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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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!

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!)

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Assessing Proficiency and Providing Feedback

SCOLT is definitely my favorite new conference. It is like ACTFL, but I can find my way around and recognize people. Take ACTFL and take away 5000 people and you have SCOLT: All the same kinds of presenters (Including me!) and ideas being promoted, but in a way that is more manageable.

For me, SCOLT was all about proficiency:

  • How do I get the students from one proficiency level to another (for me, mostly novice to intermediate)
  • How do I assess proficiency
  • How can I quickly and effectively give feedback?

I didn’t know that going in, but it was definitely a theme that I followed around the sessions of the conference. I will spend the next few posts discussing these things and how they will be implemented in my own classroom framework.

How do I move students from one proficiency level to the next?

I went to a workshop given by Paul Sandrock (@psandrock), who is a former president of ACTFL and currently the ACTFL Director of Education. It was all about getting students from performance to proficiency and how to get novices to reach up into the their next proficiency level. I didn’t have the vocabulary or expertise on the proficiency levels to really use them to describe my students or to figure out how to use them. I didn’t have a good working understanding of what they are, so how could I use them?

But now I do.

Novice level is all about memorized language. Novices are parrots, repeating what they hear. As Paul Sandrock and Thomas Sauer both stated: “Novices are full of answers waiting for the right questions.”

Intermediates, on the other hand, are peeking out from behind the memorized language wall. In the intermediate low level, they are using the memorized language that they have internalized and are beginning to creating with it. Additionally, they are not just reacting anymore, but asking their own questions.

So the question becomes: How do I get the students from novice into intermediate? How do I get the students to create with language and how can I get them to keep conversations going by asking more questions?

Answer: Always be looking at the next level. By that, I mean to keep an eye on the ACTFL Can-Do Statements. Once they can reach the novice benchmarks, start planning on how to get them to the next. Give the novice level students lots of input and phrases that they would use as intermediates—question words, transition words, phrases like “I agree,” “I disagree,” “How is it possible that…,” etc. Basically, give them the phrases to start internalizing the strategies you will be teaching them to move beyond the parrot stage.

Remember that Novice learners can’t really interact with each other because they can only react to input from an interlocutor, they can’t really produce original language. That’s why if we give them the strategies and phrases to begin to talk to others on their own, we can foster more student-student interactions and get them to move beyond the novice level.

What would this look like in my TPRS classes?

So all my TPRS friends out there are reading what I wrote above about getting the students to speak (aka forcing output) and are probably spitting coffee all over their computer screens. The whole idea of TPRS is to get students to proficiency in the most natural way possible: Input until the kids start producing. I am all for this, but at the same time, I feel like my students are ready to begin their output journey. They have had a lot of CI in the last year and a half and are anxious to get the language from their heads to their mouths. I also find it to be beneficial to get students comfortable with being in the uncomfortable position of speaking to others in the target language.

I know that focusing on output in the classroom will not lead to true proficiency. I get that. I understand that performance and proficiency are not the same thing. At the same time, I learned at the conference that things learned for use in performance activities (output activities with strict parameters and lots of support posted around the room) can become internalized in the same way that input can be.

In the realm of writing, we do timed writings and retells to assess our students in TPRS classes. I am thinking of applying my new deeper knowledge of proficiency levels to direct how I assess this output. I am not going to take off points for the grammatical rules that students break. I will draw students’ attention to their errors and help them to correct them. I will help them to get to the next level in their output all while telling stories and circling and doing movietalks and all of the other activities that I have learned how to do as a teacher in the TPRS world. So don’t think I’m abandoning my beloved TPRS to go to back to another type of teaching from the past. I will continue to be forward thinking and focusing on acquisition and proficiency.

Assessing students’ proficiency

Another thing I learned (or that I inferred, you could say) from the conference is that my assessment tools are really lacking. With the kind of assessment I am doing now, it is very difficult to let the kids know what they can do to improve. Enter Thomas Sauer (@tmsaue1) and Bethanie Drew (@lovemysummer). Both of them presented on how to use rubrics and provide feedback to students in a positive way that emphasizes their movement along the proficiency continuum.

At Thomas Sauer’s presentation, I learned about using rubrics and about what makes rubrics useful. Firstly, no number ranges! There is no reason that rubrics can’t use the proficiency levels as the criteria. This lets the kids know exactly where they are on the proficiency continuum for each assessment. They will know that on such and such interpretive assignment, they are at Intermediate Low and on such and such interpersonal assignment, they are at Novice Mid. This becomes positive for the students because they can see the requirements for the next proficiency level. Rather than seeing that they lost points for only including 3 verbs instead of 5 (which they already know because they did the assignment), they can see where their proficiency is and the exact kinds of things that they need to be doing to move to the next level.

These levels can be tied to letter grades, but Mr. Sauer was reluctant to endorse that, even while saying that it may be a necessity in some places. Even though it isn’t ideal, it is much more valid than the, “I can understand what you wrote, you get an A” style of grading that I have been using (for lack of a better alternative) since I started using TPRS.

This leads into the other thing I learned about rubrics and proficiency in general: Kids will be all over the place depending on the kind of mode they are using. Someone may show high proficiency in presentational mode (because of the ability to revise and practice the presentation) and show low proficiency in interpersonal mode (because they are nervous in 1 on 1 conversations with others). The only way to know where they are is to use these rubrics consistently.

Providing Feedback

Bethanie Drew’s presentation on “Fortifying with Feedback” was great because it helped me to see how I can do what she calls compassionate assessment. The idea is that we focus on the strengths of the students’ work, rather than marking up their papers with red ink. We can focus on what was good, then give them concrete ideas on what they can work on to do an even better job next time. instead of saying, “You did A, B, and C wrong,” we can say something more compassionate, like, “I like A, so keep that up. To do a better job on B, why not try ___, ___, and ___?”

SCOLT was so inspiring and there is so much to unpack (both physically from my suitcase and metaphorically from all the great sessions I attended). I will be working on that for a while, now that I am back in the classroom and able to throw more ideas into my teaching repertoire.

As always, thank you to all of you out there who share your ideas through conferences and blogs and tweets!

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 

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

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Class-Developed Stories

I love developing stories with my students. I have written about this before. In the older activity, I would write half the story with the students and then they would finish it on their own. This was very successful last year and gave the students a great amount of ownership of their work. This year, I will continue to do that activity with the older students, but I have a different twist on the activity for the younger grades (4,5, maybe 6): I complete the story with them and then make the story that each class came up with an extra embedded reading assignment for a different grade or homeroom.

The reason that this works across grade levels is that the objectives for different grades are very similar in the beginning of the year—the older students review things that the younger students are just getting into. This allows me to recycle some of the same stories between the grades. This makes for great marketing with the younger kids (“We’re reading an 8th grade story in 4th grade? That’s so cool!”) and makes the older kids nostalgic for when they first spent a lot of time learning about the structures that they are reviewing. Some of them even bring up plots of stories that they heard at the end of the year 2 years ago (when I started experimenting with TPRS and before I delved deeply into using it exclusively, which was last school year), “We have already talked about people who want things—Remember when we talked about Ed who wanted the pizza and went to all those places to get it?”

I love that they remember the plot lines of the stories. They never remembered grammar instruction that was over a year old. That’s the power of storytelling!

Anyway…

Today, I used a story that 5th Grade wrote with the 8th Grade. Their objective is “I can talk about what I need and what others need in Spanish” (not an exact I Can statement from the list, but one that covers a lot of ground, linguistically).

The first picture below is a shot of the story itself for you to read. After that, I have posted some of the students’ work – their assignment was to draw a comic of the story. They definitely took it in a great direction. The comics are mostly simple, but they show the students’ understanding of what they read. I always let them read and then we act it out together and go over any difficult vocab and then they show me their comprehension.

This activity went so well that I felt I just had to share some of them:

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This is why I do what I do. If you have never tried a madlib story, check out my link above to the previous post about it. If you’re interested, you can also look at Blaine Ray and Contee Seely’s book, Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. In the 6th Edition, the authors talk about “Developing a Mini-Story Through Questioning” (Chapter 5) and also “The Class Invents a New Story” (a heading in Chapter 6, on pg 101). My activity was adapted from that activity and I adapted the assessment to fit my needs, too (I wish I came up with this activity on my own!). Ray and Seely recommend taking a quiz on the class-created story. While a quiz can be a great way to assess the kids, I only have them for class 2 days a week and I like to keep class as interactive as possible. Instead of a quiz, I assign a comic drawing or story re-writing/summary activity as homework that we begin in the last 10 or so minutes of class.

Ownership

The most powerful part of TPRS is the amount of ownership that it gives the kids. I can use the same script all day long with kids ranging from 7-15 and get completely different and personalized stories. They are allowed to be totally individual in their work and they get to express themselves in their own ways.

And on top of all of that, they get lots of input in the tl that is tailored just for them. They get the “boring words” (wants, needs, has, etc) that they need over and over, but the words are presented in an activity with compelling input. Instead of focusing on the words themselves, I get to use them in all their fun and interesting ways so that the students are engaged. And as you can see, the kids definitely put their own stamp on each activity and have lots of fun. Something that has been boring for me and for the kids in the past has been given a new life.

Compare the story below to the one above. On the surface, they seem very different, but the story is (in other ways) exactly the same.


I’ll update soon to show some of the great comics that classes come up with for this story!

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!