Don’t Replace, Add

Kids need novelty. 

Every blog from every teacher I follow, every textbook on language teaching, and every bIt of common sense in my head tells me that this is the case. Seven years of experience with the same kids in the same school has proved it. If I do the same thing day after day, year after year, the kids tune out. It is a struggle I’ve contended with since I started teaching: What can I do to keep my instruction interesting and compelling for the kids?

In the past, my answer has been to quit using whatever methods or techniques I’m using and start from scratch. My thought process went something like, “If kids have gotten bored with what I’m doing, I have to get rid of it and find something to keep them engaged.” I started this blog after doing just that. Every time I read a blog post with an interesting or novel approach, I tried it. At the first instance that this method would be great, I threw away what I was doing before (metaphorically) and started with the new thing. The kids and I were itching for something new and I was happy to try everything I could. And it seemed really successful. When I found effective alternatives to grammar-heavy, book-based activities, I happily ditched them. When I learned how to ask a story and circle (TPRS techniques), I gladly did that and nothing else. When kids got bored with the same sorts of stories using the same types of vocabulary, I looked for other things-I tried OWL techniques and non-targeted CI and a host of other techniques.

Ultimately, instead of being successful, it was exhausting. Each different thing burned bright and then fizzled out. And each technique fizzled out a little bit more quickly than the last. What was the problem? Why were these techniques that other teachers use so effectively falling flat for me?

The answer:

I misunderstood the kind of novelty that students need. They don’t need something brand new every time they start to get bored; they need a teacher who has a large toolbox of fun and effective activities. The problem was that I replaced one fun activity with something else and never really returned to the others that the kids had gotten sick of. The problem was that I replaced instead of adding. 

The students didn’t hate the activities that we have done in the past, but they were just ready to take a break. Think of it like this: It would be really exciting to be able to eat ice cream for dinner every night, but in reality if we ate ice cream every night, it would lose its excitement. We would get sick of it. And just like getting sick of ice cream after having it all the time, the kids get sick of things they really like when it’s the only thing they do. 

The trick, then, is to be prepared to do lots of things that are effective and that the kids like. 

That’s my plan for planning this summer (and something I’ve talked about a little bit before): have lots of activities ready to go so that when one activity begins to sag or slow down or the kids don’t seem to be into it, we can transition into something that would be more effective and compelling. 


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?

Continue reading “Loosening the “Teacher Grip””

SCOLT 2017 Presentation

Below is my working script for my presentation at this year’s SCOLT conference.

The title of the Presentation is:

We Don’t Learn Anything Anymore: Moving Away From a Grammar-Based Curriculum

One note: There was a question about what I meant by Grammar-Based Curriculum. To clarify, I’m talking about curricula that are directly tied to a textbook and that follow the grammar points as presented in the text (only present tense first, then past tense, then direct objects, and students are not made to use any of these forms outside the order of the text.)

The Powerpoint presentation that goes with the script can be seen here.

Continue reading “SCOLT 2017 Presentation”

…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.
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?
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.

SCOLT 2016 Presentation: The Switch from Traditional to CI Methods

This was my first SCOLT Conference and it was my very first time presenting at a conference. It was super exciting! I met a whole bunch of my langchat friends who live in the Southern Region of the US. As a conference, it was just big enough to get a lot of perspectives from a lot of different places and just small enough to keep bumping into presenters and people who I wanted to interact with. The ACTFL conference is always filled with great presentations, but it is so enormous that it’s hard to connect with people. SCOLT, on the other hand, was the best conference experience I’ve had so far. Their conference next year is in my back yard: Orlando, FL. I hope to see you there!

This year’s SCOLT will also have a special place in my heart and mind because it was the first time I presented. My presentation was:

The Switch: Shifting from a Grammar-Based to a CI Curriculum 


If you weren’t able to attend and are interested, click the link for an adapted transcript of the presentation:

Continue reading “SCOLT 2016 Presentation: The Switch from Traditional to CI Methods”

New Beginnings for Old Stories

They Figured it Out

The kids now know the formula for my stories. They have heard and read enough stories by now that they can predict what will happen in each story. On top of the predictions, I talked with them a few weeks ago about why the stories are all so similar. This helped a bit in engaging them, but in the weeks since then, I have been trying to think of novel ways to present the formulaic stories.

It’s been difficult because I can’t stray too far from the formula. If I do, I risk having the stories be incomprehensible. At the same time, if I continue to plow through the same old formulas over and over again, I lose the students’ interest.

Then it hit me: I can have the same core story, but put it into a new context with a preface or a “story-starter.” The content of this has nothing really to do with the story, but it helps to develop the main character. This way, I can make the stories feel novel while at the same time keeping them “in bounds” and keeping the scaffolding that comes from the similar beats of the stories. (there is a character, s/he doesn’t have something, s/he goes to get it, s/he meets several people who don’t have it but have lots of other stuff, s/he finally meets someone who has it, that person gives it to the character, everyone is happy).

An Example Story Starter with a few Circling Questions

Había un chico. ¡El chico tenía un secreto!

            ¿Cómo se llamaba el chico?

           ¿Cuántos años tenía el chico?

El chico se llamaba Pablo (just an example). Pablo tenía 4 años. Pablo tenía un secreto. ¡El secreto era que Pablo no era un humano! ¡Pablo era un extraterrestre!

              ¿De dónde era Pablo? ¿Era de la Tierra? ¿Era de nuestro Sistema solar? ¿De                  qué planeta era?

Pablo era de Plutón.

No había nada que hacer en Plutón. Pablo estaba aburrido.

             ¿Había actividades divertidas en Plutón? ¿Pablo podía jugar fútbol en Plutón?                   ¿béisbol/vóleibol/fútbol Americano/golf/hockey/etc? ¿Pablo podía mirar la tele/leer               libros/jugar videojuegos/jugar juegos de mesa/etc?

No había juegos, no había libros, no había televisión, no había deportes. No había nada en Plutón.

Un día, Pablo el extraterrestre decidió visitar un planeta Nuevo.

¿Qué planeta visitó? ¿A Pablo le gustaba Plutón? ¿Por qué o por qué no?

Pablo se subió a la nave espacial. Viajó en la nave por mucho tiempo. Llegó a la Tierra y aterrizó en __(I use a city in Florida because that is where my school is, but you can use any city in any region that you’d like)_.

¿Dónde aterrizó? ¿viajó por mucho tiempo? ¿Cuánto tiempo?

                ¿Aterrizó en un choque? ¿La nave especial explotó en el aterrizaje?

Aterrizó perfectamente. No chocó con nada. No explotó. Era un aterrizaje perfecto.

¿Adónde fue Pablo cuando aterrizó?

Pablo fue a …

And this is where you would start the story in the script. The events of the story have a bit more life now that there is a bit more variation in the script. Changing the main character to an alien (or an animal or making any other silly change) gives the kids the chance to act out the events in the story in a novel way.

I am all about fun in class. For this story-starter, there is a lot of vocabulary that the students haven’t heard yet, so I used a lot of visuals. I have an interactive white board, so I was able to take a picture of the final product of the story asking:


A New Context for Comfortably Formulaic Content

The alien story-starter breathed new life into the stories that I have been telling in class. I was also able to introduce a lot of new non-targeted vocabulary, like the names of the planets (and the word for planet itself 🙂 ), the word for space ship and rocket, the phrase “decided to visit,” the word for travel, the word for outer space, and more. I have been adding targeted vocabulary and details and flashbacks to my stories for weeks, but none of those things have worked to build engagement quite like the story starter. Other story starters could include:

  • The character is actually an animal
  • The character isn’t on Earth
  • The story is set in the distant future
  • The story is set in the distant past
  • In the preface, the main character becomes a werewolf/vampire/zombie

Those are just a few that I came up with in a few minutes.

Students seem to have become desensitized to the novelty of the storytelling method in my classroom, so I am trying to change up the stories without losing the core things that make it work so well – target structures, high-frequency vocabulary, circling, formulaic stories (that give students much-needed scaffolding to understand what the words mean–if they have an easy time understanding the events of the story, they can spend more time focusing on understanding the language in that story).

For example: Instead of a story where a boy needs an iPhone, the story becomes about a caveman who needs an iPhone. The possibilities of where to go in the story now open up immensely: When does he live? What is his world like? How does he know what an iPhone is? How will he get the phone? Will someone from the future travel to his time? Will he travel to the future somehow? Will he know what to do with the phone? Who would he call? Would he be able to get what he needs after getting an iPhone? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but they open up a whole new avenue of thought to follow through circling with the students about the story.

Anything is possible with storytelling, so let your sense of humor and your creativity fly free! Anything that will engage the kids and that will put a twist on the story is great because it breathes new life into the same old thing and puts it into a new context.

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!

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

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!
Continue reading “Storytelling in Practice #1: What do you do before you start a story in early elementary?”

Musicuentos Black Box Video: “Overcoming Resistance to 90% TL Use”

Language classes are a bit of a conundrum. The latest research into how languages are acquired states that we have to speak to students in the target language for our students to acquire it. It’s like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: We have to use the language to teach the language. This leads some teachers and students to think, “But how will students understand it if they don’t already speak it?”

So what is a language teacher to do?

Luckily, there is a huge network of teachers and researchers on social media who have lots of ideas on how to do it! There is a method for every type of person and teacher. I am a boisterous, outgoing teacher. I don’t like quiet classrooms. TPRS is for me. I love the interaction and I love the fact that I can tell students a story in the TL with minimal translation (just the high-frequency words and a few target terms per story). And the best part is that I don’t have to say them aloud, so the students never hear me translating, they just see it up on the board as I am talking (in other words, they still have to process what I’m saying through their ears and brains before they can figure out what it is I’m saying.

But TPRS is not the only method. It won’t work for some teachers. And that’s ok. There are so many other comprehensible input methods for teachers to try (Content Based Instruction, Immersion instruction, AIM, etc). And the best thing about these, is that they all have great parts. I am a firm believer in taking apart methods and using what works best. I am not a purist in any sense nor in any particular method. Methods are methods, not mandates…Excuse me while I step off my soap box…

So, What’s a Good Amount of L2 for the Classroom?

ACTFL says 90% TL use in classroom interactions is the goal to strive for. I know what you’re thinking, “But 90% is hard!” Yes, it is very hard, but it’s not impossible. And when you are able to do it, you can get some pretty amazing results.

So, How Do I Do It?

Well, for that, you will need to watch videocast #7 of the Musicuentos Black Box Video Podcast.

L1 has so many opportunities to sneak into our classroom interaction, but if we set up exactly what we want students to do when we start, we can get a whole year of high-percentage TL use. They key to it all, in my opinion, is procedures. Once we have our methods picked out, then the content becomes the easy part. It’s keeping the class under control during the content presentations that’s difficult. Establishing procedures early in the year is the way to go: If the kids are prepared and know what they are expected to do, they will do it.

If you don’t take away anything else from the video, I hope that you take away this:

90% is our goal. We won’t always reach it and that’s ok. We will be able to get there with practice and determination. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a teacher, it’s that today’s frustrations/failures/shortcomings almost never flow into tomorrow unless you let them. If you come in with the right mindset, the kids will follow. Every day is a new chance to have the best day ever. So don’t come in discouraged about yesterday, think about how much better today will be.

If you come in discouraged and feeling like you can’t be successful, then you won’t be.

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.