A Recalibration: Finding the Positive Hidden in the Negative

1000 Days

1000 days ago (1001, to be exact) I wrote a post about having fun in the classroom. I wrote another one (about 870 days ago) about variety and avoiding boredom in the classroom. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of these things. I got bored and I started being the kind of teacher I always told myself I’d never be: unadaptable, stuck in my ways, unwilling and unable to see that what I was doing wasn’t working, and refusing to try something new. I committed 2 of the biggest teacher sins: losing sight of why I’m even teaching and blaming the students for not being successful.

It’s hard to say that out loud.

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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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Falling Flat on Your Face

A lot of bloggers who write about using TPRS or any other CI method talk a lot about how great it is and how engaged the students are and how much more the students are able to do with the language with these methods. They make it sound easy and wonderful and like anyone can do it and there is no challenge to it; once you decide to do it, your teaching life will be perfect. And in a way, all of that is completely true. It is easier for me now than it was when I taught grammar and used only the textbook; it is definitely more fun; and my teaching life has definitely improved.

CI methods have made a huge impact on the learning of my students in the last year and a half. But the one thing that I don’t see very much in other teachers’ blog posts is what they do when they fail spectacularly. We all do it, it’s the nature of being a human being trying to teach 25-35 other little human beings. Sometimes, the things we do will fall completely flat.

Let’s face it: As positive as we are in the world of language teacher blogging, sometimes, a lesson just doesn’t work.

I had this very experience yesterday when my 8th grade lesson fell completely flat. But one of the best things about teaching is that I was able to come back in today and approach it from a new angle. It went far better today.

The Grump Factor

When a class comes in grim and grumpy, my gut instinct is to reflect that grumpy energy and get mad at them for not paying attention or for calling out. I have learned through experience that even though it’s my first gut reaction, it is the single worst reaction to have. It does nothing but get them grumpier, which makes me grumpier, and we end up getting into a sort of grump-spiral and the class devolves from there and everyone leaves with bad feelings. It has happened more days than I care to admit and those are the days that I want to quit. I don’t know if other teachers have those days, but I’m not afraid to say that I do.

I’m not afraid to admit it because after enough of them, I started thinking about my reactions rather than the students’ behavior. “Could I be enhancing the bad feelings and making my day worse for myself? Is it really more my fault than theirs? Am I to blame for adding to the bad attitude in the room?” I’d ask myself. And the answer is, “YES!” They are children, I am the adult, and is it my responsibility to not lose my cool when kids act like grumpy kids. Of course, this realization made me feel terrible because it’s always hard to figure out that something you were blaming on someone else is really your fault. But after reflecting on it and thinking what I could do, I came up with some ideas for what to do when I start to fall on my face and I’d like to share them with you now:

What to remember when lessons fall flat… Continue reading

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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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.

Being Completely Unprepared–and Totally Ready–for the New School Year

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Readiness and preparedness are usually thought of as synonyms. They both mean that a person has the things necessary to complete a task or perform an action. And they are definitely synonymous in some aspects, but there is a definite difference: I am Unprepared for the year, meaning that I haven’t done much to prepare my order of instruction or lessons, but I am Ready, mentally and emotionally, to be back in a classroom.

I haven’t spent more than 2 hours at a time thinking about school or planning (that’s about how long the boys nap for on a daily basis) and I am unprepared. Usually, by this time in the summer, I have the whole year mapped out…which has usually turned out to be unnecessary because the schedules change and the work I have been doing gets completely negated. This is not a problem, though. No matter what changes get thrown at us this year, I am confident in the CI methods that I began implementing last year and I will use the outline from last year over again, with some changes, of course.

Even though I am unprepared, I definitely feel ready to get back to work. I got the good news that I will be teaching (mostly) in one room, rather than traveling to other teachers’ rooms. I am very excited to have a home base (especially since as a traveling teacher, I always felt like I was invading their space-some teachers were very good at hiding this feeling, others not so much).

My break from school work over the summer also included a break from social media, specifically Twitter, #langchat, and the blog. Instead, this has been time for my family and for myself. I have been busy, though, reading books (Babel No More by Michael Erard—pick it up, it’s pretty great!), working on my Musicuentos Blackbox Podcast contributions, and spending time at home with my kids (they are 2 and 4 and home for the summer from daycare while I am off and my wife is working).

That being said, I am glad to be coming back. I am so ready to rejoin this vibrant and welcoming group of teachers. There is so much I can learn (and hopefully some things that I can contribute) and it fills me with excitement that I can find a place to connect with other teachers—I am an island of Spanish teaching at my school. I teach all the kids and I am the only one who has any experience teaching languages; in other words, I have no one to bounce ideas off of. I am so thrilled to have that in #langchat. I have written about #langchat before and I highly recommend anyone who reads this blog and hasn’t done so already to stop reading, login to Twitter, and search #langchat. You will not be disappointed; you may be indimidated by the knowledge and abilities of the other teachers, but that’s the thing about langchat—they are all willing to help out anyone who asks.

Where to Begin?

I am ready, and now is the time to prepare. Here are a few things to think about when preparing for a new year in a CI language class:

1.  Units and Lessons

This is the biggie: “What am I going to teach the kids?” A great place to start to find the answer to this question is the ACTFL Can-Do Statements, National Foreign Language Standards, and your own state’s Foreign Language standards. We need to think of our goals for our students on a daily-, lesson-, unit-, and year-long basis; in other words, what do we want them to be able to do at the end of a class, a unit, and/or the whole year?

2.  Grading/Assessment

How will I assess these kids?” Will I use Standards-Based Grading? IPAs? Presentations? Grade everything? Grade nothing? How much of each mode (interpretive, interpersonal, presentational) should I include for the grade?

3.  Classroom Management

What kind of classroom will I run?” We need to be thinking of what kind of classroom environment we want–Loud and raucous? Quiet and restrained? Should students raise their hands or just call out answers? We also need to think about how we want students to behave to best achieve the goals of the class and what kinds of procedures and activities will help to promote those goals, too.

4.  Classroom Decoration

What will my classroom look like?” Will I have flags? Posters? Motivational posters or vocabulary posters?

Unprepared and Totally Ready

There is a lot to do to prepare for a school year and I’m not sure of the answers to all of the questions I have written about above (or to the questions that I haven’t even thought of yet), but the one thing I know for sure is that I am ready for it!

The Trouble With Translators

I have a confession, something that might shock the other language teachers out there: I like online translators, especially Google. I think that (when used correctly) they can be great tools. They can help students to understand difficult passages and they can help them to double check their own work, among a host of other useful purposes.

But as much as I like them, I do have an issue. It’s not that I think that they will steal my job as a language educator and it’s not that I am afraid that the students will “cheat” by using a translator and try to pass off the work as their own. The biggest issue that I have with translators is that I don’t have any desire to know what a translator knows. On the other hand, I NEED to know what my students know.

Some context:

My Middle School students are currently working on final exam projects. The project: write a story in Spanish. Narrate story over an original animation created by you and a partner in class. Record and edit on iPad. Present completed video to class. Get good grade (because it has been labored over and corrected as much as is needed to be as near to perfect as possible).

The students work on rough drafts in class and turn them in when they are finished. Then, we can work together to correct them while everyone else works on the art and/or filming of their projects. The idea was beautiful: I will have a document of what the kids can actually do on their own in the rough draft and I will have a corrected copy for them to present and save for posterity.

But…There has been a problem. Several of my students are chronic overachievers. Normally, this is a good trait for them to have. They are discerning in their work and they don’t turn in work that is in any way incomplete or imperfect. They turn in quality work each time. They also are VERY nervous about turning in work that is not perfect. This leads them to do something that can be considered cheating in most professional language teaching circles: writing in English and translating with an online translator.

This is academically dishonest, true, but more than anything else, it is frustrating. It goes completely against what I have been trying to build all year. I have spent the year telling the kids that they will write in Spanish like elementary school students and that there will be errors and the text will be choppy and unsophisticated. And I have spent the year telling them that this is exactly what I expect for success! This is not only what I expect, it’s what I am hoping for. It shows me that progress is being made. I have seen the kids progress a huge amount this year using TCI methods and TPRS. There is no way that they could have done half the things they can currently do without it. At the same time, their work is messy and filled with errors—the kinds of errors that students going from novice to intermediate usually make.

Translators are great and can be a really wonderful tool, but they don’t replace the language inside a person’s head. Sure, they can (sometimes) produce grammatically correct writing, but they can’t do what a real person can do and that is where they are limited: they aren’t the Universal Translator from Star Trek, they aren’t the Babel Fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide. They are no replacement for a real person’s language use.

For the majority of the students who have turned in work that hasn’t been machine translated, the errors are almost always limited to the following: right word, wrong conjugation/form or wrong translation from the Spanish-English dictionary (side note, my favorite false translation from a dictionary is to say reloj for watch, as in “Quiero reloj una película”-I got this error once when I taught at the college level and I got it once this year and it makes me smile every time and I get to talk about how to use dictionaries for finding translations). These are the errors that the students have been producing all year and they have been steadily improving with more and more input.

When reviewing work, students tend to focus on their errors–they see a lot of different colored ink on their papers and immediately freak out. The fact is, though, that the errors above don’t really get in the way of comprehensibility. I can understand their stories. I am amazed by what they can do, but I have trouble conveying that to them (somehow telling them this to their faces doesn’t really translate into them understanding that they are doing a great job…Middle schoolers…what can ya do?)

Ultimately, I don’t want beautiful or perfect final essays. I want them messy and filled with errors because that’s how the students write. I don’t want them to have great grammar, I want them to be themselves, errors and all. Using translators is convenient and getting help from family members and friends is very nice, but online translators and family members don’t attend my classes.

Not even taking into account the issue of cheating/academic dishonesty, when students allow someone else to do their work, I don’t get a chance to see what that student can really do. I don’t get the opportunity to asses the student’s work, I get to assess the helper’s work. It gives me absolutely no indication of what the student is able to do. And that is the real trouble with translators (both machine and human).

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!