So You’re Thinking of Presenting At A Conference

I have a colleague and very good friend who asked me about my presentation at the SCOLT conference in Orlando (see this post). Her main question was, “How did you get to do that?” It’s a question I have gotten from lots of people since my first time presenting last year (see this post).

Attending and/or presenting at a conference is a great experience for any teacher at any point in their career. I have made friends and met colleagues that I would not have otherwise met. I have also met people I have only spoken with online through #langchat or other social media. When I met Laura, Keith, and Megan, I was completely star-struck. But the thing is, they’re normal people who want to be the best teachers they can be. Just like the rest of us. So come out to a conference and see what it’s like, then try and submit a proposal. The worst thing that could happen is they’ll say no. Last year, ACTFL rejected a proposal for a presentation. It was not very nice to feel the rejection, but at the same time, now I know what I need to do differently to maybe present there next year.

So What To Do?

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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.

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A long hiatus…

It’s been a while. It’s been time to decompress, time to focus on the art of teaching, time away from the hustle and bustle of all this language teacher blogging stuff. The irony, of course, is that I took a bunch of time away from the blog and from #langchat right after writing a post about starting a blog.

I still think you should start a blog, btw.

Personally, I needed time away. I was feeling uninspired and burned out. It happens to everyone from time to time. I feel like maybe I have written that phrase too many times on this blog, but it happens a lot. Don’t let anyone tell you they don’t get burned out, because they do. Everyone deals with it differently and that’s ok. Some people jump deeper into what they’re doing. Some people change what they’re doing and start from scratch again. And apparently, when I get burned out, I turn it all off and walk away.

But now I’m back and ready to share. What’s bringing me back is my SCOLT 2017 presentation. I will be talking about what to do when you move away from the textbook. Think of it like the sequel to what I spoke about last year.

I’m back in the game and ready to get back into the swing of it all. Seeing old friends at the conference like Laura and Fran (and meeting some people I feel like I’ve known for years but have never actually met in person, like Megan and Keith), and meeting new people with different perspectives and ideas has reinvigorated and inspired me. Seeing presentations from people whose work I have followed and admired for years is so encouraging. Thank you to all who are presenting or who have presented and keep inspiring us!

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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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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This Year’s Main Lesson: Every Kid Has the Potential

Update

And we’re back! I have had a great spring break-went on vacation to DC and ate some of the best food I’ve ever eaten and then I got home to FL and went immediately to the NCEA conference in Orlando with my whole faculty team and learned about all kinds of new things to use in class. Unfortunately, not many of the sessions were specifically for teaching Spanish, but I was still able to get a lot out of the general education sessions (brain-based learning/memory strategies, talking about “Hot Topics” with kids if/when they come up, etc).

Spring Break = Time For Reflection

School starts back up on Monday, 4/13 and then it’s a mad dash to the finish line on June 3 (last day for the kids). This time away from the classroom has been a great way to recharge my batteries and it has given me some time to sit back and reflect on the things that the kids have achieved this year. Over the last few years, I taught using more traditional methods-conjugation tables, straight-forward grammar instruction, rule memorization, etc-and I found it boring and difficult for me and the for the students. They didn’t know any better, but I knew that it wasn’t working. The best of them, the ones who are the most motivated to study every night, could do a pretty good job of memorizing everything I taught them and could regurgitate it on a test, but they couldn’t communicate and they couldn’t understand.

This year has been completely the opposite. I’m 99% sure if I gave the students a grammar test after these last 8 months, they wouldn’t do so well. But when I give them a writing assignment in Spanish, I can get 10-20 good sentences in Spanish from kids as young as 4th grade! I couldn’t get last year’s 8th graders to do anything near that.

Of course, I must note that this is not the previous year’s 8th grader’s fault. It’s my fault. I was not getting their best from them because I was not teaching them the best way. They all had the ability. This year’s improvements are testament to that.

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#Teach2Teach Question 3 – “What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?”

A Tough Question With A Simple Answer

I have been blessed in my language-teaching career to not have too many bad things to deal with. I am definitely lucky. After some thinking, though, there are some things that have not been great. The most difficult experience I have had was being a first year teacher with no support. I was hired as the 1st – 8th grade Spanish teacher with a 6th grade homeroom. At the time I was hired, I thought it was great! I was happy to just have found a job that was in the field that I had studied. I was ready for the challenge of teaching so many new kids. Until that point, I had only taught university level (with lots of other TAs and we made department-wide tests and used the same department-created syllabus) and had an internship at a high school. I was definitely a newbie and I had a lot to learn and the principal who hired me (not at our school anymore) gave me the keys to the classroom and said, “Have fun!”

That was the extent of my orientation to the world of elementary school Spanish teaching.

So, August, 2010 rolled around and I started. But then…there was no curriculum; there were no materials from previous teachers other than the textbooks (originally published in 1987, 4th edition published 2000). I thought it was weird that the principal only gave me the textbooks and no scope and sequence documents or curriculum documents, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I just got hired for my first real job and I wasn’t going to ruin it by complaining.

I floundered for a while. I didn’t get a lot of respect from the older kids because I kept teaching them things they already knew. I still didn’t say anything about the missing curriculum documents. I just kept trying new things in later chapters in the text. I told them, “Review is good, it’s good practice and you’ll need it for high school.” I kept my head down and just plowed through the year, hoping that I was doing a good job.

The more I taught, the more I found my voice in the classroom. I am not a quiet teacher; I am not laid back or subdued. I am wild and crazy and loud and do whatever I can to engage the kids. I have no problems with embarrassing myself for the good of their education. The way I handled it was to keep trying new things and to keep trying to do the best for the students. My goal is for them to communicate in Spanish. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to do it, from new textbooks, to units I’ve created on my own, to finding and using TPRS and CI Methods. I have just kept trying new things to achieve my goal.

I guess you could say that that answers the question in the title, but there’s so much more to it, so much more that I have learned from my troublesome experience of being an (almost) unsupported brand new FLES teacher.*

Blessing in Disguise

 In some ways, being thrown in head first…

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A little help from my friends: How my curriculum has been shaped by many

Let me admit it here and now: I am constantly using other people’s ideas. I love to look at activities that other people have developed and use them or adapt them for my own classroom. There are several reasons why I devour posts about activities. These range from the practical (I just don’t have that many innovative ideas at this point in my career) to the more esoteric (I like seeing how other people approach similar objectives – I am a one-man department, so I have no one to bounce ideas off of), but they always get a little Señor Fernie flair.

For example, late last week, I did a MovieTalk activity from Martina Bex from a Canadian prank show. It worked really well for multiple grades and ages from 4th – 8th grade. It is a funny video and it made for great input opportunities for the students. I highly recommend it for any time you want to try MovieTalk with your students.

This is not the first activity from Señora Bex that I have used and I am sure that it will not be the last. In fact, there are a lot of people in the blogosphere (is that still what I’m supposed to call it?) who have ideas and activities to share: Señora Bex and Señor Peto and Señora Cottrell and Señora Sexton and Señor Howard and Señor Stolz and Michael Linsin and so many more people have shared so many great ideas (see the “blogs I follow” on my blog page).

I didn’t always have this affection for adaptation. Almost everything I have has come from somewhere else (books, blogs, other teachers in my district) and I used to think of this as a bad thing, as something shameful. I thought, “I hope my administrators don’t find out that I’m getting my ideas from other people.

I have written before about how I was thrown into my position with a slap on the back and the advice of “Good Luck, Have Fun” by my previous principal. I had no idea what I was doing. Luckily, there were so many resources available online for me to start to make headway in designing a curriculum from scratch as a brand new elementary and middle school teacher. Google and I became far more acquainted than we ever had before. I adapted FLES curricula from different states, I devoured all the blogs I could find about FLES and Middle School methods, and I became an expert at Pinterest, still one of my favorite tools for finding new ideas.

Again, I was a bit ashamed of all of this. I felt that since I didn’t come up with everything myself, that there was something wrong with me, that I was some kind of charlatan and imposter who had no idea what I was doing. I had just finished a master’s degree in foreign language education, but I had no elementary or middle school experience and no books to use. I was lost…

…But after a little while…

…after some research, some panic attacks, a new baby at home, and blatant theft of other people’s ideas, I started to find my way. I figured out the work-life balance. I figured out how to grade (and, more importantly, what to grade). I figured out how to make things work and how to teach 430 kids once or twice a week.

As the next 3 years passed, I branched out and made the hodge-podge of methods and lessons into a cohesive K-8 curriculum. And things went pretty well.

Then, I went to a TPRS workshop. Now I’m starting all over.

The advantage that I have with starting over now, though, is that I feel no shame in using the ideas published by other teachers. I see no problem with using the activities, lessons, and curricula that others have developed and made available for the public to use.

I know that it’s tough to start out with no experience and with no materials. But, now at least, I know that there are LOTS of people out there who have helpful ideas. Not only do they post their activities, I guarantee (a guess, but it’s what I would want) that they are actively looking for feedback and constructive criticism; they want to know that you have been using their stuff and whether or not it has worked for you. They want you to let them know the adaptations that you’ve made that worked better for you than the originals…They just might use your new idea in their own instruction because in our connected world, collaboration is the name of the game.

If you don’t believe me, search for #langchat on twitter and you’ll see what I mean.

In the end, this post is for those foreign language teachers who feel like they don’t know what they’re doing or who feel lost in the shuffle of school life. This is for the foreign language teachers who feel like their program is just an afterthought to their school’s mission. This is for the foreign language teachers who feel like they are just babysitters who get to watch the kids for an indoor recess period while their “real” teachers get a free period.

Those words describe EXACTLY how I felt in the beginning, but thanks to the ideas of the people I mentioned above, along with the people at TPRS (who publish the Look, I Can Talk text that I currently teach from), I have been able to make my class compelling for the kids. I took a program made up of teaching 5 years of colors and numbers followed by 3 years of present tense regular verb endings and put together a program that creates students who are thinking in terms of proficiency and Can-Do Statements. Instead of (sort of) knowing verb endings, the students leave the school with conversational skills that they can apply outside the classroom (that’s the goal, at least 🙂 ).

The point is, I took lemons and I made lemonade and you can do the same. Some of the teachers didn’t start out with much respect for my program, but they definitely have respect for the students’ abilities to use the language.

We can all achieve this in our classrooms. The key is to borrow unashamedly from those who have been there before you. Take the ideas that you find and make them your own. Once you feel comfortable with your program and your abilities, then you can start your own blog and make your own activities or observations and share them with the rest of us out here in the blogosphere—I promise I’ll be among the first to use your ideas in my classroom.

#Langchat

I started doing #langchat twitter discussions after reading about them on blogs like Musicuentos and Sra. Spanglish Rides Again. I wasn’t sure that I could keep up with the people in the discussion. I felt like I was way out of my league, but I jumped in with both feet and got started sharing my opinions/experiences about the topics.

Then, something happened that kinda blew me away-all these people whose blogs I have followed and whose ideas I’ve tried to incorporate into my own teaching were responding to my posts. They were listening to what I had to say and giving me positive feedback and constructive criticism.

Sometimes, there can be a wall that we put up around the people whose work we admire, making them seem impenetrable. They seem like they are so awesome and inspiring, like they can do no wrong. Why would they respond to what I have to say? After langchatting, though, I have a different feeling about it. People I’ve never met in person have taken me under their wing, so to speak, and have guided my thinking about all manner of teaching methods and practices.

#langchat has brought me into a world that I never knew existed, a world where I’m not alone as the only language teacher at my school. For the last four years teaching at my school, I have done things based on my gut instincts and the things that I learned in methods classes. Now, I have found a community of people to bounce ideas off of, to let me in on new practices and ideas, to build me up when I have a bad day.

Thank you all!