.

Just as in Spanish class, in homeroom (a total of an hour spread throughout the day), the students need to feel safe to speak their minds and bring up their problems and successes. In previous years, I would have been mad about being assigned a homeroom. I would have complained about all the extra work and supervision that I was taking on. But this year, I am looking forward to it. It’s been a great first week and I feel like I know what I’m doing (famous last words, right? Hopefully I’m not jinxing myself).

As a homeroom teacher, I am like their parent at school. Just like being a parent at home, it’s my job to encourage them, to guide them, to help keep them on the right track. I hold them accountable for their behavior and praise them for their successes.

I am more excited for this year than I have been for a long time. I am looking forward to a year of laughs and tears and struggles and successes.


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”

Slow and Steady

Embedded Reading Win              

Every so often, it seems like my students aren’t getting anywhere. I know, academically, that is, that acquisition is a slow process and it’s even slower for my students because I only have 90 minutes per week with them. It can get frustrating to feel like there is no day-to-day progress. But every once in a while, a kid has a light bulb go off in his or her head. It happened last year with the girl who was completing her activity (in almost perfect Spanish) and told me, “I like that we don’t learn anything.” And now, it has happened this year. Every time something like this happens, it reaffirms why I do what I do.

Let me start at the beginning. 4 class periods ago (which, because of my schedule with the kids means almost 3 weeks ago), I handed out the first embedded reading assignment for a story called, “Necesito Cafeína, which I found on another TPRS teacher blog (but I can’t seem to find the link, if you know where it is or what I’m talking about, please let me know in the comments!). The students read and they did pretty well. It was their first reading assignment in Spanish coming back after the summer, so there were some cobwebs, but understood more than I was expecting (thanks, TPRS!). They understood almost everything really well and could answer the Circling questions that I asked about the reading and they did really well with acting out the story and with volleyball reading.

After that, we did some more story-asking, conversation activities, and PQA for 2 class days. Today, we read again. We read the second, more in-depth version of the story from the first week of school. I handed it out and there were complaints (8th graders during first period…what’re ya gonna do?), but they all got to work.

One student, who has been in Spanish class with me he was in the third grade, said this to me:

“I get it! It’s weird, I understand it even though I don’t speak Spanish. I read it one time and I know what it says.”

I told him, “I guess you’re wrong, it looks like you know a lot more Spanish than you thought you did.”

“I guess so. Thanks, Señor.”

He was truly amazed that he could decode and understand all the words on the page and understand the message of the story the first time through. I hope that this post doesn’t come off as bragging or self-congratulatory, but I’m so proud when moments like this happen. That kid gets it. I have a whole year to get the other 23 kids in the class to the same place.

Building Every Student’s Confidence and Fluency

I have my work cut out for me, but the one thing that I know for sure is that as hard as it can be, it will still be really fun and they will be learning, regardless of how it looks on a day-to-day basis. TPRS can go really slowly and it can seem like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, especially for those who (like me) only get to teach each group of students a few times a week. It can seem like a Sisyphean task, but don’t lose hope because, eventually (and unlike Sisyphus) you will get the rock up the hill and you will get the kids ahead in their language comprehension and use.

They will get it. One day, it will click in their heads and they will understand what all the silliness and stories have really been about: getting them to understand the TL without even realizing it.

Getting students comfortable with #tl90plus


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

Teach them German the First Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to School…

First Days of School

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

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

Management and Procedures and #TL90plus

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

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

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

More on that as the year goes on.

The Youngest Grades

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

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

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

Older Grades

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

Excitement for the year

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