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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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.

Classroom Management: Work Smarter, Not Harder

Yesterday, I went to a presentation by the Classroom Management Gurus, Harry and Rosemary Wong. I have heard about them ever since I started my teaching degree and I have had their book, The First Days of School since my very first class in graduate school (which was classroom management). I have read through the book multiple times, as I’m sure most of the teachers reading this have, but it didn’t really resonate with me until I saw it live.

A confession: common sense is not my strong suit. Instead of coming up with easy solutions to problems, I over analyze and get anxious about the little problems. That being said, the information in this post might be completely obvious to anyone who has been in a classroom. If that’s the case, check back for the next post when I get back to talking about language instruction. If, on the other hand, classroom management has seemed elusive to you (as it has to me), you might want to read on because I learned a lot. I learned specific strategies for classroom management, but more than that, I learned a new way of thinking about management.

I’ll give you the TL;DR:

If kids know what you want them to do, they’ll do it. If you teach them how to do it and practice with them until it becomes a routine, your year will go more smoothly than it ever has before.

What are we planning for?

We get so caught up in getting plans exactly right and figuring out how we will assess proficiency levels of our new students and how we will improve upon last year’s curriculum and the kind of lesson we want to have the first day and a million other little things. Sometimes, the idea of a management plan gets completely left on the sidelines and we decide we will just wing it.

But winging it is the worst solution: it will lead to an entire year of the class managing the teacher rather than the other way around. The kids entering our classes are tabulas rasas. For some teachers, it is the first time they will meet you.

How do you want to be seen? As the fun teacher or as the teacher who means business? Do you want to wait until you have lost the kids to tell them what you expect or do you want to let them know what they are expected to do and then let the fun flow in the boundaries that you have set?

Ignoring the procedures for a few lessons will be the downfall of even the most fun teacher and here’s why: The kids won’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. Just like a chef wouldn’t go into the kitchen without a recipe and just like a coach wouldn’t go on the field without a game plan (that’s an example Harry and Rosemary Wong used), you shouldn’t go in without a plan for what you are going to do to manage class. And now I’m going to tell you a few secrets (they’re not much of a secret to any of you who have been teaching, but when I figured it out, it was like discovering fire or inventing the wheel):

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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!

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!

Promoting Student Success, Pt. 5: Reestablishing Expectations After Winter Break

The fifth part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

As a teacher who only sees each class once or twice a week, I try to make my expectations simple and easy to remember. I have a whole speech about why students should be quiet, how their brains are wired to try to understand messages, and about being respectful, but it usually does a better job of putting students to sleep than opening their minds to the benefits of respectful participation.

As the New Year begins, I am reminding the students of the expectations I have of them and I am also reminding them of what they can expect of me.

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Promoting Student Success, Pt. 3: Dealing With the Bad Days

The third part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

The Bad Days
I wish I could say otherwise, but it’s not always awesome in Señor Fernie’s classroom. Sometimes, it really stinks. When behavior is out of control, when students aren’t responding well to the story, when I’m not on my game (usually, these things happen all at the same time, each one affecting the others), frustration grows.

I had a day like that last week and it still haunts me. I yelled at my class. I harangued them about being quiet. I totally lost my temper. It was not my finest moment. The worst part is that I haven’t seen this group again since that day. They are coming back for class today and I don’t really know what to expect.

That’s the problem with losing it in front of the kids: there is a vacuum that can be filled with a lot of bad vibes.

The Schedule
I teach each middle school class two times a week, usually back to back days (Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday). That means that I have two consecutive days to make a point or to teach a lesson and then 5 consecutive days of not seeing the kids. It has been challenging, for sure, but I have gotten to be pretty good at anticipating the types of problems that sometimes arise from this schedule and nipping them before they start…but sometimes I’m not so good.

And the two day a week schedule multiplies those bad days. If the bad day is a Friday, I won’t see the class again until the following Thursday, leaving 5 days of hurt feelings and thoughts of, “Señor must really hate me.” This breaks my heart. I don’t hate any of the kids. There are around 450 of them that I teach and I dislike exactly 0 of them.

The Problem with Losing It
The feeling of dislike, of discontent, of fear towards their teacher, is like an infection. Without any any antibiotics, the infection grows and grows and eventually becomes life-threatening, transforming a small injury into a mortal wound. And that’s what happens to the relationship between myself and the students when the kids think I don’t like them.

Their feelings fester and they dwell and they end up acting out even more in class. They talk among themselves at lunch and say things like, “you think Señor hates you, he hates me even more!” They’re kids, they don’t always know how to deal with their hurt feelings in constructive ways. Some shut down completely and refuse to participate.

And if that’s not setting them up for failure, I don’t know what is.

The Upshot
This has been quite a bummer, but there is a silver lining: apologies go a long way. I always apologize when something like this happens. I think that it builds good will and models the types of behaviors that we should expect from students. This is probably the most important part of restoring confidence between the teacher and students.

It can be humiliating to admit to making such a huge mistake and it’s humbling to do it for children who have lost some respect and admiration for you. It goes miles in rebuilding the rapport you have with them. They learn a lesson about taking ownership of their behaviors, good or bad, and they get to take a peek behind the curtain, as it were, and see that we teachers are human beings who make mistakes and have bad days.

Promoting Student Success, Pt. 2: Managing the classroom

The second part in the series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure. 

It’s been a while since I posted, lots of things happening–fall festival, days home with sick children, not-so-spectacular reports from subs from those days off, Halloween parties…

It’s all shown me how important good classroom management is for helping students help themselves. When schedules are whacky and weeks are short, that’s when the true strength (or weakness) of a teacher’s management plan comes into focus.

It’s the time of year when kids are losing their initial excitement with the new school year and there are lots of other things to attract their rapidly shifting focus: things like long weekends and holiday parties and our school’s annual carnival. It’s also the time of year when it’s not completely unbearable to be outside in central Florida, making the kids anxious to get outside (and I can’t blame them, this is the most beautiful time of the year around here and I’d rather be outside, too!)

It’s also the time of year that involves a lot of lectures at and haranguing of students from frustrated teachers (I know because I’ve been lecturing about behavior all week 😦 ).

And for a lot of the misbehavior in class, I am asking for it. With TPRS, I have been much more animated and silly in class. I have been actively encouraging participation and loud, boisterous activities and expecting the kids to keep their behavior within the limits that I have set for them. The problem comes in when I am not consistent in following my management plan. The students have rules and procedures during stories (thanks to Mr. Peto, whose classroom expectations I have adapted for my own classes).

It’s hard to gauge where to draw the line on silliness. With younger grades, silliness almost always means more interest in the content. If I am excited and having fun, then the kids are, too. The problem that I have been having with some of the older grades is that their reaction to silliness is not so much interest as it is more silliness. There is an element of wanting to comment directly on what’s going on in the story in English immediately. It’s not a problem when it is one or two kids doing things, but when the whole class decides to all try to pass off their hilarious thoughts at the same time, I can’t get any ci in. My input becomes incomprehensible because no one is paying attention any more.

When thinking of setting kids up for failure, not keeping up my end of the classroom bargain is definitely setting them up to have a bad day. They will not receive any ci because I will be spending too much time asking individuals to stay quiet, getting frustrated, and finally lecturing them about why they need to be quiet. This is not an ideal daily plan and it’s definitely what I put into my lesson plans every day. When I keep up with my plan (basically a simple, “Three warnings, then a note home” kind of thing), things go so much smoother. I know that every classroom management text in the world states that this will be true, but it can be so hard, sometimes, to follow through.

I have a management plan and when I stick to it, the kids are engaged. If I don’t, they aren’t. Academically, I know this. Realistically, it’s not something that I think of when kids are acting up in class (or, in other words, being kids). But, if the goal is to keep our students successful in our classes, sticking to the plan is something that HAS to be done.