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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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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Expanding Personalization in the Classroom

This year is the year that everything changed for me, teaching-wise. I became a traveling teacher (rather than having my own room), I changed my curriculum, and I really started to feel like I have come into my own as a teacher. I feel an ease with instruction that I haven’t felt before. Additionally, this year has been the year of TPRS: It has completely changed my instructional style and goals for the foreseeable future. There is no going back for me.

I have been using pre-written stories for a while now, but as you can see, sometimes I like to go a bit off-script. I feel that it can make a huge difference in student engagement if I meet them where they are rather than following the textbook blindly. The stories in Look, I Can Talk by Blaine and Von Ray* were a great starting point and I will start with them with my new crop of students that I get next year. They are a great intro to what I will be doing with storytelling in the classroom and they have provided me with a template for how to write my own stories for students. But instead of blindly following the book, which is what I was trying to get away from when I started using TPRS in the first place, I will move on to more personalized stories earlier.

For me, personalization doesn’t just have to mean using specific student likes and names, but rather it can mean that the stories themselves refer to things that exist only in our school or our program. Everything about school is on the table: names of teachers and administrators, the names of people in our community (like the youth minister, Coach D, who the kids all love), and topics that are relevant to what is going on in our school community like our Fall Fest (I will definitely be writing a carnival/fair themed story to coincide with this in October).

Interestingly, I started doing this type of personalization without even realizing throughout the. In this series of stories I used the school as the setting and teachers and admins and the cafeteria chef as the side characters; in the Tim y el café story, I tied the story to what was going on in the school community, specifically Hispanic Heritage Month; to a lesser extent, in the Familia story for Kindergarten, I used students as the adult characters and adults as the child characters; with Madlib Stories I put all the events of the story into the students’ hands; and with the latest story I wrote for class, I used the students’ things (school supplies and backpacks and desks) to personalize the story (the script for that story, which was very successful for me in the last few weeks, will be coming soon!)

Personal Attachment to the Content

Ultimately, everyone feels a little bit more attached to the story when it is about them. If the audience for the story is connected to it in a deep way, we make a deeper connection; they find it more compelling. Research shows that compelling input has a huge amount of value for students who are acquiring language—the motivation level of the student shoots up and they are engrossed in a story that they might not even realize is in a different language.

Additionally, when we acknowledge what is happening in our schools, outside of the classroom, we build rapport. We need to have genuine interest in our students’ lives. Their needs and desires and interests need to be validated by the adults they spend their time with every day. If we can make that connection and if we then take it and put it into our instruction in the form of fun stories that the students find interesting and relevant, we can fill our classes with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to become life-long target language learners and speakers.

Our goal as CI/TPRS teachers is to connect with students using a different language and help them to acquire that language. We want the students to be totally wrapped up in our input because they will be more attentive to it; when they are attentive, they get lots more input because they are engaged and their affective filter is lowered (they don’t feel self-conscious) because they are focused on the fun that they are having.

*I understand that the books that are written with TPRS stories are developed with incremental vocabulary gains in mind and that they are labored over. I don’t want to diminish that work that was done by so many teachers and writers. In my classroom, though, I like to branch out a little bit to what the students are doing, like I did with my first original story, Tim y el café.

#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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Hallway Conversations

Sometimes it is hard to determine where the students truly are in terms of proficiency. I am currently implementing a change in my curriculum from a traditional textbook-based one to a communicative one based on high frequency vocabulary and grammar forms. I use storytelling in class and I ask students lots of questions and they generally understand all the things that I’m saying.

For assessments, I have the students do several different types of things. for example, I have students write their own stories, rewrite stories they have heard in class, retell stories in English and Spanish (depending on confidence level), and draw comic strips of the stories that we have heard or read in class. Upon reflection, most of these assessments are very good at showing how well the students comprehend the language we use in class, but I’m not so convinced that they have great control over the language to use it on their own. Their stories are based on stories we have done in class, so it’s safe to say that they are just copying some of the forms and story structures and rewriting them. In other words, if they didn’t have the old stories to fall back on, I’m not convinced they could come up with the stories on their own. This is a challenge that I am going to face in the second trimester (which started yesterday) and I will keep you updated as I go.

Proof of Ability (in other words, Assessment)

In my search for authentic assessments that show students’ true levels of confidence and control of the language, I have been able to find one that is pretty accurate: Hallway Conversations. All I do is talk to the kids in Spanish outside of the classroom setting. It seems simple, but the way I see it, if the students are able to interact with me in Spanish outside the classroom, then I must be doing a pretty good job. And it works for all levels, K-8!

In my experience over the last few years, when I have spoken to students in Spanish outside the classroom, I got a range of reactions that went from blank stare to deep concentration while trying to remember how to respond to “hola” or “buenos días.”

Currently, though, things have improved. Students can generally answer when I say something to them in Spanish. Some of the more confident ones will even say things like hola, buenos días, or cómo estás to me without prompting. CI has built the students’ confidence outside the classroom. If that’s not a gleaming endorsement for teachers to use CI instead of (or along with, I won’t discriminate) grammar-based methods, I don’t know what is.

Building Student Rapport

Hallway Conversations have another, even more important benefit. Sure, they let me know (informally) who is feeling confident in using Spanish, but they also help to build rapport. The students feel confidence because they are able to communicate in Spanish. They feel a self-esteem boost because they have a teacher who is willing to meet them half way in their language. I never correct or tell them they are doing it wrong. That’s not the purpose of the activity. I just want to know how they are doing.

Only the Beginning

This promising development is one of hopefully many more that I will be able to implement that will show where they truly are in their ability to use Spanish in real world situations. I will be implementing speaking and writing rubrics that are much more formal and proficiency-based than I have ever used before. I will be drowning in data about the students’ proficiency (in a good way!). I don’t currently know definitely where each student is in their proficiency journey. I have a general idea about each one, but there is no direct evidence.

Now that the kids are starting to feel confident, it’s time to get more formalized with my assessments; it’s time to help them to branch out and reach the next level.

#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!